If you go look at the Patreon-exclusive Discord thread I have for this episode—and yeah, I recognize this is an extremely venal opening sentence—there’s a moment where I note that the second pre-released clip, with the “David Tennant spits out ‘the Toymaker’ in the same voice he did ‘the Macra’” moment, was squarely at the twenty minute mark, and where I bet on another big turn at 40. And yes, I knew my spoilers and was expecting bi-generation, but I still just want to start by pointing out the fucking clockwork of it. In fact there’s another turn at roughly 30–that’s where the “return to 2023” beat happens, neatly bisecting the second act. And I think that’s key, in the face of the sheer, stupid cheek of this episode, to understanding why it works so well.
I mean, it’s worth saying it out loud, just so I can get it quote-posted on Tumblr—a pantsless Ncuti Gatwa emerges like Athena, instantly establishes himself as the faggiest Doctor ever to fag, then hits the TARDIS with a giant mallet because “we won the game, you get a prize honey” to split it in two so that David Tennant can be the Doctor forever. You can’t make it up, not least because Russell T Davies already did. It sounds like a joke, and in many ways is—the clue’s in the title and all. It was essentially spoiler-proofed, because anyone who’s the sort of fan that’s pouring over spoilers reads that and is just left wondering how this could possibly work out. And the answer is that it’s being done by a damn maestro of the form who understands how to structure the mother of all throat clears before you go and reset the show for gen alpha TikTok users.
The central trick is, of course, that third act pivot into doing a multi-Doctor story for the anniversary after all, with David Tennant having turned out to be the past Doctor all along. That is, above all else, simply fabulous television, and Davies understands that all you actually have to do is put it on a platter. Everything around it is just a series of decisions about tone—an almost mechanistic execution of scaffolding to ensure that moment is a thunderous drop that sends the dance floor wild instead of landing with a damp thud of authorial perversity. It’s fitting that he has the Toymaker attack through television because at the end of the day this operates through literally nothing save for the fact that Davies understands how to use the medium to engineer what is at the end of the day its original pleasure—its creation of cultural events. At the end of the day, there are rules, and Davies knows how to play.
Much as with Rose, there’s a real temptation to break it down scene by scene, but this is the fast reaction, so let’s work in outline. Like I said, three act structure. Act one uses a cold open to put two premises on the table: Neil Patrick Harris is a weird evil guy and he’s done something to television. Then, on the other side of the credits, it shows Harris again as an evil clown and has him wave goodbye and exit the story. Davies proceeds to enter the UNIT show—a backdoor pilot for an entirely coherent Kate Stewart show complete with whatever the fuck the V’linx is besides an absolutely gorgeous reveal (one of the rules there—if the Doctor just accepts something so will the viewer). We tarry in its pleasures a bit—reintroduce Shirley, reveal/establish Mel, and give everyone a couple good beats, including for the first time bothering to use the fact that you’ve got Jemma Redgreave in the part (her shattered horror at her own actions and apology to Shirley!). And we have the Doctor and Donna catch up with the cold open, untangling the “evil television” thing so it can be explained more slowly to the viewer. Twenty minutes in, he dutifully brings Harris back, catching the other ball thrown by the cold open and moving into the second act.
As I noted, this one’s bifurcated. We do ten minutes of spooky horror set pieces while we reiterate the emotional beats from Wild Blue Yonder (another rule there—explain something twice to the audience in rapid succession and they’ll both understand it and understand it as important), split the Doctor and Donna up, give them each a scene’s worth of puppet horror, then get them back together so the Doctor can confront the Toymaker. This mostly just means monologue set pieces—Davies rolls out a bit of rhythmic poetry and gives it to a good actor. We gesture at the past, then conspicuously throw a ball for the future to catch, thus reminding the audience there is one. And in a puff of smoke we vanish back to 2023, crashing the Toymaker back into the first premise. Ten more minutes of the UNIT show round out the act, anchored by the musical number because hey, you did hire Harris for the part, and then do a monologue duel before the Toymaker kills the Doctor fifteen minutes early to kick off the third act.
And it is here, of course, that Davies makes his move. At first it looks like we’re just going to do a shock pivot to Gatwa, which is already clever—an unexpected use of the rules right as the narrative collapses, like you do. And then we do a record-scratch moment—literally, as Gold cuts the soundtrack—use the Doctor accepting something to sell it (lol at the shrugged reprise of “feel’s different this time”), swirl the lights a different color, strike up the band a second time, and bigenerate (even bigger lol at splitting the triple what across characters).
From here, everything hinges on one bet—the same bet, ultimately, that everything hinges on in the larger cultural context. Davies has given us two hours and forty minutes of nostalgic greatest hits reprises. Now he needs to give us twenty minutes of Gatwa being phenomenal. There’s scaffolding, of course—it’s the mother of all “use the predecessor’s cast to establish the new guy” new Doctor stories, and an astonishing amount of the heavy lifting is done by Tennant’s no doubt entirely sincere reinvention of his character as “past Doctor fannishly awe-struck by the future.” But at the end of the day it comes down to Gatwa. And what can you say but that you see why Davies gave him the part.
There’s a trick that’s useful sometimes in analyzing horror films where you figure out the theme by just literally stating the premise—It Follows is about how the stigma of sexuality follows women, Us is about how Black people have suppressed second selves, Tetsuo the Iron Man is about the constant agony of living in an industrialized society. And here it seems relevant to note that Gatwa defeats the Toymaker through sheer physicality. In his underwear. Which is to say that his performance is electric and charismatic—an instantly libidinous Doctor so charming the plot stops mattering, collapsing instead into a queer-off between Gatwa and Harris. Gatwa wins, of course—how could he not with all that beach-off experience from Barbie—and Harris is ushered offstage with ten minutes to go.
All that remains is for Tennant to hand over the keys, which he does with grace, dutifully reprising the Time Lord Victorious in all its burnt out horror so that Gatwa can pull him into a hug and say “I’ve got you” before sending him off to heal himself in a queer platonic relationship with Donna. Gatwa’s the Doctor now. It happened, just about five hours ago. It’s majestic. I can’t wait for more.
- So here’s the most criminal act of burying the lede I’ll ever commit. TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 8 is out. Covering the strange and surreal wilderness years of Paul McGann and the show’s triumphant return in the birth of what I suppose is now the RTD1 era. I’m hitting publish on the ebook edition as we speak, so it might be a bit before it’s live on Amazon—here’s the Smashwords link, which is live now if you want to use that—but the paperback is available for order right now and will arrive before Christmas.
- Also, my Patrons have my Wild Blue Yonder podcast with Eruditorum Press’s very own Jack Graham and Christine Kelley. It features Jack learning, live on the air, what the Timeless Child is. I’ll be doing one on The Giggle with Kate Orman and Jon Blum, and I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be joined by Rachel Stott and Penn Wiggins for The Church on Ruby Road in two weeks. Patrons also get all my ebooks automatically, by the way.
- As for Church on Ruby Road, man, that trailer looks fun. Introducing the Doctor in a club is breathtakingly fresh, and the trailer handles the goblins reveal so well. The whole thing looks completely mad. Can’t wait to hear the single on Monday.
- So, um… Tennant and Tate pretty much have to come back some day, right? Like, Davies has season finales to execute, and he’s not going to leave a gun that big just sitting on the mantlepiece, is he?
- A detail I like is that this mirrors the plot of Journey’s End, right down to the spare Doctor going off and living a quasi-normal life with the companion. There’s a lot of quiet parallels to be had here actually—the fact that Rose was also a toymaker, for instance, or the fact that the Toymaker and the Not-Things largely share motivations. All left entirely to subtext, acting as thematic reverb to give the episode more heft and weight.
- For all that it’s funny to read the lack of Chibnall companions in the Toymaker’s monologue as a dig, the real shade is being playfully thrown at Moffat for his tic of fake-killing companions. Once that’s gone three iterations, Davies structurally has to move on and so captures the Chibnall era in a reprise of the Flux angst from Wild Blue Yonder. No, the Chibnall shade is “I made a jigsaw of your history. Did you like it?”
- Speaking of the rule of three, using “Mavic Chen” to round out a list with the Time War and the Pandorica is god tier.
- All right, all right, I’m obliged to give my Toymaker take. Which is that Davies is very clever retconning the Toymaker as a character who just likes doing absurd caricatures of various nationalities. It doesn’t actually make The Celestial Toymaker any better, but it’s enough to salvage the character for a reprise.
- The more interesting reprise to my mind is Mel. We knew she was coming back for Gatwa, so her appearance here is more a moment of fleeting surprise, but it’s yet another example of Davies’s cool-eyed savviness—Bonnie Langford is by an order of magnitude the highest profile actor to serve as a classic series companion, and as with Jemma Redgrave Davies doesn’t have to do much more than actually give her stuff to do. The callback to her nonexistent debut story to establish her as an orphan is such a deft bit of characterization, and an intriguing parallel to Ruby, and for that matter the Timeless Child, whether or not that’s ever picked up on explicity.
- Which, it has to be said, gives at least some setup justification for bigeneration, if only because it justifies a slightly more “eh fuck it” take on regeneration in general. I gather Davies goes further in this direction on the commentary, which I’ll catch before I do the podcast.
- The fact that the Toymaker claims to have killed God is given entertaining credibility by trapping the Guardians in voodoo dolls and the Master in a gold tooth. Which, love the “cultist hand saves the Master” reprise.
- The invocation of the Gods of Ragnarok makes the absence of Fenric conspicuous. Think I’ll place a long shot bet on him as the big bad for Gatwa’s first season.
- By far the best bit of continuity fetishism, however, is the Alex Jones remake of Trinity Wells.
- Also if you complain that I said Gatwa was pantsless because he was properly just trouserless I will fire you into the sun.
- Let’s close this out with a note on Fourteen, even if we’re probably not saying goodbye to him. First of all, I love him accepting regeneration calmly—“it’s time” instead of “I don’t want to go,” and a cavalier “allons-y” to match Whittaker’s “tag you’re it.” But more to the point, I love the Doctor relaxing into found family, building force fields for his beloved moles, happier than he’s ever been in his life. Tennant commented that he and Davies largely decided to approach the task of how to handle the fact that this version of Tennant’s Doctor is older by just assuming that the fact that they were both older would come through. And I think there’s nowhere that’s clearer than Davies having the Doctor find peace in a distinctly queer shape of love.
- The Giggle
- Wild Blue Yonder
- The Star Beast