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Doctor Who: Christmas Specials Revisited – The Next Doctor

A quick history lesson.

The year is 2008. A brilliant fourth series of new Doctor Who has concluded on television with the wonderful combination of David Tennant and Catherine Tate delighting viewers throughout their 13 episode run. That October Tennant is playing Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon Avon and so is unable to attend the National Television Awards ceremony where he is nominated in the outstanding drama performance category. Quite rightly he wins the public vote and appears via video link to accept the prize. This appearance has been carefully orchestrated to coincide with the interval of Hamlet because, unknown to the majority of the audience, a huge announcement is coming. Struggling with the weight of the words he is trying to get out, the man who over three years had quickly become the most popular incarnation of the Doctor since the long scarfed heyday of Tom Baker, is to leave the show. But the moment had been prepared for. And not just because an interview with him had been edited in a locked room earlier the same day. His next appearance, which has already been filmed, would be in an episode titled ‘The Next Doctor‘.

Previously, we had seen the Doctor say farewell to his companions, leaving him travelling on his own once again. A scene with the Cybermen in the TARDIS was replaced by a short trailer which teased the audience with the returning silver giants. News of David Tennant’s departure and the intriguing title drew viewers in with fans debating about what this could all mean and could guest actor David Morrissey in fact be the new incarnation of the Time Lord? Unfortunately, this strategy would have disastrous consequences on the story presented.

The Cybermen had been absent for over two years but were cripplingly underutilised in the story. Even an excellent sequence of the emotionless creatures stomping around a misty graveyard is dominated by a deliciously evil Dervla Kirwan as ‘Mercy (pun alert) Hartigan’. Here lies the major problem with the episode. The Cybermen are almost an afterthought, background characters with an interesting new addition to their menagerie in the form of the creepy Cybershades, equally redundant. Above that, the story is all about The Doctor/Jackson Lake. Don’t get me wrong, David Morrissey is great, particularly when he thinks he is the Doctor, exuding the confidence of our favourite Time Lord effortlessly. Little jokes about the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver are equally amusing. However, it all pours cold water on the creaking embers of Cybermen ignorant of child labour laws and a generic CyberInvasion story. And then we come to the Cyberking.

In 2007 a new Transformers movie was released and in 2009 Michael Bay would return to direct a sequel. The Cyberking feels like an attempt to plug that gap between the two movies, trying to deliver a memorable moment for kids watching at home. But to anyone with a modicum of intelligence it makes no sense. Described as a “dreadnought-class ship” it looks nothing like a spaceship and is the sort of massive deviation from established history which Doctor Who usually avoids. It wasn’t until 2010 when ‘Flesh and Stone‘ attempted to explain away this catastrophic misstep. To avoid the Cyberking collapsing and obliterating the city underneath we are treated to an all too convenient Dimension Vault piece of nonsense.

Once again this story occurs at Christmas, much like ‘The Unquiet Dead‘, instead of being Christmas influenced, so we have no Robot Santas or killer Christmas trees which is a shame. But even those references couldn’t save what is an utterly abysmal episode, damaging the appeal of the modern Cybermen, teasing the audience because of a real world news story and sacrificing everything else to achieve it.

Tomorrow Patrick gets to experience The End of Time with a cliffhangover which will take him to New Years Day…