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‘I don’t want to go’ – a love letter to David Tennant’s Doctor

The moment Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor regenerated will go down history as one of the great rug-pulls of modern Who.

There she was, standing on a rocky outcrop, ready to hand over the mantle to the next in line. But this time there was an extra twist for those watching. Instead of regenerating into Ncuti Gatwa, who was announced as the next Doctor in 2022 after rising to fame in Netflix's Sex Education, people instead saw David Tennant standing in his place, ready to reprise the role he’d last held thirteen years ago.

To quote the Doctor, as he reacted to this change of plans: what?!

With that catchphrase (can a word be a catchphrase? With Tennant, anything is possible), he was back in the TARDIS, and I was immediately reinvested – catapulted back in time to a version of my teenage self where long scarves were sacred and Converse magically looked good when paired with pinstripe suits.

I wasn’t around for original Who, but watched from behind the sofa as my father (a lifelong fan) turned on the telly for the reboot in 2005. Terrifying as the Daleks may be, this show is catnip for kids: the monsters; the prospect of entering a magic box and going for adventures in time and space; and above everything else, the knowledge the Doctor will ultimately save the day.

Heading up the first rebooted series, Christopher Eccleston came and went, with a brooding kind of mystique to him – a bit too dour for my nine-year-old self, but the baddies kept me hooked: the gas-mask zombies, the Slitheen, even (shudder) the return of the Daleks. And just as I was getting properly into the show, along came David Tennant.

For millions of fans like me, Tennant wasn’t just a version of the Doctor: he was the definitive Doctor. Taking the reins from Eccleston after the show’s excellent but troubled first season (Eccleston has talked about how leaving the show put him on a BBC blacklist and almost destroyed his career), he immediately breathed fresh life into the character.

 (James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)
(James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

Alongside the showrunner Russell T Davies (who himself has an impressive list of credits to his name, including It's A Sin and Queer as Folk) Tennant helped launch Who into the stratosphere: suddenly, watching the show was (wait for it) cool, something that both kids and adults would tune in for. In its prime, Doctor Who under Tennant pulled in as many as 13m viewers - a world away from Jodie Whittaker's swansong, which only pulled in four.

Davies’ combination of grounded characters – he always took the time to flesh out the companion’s families and make their lives feel meaningful – and tightly plotted episodes was a winning combination. Think The Parting of the Ways, where the Doctor and Rose tearfully bid farewell on a bleak beach in Norway; or the haunting Midnight, which must be among his bleakest.

Of course, a great script is one thing, but selling it is another. As the face of the show, Tennant could switch from cheeky chappie to ultra-serious blaster of baddies in a nanosecond; yes, Eccleston had the gravitas, but Tennant had that, plus sass. And clearly, he loved playing the Doctor: a lifelong fan himself, he once told GWR FM, "Who wouldn't want to be the Doctor? I've even got my own TARDIS!" It’s a fair point.

Needless to say, I lapped it up; even more so when Catherine Tate came on board as the permanently furious Donna. It was a golden era, but alas, all good things must come to an end. When both Davies and Tennant left in 2010, the show struggled. Matt Smith was charismatic and chirpy, yes, but the writing, under Steven Moffat’s tenure, was blander, the plots more slapdash. Where were the classics: the Blinks, the Empty Children?

As the years progressed, I stopped watching entirely – as did many others. Doctor Who was no longer cool; it was once again the domain of nerds and dedicated fans who were invested enough in the show's lore that the fiendishly complicated scripts made sense (or indeed the show's revolving catalogue of rebooted monsters from the original series). For some, the bad patches were worth toughing out. Which is fine, of course; I’m a nerd myself.

Ncuti Gatwa and Russell T Davies attending the Virgin Bafta TV Awards 2022 (PA Archive)
Ncuti Gatwa and Russell T Davies attending the Virgin Bafta TV Awards 2022 (PA Archive)

Something was missing; a spark, perhaps. Both Jodie Whittaker and Peter Capaldi’s tenures suffered as a result of poor scriptwriting; the plots were shoddy. The Doctor suddenly started sprouting mysterious incarnations. Why were the Weeping Angels suddenly everywhere? I would read the series reviews and roll my eyes at the screen, longing for the good old days.

I was just about ready to hang up my sonic screwdriver for good - at least until I heard that Russell T Davies was coming back as the series’ showrunner once more, along with Tennant and Catherine Tate as his companion Donna. The classic gang, back together again, and returning for one more bite at the apple before passing on the mantle to Gatwa.

Bringing Tennant back was a masterstroke from Davies. If my ears pricked up, so too did the ears of thousands of ex-Whovians, hungry for some sweet nostalgia. And we’ve been amply rewarded: that first sight of Tennant strolling around London in his revamped Tardis made me squeal like a child. As did the first mention of “Allons-y!”, his old catchphrase.

Watching him bounce around the universe with old companion Donna has been a joy; even better, this is a Doctor brought firmly into the modern-day universe. He’s still recognisably himself, but this time around he has crushes on Nathaniel Curtis’ Isaac Newton (“He was so hot... oh! Is that who I am now?”) and lets Donna and her daughter Rose (Yasmin Finney) school him on pronoun usage. You can sense the mischief in Davies’ pen, as well as the clear love he still has for the series, peppering his scripts with Easter eggs galore.

So as the third and final special approaches, I’m not ready to let Tennant go yet. How could I be? We've only just gotten him back, but wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey rolls on, and it's been a joy to see the show looking more invigorated than it has in years.

Job done? With Davies in charge, I'm optimistic that the soft reboot he and Tennant have kick-started will continue in style. Gatwa has big shoes to fill, but one thing's for certain about Doctor Who: it's all about change. Roll on the future... but if Tennant ever decides to make another guest appearance, I'll be there in the blink of a Weeping Angel's eye.

Doctor Who will air on BBC One on December 9 at 6.30pm