I have to confess that, despite being a fan, I groaned a little when I heard that David Tennant would be returning to the role of Doctor Who for the show’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which have been more or less everywhere you look for the past month or so. But now, I have to admit: I was completely wrong.
It’s not that I don’t like Tennant, or his turn as the Doctor. In fact, he was already one of my absolute favorites. But it’s fair to say that we’ve also seen a lot of him. He already came back for the 50th anniversary 10 years ago, under five years after vacating the role. And, for those of us nerdy enough to engage in Doctor Who’s many extracurricular, non-televised works, he’s been quite the collaborator with audio drama company Big Finish, starring in a range of radio play style stories.
I just felt, y’know - he’s already been back once. And we’ve had Doctors since who haven’t reappeared, and not to mention there’s good old Paul McGann, who made a brief mini episode reappearance in 2013 but is still really waiting for a proper TV outing, over 25 years after taking up (and then immediately vacating, sort of) the role.
But, I get it. Circumstances practically dictated this setup. Returning showrunner Russell T Davies cast Tennant in the first place; he also knows the rhythm and tone of his Doctor performance inside-out. Tennant is a poster-boy for the series; young and attractive for the fangirls (and boys), but also a bonafide Doctor Who nerd that grew up obsessed with the show. It defines his whole life; the man met his wife on the show - and she just happens to be the daughter of Peter Davison, the fifth Doctor Who.
Let’s not mince words, either. Jodie Whittaker was fabulous, but her performance was one lost in an era that was confused at best and completely lacking in identity at worst. Viewership had continued a slump that had begun before she took over - rejuvenation was needed. How better to do that than with the return of the most popular actor to play the role? It’s televisual clickbait. Eyebait? Remote bait? Whatever.
There is no doubt that Tennant was born to play this role. We knew that the first time around. But what his second turn has showcased is how absolutely true that is, and he’s done something that I’m not convinced that many of his peers, excellent actors though they all are, could’ve done to the same degree.
Some of the genius has to be attributed to Russell T Davies, too. Davies decided Tennant’s return wouldn’t be some trick or gotcha, or some time travel shenanigans; Tennant would actually be the fourteenth Doctor. Look at those posters featuring every person to play the character now, and there he is twice – once as the tenth, and again, as an older, slightly more stubbled man, as the fourteenth.
While he’s only around for three full episodes, the scripts and performances have wasted no time in demonstrating that the fourteenth Doctor isn’t quite the same as the tenth. He’s recognizable, with the same manic grin and gleeful exuberance - but he’s a different man. Words keep tumbling out of his mouth that surprise him; he catches himself saying he loves one of his friends, the sort of affirmation the more damaged tenth could never quite bring himself to vocalize, but that Jodie Whittaker’s thirteenth did far more often.
Tennant’s performance tells you that he continued to watch the show religiously after he left; there are ticks and notes of each of the actors who played the Doctor after him in his performance as the fourteenth.
This has been the grandest surprise of these 60th anniversary specials. Sure enough, they haven’t shocked us by having Matt Smith or Tom Baker crop up - but this surprise is, in many ways, better. Tennant’s new Doctor isn’t just a tour of his greatest hits circa 2005-10, but is rather a different take on the character with nuance. Incredibly, after just two hours of television, I find myself thinking: I actually like this fourteenth Doctor more than the tenth in a tangible, quantifiable way.
In his second turn at the role, Tennant thereby cements his legacy. He was already one of the most famous and beloved actors to play the role, and as he’s keen on saying in interviews, he knew from the moment that he took the part that the first line of his obituary was forever set in stone. But here, he shows an understanding of the character that I think is relatively singular.
The joy of the Doctor is their chameleonic nature. Previous showrunner Steven Moffat has in the past said that he never wrote for a specific actor or incarnation of the character - he’d just write the Doctor, and the actor would do the rest, their unique take differentiating them. Despite this, there is a fabulously nebulous element of ‘Doctorness’ that an actor must have to be suitable for the role; not everybody could do it.
And because this is one continuous character – each incarnation is technically the same person, sharing memories and experiences – each actor does, to some degree, build on the last. As British characters, the Doctor and James Bond stand as the most sacred institutions passed from one actor to another, but Doctor Who is set apart by the nature of the recasting transformation.
Tennant is the same person who took the role in 2005. But at the same time, he isn’t, of course. None of us are as we were back then. We’re older, wiser. We’ve seen and done things we imagined we wouldn’t. For Tennant in particular, he got married and started a family. As a different man, it follows that so, too, is his Doctor. It would’ve been so easy to simply perform exactly as he did then, which has always been the task of past Doctors for past anniversaries. But Tennant got to do something different with it - and in doing so, gave us a delightful fresh take that is also deeply reverential to the peers that followed and then preceded him.
Every Doctor and every actor behind them has their claim to fame. Each is somebody’s favorite. And each is undoubtedly unforgettable. But with just three episodes, Tennant and Davies have accomplished something quite astonishing.
For Tennant, this weekend his journey will be over – at least so far as any actor’s journey with Doctor Who ends. Which is to say, not entirely. But Davies will continue on. And after seeing what he’s accomplished with old favorites, I’m more invigorated with excitement for the series than I’ve been in well over a decade. Bring on Nucti Gatwa; bring on fifteen.