“No second chances. I’m that sort of a man.” -The Doctor
And so David Tennant and Russell T Davies bow out of “Doctor Who” together, with a final set of specials in lieu of a proper series. They’re hit or miss, with moments of emotional brilliance throughout, though with definite low points at all the stops. As has been the case throughout the new version of “Doctor Who,” when it’s bad it’s cheesy, but when it’s good it can either make you giddy with what you just saw or sucker punch you with raw emotion.
The story of Tennant’s Doctor, number Ten, has always been that of the lonely god. When Nine died, he ran away from Jack and only said goodbye to Rose. When Ten died, he wandered across space and time, saying goodbye as he died to every individual who touched him, all that were still alive, and some that weren’t in one way or another. Where Nine was a shell of a man devastated by the violence of the past, Ten was a harsher sort of god no matter that he smiled and laughed so much more. While Rose brought Nine back from the brink of human sorrow, Ten’s companions brought him back from the abyss of a god divorced from mortals. Donna was the one who put it into words best: “sometimes you need someone to stop you.”
The specials are the stories of what happens when the Doctor doesn’t have someone to stop him. Poor Jackson Lake in the “Next Doctor” who’d be nothing but a mad man without Rosita keeping him safe, a foil for what the Doctor is without his companions. “Planet of the Dead” is a middling episode until you put a finger on why it’s so grating: it’s the Doctor with a companion who only says yes. It comes to a head in “The Waters of Mars” when the Doctor breaks his own rules, and realizes that he has the power to do whatever the hell he wants and damned the consequences to how history is supposed to play out. That’s the moment when the Doctor truly comes into his heritage, when he truly becomes what the Time Lords were.
We get glimpses at last of the Time Lords themselves, of the war that the Doctor won, not just pressing the button that exterminated both his race and the Daleks, but locking them into a hell of their own devising. Good guys, bad guys, by the end of the Time War there was nothing left but the suffering. So far gone from morality, they casually throw a signal back in time to drive one of their own immortal children mad for all eternity. One. Two. Three. Four. A war in time they describe, a billion people dying every second only to be reborn again and die in a different way the next second. It’s a glimpse into the black maw of what eternity really is. “Sometimes I think Time Lords live too long,” the Doctor says. If you live forever, does a sin weigh less? Does it amortize away into nothing? The Time Lords want to pull the universe down around them, ascend into a state beyond all time and space and to hell with the countless mortals who live and die within. The Doctor looks around his favorite little dingy corner of the cosmos and realizes that a god without companions, without people is nothing more than a monster. The Doctor is the only one who has ever been there to tell the Time Lords themselves to stop.
The show returns again and again to the notion of little people, normal people. It’s critical that in the end the Doctor doesn’t die to save the world, he dies to save one man, one little, normal man. Poor sad Wilfred, knocking four times and telling the Doctor to save himself.
The regeneration is so painful to watch, one man dying to give life to another. All the memories are there, but the man is shifted. It’s a testament to the strength of four years of both actor and character just how much we loathe the new Doctor as he emerges. We’re still grieving the dead - not ten seconds have passed - while this new actor prances around with giddy excitement. But it has to be that way. The newborn, sprung into full adulthood all at once cannot be anything but joyous, and we the audience have to see it right then, right at the depth of the devastation, in order to drive the knife home and deepen the loss. No waiting six months for the next series and remembering Tennant on “previously on” clips as the new Doctor emerges. By filling the Doctor’s shoes at the moment of his death, we more profoundly feel his absence than any fade to black.
The show reboots now to some degree: new actor, new companion, new show runner, most of the ongoing story lines tied off for good. Will it work? The beauty of the show’s concept is that it can always start over again, that the torch can be passed indefinitely without losing that spark at the heart of it. As someone once said, “Allons-y!”
“I don’t want to go.” -The Doctor
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.