Doctor Who: What Would David Tennant’s Rumoured Return Mean?

Russell T. Davies and David Tennant love Doctor Who too much to retread old ground and stop the show from evolving, so what might the rumoured return for Tennant mean?

David Tennant Doctor Who
Photo: BBC

There are rumours – but, we should stress, just rumours – of David Tennant returning to Doctor Who in the role of the 14th Doctor.

These started on a Facebook group where someone suggested a credible BBC source had leaked the information (this person also leaked the casting of Sacha Dhawan as The Master). This in turn was then reported in The The Plymouth Herald and spread to other newspapers. In other words, it’s impossible to prove or disprove, and there has been no official announcement from the BBC, the new production team, or David Tennant (though his wife did Tweet this the day after the ‘story’ emerged). So this could easily be speculation about nothing, but godammit, if I’m going to do anything, I’m going to thoroughly speculate about nothing.

What’s the Rumour?

The rumour is that Tennant will play the 14th Doctor for three specials – including the 60th anniversary episode – before handing over to a new 15th Doctor. An actor returning to play a new incarnation isn’t actually without precedent in Doctor Who. In 1986, the show’s co-creator Sydney Newman was asked for advice to revive the flagging show, and among his suggestions was bringing back Second Doctor actor Patrick Troughton. Though Troughton did not return, the Seventh Doctor’s characterisation was influenced by the Second Doctor (or, more accurately, the version of him in ‘The Three Doctors’ and ‘The Five Doctors’).

In March 1994, Jo Wright joined the production of what would become the 1996 TV Movie as an Executive Producer representing the BBC. It was her initial suggestion to cast Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, but after a rebooted version of the series was dropped, the story was due to start with a regeneration to establish the film as part of the official continuity: Wright suggested that Tom Baker be the ‘Old Doctor’ (as Sylvester McCoy was credited) as he was more recognisable and incumbent during one of the show’s peaks. Ultimately though we would see an actor reprise the role as a different incarnation, and that actor would be: David Tennant.

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There’s Precedent in Doctor Who History

However, at the time, we weren’t totally sure this was the case. Tennant played two Doctors in 2008’s ‘Journey’s End’ – the series 4 finale written by showrunner Russell T. Davies (who is returning to Doctor Who for these 2023 specials): the Tenth Doctor and the Metacrisis Doctor (the latter created when the Tenth began to regenerate and transferred the energy into his severed hand, creating a new human version of the Tenth Doctor). It wasn’t until 2013’s ‘Time of the Doctor’ that showrunner Steven Moffat confirmed this as a proper regeneration that meant – for a variety of reasons – Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor believed he couldn’t regenerate again.

In the previous story, ‘The Day of the Doctor’, Moffat had also introduced ‘The Curator’, a character played by Tom Baker who is stated to be a future incarnation of the Doctor as he revisits some of his favourite faces. Additionally, the Twelfth Doctor subconsciously chooses his face to look like Caecilius’ from ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ and Romana chooses what her next incarnation will look like in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’.  So, there are precedents for an actor returning to the role of the Doctor but as a different incarnation and a Time Lord/Lady choosing their appearance.

While these characters were intended to appear in one episode only, this incarnation would be for three and so still have that mayfly quality. Previously, it might feel like a waste of a regeneration, and to some it still might, but depending on how the Timeless Child arc turns out the Doctor may now have limitless regenerations. However, the Metacrisis Doctor and the Curator were not written to be fully fledged incarnations leading their own storylines, rather guests in other stories. The Curator is there, really, as a treat for fans (not only is it Tom Baker, it’s Tom Baker saying ‘this character has a happy ending’) and the Metacrisis Doctor is there as a reflection of the main character. Even in spin-off media these characters haven’t led their own series, so in this sense Tennant returning to play a new incarnation as a regular character would be novel.

Why Bring Back Tennant Now?

The most obvious answer is ‘Because people really like David Tennant’.

The idea of a past-actor returning to play a new incarnation proper has only surfaced when the show is in flux, which is perhaps why the idea is returning now as the handover between production teams is ongoing. Having Russell T. Davies, Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter and Phil Collinson returning to Doctor Who is unprecedented: we’ve never had a production team return to the show, and it’s still unclear what this means: we don’t know if this is an active pitch by a reinvigorated writer full of new ideas or if it’s an attempt to keep an ailing show stable with known quantities, allowing a new team to take over once they’re ready and available.  The idea of Tennant returning on a short-term basis before a 15th Doctor takes over strongly suggests the latter.

The BBC’s current situation – with licence fee freezes imposed by the UK government – also raises the possibility of Doctor Who being co-produced by Davies and Bad Wolf Productions as an external company because the BBC is simply unable to produce the show any other way. The return of David Tennant would be part of stabilising the show and making it marketable.

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The main reason I’d be surprised if this happens is that I don’t believe Davies would be interested in simply revisiting the past. That’s not what his version of Doctor Who was like, nor what I believe it will be like in the future. However, I wasn’t expecting him to return to Doctor Who at all, so while it feels like there’s no need for David Tennant to return to the show on a regular basis (his career is going well, he has a young family based in London) his love of the show does mean it’s a possibility. If it’s for three specials rather than a full series it’s presumably doesn’t mean spending as long away, and also Tennant has been working solidly on Big Finish audioplays throughout lockdown – clearly he still has an interest in playing the Doctor.

A Multi-Doctor 60th Anniversary Story?

With the prospect of a 60th anniversary episode, it wouldn’t be a shock for Tennant to feature in some way either as part of a multi-Doctor story or perhaps the Metacrisis Doctor returning to look for the new incarnation (meaning no new incarnation is involved, the Tenth Doctor gets to return and could potentially revisit previous characters). Whatever the scenario, there are ways for Tennant to be involved that don’t involve him being the 14th Doctor.

You can see why there’s interest in Tennant’s involvement; the BBC looking to play it safe by returning to a proven team, hoping for a boost in viewers based on Tennant’s popularity without committing to a long-term involvement. It’s persuasive, with enough plausibility to reinforce the allure.

Personally I’d be surprised if David Tennant returned to the role show as the Fourteenth Doctor, and if this does happen I’d be surprised if this incarnation was written and played in the same way as the Tenth Doctor. I’d also personally be less interested by Tennant returning to play the same character as a series’ regular, but curious about him playing a new Doctor in a different way to his previous role. I want the show to move forward, not succumb to the current trend for nostalgia trumping substance, so any potential for going back to a previous style is something I’m unsure about. To look at another popular franchise, I’d be worried about Doctor Who going full Force Awakens due to the possibility of it then going full Rise of Skywalker. I trust this production team not to be here simply to do the same thing again, because if they did it would feel like an admission of defeat for them and for Doctor Who.

If this is meant to be the show that can go anywhere and do anything, finding itself limited to a certain mode of storytelling indicates that Doctor Who has to be This Show, and that variations from the 2005 – 2010 model are aberrations to be corrected. As creators of television, it’d be shocking and saddening if this team were happy to reproduce something they made over a decade ago. This is why, fundamentally, I don’t think Russell T. Davies is back at Doctor Who to repeat himself or that David Tennant would do the same. They both know that would do long-term damage to a show they love.