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December 26, 2008

Woman On Wheels

Doctor Who: The Next Doctor

Next The thing about Doctor Who Christmas specials is that they are now traditionally required to fulfill a number of audience expectations. They have to be brash, no nonsense populist affairs with an ersatz seasonal message or spirit of intention. It's no good examining the plot that closely or digging around for complex existential homilies because it won't stand up to the pressure.

At the heart of this 'Cybermen at Christmas' bluster is a deeply personal story...

However, Russell T Davies usually sows the seeds of the forthcoming series into the Specials and the one thing that immediately strikes you about The Next Doctor is, deliberately or not, the way it marks time on the tenure of the Tenth Doctor. With no full series to anticipate, this special makes pains to show the Doctor has clearly made a decision to travel without a companion and has set out to explore on his own. Meeting Jackson Lake is Davies attempt to underline this whilst also getting both characters, whose fractured identities require some mending, to engage in a form of neuro-linguistic psychotherapy. The Doctor suddenly questions his current incarnation's future and eventual demise. And Lake is a blank canvas onto which the essence of the Doctor has been stamped but which then helps him to excavate the true qualities of the real person drowned by his psychological fugue. By this estimation, Davies certainly bucks the trend for at least half an hour of the running time. At the heart of this 'Cybermen at Christmas' bluster is a deeply personal story which delves into identity, anxiety and the effects of dissociative fugue. With Lake it's brought about with a traumatic attack on his family by the Cybermen but with the Doctor it's presumably self-imposed after the treatment he dished out to Donna Noble.

The trouble is that such a heartfelt story, and by extension the twin performances from Morrissey and Tennant, deserves an episode to itself and not mashed in with the cold leftovers of street urchins, Victoriana, snow, explosions and Cybermen. Mind you, Christmas can be as much an emotionally distressing time for families as it is a time of joy and good will to all men (the emphasis here being on men, Cyber or otherwise) so perhaps such an examination of the Doctor's persona and nature isn't too far from the true spirit of the festive season. The whistles and bells that decorate the central premise of the empty man who needs his life and memories back and the lonely god who just can't take this shit any more include the bluff with the fob-watch that then turns out to be an important clue and the info-stamp flashback of all ten incarnations which you could say is pretty much about putting the writing on the wall for the Tenth. When a flashback of all the previous actors in the role turns up, you know your card's marked.

...utterly daft

Next2 When you look at the rest of the story it's clear that Hartigan's collaboration with the Cybermen, using children to re-engineer a Cyber-Godzilla, is utterly, preposterously daft. The entire sequence in the workhouse with masses of kids turning big wheels, pulling chains and levers just needed to be set to music, given some suitable lyrics and you'd have had a West End musical. Sure, it may dovetail with Dickens own attempts to pick apart the effects of industrialisation on society in Hard Times and A Christmas Carol but this was more Lionel Bart than Ebenezer Scrooge. I did enjoy Dervla's turn as Miss Hartigan, the mother/whore symbol trying to get a leg up (or over) in a man's world. The ripe tones used in countless M&S ads came in handy as she made a delicious villainess who arrived complete with a feminist liberation agenda. The gathering at the funeral is an interesting framing device for the character. She is positioned in the charitable role, looking after the poor in the workhouses, that many aspiring women of the day sought to do but uses the potency of her sexuality as a way to achieve power in an unjust and unequal society. Hence, the obvious symbolism of the red dress but also her assumption that the Cybermen are simply tools of industrialising power at her disposal to rid society of the kind of greedy, exploitative men she despises. It's an exciting, well edited, sequence as Cybermen emerge from the snow and mist and throttle people. Well, I say people, but men...mostly.

Men, eh? Bloody liars...

The contrast between Miss Hartigan and Rosita is of note too. From the implications of Hartigan's 'I doubt he paid you to talk' we thus gather that Rosita is a lady of the night. Hartigan seems to be confusing the sexual act and liberation and whilst she can talk the talk she certainly doesn't walk the walk. Rosita is compassionate and human whereas Hartigan is ice-cold ambition, preferring the company of Cybermen than that of real men. One of them definitely will be Nancy in the West End musical production, clearly after the wallop Rosita gives Hartigan. Velile Tshabalala was very impressive in the quieter moments, with sensitive playing particularly in the scene where the Doctor reveals that the other Doctor is Jackson Lake. Quite neat then that the Cybermen are simply setting up Hartigan to be the Cyber King. Men, eh? Bloody liars. But why did the Cybermen need to enslave loads of kids to power their ship, couldn't they do that themselves? A highly contrived notion to get masses of children to shovel coal into the belly of the Cyber-King, this was obviously some heavy symbolism about the continuing exploitation of children in the 21st century. It's enough to put you off your pudding.

A rather excessive bit of symbolism there, Russell, me old chuck.

Forty five minutes in and this goes a bit pear shaped. A blend of Dickensian steam-punk Gothic with a very tender story about two psychologically broken men gets sadly derailed by the need to have a big special effects climax with explosions and things. More ho-ho-hum than ho-ho-ho. Hartigan suddenly gets the screaming ab-dabs as the threat of Cyber-liberation looms. The Cybermen are just as narrow minded as their Victorian counterparts and it seems independent women have no place in Cyberdom. However, I rather liked the way that Hartigan then rewrote the software and put the willies up the Cyberleader in another twist on the power of sex over the sexless. Dervla is terrific in this scene, with her black contact lenses and brass worked Cyber head. And I suppose the old adage 'behind every great (Cyber) man is a great (Cyber) woman' is the only way to describe the Iron Man rising from the Thames and stamping the populace to bits. A rather excessive bit of symbolism there, Russell, me old chuck. And history gets further bent out of shape in the process but then no one on Earth ever gives a toss about alien invasions these days, and now, in those days too. The Doctor's offer is a bit pointless isn't it? Why would Hartigan want to be dumped on another world with no one to convert? Her whole raison d'etre is to do just that. It's very handy that the Doctor can recondition Hartigan at the drop of a hat and it's rather silly that she suddenly, as a result, becomes a screaming girlie. With such powerful screams that it all goes tits up for the Cybermen and she and they blow up? Er, what exactly happened there?

Next3 It's all entertaining enough with some de rigeur eye-popping visual effects and the sentimental ending suggests a Doctor not quite given up on mixing with the plebs at Christmas time but, I don't know about you, I was expecting some last minute twist ending to lead us off into the specials for 2009. So, it all felt like a bit of damp squib of an ending with no punchline to whet our appetites for next year. Andy Goddard's direction was spirited, with some lovely visual compositions and great lighting and, as ever, the production values were very high. Murray Gold was somewhat in 'this music will tell you how to feel' mode and I didn't much care for it. I did think that David Morrissey somewhat eclipsed David Tennant in places and that's a shame in a way as it's unlikely that we'll see him as the actual Doctor in a future series. However, he did get rather sidelined towards the end as David Tennant went through the heroic motions. There's a real sense here that the tenth Doctor is about to exit stage left. He doesn't look particularly happy once he's met with Jackson, possibly because he sees himself reflected back, and there's a weary inevitability about how he moves through the story. Change is in the air, and on the strength of this festive romp, it's perhaps not a moment too soon.

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