Time Lord, Tardis, enemy of the Cybermen. The one and the only.
Divorced from its original context, The Next Doctor is something of an odd beast.
It’s meant to be read, of course, in terms of the Tennant era winding down and Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor on the horizon – not that we knew quite yet, when this aired, that Matt Smith would be the next Doctor, but the announcement wasn’t far off. The episode is playing on that speculation, brazenly invoking that paratextual resonance and running with it. Was the episode title teased at the end of Journey’s End? I forget, and I am too lazy to look it up, but I’m fairly sure it was – and at the height of the Davies’ era’s popularity, it must have been quite something.
I, admittedly, don’t actually entirely remember the experience of watching this one particularly well. The subsequent Matt Smith announcement, a week and a half or so later, I remember quite well – I decided, fairly impromptu at the start of the special as it discussed a few rumoured candidates, that I wanted Matt Smith to be the Doctor, basically on the basis that he’d been in the Sally Lockhart show previously. Not that I’d watched it, of course, but I’d read the books and that was… enough to decide he’d be a good choice for the role, at the time. I was pleased when Matt was announced, anyway. (It was a few weeks later when a friend of mine tried to get me to sign his petition calling for Matt Smith to be fired and David Tennant to stay on. I think the suggestion was that Smith was too emo. I didn’t sign it, is the main thing.)
But, as I was saying, I don’t remember a lot of the build-up. How invested was I in the idea of David Morrissey as the Doctor? Not a clue. (Though I do recall very pedantically correcting a lot of people in the months after the special, explaining that the next Doctor was Matt Smith and not David Morrissey. Of course now, a decade older and a decade more mature, I would still maintain that’s entirely justifiable pedantry.) I was, I think, probably very excited by the idea of the Cybermen – moreso than I was now, I’ve cooled on them considerably over the years.
Ten years on, anyway, it’s harder to appreciate the episode in its original context – we know that David Morrissey wasn’t the Eleventh Doctor, and we know how the Tennant era eventually concluded. So does it still stand up outside of that context?
The answer, I think, is sort of.
It’s a good concept for an episode – or, at least, the central mystery of Jackson Lake is a good concept for an episode, wedded to a more than slightly by the numbers Cyberman plot. Certainly, there’s room to explore it from various angles, from broad comedy to a more psychological approach, and to its credit The Next Doctor manages to touch on each of these angles across its hour-long runtime.
What surprised me, though, is how largely disinterested The Next Doctor actually is in Jackson Lake’s identity, dispensing with the actual mystery about 25 minutes in. Part of this comes down to the fact that Russell T Davies wasn’t especially interested in writing it as a mystery – apparently there was a draft of the script that revealed Jackson Lake’s identity after 15 minutes, with the Doctor taking his pulse – reasoning that most of the audience wouldn’t be especially invested in a mystery they’d ‘know’ was false. I wonder, idly, how true that actually is; I suppose it’s the same reasoning behind describing children in the audience as wise rather than cynical for knowing Rose Tyler wasn’t dead in Army of Ghosts, understanding how television works. But I’m not sure this occupies the same place – arguably in late 2008, with David Tennant leaving, there perhaps was scope to convince a lot of the audience that David Morrissey was going to be the next Doctor.
It’s interesting to consider what this premise might have looked like under different circumstances – if Davies had written something along these lines in place of Midnight, one of those late-season experimental pieces, or perhaps as the Doctor-lite episode for a season. (Or, indeed, if Steven Moffat had written something along these lines as one of his Christmas specials – imagine The Next Doctor in place of The Return of Doctor Mysterio, with Capaldi and Sophie Rundle taking on those roles.) Certainly, there’s scope to push it further; it’s easy to imagine the story as a quieter piece, making a broader overarching point about what it means to be the Doctor. I’d have liked that, I think – something with a grace note more along the lines of Extremis’ “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor”, perhaps?
As it is, that’s not what The Next Doctor was – there’s no “You don’t have to be the Doctor to be the Doctor” type moment. Indeed, probably one of its more glaring flaws is the fact that Jackson Lake doesn’t get to save his own son at the end, reduced to a comparatively impotent figure next to the Doctor. It’s a bit of a shame, because it feels like the missing link in Jackson’s character arc – but it doesn’t matter too much, because David Morrissey is able to hold the whole thing together. (It’s a great performance from Morrissey, actually; he’s able to play the funny version and the quiet, struggling version of the character with ease, and knit them together into something coherent when the script can’t quite decide which one to stick with.)
Otherwise, it’s a fairly “this is an hour of Doctor Who” hour of Doctor Who. Cybermen in Victorian England, with a little bit of interesting capitalism/industrial revolution stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a driving idea in the episode. A female villain who, again, has some interesting stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a defining aspect of the piece. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwaway episode of Doctor Who, not quite here or there. I’d guess it’s probably one of the ones I’ve rewatched least, and I often found myself surprised by it – by its shape and its pace, the contours of the plot, the ideas that drove it and the eventual resolution it presented.
Given I’ve criticised the most recent series of Doctor Who in ways that could be likened to the above, it’s probably worth drawing that comparison – particularly given the fact there’s not been a Christmas special today, the first time the revived series hasn’t had one. If this is Doctor Who that’s slightly short on ideas, and doesn’t quite draw the ideas it does have together, then what sets it apart from the Doctor Who I’ve been complaining about lately? There isn’t an especially neat answer, admittedly; I think it’s just that, even as it is caught in an odd position, The Next Doctor manages to at least be consistently charming if nothing else. It’s an hour of Doctor Who made by a group of people coming off what’s arguably their most impressive achievement yet – coasting on charm has, at this point, been earned.
That, though, goes some way to explaining why The Next Doctor feels so odd. It’s not just that it’s coming as the Tenth Doctor era is coming to a close – it’s coming when the Tennant/Davies era has essentially already ended. This is just the slow start of a year-long victory lap.