All good things must come to an end, and in this case it's David Tennant's phenomenal run as the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who. This five-disc set takes the Doctor to the past, present, and future on Earth, one of her nearby neighbors, and alien worlds in distant galaxies. Like the rest of his years, the last four episodes are fantastic, even if they might not be quite perfect.
A little over four years ago, sci-fi television took a massive -- some even predicted lethal -- blow. Christopher Eccleston, the man who'd been hired to be the new Doctor Who for the 21st Century rebirth of the world's longest-running sci-fi show, was stepping down after only one year playing the part. Was the new version of the show doomed just months out of the gate? Even worse, Eccleston was being replaced by a relative unknown -- some skinny git with a goofy grin who'd had a bit part in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Really, how was this guy expected to be the new Doctor? There was just no way on Earth he'd be able to replace Christopher Eccleston. No way at all.
Yet, somehow, David Tennant did win us over, goofy grin and all. And after four fantastic years as the tenth incarnation of the Doctor, it's time for him to go. We see his four final adventures in The Complete Specials, a series of special-length episodes dealing with themes of loss, inevitability, and endings.
The first episode, "The Next Doctor," begins on Christmas Day in Victorian London, where the Doctor answers a cry of alarm and is stunned to find out that the other respondent is...himself. At least, it's some future version of the Doctor (David Morrissey) who seems to have lost most of his memories while battling the Cybermen here in 1851. After a quick skirmish with a new Cyber-beastie, the Doctor decides to help the next Doctor investigate the Cybermen's plot, and perhaps figure out what happened to make his future self develop amnesia. What the two Doctors find is a plot involving London's orphans, a murdered schoolteacher named Jackson Lake, and a woman (Dervla Kirwan) determined to rule England -- maybe even the world -- with the help of the Cybermen.
It's hard not to like a story where the Doctor teams up with another version of himself (it's happened a few times now, for the uneducated), and this story's even more fun once the Doctors (and the audience) figure out what's really going on. This is probably the best story in the set, and it's helped by the phenomenal period production values the BBC manages to get again and again with so little effort. It also gives us the first little nudge, a reminder that there are "other" Doctors yet to come. At least three of them, in fact.
Next up is "Planet of the Dead." A thrill-seeking aristocrat (Michelle Ryan) steals a chalice from a heavily guarded museum and finds herself sitting next to the Doctor when she escapes on a bus. With almost no warning, the passengers of bus #200 find themselves on an alien world of...sand. Nothing but sand as far as the eye can see. The Doctor realizes the disturbance he's been tracking is a dimensional portal between this planet and Earth, but passage through it is lethal unless protected by metal, like the now-destroyed bus. As the passengers work to free the bus and get it running again, the Doctor and Lady Christina (the previously mentioned thieving aristocrat) discover a crashed spaceship and learn this world was a verdant paradise barely a year ago. Worse yet, the things that reduced it to sand are still here and making their way toward the dimensional portal.
This is still more fun with the Doctor in a quick, fun adventure that works even if you've never seen a single episode before. This story gives us bug-eyed monsters, flying killer manta rays, and an appearance from UNIT, the Earth's own long-standing anti-alien taskforce. It also marks the beginning of the end, though, as the Time Lord receives an ominous prophecy of his approaching demise.
"Waters of Mars" is arguably the creepiest story in the set. The Doctor lands on the red planet just a few years in the future and finds Earth's very first space colony. For the time traveler, they're legendary figures who inspired hundreds after them to reach for the stars. They're also doomed, because he knows this is the day their fail-safe bomb goes off and kills all of them. It's an immutable fact of history from his point of view, one of the rare times the Doctor has to stand by and do nothing as an alien life form works its way through the crew.
The monsters in this one are some of the scariest Doctor Who has ever done, just because they're so...alien. The whole tale has a feeling of awful inevitability as the colonists must avoid getting a single drop of water on themselves in a station that's suddenly sprung a hundred leaks. Which is sort of the point, as the Doctor wrestles with the idea of what's "inevitable" for a nigh-omnipotent time traveler.
Which brings us to "The End of Time," a two-part, feature-length adventure. The Doctor now knows his end is very close: either death or regeneration, although there's not much difference from his point of view. Either way, his existence is coming to an end. A warning from the creepy-yet-loveable Ood sends him back to Christmas Eve on Earth, where the Master (John Simm) has returned from the dead (again). The Doctor's old enemy is eking out a meager half-life on the fringes of London, feeding on charity burgers, the charity workers that serve them, and even the charity cases they're served to. Alas, the Master's also being hunted by Joshua Naismith (David Harewood), a billionaire who's acquired some alien tech and wants the Master to get it working for him. If that wasn't bad enough, the Doctor discovers that maybe the Master hasn't been mad all these years after all. There really is a drumbeat in his head, and it's... well, on the off-chance you've dodged it on the internet this long, I won't be the one to ruin it for you. Needless to say, ex-James Bond Timothy Dalton gets a chance to play another long-time Doctor Who character, and arguably the last one anyone ever expected to see on the show again. The Doctor's companion for this episode ends up being Wilf (Bernard Cribbins), the grandfather of his former companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), and there's a wonderful chemistry between these two "old" men who've both lived full, long lives, not to mention an awful beauty when we realize the simple part Wilf plays in the Doctor's long-prophesied end.
It's kind of sad in a way that of all these stories, "The End of Time" is probably the weakest. There's just so much epic stuff crammed in that two hours isn't enough to really do much with any of it. There's lots of great moments, realizations, and cameos, but an odd story structure makes it all feel a bit awkward and the very delayed regeneration seems a bit questionable by the time it finally happens. Granted, a weak episode of Doctor Who still tends to be better the best episodes of Star Trek, Chuck, and Fringe all rolled together, but for David Tennant's swan song it just feels a bit jumbled and rushed. A simpler story might have given him a more memorable send off.
But send him off it did, in a blaze of fire and light, giving us the first glimpse of the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) stumbling about in a TARDIS that seemed just as overwhelmed by the regeneration as he was. And making us all wonder what's going to happen when the show comes back in March.
I mean, really how is this guy expected to be the new Doctor? There's just no way on Earth he'll be able to replace David Tennant. No way at all.
Like all the new Doctor Who sets, each episode is paired up with a one-hour episode of Doctor Who Confidential, the Beeb's behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show. It's interviews with writers, directors, cast members, crew members, plus tons of behind-the-scenes footage. Here you'll learn just how long it will take to make it look like two men hanging on a rope are hanging on a rope, how some quick thinking made a bus destroyed in a transportation accident a key story point, and even how real-life scientific discoveries on Mars inspired an episode. It's also got David Tennant discussing his goodbye episode, and how during filming he quietly marked off the last time he'd ever use his sonic screwdriver, his last scene in the TARDIS, his last spoken lines, and his final day on set. So right there, five extra hours of material.
But wait! There's also a full commentary track for both parts of the final episode, featuring Tennant, Simm, Tate, and director Euros Lyn. Russell also introduces a series of deleted scenes from all the episodes and explains why each of them was cut (some before they even went through post-production). There's also a collection of BBC station identifiers, just some cute Christmas-themed clips with Tennant, the TARDIS, and a few reindeer.
You also get Doctor Who at the Proms, where "prom" is short for "promenade concert." It's a live concert given at Albert Hall by the BBC, where music from the show is played and introduced by various actors, and this is the second time they've done it. The concert also includes the mini-episode "The Music of the Spheres," where the Doctor takes a stab at composing a symphony based off the sounds of the universe and also deals with a pesky alien. If you like the music, it's a free soundtrack. If you don't, it's still worth watching to see the amazed looks on little kids' faces as Cybermen, Judoon, and Sontarans stomp through the concert hall.
The real problem with this amount of features is you just want more. As they explain how they did this or came up with that, you almost feel cheated that they didn't explain two or three others. Knowing that this is the last hurrah for both Tennant and Davies makes it seem even more urgent that they spill...well, everything.
Doctor Who: The Complete Specials is a must-have for fans of the series. If you've watched once or thrice, you'll still enjoy most of them, although a lot of dramatic moments, especially in "The End of Time," depend on the viewer's knowledge of the show's ongoing story. It's probably not a great set for someone just looking to dip their toe in the Who universe for the first time, but at the end of the day, Tennant is always fun to watch and still the most endearing actor to play the Doctor.
At least, so far.