Russell T. Davies has always had a flair for the melodramatic, especially when it came to the episodes he’s written for his much-heralded (and deservedly so) reboot of Doctor Who. Though Davies oversees the season-long arcs that make up each distinct season and often writes a few episodes here and there, sometimes his love of the space opera winds up getting the better of him, and his episodes—the Christmas specials most particularly—wind up suffering in the process.
The 2008 Doctor Who Christmas special is no different.
Fresh off of the tear-jerking and somewhat compromised ending to Season Four, the TARDIS lands in London on Christmas Eve, 1851. As the Doctor (the always-fantastic David Tennant) soaks up the atmosphere of the city streets, it’s not long until someone is calling out his name. Yet when the Doctor finally catches up with the beckoning Rosita (Velile Tshabalala), he’s shocked to learn that it’s not him that she’s calling for. No, she’s looking for the real Doctor: a mysterious man that we shall simply call The Next Doctor (David Morrissey).
As the real Doctor spends more time with the Next Doctor, the similarities become more and more apparent: they both have Sonic Screwdrivers, both operate TARDIS’, and both have a deep-seated hatred of the Cybermen. The Next Doctor is at first a little curious as to how an outsider has so much knowledge of his adventures, all while the real Doctor is stunned that this “Next Doctor” doesn’t recognize him at all. After all, if this is his next regeneration, why wouldn’t he remember his own former self?
As the questions pile up, so do the mysterious disappearances in the town. It appears that the Cybermen have been abducting people with close connections to children, and have found a sympathetic human ear in the form of Mercy Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan), a woman who is sick of a female’s second-rate role in society, finding her hope for retribution in the form of the Cybermen, who have agreed not to convert her into a machine should she help out their cause. Though Hartigan’s motives aren’t entirely defined, Kirwan oozes enough menace to still make her goals believable in this increasingly-absurd folly…
... And “increasingly absurd” is just the way to define it. As more and more holes appear in the Next Doctor’s back story (just wait until you see his TARDIS), the real Doctor eventually figures things out, and has to retrace a bit of his own history (via a fantastic clip montage of all the previous actors who have taken on the role). The questions that he frequently poses to the Next Doctor—like simply inquiring what, precisely, he’s running from—are questions that he’s really asking of himself, getting a rare and unique opportunity to look at his own life from an outsider’s perspective. Then, of course, Davies has to go all “world in danger” on us, and decides to release a gigantic, laser-equipped, multi-story high robot to unleash havoc and destruction… on London circa 1851.
Though Doctor Who‘s historical episodes have always been well-versed and tie in with the events at the time (i.e. an alien encounter has something to do with Agatha Christie’s famed 1926 disappearance), the most gaping plot-hole in the world exists during The Next Doctor, as the aforementioned giant robot of death winds up destroying gigantic sections of London town, and there is nothing—positively nothing—done to try and cover it up or make people forget (and unlike the “fictional history” that is created in modern times with the other Christmas specials, this particular one has virtually no respect for its effect on timelines of yore). Yes, a giant robot actually destroyed a huge portion of London in 1851; you didn’t read that in your history books? How odd.
It’s a damn shame that Davies isn’t able to reign in his script a bit more, as there is some genuine emotional depth that is plumbed with presence of this “other” Doctor, and David Morrissey is more than up to the task to handle it, exuding an equal amount of charisma, charm, and gravitas as Tennant himself. After this, of course, came the disappointing Planet of the Dead (a Davies-penned story that suffers from many of the same types of problems here), one of the last four specials that Tennant will ever be apart of before handing over his Sonic Screwdriver to the young Matt Smith, who will be the Eleventh Doctor. We can only hope that Planet of the Dead and this special here were just test runs leading up to a powerful finale, which, as Davies proved on Season Three, he can do extremely well if in the right mindset.
On this DVD, only one special feature is included, and it’s a doozy: a near hour-long recap of the first-ever “Doctor Who Prom”, a live event filmed at the Royal Albert Hall wherein presenter Freema Agyeman and conductor Ben Foster introduced children and families to the wonderful world of classical music through Murray Gold’s compositions for the series. Though the actual classical music performances are cut from this particular featurette, there is just so much simple fun and joy to be had here: actors dressed up as Cybermen and Ood enter and wade through the audience, a former companion drops by to say a few words, and—best of all—a goofy, silly little filmed “mini-sode” with Tennant himself is introduced, carrying the message that music exists in all of us—a lesson that is easy to forget sometimes. Though occasionally campy, there’s no denying the fun behind such a family-friendly event.
How the Tenth Doctor’s arc will end is still a mystery, but even with missteps such as this one, the quality work that’s come of Davies’ Doctor Who reboot is never in doubt. Oh sure, he’ll fall into melodrama now and then, but such a thing can still be forgiven, as in the long run, the thrills and adventures that we’ve gone on prove that no other show is quite like Doctor Who.