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Doctor Who? A Tennant Era Retrospective…

Well, with The Eleventh Hour airing over the weekend, it seems like the perfect time for a reflection on the end of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who. I’ll probably go back and do a retrospective on the Eccleston era at some point in the future, but Tennant’s four years in the brown trenchcoat provide a fertile enough starting ground.

Has the Tenth Doctor got a screw loose?

Let’s get this over with: I am a fan of Eccleston’s Doctor. His version of the character will always be my personal favourite. Maybe it’s because he was my first, or maybe it was because his tremendous service to the show tends to be overlooked, or maybe it’s because his characterisation stands so far out from that of the other versions of the character. For my money, it’s because the ninth incarnation of the Time Lord had perhaps the clearest emotional arc – for the entire first season, he was essentially learning to become himself again. The defining moment for the character occurs at the climax of Bad Wolf, when he declares that he will no longer be reactionary – he is no longer left numb by the horrible events which led to (or immediately followed, depending on your interpretation) his birth. But that’s besides the point. I’ll probably do a rewatch and a review of that run of episodes as some point down the line.

However great the role of the first season in reestablishing the show and demonstrating that family television was not necessarily dead, it was the next four years that would see the show reach the peak of its popularity and see it reengage fully with British popular culture. Eccleston may have brought established and considered class to the lead role, as a recognised fixture of British film and television, but it was David Tennant who made the impression in the role. Tom Baker is the only other actor who can claim to be nearly as iconic in the role as Tennant has been.

And yet it must have seemed a risk. I have no idea what happened behind the scenes. I don’t know if Eccleston was always supposed to leave after year (as I suspect he was, given the way the season is structured – and changing the season-long arcs does cause quite a bit of damage to a season of the show, as Billie Piper’s adjusted leaving date demonstrated), or if he simply couldn’t endure the rigorous production schedule (as some commentators have been prone to suggest). Still, replacing an actor well known for films like 28 Days Later or Trainspotting with a guy who had just landed a bit part in Harry Potter must have seemed a risk – particularly when the rumours circulating were concerning iconic British actors like Bill Nighy or Robert Carlyle.

Time has proven the decision to be a shrewd one, and it’s a mazing how confident Davies seems to have been as a writer from the outset. The first episode to definitively feature Tennant as the character (barring a Children in Need special) was The Christmas Invasion, the show’s first proper Christmas special. The lead actor spent most of the episode in bed, emerging in the episode’s final ten minutes for a climactic swordfight while the story focused on the impact of the change on his companion, Rose. That was also a bit risky – marginalising your lead character in your big Christmas Special (which is also their first episode). Given we’d spent thirteen episodes getting to know the previous version of the character, surely we’d need at least a full episode to adjust to the change?

Not really. Tennant nails those ten minutes, perfectly. Even going back and watching the episode, a huge amount of what was to follow plays through there. Sure “no second chances – that’s the kind of man I am” suggested a somewhat darker and less forgiving version of the character than the one who was always begging his enemies not to make him hurt them (and always uttering “I’m sorry” when he did), but it’s very clear you aren’t watching an uncertain impersonation of Eccleston or any previous version of the character. And, although the show felt confident enough to do a body-swapping episode straight after (the disappointing New Earth, the only season-opener not to introduce a new companion), the tenth Doctor’s character was firmly nailed down by about midway through his first year.

Not that his first season was a particularly smooth one. Billie Piper originally planned to leave the show after the first year, but was convinced to stay on to ease the transition of the title character – the powers that be behind the scenes perhaps correctly felt that completely revamping the show at the same time one year in might be a bit much. She was originally scheduled to depart about five episodes in, during The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel two-parter, or what would become that two parter. However, she opted to stay involved until the end of the season, which caused no shortage of re-writes and problems – Stephen Fry’s script had to be completely jettisoned and more than a few of the later-season episodes were pretty much written and re-written from scratch. Even ignoring the separate behind-the-scenes troubles on the superb The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit two-parter, this wasn’t necessarily the easiest season the show had gone through in its thirty-year-plus television history.

I am not a huge fan of the second season. Individually, most of the episodes work. Some work very well – The Girl in the Fireplace may be the single best hour of television this millenium, and I am in the minority that adore The Impossible Planet – but they don’t really gel as a full season. Part of this is the result of a major problem with how Rose was written. Davies gave Rose a defined character arc, with a start and an end. The problem with such arcs is that when you start the movement, you can’t just suddenly stop it. The Girl in the Fireplace and School Reunion made it clear to Rose (and, hopefully, the audience) that Rose was not a “first among equals” when it came to spending time with the Doctor. The Doctor takes his companions on magical journeys, but they all end. No one is any better or any worse or any more special. It made sense for Rose to depart after that, because the clear point was that she would not get to spend her life with the Doctor.

Unfortunately, obviously this theme didn’t follow through the rest of the season. “How long you going to stay with me?” the Doctor asks at the start of Army of Ghosts. “Forever,” she responds. Instead of ominous foreshadowing that nothing lasts forever – which it really should be – Russell T. Davies makes it a piece of truth. In fact, one senses that the entire point of the conclusion to Journey’s End was to pair Rose off with (a version of) the Doctor.

Being honest, I thought Rose was the perfect companion for Nine – she was just skeptical enough to challenge him, yet enthusiastic enough to drive him (while the Doctor himself was borderline depressive). Pairing Rose with Ten led to a sort of giddy, over-enthusiastic couple which was like sitting two of the most irritating kids next to each other at the back of the class. Nine and Ten were fundamentally different facets of the character, and both needed different things from their companions. Much as Sarah Jane worked better with the Fourth Doctor than the Third, Rose worked better with the Ninth than the Tenth.

If there was a companion who worked perfectly with Tennant’s incarnation of the character, it was Catherine Tate’s superb Donna Noble. Just as loud and brass as the Time Lord, Donna was never afraid to give him the verbal slap he needed. In his own words, “I need someone to stop me.” There’s a lovely little moment in Planet of the Ood, where the Doctor makes some dismissive remark about modern slavery producing the clothing Donna wears, to which she responds, “Is that why you travel round with a human at your side? It’s not so you can show them the wonders of the universe, it’s so you can take cheap shots?” Ten was always a particularly ego-driven version of the character (even though the character has never been modest, Ten certainly wasn’t shy about it), so it was nice to have a companion who could give as good as they get.

Noble souls?

But then perhaps Donna worked best because she was the embodiment of all that was best about Tennant’s portrayal of the titular time traveler. Somebody somewhere observed that the Doctor is a guy in a phonebox who just travels around telling people how brilliant they are. “You’re amazing,” he declares of the human race in The Impossible Planet. And Donna was amazing. From a woman who missed huge spaceships over London or Cybermen invasions and gossiped abotu the latest reality television shows, Donna grew into someone truly special – the impression being that anyone who has the privilege to see the universe that way might also undergo such a magnificent transformation. We are all amazing, we just don’t realise it yet. It also helps that Catherine Tate was probably the strongest actress of Ten’s regular companions. One of my favourite moments of The End of Time, Part II saw Ten refer to her as “my best friend”. It’s a small scene, but a lovely one.

It seems unfair to avoid mentioning the “middle” companion, Martha Jones. On paper, Martha’s journey represents perhaps the most complex – struggling not to replace Rose or to be compared to her, while expressing an explicit (Rose had an implicit) attraction to her traveling companion. Donna and Rose gave up going-nowhere jobs, while Martha was studying to be a Doctor. Surely there’s a wealth of material here? In fairness, there was. There were hints of smart ideas thrown out in The Shakespeare Code and Smith and Jones stands as my favourite series opener of the relaunched series. However, Martha’s meddling mother hijacks Martha’s arc between The Lazarus Experiment and 42, and somehow zaps Martha of any of her complexity. Martha should be the female equivalent of the Tenth Doctor – she’s replacing a lead who has been there since the show’s inception – but she never really got the material to allow her to. When she showed up married to Mickey for some reason at the the end of The End of Time, Part II, I just rolled my eyes – I didn’t expect the character to get any better treatment.

The wonderful thing that Russell T. Davies did with the show’s first season was to anchor it in something resembling the real world. For the entire first season, the Doctor never left Earth’s orbit, travelling past, present and future. Arguably the show spent far too much time there in the years that followed, with Davies devoting a fair amount of soap opera to the lives of the companions and their families, but this was par for the course. Davies admits to being heavily influenced by the work of Joss Whedon and in particular Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, perhaps the reason we’ve seen so many supernatural threats (or aliens masquerading as supernatural threats – ghosts, vampires, witches and werewolves among others).

Tennant never phoned it in...

Nevertheless there was a conscious effort by the show’s production team to spread their wings during Tennant’s term. The Girl in the Fireplace saw Ten and Rose (and Mickey) leave the solar system for the first time. The Rise of the Cybermen presented alternate realities. The Impossible Planet placed them on another world. Even the teaser for Army of Ghosts… well, it teased us with the possibility of countless worlds visited together. “Everyone leaves home eventually,” Rose suggested in The Impossible Planet. But then you always come back. The show’s glimpses of strange worlds and alien life were always fun and exciting, with relatively little in the way of cheap forehead aliens (like the kind favoured by Star Trek). Nobody could fault the production team for being less then ambitious.

I quite liked the show’s individual-episodes-playing-into-a-year-long-arc format, and I’m glad it looks like Moffat may be keeping that. It made sure that any given episode of the show was accessible to the audience (and myself and the better half frequently watch it that way), but it also helped that big reveals and shocks didn’t come out of nowhere at the ends of seasons. Of course, the fundamental problem with the big finales was that Davies kept raising the damned stakes. In The Parting of the Ways it was Earth in the future that was at risk; in Doomsday, it was the modern world; in The Last of the Timelords, it was the entire galaxy under threat from the Master; and in Journey’s End, it was “the destruction of reality itself”, in the modest words of a certain mad scientist. It helped that certain elements of these were carefully foreshadowed (the power of words – crucial to the climax of The Last of the Time Lords – was hinted at by The Shakespeare Code). It didn’t stop Davies from having to employ a honkin’ big deus ex machina to resolve these finales.

It’s worth remarking that Ten lacked as clear an emotional arc as his direct predecessor. His seasons were essentially the stories of his companions. Rose’s attempt to come to terms with the fact that he was immortal and she was not; Martha’s attempt to find herself on what was effectively the best student gap year ever; Donna being given the chance to be something truly special, but at the cost that she could never remember it. Sure, we got wonderful glimpses of the Tenth Doctor’s character along the way (The Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Midnight stand out), but it wasn’t really clear that he was on a certain course until the specials rolled around.

The specials consciously chose to deal with the Doctor’s impending mortality, be it through the filter of meeting a potential replacement in The Next Doctor or walking a world literally composed of the dead in Planet of the Dead. His attempts to save the lives of those on Mars in The Waters of Mars represented perhaps a vain struggle against his own coming demise. But also the crossing of a line. It was time to go.

“Everything dies,” the Ninth Doctor remarked in his second episode, The End of The World, which established him as a reactive character. In The Parting of the Ways there’s a hint at relief at his coming death, as he stands back and closes his eyes when he refuses to set the doomsday device off. He went with a quiet dignity.

The Tenth Doctor did not.

“I don’t want to go,” were fitting last words. This version of the character loved life and held on to it. It’s funny to look back at that one big grandstanding moment in the dreadful Daleks in Manhatten when Ten beats his chest and seemingly dares one of the pepperpots to “Do it!” in a fit of what seems like manic depression. Except he isn’t daring, he’s begging. That moment always stood out for me as something odd, like a sore thumb – that was an honest moment of desperation. What changed since? Ten has arguably lost even more since then (with Astrid being the first companion to die since the Fifth Doctor’s time in the TARDIS and the loss of everything Donna had grown into and arguably even the loss of the Master), so what was the big change, the single big moment or the longrunning arc?

I don’t know. I never really bought into that scene. Then again, perhaps everything about that two-parter is best forgotten.

Daleks in Manhatten: Dalek Sec's in the City...

Despite these complaints, it was a fantastic time for the franchise. Having very much reestablished the show in its first year, the next couple of years were dedicated to reaffirming it. Slowly elements from the original series were reintroduced. Sure, the first series featured the evil plastic villains the Autons who had hassled the Third Doctor or the Daleks, but Davies set about even more rapidly reestablishing the various featured of the classic run. Not only were the Cybermen reintroduced (looking snazzier, but, alas, no more threatening), but the Master popped up a couple of times (played by John Simm) and there were tonnes of other references made. For any cynical fans, Human Nature confirmed that the Eight Doctor (whose tenure was a very mediocre and American TV movie) was part of the backstory. A host of classic series aliens were revived, from the iconic (Davros and the Sontarans) to the obscure (the Macra?).

It was fun and it was vital. It offered some of the best science fiction and fantasy on television (Silence in the Library/Forests of the Dead and Midnight were two of the best examples towards the end of the run, but The Girl in the Fireplace should probably be considered as well). Davies updated the format of the show to reflect the times, with a surprisingly large and expansive supporting cast of characters who popped up fairly regularly (and two even got spun off into their own series within the franchise). While I would be a bit happy to see Moffat scale down on the soap opera elements which were typically at play (and overshadowed what should have been fantastic episodes like Doomsday and Journey’s End), there’s no denying that Davies managed to position the show as one of the finer examples of the BBC’s productions. Its overseas success is nothing but phenomenal.

I’ve gotten this far without actually talking about Tennant himself. He’s a fantastic dramatic actor. He’s really done the role proud. I mean no disrespect to his predecessor, but I doubt Eccleston would ever have found the mainstream appeal which just came so easily to Tennant. Interviews and behind the scenes footage make it clear that Tennant (with a charming Scottish accent) loves the show dearly and that translates to his performance. However wonderfully alien and strange the Doctor is (and Ten channels that much better than Nine – I don’t think Human Nature would have worked with Nine, as he was too human), Tennant makes him an energetic and non-threatening presence. “Just stand there, cause I’m going to hug you,” he instructs a commanding officer at one point during The Impossible Planet, only a second later thinking to check, “is that all right?” The response from the commander is probably the most macho indifference one could produce to the prospect of a hug from the Time Lord, “Suppose so.” I don’t think anyone could have said no. Well, anyone who isn’t secretly some sort of alien in disguise.

I seem to remember Stephen Moffat describing the Doctor as everyone’s favourite, slightly loopy uncle. That’s certainly how One, Two and Four were played and – it seems to be suggested – the way Eleven might be played. Ten was very much the cool big brother, forever wandering off on his gap year, trying to figure out what to do with himself, just making ends meet and having a good time (while somehow managing most of his responsibilities and being authoritative, yet approachable). That was the magic of the character and the performance.

The truth is that Tennant could carry the series through some of its less well-written episodes. Even the more disappointing stories – Fear Her or Daleks in Manhatten – weren’t really disappointing when he was on screen. And for that he should be proud. And we should be glad.

It was a great run, a very well put together piece of television with some truly astounding episodes thrown in. Even though the show might not always have been perfect, it was one of the very finest pieces of televised science fiction in what could be argued to be a second golden age of television science fiction. And as much as we miss Davies and Tennant, it’s reassuring to know they are being succeeded by two other very talented individuals.

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