In the words of the Doctor—what? What??
In Soho, London in 1925, Charles Banerjee (Charlie de Melo) heads into a toy shop and buys a marionette from the man who owns the shop (Neil Patrick Harris). He’s bringing the doll back to John Logie Baird (John MacKay), the man who invented television, who is in the process of recording the very first image for it.
In the present, the world breaks out in chaos because everyone on Earth thinks that they’re right. The same man who owned the toy shop briefly dances with the Doctor, and U.N.I.T. shows up. Donna demands that they take her grandfather to safety, and they’re taken to HQ, where Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) gives the Doctor a fierce hug; everyone on the planet is being affected and they suspect that it’s the result of a satellite network being complete, and everyone having access to screens. Kate gives an example of how this affects people by deactivating the blocker they’ve developed; she immediately becomes paranoid and vicious, and apologizes once the blocker is back in place. Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford) is currently working for U.N.I.T. too, and she and the Doctor have a little reunion.
The team figure out that the spike in the human brain is a replica of the laugh from that doll on the very first TV image. The Doctor and Donna take the TARDIS and go back to the point when this image was filmed and find the toy shop, and the owner… who the Doctor recognizes at the Toymaker, a being he fought long ago in his first (remembered) incarnation. He tells Donna to go back to the TARDIS, but the Toymaker runs away and they run after him, winding up in his domain. The Doctor tells Donna that he’s not sure he can save her life this time, and that this is his fault—he allowed the Toymaker into their universe with the salt trick. Donna’s not worried, but wishes he would be more up front with her. They get separated; the Doctor runs into a human marionette and Donna is attacked by dolls. They find each other again and are forced to be an audience for the Toymaker, who tells the story of the Doctors last few companions (minus Thirteen’s group) and the Flux.
The Doctor challenges the Toymaker to a game for the universe, and loses. But since he won their previous game, he invokes “best two out of three” rules. The Toymaker agrees, but only if the next game is back in 2023. The Doctor and Donna escape his realm, get back into the TARDIS and head back to U.N.I.T., which has just destroyed the satellite that completed the global network. The Doctor has Donna create a code that can help the technology they’ve got scan for the Toymaker’s presence, hoping that they can make him leave the way he entered. Suddenly “Spice Up Your Life” starts playing and the Toymaker arrives, dancing, murdering, and assaulting the Doctor’s friends. He seems to vanish, but they find him on the launch pad with the galvanic beam they used to destroy the satellite. The Doctor insists that the Toymaker leave his friends alone because he’s the one who agreed to play the final game; he offers to travel the stars with the Toymaker and show him a universe of games. But the Toymaker refuses, and has decided that since he played the first two games with different Doctors, he should get a new Doctor for the last one—he shoots the Doctor with the beam.
Donna and Mel go to the Doctor to be with him with while he regenerates, but the process seems to complete… and he’s the same. He asks Donna and Mel to pull his arms—the regeneration feels different this time. They do as he asks, and the Fifteenth Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) pops out of the Fourteenth’s body.
Fifteen explains that this is an instance of the rumored bi-generation process—there are two of them now, and they are both going to play the Toymaker’s game because he insisted on playing the Doctor. Fourteen asks for a game of catch: Whoever drops the ball loses. After a high-octane game, they manage to win, and Fourteen tells the Toymaker that he banishes him from existence. The Toymaker folds up to be put in his box, but promises that his legions will return. Fourteen can’t stop thinking about how many people died because of this, but Fifteen holds him, and says that he’s got him. Everything is okay. As they walk inside, a gold tooth (which the Toymaker earlier claimed to trap the Master in) is taken by a unknown hand.
Fourteen wants to know how things are going to work with two Doctors in the TARDIS, but Fifteen and Donna are ready for this talk; Fifteen points out that they’ve been handling their trauma backwards, but that he’s in better shape because the Doctor has been working on themself. Donna knows why this Doctor’s face came back—so he could come home. And what’s more, Fifteen points out that for winning the game, they get a prize: The Toymaker’s rules still apply in the wake of their victory, and he takes out a big wooden mallet and knocks the TARDIS into two. (Fifteen’s has a jukebox.) He tells the Doctor to go with Donna and be happy. They watch him take off in the TARDIS, to have his own adventures.
Some time later, the Doctor is with Donna’s family, having a garden party, and Mel has just stopped by. He’s telling the family a story about a previous adventure he had, and it slips out that he’s taken his niece (Rose) to Mars already, and also taken Mel on a quick trip to the past. Donna tells him that he doesn’t have to stay forever, and the Doctor looks wistful. But he tells her that he fought those battles for all that time—and finally knows what for. It was for this. And he’s never been so happy.
I see what you did there, Mr Davies. I see it. I see what you did.
It’s still funny to me that they went through the trouble of bringing Neil Patrick Harris in to play the Toymaker, however… because his role in the episode is pretty unimportant. Fun, but unimportant. Aside from that Spice Girls dance break, which was exactly what I was hoping for, thank you.
There’s a lot of talking to the audience happening in this episode with commentary about technology and bigotry and post-truth thinking, and some of it works great, while a few bits of scolding feel a little too on-the-nose. Davies couldn’t resist giving Fourteen one of his usual speeches of “oh, but humans really can be this horrible and you are not off the hook for your behavior,” which is mostly amusing because it’s another base attribute that was bound to resurface in him. And there’s the necessary sequence where the villain takes the Doctor to task for all the people he loses, but I do find it mildly hilarious that the Toymaker goes through all the Moffat companions, then jumps right to the Flux when talking about Thirteen’s tenure… because if he’d talked about her companions, he’d be snipping the marionette strings while saying “Und zen she dropped zem off at home!” as though it had been some terrible fate.
There’s more deliberate replication of the old RTD-era tropes here, but it’s all so good. We now have two instances where a horrifying villain decided to do an incredibly gay dance break while David Tennant is helpless to stop it. Two instances where the gambit is “why don’t we travel together, evil friend, and I can help make you less evil,” only to be cruelly rebuffed. Yet another instance of a small item (containing the Master) being retrieved by someone with a fantastic manicure while maniacal laughter plays in the background. In a less deft writer’s hand, it would feel like you’d run out of ideas, but it’s clearly Davies assuring us: He’s back.
And now we’ve got Fifteen, who in the first fifteen minutes of his tenure has made it clear exactly what kind of Doctor he will be. No confusion, no upset, no angst—he is pure joy. He’s love. He’s practically ethereal? The image of him holding Fourteen, a replication of the face who was still reeling from PTSD and heartbreak, tucking him in close and promising that he’ll be okay…. It’s therapy made manifest. Find your younger self and give them the advice that you needed. Comfort them and show them that they are cared for. And Donna is right there on the other side to tell Fourteen the truth:
This face came back so he could come home. To his best friend, to his former companions, to family that he never knew he had.
Many of us have been mildly traumatized for the past thirteen years over Ten’s last words: “I don’t want to go.” Those final moments as an iteration who finally enjoyed being himself for the first time in a long time, and had his life cut short. In many ways, Ten was a Doctor who was made to settle down, no matter how much he loved to run—he was created for Rose Tyler, and once she was gone, he was always seeking out “the slow path,” even when he didn’t mean to. If any Doctor deserves to set up shop on Earth, reconnect with all his old traveling companions, and sit at garden parties, it’s him. If any Doctor deserves to hang out with Wilf under blankets and watch the stars through a telescope, it’s him. If any Doctor deserves to rest and appreciate all the mundanity of life, it was always him.
But I never, in my wildest dreams (or a million words of fanfiction), imagined that it would happen. And, pointedly, it has happened for David Tennant’s incarnation of the Doctor twice. He’s special, okay?
The fact that Fifteen is so canny about how their suffering has shaped them is massive for the character and future of the show. He lays it all out: The ones they’ve loved, the atrocities they’ve witnessed, and people they’ve lost. (The way they both said Adric. It broke me.) Historically, the Doctor either skirts the past or buries it—those are the rules. They’ve always been the rules, and even the people who were close and learned the most never had a fraction of the picture. But Fifteen has decided that they’ve finally moved beyond some things. He’s pragmatic about what he can do (“You can’t save everyone”? That’s growth, my dear), but also full of hope. There’s a levelness to him that we’ve never seen in the character, and I am ecstatic for more.
I have to point out that this is the only time when the Doctor has regenerated with people present who understand what’s happening, and are explicitly making themselves available in that process. I have to point it out because it has literally never happened in the 60 year history of this show. For the first time, he wasn’t alone or about to terrify someone with a change they never knew was coming. He had two dear friends who chose to stay with him and hold his hands. And if you don’t think that had an influence on who he bifurcated into… he literally pops out of himself to say “honey, you’re loved, now go eat a snack and take a nap.”
To say that this has a wild bearing on what the show can do now is an understatement. Hopefully Fourteen will take his retirement (aside from a few quick trips to show off now and again), but we don’t know if he can regenerate. Or what his lifespan looks like. And now we know that whenever U.N.I.T. needs help, they’ll be waiting for the Doctor to show up… but if he’s otherwise occupied, they do have an extra on retainer. And, of course, it gives the show the ability to have David Tennant and Catherine Tate show up whenever they darn well please. Which they should obviously use sparingly, but what an ace to have in your back pocket.
And for now… Fifteen is going to light up the stars.
Bits and Bobs
- John Logie Baird was indeed the inventor of television. That first image looks much creepier on the show, however, which I assume was the Toymaker’s influence.
- The Toymaker heralds from a 1966 Doctor Who serial of the same name… which is mostly lost. (Many older episodes of Doctor Who were not properly stored or saved by the BBC, and are being painfully reconstructed via animation and dodgy audio recordings. Every once in a while, someone unearths a recorded copy of a lost episode in their basement.) Only the last piece of the story is in the BBC archives.
- Again, this idea that Kate Stewart is just going to scoop up all the former companions, who are now all middle-aged women, and give them all of them great jobs with health insurance and vacation time. Continue. More. Now.
- They bring up the Archangel Network, which was the system of satellites the Master used to take power in season three. So yeah, Davies loves satellite networks. They’re bad, or maybe good, or maybe something.
- Mel Bush was companion to the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, so she knows all about regeneration. (Though she was unconscious when it happened during her time on the TARDIS.) When he asks how she got back, it’s because the Doctor didn’t leave Mel on Earth—she decided to head off with a galactic conman named Sabalom Glitz (basically Who’s version of Zaphod Beeblebrox), and nudged the Doctor into taking Ace on in her place. The description she gives of Glitz’s death is… yeah, that checks out. I’m just glad she got home safe.
- Davies making fun of his own weirdly specific obsession with the Doctor’s age during his run (he literally went from 900 to 904 over seasons 1-4, it was silly) by having the Doctor be like “I’m a billion years old!” to Donna now. He could be, after all. He doesn’t know anymore….
- I maybe shouted “kick the doll!” at the television when Donna got cornered by them, and I’m very glad she followed my advice and cowed those creepy babies.
- People will probably go on for a while about the fact that Fifteen spent his entire first appearance in his underwear (which is entirely fair). But did you catch it? The point is that he’s wearing pieces of Fourteen’s outfit. Their clothes separated. Which means that Fourteen is commando at the same time, friends.
See you on Christmas!