With Series 4 complete, another season of Doctor Who has come and gone, raising a good amount of hell in the process, and now it’s time for another fluffy, silly hour of fun with a Doctor Who Christmas special. “The Next Doctor” is not an episode that has a ton of substance to it, but it is a welcome change of pace, coming off the heels of “The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End“. Throughout the second half of Series 4, every episode was either dark, spooky or grim in tone, and it made for a fantastic run of episodes – one of the best winning streaks the show had during the RTD era – but I think we could do with a reprieve from the darkness for now.
The title of this special, “The Next Doctor”, is a misdirection, a playful bit of clickbait in the same vein as “The Doctor’s Daughter” or “The Doctor’s Wife”. The name of this episode and the prologue give off the impression this will be a multi-Doctor story, guest-starring David Tennant’s successor as the Doctor, when of course nothing of the sort happens: it’s merely a case of mistaken identity. Series 4 was Russell T. Davies’ last full series as Doctor Who’s showrunner, but he still stuck around for a few more specials afterwards, so Steven Moffat could have all the time he needed to prepare for Series 5 and cast the next Doctor. Since there’s only a handful of them, the Series 4 specials don’t really have much of a story arc or a lot of forward momentum, but they do have an overarching theme connecting them: the Tenth Doctor’s inevitable departure. The titular fakeout in “The Next Doctor” reminds the viewers that David Tennant won’t stick around forever as Ten; in “Planet Of The Dead“, Carmen straight-up tells the Doctor that his days are numbered; in “The Waters Of Mars“, Ten’s mind snaps as he’s confronted with his own mortality when he’s really not ready to go yet; and of course, “The End Of Time” is Ten’s regeneration story.
Arriving in 19th century England, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) finds it’s Christmas in London, his favorite time of the year, and he fully intends to enjoy the sights and sounds of the season before he gets sidetracked. Ten is basically in full superhero mode in this episode, and like “The Girl In The Fireplace“, “The Next Doctor” really plays up the side of Ten’s personality that is a dashing, debonair adventurer: whether he’s fighting off Cybermen with a cutlass, saving children from near-certain doom, or weaponizing a hot air balloon to bring the fight to the Cybermen. Compared to the second half of Series 4, where every episode threatened to overwhelm the Doctor and send him up a creek without a paddle, Ten is back in his element in this story and is mostly on top of everything.
Very early on, Ten stumbles upon a mystery when he seems to run into his future self, a new incarnation of the Doctor who doesn’t know him. If there’s one thing I always find strange about this episode, it’s how unflappably well Ten handles this discovery: he’s basically only ever excited about finding out what his future self is like and becoming best friends with him (and he has a similar non-reaction to stumbling upon Eleven, his actual future self, in “The Day Of The Doctor”). Compare that to “Journey’s End”, where Ten basically wasted a life to resist changing his face, or “The Waters Of Mars” and “The End Of Time”, where he has an angsty meltdown at the prospect of regenerating again because he utterly hates the experience. I suppose you could argue that Ten is okay with the idea of regenerating again at some point in his future, as an inevitable consequence of his dangerous lifestyle, so long as it doesn’t happen anytime soon, but I can’t shake the feeling that his stance on regeneration is rather inconsistent, varying a lot depending on the episode.
In any case, Jackson seems to be suffering from amnesia, and Ten knows he has to tread carefully there, so he decides to pretend to be an old friend of his so he can stick around and get some answers. For the first half of the episode, Ten takes a step back and basically becomes Jackson’s companion, so “The Next Doctor” has a lot of fun with that dynamic, frequently asking the question of who is really leading who around (“The Husbands Of River Song” would indulge in a similar bit of silliness with Twelve and River, years down the line). Ten and Jackson prove to be quite a chummy pair and bounce off each other surprisingly well as two heroic, foolhardy daredevils, a dynamic that’s almost as much fun as Ten and Donna’s comedic double act the previous season.
Ten takes it upon himself to keep the amateur adventurer out of trouble, and once the truth comes to light, the Doctor has plenty of sympathy for the plight of this poor man who’s trying to fill his shoes. Jackson turns out to be someone who’s haunted by grief and is trying to distract himself from his loss by burying himself in his detective work, by giving himself a noble drive and a purpose to help others. The Tenth Doctor is currently on his own: part of the reason why he’s in London in this episode is because he’s just lost Donna and he’s trying not to think about that. Even though Ten and Jackson aren’t actually the same person, they still turn out to have quite a few things in common, letting them understand each other. Jackson does manage to salvage something from his newly wrecked life – he rescues his son from the Cybermen and gets to be a father again – while Ten still has nothing to come home to at the end of the day except for the TARDIS, his oldest companion: Jackson recognizes that so he invites him to stay for dinner, so he won’t be alone on Christmas. It’s a rather sweet capper to this episode, and I really enjoyed Ten and Jackson’s friendship throughout this Christmas special.
Jackson Lake is the titular character of this Christmas special, and naturally a large part of its appeal rests on his shoulders, so thankfully I quite like him. Jackson is established early on to be a bold, brash and confident man, sometimes overly so, since he has a habit of biting off more than he can chew, throwing himself into danger, doing what he thinks the Doctor would do. He’s a very hammy and charismatic adventurer who’s made it his mission to keep Victorian London safe, accompanied by his hyper-competent best friend and sidekick, Rosita. Jackson is plagued by gaps in his life, missing memories of things that don’t add up, and it becomes increasingly apparent that his cavalier attitude is at least partially an affectation. He’s sad about something, even if he doesn’t know what is, and he’s clearly not who he thinks he is.
Jackson is eventually revealed to be an ordinary human who’s life the Cybermen wrecked by killing his wife and kidnapping his son. He had the Doctor’s backstory downloaded into his head by Cybermen technology, and in his turmoil of grief, he was almost relieved to run away into another life, a fugue state – he spent half of this Christmas special solving his own disappearance. In an otherwise silly Christmas special, the scene where reality hits home for Jackson is handled with a lot of pathos and dignity, and is genuinely affecting. David Morrisey was fun before as the titular character’s amnesiac self, but he’s a whole lot better as the real and more earnest Jackson Lake, who’s a very emotional man. Jackson is naturally horrified to discover his entire life is someone else’s story, and re-opening his mind to all that grief again threatens to break him – but nonetheless, he steps up and uses what he’s learned about the Cybermen to help the Doctor save the city. Throughout the latter half of the episodes, Jackson makes use of his own ingenuity and resourceful streak, proving that even if he isn’t the Doctor, he’s still quite the hero in his own right. And for his efforts, he gets his happy ending.
The Cybermen return for the first time in two seasons as the villains of this episode, and since the Series 4 finale made a really big deal about the walls of reality breaking down, I’m glad the “The Next Doctor” touches upon the consequences of “Journey’s End”. Russell relies on some pretty stock Doctor Who tropes to explain away the Cybermen’s presence in this episode: they escaped the void and fell back through time, landing in 19th century London, and while they were there, they figured they should use the opportunity to try to conquer the human race. It’s a pretty common occurrence in Doctor Who for invading aliens to take advantage of greedy, opportunistic locals working as their accomplices (the show has previously had this set-up in “Tooth And Claw“, “The Runaway Bride“, “Daleks In Manhattan” and “The Sontaran Stratagem“), and in the case of “The Next Doctor”, the main human villain is Ms. Hartigan, a vengeful, amoral woman who’s almost as icy as her Cybermen buddies.
A recurring talking point throughout this episode is Victorian values, and the double standards of 19th century society. Rosita vents about it a few times, and the main villainess is a product of it. Miss Hartigan has had to put up with years of sexism and chauvinism, she’s been abused and condescended to so many times by the men of London, and she’s let it change her for the worse – she’s let her her pain and resentment become the core of who she is. By the start of the episode, her vengeance has twisted her into a cruel and depraved murderer who would sell out her entire species to metal men with false promises, simply so she can have pleasure of watching the world burn. But despite her personal grievances with male sexism, Mercy is very hypocritical, since she is not only sexist herself (hating all men with a passion), but is also quite racist – something Rosita can attest to.
Probably my favorite scene in the episode is the one where Miss Haritgan crashes the late reverend’s funeral, all decked out in her most stylish, blood-red dress to purposely cause a scene while she oversees all the funeral attendees being killed off by the Cybermen. As a villain, this scene is easily the peak of her wickedness, and it makes it very clear, early on, that this whole scheme to take over the city is a very personal vendetta for her. Further highlighting her hypocrisy, Mercy has no problem exploiting the ragged, hungry, homeless children of London who live in the local workhouse so she can use them for free child labor, allowing Doctor Who to pay homage to “Oliver Twist” and several other famous works of Charles Dickens from that period that the episode draws influence from. Miss Hartigan’s alliance with the Cybermen pans out exactly the way you would expect it to, since the Cybermen are about as trustworthy as the Daleks.
There’s quite a noticeable, poetic cycle with Mercy’s character when it comes to people being used, exploited and dehumanized as tools. Her resentment towards the men she felt had used her and abused her for their own gain for years fueled her motivation for villainy (along with her ambition and desire for power), so she felt she was only being paid her rightful dues by returning the favor – she also had zero qualms about using vulnerable children as disposable pawns in her scheme – and she winds up being served her just desserts when the Cybermen betray her, once again finding herself being used as a resource by men, this time of the Cybernetic variety. Mrs. Hartigan gets some revenge on her lying, backstabbing new ‘friends’ and takes some power back from them when she wins a power struggle between herself and their previous leader, becoming the final boss of the episode and a Cyber-abomination that the Doctor has to defeat during the climax.
Doctor Who has a noticeable preference for setting stories during the Victorian era of England, presumably because the 19th century is a destination that’s far enough in the past that it will be whimsical and charming to the viewers, but also near enough that it isn’t too difficult for the set designers and the costume department to dress up modern day England for a sixty-minute period piece. In the case of “The Next Doctor”, Gloucester stands in for 19th century London, and it does a good job of passing for the setting, looking warm, cozy and inviting. “The Next Doctor” is helmed by Andy Goddard, a newcomer behind the director’s chair who does an impressive job of assimilating with the RTD era’s pre-established visual style, relying on a lot of low-angle shots and off-kilter shots throughout the episode to the paint an interesting picture, like the chase scene with the Cyber Shade early on, or the late reverend’s funeral massacre, of the Cyber King’s rampage through London town at night during the climax.
Throughout the first two acts, “The Next Doctor” sports Doctor Who’s usual standard of visual effects for the RTD era, while the last twenty minutes feature some of the worst CGI we’ve seen from the series in quite some time, especially since Series 4 was consistently impressive in this area. The giant Cyberking mecha-tank that rampages through London during the climax never manages to blend in well with its environment and looks like a character from a Playstation 1 video game, so the last act is the point where this episode nearly starts to lose me. Murray Gold’s score for the series is always a delight during the Christmas specials, because it takes on a more wintry style, and in the case of “The Next Doctor”, it becomes very gentle, warm, nostalgic and wholesome. Murray’s music contains a lot of variations on “The Doctor’s Theme”, “The Doctor Forever”, and “The Cybermen”, with the three standout tracks being “The Greats Of Past Time“, “March Of The Cybermen” and “Goodbyes“.
“The Next Doctor” is neither the best Christmas special from the RTD era, nor the worst one, but it is a nice, warm capper to the 2008 season of Doctor Who, and a solid Cyberman story, earning itself a passing grade from me.
* “Hold on, hold on. Who are you?” “I’m the Doctor. Simply, the Doctor. The one, the only and the best!”
* “I’ve heard all about you, Doctor. Bit of a legend, if I do say so myself” “Modesty forbids me to agree with you, sir. But yes. Yes, I am”.
* “You won’t believe this, Mr. Smith, but they are creatures from another world” “Really? Wow” Heh, sassy Ten.
* “The Cyberking will rise” “The Cyberking will rise, indeed. How like a man” Ms. Hartigan, get your mind out of the gutter.
* “Now, with the house empty, I shall effect an entrance at the rear while you go back to the TARDIS. This is hardly work for a woman” “Oh, don’t mind me saving your life. That’s work for a woman, isn’t it?!” This whole argument reminds me of a scene from another Christmas special.
* “Er, do you mind my asking, is that your sonic screwdriver?” “Yes. I’d be lost without it” “But that’s just a screwdriver. How’s it sonic?” “Well, er, it makes a noise. That’s sonic, isn’t it?” Ten is very underwhelmed.
* “Hold on. I just need to do a little final check. Won’t take a tick. There’s one more thing I cannot figure. If this room’s got infostamps, then maybe, just maybe, it’s got something that needs infostamping… Okay. I think its time for us to run” It was at that point that Ten knew he had fucked up.
* “Madam, I must protest” “Whatever for?” “A lady at the graveside is debatable enough, but your apparel-” “Is it too exciting?”
* “You monstrous witch!” “Merry Christmas to you, too” “But why are we spared? What do you need us for?” “Your children. It’s funny, now I think of it, but in all these years not one of you has asked my first name. It’s Mercy”.
* “Can you help him, sir? He has such terrible dreams. Wakes at night in such a state of terror” “Come now, Rosita. With all the things a Time Lord has seen, everything he’s lost, he may surely have bad dreams” “…Yeah”.
* “I’m sorry. Really, I am so sorry, but that’s an awful lot of luggage for one man. Because an infostamp is plain technology. It’s not enough to make a man lose his mind. What you suffered is called a fugue. A fugue state, where the mind just runs away because it can’t bear to look back. You wanted to become someone else, because Jackson Lake had lost so much”.
* During her villainous monologue, Ms. Hartigan takes a moment to be super racist to Rosita, so naturally, when the gang is escaping, Rosita takes a moment to punch Ms. Hartigan in the face. I can say with full certainty that the Twelfth Doctor approves.
* “All hail the Cyberking!” “But you promised me. You said I would never be converted!” “That was designated a lie” Top ten anime betrayals.
* “Oh, for the love of God, have you no pity?” “Correct” Sorry Ms. Hartigan, none of them are named Mercy.
* “Don’t you see? My mind is stronger than you ever thought. It dominates, sir. It dominates you!” There’s a dominatrix joke to be made in there somewhere.
* “Power levels at 100%. Delete the workforce. Delete. Delete. Delete” Sorry, guys, you’ll have a difficult time pulling off horrific child murder with this show’s rating. You might have better luck on Torchwood, though.
* It’s kind of unsettling how Jackson’s son never says a word during the climax, even when he’s about to be blown up or when there’s a giant robot stomping around over their heads. No little kid is that silent when they’re terrified for their lives.
* “My people. Why do they not rejoice?” Because they’re trying not to be crushed to death under a giant fucking robot? It’s not that deep, Mercy.
* “But I should be with you!” “Jackson, you’ve got your son. You’ve got a reason to live” “And you haven’t? Oh… God save you, Doctor”.
* “Excellent, the Doctor. Yet another man come to assert himself against me in the night” Well that line has some dark implications.
* “The city will recover, as London always does. Though the events of today will be history, spoken of for centuries to come” Yeah, the cracks in time say otherwise, Jackson.
* “Tell me one thing. All those facts and figures I saw of the Doctor’s life, you were never alone. All those bright and shining companions. But not any more?” “No” “Might I ask why not?” “They leave. Because they should. Or they find someone else. And some of them, some of them forget me. I suppose in the end, they break my heart” Aww.