By “Journey’s End”, it had been announced that both Russell T. Davies and David Tennant were leaving Doctor Who. But nobody (apart from them and Stephen Moffat) knew what form that was going to take. What the public did know was that “Journey’s End” had a happy ending in which the Doctor survived and dropped all of his companions off on Earth and alternate Earth. Would the Doctor take on a new companion at the last minute intended for his next incarnation?
Not so much. Instead, the story took a page from “The Deadly Assassin”’s book and gave the Doctor some time on his own. Some who count companions would argue that that this “season” has as many as five companions. I would say that that’s completely ridiculous unless you’re going to count every guest star in every episode as a companion. Only Wilf arguably counts as a companion, and he’s pretty much Earthbound throughout his tenure in Doctor Who, even if you count his appearance in the 1960s.
I call these the “2009 Specials”, but actually, of the 5 specials, only 3 of them were actually in 2009. This period started on December 25, 2008 and continued until January 1st, 2010, so forgive me if I extend 2009 by seven days for the sake of simplicity. These specials are “The Next Doctor”, “Planet of the Dead”, “Waters of Mars” and “The End of Time”. They were aired on Christmas, Easter, November, Christmas, and New Years, respectively (the end of time was aired in two parts). And they were not very good.
“The Next Doctor” is definitely my favorite of the bunch, my primary complaints being that it had too much time to slow the pacing down (each of the specials is fifteen minutes longer than the average episode, save “The End of Time Part 2”, which is thirty) and that it would have worked better with a seasoned companion for the Doctor to work off of. The premise is no less functional than the average episode, save the fact that the entire special was a trick set up by Russell T. Davies to trick the audience into thinking that the Doctor was regenerating into David Morrissey.
The premise of “The Next Doctor” is a Cybermen invasion of Victorian England. It features a steampunk interpretation of the TARDIS (a hot air balloon) and of a giant mech created by the Cybermen. The titular “Next Doctor” is a man who, following a traumatic break with reality, had thirty seasons of Doctor Who downloaded into his brain in a single day, and that’s never meant to happen. Convinced he was the Doctor, he built a TARDIS (in this case, “Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style”), took on a companion (Rosita) and fought the Cybermen. There are plenty of things to nit-pick about this episode, sure, but ultimately it’s an average episode of Doctor Who that’s main fault was trying to be an extra long special.
“Planet of the Dead”, the Easter special, is thoroughly forgettable. The story features a wormhole, a cat burglar, stingray monsters that the Doctor doesn’t care about as long as they don’t get to Earth, and is filmed in Dubai because there are no deserts with better politics to give the BBC’s business to. Christina is the standout element of the episode, but as the Doctor’s not in the mood to travel with a companion, she’s left behind and forgotten, removing all trace of this special except for a psychic’s premonition of someone knocking four times. This leads to a lot of people knocking and banging on things for the rest of 2009.
The November special, “The Waters of Mars”, is by far the most popular of these stories in my experience. It’s an interesting story, and probably the worst thing about it is the way that the next special lops off the better part of the ending, leaving the worse part of it to be the part that sticks. That “worse part” is the idea that there are absolutely no consequences to deciding you’re going to disregard the laws of time because the people who usually guard them are dead. The Doctor realizes that this idea is going a bit too far at the end, but as I mentioned, the next special throws that part out the window.
The story proper of “Mars” is the Doctor being trapped into what this era refers to as a “fixed point”, an event that is so entrenched in time that the fabric of the universe would be warped if something actually managed to change it (which is supposed to be impossible, especially since a Time Lord’s deepest instinct is to keep all time travelers far away from them). The last time the Doctor found himself at a fixed point, he ended up causing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. Needless to say, he’s not eager to repeat the experience, yet for some reason he stays and interferes.
In the midst of this, a parasitic outbreak is threatening the crew. Interestingly, the idea of “the potential of infection outweighs the need of the survivors” is never brought up, though at least the crew of scientists on Mars do their best to isolate the source of the infection and ensure that nobody infected has a chance of escape. I imagine there’d be a lot less drama if Captain Brooke had simply declared escape to be out of the question thirty minutes into the episode.
The episode ends with an Ood telling him “something bad is going to happen”, which leads us into the next episode. “The End of Time” is a story that is so dramatic that it didn’t bother me the first time, when everything was a mystery, but subsequent viewings have shown it to be less than a quality story.
The Master was believed to be killed, but unbeknownst to the Doctor he became a disembodied consciousness. He goes on to possess Eric Roberts, and wait, actually, that’s a better TV movie than this one. It does provide some kind of precedent for this sort of event, however, as the Master survived in the form of a ring with Gallifreyan writing on it. Here is where I would normally comment on the technology and how clever or stupid various characters were in relation to its use, however, it’s treated as a magic artifact that requires a magic ritual in order to conjure up a new John Simm. The ritual is interrupted, which results in the Master being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, shoot lightning from his hands, become a spooky and/or comical skeleton for brief periods of time, and become a speed eater for reasons that may or may not have been entirely the result of a directing mistake.
By bringing the Master back to the series so quickly, several problems are brought to light. One is the fact that every time John Simm is on screen, he’s knocking four times. Really, the titles for “The End of Time Part 1” and “Part 2”, and “The Sound of Drums” and “Last of the Time Lords” could have been switched with their respective alternates and nobody would have noticed. If you didn’t like John Simm’s Master because he’s so over the top, you’ll hate him here, where the most over acted scene of “The Sound of Drums” doesn’t hold a candle to the most subtle scene he appears in here. If you liked him in the “Sound of Drums” two-parter... again, the most over the top scene of that story is more subtle than his most subtle scene here. If you didn’t like the Doctor wanting to travel the universe with one of the most notorious mass murderers in all of time and space, well, at least that idea has less screen time here than Bernard Cribbins gathering everybody old enough to have bought tickets to his first Doctor Who appearance together to scour London for the Doctor, because a mysterious person who may or may not have been either Susan or Romana said that he may return.
On top of that, this story gives us Rassilon reduced from a wise immortal to a raving lunatic (as are most of the Time Lords by this point), and the Doctor convinced that his regeneration (which takes ages) is going to mean the end of the world. I defend this scene by saying it’s a nod to the arrogance and the Superman complex that the Tenth Doctor has developed, and that radiation poisoning isn’t instant... but those are shallow defenses of a scene where the failsafe of a nuclear device is “if somebody else enters, the person about to die may leave”. The Doctor is right to complain about that scene- the only reason such a device could possibly exist in this movie is if it’s placed there specifically for the purpose of forcing him to regenerate. Even though it gives him time to take several trips in the TARDIS to visit all of his friends. It’s a shame the Doctor doesn’t have the ability to force lethal amounts of radiation into his shoe or something.
Altogether, this “season” is almost definitely the least entertaining and least intelligent thing that Russell T. Davies has contributed to this universe. The sole purpose these specials exist is to foreshadow and then follow through with David Tennant’s regeneration, which to me translates as a sacrifice of five hours of pointless, largely forgettable television that is completely driven by plot convenience, for the sake of “Journey’s End” having a happy ending. It’s doubly a shame when you realize that Dalek stories in the past have had about a 50% chance of getting rid of either a Doctor or a companion. It would have been fitting for Davros’s first on-screen appearance in decades, ending a Dalek-heavy run of the show, would give Davros his first victory over the Doctor. “Journey’s End” could have been the “Logopolis” of the new series, completely skipping the need for these specials. Both the episode and the show would have been better for them, and maybe fans of this era wouldn’t have quite so much to defend.