Ghosts of Doctors Past, 4: “The Next Doctor”
It took four years for Doctor Who to go into the Christmas Past, but “The Next Doctor” proved to be worth the wait, with snow, orphans, a mystery that doesn’t outstay its welcome and a giant steampunk-esque Cyberman rampaging across London. It doesn’t get more festive than that!
For whatever reason, “The Next Doctor” is the Who Christmas special that I tend to forget exists, perhaps because it was the one that started off the year of special episodes in between seasons four and five, and in there, it tends to get overshadowed by “The End of Time” (Tune in tomorrow for my take on that two-parter, fact fiends). But that’s entirely unfair, because “The Next Doctor” is a great little episode, fast-moving and enjoyable and the last genuinely fun episode of the series before Steven Moffat and Matt Smith take over the show more than a year later.
It’s actually Matt Smith that provides a lot of the playfulness here – or, rather, his absence; with the identity of the actor who’d follow David Tennant as the Doctor still unknown when this episode aired, there’s more mileage than you might expect in the “Is that man the next Doctor?” mystery that takes up the first half of the episode, and David Morrissey’s performance, filled with derring-do and a glee for adventure that just feels like a Doctor, ends up creating a character that, even if you’re unsure whether or not he’s the real thing, you end up kind of hoping that he is, nonetheless. But just as importantly, it’s a mystery that doesn’t outstay its welcome; although we don’t get the full explanation as to who the new Doctor is until later in the episode, we pretty much know that he’s not the “real” Doctor early enough on that we get bored with the idea.
(Also fun: Rosalita, the companion, who fulfills enough of our expectations of what a Doctor’s companion should be that we can imagine her in the role, but also overplays the role enough that you almost get the sense that Russell T. Davies is quietly parodying himself a little bit, poking fun at his own foibles and obsessions. There’s a self-awareness in this episode that’s really nice; not enough to overpower the episode for those who don’t care about that kind of thing, but it’s there for those who want to find it.)
There’s even a sense of fun in the villainess of the piece, Miss Hartigan, who ultimately ends up a misguided victim who really just wanted to make the world a better place – Admittedly, a very, very crazy idea of a better place, but at its heart, she wanted less misogyny and heartlessness; she really did see herself as a benign ruler, and then rebelled when she realized what she’d become – and ended up paying the price for her bad decisions. There’s something welcome about the idea that the Doctor offers her survival during the final showdown, because he’s so… impressed with her, perhaps, or understanding of her situation. Compare that with the Doctor from “The Runaway Bride,” and you see the humanizing effect that Martha and (especially) Donna had on him.
The end also wins me over; the Doctor not leaving quietly for once, but sticking around, admitting that he’s lonely and he doesn’t want to be, and feeling a sense of kinship, maybe, with Jackson Lake. There’s a sentimentality and humanity there that’s all too often simplified (or ignored altogether) in a lot of the Davies Who episodes, and even if the “Christmas isn’t a time to be alone” message may be unoriginal, it’s still one that’s welcome and, yes, even heartwarming to see. In some ways, this is a throwaway episode, because it doesn’t really do anything to the overall mythology of the show despite its tease, but it’s a really enjoyable episode to watch, and those became increasingly rare as the tenth Doctor approached his end. Consider this one highly recommended.