• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Doctor Who: The Specials (Review/Retrospective)

In theory, the specials were a great idea. The BBC is in the middle of converting to high-definition broadcast. One of their best-loved and most respected dramas isn’t quite ready to make that leap, and will require extensive re-working in order to be sustainable for high-definition broadcast, which seems to be the future of home entertainment. It’ll be a year before the show can get back to churning out thirteen episodes and a Christmas Special.

However, the show runner who brought the show back from the dead and turned it into a highlight of your broadcast schedule, and the beloved lead actor who has become deeply associated with the lead role are willing to do a series of five specials that you can broadcast to fill the gap year. Producing a series of Doctor Who specials to tide over the viewing public and keep the show fresh in the public’s mind was a great idea. After all, you don’t want fans to forget about the show.


The plan has the added benefit of allowing Russell T. Davies and David Tennant a bit more freedom to stretch their wings. Davies can work on Torchwood in a way that he was never able to find time before, producing the superb Children of Earth. Tennant can work with Royal Shakespearean Company, playing the lead in Hamlet. All this, and fans get their prescription dose of Doctor Who and the BBC has the time to upgrade the show so it can broadcast in high definition. Everybody wins! Everybody stays happy!

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a catch. It turns out that these five episodes have to do more than merely “tide” fans over. These five specials are also the last episodes that will be written by Davies and that will star Tennant. So these five specials become more than just a way to stop the public forgetting about Doctor Who. They also have to close out what has been a phenomenal era for the show, and wrap up everything in a nice big bow. And this is where the specials don’t really work.


There’s an argument to be made that the five specials produced by Russell T. Davies work on a rather basic level. They are basically five holiday episodes of the show, designed to prevent people from losing the taste for Doctor Who. The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead are very much standard run-around adventures designed for families to watch together after large meals and long days spent in each other’s company. Although it broadcast in mid-November, The Waters of Mars is intended as something of a Halloween Special, a much more comfortable fit for a particular breed of Doctor Who.

The two-part End of Time is a bit of an odd man out. It’s very clearly set at Christmas. The set decoration and the dialogue makes that abundantly clear; there are references to gift-buying and the Naismith household has a nice tree that’s visible in shot. And the second part sees the Doctor visiting Rose Tyler on New Year’s Day before Rose, bringing the Davies era a full circle. At the same time, The End of Time feels a lot less festive than any of Davies’ other Christmas Specials, and there’s a sense that they are more about celebrating the end of a particular era than they are about a festive mood.


Still, the five episodes function reasonably well as “special” episodes. They are big in concept and epic in scope. Even when the special effects don’t quite work (as with the CyberKing in The Next Doctor), it’s clear that this is very much trying be “Doctor Who as blockbuster entertainment.” The episodes all run longer than the standard forty-five minutes, and they are all paced in such a way that they move incredibly fast. Davies’ Doctor Who tended to move at an accelerated pace anyway, but the specials never seem to stop to find their breath. Which makes sense, since every single one of them is “event” television.

Which brings us to the biggest problem with the specials. It’s perfectly okay to have a year of “Doctor Who as event television”, particularly when it’s designed as a necessary stopgap. However, it’s very difficult to thread one single storyline through five disparate and bombastic blockbuster holiday specials. Which is a bit of a problem, Davies seems to be writing the specials as the last days of the Tenth Doctor.


This makes sense in context. David Tennant was the face of the show when it became a pop cultural phenomenon. This this day, he’s the only actor who can challenge Tom Baker’s claim to being the Doctor in polls of the viewing public. David Tennant’s departure is a pretty big deal, arguably much bigger than the departure of Christopher Eccleston or Billie Piper. So it’s something that has to be addressed.

Davies is well aware of this. He spends a considerable portion of these episodes playing with the idea that David Tennant is leaving. This began even before the specials. The Stolen Earth climaxed with a surprise regeneration inside a studio-bound set, just to keep viewers off their guard. The Next Doctor is titled as a tease, even if Davies does away with the notion that the Doctor might be meeting his next incarnation within the first twenty minutes or so. Planet of the Dead includes the word “dead” in the title and ends with a suitably mystic bit of foreshadowing about something returning and somebody knocking four times.


The problem is that these are all just hints. They don’t connect to form a single over-arching plot. These are snippets that point towards the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration in a thematic sort of way, without really bothering to connect with the idea that David Tennant is checking out of the series on the 1st of January, 2010. This isn’t a properly formed character arc, like the arc given to the Ninth Doctor or even Donna. This is a collection of cliff notes.

Which feels appropriate, given that the specials are structured as the cliff notes version of a season. The Next Doctor obviously fits the format of the annual Christmas Special. Planet of the Dead is an episode that is very much cast in the mould of the first two-parter of a Davies season; it was even mooted to feature the return of the Chelonians, in the spirit of the nostalgic “classic monster” two-parter, the catch being that the Chelonians had never actually appeared before. The Waters of Mars is very much the darker later two-parter and The End of Time is the Davies season finalé to end Davies season finalés.


So, the specials is just missing all of that necessary connective tissue that forms a full season of television, and allows room for a year-long arc to grow and develop organically. For all the faults of Tom Baker’s final season, it did have a clear thematic through-line. Here, there’s no real consistency. The Tenth Doctor is excited to meet his potential replacement in The Next Doctor and resentful of his successor in The End of Time. The Doctor has a breakdown at the end of The Waters of Mars, but seems fairly well pulled together at the start of The End of Time.

It’s just a mess from the perspective of coherent long-form storytelling. Davies never had the same grip of storytelling and structure as Moffat did, and so trying to do all of this important storytelling within the context of five holiday specials seems to be asking too much. As a result, even the best parts of the specials wind up feeling a bit rushed or a bit simplistic. “I can do so much more,” the Doctor rages at the climax of The End of Time, and he seems to be speaking for Davies. There was so much more that could be done with this run of episodes.


In the end, that is the biggest disappointment. The specials are a perfectly acceptable way of giving Doctor Who a gap year, from a production standpoint. They allow the cast and crew more time to work on projects outside of Doctor Who, and they give the BBC the necessary space to update the show that it is ready to broadcast in high definition. From a production standpoint, the specials make a great deal of logical sense.

The specials also have the benefit of giving Steven Moffat a year’s head start on his plotting and structuring – it’s worth noting that the fifth season was the only season of Matt Smith’s tenure to air in a single continuous block. So they work quite well as a pause before Doctor Who changes radically, a gulp of breath before the roller coast takes the plunge into the unknown and the unfamiliar.


The specials are less successful as an attempt to draw a line under the Davies era as a whole. Trying to round out five years of storytelling – and five of the most successful years that the show has ever had – with five specials that also have to be suitable for holiday viewing is overly ambitious and the five specials suffer for it. Davies is the man who brought Doctor Who back to television. David Tennant is one of the most iconic lead actors in the history of the franchise. The biggest tragedy of the specials is that they are singularly ill-suited to giving the duo their due.

You might be interested in our reviews of the David Tennant and Russell T. Davies Doctor Who specials:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: