Tuesday, December 30, 2008

And a Merry Xmas to All of You at Home

How many Doctor Who fans out there have published blog posts with that name on it? Probably all of them, or at least the ones with no shame. However, after much stumbling around the internet, I've finally managed to watch this year's Doctor Who Xmas Special, The Next Doctor, which I thought was a solidly above average, if not exemplary story. It was considerably appreciated among the general British populace, as is the case with everything the show does today. But I think the biggest problem that arose in the fan community was that none of their wild and insane expectations were satisfied.

Now here's the context. In an interview this Fall, David Tennant confirmed that he was leaving the role of the Doctor at the end of 2009, so the four television movies that will be released over the next year will be his last. He'll regenerate during the last tv movie just before the start of season five in spring 2010. Shortly after this announcement, the title of the Xmas 2008 special was revealed as The Next Doctor, and that the title character would be played by David Morrissey, one of the bookmakers' favourites to replace Tennant. The fan community was all a-flutter and a-squee on the internet, with the majority interpreting this evidence along these lines. Morrissey was booked to become the eleventh Doctor in 2010, and Tennant was going to overlap with his own personal future and meet him.

I rejected that plot as just too obvious, especially when the BBC released a teaser clip in November of the pre-credits sequence of The Next Doctor. Tennant appears in Xmas 1851 by himself to chill out for a while, hears a woman shouting for The Doctor, and runs to help. But she keeps shouting when he gets there, and David Morrissey appears wearing Victorian clothes and speaking with a bunch of vocal mannerisms that Tennant himself uses for the character. Rather than Tennant meeting his future self, I guessed that instead this "next Doctor" would be an imitator. Perhaps he was a fan who found opportunity to take up the mantle of his hero, or a time travelling con man out to use his identity for fun and profit. It turned out that neither of these was the case, and Morrissey's "Doctor" (but I should say 'Professor') had a far more compelling, engrossing, and tragic back story than I had imagined. My expectations had been completely thrown and I couldn't have been more pleased.

Some, however, were not pleased at all. Behind the Sofa is a blog that has become a pillar of the community of Who fans, and while they began as a bunch of barely literate prats slagging off their favourite show for a bunch of fanboyish slights, they have evolved into a group of solid reviewers. But they still have their fannish moments. All of these reviews have spoilers, so if you want to watch the story without them, go do that first.

I mentioned that I was glad to have my expectations overturned, since to create the novel and unexpected is what art is all about. However, one negative review of The Next Doctor seemed entirely occupied with the writer, Neil Perryman's, disappointment that he had guessed wrong about Morrissey's character. Iain Hepburn gave a much better negative review, since he didn't like the story for much better reasons. Among them was what he perceived as a by-the-numbers Russell Davies adventure script, a lack of the chemistry between Tennant and Morrissey that they had shown when previously working together on the miniseries Blackpool, some lacklustre special effects, and a tired performance from Tennant himself.

Overall, this is the kind of story structure that Russell Davies writes in his sleep, and that has become a tad old at this point. The story certainly had some unfortunately silly elements, such as the Cybermen secretly using an army of Dickensian street urchins to build a fully functional steampunk 20-story Cyber-mech. Both of these points Frank Collins discusses in his overall positive review of the episode at Behind the Sofa. As for myself, I found Tennant's performance to fit the tiredness of the Doctor himself at this point in his character development. Being forced, for all practical understanding, to euthanize your best friend Donna at the end of season four does not put one in the best of moods, and the Doctor is without doubt tired. His encounter with Morrissey is an opportunity to take stock of the man his tenth self has become.

Indeed, this movement is at the heart of what I thought was a quite intense and dramatic interaction between Tennant and Morrissey. Of course, the chemistry isn't going to be the same as in Blackpool; they were antagonists then. Indeed, the best part of the story was its first forty minutes, where the Doctor works out just who Morrissey is, and helps him come to terms with himself and what he can do. When we meet Morrissey, he's a man who thinks he's a hero, and over the course of the story, the Doctor helps him become a hero himself. It was a perfect ending as well, with Morrissey helping the Doctor become what he didn't think he could be again, a friend.

It's a shame the villain's evil plan didn't make any sense, or this would have been brilliant from start to finish. As it is, The Next Doctor was 70% brilliant and 30% mindless fun that could have been much better as mindful fun.

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