Reason 1: Penance.
You must have done something really bad right? Oh, alright, I’ll be serious. There are ten good reasons to watch these five “specials”. Probably many more. Add them in the comments for everyone’s delectation and delight.
And yes, we know The Next Doctor was 2008, and The End of Time Part 2 was 2010; and we know Who fans are pernickety, not to say pedantic. Whatever you call these specials, they are microcosmic of Russell T Davies’ writing; a brilliant but imperfect mix of excellently-judged and sublimely played moments of deep, human connection – falling into indulgent overemotional mush. They are epic, cinematic, global and sometimes universal-scale threat and confrontation – falling into ‘Doctor Science has left the building’ nonsense, and a Retcon dependency that allows Earth to go back to normal in a flash. Put on the brainy specs for one last time and let’s take a closer look.
We’ve just celebrated the 56th anniversary of that first, wonderful broadcast, the reason we’re all here. 56 years since William Hartnell started something he could never have dreamt would become the worldwide phenomenon we know, are part of. Bad health forced him from the role he loved, against his will. Much as I hated Mark Gatiss’ crowbaring the Tenth Doctor’s ‘I don’t want to go’ into David Bradley’s dialogue in An Adventure in Space and Time, I acknowledge he had a point. Fact or fiction, this show is hard to leave. But if Hartnell hadn’t left, the show would have died within the year. It was by his leaving that that genius idea was born, which allows another actor to take over but be the same person. Just so, on New Year’s Day 2010, David Tennant said ‘I don’t want to go,’ but went anyway; so that the show could go on, renewed, regenerated.
These specials are all about change, the fin de siècle mix of frivolity and impending gloom – in fact as well as fiction as the old team prepared to hand over the reins. David Tennant famously said that if he didn’t leave then, he never would – ‘you would be prising the TARDIS key out of my cold, dead hand.’ On the extras, he says filming the specials felt like coming home, and Who is often called a family. In the extras, Tennant says, ‘I just wanna run away now; I feel a bit bereft.’ The song was ending, the party was over – but what a party it was. Everyone was invited, and Scotland’s most famous band jumped at the chance to join in.
The relaunched show had been more successful than even RTD could have hoped, the BBC’s ‘flagship’ gracing the front cover of the Radio Times as a matter of course, and an hour of Confidential every week. Big stars were queuing up to be on it. So RTD hands it over to Steven Moffat with a run-up: the specials are a character study of the Doctor more even than Series 8, and of why it is necessary for him to change. There’s a lot of loose ends tied up, and a fan-service send-off for the best-loved Doctor since Tom Baker, and all his old friends. The extended farewells grate in hindsight, but were absolutely fitting in context. (It feels odd in ‘Doctor Who and the Mallet of Doom’ that ‘A Sontaran’ is not yet the comic Strax we come to know so well later.) The flipside is that – as in much of Davies’ era – plot suffers; for instance there’s a great story about the lengths a dad will go to to save his daughter from death. It’s C.A.L. in the Library, not Naismith and whatever-her-name-is shoehorned into The End of Time. He – like Rassilon’s ‘I WILL NOT DIE!!!’ – is put there to contrast the damage they are prepared to do to evade death, with the Doctor’s eventual acceptance of his fate.
The whole specials season is a bit overblown, but with a purpose: to bring the Doctor to the ironically-named Immortality Gate so a new man can saunter away. They throw everything into the mix, and pump it up to 11.
And in he comes, not so much a breath of fresh air as a mostly benevolent whirlwind. And not a moment too soon.
2. The Doctor’s Dark side.
Davros has shown him that he makes his friends into weapons, and, having lost too many companions, he chooses to travel alone. We see what he becomes without ‘all those bright and shining companions.’
hJackson Lake lets the Doctor hear his opinion of himself from someone else’s mouth, which rings hollow as the season goes on. ‘The one, the only, and the best!’ In The Waters of Mars, he states his name rank and intention as ‘The Doctor, Doctor, Fun.’ But later describing himself as the ‘maintenance man of the universe.’ Planet of the Dead referenced the exceptional Midnight, but with a happier ending. Waters of Mars takes it over the cliff. Donna once said he needs someone to stop him. Without a companion, his hubris and Messiah-complex spiral out of control, culminating in the megalomania Doctor: ‘The Laws of Time are mine: (I am their Master) and they will obey me!’ RTD takes him to the ‘I’ve gone too far’ stage, so that at his end, in a mix of resignation and resolution he can say ‘I’ve lived too long.’
3. Stealing from the Big Screen.
The specials are certainly cinematic in look as well as run time.
Occasionally that means ‘bugger the science as long as it looks good’ but hey, this is fiction.
There are some spectacular stunts; fast, loud, fun and glossy. You wouldn’t believe they couldn’t afford a real helicopter in The End of Time, given the Jon Pertwee era had plenty. You can enjoy spotting Torchwood’s Hub under the workhouse set. The sandy one has some great shots. The swarm of killer metal manta rays is good; the flying bus works. The Third Doctor’s exclamation, ‘what a beautiful creature’ would have been true if the giant maggots had hatched into Tritovores. Bowie Base 1 is impressive on all levels, model and CGI, logo and live action sets. Logical design too – arms hermetically sealable from the hub. John Simm has a lot of fun dressing up, and the CGI department have fun populating the whole earth with him. Except the five we follow, and the entire population of Trap street. The ‘friends of Meglos’ are well-played light relief – ‘Oh my Lord; she’s a cactus!’ Gallifrey’s parliament chamber is built in blockbuster grandiose style; dark and cavernous, but tediously repetitive, populated by faceless beings urged into frenzy by a rabble-rousing demigod. Any similarity to either social media or current politics are entirely coincidence. Honest.
While we’re on allegiance to bad leaders, the less said about the Cyber-King the better. It’s ‘homage’ to a film most won’t have seen and the rest will have forgotten. The various Star Wars homages work better – hints in the score, Jack’s Cantina band bar, the ‘worst rescue ever,’ the Vinvocci ship re-entry and defence a refreshing cocktail of Star Wars with a hint of Red Dwarf. The Master’s Horcrux ring, potion, and spell is pure Harry Potter; there’s even Potteresque music as he tells of his 8-year-old trauma. Perhaps his family estate was next door to the Malfoys’.
The mad, starved skeleton is, I presume, a representation of the departing showrunner’s psyche after creating Who every waking moment for five years.
4. Jackson Lake.
There’s a unique element here that works because it feels odd: as The Next Doctor opens, it might be a multi-Doctor story seen from the point of view of a current Doctor meeting an unknown future one, not a current one meeting ones we already know. But it’s a relief when we realise he’s not really our hero. Anyone can play the Doctor; a stick their sonic, a cupboard their TARDIS. But they know they’re playing, so it feels weird that Lake thinks he’s real.
There are many stories, particularly in Big Finish, about how difficult it is to be the Doctor, especially if you’re not him. We’ve just seen the tragedy of the Doctor-Donna. Now we see the tragedy of someone playing the Doctor because it’s easier to bear than his own life and loss. For once, the Tenth Doctor’s ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry’ fits perfectly. David Morrissey gives him depth; he’s enthusiastic, loyal, likeable, brave. He graciously hands the real Doctor role back to the Doctor before he gets his memory back, becoming the perfect companion instead, helping, suggesting, and even grounding the Doctor enough to make him stay for Christmas dinner. The irony of the Tenth Doctor giving him back his memories after having to wipe Donna’s is just another nail in this Doctor’s coffin, if he had one.
5. The biggest ever number of Silents in one story.
Planet of the Dead is littered with them, which is why it’s hard to remember anything about it even just after you’ve watched it. I tried, but my Sharpie (other permanent markers are available) ran out. Apparently a whole thriving planet full of people is wiped out but no one can remember them or care. There’s a lot of sand. I think there’s a bus.
(While we’re on forgetting things, let’s look at the Doctor’s mood at the start of The End of Time. Some think he took the long way round to his inevitable death, anything up to two years, so he’d forgotten the trauma of Waters of Mars. Maybe following The Day of the Doctor, the natural retcon secreted by a special Time Lord gland after any future-self encounter hadn’t worn off, so most of his gloom and doom were buried for a while. Maybe a tiny part of him somehow knew that some of the guilt and grief he’d been carrying was no longer valid… Who knows?)
6. The Waters of Mars.
‘You can’t re-write history, not one drop.’
‘Don’t drink; don’t even drink, not one drop. Drink and you’re dead. Water is patient, really patient. It waits. Don’t get in its way, don’t let it touch you, and don’t drink.’
Sorry, I appear to be glitching here – must be the static.
This story is not just ‘the one in the middle’ – it is the pivot, the kingpin, the core of his Time Lord soul. You have to watch this one at least, as it is not only a beautifully-paced Classic base-under-seige (Graeme Harper, take a bow), it is the darker, more grown-up side of Davies’ writing. It shows you why the Doctor does what he does, what it costs him, what might happen if he defied death as well as time. In all the ‘Doctor turns bad’ angst, don’t forget he saved Earth, again: if he hadn’t been there they would have returned to Earth infected…
The Waters of Mars is not all good. ‘I hate funny robots.’ Me too, Doctor; me too. The best bit about the robot was the surprise reveal at the Doctor’s arrest. Being so flimsy, it certainly wouldn’t be able to survive that high-speed race across the bumpy red planet. There are far too many characters; NASA’s ideal team is five or 6 – The Martian was more realistic. In writing terms, there are too many to establish all their characters without laying it on with a trowel. But by the end, you do care, not just by the slo-mo operatic bit. The Dalek is shoehorned in; though it seals the growing trust between the Doctor and Adelaide Brooke, and reinforces the ‘fixed point’ that must not be changed, I’m not sure either was really necessary.
The effects are good, the monsters sufficiently creepy. Is it just me, or do the costumes fail at the last hurdle: Ten changing from spacesuit to coat in transit, while the base survivors in their thin indoor clothes don’t even shiver in the November snow?
Maybe they don’t feel it because Adelaide’s angry, Yuri’s Russian, and Mia is already a synth.
7. Lindsay Duncan.
It is telling that the most captivating, tantalising bit of Planet of the Dead was the clip of Adelaide Brooke from the Next Time trailer. What a character; what a sublime, powerful, commanding actor. She delivers the ‘climate action’ call with authority: ‘It’s been chaos back home; 40 long years. Climate, the ozone, the Oil Apocalypse. We almost reached extinction.’ If you need someone to stand up to the Time Lord Victorious, she is it. The cat-and-mouse game they play over the truth that she knows he knows is a masterclass, both acting their socks off even without words. During his ‘You die today’ interchange, he never blinks, freezes in the emotion, but Lindsay Duncan could make Avon weep. Water always wins.
Back on Earth, she doesn’t need the lovely noir cue in the music as she challenges him. His screaming ‘we’re fighting Time itself, and I’m gonna win!’ sounds like a toddler’s tantrum compared to her understated reprimand, voicing his Father’s Day words back to him about no one being unimportant, him having too much power. He says ‘All yours!’ as if he’s giving her the world with this new start. She knows it is the responsibility that is all hers, as he has ducked it. When it comes to guest stars with gravitas, she’s up there with Philip Madoc, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, and John Hurt.
And can I just crowbar in a nostalgia for consequences? Remember those days, when people actually died and stayed dead? RTD never met a character he couldn’t kill; Moff never met one he could. And Chibs can’t even kill a dying spider.
8. Other guest stars.
I’ve already praised Morrissey, leaving us with the impression that anyone who can manage to be the Doctor, even for a while, is a decent man.
Dervla Kirwan is wasted; in a Christmas episode, RTD couldn’t include her dark background story of abuse, so you neither understand her motivation nor care about her demise. Lady Christina is a thin cipher, but Michelle Ryan is game and gung-ho, which lifts it a little (though if you want a larger-than-life character flying a red bus, some prefer Iris Wildthyme). June Whitfield’s national treasure makes Minnie the Menace more than a bit of fun. As David T says (in the extras) about her bum-squeezing enthusiasm, ‘it’s not something I ever imagined would happen when I was watching Terry and June 30 years ago.’
Ex-Bond Timothy Dalton’s larger-than-life Rassilon is Space-Opera, but restrained from all-out panto, though the robe and staff with a knob on the end is stolen from Pratchett’s Unseen University. That would explain where he gets the power to reverse the Master’s DNA switch. Claire Bloom is a lovely unanswered question – an angel? A member of Gallifrey’s Anti-Rassilon Resistance? The Doctor’s Mum? Or, given when Wilf asks the Doctor who she was, he glances at the wedding couple, Susan’s Gran?
9. Wilfred Mott.
Just as his comic dance sold Donna’s joy at finding the Doctor again in Partners in Crime, so in Journey’s End, he sells the utter tragedy of Donna’s fate, and of the Doctor’s loneliness. In The End of Time Part 1, his demeanour almost redeems RTD’s ‘gatecrashing’ of real faith with a naff ‘church+choir+candles=Christmas.’ In the overblown finale, while Dalton chews scenery, it’s Cribbins’ quiet dignity and compassion you remember. His humanity, vulnerability, and kindness in the café scene alone makes End of Time worth watching. The Doctor trusts him with his fears, his tears.
Only Cribbins could pull off the gun scene without it looking naff and out-of-place in Who. Earlier, he told the Master that he’d be proud if he were the Doctor’s dad; now the Doctor returns the compliment. He’s the perfect companion and the heart-wrenching core. As the Tenth Doctor rejoices in still being alive after all the hype, after all the ferocious banging of drums, those four, tiny, apologetic taps on glass couldn’t break a wet tissue, let alone Vinvocci glass. But they shattered every heart watching. Among the 6 friends with whom I watched it, there were gasps of breath, exclamations of ‘No! not you!’, and ‘Oh, Wilf; Darling.’ Of course he’s worth dying for. An old man, no one important. The Doctor’s reason to be. And not to be.
David Tennant was never better than this finale season Tenth Doctor, proto-megalomaniac trying to bring back his happy-go-lucky wandering days as he desperately evades death.
In The Next Doctor, he is kind, respectful, gentle with Lake. In Planet of the Dead, he gets to enjoy one last, easy-going adventure though its ‘happy ending’ is uncharacteristically xenophobic, given all but one human survive, whereas all the aliens, good, bad, and indifferent, get wiped out. But he plays it like a cross between a holiday romance and an Indiana Jones, heroism by numbers, nothing new to learn here, move along. The grief and depth of tragedy he’s been dodging return with a vengeance in The Waters of Mars – watch him witness the team packing for an evacuation that he knows will never happen, then turn away in despair.
We feel for them, and for him helplessly banging his head on the wall. When Adelaide lets him leave, she curses ‘damn you.’ He walks out hearing the screams of those perishing inside: Steffi’s last human act, to reach out to her family; Ed’s heroic self-sacrifice. Lying in a pit of flames (burning in what, exactly?), this is his hell, not being allowed to save them.
Tennant SHOWS us that, before he broke the Laws of Time, they broke him. You genuinely wonder if he is going to shoot someone in that showdown with Rassilon. He feels he has to justify himself to the Master – ‘You see now? That’s what they were planning in the final days of the War. I had to stop them.’ (Note in The Day of the Doctor, the Eleventh Doctor says to Hurt, “The day you killed them all,” the Tenth corrects: “The day we killed them all.”) No wonder most Time Lords lock themselves away, safe on Gallifrey. No wonder most of those we meet in his travels are the baddies who don’t care what harm their interference causes.
People complain about all the times the Tenth Doctor said ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ He doesn’t say it in the café when confessing to Wilf his mistakes, on Mars, on Donna’s loss. He just breaks down in tears. Did I mention that scene rocks?
Again, on the Vinvocci bridge, cradled in Wilf/Cribbins’ ‘unconditional positive regard’, Tennant finally opens up the Doctor’s tired hearts, too often broken. With his last battle over, as Wilf watches helpless from his cubicle, Tennant gives free reign to the loss, the despair, a flare of FOMO (that’s Fear of Missing Out) rage at what else he could have done. But there’s no one else he could have been; he would always be the Doctor, and there was never any doubt what the Doctor would always do. Goodnight sweet Time Lord, and flights of Ood sing thee to thy rest.
People complain at the ‘falling in love’ Doctor, the ‘too human’ Doctor. But Tennant, like any actor in this amazing role, followed one particular aspect of the Doctor’s personality, revealing as much as he could about that part, knowing others will come along and show us a different, but equally authentic part.
In all of the Doctor, we see what we often miss in those around us: the fact that they are all bigger on the inside. We can thank David Tennant for showing us how to be the fullest version of ourselves we possibly can. Allons-y!
Oh, and one last irresistible bonus reason to watch.
NEXT: Swimming in the library.