Three special episodes featuring David Tennant reclaiming a role he had left 13 years earlier were, to be fair, always going to be an odd way for Disney+ to add Doctor Who to its line-up internationally. It’s not just those episodes were anniversary specials for a show that was 'launching' on the streaming service as, in theory, something new outside of the UK — they were also purposefully nostalgic specials, featuring multiple callbacks to the show’s 60-year history outside of the return of two leads from a decade-plus in the past.
Despite that, many people wondered why the special episodes seemed to be so under the radar on Disney+. Sure, they got placements on the main carousel with each release, but beyond that, there seemed to be little-to-no promotion of the show, despite what felt like it should have been more of a big deal: the return of not only fan-favorite actors David Tennant and Catherine Tate to the show, but showrunner Russell T. Davies, as well as a genuine first for a live-action science fiction TV series: a chance to celebrate the 60th anniversary.
Turns out, underplaying the specials was intentional on Disney’s part, because the company was just as aware of how odd it would have been to promote a 'new' show with such backwards-looking material.
The specials were intended as “a soft launch on Disney+; the big launch is going to come with Ncuti’s first season,” Davies said during an appearance with the Royal Television Society in November. “If you’re thinking, ‘why haven’t you seen great big adverts set across the world on Disney+, now, that will come next year. They’re going to do the big push.”
That perhaps explains why Ncuti Gatwa’s first full season as the Doctor is being referred to as “season 1” by its producers. Certainly, Davies is talking about the upcoming season as “a reinvention” of the show, with “that lovely feeling of a new era beginning.” (One in which Disney has some level of creative input, as well as financial input, as it turns out.)
That subtext became text with the climax of ‘The Giggle,’ with its bi-generation twist. Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor being physically separated from the Fourteenth — and, for that matter, emotionally liberated from the trauma that permeated the Ninth through the Fourteenth Doctor’s experience! — allows him to start over afresh. The Fourteenth Doctor’s “retirement” helps there, too; that Doctor gets to sit down and let a new one take over. (And, no, despite rumors to the contrary, there are apparently no plans to keep David Tennant around for future appearances, says Davies.)
For the first time since the series was revived in 2005, Doctor Who is a show that is allowed to have no baggage. It gets to start over, and assume new forms. It gets to... well... regenerate.
The upcoming Christmas special, ‘The Church on Ruby Road,’ becomes the official start of the future of Doctor Who, then — and the first real episode of the Disney+ era of the character. It’s Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor, freed from the past and able to be himself moving forward. Or, as he put it in his first lines of dialogue, “I think I’m really, really me! I am completely me!”
Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Church on Ruby Road debuts on BBC One in the UK, and Disney+ everywhere else in the world, on December 25.
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