Aired 25 December 2008
Airing after David Tennant has announced his departure from the lead role and before a replacement has been cast, ‘The Next Doctor’ uses its audience’s speculation about who the next Doctor will be to its fullest in the aptly-named ‘The Next Doctor.’ With David Morrissey more than able to fill the role given his acting credentials, ‘The Next Doctor’ presents an intriguing twist on the multi-Doctor story, telling a tale in which the current Doctor meets a potential future incarnation.
As it turns out, David Morrissey is not the future Doctor, and the title and core concept are decent attempts at misdirection. Fortunately, even when taking away those aspects the story itself and the mystery about the man named Jackson Lake hold up remarkably well, avoiding the trap of being a fluff story with one hook to grab attention. By having the Doctor meet a version of the Doctor that isn’t atually the Doctor, the tragedy of Jackson Lake is slowly revealed. He is simply a man who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, losing his family to inhuman monsters he couldn’t comprehend and needing desperately to become someone else to endure that loss. The data stamp focusing on the Doctor allows him to believe himself the Doctor and carry on his everyday life as if some grand adventure, and the combination of the Doctor’s world and the ordinary world has arguably never worked so well as on the personal level displayed here. Lake being able to cope with his own tragedies by projecting them onto the Doctor is a nice idea, and in the end it suggests that the Doctor is both formed and driven by his own losses to continue his acts of heroism, using the escape that the TARDIS presents as a coping mechanism.
The mystery surrounding Jackson Lake drives the first half of the narrative, and it’s rewarding to see that even the idea of the Doctor can make people a hero. There’s no doubting that Jackson Lake is a hero either, a man who saved Rosita from the Cybermen and who is willing to walk into knowing danger to save more. With Lake taking control, the Doctor is more than willing to fill a pseudo-companion role as he watches the effect he has on people firsthand. Yet as the mystery is resolved, those roles switch as the Doctor, by necessity, must take action into his own hands. The actual fight against the Cybermen, Mercy, and the CyberKing are all the Doctor’s doing as Lake watches on, though Lake does get his final heroic moment as he helps to rescue his own son.
It goes without saying, then, that David Morrissey is superb as Jackson Lake, both when the story seems to be toying with the idea of a future incarnation of the Doctor as well as when his own personal tragedy takes centre stage. In the first half, the characterization and more personal moments take precedence, and it’s here that ‘The Next Doctor’ truly shines, able to keep its faux regeneration hook from feeling like a cheap ratings gimmick. The second half’s invasion plot falters a bit as the characters also take a bit of a back seat, and though the Cybermen are a strong villainous presence as they should be, but their dependence on Mercy Hartigan falls flat due to substantial underdevelopment as a character. She’s purposefully quite ambiguous, and Dervla Kirwan tries to add a sense of menace and haughtiness to the material, but her motivations simply aren’t defined well enough. She has an intense loathing for the male gender, which is actually quite dark when paired with the multiple subtle implications that there has been abuse in her past at the hands of men. Obviously this could not be the main subject of discussion for a Doctor Who story, let alone a Christmas special, but by skirting around her past it takes away from fully fleshing out the character.
Interestingly, ‘The Next Doctor’ spends quite a bit of time indirectly comparing the Cybermen to the Daleks and making note of their shortcomings. The Cybermen fill the role of returning villains perfectly, and they certainly add a striking visual to the Victorian London surroundings, but the Doctor notes that their presence is simply a by-product of the Daleks’ attempt to destroy reality in ‘Journey’s End’ and that their database was stolen from the Daleks in the void. By the end, they are overcome and defeated by Mercy’s intense anger and emotion after she had already asserted control. It’s an interesting dynamic to so overtly degrade the Cybermen and to have them defeated rather easily by their own plan to put Mercy in charge, and one that does take away from the overall Cyber threat in the end at least marginally.
‘The Next Doctor’ is a story brimming with interesting ideas and characters, and it fluorishes when the the characters take centre stage over the invasion plot. The CyberKing and behemoth Dreadnought ship marching across London may be offturning to some, but the mystery of Jackson Lake and instant chemistry between Morrissey and Tennant as that mystery is unraveled is unquestionably terrific, making a story that could have collapsed after its tease was proven false instead remain enjoyable and memorable to the end, and the Doctor getting his justified moment of glory to bask in proves to be the perfect ending to an emotional journey over the past series.