on 3 December 2010
This is a mixed bag, containing one of the very best episodes written for the show, two ok romps and the hyperbolically silly finale which ends superbly but does take its time to get there. David Tennant's stay in the iconic role defined the brand for this era, so much so that he became a sort of ambassador for the BBC. His presence was felt strongly by the entire nation. The show during his tenure (no pun intended) went from strength to strength, soared in the ratings and became one of the most popular programmes again, cemented by its inclusion in the primetime slot of early evening Christmas Day for annual 'Specials'. Despite what your personal view of the show or Tennant's Doctor is, the fact remains that Doctor Who with David Tennant as the Time Lord did astonishingly well. However, his last few adventures varied wildly in quality and tone.
The first here is the Christmas Special, 'The Next Doctor', from 2008. It was the fourth Christmas Special since the show returned and the fourth featuring David Tennant and the Tenth Doctor (seems strange that, at time of writing - Xmas 2010 - , we're coming towards the sixth series since the show returned and the sixth Christmas Special, but only the first to feature a different Doctor). By then the annual crimbo hour of Who was almost expected and the quality of them had lulled slightly, but they are always great fun to watch and superb Christmas evening viewing. 'The Next Doctor' was very Christmassy, set in Victorian London with all the faux cockerney 'ow's yer faava' that it entails. It is a slight tale, with an overly complicated narrative concerning a plot devised between a megalomaniac anti-heroine (scene-stealingly played, in a deliberately over-the-top manner, by Dervla Kirwan) and some crafty Cybermen that managed to just squeeze out of the split in the void (it does seem increasingly easily done!) to put the cast of Oliver to work in a steampunk version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory in order to create a giant Bender from Futurama. For some reason. Oh and there are actors in ape-suits with cyber-masks on. For some other reason. Yes it is truly ridiculous but I enjoyed it, especially David Morrissey's turn as 'a' Doctor. It was not award-winning but it was fun on a Christmas tea-time. Out of that context, it is rather below average.
The Easter Special followed with 'Planet of the Dead'. A great title that evoked images of ancient tombs and artifacts and a Lovecraftian alien menace, almost a sci-fi Indiana Jones. What we got was a knackered London Bus that could fly, Lee Evans and a climax that never came. And a walking fly. Michelle Ryan was ok but the character was more interesting than her performance exuded. Lee Evans was welsh. And David Tennant went through the motions. The effects were pretty decent and it wasn't bad but it was a bit nothing. All talk and no trousers. The 'prophecy' at the end was exciting but only made you wish that 'Planet of The Dead' was over so you could get on with finding out how the Tenth Doctor dies.
'Waters of Mars' came as a breath of fresh air (or water) after the two preceding mediocre instalments. It is nothing other than a stunning acheivement. Base under siege Who (or any drama really) is a recipe for tense viewing. The threat, the Flood (nothing to do with Take That), was excellently realised and completely terrifying. The direction was spot on and well paced and the acting calibre was on the button. David Tennant had to raise his game with Lindsay Duncan on the payroll and he struck a perfect balance between jokey and shouty, overdoing neither and completely understanding the place that his character had reached by the end. And it was a dark place. And it was a dark ending but an ending we have never seen before in the show's history with the possible exception of 'Earthshock'. Barn-storming stuff that raised the game considerable and made everyone very keen to watch the two-part finale that was to follow at Christmas and New Year respectively.
When it did finally appear, the finale, 'The End of Time' was a bit of a damp squib, sadly. The first part, broadcast on Christmas Day 2009, was anticipated with slavering delight after the perfection of 'Waters of Mars'. John Simm was back as the Master (how, we didn't care it was just very cool - especially with bleached hair), the Time Lords were hinted at and Donna Noble was to return. Sounded promising. The Master was reanimated by a spell and now had the ability to 'zap' things with his hands together with having an x-ray skull (?), Donna was back for a few slight scenes and when the Time Lords did return, they were 'lever-pulled' back very quickly after a few talky scenes in a dark room. To be fair, the Time Lords' return as the cliffhanger was pretty spectacular but the dross that came before was literally enough to make your head spin. And the culmination of the plot was the Master turning everyone in the world into himself. Very silly.
Part Two was better only because of the end and the Tenth Doctor's wondeful demise. The tieing up of the story was the usual race-against-time shenanigans. The explanantion of the Mater#s drumming noise was trite and seemed handy, rather than creatively woven into the plot, as did the Whitepoint star ridiculousness. It was bad writing really as these things should have been forshadowed earlier, but not by 2 series. The Time Lord forced evolution was interesting and the use of the Doctor's race as baddies was always the way the show should have gone; it worked brilliantly and Timothy Dalton's Rassilon was fantastic. But it all ended with an easy to guess sacrifice from the Master and the Time Lords disappearing back up their rift, if you will, which was lazy. The inclusion of a CGI Gallifrey over Earth was unecessary too and added nothing to the tension, especially with the bad extra-acting as the planet's inhabitants, 'once again!', take to the streets to gasp and point.
But after the Time Lords had slipped away and the Doctor realised he was still alive the denouement, of not only the story but of what felt like the entire series since it returned, was magical. His heroic death to save the excellent Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott was apt and perfect. The character's almost child-like way of dealing with the fact was also interesting as it showed a selfish side, only to form the realisation that it was the right thing to do and his fate was sealed. Many balked about the time it took for the Tenth Doctor to finally regenerate but I liked the way it was done, by visiting all of his companions and comrades and helping them out in some way one last time. And then seeing Rose, which was not overdone and it was actually quite nice to see a pre-Who Rose. And the regeneration itself was, again, narratively sensible. This Doctor HAD to go with a bang. As the energy spewed from David Tennant's Doctor and the TARDIS began to demolish itself in response to the overwhelming power, the nation also felt a little bit of loss. Our Doctor was leaving, his TARDIS was dying. Was the new bloke going to be any good? Can I enjoy a different console room? Etc etc etc.... It was sad. But it was also exciting. And Matt Smith's first minute or so in the Tenth's burning ship perfectly introduced us to him, together with a catchphrase.
A fitting tribute and ascendency for the Doctors and the show. The specials as a whole are great, but individually some are of less quality than others. But it's worth the money alone for 'Waters Of Mars' and the regeneration.