Doctor Who: “The Next Doctor” (DVD)

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I can tell that it’s getting close to Christmas, because I’m suddenly getting unexpected urges to watch festive films and old Christmas special editions of favourite TV programmes – such as Doctor Who. For some reason the desire to rewatch the series’ 2008 holiday outing “The Next Doctor” popped into my head this weekend.

I have to admit, I wasn’t a fan of this instalment at the time and I don’t think I’ve seen it again in the intervening four years since its original transmission. On the whole I recalled I didn’t much like it and would class it as the weakest of the seven Christmas specials that have aired to date since the show returned from hiatus in 2005.

I think one of the reasons why I didn’t like it was because at the time it felt a very cynical offering. It aired after David Tennant had announced he was leaving but before Matt Smith was unveiled as his replacement, and so this special – from the title right through the first half hour of the story – is consciously exploiting the explosion of interest in who would be the next Doctor. David Morrissey had even been widely tipped as a genuine successor and so the Christmas special appeared a quite stunningly blatant exercise in fanboi cockteasing. I didn’t take that sort of bait-and-switch well at the time, as you can probably tell.

The thing is, four years later it’s possible to divorce the hour-long special from the production circumstances that surrounded its original airing and see the story clearly on its own merits. And surprisingly, the things that work the best about “The Next Doctor” are precisely the scenes involving Morrissey, and especially his interplay with Tennant with whom he’d co-starred a few years earlier in the oddball drama-musical Blackpool to great effect.

The opening scenes of “The Next Doctor” have us perplexed: while we’re sceptical that Morrissey’s Victorian gentleman character can really be the Doctor, he says and does all the right things – stealing the words and deeds right out from under Tennant so that the pre-credit teaser ends with the two of them giving each other sidelong glances as they sync on one of the tenth Doctor’s catchphrases. How can this be unless Morrissey’s character is truly a future version of the Doctor? After all, he looks the part – his costume, his mannerisms are exactly like the sort of thing you’d expect from a new Doctor. Or at least, what you would have expected in the 1980s series: the 2005 reboot with Christopher Eccleston changed the ground rules for the character, and so Morrissey’s portrayal becomes a very effective study of what the Doctor was in the classic days versus Tennant’s demonstration of what a 21st century Doctor is now like. It leaves Morrissey feeling both exactly right and quintessentially wrong at the same time – which is perfect for the situation – and also allows long time fans a great subtle insight into the evolving history of their show that needn’t concern or distract new viewers disinterested in such things.

Best of all, this uncertainty doesn’t overstay its welcome in the show (unlike the interminable pre-Christmas publicity hype for it from the BBC in 2008) and soon we’re let into the secret via a subtle sound effect overdub of the next Doctor’s heartbeat; but that just makes what follows all the more interesting as the explanation for Morrissey’s “Doctorishness” is unravelled, and dovetails into some seriously heartbreaking and emotional consequences for the character which allow Morrissey to put in a terrific “real” performance once his doctoral status can be cast aside.

So yes, I admit it: in revisiting “The Next Doctor” the first half hour confounded my expectations, prejudices and inaccurate memories. I was quite won over by it; and not just by Morrissey. Velile Tshabalala’s Rosita is a lovely Rose/Martha hybrid companion for the other Doctor, with real life and vitality of her own; the early scenes with skulking Cybermen are effective and their full arrival out of the snow in a Victorian cemetery is a gorgeous visual tour de force; and Dervla Kirwan’s arrival into this fray with her silky malevolence and strikingly crimson red dress at a monochrome church graveside is just divine.

And then the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket.

Seriously, the second half of the show is just a collection of light weight fun-pleasing family fare for an audience presumed brain dead after the consumption of too much turkey on Christmas Day. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s quite spectacular to look at, but has almost no intelligence of its own, just an assemblage of homages to other (better) sources. Dickens is heavily at work here, with the Cyberman collecting the Victorian orphans for no good reason other than to do a couple of scenes work on a workhouse-inspired set that’s too gaudy, clean and bright even for a West End production of Oliver!. The Cybermen stomp around being cartoon villains, their Cybershade cohorts are risible budget-starved furry black rugs, and their plans end up in a festival of unconvincing CGI while the Doctor gets to run around playing the generic Hollywood action hero that he should never, ever be.

The story does at least conclude back with a nice quiet moment between the two Doctors, Tennant and Morrissey, which manages more than it probably should to wash away the disappointments of the second half and remind you of what made the first half so quietly impressive. But as a whole, “The Next Doctor” simply shows how difficult it is to write a one-off one-hour holiday special that will appeal to both longtime ongoing fans and which will also give enough empty-headed fun to placate the mainstream audience that normally wouldn’t give Doctor Who the time of day.

Sometimes the show veers too much into being a ‘regular episode’ where the Christmassy stuff is just patched on, such as the first Doctor Who special in 2005, “The Christmas Invasion” – which fans love as it was David Tennant’s real début in the role, but which arguably lacks wider appeal outside established viewers. Sometimes the show just embraces its Christmas special status and gives a better stand-alone festive effort like “Voyage of the Damned”, “A Christmas Carol” or “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” even if such outings seem to put the regular show on hold for an hour. But some specials including “The Next Doctor” end up being particularly schizophrenic about it. The 2006 special “The Runaway Bride” has pretty much exactly the same structure and problem: a big name guest star (actress-comedienne Catherine Tate in the earlier outing) makes the first half hour work impressively well but then it’s all thrown away in a madcap overblown pantomime second half with supersized spider Racnoss CGI monsters that’s strictly for the kids and the most undemanding of adults.

Ultimately “The Next Doctor” is disposable; once Matt Smith was confirmed as the eleventh Doctor a week later the story stopped being a tease but also lost most of its raison d’etre which is why it never really got a fair crack of the whip, at least from me. Of the two specials in question it’s “The Runaway Bride” that ends up being all the more significant, and therefore more prone to being rewatched and re-evaluated – and not, as we thought at the time, purely because of Tate’s appearance hinting at a return of (1980s show producer) John Nathan-Turner’s cringe-worthy policy of stunt casting to try and hold the ratings line (as well as Morrissey, the specials have ended up with stars like Kyle Minogue, Michael Gambon and Alexander Armstrong).

No, the significance of Catherine Tate’s guest appearance wasn’t to be fully revealed until season 4, when suddenly the runaway bride was no longer a one-off bit of stunt casting after all. And the moment that it became clear that someone of Tate’s standing and current level of success was willing to park all that to one side for a year and take on the role of a Doctor Who companion is the moment that we all realised just how big the show had really become in the 21st century.

All the past Doctor Who Christmas specials are available on DVD (and the most recent ones on Blu-ray as well.) The 2012 Christmas special airs on December 25 on BBC1 at 5.15pm with numerous repeats in the week after, together with availability on the BBC iPlayer. This year’s special introduces new full-time companion Jenna-Louise Coleman and also features Richard E. Grant and some telepathic snowmen who really aren’t very soft and fluffy.

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