By. Michael Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
SPOILER WARNING: This article gives away information from Doctor Who “The Power of the Doctor”
Last week, I wrote a column about regeneration in Doctor Who. This important device has allowed the series to continue since 1963 by using science fiction ideas to allow new actors to inhabit the role. This past Sunday, I anticipated a traditional regeneration story, with Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor passing away in epic fashion and being replaced by Ncuti Gatwa’s Fourteenth Doctor.
Wow, did that not happen! Instead, we got one of the great surprises in the history of popular culture.
The episode was full of great moments for fans. We got three sinister foes– the Master, the Daleks, and the Cyberman—working together to destroy the Doctor. Also, two traveling companions of the Doctor from the classic era of the series returned in important roles. I have always liked Tegan, who traveled mostly with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) from 1981-1984. And I was thrilled to have Ace back. One of my all-time favorites, Ace traveled with the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) on television from 1987-1989. There were also a number of cameos by former Doctors and companions.
All of that gave the episode a nostalgic and celebratory feel in anticipation of the show moving into its 60th anniversary in 2023. If that were all that happened in “The Power of the Doctor,” the episode would have been a great finale for an incarnation of the character.
However, that’s not all that happened. After a vengeful final strike by the Master, the Doctor’s regeneration began. The Doctor saved the Earth and said goodbye to her “Fam.” She then went out to face the sun on a rocky isle. In the modern series, brilliant flashes of special effects herald the change. When the transformation settled though, the unexpected happened.
There on the rocks stood David Tennant, the actor who had previously played the tremendously popular Tenth Doctor on television from Christmas 2005 to New Year’s Day 2010. The Doctor has never returned to a previous incarnation and in surprise, this issued a classic Tenth Doctor catchphrase: “What? What?? What???”
Yes, somehow David Tennant will also be the Fourteenth Doctor!
Surprising fans in this way is nearly impossible to do. There are some legendary exceptions, such as the identity of the shooter in Dallas’ classic “Who shot J.R.?” storyline that played across the end of the third season and into the fourth season back in 1980. My personal favorite example is the surprise reveal by Marvel that their new superhero team, The Thunderbolts, were actually a group of supervillains in disguise back in 1997.
These surprises are rare because culture industries protect these secrets. Stories of script monitoring and intense set security abound in popular culture. Official sources play it coy. Surprises are also rare because whole industries try to break this kind of news. Websites will do anything to drive traffic to their pages.
I’m going to brag a bit and say that I predicted Tennant’s surprise return. Not very early though. When I wrote last week’s Nerd Factor, I had no clue. The idea just popped into my head on Sunday morning and I told my wife about my crazy theory. I didn’t tell anyone else. I wasn’t that confident.
What happens next is completely unclear. Some press releases are now referring to Gatwa as the Fifteenth Doctor. And we’ve seen him in a teaser trailer for next season. Now, I have no clue what is going to happen on my favorite show, and I love that!