I’ll just say it – I don’t want him to go. For as much excitement as there is around a new era of Doctor Who with Ncuti Gatwa in the TARDIS, and rightly so, it has been an absolute treat to have David Tennant’s Doctor (well, one of them) back, especially with the ever-brilliant Donna at his side.
The bursts of fury, the moments of melancholia, the hugging, the brainy specs… If this really is the last time Tennant ever dons the skinny suit, these three specials might be the most triumphant final appearance of any Doctor to date. (Well, possibly tied with a certain Curator, if that even counts. Who nose, eh?)
There’s one last adventure to enjoy before the Fourteenth Doctor bows out, however, and it begins in Georgian-era London with a visit to a toy shop. It’s being run by the immediately-sinister Neil Patrick Harris who is, naturally, the Toymaker behind the many dolls and amusements for sale. This customer is only interested in a particular ventriloquist dummy, though, and after an extremely awkward conversation with the Toymaker (“I was born in Cheltenham!”) he returns to the workshop of his boss – a determined inventor working on a way to see by wireless.
What’s significant about this understated moment harks all the way back to First Doctor serial “The Celestial Toymaker“, in which British actor Michael Gough portrayed the same character, but with a stereotypically Asian aesthetic. By having Neil Patrick Harris fluctuate between overbaked accents, coupled with his snide remark towards Baird’s assistant, Russell T. Davies focuses the original’s unfortunate of-the-era attitude into a deliberate, sneering bigotry inherent to the Toymaker himself, making him even nastier in this day and age.
With Stooky Bill making his giggling TV debut, we cut back to the present day. It’s moments after we left off in “Wild Blue Yonder”, and the human race has gone, medically speaking, proper aggro. The Doctor quizzes one fuming passer-by and soon discovers that two days ago, everyone spontaneously became self-righteous and irrational to the point of violence. He also bumps into the Toymaker, but there’s no time for him to really process that encounter before UNIT arrive, ferrying Wilf to safety and bringing the Doctor, Donna and the TARDIS in for a briefing.
We get an interesting reunion here between Kate and the Doctor. The whole “I remember your father…” observation would make sense for Ten if this were their first encounter, but this isn’t that regeneration, and it’s not been that long since Jemma Redgrave and Jodie Whittaker were sharing scenes together. Maybe this is meant as a reintroduction to Kate Stewart’s character, but even people who haven’t tuned in since the 50th Anniversary should know who she is. Kate is no longer defined by the Brigadier.
Someone the Doctor does remember is Melanie Bush, who we also last glimpsed in “The Power of the Doctor”, and who’s now part of UNIT’s growing companion collection. While it was never explicitly stated, Bonnie Langford’s return to the show was strongly suggested to be happening at some point in 2024 alongside Ncuti Gatwa, so this is an unexpected – if not exactly plot-critical – appearance.
Just like in “Power”, we get the now-traditional UNIT conference scene, where the Doctor is brought up to speed on what’s happening and then figures out the cause with the help of those around him. Humanity’s rage crisis is being induced by a spike in neural activity, with armbands known as ZEETEX being the only thing stopping UNIT’s forces from going berserk. The reason seems to be that the human race now has full and total access to networked screens, and that’s what’s driving us to destroy ourselves. In other words, we’re now terminally online.
Davies’ point here gets hammered home pretty overtly, and while it’s obviously true that internet discourse and online anonymity can lead to some pretty atrocious behaviour from people who should know better, in the wake of lockdown this does feel a touch cynical. After it, it was partly online Doctor Who watch-alongs and community spirit that enticed RTD back to the fandom and back to the job. There’s positivity to be found online, not just conspiracy theorists and, er, anti-banders. (Nice to see Trinity Wells again, though.)
Working together, the group establish that the source of all this fury is the Giggle of Stooky Bill, embedded not just in one broadcast but in the fundamental concept of transmitted visuals, which is a very RTD notion indeed. It’s good to see everyone getting to play their part in unravelling the mystery – Bonnie Langford even gets to sing, very briefly.
The Doctor gives one of those big grandstanding “you can do better, humans” speeches Ten was always fond of, but mellows long enough to have a proper catch-up with Mel – anyone have a Sabalom Glitz namedrop on the cards for this week? What about Donna Noble, UNIT operative? (Big Finish have an ongoing UNIT audio series… Dare we hope?) While Kate prepares to knock a satellite out of orbit using a galvanic beam in the hopes of restoring normalcy, the Doctor and Donna hop into the TARDIS to find the origin point of the Giggle.
While they’re searching, Donna brings up one of Davies’ favourite talking-points: the Doctor is really quite bad at coping with the legacy of his companions. More than that, she describes him as “staggering along”, and the Doctor reiterates that he no longer knows who he really is. It makes me wonder if all this is leading towards a less haunted, unburdened Doctor in episodes yet to come – perhaps even a Doctor without memories. A fresh start, with the weight of the Time War, the Confession Dial, the Timeless Child and the Flux cast away so that the Doctor can find hope in the stars once more.
Before the Doctor can look forward, though, he’s forced to stare back into his earliest days, and into the mocking visage of the Toymaker, released into our universe thanks to the Doctor’s invocation of superstition last week. Drawn into the Toymaker’s domain, the Doctor and Donna find themselves in what’s basically that one corridor from Scooby-Doo; an endlessly-looping maze of doors that underscores just how far from reality they are.
While separated in this nightmare labyrinth, the Doctor meets Baird’s transformed assistant, but it’s Donna who steals the show when she’s confronted by Stooky Sue and the rest of Bill’s creepy doll-family. Faced with rhyming, wailing, clutching ventriloquist dummies, Donna Noble, temp from Chiswick… grabs Stooky Sue, rhymes right back in her face, and then smashes her to pieces against the nearest wall. “Anything to add?” she thunders. I, personally, have no notes.
Presumably to demoralise them, the Toymaker next summons Donna and the Doctor to a one-man show where he runs through the fates of the Doctor’s recent companions. (Except, well, I couldn’t help but laugh when he had to skip over Graham, Ryan, Yaz and Dan, because by contrast they’re all absolutely fine.) It’s another mention of the Flux that really triggers the Doctor, though, and he swiftly challenges the Toymaker to a game.
A game he immediately loses. Whoops. We do get a few factoids to chew on first, though. The Toymaker claims to have saved the life of the Master (Sacha Dhawan’s incarnation, one assumes) only to have sealed him away in his gold tooth, which is frankly grim. And once again, there’s talk of a Big Bad yet to come – someone from whom even the Toymaker will run away…
Speaking of, Donna’s exasperated “I’m ALREADY running!” was brilliant. Compelled by the universal rule of “best of three”, the Toymaker heads back to our reality for the final round, collapsing his toy shop into a toybox, which the Doctor snaffles before returning to the present day.
These specials have been littered with callbacks to Tennant’s era, some more subtle than others, and this next scene… Well, it’s “Last of the Time Lords”, plain and simple. The villain enters and dances around the room while a pop song plays, manhandling the Doctor’s friends in a way that makes you absolutely loathe him. Neil Patrick Harris chews every bit of scenery he can find here before seizing control of the galvanic beam. And then…
SNIP. The reviewer falls to the floor, nothing more than a puppet. Their strings cut.
You may recall that the final moments of “The Power of the Doctor” were kept secret from previews. It’s the same with “The Giggle”, except this time around the entire final act of this episode has been scissored away. That means we’ll be experiencing the Doctor’s final showdown with the Toymaker, his regeneration, and everything else along with the rest of you on Saturday night.
Now, I’m not about to deliver a verdict on an episode that’s barely half-over, but at time of writing I do have a couple of quibbles which I certainly hope will get resolved – if not, they’ll probably count as genuine criticisms. For one thing, I hope Mel gets a bit more to do, and maybe a chance to hop into the TARDIS. Bonnie Langford was billed as having a prominent returning role, but she’s had far less to contribute here than Ace and Tegan did a year ago.
Secondly, I’m not completely sold on pairing the result of the Giggle with what we know of the Toymaker. Casting humanity into fist-fights, causing plane crashes and generally invoking mayhem seems fitting for a chaotic entity like Missy, but it’s not a game, and it doesn’t strike me as something the Toymaker – a being supposedly bound by the rules of games and contests – would do to amuse himself. It’s a far cry from the concept of play.
Thirdly, nobody’s said mavity yet.
That said, there was a lot to enjoy even in this first half. Using monsters to add context to a real historical event is always a Doctor Who treat, and there’s been a sense of this script tying every era of the show together in some way. For every viewer who appreciates seeing Mel again, someone else will be punching the air when puppet-Bill appears.
So far, though, my absolute favourite part of this episode is unquestionably Donna Noble. By turns caring, fearless, caustic, thoughtless, apologetic and insightful, this is the post-Doctor life that Donna was denied by the metacrisis, and she is absolutely smashing it. Plus, I’m almost certain Russell T. Davies isn’t going to kill her off this week.
You’ll all know more about that than me, though, so dive into the comments and let us know your thoughts! Den of Geek will be back in the not-too-distant future with more about the ending, the regeneration, Ncuti Gatwa and the show’s next big move – once the best of three has been decided…
Doctor Who returns to BBC One, BBC iPlayer and Disney+ on December 25 with “The Church on Ruby Road“