We recently caught up with the last episodes of Doctor Who starring David Tennant. Taken a whole, they were okay, better than the fourth season, but they still show lead writer Russell T. Davies’ tendency to be overly sentimental.
The theme of the season is both one of the Doctor’s impending regeneration (which we know about thanks to the mass media, but he obviously doesn’t), and the Doctor’s relationship to his companions generally, i.e., why he has and needs them, since he spends these adventures without any companions.
The first episode is a big tease: “The Next Doctor” (written by Davies) has the Doctor land in London in 1951 where he becomes embroiled in a plot by the cybermen, but more importantly he encounters a man (David Morrissey) who claims to be the Doctor, and even has a companion, Rosita (Velile Tshabalala), who resembles the Doctor’s past companion Martha Jones. It quickly becomes apparent that this Doctor isn’t who he claims, and the fun is in figuring out who he really is. The explanation doesn’t aim too high, which is fine, since it provides some insight into the Doctor himself as well as making the other character interesting in his own right. The cybermen story is much less satisfying, culminating in a truly ridiculous monstrosity menacing the city. So this one was a bit of a mixed bag.
The second episode, “Planet of the Dead” (written by Davies and Gareth Roberts) is the least interesting story of the season. The Doctor gets on a London bus on which a jewel thief, Lady Christina (Michelle Ryan) is also travelling, and they end up getting sucked through a hole in space to a desert planet, from which they need to learn how to escape, since going back through the hole kills anyone who tries it. They meet aliens who have recently crashed on the planet, and learn why the world is a wasteland, but none of that is really interesting: It’s just a lackluster monster story. The emotional core of the story is the Doctor’s relationship with Lady Christina, who find the Doctor and his life of travelling alluring, but the Doctor realizes that the amoral Christina would be a poor companion and rejects her. There’s a foreshadowing here of the Doctor’s impending demise, but that’s really the high point of the episode. This one was a misfire.
By contrast, “The Waters of Mars” (Davies and Phil Ford) is the best of the specials. The Doctor lands on Mars in 2059 during the days of the first manned mission, but he knows that every person on the base is doomed to be killed in a huge explosion, although Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) inspired her granddaughter to help lead Earth outside the solar system. Things start to go wrong when several crewmembers are infected with some sort of virus, causing their bodies to be controlled by some sort of water-based alien. The Doctor tries desperately to depart, but he’s delayed just long enough to have a change of heart: As a time lord, he can change history, and he resolves to do so, to save whomever he can from the base.
This episode is in the tradition of many of the classic series’ “locked inside with a killer” stories, as the characters get gradually herded to a place where they have to make a stand or die, with the added tinge of melancholy since the Doctor knows their fates. It tie into the overall theme of the specials is to show how the Doctor can act unchecked if he doesn’t have a companion tying him to humanity. It’s a tense story with compelling acting and drama, although any long-time viewer of the series will be a little perplexed (as I was) that companions are so important to the Doctor, since he’s gone for periods without them in the past and his fundamental character hasn’t changed. I guess you can chalk it up to specifically the Tenth Doctor being a man whose hubris led him to making this frightening decision. In any event, this is probably he single best episode Davies has written.
Finally we have the two-part episode “The End of Time” (Davies), in which the Master returns (played again by John Simm, although this time as a sort of young punk rather than an insane aristocrat – quite an impressive turn, really). The Doctor arrives on Earth to prevent this, where he again meets Donna’s grandfather Wilfred (Bernard Cribbins) who has been having nightmares about the Doctor and the end of the world. The Master is captured by a billionaire who wants him to activate a piece of alien technology, which he does, except that he turns the tables by using it to take over the Earth himself. But all of this may end up being incidental, as we learn that the President of the Time Lords (Timothy Dalton) has been using the Master as a means for Gallifrey to escape the time lock it was plunged into at the end of the Time War. The Doctor has to stop all of them to save humanity and the rest of the universe besides, but at the price of his tenth incarnation.
This story is annoying for two reasons: First, it’s yet another of Davies’ over-the-top season-enders, which honestly gets very boring after a while. You can’t keep ratcheting up the suspense and excitement level all the time, it’s not “Doctor Who Saves the Universe Again and Again”. Second, even after he’s been fatally wounded, there’s a lengthy denouement where he travels around to visit or see the many friends he’s had in his tenth life, a sort of melancholy mirror to the events of “Journey’s End” at the end of the fourth season, but which really feels entirely unnecessary. A little nostalgia here and there is okay, but geez, this was too much. The scene with Captain Jack was amusing for the decor of all the aliens in the bar, and the encounter with Rose was amusing, but I think this sequence should have been scaled back considerably.
Some bits are quite good: Wilfred is an endearing character, and the fate of Donna is still rather tragic. John Simm is excellent as the Master, especially in the first half, Timothy Dalton is always a delight to see, and the final confrontation between all parties is quite good (although it perhaps goes on a bit too long, and the solution the Doctor chooses seems so simple as to undercut the length even further; Davies is not really the strongest plotter). But overall I found “The End of Time” a bit disappointing, especially after “The Waters of Mars” (whose themes were largely dropped in this story, which is also too bad; I’d been intrigued by the possibility of the Doctor heading down a path of hubristic self-destruction, which isn’t how it played out).
I’ve said several times before that I didn’t think David Tennant was as good a Doctor as Christopher Eccleston. This is selling Tennant short to some degree: I think he was let down by the writing as much as anything. Although I do feel he played the character in a way too similar to some past Doctors, whereas Eccleston’s Doctor didn’t really resemble any of his predecessors (which was, uh, fantastic). But Tennant’s earnestness and comic tinges have been entertaining.
For next season, I’m most excited that Steven Moffat will replace Davies as executive producer and head writer, as Moffat has written several of the very best episodes of the series, and I’m looking forward to the quality of the writing going up next season. Here’s hoping that’s how it works out.
(You can read my reviews of other nouveau Doctor Who seasons here.)