David Tennant’s encore in the TARDIS, as the opening salvo from returning showrunner Russell T Davies, is going to be entertaining TV for sure, but also interesting as storytelling.
(I’ve been chatting about this with various people for months, thought I might as well chuck it on the blog so my expectations can be tested against reality!)
RTD has always invited viewers to take a perspective on his writing – the wonderful book The Writer’s Tale, about his process in the later seasons of his last Doctor Who run, offer plenty of insight into his style. To put it simply, he’s a vibes guy, assembling story as a means to hit emotional beats and payoffs, and worrying about coherence and structure as very much secondary concerns.
In the years since he left DW he’s developed his craft further, hitting a peak with the simply marvellous It’s A Sin, which was aimed at emotional turning points but also had an extremely well-crafted narrative form, one that did not follow any standard structure but almost built out its plot from the needs of character. A remarkable piece of work by any measure, worthy of the acclaim that has been heaped on it.
So it’s interesting to speculate about what we will see in RTD’s second era of Who: what will be the well-crafted vibes this time out?
It’s known that the seed of the Tennant return, with Catherine Tate along as Donna, came from one of the lockdown Doctor Who rewatches where all three speculated about doing a return.
My guess is that this became a plan when RTD, having cast Ncuti Gatwa as his new Doctor, found he was staring down a full year of waiting before Gatwa could get out of other contracts and start in the role. With time to fill, a return to Tennant & Tate was right there on the table as an option.
But the idea of a fun reunion wouldn’t be enough for an RTD who had just achieved the highest highs of his chosen artform, and whose skill and reputation had never been higher. I think the motivation for RTD, in making this his opening statement back in the head office, is actually to speak back to his first run on the show, and return to certain decisions of the past, which is to say, certain vibes of the past.
One decision in particular is already featured in the trailer: Tate’s character Donna was left in the show with all memory of her adventures wiped away. This was an extremely controversial move, because the journey of her character had been greater than that of any other companion in the history of the show, and reverting her to a comedic bumbler did not honour her.
(Personally I had no problem with her sad ending, sometimes things just end badly, as RTD was pointing out. But I can understand why many viewers felt protective of Donna and were gutted by her final situation.)
It is clear that RTD is going to give Donna a happier ending this time out, where she can be fully herself again, living up to her potential. Not quite saying “I was wrong about that, sorry folks” – but definitely taking an opportunity to add some joy to the grand story of the show by undoing the sorrow he had once added.
I think that’s not all we’ll see along these lines. Tennant’s Doctor was always deeply flawed, and his final scenes saw him frustrated and angry at the circumstances of his demise, which came he thought too soon. Again, this left a bad taste in the mouths of many viewers, although it was very in keeping with the character RTD had steered for several years.
It is my expectation that this return to the role of Doctor is explicitly intended as a continuation of this thread: RTD will frame this as the Doctor’s own psyche giving himself a chance to resolve his resentment and frustration, come to terms with the end of his time as Doctor, and to accept his final regeneration with positivity (just as the 13th Doctor managed to do).
So I think we will see the marvellous Bernard Cribbins (RIP) again, as it was his life Tennant’s Doctor died to save beforehand. And I think his Doctor’s final line will be a satisfying rejoinder to the words that ended his previous incumbency:
“I’m ready to go.”
EDITED TO ADD: a relevant excerpt from Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook. As noted above, he’s not saying he was wrong about any of this, but he’s taking an opportunity to offer a new emotional experience by revisiting this.