So to be honest I feel like I’m competing against the writer and presenter of “Twatty Who Reviews,” Diamanda Hagan, which is unwise considering that Hagan has nuked at least a couple of cities. She and I tend to have the same opinions on the RTD era of the “new” Doctor Who series, so much so I feel like it’s down to whoever gets to share those opinions first. I guess I’ll just have to try to get to “End of Time” first, if I’m allowed to live that long.
Actually, I give “The Next Doctor” more credit than Hagan does. As a Cybermen story, it’s okay, in no small part because placing the Cybermen in the context of the Industrial Revolution is inherently a good step, although in the episode itself not nearly enough is done with it. The notion that the Cybermen are more or less acting like evil industrialists, even employing child laborers, is too clever for this episode’s own good, and if it had been the real center of the story I suspect this story might have been improved leaps and bounds. I say all this as someone who prefers the original recipe Cybermen over the “new series” ones, just because their origin as the creation of a crippled mad scientist trying to create a master race feels way too much like someone is plagiarizing “Genesis of the Daleks.” For the “new series” why didn’t they just cook up a version of the Big Finish audioplay “Spare Parts”? That was awesome.
Anyway, for the most part I didn’t mind the way the Cybermen were handled in this story. Even that Cybershade with the body of the ape and the brain of a cat (really) didn’t bother me. At least they were trying to do something different with the Cybermen concept, even though the end result wasn’t as fantastic as the Cybermat.
Instead the focus is on what drags this episode down, the titular “next Doctor”…
Don’t get me wrong; Paul Morrissey is great, capturing the vibe of several past Doctors (especially, I think, Peter Davidson) while bringing in his own interpretation, and I thought the idea of someone acting like the Doctor but using very, very low-tech equipment was cute and had some potential. That said, the whole thing felt like a cheat, or more precisely a little media joke being played on fans rather than the basis for a worthwhile episode. Instead of standing on its own, the episode relies on the knowledge that David Tennant is soon leaving the show. At the least, it means that the episode was dated one hour after it aired. Also I agree with Diamanda that there is a real lost opportunity here. The titular “next Doctor” could very well have been Matt Smith, which would have made for a more interesting – and more daring – episode. Instead the reveal that Paul Morrissey’s “Doctor” is just a very confused man from 1851 Britain, his brain fried by Cybermen technology with facts about the real Doctor, feels like a justification for a very lame fake teaser for fans or another gag on those of us hoping to see more Time Lords return, rather than a natural plot twist.
And of course it turns out that the “imposter” Doctor had his wife killed and his son abducted by Cybermen, because we always must have tragedy on top of our goofy side character.
The real disappointment, however, is with the villain of the piece, the Cybermen’s human collaborator, Miss Hartigan.
She’s a strange case, because she’s a villain where her motive is up front and center, and yet we never really find out what that motive is. Hartigan is a woman in Victorian London, so the reader is just supposed to assume that she wants to overthrow nineteenth century society because she’s furious about misogyny. Was she trapped in an abusive marriage or lost her inheritance because of Victorian social attitudes and marital laws? Or was she just a very intelligent woman whose attempts to make a name for herself got frustrated at every turn simply due to sexism? Who the hell knows; she’s a woman, and it’s the nineteenth century! That’s all you need to know! It’s especially distracting because Doctor Who, even the “new” series, has been impoverished of female villains. Making a villain whose motive is only her gender – and literally only her gender – does not help fill that void.
Miss Hartigan’s confusing and poorly motivated plans end in her being made against her will into a Cyberking (I do kind of like the irony there). Then Hartigan and the Cybermen unleash their little project upon the world: a kaiju Cyberman!
In theory it’s a nifty idea, but it really does blow holes into any attempt to make the Doctor Who universe logically fit together. How the hell could a giant cyborg monster tear apart half of nineteenth century London without making the twentieth century completely unrecognizable? And, more to the point, why did even the Cybermen think they can take over Earth with one really big robot, especially one built mostly using the technology of that era? When you watch the scene now, you can almost actually hear the gears in Steven Moffat’s mind turning toward using his plans for a “cracks in time” story arc as an excuse to (at least sort of) reboot the continuity and explain away little inconsistencies like why no one ever mentions that big-ass robot that tore the hell out of Victorian London and then mysteriously vanished.
What are my feelings overall? To put it in a sophisticated yet succinct way, I don’t not like this episode. It just strikes me as featuring two really good ideas for episodes – an impostor, low-tech Doctor, and the Cybermen in the Industrial Revolution – that are thrown together with the result that neither has room to grow into anything memorable. With nothing else to offer but a half-hearted attempt to toy with publicity surrounding the show itself and the mere outline of a possibly interesting villain, you just end up with…well, an okay Cybermen episode.