This year saw the Doctor on his own again. Last year he was without Martha, after a stiff dose of unrequited love forced her to hand back her TARDIS key for good; the year before that he was without Rose, after she was unceremoniously sucked into the void between worlds; and this year he's without Donna, who's presumably spending Christmas in Chiswick, oblivious of the fact that the world still turns because of her now forgotten efforts.
The setting is England, 1851. We have snow (albeit of the fake, paper variety), annoying little street urchins and more Dickensian dialogue than you can shake a stick at. The premise is: The Doctor meets the Doctor—or at least someone who claims to be the Doctor. He even has a Dickensian sidekick, Rosita, who's even more gobby than her modern day counterpart. (If you can imagine such a thing.) Of course, it soon becomes apparent that something's wrong. Yes, the new Doctor has a sonic screwdriver (a wooden handled thing he smacks against the wall to prove it's sonic), and a TARDIS (a hot air balloon in this case—TARDIS being an acronym for Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style), but if he is the Doctor then why doesn't he recognise his old self? Obviously the answer lies in stolen memories, but the question remains: who exactly is this new Doctor and what has happened to him?
One of the strengths of this year's episode was its principal actors. No pop stars or comediennes masquerading as actors this time around, just the magnificent David Morrissey, and he was a joy to behold. Morrissey's portrayal of the Time Lord was as ebullient and brash as you could hope for—but it was as Jackson Lake where he really shone. Lake was a fragile, brooding creature, haunted by the shadows of a forgotten past. I particularly enjoyed the turn around in his story. In the end he saved the Doctor, not as a man believing himself to be a Time Lord, but as a mathematician, an everyman, spurred on to do extraordinary deeds.
The Cyberman part of the story I feel worked less successfully. I've never been a fan of the modern day Cybermen. Clearly they're the best designed of all the Cyber incarnations, but I was never convinced by the way they move. Seeing them in a long line, marching in perfect sync, always makes me think of a chain of paper men—which let's face it, isn't the scariest of images. And their modern day refrain of 'delete' started to grate pretty early on in the game. (About ten seconds after it was first uttered, if I'm honest.) For me, the original Cybermen will always be the best. Sure they were just men wearing cloth masks and pretending to be robots, but when they opened their mouths and spoke, their lips unmoving—it was a terrifying sight.
Negativity aside, the Cybermen looked vaguely menacing as they appeared out of the snow at the Revered Fairchild's funeral, but what were the Cybershades supposed to be? Did the budget suddenly run out? Were they part of some Blue Peter design-your-own-monster competition? They looked like hearth rugs with masks on. Perhaps it was meant to be a throwback to the days when all Who baddies wore costumes made by their mums, but compared to the regular Cybermen, the Cybercontroller and the giant Cyberking—all of whom looked superb—the Cybershades looked decidedly sub-substandard.
That's not to say the whole Cybermen story was a bust. Dervla Kirwan weighed in with a pretty solid performance as disillusioned feminist Mercy Hartigan. Generally, actors play Who villains like they're in panto, but Dervla played the role with surprising restraint. No over the top histrionics, no maniacal laughter and bulging eyes—instead we got a sober, reserved performance that gave her character a genuine sense of menace. Even after becoming the Cyberking, her performance didn't degenerate into the usual stereotypical über villain we've become accustomed to.
And what of the Cyberking? Great special effects (at least from a distance), but the main story was so compelling that the Cyberking element seemed little more than an unwelcome distraction. Russell T. Davies seems obsessed with making each Christmas special bigger and better than the last, which is a shame, because it's the smaller, more intimate stories that suffer. Which was somewhat the case here. I'm sure the rise of Cyberking thrilled the shows younger viewers, but it left me a bit cold and ultimately wondering what might've been had they dropped the Cybermen story altogether.
—Jackson Lake's fob watch was a throwback to the fob watch used in the episode 'The Family of Blood'. In that story, opening the watch restored the Doctor's memories. In this story, opening it caused it to fall apart.
—Morrissey was given some distinctly dodgy dialogue at times, which he did his best with, but even Olivier would struggle with the line 'I'm the Doctor! Simply the Doctor. The one. The only...and the best!'.
—The Doctor asks Lake about 'blink' and 'Sally and the angels', a reference to the third season episode 'Blink' – written by by Steven Moffat (Russell T. Davies' successor).
—Judging by the infostamp, Paul McGann is officially the eight doctor—making David Tennant the tenth. Not that we didn't know this already, Russell T. Davies has said as much in interviews, but it was nice to have the visual confirmation.
—The Court of the Cyber King? A reference to the King Crimson album 'In the Court of the Crimson King' perhaps? Is Russell T. Davies a closet prog rock fan?
—According to the end credits, the next episode will be 'Planet of the Dead', scheduled to air Easter 2009. Already confirmed as appearing are Michelle Ryan (star of the now defunct Bionic Woman) and comedian Lee Evans.
Doctor: 'You there boy. What day is this?”
Urchin: 'Christmas Eve, Sir.'
Doctor: 'What year?'
Urchin: 'You thick or something?'
Doctor: 'Oy! Just answer the question.'
Urchin: 'The year of our Lord 1851, Sir.'
Doctor: 'Right. Nice year. Bit dull.'
Doctor: 'Hold on.......who are you?'
The Next Doctor: 'I'm the Doctor! Simply the Doctor. The one. The only... and the best! Rosita, give me the sonic screwdriver.'
Doctor: 'The what?'
The Next Doctor: 'Now quickly, get back to the TARDIS.'
Doctor: 'Back to the what?”
The Next Doctor: “If you could stand back, sir, this is a job for a Time Lord.'
Doctor: 'Job for a what-lord?'