(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them...)
After The Doctor’s Daughter that wasn’t, and the regeneration (in Journey’s End) that didn’t happen, The Next Doctor was probably a tease too far. Which is a shame, because not only would it have been fantastic to have unveiled the new Doctor during the course of an episode of the television series itself, but David Morrissey would have made a brilliant replacement for David Tennant, too.
There isn’t much else at fault with The Not-Quite Doctor though – Cyber Shades notwithstanding. This is Russell T Davies’ last “proper” Christmas Special (The End of Time the following Yuletide would have less to do with celebrating the season and more to do with commemorating the death of David Tennant’s tenth Doctor), and he pulls out all the stops to make it a memorable one. And what better way to celebrate Christmas than with a Victorian theme? Already having done the Victorian Christmas episode once (with The Unquiet Dead in Series One – a story that would probably have been held over for the 2005 Christmas Special itself, had such a thing existed at the time it was made) proves an easily surmountable problem; the Doctor simply turns up in 1851, expecting to enjoy another, this time trouble-free, winter holiday. And although Dickens too had already been done in that same story, this one also is very much in the Dickensian vein.
Of course, being Doctor Who at Christmas, there’s action and thrills aplenty (both the previous Christmas Specials had taken their cue from the movies; The Runaway Bride was a screwball comedy with robot Santas and a giant spider, whereas Voyage of the Damned was a disaster movie in space), and The Next Doctor begins with a ridiculous but thrilling chase through a deserted warehouse (both horizontally and vertically!), before revealing the villains of the piece in an atmospheric graveyard scene. The Cybermen have fallen out of the Void and straight into a Victorian steam-punk scenario, the workhouse setting (and the use of children as Cyber-slaves) combining with the unveiling of the CyberKing to create a festive hybrid of both Dickens and Jules Verne. It’s a fantastic conceit, and the CyberKing itself is a thoroughly spectacular creation that bestrides London like the evil love-child of The Iron Giant and Optimus Prime. But the inclusion of the Cybermen is just window-dressing; what The Next Doctor is really about is character, and the three main characters in particular.
Dervla Kirwan is absolutely astonishing as Miss Hartigan, a scarlet woman (both literally and metaphorically) who works willingly for the Cybermen, wreaking revenge upon society for the wrongs it has previously done to her. David Tennant is wonderful as the Doctor, in his element as he follows David Morrissey’s character around like a cross between a lost puppy and a doting parent, gradually uncovering the truth (both as regards to the plot and Morrissey’s character), and slowly bringing himself to the fore before joyously defeating the CyberKing from the rocking cradle of a hot-air balloon.
It’s David Morrissey’s character we’re here for, the eponymous Next Doctor. Morrissey’s conviction about his Time Lord credentials give way first to misgivings over who he really is (in the face of Tennant’s arrival and ultimate revealing), and then despair at the loss of his wife and child, before finally joy at the rescue of his son and the real Doctor’s defeat of the CyberKing. The entire process is an acting master-class from David Morrissey, combining understated responses in the quieter scenes with a sense of a man showing off to mask the uncertainties of his missing memories earlier on in the story. It’s hard to imagine a more celebrated actor than the often under-rated Morrissey giving a better performance. It’s entirely to his credit that he acts both Tennant (totally comfortable as the Doctor by this point) and Kirwan (giving a defining characterisation) off the screen; The Next Doctor is Jackson Lake’s story, regardless of imminently retiring Time Lords and ten-storey tall tin men.
There are some great fun moments along the way too, from Lake’s market-stall TARDIS (the hot-air balloon; Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style), to his own “companion” Rosita (a name designed to evoke memories of both Rose and Martha), and even the past Doctor Who mythology alluded to by way of the infostamp is there as a celebration of the programme’s past as much as it is to call attention to Lake’s misplaced memory. There’s even a swordfight with a Cyberman on a staircase!
But the final scene is perhaps the most beautiful and poignant, with David Tennant’s damaged and lonely Doctor, entering his final lap of honour before handing the baton on to a new man, being persuaded by Lake to stay and share a Christmas dinner with he and his newly re-configured family. It’s a quiet scene shared by two great actors, secure in the knowledge they’ve just taken part in something very special, and each allowing the other to shine. It’s a wonderful way to end a wonderful Christmas Special, and even if the title was a complete red herring, it was at least a promise fulfilled in every other way.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)