The Next Doctor 2008 Christmas special served as the beginning of the end for current show runner, and this episode's writer, Russel Davies and principle actor David Tennant. Rather than play a regular full season, Doctor Who's 2009 season begins, typically at first, with the annual Christmas episode and then four one hour episodes including a two parter finale. For this special, Davies decided to play cute, cuing into what the fans were buzzing about, "With Tennant exiting, who will be the next actor to shoulder Doctor Who?"
For those that don't know, Doctor Who as a fantasy series is pretty much shouldered by two key aspects: the ability of our hero to, with relative but sometimes chaotic ease, travel anywhere through time and space, and that he has a certain number of lives/incarnations, regenerating from one body and slightly different personality type after another one dies. Thus, the show can bop between alien worlds and eras every week and when one actor exits, another can take the mantle and provide a new spin.
Christmas, 1851, London. The Doctor arrives and, as per usual, barely gets to take in the sights before he hears someone calling out for his help. Only, he isn't the doctor being called for and the other doctor claims to be a heroic Time Lord. Naturally, the Doctor assumes this is his next regeneration and is hit with a mixture of delight to meet his next self and confusion over why his successor doesn't recognize his old skin. There is also initial curiosity to know how he died. Best not to know the latter, "I hope I didn't just trip over a brick."
Aside from his amnesiac self, there are Cybermen afoot, including a new kind, beastly dog-monkey-black mop-Cybermen hybrids, and a string of murders of child advocates and missing children to investigate. Of course, it isn't a spoiler to say, the Next Doctor is not his next regeneration. We all know now that the role goes to actor Matt Smith and the reveal in the special is about midway through with pretty clear signs before that this man, however Doctorlike he may be, is not the next in line.
Davies, who for all his praise in relaunching Who from years of blackout, I find, has some terrible instincts which are thankfully reigned in with this special. It was a cute idea to play off the upcoming regeneration with a faux-Doctor story, doubled by the casting of one of the actors rumored to be in the running for the role, David Morrisey. And, from a fan standpoint, it played to the past and Doctor meets Doctor stories. Likewise, I've never found the Cybermen to be great villains, basically just Daleks with limbs, but Davies offers a neat new look to the Cybermen with the finale when they construct a giant steampunk mech that stomps all over 19th century London.
The running time means things are kept pretty snappy. I don't feel the need to go into too many story specifics. A light Who outing with the usual melange of science fiction trappings, Cybermen abducting children with the help of a human accomplice, using the slave labor to build a war machine. On the next doctor angle, a common man is accidentally imprinted with some of the doctors memories, again the Cybermen are to blame, so he sets about trying to fill in the psychic gaps and tries at being the Doctor. At first, the faux-Doc is all play but once he realizes he isn't who he thinks he is, he is haunted by his identity (and more) being taken away. The story is speckled with humor, drama, and some light action before a nifty conclusion. Not a peak in the long running series by any means but the kind of stuff to pleasantly kill an hour during the holiday season.
The acting is all solid, though the faux-Doc's companion doesn't exactly have much to work with and our traitorous villainess has standard humdrum baddie trappings and an oft seen snakelike sneer. The production values are hit and miss. The modern Doctor Who relaunch has always struggled with budget problems that seesaw between new-fangled slickness and old school cheese. For instance, the sets always have that fanciful veneer over convincing period reconstruction, some times hitting just the right touch of details, other times appearing flat and dull. You wont be thinking its Dickens come to life. And, while the CGI of the Cybermanmech is decent, the Cybermanmonkeys are a straight, unintentionally laughable throwback to Pertwee era Who monsters.
The DVD: BBC America.
A very special Cybermanmonkey Christmas is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. Good quality, clean, with decent contrast depth and sharpness. Colors are appropriately robust with no bleed through. Elements aren't entirely perfect as I noticed some slight edge enhancement and light combing.
A sole, basic 2.0 Stereo track is complimented by English subtitles. The usual round of bombast for the score and fx work with the dialogue played mostly straight. I go back and forth on the lack of 5.1. I guess being used to a lot of tv not having it, it doesn't really bother me, and the track here is evidence that stereo still gets the job done.
Curiously, the usual "Doctor Who: Confidential" making of featurette is not present. Instead there is a Doctor Who At The Proms (59:00) concert special. This is a kid and mass public friendly series hosted by former companion Freema Agyeman at the Royal Albert Hall. Symphony plays various modern Doctor Who music pieces from composer Murry Gold. Catherine Tate, Davros, Daleks, Sontarans, etc show up and mix with the crowd. Video segments accompany the music and, while it is mostly montage stuff, there is special shirt designed for the show, a "new adventure," with Tennant that plays to and with the hall audience.
A fun Doctor Who outing which plays to the better instincts of the new series, decent laughs, Tennant's charms, and a good conclusion. Really, the only nagging point is this whole special outing, the lack of 2009 Doctor Who's being presented as a season. I just have a nagging feeling with the nature of DVD repackaging, somewhere down the line, all of these specials will be combined and consumer can save a little money. Therefore, die hard Who fans may want to give it a buy, but I'd lean towards a wait-and-see attitude and opt for a rental in the meantime.