New Series Rewatch: The Next Doctor

We’re back, with our new Doctor Who rewatch! Today we’re watching the 2008 Christmas Special, The Next Doctor, guest starring David Morrissey as…well…the Doctor. Or is it? Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not watched this episode!

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Christmas Eve, 1851, finds the Doctor landing in London, where he hears a woman calling his name.  Her name is Rosita, and it seems she isn’t calling for him—and moments later, another Doctor runs up.  He has his own sonic screwdriver, and tells Rosita to go back to the TARDIS, and calls himself a Time Lord, and even uses the Tenth Doctor’s catchphrase (“Allons-y!”), but there’s no time to talk; they are dealing with a monster: a primitive, half-converted form of Cyberman!  The new Doctor lassos it, and is dragged up the side of a building, with the Tenth Doctor hanging on for life.  The creature drags them through the building’s upper floor; just before it can pull them out the window, Rosita arrives with an axe and cuts the rope.  She is unamused, but they are simply glad to be alive.

The new Doctor introduces Rosita as his faithful companion, before she returns to the newcomer’s TARDIS.  The two Doctors compare notes, but the Tenth Doctor is dismayed to see that the newcomer doesn’t remember being him; he cautiously calls himself John Smith instead.  The new Doctor claims that he has amnesia; he doesn’t remember anything before the coming of the Cybermen, who fell from the sky, and did something to his memory.  He does acknowledge, though, that John Smith may know about his past, before departing himself.  Elsewhere, the creature—called a Cybershade—shows its footage to the Cybermen, who pinpoint the new Doctor as their enemy, the Doctor.  With their human ally, Miss Mercy Hartigan, they plan an attack for 1400 hours.

At 1400 hours, a funeral procession for the deceased Reverend Aubrey Fairchild wends its way to the cemetery, leaving the Reverend’s house unguarded.  The new Doctor goes to check it out, but the Tenth Doctor beats him there; he sees that the new Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver is a regular screwdriver, which is “sonic” because it makes a sound when tapped.  Together the duo search the house for information on a man named Jackson Lake, who arrived in London three weeks ago before being killed by the Cybermen; but Lake’s body was never found.  This kicked off a series of murders and child abductions that led to the Reverend’s death by electrocution.  The Tenth Doctor notices that the new Doctor has a fob watch, which may be a chameleon arch focus; but when he opens it, it is normal and not in good repair.  The new Doctor’s memories are hinting at the Doctor’s history, though.  The Tenth Doctor finds strange items in a desk drawer:  Cybermen infostamps, which contain historical information about the era.  The new Doctor remembers that he was holding one when he lost his memory, which he also refers to as his regeneration.  He pleads with John Smith for help.  However, they are attacked by Cybermen, and forced to run.  Trapped upstairs, the Tenth Doctor finds that they are not after him, but the other Doctor.  The new Doctor overloads one of the infostamps, and its energy release destroys the Cybermen.  He comments that he did this once before.

While these events occur, Miss Hartigan arrives at the funeral with Cybermen and Cybershades.  They kill most of the mourners, but save those who are owners of workhouses and orphanages; those survivors are fitted with earpods for Cyber control, then released.

The two Doctors meet with Rosita at the new Doctor’s home, which is curiously seen to contain the belongings of Jackson Lake, the first victim.    The new Doctor’s TARDIS is there, but something is wrong; it is a hot-air balloon, and not a disguised TARDIS.  (TARDIS, in this case, stands for Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style.)  The Tenth Doctor knows now what happened, and explains it to the new Doctor.  He explains about the Battle of Canary Wharf, and how some of the Cybermen were trapped in the Void at its conclusion; but when the universal walls were weakened in another battle (i.e. the events of Journey’s End) they escaped into 1851 London.  They happened upon Jackson Lake, who was a simple mathematics teacher.  In his home, they killed his wife; Lake then grabbed an infostamp as a weapon, but broke it open.  While it did destroy the Cybermen, it rebounded on Lake and overwhelmed him; it was filled with information about the Doctor, which overwrote Lake’s memories, causing him to believe he is the Doctor.  As a final bit of evidence, the fob watch has Lake’s initials.  The new Doctor’s memories return in a rush, and he is overwhelmed and breaks down crying.  The Doctor discovers that the luggage contains a bandolier loaded with infostamps.

The crisis won’t wait, however.  The Tenth Doctor—the only Doctor, now—takes Rosita to do some investigation.  They find the Cyber-controlled workhouse owners sending the children from their houses to the Thames via a guarded sluice gate.  As they try to sneak by, they are confronted by Hartigan.  She explains her compliance with the Cybermen, who offered her freedom in return for her help.  He gives the Cybermen the infostamp, and they absorb the information, determining that he is their enemy as opposed to Lake.  Hartigan says that the children will be used as a workforce to create “it”, but she does not elaborate further.  As she orders the Cybermen to attack, Lake arrives with another infostamp, distracting the Cybermen and allowing the trio to escape (with Rosita getting in a very satisfying punch on Hartigan).  Hartigan declares that the Cyberking will rise tonight.

Lake explains that when he moved to London to teach, he found the Cybermen in his basement, leading the Doctor to suspect that there may be a route from the house into the Cybermen’s base of operations.  Returning to the house, they find a piece of stolen Dalek technology called a Dimension Vault, which the Cybermen used to escape the Void.  They also find the expected tunnel, which leads to the sewers and the base.  Meanwhile, the children are forced to generate power for the Cyberking.  The Cyberleader tells Hartigan that she will become the Cyberking.  To her dismay, this is what they meant when they said she would have freedom:  Freedom from emotion when she is converted.  However, her will is too strong, and as soon as she is converted, she destroys the Cyberleader.

The Doctor, Jackson, and Rosita reach the base, and find a power gauge approaching 100%.  When it gets to 100%, the children will be eliminated.  They begin rescuing the children, but this brings back another painful memory for Jackson: the Cybermen not only killed his wife, but kidnapped his son.  He finds his son during the rescue.  The base explodes, but it is too late:  the Cyberking—an enormous, steampunk dreadnaught in the shape of a giant Cyberman, and containing a conversion factory—rises from the river with Hartigan and her Cybermen aboard.  They attack London, and the Doctor sends Rosita and Jackson to safety.  He takes the Dimension Vault and the balloon “TARDIS”, using it to fly to the Cyberking’s head level.  He offers to take Hartigan and the Cybermen to a place where they can live peacefully, but she is not interested.  Reluctantly he attacks her with several infostamps, but she mocks him when it doesn’t kill her.  However, it accomplished his purpose: it severed her from the Cyberking.  She is horrified at what she has become, and the severed connection destroys her.  The Cyberking self-destructs and begins to topple onto the city.  The Doctor uses the Dimension Vault to send it into the Vortex before it can strike, where its destruction will cause no harm.

Afterward, Jackson invites the Doctor to Christmas dinner.  The Doctor refuses, and instead lets Jackson see inside the real TARDIS; he is impressed, but overwhelmed, and admits he has had enough adventure.  He notes that the Doctor has no companions at the moment, which the infostamp showed him is unusual; the Doctor says that they always leave, and break his hearts when they do.  At that, Jackson insists on having the Doctor in for Christmas dinner, to remember those who have been lost.  At last the Doctor agrees, and says that of all the people who could have been the Doctor, he is glad it was Jackson Lake.  With that, they leave to celebrate Christmas.

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Whenever discussion occurs about the various new series specials, this one seems to be oddly underrated. I wouldn’t put it at the top of the list, by any means; but neither would I put it at the bottom. I found this story hugely entertaining. In many ways, it’s the Tenth Doctor equivalent to the Eleventh Doctor’s The Snowmen; it’s set in Victorian England, introduces temporary companions with secrets pertinent to the Doctor’s life, involves a classic Doctor Who enemy (or at least a variant on one), and finds the Doctor mourning the departure of his companions. I would rank that story comparably to this one; both are solid, entertaining, suspenseful stories, not at the top of the list of specials, but hardly bad, either.

When this episode premiered, I was as taken in by the title as most people. We knew David Tennant would be leaving the role eventually, and the Doctor would be regenerating; there was no reason to think that this couldn’t be the regeneration episode, or at least the episode that would set up for a regeneration. It would certainly have been original; we have never on television had the current Doctor encountering his successor prior to the regeneration (unless one counts the brief appearance of the Twelfth Doctor in The Day of the Doctor). Unfortunately (or fortunately, or both, depending on your point of view) it was not to be. David Morrissey—here playing Jackson Lake, who believes himself to be the Doctor—would have made a fine Doctor, and even now I wouldn’t object if he assumed the role; but instead, there’s a clever story about how he could be the Doctor, and yet not. I suggested a few days ago that this idea may have come in part from the Main Range audio drama The One Doctor, which sets up a similar situation for the Sixth Doctor (in which case the impersonation was intentional rather than accidental). Had the writer of the two stories been the same, I would be convinced of it; the stories certainly have enough similarities.

This story is one of the rare instances where we get a very thorough nod to the classic series Doctors. When the Doctor reactivates the Cybermen infostamp that caused Lake’s memory issues, it shows a brief shot of each of the first nine Doctors (War Doctor not shown, as the character hadn’t been created yet, and would have been confined to the Time War anyway). It’s a nice scene, but it doesn’t make complete sense; these Cybermen are from Pete’s World, and though they may know about the Doctor from the Battle of Canary Wharf, there’s no way they should have such information about his past or his Time Lord nature. One can only surmise that they got some of it from the Dalek technology they stole, but that’s a weak guess at best; the Daleks from the void ship (Doomsday) would not have known about the Ninth Doctor, who is pictured here. The Doctor also mentions that Jackson Lake may not be the next Doctor per se, but a future incarnation regardless; this is one of the few instances I’ve seen which doesn’t manage to coincidentally prepare for the revelation of the War Doctor. Most discussion of future regenerations doesn’t seem to place a number, or else (as in The Impossible Astronaut) implies the Eleventh Doctor dying by one means or another, which is consistent with him being the final incarnation. Occasionally, though, something like this will slip through, as it should, given that the War Doctor hadn’t yet been created; the wonder is that it doesn’t happen more often!

This story begins the broad arc of the 2009 “Year of Specials” (even though this story was broadcast at Christmas 2008, it is usually counted with the 2009 specials). That arc, we will see, is perhaps looser than past series arcs, but concerns itself with the Doctor’s impending regeneration, or, as the Tenth Doctor would think of it, his death. While this story doesn’t show that death after all, it gets the Doctor—and the audience—thinking about it.

Miss Hartigan is hardly the only villain of her type—for comparison, see The Crimson Horror, plus many other stories in various media—but she is certainly a compelling one. She has few of the stereotypical villain weaknesses, though she does monologue a bit. As a Cyberking, she’s more than just the average Cyberman, but she does retain the same weakness to emotional reality that most Cybus Industries Cybermen have; when the Doctor uses the infostamps on her, it’s the equivalent of removing the emotional circuit in previous episodes. The Cyberking itself is a great addition; Doctor Who doesn’t often do steampunk, but when it does, it does it well. (How they managed to hide that thing in the river is anyone’s guess.)

There are a few noteworthy milestones in this story. It is the first revived-series episode to show any footage of the first eight Doctors (rather than drawings, as in Human Nature/The Family of Blood), with the exception of the Fifth Doctor in Time Crash. It is the first new series episode with a male main companion, though we will get another one very soon. It was the final episode to be produced in standard definition. It is the first Christmas special set in the past (though not the first Christmas story; that honor goes to The Unquiet Dead in the revived series).

Some continuity references: The Cybus Cybermen return, last seen in Doomsday. Future versions will for the most part be either a hybrid version with the Mondas Cybermen (in the far future; this has not been stated onscreen, but revealed in supporting materials) or else a creation of Missy (Dark Water/Death In Heaven). The Doctor mentions the weeping angels (Blink) and the events of Journey’s End. He uses a sword effectively (The Christmas Invasion, et al). He mentions never having used a hot air balloon, but this isn’t accurate (The Emerald Tiger); however, subsequent memory loss may account for it. A similar transfer of brain patterns happened, though without the intermediary infostamp, in Minuet In Hell.

Overall: I’m fond of this episode, even if it isn’t one of the best specials. It certainly deserves its place. For pure entertainment and good feelings, it’s hard to beat, and worth the time for a viewing.

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Next time: From snow to sand, in Planet of the Dead! See you there.

All episodes may be viewed on Dailymotion; link is below.

The Next Doctor

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