If you’re looking for subtleties, a bit of quietness and a little bit of restraint and withdrawal over the festive period, then the past few years have proven that the Doctor Who Christmas special is absolutely not the place to find it. From huge boats crashing into London, through to the defeat of alien invaders with a bit of spare fruit, it’s the one episode where the pressure of telling an ongoing series is put aside. The downside? The need to pack in a hell of a tale in one hour flat. Bonus points are naturally given for shunting in as much festive imagery as possible.
This year? While not quite on the scale of last year’s Voyage of the Damned, it was a tighter, altogether more interesting hour that Russell T Davies and his team put together. The Next Doctor certainly threw up plenty of highlights before launching into its absurd finale, and plotwise, it was at its finest in the early stages. Forget the Cybermen working their way through Victorian England (in fact, arguably forget the Cybermen, although more on that later), it was the sparring between the two Doctors, Davids Tennant and Morrissey, that provided the early highlights.
Morrissey appeared, in the pre-credits sequence, as the supposedly ‘next’ Doctor, with Tennant’s Time Lord assuming he’s the future regeneration of himself. He isn’t, of course, and that weeping sound heard just before 7 o’clock was an abundance of punters realising that their fiver at Ladbrokes on Morrissey being the next Doctor was a few quid wasted. But for the short time he was, The Next Doctor was really good fun. It helped that Tennant could slip easily – and with little ego – into the assistant role, and this switching of the show’s key mechanic was a hoot. But credit to Morrissey, whose performance evolved well over the episode, and who may just be one of the best Time Lords we never had.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the truth about Morrissey’s character’s identity to unravel, and for the next facet of the plot to take hold. This involved a Cyberman whose toy brains you could clearly see through his helmet. And, far more promisingly, it involved Dervla Kirwan as Miss Hartigan, as sinister and scenery chewing a baddie as we’ve had on the show in ages. Her performance, arguably against the grain of new Who, was all about restraint, and particularly in the early stages, as she ordered the death of a graveyard full of mourners, she was a far better villain than the men of steel. They just seemed to be shuttled in primarily to sell merchandise, as there’s little hope of building up much menace out of them in a crammed hour. For the purposes of The Next Doctor, they were crowdpleasers at best, and sorely in need of something more interesting to do at worst.
As the episode rolled on, so things had to go somewhat back to normal, and thus Tennant started wielding the sonic screwdriver, some strange and unconvincing cyber-animal things popped up, and the Cybermen took hold as the central villains. And yet Russell T Davies had one big surprise in his story that was all but guaranteed to lead you spitting out your Christmas satsuma. Seemingly having been watching Ghostbusters at the time of writing the script, out popped the Cyberking. This, we assumed, would just involve Dervla Kirwan going a bit more bonkers and putting on a metal dress.
But it didn’t involve that at all.
Instead, we had a massive Cyberman stomping, Mr Stay Puft style, all over Victorian England. To say this reviewer had to suppress a guffaw would show a level of understatement that the massive Cyberman lacked. And yet, you couldn’t help but warm to the fella. In longer shots, it actually looked quite convincing, even if you had to argue that Christmas was the only time they’d even dare to try and get away with it. In close up, it was less successful, and the ending seemed a usual way to quickly dispense of a threat that had been building up for the past half hour or so. The stronger part of the denouement wasn’t lots of Cybermen dying, but the Doctor’s quieter speech to Miss Hartigan where he brings her to terms with what she’s done. In fact, the Cybermen were probably the weakest link in the whole thing.
The Next Doctor, then, wasn’t the best of the recent Doctor Who Christmas specials, as The Christmas Invasion still stands out by some distance. But it was a good, solid hour that you could easily pick holes in should you choose, yet was far easier to simply sit back and enjoy.
The next time we see Doctor Who, and possibly the last until next Christmas, is at Easter in Planet Of The Dead. Providing the Daleks and Cybermen are left in peace for a bit, on the evidence of The Next Doctor, it should be worth looking forward to.