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Doctor Who's Wild Blue Yonder shows the big change in David Tennant's two Doctors

donna noble and the doctor in doctor who, a man and woman looking at each other clasping hands
The big change in David Tennant's two Doctor Whos@bbcdoctorwho - BBC

Doctor Who spoilers follow.

An unfortunate byproduct of the industrial-grade secrecy surrounding Doctor Who's second 60th-anniversary special is that we half expected Billie Piper's Rose Tyler or the ghost of William Hartnell himself to appear in the episode. In reality, the omertà was simply to keep us in the dark – much like the Doctor and Donna were on the absolute edge of the universe – for the sake of suspense.

'Wild Blue Yonder' was odd and chilling, as we roamed through a forsaken spaceship with ominous clanging coming through the walls, trying to figure out what the baddie would be. It turned out the Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) would face off with none other than Devil Doctor and Donna, giving us a twisted inversion of the double act we have been beside ourselves with excitement to see reunited on screen in these specials.

It wasn't particularly pleasant to see the Doctor's jaw stretch open like a funhouse mirror, or Donna break new knees into her leg like a tortured Barbie doll. But what it did do was provide a gnarled reflection of the Doctor, to probe that question he keeps coming back to since regenerating: who am I now and why is this face back?

david tennant as the doctor and catherine tate as donna noble in doctor who, a man and woman look at a screen concerned
@bbcdoctorwho - BBC

From the off, the episode is engineered to unsettle us. Stripped of the TARDIS, his sonic screwdriver and any utility in the 57 billion plus languages he's fluent in, the Doctor is just as unwitting as we are.

When they have to face their terrifying shapeshifter imposters, who are scooping up their thoughts, memories and exact wrist measurements with each passing moment, it's nightmarish. Not only because the Disney big-bucks production has repurposed the Meep's fangs and put them in beloved actor Tennant's face, but because we see our heroes turn into something plainly disturbing.

Just as easily as the Doctor is flipped into the wall of the spaceship, the episode turns the security we feel with these two topsy-turvy, so we don't know which to trust.

It's the perfect background to begin to question what is going on within the Doctor, as he interrogates what has happened in the 15 years since the Tenth Doctor's face was on our screens.

catherine tate and david tennant in doctor who, a man and woman standing in a hallway
@bbcdoctorwho - BBC

Devil Donna brings up the Flux, which unfolded during Jodie Whittaker's tenure and saw half the universe torn asunder at the end of her run. "Yes, I keep running, of course I do," the Doctor exclaims. "How am I supposed to look back on that?"

Linking the anniversary specials back to Whittaker's Doctor is notable, not only because it shows Russell T Davies has opted out of a total reset from Chris Chibnall's period as showrunner, but because it stresses how much the Fourteenth Doctor has gone through since he was the Tenth Doctor.

This Doctor is different because he has a past he is painfully aware of, with each of his regenerated incarnations bringing a fresh tree ring of generational trauma which has built up over the years.

In addition to that brief, suggestive exchange hinting at his sexuality – that "mavity" version of Sir Isaac Newton was hot – the Doctor has given up tender morsels of raw emotion to establish this is a new person.

He's not radically different, but with the passage of all those lives in between, he seems more comfortable expressing his feelings. In 'The Star Beast', he became someone who could tell Donna he loved her – something he was very notably never able to articulate to Rose.

bernard cribbins, catherine tate and david tennant in doctor who, an older man sitting in a wheelchair hugs a a younger man playing the doctor as a woman looks on smiling
@bbcdoctorwho - BBC

As the TARDIS skims through the time vortex, hurtling back to Earth and a touching appearance from the late Bernard Cribbins as Wilf, the Doctor returns to his jitters over the "things" he's done.

It's hard not to think of the Doctor when we see what became of the spaceship's captain, now a skeletal spacesuit floating in the ether. The captain's self-sacrifice to keep the shapeshifting evil at the edge of the universe is ironically what has thwarted them for all this time, because they couldn't figure out what she had done.

As morality tales go, the captain sits at one end of the spectrum while the Devil Doctor/Donna sits at the other, each fuelled by the opposite impulses of humanity. Her heroism is what the Doctor always strives for, but as The Flux showed, can fall short of.

Past episodes like 'The Fires of Pompeii' – where Donna insisted they save someone, anyone as Mount Vesuvius boiled – show how she could again be integral in the third special, when faced with the moral dilemmas the Doctor inevitably comes up against and then has to carry on into successive generations.

The glimmers of differences we see between this Fourteenth and that Tenth Doctor seem largely rooted in the fact this is a person who has lived several lives since he shimmered into Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor, and they have left a soulful mark.

As the Ood said back then: "This song is ending, but the story never ends". He was never going to be able to revert back to being the Tenth Doctor again.

Doctor Who: Wild Blue Yonder is available to stream on BBC iPlayer, with the next special airing on Saturday, December 9.

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