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January 01, 2009

Hot Air Buffoon

Doctor Who: The Next Doctor

Cybershadebush Let's talk a bit about promises.

What the title of this episode promised, in fairly clear terms, was the Eleventh canonical Doctor. But that was never going to happen, was it? No, I didn't think so and I don't suppose you did either. The confirmation that Tennant was leaving in 2010 only left me even more sure that there was going to be a fake-out. But like I said in my reviews of The Stolen Earth and Journey's End, I'm all right with the broken promise as long as it's broken in an interesting way. I was referring specifically to the "regeneration," which was not a regeneration as promised but was nonetheless an event with important consequences that were examined at length over the course of the hour, and in what I thought was quite an interesting and entertaining way. The same is true of The Doctor's Daughter. The implication of the title is that we were going to meet Susan's mum, or at least one of the Doctor's already-existing children, a notion that was thrown out in the cold open in favor of Jenny. Nonetheless, Jenny had a set of implications and consequences all her own. It was a fake-out in favor of something nearly as interesting.

So what did I expect from The Next Doctor? Not the Eleventh Doctor, certainly. But three years ago, The Christmas Invasion arrived like a present wrapped in shiny paper, and when we tore off the wrapping we had a lovely new Doctor that ended the thing with a sword flourish and a quote from the Lion King. This was without a doubt the best Christmas Special so far, and I was hoping that the experience would be mirrored here. Again, we would return to the notion of unwrapping a Doctor, but it wouldn't really be the Doctor, it would turn out to be something else, and as we tore off the paper over the course of the hour we would get to the core of the mystery and it would finally present the solution to the Cybermen's invasion and shock and surprise and thrill us.

There are cosplayers who have more claim to the title of Doctor than Jackson Lake does.

And instead we get this. Halfway into the special, the misunderstanding has already been all cleared up! And if it weren't so boring, it would be funny: in Time Crash, the Fifth Doctor thinks the Tenth Doctor is a fanboy, when he's actually a future incarnation. In The Next Doctor, the Tenth Doctor thinks Jackson Lake is the Eleventh Doctor, but he's just a fanboy, some poor deranged man who has lost everything and has had one too many Doctor Who novels crammed into his cranium in true Chuck fashion. There are cosplayers who have more claim to the title of Doctor than he does. But never mind all of that, because it's quite easily straightened out. The Doctor tosses an infostamp to the nearest Cybermen. "Whoops, sorry, mate, turns out you are the Doctor after all. Our mistake. DELETE. DELETE." After that, there's little left for Jackson Lake to do but uncover the not-all-that-interesting truth about his son, and then literally shove the poor boy into Rosita's arms as he swings from a lamp post and gives an impromptu speech about "that Doctor on high!" and how "he's never once been thanked!" and oh my God I wish I were making this up.

But I can't just spend the whole review talking about the train wreck that is the Jackson Lake story, because this is a two-train collision. One, a story about the Tenth Doctor meeting a man who may or may not be the Eleventh Doctor. The other, a story about Cybermen in Victorian London with a women's liberation subtext and a steampunk design influence. Either one of these stories has so much potential, but the former becomes boring, the latter becomes silly, and neither one can be salvaged from the wreckage. Perhaps, in the spirit of Christmas and presents, my train metaphor should be altered to refer to a child's toy train set. But no, that doesn't accurately convey the brokenness of this episode.

Doctoreye Because even though I buy the Steampunk Cybermen concept, as well as the gender issue, and I can even bring myself to appreciate the pure, epic whimsy of the Doctor battling a giant robot from a hot air balloon, The pieces are assembled together in such an appallingly poor fashion that the only way to salvage any enjoyment out of the episode is to be willing to laugh at how broken everything is. What the hell are those Cybershade things supposed to be? Gorillas? Wookiees? Big fluffy dogs? Miss Hartigan's motives in helping the Cybermen are even shadier. It has something to do with hatred of all things male, that much is clear. Her speech at the graveside of Reverend Whatever is pretty much nonsensical, jumping from half-formed thought to half-formed thought like a Grant Morrison Batman story, but far more superficial and not half as much fun.

Does that info-phallus get iPlayer via the time vortex? I can't even get it here in America.

The problem with the Cybermen plot is that we see lots happen but are rarely given any idea as to how or why. Forget about how the Cybermen returned from the void, which is briefly waved away, but how did they survive it in the first place? How did they construct a giant robot so quickly, and why do they enlist child labor to run it after they've done such an efficient job of building the damned thing? I'm not even sure I understand why the Cybermen all explode after the Doctor re-uses the "LOOK WHAT YOU'VE BECOME LOL!!!!" resolution from The Age of Steel. And how the hell does that info-phallus, stolen from the Daleks that appeared in Doomsday, have footage from Voyage of the Damned or the Christopher Eccleston era, anyway? Is iPlayer available via the time vortex? I can't even get it here in America. In any case, I have to wonder why nobody questioned the logic or the storytelling and asked Russell to clean up the script. Perhaps they're afraid of him. What has he become?

All of this just leads to a barely-coherent mess that's probably the least fun we've ever seen in a Doctor Who Christmas special, which is a pity because, as I said, both of the storylines we see here had so much potential. We've only got a few more hours with Russell and David, and I was hoping that they were going to make every minute count, but sadly this is too much of a mess to count as anything other than evidence that the fresh blood we'll be getting in 2010 really is needed. It's hard to believe how inconsistent Russell has been over the years, giving us messes like this as well as absolute gems such as Midnight. And for the first time, Tennant is given no opportunity to shine at Christmas, taking a back seat to Morrissey whose hammy performance gets old fast.

The actors aren't really what I'm complaining about, though. Even as Morrissey's ham rots, the genuine moments of humanity we see in him are well-performed, and Dervla Kirwan is brings a suitably creepy sort of sexy austerity to Miss Hartigan. Nor is the direction of the episode to fault. In fact, I'd even occasionally use the word "stunning," particularly in the scene at the graveside when the Cybermen attack in the snow. That could become one of the iconic scenes of Doctor Who history. It's just a pity that it comes in an episode with such a terribly broken script that ultimately fails to live up to what it promised. If Planet of the Dead's title is any hint, it might be a more straightforward Doctor Who story that doesn't try to do so much and consequently won't fail so miserably. Or maybe it will. Perhaps it's best not to get my hopes up.

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