Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting BORN AGAIN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting BORN AGAIN

Tony talks minisode!
Born Again was the first of a new generation of Doctor Who ‘extras,’ scenes that added depth or context to the main ongoing storyline of the show. ‘Minisodes,’ if you really, really must.

And the age of the minisode began with something so absurdly well balanced, it’s difficult in retrospect to imagine they hadn’t always been a thing. Sure, you can throw your imagination back to the black and white years of Classic Who and point to the specially filmed trailers. You can even point to a Tom Baker time or two. But they were very much designed as out-of-story trailers, rather than context-adding extras.

Born Again changed all that, and did something else, too. The Parting of the Ways was broadcast on June 18th, 2005. David Tennant had become the Doctor, muttered about having new teeth, come to himself and then determined to take Rose to the planet Barcelona, just as Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor had promised her in a state of slightly hysterical desperation in the dying moments of his incarnation.

And roll credits.

When The Christmas Invasion began on Christmas Day later that year, the Doctor was far more “Fifth Doctor in Castrovalva” than he seemed at the end of The Parting of the Ways. He was floppy and erratic, and his regeneration was going wrong. If you’d watched the two stories back to back, as many people did, it would have seemed like a jump cut.

Born Again provides a crucial bridge between the two stories, and if you watch the stories with that bridge intact, almost everything that follows in The Christmas Invasion makes a lot more sense than it otherwise would.

Just as important, you never want to leave Doctor Who fans without new product for too long. There was half a year between the ending of the Ninth Doctor’s era and the proper beginning of the Tenth’s. The BBC’s Children In Need appeal in 2005 was broadcast on Friday, November 18th. Placing Born Again as part of the appeal’s schedule meant it was far enough away from The Parting of the Ways that fans were eager for new Who content, and close enough to Christmas that it could serve as a televisual amuse bouche.

It could give fans a glimpse of their new Doctor and do a lot of the traditional “Doctor exploring their new body” stuff that, while fun and essential, can often clutter up a regeneration episode. Born Again got it largely out of the way, so The Christmas Invasion could hit the ground running, or hopping, or flopping about and falling asleep, as the script demanded.

And, while it was at it, it could re-establish a link between Doctor Who and Children In Need – the generally excellent Five Doctors was first broadcast as part of the appeal, and so was the generally execrable Dimensions In Time, so having a bit of fresh Doctor Who content as part of Children In Need again felt like a return of the show to its Classic era status – but done in a new, short form, way.

In terms of its actual story content, Born Again is a game of two fairly distinct halves. The first half is partly taken up with the new Doctor doing a self-assessment, including a weakness in his wrist and a mole between his shoulder blades (establishing a new post-regenerative theme of the Doctor being almost immediately able to know everything about their new body – as in the Twelfth Doctor’s unfortunately coloured kidneys, and the Fourteenth Doctor immediately remembering the teeth of the Tenth). But while this is useful stuff to get out of the way, the other strand of the first half is much more important from a storytelling point of view.

Not since Peri witnessed the regeneration of the Fifth Doctor into the Sixth had a companion being both present and conscious for the act, and in Born Again, Rose had to very much embody the potential confusion of the armies of new fans the show had gathered in its first series. She naturally at first cannot believe that “her” Doctor is really gone, reeling off ways in which the Doctor could have been replaced by malign forces, and – like many a die-hard Eccleston fan, demanding him back.

When it turns out that he can’t “change back” – but that Rose want him to, there’s an awkwardness, and despite this new Doctor’s faintly desperate attempts to be funny, to make his friend smile to break the tension, it’s clear that the moment is misjudged, and his plans change.

While Rose never says she wants to go home, the Doctor cancels plans for Barcelona and sets course for the Powell estate, and for Christmas Eve, to take her back to what’s familiar, rather than what’s changed.

He's clearly sensitive over her slowness to see the truth of regeneration, and with the right impetus, this new Doctor could easily dump her back home and then be off into the universe to nurse his hurt. But he finally coaxes a smile out of her by joking familiarly about her mother, and is just attempting to make the case that all he did was change when the tone of the minisode lurches abruptly, and we get a Castrovalvan vibe – “The change – it’s going a bit wrong.”

What that wrongness entails is something that was by this time familiar to David Tennant – a kind of double-nature acting, as he’d delivered in his turn as Barty Crouch Junior in Harry Potter and the Goblet of TERFs. The out-of-control Tenth Doctor is, in hindsight, oddly similar to the immediately post-regenerative Eleventh – wild, dangerous, and all about speed and crashing, doing the most possible damage, and laughing, and loving it.

The difference of course is that Eleven, when he does that, is all alone, and technically perfectly free to crash his Tardis into a shed if he wants. With Rose, the wild Tenth Doctor is endangering the life of someone for whom he cares a great deal, and what’s already established as his “sane” self breaks through occasionally, telling her the change is going wrong.

The dichotomy between the two “selves” of the Tenth Doctor is, as it will turn out, a prophetic display of his nature. The top layer is always trying to be good, trying to bring happiness and fun, and more than ready to hop for his life, while underneath there’s a capricious, reckless, thoughtless sulky child who, as Donna Noble will sharply identify, needs someone to stop him from, for instance, becoming the Time Lord Victorious.

And as the Doctor sets them on a crash course, with vortex-tearing speed and every engine opened up to maximum, Born Again ends – promising us that the Doctor will return in The Christmas Invasion.

It’s worth remembering in 2023, as we look forward to the return of David Tennant, Russell T Davies and Christmas specials that this was the first time there had ever been the promise of such a thing. Before Tennant and his two successors would turn the Doctor Who Christmas Special into must-see festive telly, this was a huge gamble.

Could Doctor Who WORK as a Christmas staple? And what’s more, could it work as a Christmas staple while delivering the first full-length episode of a brand new Doctor, while a LOT of the initial army of fans the new iteration of Doctor Who had built were still mourning for the end of the Eccleston era, and wondering whether the mix could ever work with this new, skinny, mad-haired version of the character.

Born Again was absolutely a minisode written to fit into a charity appeal. But there was as much care, attention to detail, ground covered, and promising characterization involved in it as there was in any full episode of RTD1 Who. It covered the disassociation of the Doctor’s friends from a new version of the character in probably the best way since Ben Jackson and Polly Wright didn’t QUITE see the First Doctor change into the Second, and it bridged the gap between the Eccleston era and the tone of The Christmas Invasion perfectly, allowing the Tenth Doctor a clear shot at his first full episode.

That episode would certainly deal with some of the fallout from the Ninth Doctor’s life – including his relationship with Jackie Tyler, Mickey, Harriet Jones, and humanity as a whole. And it would also, more or less for a triumphant sense of the full arrival of the new Doctor, do some reiteration of the Doctor’s self-discovery.

But as a way of clearing the decks of everything that had gone before and starting again with, as he was later to claim, “a completely new man,” Born Again does a great deal of legwork in not very much time or space, while generating at least enough curiosity about the new Doctor to be sure we that we checked out his first full story at Christmas.

The joy of rewatching it in 2023 is that we absolutely don’t have to wait a month before we get to see the Tenth Doctor go fully into action. No deadly Christmas tree or robot Santa will be safe…

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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