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Steampunk Robots and Feminist Villains: A Look at the "Doctor Who" Christmas Special

For fans of long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who, it's been a rough couple of weeks.

But now that the mystery surrounding the identity of the Eleventh Doctor has finally been resolved (after months and months of rumors and worries), we can get back down the real issue at hand: the latest Doctor Who Christmas Special, which I watched over the holiday break and which featured the return of the Cybermen.

Airing last month on BBC One, Doctor Who's latest Christmas Special, entitled "The Next Doctor," seemed to cheekily point towards guest star David Morrissey (State of Play) assuming the mantle of the Doctor. After all, Morrissey's character was a man whom the Doctor (David Tennant, natch) encounters in Victorian times who claims to be the Doctor but can't remember his past. Only he does know that he's the "one and only" Doctor and he carries a screwdriver of his own and flies a TARDIS. A foregone conclusion then? Hmmm...

Just what is the connection between these two men? And what clues does "The Next Doctor" hold for the future of the franchise? Let's discuss after the jump.

I have to commend writer/executive producer Russell T. Davies for indulging in a nice little bit of a bait-and-switch with "The Next Doctor," knowing full well that the audience's near-hysteria trying to determine who would be taking over as the titular Doctor would be at full boil. So it was with some amusement that I watched as Morrissey's Doctor turned out not to be a future regeneration of our beloved last survivor of Gallifrey but an ordinary man, one Jackson Lake, who witnessed the murder of his wife at the hands of the Cybermen and the kidnapping of his son... and who entered a fugue state as a result. Absorbing the knowledge of a data stamp about the Doctor into his consciousness, he began to believe he WAS the Doctor.

I loved the little clues that Davies parceled out about Lake's true identity along the way. Lake possessed a sonic screwdriver... except that it was just an ordinary screwdriver that he made "sonic" by tapping it on things; the Doctor listened to his heartbeat (one instead of two, naturally); Lake kept a dead man's luggage but refused to open it; and, oh, his TARDIS was nothing more than a hot air balloon. (Or, sorry, Tethered Aerial Release Designed in Style.)

And yet despite the fact that these two men were not one and the same, there was a sympatico spirit within them. Both witnessed the destruction of their "worlds" and sought escape through adventure and travel to the stars. And both were running from the truth of their respective situations. For Lake, it was an opportunity to deny the death of his wife; for the Doctor, a chance to pretend for just a little while longer than he hadn't lost Donna Noble.

I absolutely loved Dervla Kirwan's turn as the malevolent Mercy Hartigan, who quickly proves that old adage of hell having no fury; what could have been a run-of-the-mill story of vengeance takes on an additional feminist dimension when viewed from a modern perspective of Mercy's lot in life during the Victorian era. Thirsting for power to undo the wrongs perpetrated against her as a second-class citizen, she is the perfect target for the Cybermen but proves that they too underestimated her as she possesses a mind stronger than their hive mentality.

What else worked for me? The fact that the Doctor had to use the other TARDIS (and some co-opted Dalek technology) to defeat the Cyberking, a garganutan steampunk robot that nearly flattened London; the Doctor accepting Jackson Lake's offer of a Christmas feast to "remember those they've lost" and not just leaving once the day was saved; Morrissey's morose take on the Doctor; Lake's use of bribes to get people to help him rather than inspiring them to commit acts of goodness; that gorgeously shot scene in the snowy graveyard when Mercy orders the massacre of the funeral attendees.

While I liked "The Next Doctor" as a stand-alone story, I have to say that I didn't love it as it felt a little lacking in the pacing and thrust of the overarching story. However, I thought that the scene between the Doctor and Jackson Lake outside the (true) TARDIS was absolutely beautiful as the Doctor finally admits to Lake the reason he's traveling solo. How poignant was the Doctor's admission that, in the end, his companions all inevitably "break [his] heart", whether because they leave because they have to, they meet someone else, or they "just forget" him? It was a much needed coda to the sacrifice that Donna made at the end of Season Four and a reminder that, as much as the Doctor might seem otherworldly, his heart(s) break like anyone else's.

And that, above all else, is perhaps the beauty of Doctor Who as a series: a reminder that, no matter how far we travel, we cannot ever escape our essential truths, no matter how hard we try.

Doctor Who returns later this year with "Planet of the Dead."

Comments

There were some really nice bits and pieces to this episode, including the cruel character of Mercy and the Doctor's escapade in a hot air balloon and, of course, seeing David Tennant and David Morrissey on screen together. Not my favorite episode ever but an enjoyable ride nonetheless.
Unknown said…
I agree with Daniell, the episode had it's moments but overall I felt it was just about average for the series (which is still better than much of what's out there). However, the masacre scene in the cemetary was stunning.
Sister T said…
It was such an improvement over last year's Christmas Special, that I enjoyed it very much. I liked the new time setting. How many Christmases in a row can present day London be assaulted or threatened without even mind-wiped Donna Noble noticing? It was also nice that Davies moved on from the "how can I top a killer Christmas tree" shtick.
Unknown said…
No mention of Jackson getting all of London to applaud the Doctor? While he has been thanked in the past, I don't believe there has ever been such an outpouring of appreciation for the Doctor's efforts. It was nice to see--as much as the Doctor does what he does because it's right--him graciously enjoy being thanked.
Anonymous said…
While I agree with all of the above, I hasten to point out one thing that has been shamefully ignored in all the coverage of the Christmas Special. Whether it was intentional or not, Davies managed to introduce what could be, yet another, splendid spinoff to the Doctor Who franchise (joining Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures). Note that while Jackson Lake regained his own memories, he never actually lost those of the Doctor, nor his newfound penchant for heroism. And goodness, who wouldn't love to see David Morrissey reprise his role as Jackson Lake in a Steampunk spinoff to Doctor Who, defending Victorian London from alien threats? Are you listening BBC...?
Anonymous said…
Haven't seen this yet but I don't mind being spoiled in the least. Sounds pretty fun for the most part tho RTD can be a little heavyhanded sometimes with the metaphor.

@anon: I think that sounds pretty lame acutally and would get old fast.it's basically Victorian Torchwood, no?
Anonymous said…
I supposed you could call it that. And that's a bad thing for you? Personally I'd prefer a Victorian Torchwood to the current one. Not to mention a bit of Dickens and Jules Verne thrown in, as well as a very Doctor-esque Jackson Lake leading the charge. I'd sure watch it, but maybe that's just me...
Anonymous said…
I'd watch it. I loved the WWI era Torchwood episode in series 2.

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