SERIES FOUR: The Specials (25th December 2008 – 1st January 2010)
EPs: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Phil Collinson
DOCTOR: Ten (David Tennant), introducing Eleven (Matt Smith, The End of Time only)
COMPANIONS [a shorter, sharper inhale]: David Morrissey (The Next Doctor), Michelle Ryan (Planet of the Dead) Lindsay Duncan (The Waters of Mars), Bernard Cribbins (The End of Time)
The Next Doctor is not about the next Doctor at all, of course. It’s all a big fake-out, a magnificently constructed gag episode poking fun at the conventional understanding of Television’s Beloved Wacky Uncle of Space and Time, Dr. Who. David Morrisey, dressed like every fan’s painstakingly-assembled fanon intermediary Doctor, gleefully blunders around a Victorian Christmastime setting, brandishing a regular-ass screwdriver (it makes a noise when you whack it, that’s sonic), building a hot air balloon (Tethered Aerial Release, Developed In Style!) as while the Tenth Doctor tries to make sense of what in the Sam Hill is happening.
Ultimately, it turns out that Morrissey is a regular old human being who’s been traumatized so badly by the arrival of Cybermen from Pete’s World that he latched onto the idea of being Dr. Who, presented to him as it was by their handy-dandy information machines (Ed. note: Whomst among us). Meanwhile, a menacing and austere woman, Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan), seeks vengeance and vindication for (implied) sexual violence and the many, many injustices of Victorian society, and so has signed up with the Cybermen to supply them with fodder and child labour.
And so we unleash the latest in a long line of Special Model Cybermen, the gigantic steampunk (sigh) Dreadnought-class mecha controlled by an unwilling Hartigan. It is very impressive, but does pretty much nothing before it’s sucked into a crack in space and time (surely a fluke, a freak event, and not at all something we can expect to ever see again) and everyone claps for the real Doctor, which gives him a little boost before he goes off on his tod again.
The Next Doctor is a brisk and jaunty affair, full of camp wackiness and yet remarkably emotionally grounded. It’s the second major RTD-era example (following on from Series 2’s Love and Monsters) in what will become a long-running series of episodes that explore fannish and audience perceptions of the Doctor – a theme that will become much more prevalent during the runs of Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall, which are considerably more concerned with the show’s identity and considerably more metatextual (Ed. note: Moffatwatch returns next week).
Regrettably, the next major episode is an important landmark in the show’s production (it’s the first full HD episode), because it’s also doo-doo ass (Ed. note: Big time doo-doo).
Planet of the Dead follows the enigmatic Lady De Souza (Michelle Ryan, who was supposed to be the ‘next big thing’ and really, really wasn’t), a cat burglar and minor aristocrat who stumbles onto a very unlucky #200 bus (Ed. note: Numbered so because by one very specific way of counting this was the 200th broadcast story). Thankfully, the Doctor is there as the bus and passengers are whisked through a wormhole to a dead, decaying planet, ravaged as it is by ‘the Swarm’ – flying space manta rays.
There’s some fly people, too. Not people who are cool, people who are flies.
It’s really not very good.
Planet of the Dead is – as with all of the Specials – aiming to be a story about loss and decay and the cycle of life and death, but it’s totally incapable of hitting the mark because it’s ceaselessly, insufferably goofy. Then-popular British comedian Lee Evans is a wacky UNIT scientist who drops Quatermass references. The bus flies off at the end… It’s a mess. A mess. More frustratingly, it’s also vital to the overall structure and arcs of the Specials, introducing as it does important phrases and prophecies about someone who will ‘knock four times’ and something ‘returning’ (which, in true Stephen King style, are dropped out of nowhere by a magical black woman who has ‘the sight’).
The less said about it, the better.
And then we get to the home stretch, with two absolute barnstormer tales: The Waters of Mars and the two-part The End of Time. The former occupies a classic Who format, the much-vaunted ‘base-under-siege’ tale, while the latter is an absolutely bonkers high-stakes cosmic showdown between the Doctor and the revived Saxon-Master (and much more besides!).
Mars is also very spooky, focusing as it does on a water-borne plague (on a remote base on Mars, natch) that turns the victims into oozing gushing zombies (Ed. note: Only time I ever got nightmares from watching the show). Much is made of the indefatigable qualities of H2O, and the whole thing ratchets the tension up roughly every five minutes until it reaches real taut edge-of-the-seat levels. The main character of the story, Adelaide Brooke, is a real down-to-earth mission control type, fully prepared to make huge sacrifices if it preserves the life of her crew or the lives on Earth, the planet she represents – something the Doctor knows she will do, as he arrives already fully aware that to keep the plague at bay, Brooke will destroy the base and everyone on it (Ed. note: Making for a really interesting play on the “Doctor is unable to change time” trope as seen in Pompeii last series).
Which leads to the culmination of the Tenth Doctor’s slow, creeping character arc as his ever-present grandstanding streak and latent grief-stricken mania pushes him to directly violate causality and save Adelaide and the surviving crew. He speechifies about this and it’s really rather chilling as we see all the built-up self-aggrandising antihero qualities just explode out of the affable, charming man we’re so used to by now. It slaps. Absolutely slaps (Ed. note: Some of the most slaps an episode has ever slapped). And just when you think “right, this is the worst thing that could happen to TV’s beloved Dr. Who, I need to know how they resolve this” – Brooke just nips off and shoots herself to preserve the rough flow of events, handily undermining the self-proclaimed ‘Time Lord Victorious’ and forcing an awareness of how far he’s fallen onto him.
Naturally, it’s right there and then that he gets a vision of Ood Sigma (from Planet of the Ood), eerily foretelling his not-so-distant death. And just as naturally, the Doctor does everything in his power to avoid getting to that death, choosing instead to nob around the universe for a while and shag Queen Elizabeth I (implied, but like, really heavily implied) (Ed. note: More on that in 2013).
He enters The End of Time masking his great and terrible fears with a Series 2-tier cocksure swagger and braggadocio as an unseen, unnamed narrator (Timothy Dalton!!!) intones that these are the last days of planet Earth and that everyone is having bad dreams. Poor old Wilfred Mott, grandfather to former and memory-wiped companion Donna Noble, is the only one who remembers them (Ed. note: THEY).
Oh, and it’s Christmas again. Mustn’t forget that. Barack Obama (remember him?) is about to announce an economic stimulus package that will fix everything. There’s some dodgy rich black man selling a book about futurism (this might be a deliberate jab at the aforementioned President). And in the middle of the night, in the middle of a prison, the Saxon-Master’s much-abused widow is summoned to enable his mystical resurrection, which she sabotages before everything explodes (Ed. note: Skeletor time).
Wilf mobilises ‘the Silver Cloak’, an armada of nice/funny old people, to seek out the Doctor, who is himself seeking the Master after learning from an Ood sage that ‘he is returning’ (and ‘it’ is returning, too). The Master, meanwhile, has become an undead force of instinct and hunger, and sometimes he is a skeleton. If this wasn’t a grand finale to a whole four seasons of television – and if it wasn’t a Christmas special – this would all be overpowering. But it works, somehow, because this is a Christmas special.
Take the undead Master, for instance. In a Christmas setting, this wild and unhinged take on the character makes perfect sense. He’s simultaneously Scrooge and Marley, at once a miserly clutching covetous creature and a ghoulish warning of things to come. His destitution and fathomless appetite serve as an arch reminder that even as we, at large, watch Doctor Who in our cosy firelit abodes, people are starving. And it all allows the core idea of the Master to emerge rarefied and refined. Here is the Doctor’s fallen angelic peer, the diabolic flipside to his Gnostic Christ role, at his most primal and pure. He even overdyes his hair a ratty blonde to attempt to disguise himself (Ed. note: It doesn’t work).
Wilf, of course, serves another narrative/thematic purpose. He’s old, you see, and he’s a soldier who never fired his service revolver. Just as the manic-depressive nightmare-boy Master is the raw essence of the character, stripped of any schemes and plans and wealth and taste, so too is Wilf the raw essence of the Doctor, stripped of anything alien or mystical. He’s a faultlessly compassionate, cheeky, cheerful old duffer who happens to carry a great and abiding sadness (over his granddaughter, no less!) about his shoulders.
And so when these two – the old man with the young body and the old man with the young soul – meet each other again, the first thing they do is talk about dying (Ed. note: All I want to do when they’re on screen is cry). Here enters a new wrinkle into the notion of regeneration, one that will become more pronounced going forward: the idea that it’s functionally no different than dying. Sure, there’s some continuity of memory and knowledge, but from Ten’s perspective, his regeneration will be as unto death. He will burn up, and a new person will walk off in his suit and TARDIS, and that will be that.
This really snaps into perspective the whole thing the Specials are angling at, the whole preoccupation with fate and cheating it (or not), and decay and obsolescence. The Tenth Doctor, who largely defines himself through his friends, does not know who he is without a companion, so he cannot stomach the idea of dying without affirming something good about himself. He’s stared his inevitable replacement in the face (kind of), and he’s tried to become something he isn’t, and now that none of this has worked out, is prepared to face down the Master, defined as he is by the perpetual quartet of drumbeats that haunt his every waking moment (Ed. note: Nok Nok Nok Nok).
But the Master is scheming, still. Abducted by the enigmatic Joshua Naismith (a total waste of the excellent David Harewood), he’s put to work repairing an alien machine that can grant Naismith’s daughter ‘immortality’ – a machine that actually belongs to the Vinvocci, a race related to Bannakaffalatta of Voyage of the Damned. In fact, two of them are already there, working on the machine…
A machine which is revealed, after much chicanery, to not heal people, but populations. This allows the Master an absolutely bonkers gambit in which he overwrites the genetic and psychological templates of literally every single human being (including, it’s suggested, the deceased) with his own, creating the (sigh) ‘Master Race’. Which is a grand old cliffhanger, but then – but then –
Timothy Dalton (Ed. note: TIMOTHY DALTON) appears in all his red-robed glory, and declares that this is the day that the Time Lords return… And that it shall see the end of time itself!
And so, during The End of Time, Part II, we learn what was always loosely implied by the Doctor’s double-whammy genocide backstory, and was heavily implied by his brief foray into outright megalomania – the Time Lords (who in Who Classico were always at best extremely ethically dubious) went full-fledged-fascist-freakout in response to the ever-escalating horrors of the Time War (While they aren’t in this story, they do relate to the Time War so once again making a shameless plug of Rhi’s brilliant Dalek essay). Much of Part II is spent preparing for their return, as the Master turns out to have been deliberately implanted with the eternal drumming as part of an elaborate cross-time organic machine, and the Doctor and Wilf and the Vinvocci hang out on the Vinvocci spaceship to escape how #bonkers everything has gotten. Donna, thankfully, had a special protective measure secreted into her mind by the Doctor’s mind-wipe and so spends 69% of the episode completely unconscious (and safe).
There are some phenomenal scenes during the extended spaceship stuff, most particularly during a long conversation between Wilf (who is being egged on to unknown ends by a Mysterious Female Time Lord that RTD intended to be the Doctor’s actual mum) and the Doctor, with Wilf consistently presenting the Doctor with his old revolver and outright begging him to take arms and save his life and man, I’m weepy just thinkin’ about how good Cribbins is in that scene (Ed. note: For my money this scene is the best thing RTD has written).
But of course, the Doctor does not take arms – right up until he figures out what’s going on, and then he seizes that gun with both hands. What follows is a riotous descent to planet Earth before the Doctor plunges through Niasmith’s roof to confront his arch nemesis and his own people, wrapped up by the Master choosing to blow up the circuit that’s bringing them (and Gallifrey) through to Earth. The Doctor tells Dalton, who is, apparently, an incarnation of the extremely convoluted Classic Who character Rassilon (Ed. note: Yeah, I’m not getting into it), to go back to hell, and then…
Then he doesn’t die.
He survived the whole thing.
So what was that business about —
Nok nok nok nok.
Yes, see, in a very complicated series of mechanical problems, Wilfred has gotten himself stuck in a box that shortly to be flooded with lethal doses of radiation, and as everyone else has gone, the Doctor is the only person who can get him out (Ed. note: Here comes the pain).
And it’s going to cost him his life.
And so Tennant gets one last grand and bombastic speech about how monumentally cruel this is, cosmically speaking, before he gives his life to save one little old man from oblivion (Ed. note: SOB). And then he goes on a little tour – visiting all the major players of Series 1 through 4, and doing nice things for them. And you know what? This sequence splits opinion right down the middle, and I find that ridiculous (Ed. note: Truly idiotic). It’s a little long-winded, sure, but it’s no less earned and emotionally cathartic than, say, the Fourth Doctor merging with his mystical other half while everyone watches, or the Fifth Doctor hallucinating all his companions exhorting him not to die.
It’s quietly brilliant, with one precise and profound exception: RTD choosing to ‘pair the spares’ and have Mickey Smith married to Martha Jones (which is one-half of a clever joke about the title of her debut episode, and one-half a little bit tone-deaf). I’m particularly a big fan of the Doctor passively saving Sarah Jane Smith’s adopted son from a car accident, and of course, I’m a huge, huge fan of him getting one last goodbye to Rose (a Rose who hasn’t met him yet!).
Of note is that in saving Luke Smith and getting Jack Harkness a booty call, RTD draws further attention to his presence in that year’s episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures (a delightful child-friendly spin-off) and his pointed absence from that year’s Torchwood (the monumentally depressing Children of Earth miniseries).
Also of note is that even given the enormous number of Ten-oriented side-stories from audio drama factory Big Finish, the Doctor did not spend an exceptional amount of time as Ten (Ed. note: Roughly 6 years if he’s not lying about his age) – which is why this farewell tour, this ‘last reward’, works so well. This is a man who touched an extraordinary number of people in his relatively short life. For all his swagger and unearned moral high-ground stuff, this was a good man who died doing what he did best.
And in that dying moment comes one of the more iconic music pieces of the RTD run (somehow I’ve managed to avoid mentioning the output of Murray Gold (Ed. note The unsung MVP of Revival Who), who will remain on the show from Series 1 all the way to Series 10!) as the Tenth Doctor admits what he would never admit to anyone else – that he doesn’t want to die – before, of course, dying in spectacular fashion.
Enter Matt Smith as the Eleventh, exeunt Russel T. Davies as showrunner, and get ready for the next entry in the modern tradition of “ah shit fuck I just regenerated and the TARDIS is crashing”!
(Ed. note: Thanks to The Black Archive for the images used in this article. See you next week!)