...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Day 2925: DOCTOR WHO: The Next Doctor… is Mr Dr Matt


Oooh, what a DISASTER! A whole half hour of this year's Doctor Who Christmas special accidentally deleted, meaning they had to broadcast the REAL Next Doctor as "Doctor Who Confidential"!

Here is a publicity still of the new Dr Who…

the Doctor in Twilight
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…and here is another one.

the Doctor in Sulk
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Anyway, Daddy Richard hasn't told you all about the Christmas Special yet, so this seems like an OPPORTUNE MOMENT to prod him into a seasonal review. Happy New Year…

Doctor Who has never had a moment quite like it. Of course, the series was never this big before, not even during the Dalekmania era or the height of Tom. The changeover from Chris to David, the only previous passing of the flame in the "new age", came in such a rush that it was done almost before we knew it was happening. So while the announcement of a new Doctor has, in the past, been newsworthy, it's never quite got to the level of receiving its own half-hour results show on BBC1. It's possible that whoever was named as the next Time Lord would have been a disappointment in the context of hype and adrenaline built up.

Am I disappointed? I confess that I am, a bit. I was rooting for Paterson Joseph, an actor who I feel has the charisma, the gravitas and the skin colour that the series needed at this point. Yes, skin colour – I don't think it would be tokenism to cast a highly respected not to mention abundantly talented actor who just happens to be black, but the number of Doctor Who fans on the forums wailing that you can't have a black Doctor strongly suggests that the series needed a good kick in the prejudices. (The same, incidentally, to all those saying you can't have a female Doctor.)

That's not to say there's anything wrong with Matt's work: having seen him in "The Ruby in the Smoke"/"The Shadow in the North" and "Party Animals" and on stage in "The History Boys" he's perfectly capable, even if – to my tastes – he didn't set screen or stage alight in the manner of a Marquis de Caribas or an Emperor Jones. But in a television era when Robin Hood (retired Crusader) has been recast as a twenty-something and Merlin (ancient sorcerer) has been recast as a twenty-something, the decision to have the Doctor (thousand-year-old Time Lord) recast as a twenty-something looks just a little bit… corporate.

Nor am I entirely sure where this leaves the future relationship between the Doctor and River Song: if she thinks that the tenth Doctor looked "so young", what's she going to make of this one? I suppose the obvious solution (if you're not in the "just drop the whole business" camp) is just recasting a young River Song for the other end of their relationship, so that she thinks of him as about her age and gets used to him getting older than her.

It's worth remembering though that Steven Moffat's Doctor was Peter Davison in the way that Russell Davies' was Jon Pertwee. We can hope that the Grand Moff's intention is to try to do the "old man in a young body" story that was intended by Christopher Bidmeed but to do it right.

On the other hand, as the idea begins to settle on me, I can start to imagine the scene where the tenth Doctor finally meets the eleventh and is mightily put out:

"Oi! I'm supposed to be the young and sexy one!"

You could almost see it in the Christmas Special, the naughtily-titled "The Next Doctor", when he meets David Morrissey's self-proclaimed Doctor. Morrissey looks like what we expect of a Doctor: energetic, intelligent and mature. The tenth Doctor clearly thinks the same way. He's thrilled (and that's a bit un-Doctor-like in itself, given the past representation of inter-incarnation meetings) to meet his future self, but can you also read it as l little bit of thinking "ha! I'm still the best!"

Along with, I suspect, many people, the Christmas setting and David Morrissey's slightly over-the-top performance and costume (as seen during Children in Need) led me into the trap of expecting this to be a television remake of Big Finish's "The One Doctor".

Obviously, it was actually Big Finish's "Minuet in Hell"…

{sound of tumbleweeds}

…well, thankfully it's not actually that either, since the real Doctor doesn't have amnesia (the eighth Doctor's congenital condition) and we don’t have to cope with ludicrous faux-Americans and Becky the Vampire Slayer plot.

But the central conceit – that a machine transfers the Doctor's personality to a mentally unbalanced individual – is pretty much the same, though thankfully handled far more sensitively and poignantly.

It seemed to me that the mystery of who is this "other Doctor" was resolved far too early, but on re-watching it turns out to be resolved almost exactly on the half hour. So in fact, "The Next Doctor" is really an old-fashioned two-part adventure, with the first half mainly concentrating on the "mystery" story, while the second becomes a more traditional clash with the Cybermen.

Admittedly, we spotted instantly that the "other Doctor" would in fact be Jackson Lake the moment that he was named as the first victim… "but no body was ever found", but then it was hardly supposed to be a Jonathan Creek puzzler. It's much more about the (real) Doctor's reaction to meeting what he thinks is his future self.

And of course it does actually make sense that he reacts differently to the bickering of his early self-meetings, because in a Universe with no other Time Lords he's delighted to realise that here is a way for him to not be alone; he can literally be his own best friend. And so he decides to play the companion and follow his future self around.

It is then so sad to watch his gradual disillusionment. The "other Doctor" is gradually shaded from over-the-top through trying too hard to ultimately a tragic figure in denial. So "our" Doctor has to prompt the "other Doctor" here and there; he has to ask about the "sonicness" of the "sonic screwdriver"; and then, when the Cybermen attack, he realises that he's got to do the saving, which leads to the stethoscope coming out.

He is very sad for the fate of Jackson Lake, as he explains to him that he's not the Doctor; but he's also sad for himself, alone yet again.

The dynamic between the two Doctors is terrific; with Morrissey and Tennant on screen together it could hardly be otherwise. The opening set piece, where they bond as the pair of them are dragged up a building and across a warehouse by a Cybershade (Cyber-doggie?) is hilarious and exhilarating. The moments where the Doctor explains the reality to Jackson Lake are quiet and intense, and you can see how both of them are damaged by the breaking of the magic. The sequence rescuing the children from the Cyber-headquarters, where the roles of Doctor and companion are reversed, allows them to re-bond as friends.

But the pair of them dominating the screen time like this does make this a rather male story. Velile Tshabalala's clumsily-named Rosita (another false clue that this was "the One Doctor" with faked companion) is relegated to a very tiny role, and rewarded for her bravery with the role of… nanny. Hmmm.

The counter-balance, perhaps, is in another of Russell Davies' strong female villains, Dervla Kirwan as the very damaged Miss Mercy Hartigan. Miss Hartigan's unspoken but strongly alluded-to back story is really rather dark for a Christmas Day family romp. Her background certainly appears to indicate she has been used as a prostitute or, worse, an unpaid prostitute, possibly by the Victorian gentlemen on whom she eventually takes revenge.

"Another man come to impose his will on me in the night," she spits at the Doctor. Very dark, that.

(And Rosita, too, was caught by the Cybermen out on the streets at night… no doubt she was on her way home from a late-night tea-drinking club… ©Terrance Dicks.)

It's also been suggested that there's a bit of a phallocentric agenda behind Lake's fugue-state being driven by the kidnap of his son more than the murder of his wife, though Alex points out that in traditional drama any female character would be expected to care more for her children than her partner, so why not the same for a dad?

And is Mr Lake the first person in Doctor Who to be actually driven mad by the shock of blundering into the Doctor's world? Perhaps the mystery ought to be why don't more people suffer nervous collapse when monsters come stomping out of the night?

So, after a half-hour of psycho-drama, the second half turns back into modern Doctor Who, with a very Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom cyber-headquarters, and then a very big CG monster.

To be honest, I think that this was a really good Cyber-story, certainly the best of the 21st Century. Kidnapping children for child labour captures both the dark spirit of the Victorian age and at the same time is a very Cyberman thing to do: their lack of empathy means they see the practicality of using a cheap, disposable, otherwise-unwanted workforce without sentiment. And it adds a "the Cybermen will come and get you" horror frisson for the younger viewer that the slice-and-dice emphasis on conversion has somehow managed to fail to put across.

(And yes, sticking the Cyber-leader's brain on view a la Lumic Cyber-controller, was clearly supposed to remind you of that. Though when and why the Cybermen decided to remodel their Cyberleader escapes me; it's not like they could feel really bored while stuck in the Void.)

And then there's the Cyberking. (Playset available in toyshops by Easter, do you think?) Ooh, that's divided the fans: some of them hate it; others loathe it. Personally… I loved it.

In part, I think, it was a great relief that it wasn't a new rank of Cyberman. Cybermen have Cyber-leaders and a Cyber-Controller, but not a "king" with all the emotional overtones of fealty and chivalry that would go with. Magnificently silly, and terrifically realised, a giant walking Cyber-factory – a Cyber-wor-king if you see – was just the right sort of bonkers machine that the Cybermen would come up with.

This week's "thing to drive Lawrence Miles nuts": a mechanical leviathan rising from the Thames. Although in many ways the Cyberking, with honour guard of emotionless Cybermen, is the opposite of Larry's Sabbath-built, Babwyn-powered Jonah.

And Cybermen in giant robots was Big Finish's "Human Resources", of course.

It was also rather nice that Miss Hartigan's rage was just too much for the emotionless Cybermen to cope with (remembering "The Invasion" where they reacted badly to emotion too). Her plan to rule the world doesn't seem to have been very thought through, and surely asking for London's surrender before shooting great chunks out of it might have been an idea, but then that ties in with her being entirely fury and no logic at all.

Listening to the commentary, Russell suddenly came up with the idea that after her freed mind destroys the Cybermen and the Cyberking starts to topple towards the London crowds, the Doctor should appeal to Miss Hartigan to "save them". Julie Gardner was distraught that they hadn't thought to do that, but Russell then persuaded himself that it would have been too sentimental. I think that he's right; Miss Hartigan was too good at being bad to deserve a saccharine "redemption".

Surely, surely, though, this is the end of the Cybus Cybermen. The Doctor explicitly says that these are the last of them escaped from the Void during Davros's mad reality bomb attack. (Though how would the Doctor know? He looks like he's guessing.) Hopefully this is clearing the decks for the future production team.

(Equally, though, it's opening a loophole for some of those Daleks from the Genesis Arc to have escaped from the Void too…)

Overall, I thought that this was a terrific Doctor Who story, and the best Christmas present since "The Christmas Invasion". The pacing of the set pieces is spot on, unlike "The Runnaway Bride" where the best bit is the TARDIS/taxi chase early on, or "Voyage of the Damned" where they seem to spend forever on that metal bridge across the engine chasm. There are some truly gorgeous moments: the stand out being the cyber-attack in the graveyard, with the reveal of "other Doctor's" "TARDIS" running it a close second. The polar opposites of icy Cybermen and flame-coloured-dress-wearing Miss Hartigan provide just the right balance of enemies. And the plot benefits from the double-barrelled story keeping the momentum going after answering the question posed by the episode's title.

Of course, with my fanboy hat on (yes, we get hats, and badges and a special holographic membership card) with my fanboy hat on, I'd fantasized that we would get a cameo from Doctor eleven, the real next Doctor, at the end, perhaps seeing him watching as Tennant and Morrissey go off to dinner. Yes, I realise that they finished filming "The Next Doctor" in Spring, and Matt Smith wasn't cast until Autumn, but they could have filmed a tiny, tiny insert, couldn't they? And given that they could only hold off the actual announcement another ten days…

Next Time: With David Tennant filming his last stories in early 2009, by the time this is shown the tenth Doctor will officially be addressing us From Beyond the Grave™. So where else would he be but on "The Planet of the Dead".

It turns out that SIX MILLION people tuned in to watch the Doctor Who Do You Do You Are results show, making it SECOND most watched show of the day. ITV must be CRUSHED.

The MOST watched show was "Total Wetwipe", the Top-Gear-totty hosted gameshow version of It's A Knockout, clearly achieving this because of all those Doctor Who fans who rushed off to the Internet leaving the telly on.


1 comment:

Simon said...

Obviously, it was actually Big Finish's "Minuet in Hell"

I called Minuet in Hell when many were saying "The One Doctor".

I did. Really. Honest.