The Doctor is dead, long live the Doctor!
My wife and I have had a running joke for almost a year now – I mention that there's some sort of special Doctor Who episode on, and she looks at me, rolls her eyes, and asks if it's the last David Tennant one. That's because it was announced a while back that Tennant would be leaving the role. Following that announcement there was the last David Tennant regular episode, and then an extended series of specials, the first of which was called "The Next Doctor," despite the fact that the man who called himself the Doctor in the episode wasn't so much a Time Lord as mistaken. Last night that joke came to an end as David Tennant's Doctor – the Tenth Doctor – lost his life.
Oh come on, it's not like that's a spoiler, as even my wife knew – the day Tennant would end his moment as a Time Lord has been ever approaching. The discussion that follows may reveal some spoilers, but it won't delve too deeply into many of the facts of the episode, as, even though it was astounding and wonderful, it is the transfer of power that is the impetus for this article.
This moment – this transfer from the Tenth Doctor to the Eleventh – is something I find supremely fascinating. In point of fact, I've always been exceedingly interested in the handing off the reins from one actor or actress to another within a film or television series. Whether the question is one of moving from Sean Connery to George Lazenby (a switch that was overtly referenced) or the swapping out of one detective or ADA for another on Law & Order, the way the franchise deals with the switch is captivating.
I think that Doctor Who dealt with the switch exceedingly well within the narrative – even if it was incredibly drawn out temporally within the real world. Tennant's Doctor was told that his end was coming – he's known that for a while, and every action he's taken since he found out is something he's had to weigh against the knowledge. Tennant repeatedly proved that he was a great Doctor (as was Eccleston before him, and so many of the others in the original series); he has managed to be smart, funny, and an action hero.
The way Tennant went out tonight – the actual moment in which he committed himself to death – followed the mold of his Doctor perfectly. The Doctor had saved the world, saved all of humanity, watched the Master die (for now), and sadly been forced to ensure that all the Time Lords would remain dead and gone and had somehow survived. He had heard the knocking that he thought would presage his death, but had managed to not only save everyone but to live as well. Six billion lives saved, and that was when he heard the actual knocking that would commit him to the grave. It came from a single man, Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), who was locked inside a box he had entered so another may leave. Looking for a way out, Wilfred knocked four times, reminding the Doctor that he was still there and needed help. The Doctor took a look at the situation and realized that Wilfred's box was going to be flooded with radiation and that the only way to save the man was to take his place. He saved six billion lives without losing his, but in order to save that last one, that final life, it would cost him his own. And he did it, committing himself to the grave to save one man after he'd saved six billion.
While he knew that he would regenerate, as was explained to us in the previous episode, and has been part of Who-lore, losing one of his lives is still like dying even if he has another around the corner. But, because he's the Doctor, he did it, he made a sacrifice that saved one man greater than what he thought was a sacrifice to save six billion.
Tennant carried off that scene in beautiful fashion. He was angry and upset one moment and then perfectly accepting and happy to lose his life for Wilfred's the next. Those 20 seconds perfectly encapsulate Tennant's Doctor – giving us incredible rage and upset and compassion and love.
We then got an extended goodbye, with the Doctor revisiting each companion that he's had in this new series. He saved a few more lives, said a few more goodbyes, and made it completely clear with Matt Smith's arrival as the Eleventh Doctor, and Steven Moffat's taking over the reins of the show from Russell T. Davies.
As the Tenth Doctor disappeared and the Eleventh emerged, the TARDIS itself began to break apart. Building on the original series, this new Doctor Who led by Davies built a grand mold for the new show and one couldn't help but watch the finale tonight thinking that the mold established by Davies was, to some extent, coming apart.
The TARDIS still stands, but some of its supports came down tonight. How will Matt Smith and Steven Moffat rebuild those supports? How will they grow the legend of this Time Lord that so much of the world has come to know and love? What will season five look like?
It is a grand adventure, one which it thrills me to no end to be on, and one which I can't wait to see returning, returning, always returning.