After a largely run of the mill Series Two, what could the third outing of Doctor Who bring us? Yes, it’s that time again - Christmas, and another boxset of the latest season featuring everyone’s favourite inter-planetary, inter-fourth dimensional adventurer. With Billie Piper gone, and past her sell-by date if you ask me, we had Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones entering as the Doctor’s new companion. David Tennant went into his second series, now tightly associated with the title character and by all accounts a hit with the viewing public at large. Perhaps less so with the hardcore fans, the so-called Whovians, who not only saw his take on the Doctor as overtly hammy and with a tendency to gurn through his scenes, but also questioned the direction of the show itself. Head writer and driving force, Russell T Davies, might have done much for the cause of television, but was he the right man for Who?
Certainly, of all the show’s writers Davies would appear to be the one who’s most self-conscious that he is working for a slice of early evening family entertainment. As such, his scripts can often be accused of dumbing down the Doctor, and of inserting him into tales derivative of other staples. For instance, it seems clear that Davies wrote the most recent Christmas special, ‘Voyage of the Damned,’ with the express intention of recreating one of those overblown disaster movies i.e. Doctor Who meets The Poseidon Adventure. Davies also consumes himself most fully with exploring the series’ emotional themes. It’s in his stories that we learn the most about the Doctor’s background, how he relates himself to his companions and the ways in which he deals with the loneliness of being the last of the Timelords. Further to this are endless pop culture references, suggesting as ever that Davies has been inspired most of all by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, though it does leave the other writers to produce tighter stories that are simply more entertaining and better fun. For sure, when Steven Moffatt or Paul Cornell appear on the credits, you know you’re in for a treat, and so it proves here, with both writers turning out intelligent and thrilling scripts that produce two of the very best Who yarns I have seen in a long while.
As usual, the boxset is a lavish affair, stuffed with extras and the rather gorgeous menus that now come as standard. It includes the entire run of ‘Doctor Who Confidential’ that accompanied the series, for the most part an unnecessary distraction - do we really need all those clips montages from episodes we have only just finishing watching? - that occasionally hits the mark. The episode directed by David Tennant is a highlight, and generally ‘Mr Who’ comes across as an engaging, affable bloke, not above laughing at himself or what he’s doing. His video diaries are signs of someone who isn’t taking any of this too seriously, and as a consequence are frequently a hoot. The set also features last year’s Christmas special, meaning we get fourteen episodes in total. Following is a brief summary of them all.
Rarely have I seen a bigger difference of opinion between Whovians and regular viewers than with the specials, screened at prime time on Christmas Day and by some distance the most hyped BBC programme of the holiday period. Always written by Davies and longer than regular episodes, the former group hates them with a passion, yet the viewing figures suggest they’re here to stay. Christmas 2006 brought us The Runaway Bride, starring Catherine Tate as the eponymous about-to-be-wed, Donna Noble, who mysteriously appears in the Tardis. The Doctor’s irritated instantly with her barking voice, apparent lack of intelligence and, well, the fact that the woman who introduced ‘Am I bovvered?’ to the world is within one hundred metres of his ship. The opening acts are about how he tries to get her back to the church on time, before exploring the reasons behind what happened and why her character is being pursued by robot Santas (who also featured in the 2005 special). It’s with a second viewing that I stopped worrying and learned to love the almost non-stop romp that follows. The very sight of the Doctor, at the door of his Tardis that is flying just above a motorway and keeping up with a taxi, imploring Donna to jump from the car to him as kids in the back of another vehicle shout words of encouragement, is a sure sign of this episode’s sense of fun and intention to entertain. Tate gets less annoying as things progress, though I hope her character’s shouty excesses are toned down when she joins the show as the official new companion in Series Four. The story’s baddie, a woman’s head and torso on the body of a spider called the Empress of Racnoss makes for an agreeable ‘PG’ villain; her web-themed vessel is really well designed also. It all gets a bit messier when the Doctor deals with her, the show suddenly losing its sense of humour to peer into his alleged dark side (basically Tennant stood in the rain and looking a bit grim). What follows is a long and tiresome conversation between Donna and the Timelord, Tate apparently dropping her dumb veneer to ‘get him’ and urge him to find a new lady. We find out that the Tardis can manipulate the weather to produce Yuletide snow, at the flick of a switch (huh?), and in a final broadside that Donna would prefer to stay with her unlovely family rather than travel with the Doctor, by which point the viewers were presumably crossing their fingers that this was her first and last appearance in his world. No such luck. 5/10
Smith and Jones is set up in such a way to introduce new sidekick, Martha Jones, to the series. A trainee doctor herself, Martha spends her time alternating between learning her trade and chatting on the phone to what appears to be a demanding family (who thankfully aren’t nearly as bad as Rose’s nearest and dearest). The Doctor turns up in Martha’s hospital, ostensibly called there by ’signs’ that turn out to be the entire building transplanting to the moon’s surface, all in time for the Judoon (walking aliens with the heads of rhinos) to investigate its inhabitants and catch a villain. But the plot is little more than a device. What we’re here for is to see who Martha is, and how she goes from leading her inconsequential life to being in the Tardis. Freema Agyeman shows signs of being a brighter companion than Billie Piper’s apparent ‘everygirl’ ever was, and there’s a handsome turn from Roy ‘Adam Dalgleish’ Marsden as the senior consultant. As is the template with Doctor Who opening episodes, this one is decidedly unmemorable. Viewers here for the second time will note the ‘Vote Saxon’ posters already appearing on the walls of London. 5/10
Things improve considerably in The Shakespeare Code, written by Gareth Roberts, who has gone on to pen much of ‘The Sarah-Jane Adventures.’ The Doctor wants to show Martha just what his machine can do, and whisks her off to England in 1599. There they meet none other than William Shakespeare (Dean Lennox Kelly), fresh from the success of ‘Love’s Labours Lost’ and about to follow it with the sequel, ‘Love’s Labours Won.’ Love’s Labours Won? It transpires that Shakey is being manipulated by a coven of ‘witches’ into ending his script with co-ordinates that, when read out loud, will open a rift in time and space and allow their fellows to pour into the world. The witches are led by Lilith (Cassandra Cole), easy on the eye and utterly deadly. Though alien, she uses devices employed by classical witches (effigies, broomsticks, etc) and no doubt inspires the Bard into including them in Macbeth. Elsewhere, the story plays delightfully with fuelling Shakespeare’s future plays, the Doctor feeding him lines from his own yet to be written works (’You can have that one’), whilst Martha serves as the subject for one of his most famous sonnets. Some time is spent on expanding the new companion’s unrequited affection for her partner, yet Shakespeare is an altogether superbly written character, genius enough to see the Doctor more or less exactly for what he is from the start. Sixteenth century England looks fabulous, thanks to some excellent CGI work and set design, and there’s an intriguing cameo from Queen Elizabeth I that hints at a massive, yet unexplored back story. It’s moments like these that show there’s more to the Doctor than we viewers get to see in our limited, 13-episode peeks into his adventures. 8/10
Russell T Davies is back on board for Gridlock, and it shows. The premise plays with the average viewer’s aggravation over motorway congestion by being set in a highway of the future, an endless trip that takes literally years to complete… that is, if anyone ever gets to the end. Of course, there’s more going on than meets the eye, and Martha gets to see this for herself when she’s kidnapped and joins the fast lane, which in reality is a death-defying ride amidst the snapping claws of Macra occupying the planet’s surface. The Doctor sets off in pursuit, and in a nicely winning scene leaps from car to car as he tries to get closer to the lower levels. Unfortunately, he also comes into contact with Brannigan, a man-sized cat (yes, really) played by Ardal O’Hanlon. The Face of Boe is in the mix at certain points to lend the episode a degree of profundity, though in general it’s all a bit silly and from the looks of things does nothing but reveal to the Doctor that he is not alone. Forgettable. 4/10
The double-header, Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks is not without entertainment value. We’re in Depression-era New York, our eponymous baddies co-ordinating the finishing touches to the Empire State Building. ‘Noo Yoik’ certainly looks impressive enough, especially when viewed from the building’s top floor, and the Daleks’ plan has shades of the old Universal ‘Frankenstein’ movies about it. But it’s all a bit of a mess, starting with the spectacularly rubbish pig slaves, people who for reasons best known to them have been tinkered with by the Daleks to have pig heads and serve them. As for the Exterminators themselves, there might only be four of them but you would think they’d be more than a match for just about anyone, so why hide themselves away in the bowels of Manhattan? The scheme turns out to be a rather unlikely effort to ‘evolve’ the species by fusing them with humans, Dalek Sec emerging as a pinstripe-suit wearing cyclops who, worryingly for his fellow Daleks, begins to develop emotionally. Though there’s something pleasingly schlocky about all this, it never really works. Why do the Daleks plan towards Sec’s transformation, only to turn on him once he has changed? Why does Laszlo become only half a pig slave - is it just to make him recognisable to his lady friend, Tallulah (Miranda Raison)? What’s the point in setting the action in New York, when the majority of the actors are British, cue some fairly dodgy American accents? Why does the best character, Solomon (Hugh Quarshie) get killed off early? Most of all, how does the Doctor (who demands death from the Daleks more than once) manage to survive? It’s extremely daft, easily the low point of the series, and would appear to have been created as an attempt to curry favour with Stateside audiences. 4/10
Three mundane episodes, which only picks up a little with The Lazarus Experiment. I admit I enjoyed the Hammer feel to it all, the story of an inventor (Mark Gatiss) who makes himself young again, but with terrible unforseen consequences. Gatiss adds an instant touch of class, giving his character more depth than you might expect from a pulp baddie. I also liked the cameo from Thelma Barlow, playing the icy Lady Thaw. But the show demonstrates a decisive weakness with its special effects. CGI might look great when used to recreate locations and inanimate objects, but the monstrous Lazarus resembles nothing more than a piece of computer engineering, an obvious effect rather than a scary villain. When the creature takes over, it reminded me of some of the naff, CGI-heavy movies churned out earlier in the decade - ‘Van Helsing,’ ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,’ and most of all ‘The Mummy Returns.’ Lazarus could have doubled for the Scorpion King. As Doctor Who would demonstrate later in the series, the best monsters don’t need to rely on millions of pounds’ worth of effects to hit their target. 5/10
42 is much better, a distant relation of Season Two’s superior ‘The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit’ and, just like those episodes owing a debt to ‘Event Horizon’ with its baddies offing crew members, uttering the damning words, ‘Burn with me.’ The story concerns a spaceship that mines stars for certain minerals, but something has gone wrong and it is now falling into the sun from which it made its latest extraction. The Doctor and Martha turn up just as the crew have 42 minutes to save themselves, which means the action takes place in real time. The tension rises almost by itself, with people running around in ever deepening shades of orange as the sun’s surface looms. While the Doctor tries to figure out what’s happened, we get to meet the crew, led by Michelle Collins who almost does Bruce Willis levels of service to looking good in a soiled vest. Here, the situation becomes ever more impossible, the odds against survival lengthening with each passing minute. The best bit is where Martha and another crew member are jettisoned in an escape pod, which begins drifting towards the sun. The Doctor, still on the ship, is staring at them from a hatch window. He’s mouthing ‘I’ll save you!’ but they can’t hear him, the near silence of the moment punctuated perfectly and so suspenseful. What makes this episode work so well is its lack of reliance on gadgets. The Tardis is cut off from the Doctor, sealed in a room that has heated to unreachable levels. Nor is there too much use of the sonic screwdriver, our hero having to rely on his brains and bravery, and more than once appearing fallible. The familiar pop culture references are present and correct, but don’t cut into the main plot too deeply, and I didn’t see any connection between the title of this episode and an obvious nod to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy,’ beyond the homage represented in its title. 8/10
Any impact made by ‘42′ was lost following the transmission of Human Nature and The Family of Blood, which genuinely takes Doctor Who to new heights and, along with ‘Blink,’ are why it’s worth owning the set. Putting to one side for a moment the reasons for him doing so, the Doctor turns himself into a human being. He’s now John Smith, a teacher living in England in 1913. Though he suffers strange dreams in which he’s some sort of adventurer, Smith for the most part enjoys his quiet life. He falls in love with the school nurse, Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes - brilliant), and endures a chaotic relationship with his ‘over familiar’ servant, Martha, which tests his patience. Given the double episode time to do so, writer Paul Cornell allows us to explore Smith’s world in detail, following his middle class life and relishing the opportunity to see what the Doctor would be like as an ordinary man. Peril awaits. The Doctor is being pursued by the Family of Blood, who need his energy to extend their lives, and when they occupy the bodies of other people, they start to close in. They’re aided by an army of animated scarecrows, using the familiar device of taking everyday objects and turning them into something sinister. Part of Smith’s job is to teach his students how to prepare for war, which of course will come in the following year. There’s something tragic about the young men going through their paces of practicing with machine guns, the Head Master’s insistence that he has fought in wars previously, leading to stories of firing on primitives that bear no resemblance to the oncoming Great War. One of the students, Tim Latimer (Thomas Sangster) has a gift of premonition, and begins to learn Smith’s secret once he has stolen the teacher’s fob watch, which also carries his Timelord identity. This really is wonderful television. Leaving the main story aside, the references to life in 1913 are neatly observed. Look out for the way Martha, a young black woman, is treated, or the fact that lower class servants have to sit outside the pub when having a drink. The story’s ‘money shot’ comes just before Smith has to revert back to being the Doctor. Resisting and tearful, he wants to remain as Smith and marry Joan, though he realises this is an impossibility. As a parting gift, the watch shows him in a series of vignettes what sort of life he would have if he got his own way, giving us the sight of the Doctor having children, growing old, clearly in love. It’s a beautiful moment within a pair of episodes that never fails to get it right, more so because it requires Tennant to act. 9.5/10
And yet somehow, Season Three gets even better. Blink was no doubt intended to be a filler, a chance for the cast and crew to catch their breaths before heading into the series finale. By happy coincidence, the writing duties were handed over to Steven Moffat, responsible for the best episode in the previous series (’The Girl in the Fireplace’) and due to hit Saturday night again in the shape of ‘Jekyll.’ The result here is an episode that is perfectly taut, ever creepy and sometimes terrifying, and one that produces its plot twists and revelations in sublimely timed peelings. The Doctor barely appears, doing little more than talking to the main character via a DVD easter egg, and though much has been made of the better stories often being those with less Doctorage, it’s certainly the case that Blink is all the more fun for focusing on other characters. Here, we meet Sally Sparrow, who’s investigating an old house and comes across a mysterious message. Gradually, she learns about the weeping angels, statues that are in fact aliens who cannot look at each other or they’ll turn to stone. They’ve already netted the Doctor, ‘killing him’ by taking the rest of his life and sending him and Martha spiralling back to 1969. From there, he communicates with Sally on DVD, outlining the principles of ‘wibbly wobbly, timey wimey’ that explains the set-up and gets her to send the Tardis back to him. The episode is called ‘Blink’ because you can’t take your eyes off the angels. Turn away, even blink, and they move with lightning speed towards you, and what look like benign statues are horrific monsters with sharp teeth and claws. Sally is played by Carey Mulligan, who invests her character with a wealth of emotion as she carries out her investigation. Finlay Robertson takes on the role of Larry, the DVD store owner who discovers the easter egg and finds himself embroiled in the mystery. He’s excellent. The scene where he’s confronted with an angel remains a series high point. Scared and unable to blink, his face conveys all the terror the moment deserves. Blink is the best episode on the set. Along with ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ and ‘City of Death,’ it is one of my favourite all-time Doctor Who stories, and fantastic television in its own right, a perfect use of prime time entertainment. 10/10
The final three episodes in the series form one over-arching story, but Utopia, due to its setting, should be considered separately. We find the Doctor and Martha in Cardiff, refuelling the Tardis (don’t ask) before jetting off for further antics. Just as they’re about to leave, who should come hurtling towards the police box but Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman)? The Doctor tries to go before he reaches them, but he manages to cling to the Tardis’s side as it hurls itself into the future… as far as it’s possible to go in the future, apparently. The trio find themselves at the end of the universe, humanity’s last remnants building a rocket that will supposedly lead them to Utopia, whilst outside their compound the ‘Futurekind’ lurk. The rocket is being constructed by Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi), but the old man’s having problems with the finishing touches, and the story becomes one of the Doctor trying to help him complete the job. But all of it is a smokescreen. Yana carries the same fob watch as John Smith did in 1913 England, which reveals to Martha that he must be a Timelord in disguise - but which one? And why is the Professor plagued by the sound of constant drums pounding in his head, which get louder whenever his distant memory is pricked by things the Doctor says and does? The ‘knock you over the head’ meaning of the name ‘Yana’ continues Russell T Davies’s obsession with wordplay when it comes to monikers.
This is very clearly a bridging episode. The Futurekind don’t get to do much besides chase the odd stray human and sneer at people. Captain Jack appears to be present by simple virtue of being Captain Jack - apart from one scene, his presence is irrelevant, giving Davies the opportunity to shoehorn in some innuendo-scattered lines. It all comes racing together in the last five minutes, though, when Yana learns who he really is and we get the set-up for the climactic two episodes. Hats off to Jacobi, by all accounts a big Doctor Who fan. He captures so well the metamorphosis in personality his character undergoes, slipping fluidly from the kindly, ageing Professor into his sinister new shoes. The appearance on the soundtrack of ancient soundbites from Roger Delgado are also welcome. 6/10
Last, and potentially least according to the verdicts of some fans, we get the double-header epic that traditionally closes the new Doctor Who seasons - The Sound of Drums, and Last of the Timelords. These are always written by Davies, and seem to suck up half the show’s budget thanks to their expansive effects work. Last year, we had the sight of Cybermen and Daleks duking it out for the spoils of Earth. This time around, it’s the turn of the Master, who hatches a scheme to become Prime Minister of Britain whilst the Doctor is stranded at the end of time, and from there to turn the planet into a declaration of war against the universe. In a considerable casting coup, John Simm is on hand to play the Master, and what a glorious, scenery-chewing villain he is. Whether hamming it up with the American president, enjoying an episode of the Teletubbies, delivering pronouncements to the world or sparring verbally with the Doctor, he’s a brilliant exercise in unhinged nastiness. Simm seems to be enjoying himself in the role, making it hard to imagine this is the same bloke who, until very recently on our screens, was Sam Tyler. What really adds flesh to the bones are the things we don’t necessarily see, for example the bruises on his wife’s face that hint at levels of cruelty extending far beyond the limits of the episode.
The Master leaves the Doctor in the most impossible situation imaginable. Just as our heroes think they have him cornered, the Master turns the tables on them. Imprisoning Captain Jack and ageing the Doctor by one hundred years, only Martha has the opportunity to leave, and escapes back to Earth just in time to see the Toclafane - talking metal balls with a considerable bite - ravage London. One year passes. Martha’s family are now the Master’s servants on his airship base. The geriatric Doctor is kept, like an animal. The Master has reduced Earth to a slave planet. People build his missiles at the behest of the psychotic Toclafane. In the chilling opening to ‘Last of the Timelords,’ a supposedly alien broadcast advises that Earth has been closed and is in ‘terminal extinction.’
How the Doctor gets out of his predicament - at a later point, he is aged further to look 900 years old, a tiny ancient being that is held in a birdcage, and bizarrely resembles Dobby from the Harry Potter movies - is one of the most controversial aspects of the series. Reading many of the comments, it seems clear that the climax was perceived to be an enormous letdown, an illogical slice of extreme silliness that roped in elements of the Christ story, reminded me a little of ‘V for Vendetta’ and tried to say something profound about the power of the human spirit. Crazy it most definitely was, though I admit to being impressed with the sheer scale of the Doctor’s eventual triumph, and the fact that, no matter how long you tried to figure it out, what happened was a complete surprise. Not that Davies managing to smokescreen both the viewers and the Master detracts from its ultimate daftness. The conclusion was as far from the spirit of Doctor Who as it gets, which is the main problem. Oddly enough, I enjoyed it immensely, but I did so with my tongue wedged firmly in my cheek.
Elsewhere, we got scenes that mirrored flashbacks from ‘Return of the Jedi’ and ‘Flash Gordon,’ a hint that the Master might not be quite as dead as we think, and a revelation about Captain Jack that didn’t make a whole heap of sense, and wasn’t enough to justify his largely irrelevant presence in these episodes. Neither did the appearance of tracks by Voodoo Child and the Scissor Sisters add anything to the drama. On the plus side, Tennant played his aged self rather well, and Martha turned out to be a pretty good companion all told, far more than the mere Doctor’s foil that many become. Such a pity that she finished the series by leaving it (though she’s due to return in three episodes of the fourth season). Freema Agyeman can act, made her character credible and emotionally rich, and was given sufficient amounts to do. I can’t help but think the show will be less for replacing her with Catherine Tate. 6/10
If Doctor Who is to have much of a future, certainly in terms of keeping its hardcore fanbase and viewers with an iota of intelligence happy, then it would seem that the best way forward would be for the producers to thank Russell T Davies for his input and his invaluable effort in reviving the show, and then send him packing. As each series to date has proved, the best stories are those written by other people. The likes of Moffat and Cornell appear to have a grasp of science fiction, sufficient respect for the mythology of Doctor Who, and most importantly the talent to fashion a fine, coherent and crucially logical episode that simply appears to be beyond Davies. But this won’t happen. Davies’s role in getting Doctor Who off the ground and his continued interest in the show suggest his involvement is far from over; indeed, it’s been intimated that his departure might very well coincide with the end of the franchise, so entwined are the writer and formula. David Tennant’s commitment to the stage in 2009 means that there won’t even be a series that year - Doctor Who’s very survival would seem to depend on the actor also. However great Tennant’s popularity (and I think he improved in the role during Season Three), in the past the producers would have found some reason to regenerate him for the sake of continuing the run of episodes. Therefore, are we to assume that no Tennant or Davies means no Doctor?
That said, the massive marketing campaign that accompanies a Doctor Who series, not to mention the endless amounts of tie-in merchandise (my son owns various action figures, books, posters, etc) tell a different story. The kids love their Doctor. We visited the recent exhibition at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry earlier in the year. The queues and sheer volume of children accompanying long-suffering parents give every impression that the Doctor will survive, no matter who makes the show or the actor filling his boots (or trainers, in Tennant’s case). And that’s just how it should be. The kids I have spoken to don’t care who is involved - they like the cool stories, the monsters, and the infinite possibilities that come with piloting a ship that can take you anywhere, at any time. As for older viewers, there’s the constant worry that Doctor Who is being left behind. Watch it just after an episode of ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ and in comparison it’s light and inconsequential; the plotholes become aching chasms, the lack of substance in a typical Davies episode turning into a real problem. Even more scary is the fact that the ‘pulp’ B-movie feel to ‘Voyage of the Damned’ and Davies’s writing credit on at least three episodes of Season Four suggest that changes aren’t going to happen in the near future, if at all.