Doctor Who: The Next Doctor
After Voyage of the Damned sank like its inspiration, Doctor Who fandom was left looking forward to the 2008 Christmas Special in the sure knowledge that it couldn’t be any worse than the previous attempt. Astrid & co’s missteps have obviously been noted, however, with The Next Doctor placing the emphasis on a solid story and fondly-remembered returning monster. Far from being a mere epilogue to the all-guns-blazing Series Four finale, this enormously enjoyable story represents the show at nearly its best.
Although the pre-publicity for the story placed the emphasis on the puzzle of David Morrissey’s “Next Doctor”, Russell T Davies has stayed true to his principles when structuring the plot. Given the writer’s dislike of mystery as a means of driving a drama forward, there’s little surprise in finding the enigma of Jackson Lake being almost entirely wrapped up after only half of the episode’s running time. Morrissey is predictably excellent throughout, from his waddling first appearance to his hailing of the Doctor during the climax. The actor and writer are working in complete harmony, with Lake’s lack of the sonic screwdriver not only serving the plot but adding an interesting look at a low-tech Doctor. It’s a credit to the performer that the character never feels like two separate roles, with Victorian authoritarianism creeping into his take on the Doctor and quick-witted joie de vivre found in his assisting the Time Lord and Rosita during their infiltration of the warehouse. He also manages to bring out something new in the show’s star. Despite having visibly been going through the motions at some points during the fourth series, David Tennant is in cracking form here, genuinely providing a new side to his portrayal with only the slightest of script promptings. While his meeting with the fifth Doctor during Time Clash brought out his most authoritative attitude, here he adopts a very different mode of behaviour to that envisaged by Moffat. Most Doctor actors end up putting something of themselves into the part, and it’s impossible to imagine any other actor to take to the role giving this level of fanboy glee to an encounter with a future incarnation.
After the production team’s hyping of Dervla Kirwin’s performance, the character initially feels a little flat and lifeless, but this is a case of viewers approaching the story with the wrong expectations. The villain in the previous Who special was given life by an unforgettable hammy performance from George Costigan, while Roger Lloyd-Pack’s portrayal of the Cybermen’s last human ally bypassed ham and went straight for bacon. It takes a little time for Miss Hartigan’s underplayed menace to banish memories of these cartoon-like figures, but by the time the Cyberleader guides her to her throne, she has left a lasting impression. There’s also an unexpected subtly to her motivation- while children watching will just see a cruel orphanage manager straight out of Oliver Twist, the lack of clarity as to her treatment by the men she seeks revenge upon adds an unexpected depth of motivation for adult viewers. The Doctor’s final offer of a clean start on an empty planet for once looks like a proportionate reaction, rather than a simply demonstration of the hero’s goodness.
The Cybermen have never looked as good as they do here. Their grave robbing body-horror is perfectly suited to the Victorian setting, and it’s a delight to find that their presence is not wholly secondary to the fake Doctor storyline. While the much-trailed graveyard sequence makes for some outstanding visuals, they are also suited to the industrial sweatshop, and are perfectly at home thematically with the onset of mechanisation. The redesign of the Cyberleader attracted some criticism before broadcast, but given the shadowy spaces he inhabits, the standard back handlebars would not have been enough to distinguish him from his battalion. Although guns were a perquisite for the cyber-race’s Doomsday battle with the Daleks, it’s a relief to see that the production team have selected the far more iconic electrocutions as being their primary attack mode. There’s even room for some in-jokes. In addition to the Doctor’s crack about the Cybermens’ stealth setting, there’s a subtle homage to the David Banks era in Miss Hartigan’s comment of “Excellent!” when her Cyber-plan comes together. The only fly in the ointment is the Cybershades, which look frankly terrible. The design is an awkward half-way house between the feral beasts which Davies intended and the sinister cloaked wraiths that Millennium FX has been obviously itching to make since their original design of the Reapers was axed. The production gets away with it when the Shades are stationary, but as soon as they have to move, they revert to being men in rugs, their deficiencies compounded by the bright snow scenes they are shot against. Fandom’s initial speculation that the creatures were fake monsters concocted by Morrissey’s Doctor is entirely understandable.
While The Next Doctor benefits strong script with a brilliant guest star, and some classic monsters, it’s unfortunately slightly weakened by its direction, with several crucial sequences lacking excitement. Both the Cybermens’ attack on the graveyard and the children’s escape from the generator room are too leisurely, with neither a sense of pace nor a coherent narrative to the scenes. There’s just a little too much aimless running about, depriving the funeral offensive of the iconic status it deserves and harming the episode’s momentum just before the crucial revelation that Jackson’s son is still alive. Without the emotional weight this moment should carry, the widower’s story still feels slightly unresolved as he watches from the sidelines while the Doctor faces the Cyberking. The epilogue smoothes this impression, but it’s a pity that what was obviously intended as the climax of the Lake’s journey is a little flat. Andy Goddard’s resources had admittedly been reduced by the cost of delaying filming by a week (to allow Davies to complete the script), but the errors made here relate not to cost but artistic judgement.
Cybershades aside, the episode sports some glorious visuals, vindicating both the decision to film the special in March rather than later in the year and the cost of the location work. The redressing of Torchwood’s Hub as the sweatshop is a little too obvious, but it’s hard to complain at any saving of money to enable the Gloucester-shot street scenes. The CG used to realise the steampunk mecha Cyberking isn’t quite perfect, but is more than adequate to create a thrilling climax. From the moment the story’s first teaser was shown after Journey’s End, fans have been speculating on the appearance of an industrial-revolution Cybermen. Although Character Options must be despairing at the method adopted (let’s see THAT turn up in the five-inch figure range), the writer embraces this concept in style, giving the Doctor a bona-fide videogame boss to face on Christmas Day. The method of the Cybermens’ destruction is classic Davies; initially carrying an air of deus ex machina, but on reflection fully woven into the fabric of the script. While Jackson’s TARDIS is obviously seeded in advance, it takes a few moments’ consideration to remember that this is exactly how the Doctor dealt with the Cybermen in The Age of Steel, by removing their emotional inhibitors and driving them mad. There’s a clear wink to the viewers in the dispersal of the Cybermen into the vortex. While Steven Moffat may choose to revive the classic series creations, he’s obviously left free to have to Cyber-technology feasibly show up in any time period he likes…
After last year’s attempt at a disaster movie, the decision to stage a quintessentially Doctor Who plot with a twist works far better, with its moment of spectacle being a eleventh hour Christmas present rather than the object of the exercise. The Next Doctor is brilliantly written and competently executed, being easily the best of the Christmas Specials to date. In The Runaway Bride, the Doctor slowly overcoming the loss of a dear friend was the main emotional thrust of the story. Here, it’s a brief afterthought in a varied and entertaining adventure.