Monday, 6 October 2014

The Next Doctor written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Andy Goddard

This story in a nutshell: A portent of the future?

Mockney Dude: It is interesting that since this story there has been an almost non-stop obsession with who the Doctor is, under what circumstances he can claim that title and forcing him under the microscope by his next flurry of companions (from River to Amy and Clara) and required to defend his position and his character on practically a weekly basis. A lot of that sprang from this story (and Human Nature before it to be fair) but until now it hadn't really become an obsession. From the out of character yielding of the law of Time in The Waters of Mars to the mythology surrounding his death in The Impossible Astronaut to how he has risen so high that his reputation hampers his adventures in A Good Man Goes to War, to the introduction of the War Doctor and all the implications of his destructive actions in The Day of the Doctor right through until the latest season and the theme of 'Am I a good man?' Doctor Who is not only the title of the show but its purpose too, to unravel this character, to se what makes him tick. Compared to the bluster and drama that is to come, The Next Doctor offers quite a subtle take on the same idea of exploring the identity of the titular character. It does so through the eyes of another character that is mistakenly tricked into thinking that he is the Doctor. It boils down to the exploration of what makes the Doctor tick and whether Jackson Lake has those qualities that we most admire and respect in the man. Comparing our Doctor to a potential future incarnation of the man works on two levels - it appears to be a multi-Doctor story with all the high jinks and witty observations that comes with that but when it turns out that Jackson isn't the Doctor it re-emphasises everything that makes this incarnation special and why he is a deserving incumbent of the role. What could have been an extremely cynical marketing ploy (is David Morrissey the next Doctor?) turns out to be a clever method of not only exploring why people might want to pretend that they are the Doctor (to escape some awkward truth about their past) but to also hold up a version of the Doctor that we can be proud of.

Let's be honest, David Tennant was something of a television phenomenon come The Next Doctor. Regardless of what a section of fandom might think about the tenth Doctor, I don't think there has ever been an incarnation that has been so embraced by the general public and so adored by them too. No wonder this episode secured over 13 million viewers (look at the current state of the ratings, even at Christmas, and bask in that number) - people were desperate to see if this was his last story. A Doctor so popular that he had three potential exits (it's mooted in The Stolen Earth, The Next Doctor and The End of Time), a cheap trick that worked every time because the average Joe did not want to see the back of the coolest, smartest, sexiest Doctor there has been. That might not tally up with your opinion of the tenth Doctor but run any poll amongst the general audience (non Doctor Who fans, that make up a huge part of the audience of a figure like 13 million) I promise you Tennant will come out on top. Having him step out of the TARDIS with an enormous beam on his face as he takes in a quaint Christmas setting was probably enough to sate their appetites alone. He's fascinated by the whole idea of meeting a future incarnation of himself and follows him about like a bad smell. I love the idea of the Doctor being pursed by Cybermen in a Victorian house and tackling them on the stairs with a cutlass (or possibly a brolley). He makes quite a keen companion, nudging all the clues into the Doctor's path and refusing to take the credit. He hands Jackson his son and then tells him to bugger off before rushing into danger himself. Jackson has something to live, which rather suggests that the Doctor is still hurting from the loss of Donna. He admits as much at the climax, in an emotional moment that took me entirely by surprise.

The Next Doctor: It's almost a shame about the title and the hype because Morrissey jogging through the snow decked in gorgeous Victorian garb and announcing he is the Doctor should have been a real humdinger of a twist. I could buy into him immediately because the first thing he does is heroic (trying to tackle the Shade) and the next thing he does is funny (lassoed to the beast, he asks for help as he is dragged to his doom). Brave and funny, two essential ingredients of any Doctor (strangely enough Capaldi rejects both for the most part). You're having more fun with these two Doctors in five minutes than you did with Baker and Troughton together in three hours in season Twenty-Two (as much as I love that story, they are kept apart for the length of a bible) - kicking at the air like cartoon characters, suffering the indignity of bum rash as they are hauled through a warehouse and trying to figure out if they know each other all the way. Tennant and Morrissey have an easy chemistry that's especially highlighted in moments of jeopardy. Rather than accusing each other of not being the Doctor, they laugh and hug and bask in the madness of what they have just experienced. When he talks of amnesia alarm bells might go off that indicate that this isn't the Doctor but Morrissey not recalling Tennant is no different than Sixie failing to recall the events in his past in The Two Doctors.  The clues continue to mount that perhaps this isn't the Doctor...a sonic screwdriver that contains no futuristic technology whatsoever, a pocket watch in which the effusive personality of a Time Lord fails to spring forth and a TARDIS that turns out to be a hot air balloon. To counter that, Davies cleverly incorporates Tennant into Lake's unreliable flashback so there is the possibility that a confrontation with the Cybermen forced him to regenerate. Morrissey isn't afraid to play Lake as a vulnerable man, weeping at the loss of something that he cannot define but knows was important. Compare his exposed performance here to his terrifying take on The Governor (another pompous title) in The Walking Dead and see what a versatile performer he is. Why would a man choose to lose himself in the fantasy of being the Doctor? 'That's an awful lot of luggage for one man' - what a heartbreaking piece of dialogue, making Jackson realise that he chose to become the Doctor because he couldn't face the loss of his wife. It's a devastating knife in the gut for Jackson, and watching that grief grip hold of him so tightly is quite a daring moment of character assassination for Christmas Day. As a gift, he is handed his son at the climax and a chance of a happy future. Jackson's might just be my favourite of all the reactions to the TARDIS in the entirety of the new series, running back outside because it is so impossible it makes his head hurt ('Very, very silly!'). You can see real potential in the partnership of the Doctor and Jackson and it is a pity that their association should end here.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Hope I don't just trip over a brick, that would be embarrassing' - oh no, Ten, it is far more protracted than that.
'He dreams of leaving...but never does' - I wonder if that description was pinned on the Doctor before he stepped out into the universe.
'I suppose in the end...they break my heart.'

The Good:
* Nobody puts on Christmas quite like the BBC. As much as I might be a little tired of the festive sojourns, I have to admit that when I am in the mood for a little Christmas (usually when the nights start drawing in the weather turns inclement) I need look no further than the yuletide exploits on my favourite show. The Next Doctor sports an impressive recreation of Victorian London captured in snow and flame, a bustling marketplace full of urchins, coppers, carollers and Christmas wares, and a funeral of black undertakers marching against a white graveyard. This the sort of yuletide imagery that the BBC excels at. What really impressed me was the visual representation of what the Cybermen are all about, using biological slaves to create a mechanical killing machine. The children working in the cogs of the Cyber King, a masterful piece of engineering that is filled with smoke and atmospherically lit. It's lunacy to think that children are running the clockwork inside this ridiculous machine of war but that just makes it uniquely Doctor Who. Take in all the detail of this set, for all that it is busy with extras it is a very impressive piece of design. The long shot with enhanced CGI cogs turning quite took my breath away. Welcome to the industrial revolution.
* Miss Hartigan remains something of an enigma to me, for similar reasons as Lucy Saxon. So much about their characters is not explicitly stated and yet it is clear that they have been shamefully mistreated in the past and are slaved to a masculine alien presence to achieve some kind of freedom. There is so much that can be read into her and indeed if you get yourself a copy of The Writers Tale (or check out the Wikipedia entry for this story which contain relevant quotes from the book) you can see that Davies was taking the dangerous step of featuring a villainess who has been sexually mistreated, powerless in this age of male dominance to resist the urges of her masters whilst in service. As a result she is twisted and sexualises everything, she even wears red, the most inflammatory of colours. 'The Cyber King will like a man?' might be one of the rudest lines ever uttered by a character in Doctor Who, and one of the most disturbing when you tie it into her back story. Should Davies even be hinting at such dark subject matter in a family slot on Christmas Day? Perhaps not, but it is a brave move and the sort of complex characterisation that women enjoyed when he was running the show. If The Keys of Marinus (twice) and The Time Meddler can make allusions to the sexual abuse of women then show has set a precedent to at least explore the idea. It might be uncomfortable in a family drama but that is what makes it so compelling. How to explore the idea discreetly, in the shadows, without upsetting the audience or misrepresenting the victims of such appalling treatment. She will kill a man just to bring together her real victims at his funeral, such is her desire for revenge upon men. She considers the Cybermen her 'Knights in shining armour.' Offering her liberation which turns out to be another form of slavery, Miss Hartigan cannot seem to break out of this habit. She's appalled at the thought of being slaved to the Cyber King, for all intents and purposes becoming a man. It is called her liberation. Uncomfortable stuff.
* I will never get bored of Cybermen's heads exploding like technological boils jammed full of foamy pus. The first time we saw the Cybermen they were marching out of the snow and it is an visual that remains potent, especially when they slide between the gravestones of the dead. Walking dead men, marching among their own kind. I found the action less interesting than the imagery, this is far more artistic than dynamic (especially when you add drop of blood to proceedings, Miss Hartigan's dress). This is wonderful setting to tell a Cyberman story (certainly more appropriate than a department store dressing room), an age of steampunk, of steel and cogs and industrial improvements. It's just a shame that the Cyberman aren't really needed, beyond their looks.
* If you are smart enough not to be distracted by the possibility of two Doctors working together and Cybermen invading a funeral then it is possible to piece together the mystery of Jackson Lake before the twist is revealed. A murdered man, an info stamp, too much luggage, something important being stolen... Davies smartly reveals the truth about his ploy halfway through the story, allowing Jackson Lake to claim his identity again and crumple at the murder of his wife but saves the emotional kick of this storyline (learning that he has a son and he is alive) for the climax. I have felt genuinely nauseous at the 'love conquers all' climaxes of several Matt Smith episodes (Night Terrors and Closing Time are equally vomit inducing in this respect) but the way this surprise is handled is expertly done. Morrisey's reaction to discovering his child was kidnapped by the Cybermen, coupled with the fact that he is in instant danger, delivers a double punch to the gut. After everything he has been through, I was rooting for Lake to have some kind of happy ending and pleased when it was delivered.

The Bad:
* I can't decide whether the Cyber shades are rubbish or not, the only real conclusion I can come to is that they are...different. Certainly the stunts they perform climbing up buildings and dragging the Doctors to their doom are very impressive and there is something weirdly creepy about their shaggy hides crawling across vertical facades. However when studied in depth they are simply the Taran Wood Beast (nice to see he got work after his brief appearance in season sixteen) decapitated with a bronze age Cyberman helmet bolted on in place of its head (a shame it had to suffer such body horror to secure employment). They are unlike anything we have seen in Doctor Who before and they aren't iconic looking enough to be given another appearance so they become a Christmas special aberration that add to this story' sense of individuality.
* She's not badly performed (although the accent grated a little), she's quite resourceful and she's certainly very attractive but I have to say that Rosetta (I groaned at the Doctor's reaction to the name) left very little impression on me. Like Clara, she's a bit of a non-entity. There isn't really the time to explore her back story and make a mystery out of Jackson's and one of them has to suffer as a result. Perky, quick to react, humane...she's a perfectly adequate companion without ever threatening to be a compelling one. Rosetta could be seen as a truly liberated woman, smacking Miss Hartigan around the chops for her compliance with the Cybermen.
* The Cyber King. He's a bit naff, isn't he? Don't get me wrong the visualisation of his ascendance is faultless. From the physical sets rising with a beautiful woman at its heart (a tribute to Davies' Dark Season perhaps?) to the painstakingly recreated version of Victorian London in CGI for him to trash as he marches through the town, the impressive budget is very much there on screen. If you are five years old this would probably be the pinnacle of Doctor Who for you, an enormous Transformer style Cyberman blowing an entire town to bits. It doesn't get more 'Cor! Wow!' than that. But if you have reached adolescence and your brain can skip over spectacle to good sense then the entire climax is just a mess of implausibility, embarrassment and lunacy. If the whole thing had to be retrospectively shoved down Amy's crack then what was the point of it all? Just because is the answer (or rather just because it is going out on Christmas Day) and that is then laziest (and I hate this word when it comes to writing) excuse of all. A hulking great Cyberman because they can rather than because they should. They've never been seen before or since and there is a very good reason for that. He even looks quite daft although not quite as daft as the most recent perfect killing machine in The Caretaker (beedy beedy beedy). I can at least believe in this thing as a machine of destruction (just because it is so big) but if this cumbersome, wind up toy of a Cyber King did stomp over the hills and take out your town...wouldn't it be embarrassing?
* I prefer the 2nd Doctor's method of scarpering before anybody can heap any praise on him for saving the day (or possibly just to avoid clearing up). All this basking in applause is a bit too much for me. Yeah, yeah, we know the Doctor is great because of what he just did. You don't need to labour the point.

The Shallow Bit: In that Victorian garb Morrissey is quite a dashing looking chap.

Result: What an odd beast The Next Doctor is. Those coming to it expecting the sort of high-jinks that came with The Runaway Bride and Voyage of the Damned were confronted with something quite uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong there was plenty of action and not a little spectacle but along with that came questions of identity, allusions to sexual abuse and some very dark character drama. Visually it gives you all the trappings of a Christmas adventure in Victorian London but its a story that is far more interesting in heading into the shadows and finding out what is festering there. I think Davies was quite conflicted at this point, perhaps bored of his festive obligations and trying to shake things up by opting for a character drama rather than another blockbuster. However because this was broadcast on Christmas Day the audience demands an extravaganza of sorts and so he is compelled to toss in a sequence of cinematic madness at the climax. The twisted story of Jackson Lake and his family and the rise of the Cyber King are two entirely different stories that are bolted together at the point where he became the Doctor. I would take probing character drama over impressive visuals any day of the week and I found clinging onto the pendulum swinging from one story to the other quite disconcerting. Despite the fact that he is dressed up as the Doctor for half of the story, Jackson Lake emerges as one of the most vivid characters to feature in the Davies era. Thanks not only to David Morrissey's superb performance but the subtlety of the script that forces him to wear a mask, rips it away to discover the horrific truth and then allows him some redemption and peace at the climax. We go on one hell of an emotional journey with the character. Tennant is riding high on his success, engaging, funny and warm and falling into a gentle on-screen bromance with Morrissey. It makes me wonder if a trick has been missed with an all male TARDIS team. In comparison the Cyberman story doesn't have any heart (what a surprise). It boasts some astonishing visuals and features a thrilling turn from Dervla Kirwan (another character with a disturbing past) but ultimately leads to nothing more than the ultra-camp preposterousness of a giant Cyberman stomping around Victorian London. After the nuanced characterisation on display, this feels like the story selling out for the Christmas crowd. It is rare for me to be this conflicted about a story; the Lake stuff is worthy of full marks for the emotional reaction I had to the material but the climax is massively problematical and it does awkwardly try and juggle every kind of mood. For once I think the child in Davies should have been restrained and the adult should have claimed Christmas Day. This could have been as disturbing and memorable as Midnight. Because the Cybermen don't really add anything aside from attractive window dressing in the period, I can't award more than: 7/10


Ed Azad said...

With all this talk of Morrissey I'm suddenly interested in seeing the musician Morrissey guest star at some point!

Anyway, I did appreciate how Tennant was most impressed with handsome, cliff-jawed Jackson Lake when it looked like he might be the Nth Doctor, and deeply aggrieved when he met pencil-necked Eleven. That's the one positive to come out of this mifire.

David Pirtle said...

David Morrissey made a terrific 'Doctor' in this episode. I thought this was a very moving character drama only somewhat undercut by the mediocre Cybermen adventure. It should have been a dead giveaway that Morrissey wasn't the real Doctor, given how well he got along with Tennant's Doctor. That never happens.