TV REVIEW: Doctor Who: The Next Doctor

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This review first appeared on 31 Dec 09... my how time flies---ed
In 1984, I wandered (or was pushed) into a comic book store in Dallas, Texas. Among the bric-a-brac there were several bits of memorabilia that featured a bug-eyed man with a big grin, big hat and ridiculously long scarf. "That", someone explained to me, "Is. The. Doctor." In the next breath it was explained to me that although the name of the show is 'Doctor Who' , that is not the character's name, but an in-joke.

A show that had an obscure in-joke as it's name was too nifty an idea to pass up, so I started watching on the local PBS station- and was hooked.

Six Doctors later, I still am. So the prospect of a 'Next Doctor' intrigued me, so I watched the latest incarnation of the Doctor in this years Christmas special.
I'll try to keep this SPOILER free (or at least Spoiler light...)

One of the interesting conceits of the Doctor Who franchise, is the main character (The Doctor) is an alien who has the power to 'regenerate', that is, completely change his appearance and big chunks of his personality when he faces fatal trauma. He dies to be reborn as a new version of the Doctor (played by a new actor). In creating this mechanism, the creators of The Doctor have been able to keep the series running since the early sixties, with only a couple of breaks. (Yeah, they were loooong breaks, but still...). Ten actors have played the Doctor within the scope of the series (depending on how and who you count...), and David Tennant, the current Doctor, has announced that he's leaving the series. This means that there will be a new Doctor very soon.... and with the title of this year's Christmas special, fans speculated that we might meet the Next Doctor sooner rather than later.

Do we?

Well..... we meet A Doctor (David Morrissey). And yes, he's a legitimate doctor with all the trappings: T.A.R.D.I.S, sonic screwdriver, and travelling companion. He's dashing, heroic and in some ways, rather reminiscent of other Doctors we've known (most notably the Third (Jon Pertwee) and the Sixth (Colin Baker)). When the 'current' Doctor encounters the 'next' Doctor in Dickensian London, the higgaldy-piggaldy ensues.

Since the Doctor is a time-traveller, he has encountered other versions of himself on occasion, sometimes several at a time; it's not unusual for him to adventure with himself. The 'current' Doctor actually seems to enjoy these multiDoctor adventures- he's very comfortable in his own skins. This incarnation needs help. His memory is scattershot and his equipment isn't quite right due to a bad regeneration brought on by an encounter with the Cybermen (old enemies of the Doctor's). The Cybermen are up to no good (as usual) and the Doctors must stop them and the villanous Mercy Hartigan(Dervla Kirwan ), a proto-feminist with (slightly justified) delusions of grandeur.

BBC Wales' production is beautiful and lavish, but that's to be expected. The BBC always does fantastic work on period productions. The effects are very light in the beginning, but the climax of the production has some really cool Wizard of Oz meets Mechagodzilla moments. The costuming is well done and appropriate, although the makeup on the workhouse children seems a bit over the top in a couple of places.

The story is giddy fun, scary in a couple of places-- has a plot hole or six, but to be honest, Doctor Who as a series has pretty much made peace with it's plot-holier than thou background.

The acting from the show's leads (Tennant and Morrissey) is very, very good. Tennant has spoiled Whovians for several years now with his version of the Doctor, and his performance here is measured and appropriate. Morrissey is likewise very good- his performance deliberately recalls Doctors we've seen before. Dervla Kirwn chews scenery well, but also builds a fairly well rounded character in spite of having only a handful of character bits in between the villanous shouty parts.

One bit that I was not sure about was a new type of sub-villian/minion/pet? employed by the Cybermen called the Cybershade. In story, it's apparently what happens when you Cyber-convert a dog or a cat. It looks like a steampunkish Cyberman mask glued to a large, dark shag carpet and moves like a stuntman under a large, dark shag carpet. While I appreciate the nods this special makes to the 'classic' seasons of Doctor Who, I'm not too crazy about the emulation of the old, low budget monsters.

All told, though, it's a ripping yarn told in a breathless style that keeps you on your toes. Too bad that U.S. Viewers will have to wait until the dreadful Sci-Fi channel decides to show it.

Highly Recommended

EDIT: Please note that this episode will be running on BBC-America this weekend!