By Ross Ruediger
Writing about the fourth Doctor Who Christmas Special is, admittedly, about as much fun as sitting down to eat a bowl of shredded wheat. I feel as though I've said everything there is to say about how these one-offs operate, and am not sure I can bring a whole lot that's new to the table. (Need further proof? Click here, here and here.)
It's unfortunate that I'm coming at this material from such a blasé angle, too, because "The Next Doctor" may actually be the best Christmas special Russell T Davies has yet unveiled. Then again, it may not—such is the luxury of using the word "may." It's certainly a vast improvement on 2007's "Voyage of the Damned," although it wouldn't be tough to improve upon that story. Watching David Tennant decorate a fucking tree for an hour would be more entertaining than another bombastic adventure set to the same tune as "Damned." Luckily, "The Next Doctor" is a sweetly inspired piece of entertainment that goes to show that maybe, just maybe, there's actually some life left in this yearly offering that aims to do nothing more than provide a little something for families to gather around the tube and enjoy together after they've feasted on a fine meal of turkey or ham or whatever it is people in Britain eat for Christmas dinner.
The TARDIS arrives in London at Christmas in 1851. Along with ample amounts of snow, the sweet smell of comfort and joy wafts through the air. It's almost comical how often the Doctor ends up fighting alien menaces at Christmas by this point, as this is the fifth such occasion since the new series began (one must not forget that Season One's Dickens tale, "The Unquiet Dead," was also a holiday adventure). For the hardcore fan, it has become repetitive. For the casual viewer—the average English bloke who watches Doctor Who like most Americans watch their TV shows—it's likely much less of a nuisance, since it only happens once a year; he isn't dissecting and analyzing the series through countless DVD viewings like some of us do.
Anyway, within moments of arriving, a panicked female voice shouts for the Doctor, and it's like the best present he could ever get. ("Someone's in trouble! My specialty!") He rushes to the rescue, only to find that the woman not only doesn't recognize him, but seems rather peeved by his presence. The woman continues to call for the Doctor and on cue, a proper English gentlemen shows up. The Doctor asks him who he is and he replies, "I'm the Doctor. Simply the Doctor. The one, the only, and the best. Stand back. This is a job for a Time Lord!"
The Next Doctor is played by David Morrissey (who previously co-starred with David Tennant in the excellent Blackpool), and his companion, Rosita, is played by Vilile Tshabalala. He's of course not really the next Doctor, because it's fairly common knowledge at this point that Tennant will be handing over his TARDIS key to Matt Smith in 2010.
But that wasn't the case in December of last year, when this special first aired in the U.K., and Davies does a pretty good job of convincing us that this may (there's that magic word "may" again) indeed be Doctor #11. In fact he goes back and forth with it, teasing the viewer and the real Doctor as well, and providing a logical reason (amnesia) that this potentially new Doctor doesn't recognize his predecessor. The real Doctor basically assumes the role of the companion for the first half of the story, and along the way he's introduced to the world of the Next Doctor in much the same way a new companion would be introduced to the world of the Doctor proper. The Next Doctor's rationalization of why his ordinary screwdriver is indeed sonic is a hoot. The scenario culminates in another hugely funny sequence in which the Doctor is shown the Next Doctor's TARDIS—a massive blue gas balloon that has yet to make its maiden voyage. In this case, TARDIS stands for Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style, which looks silly on paper, and yet Morrissey delivers the line with such style that we're forced to go along with his logic.
The Next Doctor is embroiled in an ongoing struggle with the Cybermen, who apparently slipped through the void and back into our universe during the events of last season's two part finale. They are aided by a human with no soul, Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan), who is nothing if not heaping doses of Cruella De Vil, the witch from Snow White, and every other classy evil woman ever created under the fantasy banner. People are dying and children have gone missing—most notably the mysterious Jackson Lake, who, we discover as the story moves forward, is not dead after all, but actually the true identity of the Next Doctor. His wife was killed by the silver beasties, and his son was stolen from him as well, which, along with some help from an infostamp, led to him having a breakdown, after which he assumed the identity of the Doctor.
Ah, yes—the Cybermen infostamp. What would a story such as this be without a tube that ends up functioning as everything but a bong and a suppository? The infostamps can hold the history of London and the entirety of the Doctor's past. They can be lodged into the chests of Cybermen to retrieve all this information, and perhaps even be used against them in these situations with a little tweaking. They can also be used as a literal arsenal of weaponry. But most importantly, they move the plot along, and nearly every single dramatic development that takes place in this story relies on or is caused by the infostamps.
Oh well—at least we don't have to think too hard, and I wouldn't trade that sweet little classic Doctor montage for nothin'. However the infostamps are merely contrived, whereas the Cybershades must surely be the dumbest looking and least threatening creature the new series has unveiled. An obvious descendant of the Cybermat from the classic series, the Cybershades look ridiculous even compared to their low budget ancestors. What on Earth were they thinking? "OK, we've got a shitload of these Cybermasks leftover from the last Doctor Who Magazine giveaway that nobody bothered to enter, and a dozen gorilla suits laying around. Can we make it work?" Where is Tim Gunn when you need him?
Those are the only real complaints I have about "The Next Doctor." Everything else is really quite splendid, and for once it's nice to watch a Christmas special that takes its time and moves along at a leisurely pace, instead of cramming one action sequence after another down our throats. I'm dazzled by Doctor Who when it takes time out to get its characters right, and the real reason "The Next Doctor" works is everything about David Morrissey, the Next Doctor and Jackson Lake.
This guy is one of the most underrated actors working in the business today, and I'm continually amazed by Hollywood's inability to find a way to properly utilize his talents. I was actually a huge supporter of making him Doctor #11, although obviously not played as he plays the role in this episode, which is a different animal entirely. I still think it's a tad unfortunate that he wasn't selected as he's so different from Tennant, which Matt Smith at least doesn't appear to be, and he would've brought an immense amount of cred to the role. Doctor Who would've flourished with him taking the lead. That's not to say it won't with Smith, of course, just that Morrissey would obviously have rocked the TARDIS and brought some much needed gravitas back to the series, after Tennant's rather ebullient take on the character.
The story ends as many Doctor Who stories do, with a battle against a monster - this time it's in the form of a giant, hulking steampunk Cyberking. It's really a pretty glorious creation that fits in nicely with all the Victorian décor that litters the tale, and it of course gives Tennant a chance to use the gas balloon, and once again, the infostamps. Sigh. Goofy stuff, to be sure, but great fun nonetheless, and above average for a holiday offering from this series, although it must be said that it's become increasingly difficult to judge these things objectively, given how little I've come to expect from the Christmas specials. Christmas of '09 will see the start of David Tennant's two-part finale as the Doctor. I hope to God (which is quite the leap of faith for an atheist) he doesn't regenerate after having been trampled to death by eight tiny reindeer.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based writer. In addition to contributing to The House Next Door, he also publishes The Rued Morgue and writes for Bullz-Eye.
NEXT MONTH: BBC America premieres the first Doctor Who Easter Special, "Planet of the Dead," which was partially filmed in Dubai, and guest stars Michelle Ryan and Lee Evans, on Sunday, July 26th.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Be sure to look at the outstanding "E-Space Trilogy" which was recently released and stars Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Matthew Waterhouse, and John Leeson as the voice of K9.