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Review: 'Doctor Who': 'The Next Doctor' on BBC America

June 27, 2009 |  1:04 pm

Tennants "Doctor Who" returns to American television tonight with the first of the four "specials" that form the last year to feature beloved "tenth Doctor" David Tennant. (For the uninitiated: The title character "regenerates" every so often, as convenient or desirable for the producers or performer, into a different actor.) It makes its American bow six months after its original UK broadcast, on Christmas 2008; appropriate to the day, it has a Victorian setting, and there are decorations and snow and the odd nod to Dickens, along with giant Victorian sci-fi contraptions (in the surprisingly bounteous screen tradition of Victorian sci-fi contraptions).

Having bid goodbye at last season's end to time-and-space-traveling companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), and once again to next-to-next-to-last companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), the Doctor arrives solo in 19th century London. Here he encounters another man calling himself the Doctor (weighty David Morrissey, from "State of Play" and "Viva Blackpool!") with a companion of his own (Velile Tshabalala) and holes in his memory. There are some nice twists on the way to filling them.

"Doctor Who" is a show that loves to -- one might even say lives to -- recycle: The villains tonight are the clanking Cybermen, not for the first time thought gone for good, though any who follow this show know that, in spite of its frequent declarations of finality, nothing is ever gone for good. As they have in the past, the monsters make common cause with an embittered human, here a sort of workhouse Pirate Jenny (Dervla Kirwan) taking her revenge on men and mankind. Like the hectoring floating fireplugs known as the Daleks, the comically antique aspects of the Cybermen, who first appeared on the series in 1966, are mitigated by their creepy persistence.

Tennant's Doctor might be described as manic-depressive, but manic even is his depressive state -- he is angry and funny, forlorn and full of hope not just by turns, but sometimes all at once. "Doctor Who" is likewise a thing of changing tone, from episode to episode and even scene to scene. Here we are in tragical-comical-historical mode, with a bit of swashbuckling overlaid -- a flashing cutlass, an attack by hot-air balloon in yet another battle-for-London-and-therefore-the-world. Farce and adventure predominate tonight; this is not one of those complicated, dark episodes, such as "Silence in the Library" or "Blink" -- both written by Steven Moffatt, who takes over the series next season from Russell T. Davies, who brought it back to life in 2005 (and wrote this episode). But it was Christmas, after all.

-- Robert Lloyd

Photo: David Tennant as Doctor Who in the episode "The Family of Blood, Part 2." Credit: Adrian Rogers / Sci Fi