David Tennant’s turn as the Tenth Doctor is going to be defined by a lot of things. “Barefoot on the Moon” for one. “Don’t Blink” for another. Not least his frequent use of phrases like “Allons-y!”, “timey-wimey”, and even “Rosetylermarthajonesdonnanobletardis”.
Yet what Tennant brought to the role was a wild-eyed energy and undeniable charisma that smartly built upon Christopher Eccleston’s previous incarnation, resulting in some remarkable performances, utterly hilarious moments, and—thanks to the behind-the-scenes work of some utterly brilliant writers (Steven Moffat especially)—some of the most compelling and thought-provoking adventures that the Doctor has ever gone on. Eccleston frequently noted in interviews that he left the role after one series because he didn’t want the character to define him—a smart move that ultimately paid off. With David Tennant however, not only has he been defined by the role, he’s redefined what the role was for a whole generation of fans.
David Tennant’s tenure in the TARDIS is certainly memorable, but his last four adventures are not what we’re going to remember him for.
The Complete Specials rounds up all of Tennant’s adventures following the Fourth Series’ concluding tale “Journey’s End”, and—for the first time in a long time—the Doctor is companionless. With “The Next Doctor”, however, he finds a kindred spirit in 1851 London when he meets a man who also calls himself The Doctor (David Morrissey). He has a companion, a Sonic Screwdriver, and a TARDIS even!
The “real” Doctor is wondering if this is all an elaborate joke or if this man is actually his future self regenerated, no doubt suffering some memory loss at the cruel hands of the Cybermen, who have somewhat inexplicably penetrated this normally-peaceful time in history. As the mystery unravels, the “Next” Doctor’s eccentricities start unraveling just as the Cybermen’s disastrous plot is revealed, and, before long ... we’re stuck with yet another bloated showdown between good and evil with archetypes that couldn’t be more clichéd even if they tried (see: giant, evil, rocket-wielding robot). This special—like many that have come before—suffers from the kind of frequent space-opera endings that have become Russell T. Davies’ trade as of late.
Davies, of course, is the reason why any of us are even reading about the Doctor’s adventures these days. He’s the man who revived the long-dormant Doctor Who franchise and made it peppy, colorful, and action-packed, using modern special effects to tell the Doctor’s tale instead of the severely budget-constricted green screen effects that were such a trademark of the show’s “early years”. Even with his affinity for out-and-out melodrama, Davies could still craft well-rounded characters when necessary while still managing to spin a good yarn, frequently putting the Doctor in situations plucked straight out of Earth’s history, making him run into everyone from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, all while battling age-old enemies like the Daleks, the Sontarans, and even The Master.
As the series carried on, Davies settled into the role of showrunner and began writing less and less. When he wanted to craft a memorable character (Martha Jones, Captain Jack Harkness), he was able to make them nothing short of iconic. When he wanted to go dark, he did so with terrifying results (Series Four’s “Midnight” immediately springs to mind).
Yet when he rested on his laurels—which he did so with alarming frequency as Tennant’s run went on—he wound up staging Good vs. Evil battles that grew increasingly predictable with each go-round. After using up all of his craft to turn the spin-off mini-season Torchwood: Children of Earth into one of the most powerful bits of sci-fi to be seen on television in the past few years, it seems that Davies became creatively bankrupt when it came to finishing off Tennant’s run as the Doctor.
“The Planet of the Dead”, in particular, suffers from what is arguably the worst companion to come along since Ace during the Sylvester McCoy years. Lady Christina (played without any feeling by Michelle Ryan) is a sexy, arrogant, and hugely superficial Lara Croft stand-in that can barely transcend her desolate surroundings. The hackneyed episode—despite featuring a good-as-ever Tennant and top-notch supporting turns by Noma Dumezweni and Adam James—goes through the motions of a “typical” Who adventure without ever reaching a truly satisfying conclusion. Although Davies’ “over-the-top” endings have worked well before, the whole “flying bus” ploy immediately plunges the whole thing into camp territory, and even though the wheels are set in motion for Tennant’s departure from the role, there just isn’t much to chew on this time out.
So imagine one’s surprise to find out that Tennant’s penultimate adventure “The Waters of Mars” is actually the only special to even come close to matching the creative high points reached in the Third and Fourth Series. The Doctor accidentally winds up on a Mars that’s not too far removed from our present day, as humans are finally colonizing the planet, growing their own food and making it habitable for future generations.
The mission, lead by the strong-headed scientist Adelaide Brooke (a fantastic Lindsay Duncan), is running on high spirits until one of the crew members turns into a zombie-like creature that is continually emitting water from his mouth. This aquatic infection—which can be spread by coming in contact with nothing more than a drop of the stuff—soon spreads throughout the ship, and the Doctor, aware of what’s going to happen at this moment in history, must flee in order for this tragedy to play itself out ...
... but that’s when he has a change of heart.
If The Complete Specials accomplishes anything, it’s this: for the first time in what feels like forever, we finally get to see some of the Doctor’s pomposity emerge. Although his ego had made itself known before (most especially during the Colin Baker years), never has the Doctor shown such a reckless attitude towards the laws of time, altering “fixed” events in history just to save a few people that he likes.
Although such a radical shift in an established character is undoubtedly a risky move, it’s a gamble that pays off, as we can totally understand where he’s coming from, even if his resulting actions are morally wrong. Instead of obeying the laws of time, the Doctor now wishes to bend those laws to fit his own needs, and though he succeeds in doing so, he does so at a price, and “The Waters of Mars” features an ending that’s as powerful as it is potent, setting the stage for the two-part adventure “The End of Time”—which itself is a remarkably weak sendoff for such a wonderful era.
Although the three-part Series Three ending featuring the Master was arguably the best wrap-up for the show to that point, Davies simply overdid it with the Series Four conclusion, throwing too many characters together at the same time, many frequently turning into mere subplot fodder. One would think that Davies would at least learn from his errors, he does the exact same thing with “The End of Time”, wherein the Master and the Doctor get entangled with Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), her father (Bernard Cribbins), and, of course, a bevy of Time Lords, lead by none other than Timothy Dalton. Despite the manipulations of others, the Master essentially modifies a medical device wherein he’s able to turn everyone in the world (including, rather bizarrely, Barack Obama) into an exact copy of himself, creating, as he calls it, “the Master Race” (ugh). Of course, with the help of his friends, the Doctor is able to wage war on the Master, and battles and interferences naturally come into play.
In terms of adventure, this relatively clichéd romp is about on par with Series Four’s Christmas Special “Voyage of the Damned”: entertaining but hardly filling. Even when the true origin of “the four knocks” is revealed and the Tenth Doctor begins raging against the dying of the light, we can’t help but feel just a little cheated; after all, this is David Tennant’s final ride, and he deserves to go out with much more substance than what “The End of Time” affords him.
Although the various special features largely consist of the interesting-if-scattershot “Doctor Who: Confidential” behind-the-scenes stories, leave it to some well-done deleted scenes (especially from “The Next Doctor”) and David Tennant’s always-entertaining video diaries to pick up some slack on the entertainment front. As well put-together as some of those featurettes are, it’s just a shame that they wind up giving insight into a series of scripts that, frankly, are just not as consistent or as entertaining as what we’ve seen before. Davies’ has shown that he’s capable of so much more, which makes his slap-dash plotlines for Tennant’s final adventures all the more puzzling.
In the short mini-adventure that preceded the start of Series Four—“Time Crash”—the Tenth Doctor winds up running into the Fifth (Peter Davidson), an amusing little short wherein the two solve a crisis, compare attires, and acknowledge the storied past that both actors have inherited, concluding with Tennant noting to Davidson that while others certainly have their own personal favorite Doctors as the years have gone by, “you were my Doctor”. Even with The Complete Specials being as hit-or-miss as they are, Tennant’s departure from the role will now invite more of those inevitable “Best Doctor” polls, many wondering if Tennant’s take will actually rival or surpass Tom Baker’s oft-heralded Fourth Doctor as the de facto fan-favorite.
Although the debate will rage on for years to come, one thing is for certain: for a whole generation of fans, David Tennant will assuredly be their Doctor, and in some ways, one can’t ask for anything more than that.