Smith and Jones
The Shakespeare Code
Daleks in Manhattan
Evolution of the Daleks
The Lazarus Experiment
The Family of Blood
The Sound of Drums
Last of the Time Lords
New Series Season Three
The Great Collapse by Billy Barron 18/9/07
I can honestly say I've never seen a Who season like this one. One that is generally very strong and then near the end completely collapses. The collapse is largely due to the flaws I've seen repeated over and over in new Who.
I was going to include Runaway Bride, but our site host has it as part of the previous season. In any case, I reviewed it separately so you can read that. The short version is that I liked it more than most.
We start off with Smith and Jones. I'll give Russell credit that he writes really strong character introduction stories. It's fun, interesting and makes sense. Martha's introduction to the TARDIS is just wonderful. The rumor is that David Tennant himself thought up is "Is it? I never noticed" line. Great episode.
The Shakespeare Code was fine, but a little too cute with its Shakespeare play references for its own good. I'm going to move my comments on Gridlock to later.
The Dalek episodes were a strange mix of having cringeworthy moments (I won't mention it because it might be a spoiler, but you know which one I'm primarily talking about if you have seen it), great moments (e.g. the Dalek look over his shoulder to see who is listening), great acting, and incredible cinematography. Overall, continued good work.
The Lazarus Experiment was an average Who episode. 42 was great, but it's flaw was that it seems like a redo of The Impossible Planet.
Human Nature/Family of Blood excited most people more than me. Still, it was fine though it would have worked better as just one part.
In my opinion, Blink was one of the finest episode of Who to ever bless the screen. It might be the best all time, but I'm not ready yet to say that. The plot is just tight. Sally Sparrow is a wonderful character. I only have one more nit about the whole thing which I'm not going to even mention.
At this point in the season, excluding Gridlock (going to get to in a moment), we have a season whose worst is average. Martha is working well, Jack is coming back soon. Everything is looking great.
Unfortunately, now we get to what I consider the 4-parter: Gridlock, with the final 3 episodes. Gridlock bored the pants off of me and I didn't like the way the story was handled either. Then the story continues in Utopia. Utopia was better, but most of the story turned out to be padding for the reveal at the end of the story.
Unfortunately, John Simm showed up with his half-Joker/half-Riddler-from-Batman act, not the character he was supposed to be playing. The Batman TV series actors were better at both roles as was Jim Carrey as the Riddler. Still, I'll grant Simm was better than Nicholson as the Joker.
Between his horrible character (although he may have only been doing what RTD asked) and the chaotic script, The Sound of Drums was a dismal failure. It was a huge mess which I can only compare to The Chase or Mindwarp in that regard.
Now we are at the point where Gridlock raised questions and answered none. Utopia and The Sound of Drums did the same. Not a very satisfying situation.
Then we end the season with Last of the Time Lords. I might have enjoyed this more if we hadn't have two Davies Ex Machina scripts to end the previous two seasons. In fact, I'd say that Last of the Time Lords is mostly a reworking of The Parting of the Ways. If The Parting of the Ways wasn't around, I'd be happier about the end of this season.
And then, the whole thing feels like it is ripped off pieces of other movies (Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Lord of the Rings, etc). There is a great post on Outpost Gallifrey with 10 or 12 pictures of other movies that summarize the entire plot.
Oh yeah, I haven't even mentioned the gaping plotholes. Let me just say they were enormous and rather obvious if you spend more than 2 seconds thinking about it.
Meanwhile, Jack was a complete waste in these 3 stories. It was either in his contract or was Torchwood PR. Not much point to it, which was a huge disappointment to me. Nothing much resolved about him and the hint dropped near the end is in my opinion more of a stab at fandom rumors than anything to take seriously. I'm also rather unhappy about how the Martha story arc is progressing (not going to say more to avoid spoilers).
Tennant did a generally good job this season especially playing John Smith. However, his emotional moments late in the season didn't ring true to me. The good news for him is that none of the Doctors (except maybe Hartnell) in the classic series could really carry off those kind of scenes either.
So where does this leave this season? To be honest, it's going to take me a while to digest it. I think in the end, I'll probably end up rating this as a Top 10 season of all time. But what's sad was that going into (and maybe even coming out of) Utopia, it had a shot at being the best.
I'm very concerned about Series 4 right now outside of Tennant himself. I think RTD has outlived his usefulness as a writer and needs to let others handle the writing duties. Since Tooth and Claw, he is responsible for 1 great episode (Smith and Jones), 1 good one (Runaway Bride), 3 so-so ones (Army of Ghosts, Doomsday and Utopia), 2 bad ones (The Sound of Drums, Last of the Time Lords) and 2 that are complete pants (Love & Monsters and Gridlock). Not a good recent track record. Steven Moffat is the guy who needs to step up and do more writing.
Another half of Tennant's by John Nor 23/10/07
This will be a review of the 2007 Season so far - episodes 1 to 7, as I believe the Nu-Who Seasons are structured to have two halves. I am writing this before the transmission of episode 8.
With my review of the 2006 Season, I focused on two aspects of the stories: finding patterns of repeating story-types across the 2005 and 2006 Seasons and discussing the arcs. I will do the same thing here. Briefly: does the 2007 Season first half repeat the pattern of story-types I highlighted in review of the 2006 Season? The answer is, broadly, yes, if I rephrase the story-types slightly - with the exception of one episode.
Meet-the-heroes: Smith and Jones.
Historical-horror: The Shakespeare Code.
Doctor's-character-deepened-in-Douglas-Adamsesque-setting: Gridlock (following The End of the World and The Girl in the Fireplace.)
Attempted-Earth-invasion-two-parter: Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks.
Very-Classic-traditional-story: The Lazarus Experiment (following The Long Game and The Idiot's Lantern.)
The exception: 42. My previous review had the story-type of "It's a bank holiday weekend and it's time for the return of a Classic Icon, with a new emotional spin and a focus on character!" as I catergorised Dalek and School Reunion. This year, firstly, the scheduling of the episodes seems to have been more relaxed - no more ensuring a May bank holiday "second launch". Secondly, none of episodes 1 to 7 had the first appearance of a Classic Icon returning for the 21st Century. (The Macra are not iconic!) Both of these points perhaps signify a more confident production team this year.
Doctor Who has always had pre-planned story-types to help structure its Seasons. Way back in 1963, there was the writer's guide that David Whittaker created for Sydney Newman. According to the writer's guide, there would be three kinds of stories in this new series: Past, Future and Sideways.
And so the first three stories: An Unearthly Child (the whole four episodes e.g. 100,000 BC or WHATEVER story-title nitpickers may choose!). The Daleks. The Edge of Destruction.
The Sideways category (Planet of the Giants, The Space Museum) became less and less popular with the writers. (Although both Inferno and - in Nu-Who - Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel were a nod to the old Sideways style!)
Going by the eventually established Classic Series tradition, Russell T seems to have redefined the basic three as: Present, Past and Future.
(Which also matches the 1963 season: Serial 1, ep 1 / Serial 1 eps 2-4 / Serial 2.)
So - as well as categorising the story-types across the Nu-Who Seasons as I have described above, there is another clear pattern. Episodes 1 to 7 have a Present, a Past, and a Future story within episodes 1 to 3, then the Attempted-Earth-invasion-two-parter, the Very-Classic-traditional-story.
There is also another story-type: Dalek in the 2005 Season, The Girl in the Fireplace in the 2006 Season and now 42 in the 2007 Season.
This iconoclastic story type underscores the fact that this is Nu-Who now, with emotional aspects to the fore. Just as Ninth losing his cool and displaying a spitting rage and Tenth "dancing" were shocking and surprising moments which defined Nu-Who, the Doctor in 42 admitting he is scared is a very Nu-Who moment.
This moment leads into a discussion of the arc storylines so far. This was the moment at which the Doctor and Martha became close, after the Doctor being quite distant from her after the first six episodes. There was a "front" which he had been using to mask his feelings from her, and its crumbling here signaled his acceptance of her. (As well as Martha receiving the super-phone and Tardis key.)
As this particular emotional arc story-line - the Doctor accepts Martha as a companion and gets over Rose - came to a close over episodes 6 and 7, these episodes also saw the beginning of the Saxon-tracking-the-Doctor plot arc story-line.
There are various motifs that have appeared over episodes 1 to 7 - those of Family, Blood and what it means to be Human. Knowing the story-titles of episodes 8 and 9 there seems to be a certain amount of build-up there. There is also the recurring idea of being able to alter DNA. Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks was the only disappointing story so far, as the approach to DNA there was a real hindrance to the suspension of disbelief.
Going back to those motifs, and some observations. Family: "I had a brother once..." in Smith and Jones. "You are not alone" in Gridlock. Hmmm.
Blood: As I mentioned in my review of The Shakespeare Code, the production design has introduced a recurring blood-red colour to compliment the ongoing bronzes, greens and blues of Nu-Who. What with the Doctor's blood being sucked through a straw, "the old ways of blood and magic", "hydrogen for blood" in 42 and the various new bloodlines in the other episodes, there is a lot of it about. And it is another name for Family, really.
What does it mean to be Human?
All of this is leading into the first part of Human Nature/The Family of Blood which I am just about to watch this afternoon...
A Review by Alan Morrison 4/1/08
There's no doubt in my mind that this has been the best season of new Who so far. It has in my view had the most consistently strong stories out of all three series, and included the longest continual run of top class episodes from Human Nature through to Utopia. One might even argue, given that 42 is actually still a fairly good episode and above the standard of the more mediocre offerings of previous years, that this run could be traced right back to the third episode of this season, Gridlock. That's a pretty mammoth string of classics and near-classics.
Such a shame then that the penultimate episode, second in The Master arc of the series, and opener to the official season finale, was so appallingly executed, harking back to the pantomime excesses of Aliens of London/World War Three and the political absurdities of The Christmas Invasion and Army of Ghosts. Thankfully the final episode, Last of the Time Lords, albeit spiced with the usual melodramatic elements (see also Parting of the Ways and Doomsday) and near-Messianic take on the Doctor, just about manages to pull the season up by its bootstraps for its last 51 minutes, and delivers a fairly satisfactory climax with the apparent death - emotively directed - of the Master.
It's rather ironic that this series turned out to be so strong compared to its more bitty predecessors, considering it got off to a pretty dismal start with two of the worst episodes this year: the rather stupid, Hitchhiker's-esque Smith and Jones, and the gratingly smug Harry Potter replica, The Shakespeare Code. That these two episodes still looked pretty classy in no way redeemed their complete lack of substance and real drama. Smith and Jones was pretty much a vacuous runaround, while The Shakespeare Code - inexplicably lauded by many fans - also lacked any real grit or substance, and served more as a moving tourist brochure for the Globe than anything else. Sadly its few interesting aspects such as the voodoo-style dolls used to manipulate people and the witches' poet-speak did little to significantly lift what was generally an implausibly plotted, self-congratulatory romp.
But things soon took an upturn with the least likely hit of the new series, the refreshingly witty and imaginative Gridlock. With this genuinely amusing polemic, RTD proved for the first time that with sufficient application he could just about pull off a proper satire. In many ways this episode echoed the McCoy oddballs, in particular Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol. But, in its slightly grittier execution, well-paced tempo and eclectic scripting, it managed to deliver on a directorial and atmospheric level in a way that Nick Mallet in particular failed to do.
Daleks of Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks was a good solid story with an excellent new take on the eponymous enemies in the human Dalek. This was very much Day of the Daleks territory (with Pig Men instead of Ogrons), and particularly the sewer scenes harked back to the series of old. This is probably the most old-Who style story to date in new Who.
The Lazarus Experiment was again a surprise episode, with a show-stealing cameo from Mark Gatiss. The cathedral scene for me goes down as a classic moment. Although there is a dip in originality with 42 - or the poor man's Satan Pit - this episode is still fairly well made, and is actually probably the most gritty and depressing of the entire run. But it acts as a fairly sturdy bridge to the following story.
Human Nature/Family of Blood was of course the most anticipated two parter and, by and large, lives up to its predicted classic status. The first episode in particular stands out as the best episode of new Who to date, arguably on a par with some of the second tier classic stories from the old series. In its unique humanization of the Doctor into a wistful school teacher in a 1913 public school, Human Nature will undoubtedly start creeping up even further in most fans' ratings, to the dizzy echelons of the likes of Caves of Androzani, Deadly Assasin, Talons of Weng-Chiang, Pyramids of Mars, Genesis of the Daleks et al. Though I can see why it may very well achieve such a grand classic status in the entire cannon, due to its very unusual plot, I still felt that its closing episode Family of Blood was not as strong, even if it did include one of the greatest shots ever of the schoolboys gunning down scarecrows in slow motion.
Human Nature/Family of Blood is the nearest Who has ever come to a film; moreover, an arthouse flick, in its closing scenes. Human Nature particularly shows just what can be achieved with the monies pumped in now to Doctor Who. It wholesomely brings to fruition the costume possibilities previously glimpsed in the consummate The Unquiet Dead and Tooth and Claw. (Although, having said this, I still think you can never beat the sheer gloom and atmosphere of the old Who costume stories, such as Pyramids of Mars and Talons). This is certainly the standout story of the series, and of new Who so far and in my books puts the pretty good but over-rated Empty Child/Doctor Dances into the shade in comparison. In any other era, less hyped than this one, Human Nature might have come out as controversial and criticised as the likes of Deadly Assassin was in its time. In some ways it's a shame it hasn't, as this would only add fuel to its already classic status. Human Nature/Family of Blood lifts Who up to a new level of poetic depth, not seen substantially in my opinion since the Davison era (Kinda, Enlightenment). Having said that, it does have some of the poetic feel of the latter McCoy stories, in particular the torrid Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric (inevitable, of course, as it was originally a Seventh Doctor New Adventure). But Human Nature manages with more time and money, to deliver a production matching its scriptural poeticism. When are they going to make Lungbarrow? It has to be done.
And just when one thinks things have to take a downturn, they continue on the same poetic level. Blink was another surprise gem of the series, working extremely well in spite of the Doctor's near-absence throughout. Thankfully a strong actress was chosen for the main role and so one could actually feel some interest in her fortunes. The Weeping Angels are to my mind the most exceptionally conceived monsters ever to appear in Who (close runners up being the Voc Robots in Robots of Death and the Clockwork Androids in Girl in the Fireplace), not only in their visual realisation, but in their actual ontology. A race of creatures which only exist when one isn't observing them is almost profound, and the shots of them flicking in and out of more and more malevolent poses while the lights faltered around the TARDIS was stunningly shot. Along with Father's Day and Fear Her, Blink taps into the eeriness of the classic series Sapphire and Steel. A surprise classic.
But for me the first episode so far in new Who to really put a shiver down my spine was Utopia. Derek Jacobi far surpassed my expectations in his superb performance, even though I regard him as one of the best British TV actors of all time. His turn as the Master has to rank as the best since Delgado. That an actor of Jacobi's stature should so obviously relish this performance makes it all the more spine-tingling. The scenario of this episode is also excellently realised and directed, Graeme Harper finally pulling off something more akin to his two classic giants of the old series. Though it is set at the end of time itself, replete with implausibly archaic dress codes (re Yana's 19th century style outfit), like Gridlock, it still works. The vampire humans are actually quite creepy, and bear nice homage to the stock primitives of many a Blake's 7 episode. In many ways Utopia reminds me of Blake's 7, with a crabby genius hiding away in his laboratory on some distant rocky planet (cue Orac, Traitor, Games, Orbit etc). Brilliant stuff.
Sadly the downturn comes rather late this season, in the penultimate episode, which turns out to be a very unsteady and directionless bridge in the three episode arc. Sound of Drums is basically an irrelevance and frankly could quite easily be erased from the series, as it adds very little, and what it does add to things (the background story to the Master) is repeated again anyway in the far better concluding episode. Also, the fact that Last of the Time Lords picks up a year on from the Master's domination of Earth shows that in fact the previous episode is largely unnecessary. When I watch the season again, I will skip Sound of Drums (as well as the first two episodes - for me the season starts with Gridlock). It's such a shame it appeared at all, as it broke the impetus of the longest run of excellent episodes since, in my view, Season 19.
We end with the apparent death of the newly resurrected Master, a character which has now been just about as lampooned as he possibly could be, by ironically one of our strongest young TV actors. Simm clearly doesn't take Doctor Who too seriously, which is a bit of a pity given such a brilliant buildup to his inception as the Master. One can only suppose the actor has only seen the worst RTD episodes. I would guess the director is much to blame also, but then no one seems to have the power nowadays to stand up to the crass whims of the series' ubiquitous producer.
Nevertheless, Last of the Time Lords serves its purpose and makes up in some small way for the shambles of Sound of Drums (a massively wasted opportunity). Another controversial aspect of this series has to also be the bizarre Gollumnization of the Doctor, very well realised but arguably a little pointless. It also asks new questions as to the true ontology of the Time Lords, but I suspect we won't be getting any answers.
All in all then, the best season so far of new Who. Tennant's portrayal begins to settle down a bit more and in particularly Gridlock, Human Nature, Utopia and Last of the Time Lords, excels.
Martha proves as pointless and empty a character as I had suspected from the start of the season, in what must be one of the most tedious departing scenes ever done for a companion.
Series Three is far more satisfactory and consistent than its predecessor and points the way forward in general for how the show should continue: imaginative, compelling, risk-taking, and even a little bit poetic.
A Review by Ron Mallett 17/1/08
Having reread my reviews of each of the stories making up the first and second seasons, I discovered that many were very repetitive: the production values of the new series were excellent, the writing is uneven and over-injected with "New Adventure" generation emotionalism, Billie Piper can't act. Therefore I've decided on a change of approach. I'd watch the whole series, re-watch it, and then provide a short analysis of each story and follow it with an integrated series of conclusions.
Smith and Jones by Russell T. Davies:
Once again we have a title for an episode which reflects the emphasis on emotional interplay rather than concepts and adventure (you know, what sci-fi is actually supposed to be about).
More silly science as well: I'm not an authority on gravity but I am sure that the Earth has more mass than the moon, therefore why would the rain drops under any circumstances fall upwards, inter-dimensional portal or not?!
The Shakespeare Code by Gareth Roberts:
Even my wife groaned when she read the title of this one. Still, as so often is the case having been written by someone other than RTD (Gareth Roberts), this was by far the most solid instalment so far.
By the way, Shakespearean performances took place during the day. Think about it: lighting, torches, fire danger... oh, well I suppose the damn thing burnt down six decades later anyway! And of course Shakespeare had to be young and sexy so there could be a bit of flirting, not the balding poof we've been lead to believe he was (we all know the Doctor should have been depicted with Christopher Marlowe don't we, snigger snigger).
Gridlock by Russell T. Davies:
Didn't anyone ever think to get out of their vehicles and walk?
Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks by Helen Raynor:
Whenever I think of this story my thoughts are marred by the trauma caused by hearing Eric Loren state: "I am a human Dalek." This story is perhaps the most derivative yet, having stolen concepts from everything from Evil of the Daleks to Revelation of the Daleks, thrown it up against a New York/Great Depression background and thrown in some of the worst dialogue (plus worst fake American accents) ever. Kids, go and listen to Evil or watch Revelation and you'll find out what a Dalek/human hybrid story should be. I'm not going to waste anymore pixels on this trash. Except to say that I really enjoyed Hugh Quarshie, who can clearly make trash sound like treasure.
The Lazarus Experiment by Stephen Greenhorn:
You just can't keep Mark Gatiss out of the new series can you? Actually here he proves that he's about ten times the actor than he is the writer. I find it difficult to believe that a clearly intelligent character like Francine Jones would form an opinion of a person simply on the say so of a stranger. Yes, she also speaks to Saxon apparently but he's a politician; do you believe everything they tell you? Thought not. There is some nice symmetry in the plot concerning the Church as a place of sanctuary - although it's a bit beyond credible that the Doctor would know exactly where to go to find the mutated Richard Lazarus (another indication that the single part 45 minute story format is too rushed). Also the name Lazarus seems a little forced doesn't it? Why not just call him Professor Richard DNA-Chop-Chop? A little morality tale about the dangers of trying to cheat death or just a season slot filler - or both?
42 by Chris Chibnill:
Doctor Who often works best using the old device of sticking a small number of people in an enclosed space facing some great danger. It doesn't work so well here but it's a nice attempt. One could be nice and say like its title (a play on the name of the American "the clock is ticking" action-drama 24), the story is a homage to all those sci-fi flicks from Alien to Supernova about crews of far-flung ships being picked off one by one by some threat... but I'm not nice, so I'm going to say that it's unoriginal and that if it wasn't for the quality of the direction and the CGI it wouldn't be worth watching.
Human Nature/Family of Blood by Paul Cornell:
We've got to the point now that the New Adventures generation of writers are so in control of the concept of Doctor Who, bereft of real ideas as ever, they are raping and pillaging their own "legacy" and offering them up as the latest and greatest ideas. For those under 12 years or perhaps 12 IQ points that enjoyed this one, this was a rehash of a very un-Doctor Who novel (typical of the NA trash) featuring the 7th Doctor wherein he retires from time-travelling to become the teacher of a boys' public school in England (oh, very likely). Anyhow, the unbridled tear-jerking meant that Tennant could over-act to his heart's (both with one and two) content and I could consequently damage the Dalton, vomiting all night as the memories of a once heroic, alien character were quashed by more current ones of Tennant sobbing when he realised that he wasn't going to get his end away with the school nurse and that he was going to have to get off his butt and do his job rather than laze around and die in bed of old age. The second episode was the worst, particularly when we got to see the Doctor dish out punishment to the three main offenders (banishing one to live in every mirror ever?! That is so very Cornell). The final scenes, when we visit an elderly Latimer, seem redundant and a lame attempt to create an even more emotional reaction. Why not have him die tragically as a great deal of his generation did? That would have actually been more emotionally affecting if we had known (due to his visions) that he would die in a few short years with the Doctor's watch in is hand. I look forward to Cornell's next script, Mother's Day, wherein we finally discover that the TARDIS is really the Doctor's mother and his next companion encourages them to go to a relationship counsellor in order to straighten out their relationship.
Blink by Steven Moffat:
Steven Moffat is a very good writer, good enough for his scripts to rise above most of the artificial emotionalism that dogs the new series. The non-linear aspect of the story worked very well: having the main thrust of the action follow Sally and relegating the Doctor and Martha to supporting characters for most of the story. My wife commented that it would have made a good Twilight Zone story and I totally agree. The concept of "subverting the format" for once did not seemed forced in anyway. This is how to do it and do it well (for a lesson in how not to do it please see Love & Monsters by Russell T. Davies).
Of the cast, Carey Mulligan is particularly worthy of note, and not just because she's hot, but because she's clearly a very talented actress and played her character of Sally Sparrow so well that it sort of had me wishing that she could become an ongoing character.
Utopia, The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords by Russell T. Davies:
Just like the seventies, the season is finished off by a major story and this must certainly be considered one of the best of the new crop. It has a lot going for it as now not only do we encounter the Master, but Captain Jack returns and we get to see an impression of how the universe will end: not with a bang, but a whimper!
Sir Derek Jacobi is amazing as Professor Yana in Utopia. It's just a pity that he didn't continue playing the role for the rest of the story-line, although John Simm is moderately amusing in the role (he doesn't have the "presence" of Jacobi in both genial and evil modes).
Even the typical Davies' "tidy resolution" doesn't feel as convoluted as the story is given the space of three episodes to develop and is therefore better paced. Captain Jack's return adds another layer to the story both as a plot device and also in terms of giving some much-needed comic relief to what would otherwise be a much darker tale. Davies injects the script with as much emotionalism as he dares, of course, but somehow it seems more justified as it is more restricted to fleshing out the relationship between the two, last Time Lords.
I do have a major gripe however: understandably, the production team wanted to keep the chance of the Master returning open, but the hand seen collecting the Master's ring at the end seemed to take a little away from the emotional weight of the resolution.
One thing that astounded me was the portrayal of just black people as servants aboard the Master's "heli-carrier". Davies throughout the series has been committed it seems to diverse casting and on the surface, this decision seems inconsistent with a policy of making the series a truly "multi-ethic" one which reflects the demographic realities of the West. I suspect he was trying to make the Master seem more evil by having him prescribe roles on the basis of race (there was also some allusion to him being slightly sexually perverse in the final episode, all adding to his overall cruelty rating). Still it seems a risk as it could be misinterpreted, although one has to keep in mind it's really a black woman, Martha, who saves the day. It just made me a bit uncomfortable to watch it.
Still, this was a fine way to end the series, most definitely on a high note.
Overall, this series has been a massive improvement over the last. The second season really hit an all-time low even by its own standards with excrement like Love & Monsters and Fear Her (which were almost impossibly worse than Boom Town; note the common element among two of those stories). Any incarnation of Doctor Who is largely dependant on the performance of the main actors, the quality of the writing and the final production values. David Tennant isn't Chris Eccleston, he's too young and an over-actor but he's settled into his role and at least his performance has continuity, which makes it bearable. Freema Agyeman provided a welcome contrast to Billie Piper, her character providing a far more worthy companion for the Doctor (and better realised if I might say). Such a pity she's left the series so soon. Hopefully history is not going to repeat itself and like the Liz Shaw/Jo Grant incident we are not going to have such a promising character replaced by an utter moron because the "bogan" percentage of the audience need someone to ask the most obvious questions and "bounce" at the right moment.
There have been some solid stories this season but even the best have been ruined once more by the unbridled emotionalism grafted on by the "New Adventures" generation (Cornell being the worst; he should get a job writing for the Bold and the Beautiful and leave Doctor Who to science fiction writers). Davies is ironically responsible for some of the best and most of the worst of the stories offered up. Thankfully, for the last two seasons he has limited his contributions to 5 out of 13 episodes as opposed to 8 in the first season. Many of his stories are very poorly plotted and rely on the silliest science possible (the inverted rain in Smith and Jones being an example). Still he was responsible for Utopia, although much credit for it being so impressive must be laid at Sir Derek Jacobi's feet, as it could have so easily been tedious. The Shakespeare Code was moderately good, the only true problems being related to production decisions (a sexy Shakespeare? Performances by torch-light?!). It was Blink which stole the season, the concept of having villains which were creatures of the abstract being a novel one. Steven Moffat remember was also responsible for The Empty Child, which, despite the "emotionalism", was one of the most compelling stories. Not only was it original, Blink was genuinely creepy and for once the method of "subverting the format" didn't appear forced as it did in the terrible Love & Mosters (you know, the one which climaxed with a guy alluding to regularly sticking his todger in a block of concrete).
Even the concept of the season story-arc (this time the Mr. Saxon epic) didn't seem so convoluted this time around. The first three-part story of the new series worked very well indeed. It's been a common observation that the better stories have been the two-parters (given they have the scope to properly develop characters and space out events) and the Master storyline was all the more effective given three episodes to work itself out. Very neat, the first time in the whole new series where I actually thought "I wish I'd written this." That must be a good sign.
The production quality continues to be very high. It isn't up to American standards, of course, as it Doctor Who will never have budgets to compete with similar shows produced there. Still, Doctor Who has a tradition of making the most of what's been allocated and the CGI, costumes, makeup and music are impeccable (to the extent that when one is watching the show, I've found you are not really conscious of them; after all, it's when the illusion is spoiled by something that doesn't quite work that you begin to notice such details). The only problem I still have is the American-style use of actor's names on the title sequence and the soundtrack which is far too orchestral. The directors also do a great job; for instance, Graeme Harper made such a basic story as 42 quite watchable.
The new series then has been running long enough now then, to have developed a heart of its own which consists of new format traditions, a new emotional dimension and a re-worked mythos in many respects. The background concept of the "Time-War" I suppose has acted as an insurance policy to cover any incongruities evident in the re-working, of which there have been many. The most intriguing change has been to make the Doctor more "human" (and at one point in this season quite literally so). This may have made the character more approachable for a non-hardcore, sci-fi audience but it has destroyed much of the mystery/mystique surrounding him. The Doctor I grew up with was an alien, he was honourable, caring, compassionate but also detached and never horny. Perhaps a more responsible way of injecting a emotional dimension would have been to carry on the precedent set by Sophie Aldred's character of Ace and have that be the companion's role. Perhaps having two companions who both travelled in the TARDIS and interacted intimately while the Doctor looked on bemused might have been a better track to take. I notice that this season the "emotionalism" has been consciously toned down but the Doctor is still involved in it, although as the unresponsive participant in an unrequited love scenario. Still, people of my generation (now the 30-somethings) have to get used to the fact that the old Doctor is dead and gone, as is his series. The bleeting of the Blum and other of the NA set (a sort of a cross between the intolerable selfishness of the baby-boomers and the spoilt, self-indulgence of Generation Why) insisting that they are both the same series, is laughable. The old series is dead (aside from DVD releases and Big Finish Audio, even the Past Doctor novels have been discontinued as gradually access to any version of the concept is cut, aside from Davies interpretation) and the new series is apparently here to stay. It's mostly drivel, of course, but it isn't all that bad. It's just sad, as it could have been so much better.
The Year of the Tacky Score by Hugh Sturgess 20/1/08
There's no doubt in my mind that this is the weakest of New Who so far. (Sorry, yes, I know I'm ripping off the first line from your review, Alan, but yours sort of inspired me. Think of this as a YouTube-style 'response'.) By my count, they've been getting worse as they go along. I don't know whether this is because of the shock factor of 'oh my God, it's Doctor Who!' is running off, but - having rewatched earlier episodes with my jaundiced eye - I've concluded...
Series 3 was THE BIGGEST LOAD OF SHIT I'VE EVER SEEN.
Sorry, I was overreacting then. It wasn't the biggest load of shit I've ever seen. Big Brother is far worse, and Kyle Sandilands is far more an all-purpose object of hatred than Murray Gold. But I do feel worse about Series 3 than about those two twins of mediocrity, BB and Kyle. Perhaps it's because I expect more from Doctor Who? Yes, that's it; this disappointed me, far beyond my ability to see that it's far superior to most other things on telly. (This is also the year The Chaser's War on Everything turned bad, so it's been hell down here in Australia.) Even though I was uncertain about features of Series 1, and I was somehow aware that Series 2 wasn't as good, I've never felt a total lack of interest in seeing what comes next. I've never thought of Doctor Who as a whole as lazy.
But let's get down to brass tacks. The series gets off to a definitive start with The Runaway Bride. I haven't got any real hatred or dislike for this one (in fact, I rather liked bits of it), but it failed to make an impression, which is fatal for something with so much money spent on it. The things I liked - the Doctor's hapless explanation of why he can't go back in time and change history; Donna's pathos-inducing plea for money for a taxi; 'you had the wedding reception without me?!' - manifestly don't include anything beyond individual lines, and the story as a whole really does describe the series as a whole: people running around trying to get us interested in them and their situation, but not giving us any reason to care.
Wedged at the beginning of the season was the 'cherishably strange' Smith and Jones. A not-too-bad introduction of Martha, and with a suitably wacky 'sub' plot about rhinos invading a wandering hospital on the moon to find an old lady. It's obvious Martha is being set up as the New Girl by the way the Doctor keeps finding reasons to applaud her insights, even when they're not exactly works of genius; Martha's reasoning that there must be air outside because the windows of a hospital aren't exactly air-tight is sensible, yes, but hardly 'brilliant, in fact'. And her mock-serious suggestion that they are 'trespassing on the moon' is far from 'very good': the Doctor's already explained that they've been brought here by the Judoon as the moon is 'neutral soil'. I did like the Plasmavore's 'I've even brought a straw', though.
After that, we have the lame waste of time by Gareth Roberts called The Shakespeare Code. I've already reviewed it, but I will say this: I've just rewatched it. It hasn't aged at all: crap then, crap now.
Gridlock is far better, and Mr Cat (I forget the names of both the character and the actor) is quite amusing, but apart from that, it too was just a bit flat and safe. I never felt anything for the characters, because I never felt a stake in their world. Also, the obvious fact that the Doctor and Martha are going to survive (even though this is the formula of the series, it's still bad if the story makes it so obvious) makes all the other characters seem rather safe, since they're always with one of them. The Face of Boe is, once again, tacked on with no concern to how he fits into the plot.
Next, we have the Dalek two-parter. And we introduce Helen Raynor, the woman who can't think up story titles to save herself. A story about a machine that shows you ghosts called The Ghost Machine is acceptable, if dull, but a story about Daleks in Manhattan called Daleks in Manhattan immediately gives up its claim to be a serious piece of drama, as the title is drawing attention to the single, gigantic gimmick at the heart of the story: Watch me, I've got Daleks! In Manhattan! Evolution of the Daleks is better, but stupendously awkward as piece of grammar. Just Evolution would be fine. Or what about Heart of Daleks? No, that's too good to waste on this tawdry, perfunctory runaround.
Helen Raynor is clearly someone who has no idea what makes a good Doctor Who story, and is just cobbling together ideas and set-ups that 'worked' before. Lawrence Miles pointed out that they were by far the most traditional episodes of New Who so far, and I'd argue that it's due to the author just writing down a half-remembered folk-memory of what a Doctor Who story is like, with a foreign locale slapped on top of it. Think about it: the Doctor Who story everyone who isn't a fan remembers is 'Doctor Who goes back in time and fights Daleks'. Of course, that story is... That's right: there is now no story in which the Doctor goes back in time and fights Daleks (except if you count special cases like Genesis of the Daleks, and a member of the public would hardly describe that as 'the past', and there's Remembrance, but the '60s is hardly ancient history). This manages to be a cliche when it's never been done before. Everything seems familiar and safe. I could see the 'Doctor Who plot developments' playing out before my eyes, especially the mercilessly contrived 'to show that things aren't as they seem, we will have the human villain have a hapless victim exterminated to underline his point'. The central ploy - Daleks evolving to avoid extinction - is fascinating, but it's buried in dross.
Something that's just as much a Doctor-Who-by-numbers story is The Lazarus Experiment. It is, again, blatantly based on confused memories of what constitutes a Doctor Who story: scientist argues with nature, nature wins, carnage ensues. This kind of story is inherently boring after a while, and not a little nasty, as it suggests that we shouldn't strive to change what we are, that nature is always right and we shouldn't try to change it. Again, the Doctor takes the moral high ground for little conceivable reason, other than That's What the Doctor Does in These Kinds of Stories. This episode also has two contrived deaths. The first is the murder of Lady Thaw, done simply so we can see that Lazarus is turning into a monster, and thus resolves her 'character arc' in the simplest possible way. Why should we care about a story that kills of its characters simply so the author can demonstrate the presence of the threat? The second in the murder of Olive Woman, in particular her single, grating line of dialogue. Speaking roles cost more than extras, so wouldn't it be more economical to cut her only line of dialogue? Was it to create the feeling that she was a real person, and make us feel for her death, or so we could be pleased that someone so annoying has been killed, or... what? On the upside, the Doctor's embarrassed 'oh, y'know... stuff' is really funny, and Mark Gatiss' sinister performance (and his icy delivery of line 'no, my dear, that I learnt from you') makes entertaining viewing.
42 is the same as the last three episodes: cliched, lazy and perfunctory. Characters die to drum up suspense, characters have 'arcs' and 'issues' to make us think they might possibly be real in some world, characters then forget these issues when the crisis has passed. Dr Science was also suffering a fit of apoplexy beside me, as the captain and her possessed husband die of asphyxiation when they slowly fall out of an airlock rather than instantly being vaporised by being within a few thousand kilometres of a sun; how said death is slow and 'graceful' rather than explosively decompressed and nasty; and the monstrous design of the tractor beam controls (they're on the outside of the ship where a normal person can't reach them, for God's sake).
Finally, we get to the good episodes. Indeed, the best episodes of all. First, the Human Nature two-parter, which would be a highlight of any season. The Family of Blood is 10/10, while Human Nature is 8.5/10 simply because the plot felt a little empty, as if they were playing for time before the first cliffhanger. I saw episode two first, and there was nothing in it that I couldn't understand straightaway, and I didn't feel as though I'd missed anything. Son of Mine is so sinister he's funny (and he knows it), and his two soliloquies are hair-raising. 'War is coming, war of the whole wide world... do you think they will thank the man who taught them it was glorious' revels in the death and destruction we know is coming, and the final monologue to the audience is one of the most chilling things in Doctor Who - remarkable as it's about the Doctor (and deserves to be quoted in full):
'He never raised his voice; that was the worst part. The fury of the Time Lord. And then, we knew - knew why this man who had fought with gods and demons - why he'd run away from us and hidden. He was being kind. He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains forged at the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy, to be imprisoned there, forever. He still visits my sister, once a year, every year. Sometimes I wonder if one day he might forgive her, but there she is, can you see? He trapped her inside a mirror. If you ever look at your reflection and see something move, just a for second, that's her. That's always her. As for me, I was frozen in time, and the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector. We wanted to live forever, so the Doctor made sure that we did.'It's so scary, with his soft, gentle delivery, the casual sadism in 'the Doctor made sure that we did' and the sheer power of the Doctor dishing out such a punishment to his enemies. It's like a Greek god punishing mortals, and, for the first time, I can see why the monsters have nightmares about him.
People have criticised the episode for being just a pale imitation of the novel. That's not merely wrong but unfair: they're vastly superior on almost every level. Paul Cornell may be able to jerk tears at the end of his novels, but his writing style for the first 230-odd pages is enough to make you weep for all the wrong reasons. Rendered as a piece of television, without the bizarre carnage that ensues during the novel Human Nature and without his thin, Terrance-style prose, it is revealed as the masterpiece everything thinks it is. Away from the printed page, the camp menace of the Family is revealed, and can be revelled in. And David Tennant is never better than in his hysterical pleas for Joan to justify his existence: 'That's all I want to be: John Smith. With his life, and his job, and his loves. Why can't I be him? Isn't he a good man?' He makes it seem so easy.
These two greats are followed by Steven Moffat's Blink. I missed this one first time round (formal dinner, as it happens, and very nice it was too), but everyone else who saw it couldn't sing its praises loud enough. Right after The Family of Blood, I was perhaps not as impressed as I might have been if it had been after (say) The Shakespeare Code, but I was still bloody impressed. But that's how, it seems, everyone reacts to it. They don't go 'what a fantastic piece of TV, omigod, omigod', they say they were 'impressed'. I can't help but think that the author's showing us how clever he is, such as how the Doctor's recorded comments match Sally's twice.
After these great three, we have the final three. Two of these are bad, one of these is kind of good. Utopia is - at its heart - a dull, repetitive story that could feature any Doctor-Companion team. That's OK, because the execution is meant to be brilliant, and the points we're looking for - Captain Jack, the Master - should be fantastic. They're not. The execution is dull and pedestrian (and, like crap middle of the season - from Shakespeare Code to 42 - pointlessly rushed), and THEY USE A FUCKING QUARRY!!!! A quarry, with all the monies being spent on this series, is just criminally lazy. So: pointlessly rushed reintro of Captain Jack; pointlessly rushed arriving-and-running-away-from-things, pointlessly rushed set-up, pointlessly rushed subplot, pointlessly rushed climax. Not even Derek Jacobi can save it.
The Sound of Drums could be really exciting (if not good), if Murray Gold had been tied up and thrown into a threshing machine before he composed the score. This is a problem throughout the series: the ability to use the Welsh National Orchestra has gone right to his head, and he can no longer compose a score that doesn't have giant drums, sweeping strings and trumpets as an integral part. The result is overdone (particularly in the already melodramatic 'memory lane!' scene at the climax) and has that Saturday Morning Serial feel to it: never a good thing to associate with kind of villain we have here. Really, it's a godsend when said villain reveals his hitherto undisplayed passion for Rogue Traders. Who'd have thought that Voodoo Child would be preferable to the actual score?
The Last of the Time Lords is nicely nightmarish, showing us what would happen if the Doctor ever truly lost, and it does give us a reason to care a bit more. The music rears its ugly head at the climax, though, and it ruins the good work it had been doing up until that point.
So, that one bit-of-fluff, three OK ones, seven crap ones, and three great ones. If the crap and the great cancel out, we still have four crap ones, one bit-of-fluff and three OK ones. Why? How? How could the near-flawless Series 1 turn into this? The answer is laziness. The reason, I think, that Utopia was so bad was that it was all so routine. Same goes for The Shakespeare Code. It's as if the stories have become so formulaic (which they have) and so familiar (which they have) that the production team are just doing it in their sleep. The overwhelming feeling from the bad episodes was that no one was trying. Even by episode five, I was counting the cliches as they appeared. That worst of cliches, the 'we'll demonstrate how dangerous this threat is by having it arbitrarily kill someone in a contrived fashion' one. Let's go from the beginning: Smith and Jones has the Judoon vaporise that patient because he threw a vase at them (ineffectually); The Shakespeare Code has the witches eat that guy at the beginning (they show no further signs of cannibalism) and later decide to kill the fat Master of Revels rather hastily (after he has rather hastily insisted that Shakespeare's next blockbuster isn't going ahead, weirdly); Daleks in Manhattan has the guy at the beginning captured by the pigs (though his reappearance later slightly makes up for it), and the worker going off to the meet the Daleks (this is supposedly an incentive to keep working - does Diagoras always encourage his workers by killing them?). The Lazarus Experiment has the murder of Lady Thaw simply to increase (or, indeed, create), tension, which is pointless, because you know it's coming, and it's so badly handled anyway. 42 has death of characters every few minutes to build up suspense. The Sound of Drums is worse: simply to build up tension, the Master kills his entire cabinet (why? why? for God's sake, why?).
The verdict seems clear. The production team has got so used to making Doctor Who that it isn't special anymore; it's just routine. Even Russell T, the man who brought real character 'issues' to the program, kills off characters simply to artificially create tension, which cheapens not just the characters but the function of death in a narrative.
I can't go on, so let's just hope that things will be better next year.
A Review by Tal Hazelden 5/5/08
29.0 The Runaway Bride
The Tardis in a highway chase is alone worth it.
29.1 Smith and Jones
Introductions all round. Nice to meet you Martha. We're off to a fun start.
29.2 The Shakespeare Code
A good villain, played well, makes a bad Who story good.
Throw out plausibility at the start of the story and stay lighthearted. Near-pantomime and parody Who can and does work when mocking modern life.
29.4 Daleks in Manhattan
Well scripted. Fun characters. Some good dialog. Why does it feel off?
29.5 Evolution of the Daleks
Themes from the heart of the ongoing Dalek saga since The Dead Planet. Feels like a synopsis. Holds up the legend of the Daleks rather than contributes to it. Still fun though.
29.6 The Lazarus Experiment
Let Who be Who and The Outer Limits be the Outer Limits, please.
Mice in a maze in an oven. Might we have a real plot?
29.8 Human Nature
The season finally spikes into the show we love.
29.9 The Family Of Blood
Paul Cornell honors Doctor Who and the audience.
Riveting. Thrilling. Charming. Frightening. Mr. Moffatt, I love you.
Captain Jack soars. Jacobi's brief turn as the Master is the best ever.
29.12 The Sound of Drums
It's certainly imaginative. But the Master as a character has always been really a stock Bond arch-villian. It worked during Pertwee and never fit right afterwards. It still doesn't.
29.13 Last of the Time Lords
Good final exit for the Master. Enter the Rani.
A Review by Joe Ford 3/11/08
Acclaimed at the time, this experimental and thoroughly enjoyable season seems to targeted for a backlash much earlier than is the norm. I honestly cannot understand why this should be when we have been presented with a season with some of the best laughs, the best frights and the best drama ever seen in the show. Frankly if only they could get rid of the Sonic Screwdriver (or 'magic wand' as Terrance so flatteringly puts in both his Silurians and Sea Devils commentary; can I just say as a little side note that I adore Terrance - he has become something of a legend in my home, every time he pops up on a documentary Simon does this thing with his neck as though he has suddenly turned into a right fat bastard and I roar with laughter as Si reels out 'I was heavily involved in the Jon Pertwee era and have been witer, scwipt editor and pwoducer!' - the fact that this guy recycles Doctor Who anecdotes from thirty odd years ago and still gets paid for it makes me want to shake him on the hand and kiss him. Whaddaguy.)
The Runaway Bride is being spat onto the pavement with the same vigour that you would discard your gum. What is wrong with you people? I will backtrack and admit that this is no great classic in Doctor Who celluloid, but it is still a well-written and impeccably acted piece of sci-fi fun with some surprisingly thoughtful moments. The score alone makes it worth watching and the piece that accompanies the breathless chase on the motorway is one of my favourite pieces of Doctor Who music ever written, it whips you into the spirit of adventure beautifully. I know what you are all going to say to me: Catherine Tate. I love her to pieces. Because as much as Rose did for Doctor Who (and let's not forget, as we head into magic Martha territory as I so often did during season three, that Billie Piper's affecting portrayal as Rose helped secure a strong female audience and was praiseworthy enough to trip up all of the other actresses around her when it came to the BAFTAs). Basically Donna is Peri. For one story. But she is developed and Peri never really was. So we have all of the bitching and griping and the companion seeing how scary the Doctor can be, but at the close of their first story they suddenly have a much better understanding of each other. I liked Peri (and Nicola Bryant's performance which is cruelly underrated) but she stinks of wasted potential (hands up Big Finish for remedying that!).
Donna's quieter moments are amazing because Catherine Tate is an experienced actress and she underplays (don't laugh) those moments so well. The scene between the Doctor and Donna at the creation of the Earth is beautiful, the most touching moment in the entire series so far, because it doesn't rely on vomit-hurling sentimentality but wonder and magic. The whole thing looks gorgeous too, with the most deliciously lit corridors we have ever seen and a dramatically lit and shot climax that features the most exuberant Doctor at his darkest. There are faults: the opening scenes are a little shouty, the weather indicates summer rather than winter, it distinctly lacks a Christmas feel and the Empress (despite fantastic make up) does get a little wearying. However, this is a confident step into a Tylerless universe, which, underneath all that gloss, has a solidly plotted story (which again is too often ignored when fans of the classic series moan about the lack of plots): 8/10
Smith and Jones opens with a selection of scenes that feels as though we have just dropped in on Eastenders. That's not a bad thing (surprisingly). Contrast here is what's important and the angst and drama that is being played might make us groan (actually, this bickering amongst the Jones family is well played and written, but I digress) and suddenly the hospital has been transported to the moon and it is being raided by space rhinos who are looking for a blood-sucking plasmavore. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the extraordinary highlights the latter and snaps us straight back into Doctor Who mode quicker than my sister picks up bus drivers (oh, you wouldn't believe). So when everybody was praising this story for its Doctor Whoeyness, I could understand what they meant. Not set on the Earth, not set in a council estate or a space station, this was a reminder of the possibilities of the show post-Rose whilst simultaneously providing the season with an entertaining opener. This is trad Doctor Who at its most transparent: loads of running around corridors, creepy henchmen, ultra camp villainess with all the best lines, a giddily eccentric Doctor, chunky/clomping aliens, ray guns, an absurd threat to the Earth... I gobbled it up!
Those who had been brought up on the Billie Piper soap seemed to enjoy it too. Perhaps there is chance for them watching the classic series after all. No wonder Martha is so eager to join the Doctor at the end, she has just been offered a ticket for more of the same type of thrills she has already experienced. Freema Agyeman had so many people to prove to, the entire British nation and she shines throughout, brimming with enthusiasm and energy. Martha might be flirting with the Doctor by the end of the episode, but her character is significantly different to Rose. She's more resourceful, knowledgeable and independent, and shows potential to grow into a companion of Sarah Jane legendary status. I was so excited about this on first viewing; it has all the right ingredients for Saturday night telly and I enjoyed in the company of a friend and her son who never shuts up but did not say a word for 45 minutes. Now that's magic: 8/10
Isn't The Shakespeare Code a puzzler? People seem to love it or hate it. Now you go up to the average kid on the street and say the word Shakespeare. They will probably look at you as if they have something nasty in their mouth that they want to get rid of. I know Simon would. What a brilliant way to get kids interested in Shakespeare! Don't have a peek at him on the Time/Space Visualiser, don't write a love film about him and cast Ralph Fiennes; no, write a plot about this legendary man that encompasses information about his life, his plays, quotes and wrap it all up in an invasion by some hideous witch-aliens. Just like me with World War Two after Curse of Fenric, I bet there were kids out there desperate to know more about Shakespeare after this. Educating children about this great man's work is such an inspiring thing for Doctor Who to do, it thrills me that the same thing will be done with Ms Christie next year.
And what a Shakespeare! Dean Leannox Kelly is a revelation: handsome, witty, flirty and still able to step in and save the day with his amazing command of speech. Whilst (obviously) plausibility has been thrown out of the window, I cannot think of more inspiring tribute to the man. And what production values, this really does have a filmic look with some stunning location work, exquisite use of The Globe and lots of nifty effects for the 'magic' scenes. It's the second story in a row that throws that Doctor Who magic in your face and some of you might think this glorifying, crowd-pleasing, indulgent story might be a little too sweet for your tastes. In that case, I will remind you of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which takes as many liberties and then some to please its audience. The Shakespeare Code is pure unadulterated fun in a season that turns out to be fairly grim. Like swimming in popcorn. The yummy toffee type: 9/10
Gridlock is rather more like series two in that it features several changes of tone, it's illogical and it asks you to make a lot of excuses to enjoy it. Problem is, it is hugely imaginative, surprisingly affecting and features some unforgettable images. How am I to judge this? RTD is back in the writing chair so obviously this is not a world that has been conceived intelligently but emotionally because that is how he works best so New Earth is presented as a series of couples (The Cat family, The Old Ladies, the kidnappers Boe and Novis Haim) who represent various emotions (in order I would probably say: hope for the future/melancholy/desperation and hope). It shouldn't work but it does because Davies draws his characters so well that after a few scenes we really care about there future. They've been stuck in a traffic jam for twenty years? That doesn't make sense! But who cares because I want to know if Brannigan makes it out all right!
And, to be fair, Davies does create his world in 45 minutes and reveal layer after layer, fairly convincingly (the Undercity, the Motorway, the Senate and the Overcity). I just wish we had more time to explore. Whilst all this is going on, this is also a story about the Doctor's sadness at being alone in the universe and his ability to lie to Martha and pretend he is not. No, wait, it also manages to spring a surprise that made me spill from my seat in shock - the Macra! Oh, wonderful CGI - how much better those silly crabs look now. If it hadn't been for the final scene, Gridlock would score a 7 but Martha really comes into her own here, standing up to the big man and demanding some answers: 8/10
Bloody Radio Times! Okay that's not fair, it does a huge amount of publicity for the show but gee did they have to go and spoil the cliffhanger of Daleks in Manhattan quite so spectacularly? There is a feeling amongst a huge circle of fandom that this two parter is a huge failure and whilst it is joint weakest of the season, I still find much to enjoy. The location is very important; Doctor Who has attempted to sell itself as being played overseas before and the most hilarious thing is in City of Death, Arc of Infinity and The Two Doctors, where the stories feature a lot of running about on location to show off its prettiness and then we head back to the UK for the studio work and fill it with stereotyped French, Dutch and Spanish-sounding people. Planet of Fire doesn't count - they try and pass Lanzarote as an alien world!
Daleks in Manhattan lives, breathes and feels American and rather aptly none of the actors left Wales. This is the most convincing overseas story we have ever been presented with, the period detail being worked into the story with the Depression, the Building of the Empire State Building and Tallulah's astonishing song and dance number building a convincing atmosphere of the Big Apple during the 20's. It's all so well done it is a shame to be reminded that this is a Doctor Who story and so the Daleks are shoehorned into this eclectic atmosphere with no subtlety at all. Juxtaposing disparate elements (do I sound like the Master from Mark of the Rani?) is something Doctor Who usually does really well (a hospital on the moon?) but this has been misjudged and story starts sprawling all over the place, about Dalek Sec's experiments, Tallulah's love story, the pig men in the tunnels, the fight for control in Hooverville. Too many elements that don't dovetail and thus you become disconnected from the story. It's a shame, because the Dalek stuff could have been stuffed into a story of its own, set in the future and it would have worked beautifully. Still, it is gorgeous to look at, has another powerhouse score (which has a heart attack at the climax) and many of the sequences taken on their own are exceptional (the colourful musical number is great and that cliff-hanger is one to remember!). Diametrically schizophrenic (hehehehe): 6/10
Evolution of the Daleks fails to pull all of these plot threads together and dive-bombs the story despite, once again, many great scenes (the Dalek who looks over his shoulder before speaking out against Sec is hilarious). Why are the Daleks so popular? Because they go around killing people and give us something to truly hate. Suddenly the Doctor is working with them to turn them into semi humans, sensitive and caring... no that feels wrong. The script tries to build this up as a massive step in the evolution of the Daleks but there are only three and they are hiding out in New York; they hardly posses a great menace now. What we needed was something like Dalek, to prove these are still the devious monsters of old that don't need great swells of numbers to win. It is hopelessly predictable, too; you are waiting for the moment the other two Daleks turn on and chain up Sec. These are racial purists, Sec! However, James Hawes salvages a great deal with his stylish and inventive direction - the Daleks zooming around the tunnels with bumper-car camera angles look fantastic; the scenes where they zoom in and blow away Hooverville is dynamic; and Martha's party defending the mast of the Empire State Building holds some really tense moments. It is so frustrating, because a lot of this could have been done better had they separated the history and the Dalek story - any story that borrows so shamelessly from Evil of the Daleks and (dare I say it) The Chase is bound to fail: 5/10
Every time I watch The Lazarus Experiment, I enjoy it more and more. It's like The Happiness Patrol and The Two Doctors in that you notice more treats each time you put it on. Most importantly, this is Martha's tale, which brings her home to her family and where both she and the Doctor have to make the choice of her continuing to travel. I love how the story contrives to keep them together and the chemistry between Tennant and Agyeman has never been more apparent (the look on Martha's face when it appears he is going to leave her and the smile she beams when he comes back sums up the magic of the Doctor without words). It's the wittiest tale since The Shakespeare Code too, with some fabulous one-liners ("A science geek? What does that mean?" "That you're obsessively enthusiastic about it." "Oh. Nice.") and the hottest with both Leo and Tish looking pretty damn sexy. It is strangely familiar stuff, looking a lot in places like parts of the TV Movie and some 'science installation' Pertwee scenes, but it so nice to have a down to Earth story which doesn't head too far into the realms of SF.
The Francine scenes work a treat because by all accounts Martha is acting very strangely so, although Francine is portrayed as unlikable, she is entirely believable and just doing the best by her daughter. In this respect, The Lazarus Experiment is more of an arc necessity than a story in its own right, but the two functions fit together beautifully. Unfortunately, the Lazarus creature isn't the best-realised CGI monster I have seen; it is a little too cumbersome (and Mark Gatiss is far scarier, natch) but it does cause some awesome devastation. The climax is the icing on the cake, a ten minute sequence inside Southwark cathedral which combines great acting (Tennant and Gatiss are magic together), spooky direction and pacy music to create a impressive ending: 8/10
42 is a great episode that should have been an outstanding episode but for a few small things. It is, without a doubt, the most intense story physically since the show returned and comments that this resembles The Impossible Planet two parter are purely superficial (well, it's a bit grimy and it has some well-designed corridors). Let's face it, we were all bricking it when we heard Chris Chibnall was writing a Doctor Who script after his diabolical scripts for Torchwood series one (nearly all the worst episodes were his), but this script was actually quite punchy and dramatic, if scientifically unsound. This was needed now, a sharp, sexy-looking scary adventure with lots of dramatic potential and some real heart-tugging moments between the Doctor and Martha. Business as usual basically.
Fortunately, we have Graeme Harper and with his skilful hand we get through this pretty hollow space adventure intact and with some memorable moments too (all those moments with Martha phoning home are excellent; the Doctor and Martha screaming at each other through the silent vacuum of space; the Doctor's desperation in the final five minutes). It's about as deep as a puddle and falls to pieces when you try and look at it closely, but I can forgive this because it's so damn exciting! I fell back twenty years watching this and wanted to re-enact several moments when it was over. Gripping but unfilled, perfect scary entertainment if you switch your brain off: 7/10
Five episodes of pure Doctor Who magic are about to follow and longest run of quality Doctor Who since Ghost Light-Curse of Fenric-Survival. We kick off with the most wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am eye-opener of the season. Human Nature was a deeply flawed Doctor Who book, which was erroneously labelled the best Doctor Who novel of all time. It got the emotional tenor and the characterisation right but so much it reeked of being experimental rather than intellectual. Fortunately, Paul Cornell has been given a second crack at the whip and he has ironed out all of the unpleasing elements of the book (especially the villains of the piece) and produced a polished piece of drama, worthy of the BBC costume drama department.
It has been overstated, but David Tennant and Jessica Hynes do wonders with their material, producing a foppish John Smith and a sturdy Joan Redfern, and a believable and enjoyable romance between them. It is almost painful from the word go, because we know we are going to get 'our' Doctor back but we also adore Joan and don't want to see her hurt. These sorts of moral dilemmas are TV gold and the story plays out in tense style as Martha lingers in the background, trying to prod the Doctor in the right direction. The production values are astonishing and Murray Gold's score pours on an appropriate amount of syrup. What is so right about this story is that it creates a setting you can believe in, with characters that come alive and contribute to the story functionally without it ever feeling that way. There are lashings of emotion on display, nicely counter-pointed by the theatrics of the Family of Blood, who are on the Doctor's trail. Technically, this should not be the highlight of the season but everybody is at the top of their game (Freema Agyeman is terrific), and the story allows the Doctor to be both the victim (something sorely forgotten in the new series) and the hero pushing him into a cliffhanging dilemma that is impossible to anticipate: 10/10
Astonishingly (for a second part of a two parter) The Family of Blood manages to match the quality of its predecessor. This is the most emotional episode of Doctor Who ever screened but, unlike Doomsday, it does not feel overplayed and springs from both the setting (the boys preparing for war) and the John Smith's ultimate decision (whether he can kill himself or not). David Tennant deserves plaudits here; he brought me to tears several times the first time I watched it, agonising over the decision to give up his lover and happy life to be a lonely traveller again. There are some scorching confrontations between John Smith and Martha, which give Agyeman the chance to prove her mettle and earn her place in the upper echelons of the companions. The imagery is stark, effective and startlingly adult: the scenes of the scarecrows attacking the school in slow motion are amongst the most disturbing scenes we have ever seen. Even moments that should have made you puke go down like smooth ice cream - yes I am talking about the flash-forward to John Smith's happy life with Joan - because they are so well judged affect the audience and involve them emotionally in his gripping decision to commit suicide.
Other highlights include the deliciously dark return of the nasty Doctor we saw in The Runaway Bride who commits the Family of Blood to a number of torturous fates and the lump-in-the-throat coda that encompasses the emotion of the setting and pushes forward into the future, and makes a welcome comment about the power of loss. What is so impressive about this two parter is that it has topped all of the 'best' New Doctor Who adventures and it is not an epic space adventure or a lavish historical - it is the simple story of one man who is given a chance at a life he never realised possible. Exceptional: 10/10
The phenomenally popular Blink manages to maintain these incredible standards by offering up another experimental piece, a jigsaw-puzzle time-travel episode that hardly features the Doctor. Every frame of this episode oozes quality, from the intriguing pre-titles sequence, to the inspired use of Easter Eggs on DVDs, to the feel-good ending that wraps everything up peerlessly. Two scenes stand out as the highlights of the year: the understated but heartbreakingly sensual moment when Sally visits the elderly Shipton in the hospital where the words "I have until the rain stops" will break your heart and the scenes in the house where the Angels attack, which are so frightening Simon was hiding under a pillow squealing like a big girl!
The Weeping Angels are, without a doubt, the best Doctor Who monsters in years, combining a memorable idea (they only move when you blink) with some unforgettable imagery (the scene were Larry turns away and the Angel is right next to his face bearing its fangs as he looks back is jump-out-of-the-seat material). More treasures come in the shape of Carey Mulligan who plays Sally Sparrow with precisely the right degree of depth and determination (and was the companion we never had) and the dialogue, which absolutely fizzes throughout. It's another impressively mounted production with some sensational direction (lots of wide lens work which builds pictures rather than cramming them in) but it is the clever plotting here that scores the highest marks. You would think there was a crime about writing something that is a bit smarter than usual and people start suggesting that the episode was written to show of the author's plotting ability. Nonsense. Stephen Moffatt manages to not only write a seamless narrative with clever twists but injects this with real feeling too. It is another breathtaking achievement in the third series: 10/10
I seem to remember RTD promising that we wouldn't be seeing any Stargate-style forests or Farscape-style natives but he breaks of those oaths in the first two minutes of Utopia. You get the grunting nonsense of the hideously underdeveloped and background dressing Futurekind and to Doctor Who a quarry is as much a cliche as a forest is on Stargate. Things do not bode well. Fortunately, after some decidedly underwhelming running about in said quarry, things improve drastically as we are introduced to Derek Jacobi's Professor Yana, a quirky and sympathetic character expertly portrayed by the I, Claudius star. The story to lift the last of humanity off the surface of this planet is given resonance by Jacobi's portrayal and mixed in with the complication of Jack's return and the questions that throws up keeps the middle of the episode ticking over very nicely.
Of course everyone who's anyone knows where this episode is leading by now and the final fifteen minutes are most snappily edited and dramatically powerful of the year. The return of the Master has always been an event, but this was entirely unexpected after three years of the Doctor droning on that he is alone and Jacobi's sudden twist into the evil snarling villain that we know almost tops the Weeping Angels for chills (he would have been superb had he stayed on in the role). I love that (clearly) the cheapest and most cliched episode of the season has the conclusion that everybody watching the series will remember. I don't know what is more exhilarating, the return of the Master, the Doctor's horrified reaction or his sudden regeneration into cheeky John Simm at the story's conclusion. It's all a bit too much for an old fanboy like me and I was tearing my hair out with excitement: 8/10
In a season that has already given us Daleks in Manhattan, monsters in church and statues that kill... can you imagine anything more utterly surreal and quirky than the last five minutes of The Sound of Drums? It is my favourite Russell T Davies script by a square mile, finally being let off his leash and fulfilling every twisted whim at his leisure. The Master as the Prime Minister? Check. Martha's family arrested? Check. A shootout on the street? Check. The American President dead? Check. The return of Gallifrey? Check. The Master as a child? Check too. What is surprising is that not only do all of these random elements work well but the surprises build on top each other, allowing the plot to grow in tension and excitement until the slash of sky allowing the invading Toclafane army through at the end is only way this episode can end, in pure madness and devastation. On transmission, I lapped it up and it still holds up a year on; this is the Doctor Who version of Spooks with all the guns and hardware and espionage and assassinations but with a thousand zany and imaginative ideas thrown in too. I wouldn't want every episode to be like this, but as a mixture of fan-pleasing elements and entertaining action, it must go down as one of the most audacious and glossy Doctor Who's yet.
The direction and writing are perfectly in sync, so Davies can write as wild as he wants (say, the Master wiping out his cabinet) because the director will translate this in an arresting and plausible way (the close up on the Master tapping his ring on the table with the dead bodies surrounding him). The icing on the cake is John Simms' Master who (whilst not to everybody's taste) throws himself into the role with gusto and charm, and manages to snog a pretty lady, gas his cabinet members, snarl threats, turn on the charm for news broadcasts, watch Tellytubbies, break in contact with an alien species, take the piss out of Americans with glee, assassinate the US President and misquote the bible. I just love everything about this guilty, uncontrollable, insane episode where so much of it shouldn't work but in fact ALL of it does: 10/10
Of course this is Doctor Who so eventually everything has to come crashing down to Earth. This is the first time I would say that the creative team driving the series have bitten off more than they can chew; they have attempted to copy the horror of Inferno, but in our universe. What is so frustrating is that so much of Last of the Time Lords could have worked quite well but it just doesn't seem to have been thought through adequately. Things go from bad to worse; the Doctor is tortured to near-death, Martha is captured and her new fella killed, half the Earth has been decimated and the Master is reigning over all, beating his wife and generally abusing everybody around him. There is no way out of this but to throw a huge reset button without it seeming completely implausible and that is exactly what is done. RTD writes himself into a creative corner that has to be wiped clean or completely redesign the series.
Even worse is the cloyingly ugly moment where everybody around the world starts screaming out 'Doctor!' in hero worship and thus allowing the CGI midget (a huge creative mistake) is Russell T Davies having a huge wank over the series and its protagonist and watching the gunk come forth. Everything is just too much, too sadistic, too sickly, too comic-strip. On the other hand, the production values are terrific, Freema Agyeman continues to impress and the whole sequence around capturing and revealing the sphere is excellent. When I first watched this, my heart sunk with disappointment at the waste of such a creative buildup, but at least we know it should never be done again. Good on Martha walking out on the Doctor who has not treated her half as kindly as he should throughout the season: 5/10
The season overall, though, is excellent with some original ideas, interesting experiments and terrific performances. The highs are higher than before and the lows do not come anywhere near the depths of dreck like The Long Game, Father's Day and The Satan Pit. Freema Agyeman burst onto our screens with so much enthusiasm it was impossible not to get swept away with Martha. The character is better conceived than Rose but I don't think we have seen her absolute best yet; that will come in series four where she has grown up and can put the Doctor in his place even more! Tennant delivers consistently, allowing us the comfort of a long-term television Doctor for the first time since Peter Davison and continually surprising us with his depth and comic timing.
This might have been a more serious season, but it worked because of it. Doctor Who works at its best when it delivers real threat and excitement and I don't think season three can be accused of lacking either of those. It's wacky (Space Rhinos on the Moon!), educational (Shakespeare's lost play), emotional (the Face of Boe's death), glossy ('You put the Devil in Me'), pleasingly arc-related (Francine's turn to the dark side), pacy (42's timed narrative structure), heartbreaking (Smith's uncomfortable choice to commit suicide), terrifying (the Angels), fanwank (the Master's glorious return), insane (the invasion of Earth) and surprising (the final fate of the human race).
My favourite season so far.
A Review by Rob Matthews 26/8/11
On broadcast, the third season of 21st century Doctor Who came primarily as a huge relief to me. Having relaunched with the stunning Christopher Eccleston series, which still stands as my favourite of the 'new' seasons ...
(hmm, you know 'New Who' doesn't sound right as a term any more now that it's so established, but I'll press on)
... the show had tottered through its scattershot second season with a pronounced case of difficult second album syndrome. And the second Christmas special, The Runaway Bride, had left me concerned that the show has already lost much of its early blazing impetus, content to be a good, but not great, television series on something of a treadmill. My own review of that episode is on this site, but I'd recommend you read Robert Smith? taking up a similar theme in more comprehensive fashion in his essay 'The Revolution has been televised', reprinted in Time Unincorporated 3.
Season 3, as it unfolded, not only eased my fears but refreshed my faith that Russell T Davies' version of the show had not run out of steam, just because it turned out to have so many really bloody good bits.
It's a series packed with stand-out moments, for sure: the Abide With Me scene in Gridlock; the sight of thousands of cars released from their eternal subterranean traffic jam and heading upwards into the light; "Don't blink"; "It's the same rain"; "I am a human Dalek"; Joan Redfern finally, devastatingly looking the Doctor in the eye; "They're us"; Professor Yana taking the fob watch from his pocket; the first majestic view in the new series or the old of the citadel of the Time Lords; the 'slaughter of the scarecrows'; the Doctor's discussion of mortality with Lazarus in the moonlit church; the withered Yoda-Doctor crawling blinking out of the crumpled heap of Tennant's familiar suit (I gather I'm not supposed to think much of that last bit, but hey ho).
Still, at the time of broadcast, and in its immediate aftermath, I found the season somehow lacking overall. There were a number of reasons for this. Comparing it with my beloved Season 1, I thought the overall arc of the thing was severely botched by its ending. Where the Davies-Eccleston run snowballed all of its stories, even the lesser ones, into a satisfying grand finale (one we hadn't back then had any expectation of, of course), this one featured a number of really excellent episodes, but charged full-tilt into an overblown climax that relied - and you could see it coming all along - on some kind of plot-reset switch that would restore the status quo for subsequent seasons. The Master really couldn't remain conquerer of Earth and, even after his inevitable defeat, setting all future present-day stories set on a world recently wrecked and in a process of being rebuilt was never an option, so the disappointment of a plot solved by a rewind loomed throughout the finale, tainting any enjoyment of it. Martha's mum might have said "All those things he did, they still happened ... I saw them", but us viewers tend to get irritated when we find out 'it wasn't real'. Freema Agyeman, meanwhile, was likeable and attractive as Martha, but seemed really short-changed in comparison with the material given to Billie Piper in the debut run. That series dealt with Rose's awakening to a wider world; this one saddled Martha with a by-the-numbers unrequited love story that kept leaving her looking grumpy in the corner as the Doctor or Captain Jack reminisced about the wonders of Rose.
Also, this is the season that brought back the Master. Never my favourite villain. They used to be fond of calling him 'the Doctor's Moriarty'. (2Entertain repeated this fallacy in some of its DVD extras recently too, apparently obliged to fulful some quota of old chestnuts and stock phrases on its releases. Want to hear the one again about how Christopher Bidmead 'saw off the show's comedy excesses'? No, me neither.) However, this alleged Moriarty has more often been the Doctor's ... prat. And with that fan-arrogance we're all prey to to greater or lesser extents, I think I probably felt almost personally betrayed by Russell T Davies, who had been saying for a long time that he had no plans to bring the Master back into the show, as he wasn't that keen on him as a character. In retrospect, I can appreciate that Davies was just saying this sort of thing to throw us off the scent, and I kind of admire his cheek. But at the time, it seemed that he offered perfectly sensible, cogent reasons for not bringing back this undermotivated 'pure evil'-type cartoon foil - and then just brought the bugger back anyway, because 'of course' this vital part of the old show's history had to be re-established in the new version. Davies was always going to do this, he claimed, no matter what he might have said to the contrary. What worried me about that was not his 'dishonesty' (that's just showmanship), but rather that it seemed to imply slavish devotion to the perceived giants of the old series took precedence over choosing things because they were dramatically fertile. Course, I underestimated Davies there. Not as extensively or ridiculously as many have done, but still. At the most basic level, the man is good at his job. Whatever faults you may find in his work, Davies isn't a hack. He's never going to turn out the equivalent of a Terence Dudley script.
Neither was I completely sold on John Simm's performance as the Master when he did arrive. After the character was introduced with a sturdy dose of Derek Jacobi gravitas, Simm's bit of "Hello..hellooo... ooh I've got a new voice!" pissing about at the end of Utopia felt immediately less good. And throughout the next couple of episodes, I took him to be a kind of cut-price version of the Joker (ironically, since the Master has more often been more the rubbishy Riddler of the Doctor Who mythos). I could see the intention behind it was laudable: to make the Master a twisted reflection of Tennant's Doctor, in the same way that Delgado was like the id to Pertwee's ego, taking it back to first principles. Inevitably, the black outfits and moustache-twirling of yesteryear were ditched, being no more likely to appear in the latter-day version of the show than the frilly velvets of Jon Pertwee. And the Master was closer to being a genuine Moriarty figure here, being the villain who arrives at the finale and brings our hero to apparent defeat. But it seemed to me, even as a fan of the old series, that the Master arrived from nowhere in Utopia as an instant arch-nemesis. Never mentioned before in the new series, I can't imagine why the new, younger viewers should have cared when Jacobi announced "I am the Master" to poor Chantho.
In retrospect, this one was an anxiety very much of its time. Back in 2007, we were still relatively fearful of abruptly alienating the general telly audience, who were surely only one raised eyebrow away from switching Doctor Who off forever. Surely any moment now there's be a continuity reference too many for your average viewer, a straw that'll break the Mandrel's back. Two seasons into the Moffat-Smith years, the Tennant era now a halcyon bygone and Eccleston feeling almost prehistoric, that's ceased to be an issue. Those worries seem as distant as the songs by Razorlight and The Automatic that probably soundtracked Confidential at the time.
Perhaps that's why it's easier to look back on this season now and find so much to appreciate. The pressure's off, and time has been kind to it. Plus we have the benefit of being able to see it in a wider context, with a good dose of comparable seasons of the show on either side of it. A couple of those come from a new show runner, which means 21st century Who doesn't just mean Russell T Davies Who anymore, and widens the context further.
Looking at it again now... well, I find much of my assessment from the time still stands. And yet I've come round to it much more and some of the problems I had with it seem less important than they did at the time. Maybe my own emphases in judging it have shifted, because it now stands as my favourite of the new seasons, bar the debut one.
Not so long ago, I think it must have been in Doctor Who Magazine, I read something from Steven Moffat where he mentioned how different the show was now from what it had been a couple of years ago; no, not referring to the difference between his own work and Davies', rather the capacity of the show to evolve quickly, to have a different feel from year to year. I wish I could remember the wording because I don't want to misrepresent it, and he wasn't being derogatory, but he alluded to the Eccleston season having a feeling of trying to be very 'important', of having something to say, quite different from the the established show that's more comfortable with itself which we're watching now.
Now, you could argue that this is a bit of a shame, that the series should still be aiming high like it was when it first came back to the screen. I think this ties in a little with my own thoughts on The Runaway Bride, noting the show's 'initial blaze of glory settling into a warm simmer', plus Robert Smith?'s thoughts on 'Whomonormativity': 'put the revolutionaries in power and they can't be revolutionaries any more'; Doctor Who the ongoing series can never have quite the same impact as it did when it was Doctor Who the new show. Illustrative of this are Davies' words as he publicised the series: as it approached in 2005, he talked in terms of 'full-blooded drama'. By 2008, he was promising guest stars and ever-more spectacular special effects. This doesn't necessarily speak of a lowering of aims so much as a change of expectations. When 'Doctor Who' was either completely meaningless to people, or else just the name of some embarrassing old sci-fi show, the emphasis was on it being a unique TV drama. When people already knew what Doctor Who was, because it had been back on for three years, the emphasis was on more superficial aspects because the substance of it was too familiar to need restating.
I think I'm probably more reconciled now to the idea that the first season will remain my favourite because it tried - and succeeded - to be a great television series, whereas later ones are in the position of trying to be great seasons of Doctor Who, taking on its own legend in fresh and inventive ways, or else failing to.
With that in mind, the 2007 season is the first to do this with brio, boldness and a renewed sense of the possibilities of the format. Where the earlier seasons had the reiterated forebodings of Bad Wolf and Torchwood loosely threaded through, this one has a more interesting structure that takes advantage of the time travel concept in a way the show had rarely done before, but which has since become a hallmark of Steven Moffat's approach to the series. Indeed, it's apt that is the season where Moffat introduces his divisive phrase "timey wimey", because this is where those possibilities start being exploited. It's prompted much debate and theorising in, for example, the About Time books by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles that the classic series always seemed to work on the assumption that time travellers always met in the right order; if the Doctor were to battle the Master in ancient Rome, say, and then four (subjective) months later on a spaceship in the 46th century, both would remember ancient Rome as their last meeting. It would never be an earlier or a later incarnation of the Master that the Doctor happened to bump into. On the production side, this doubtless will have stemmed from a lack of - let's not say imagination, but a lack of engagement with the issues raised by the concept of time travel, and a desire to keep things linear. But ironically it's mind-twistingly tricky to develop a rationale that would account for it if these time travellers were real. Steven Moffat's supposedly 'difficult' treatment of time, exemplifed by the temporally arse-backwards relationship of the Doctor and River Song, actually takes a far more common sense view of how this sort of thing would play out.
So, in the 2007 season, all the events set in Martha's present day, despite being separated by the adventures in between, take place in the same week, not dissimilar to the repeated return visits to the night before Amy Pond's wedding in 2010. And we see the effects of the Master establishing his identity as Mr Saxon, and taking Martha's family hostage, before the Doctor and co take the fateful trip to the far future that releases the Master in the first place. It's an imaginative use of the time travel concept, and plays out with little fanfare considering how revolutionary it is for the show. Russell T Davies always said he was mindful that any given episode could be somebody's first, so never wanted the week-to-week continuity to seem too impenetrable, which is perhaps why it wasn't trumpeted more, lest the show develop a reputation for being 'difficult' to follow.
(And indeed, this is something tabloids like the Daily Mail have tried to claim in 2011, at the same time as resurrecting 'it's too scary' arguments from 1972. Because if there's one thing a scaremongering, bigoted rag hates more than harmless fear in a fantasy context, it's people exercising their intellect or using their imagination).
Added to this joy at playing with the potential lurking in the basic concepts of the show, there's a delight in getting to grips with its 21st century format. The 45-minute episodes took a bit of getting used to at first, with single episode stories often feeling too compressed but two-parters suffering from being overstretched. The 2005 season began to find ways around this by having The Long Game tie loosely in with the season finale, giving it a more epic sense of background, and by giving a strikingly different 'feel' to the Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways episodes while still making them add up to a two-parter.
By 2007, the show is more comfortable with its format, knows how to do stories that fit, and feels more free to play around with it. Like Moffat's seasons, it embraces the idea that these are collections of standalone episodes, or occasional two-parters, that also add up to a bigger story, and it does so with more complexity than Davies' other seasons. Hence, where Utopia first appears to be a one-off that leads loosely into the two-part finale, it's clear by Last of the Time Lords that it's in fact very much the first part of a three-episode serial. Likewise, when I watched Human Nature and realised the equipment for transforming a Time Lord into a human was inside the TARDIS itself, I knew instantly that the Master was going to turn up, fobwatch in hand, somewhere down the line, but it was still a thrill to see everything slide into place when it actually happened. The Human Nature two-parter itself doesn't remotely resemble a story that's just there to lay pipe for later on - indeed, for us fans of the books, it was a new version of an old tale - so there's a grace to the way these serials interlock that rises above the vague forebodings of Bad Wolf, Torchwood, the missing planets or the four knocks in the other years of Davies' stewardship.
I've said this is a season with a lot of really good bits, but, taking another look, that's kind of underselling it. Okay, so we're dubious about Daleks in Manhattan, aren't sold on the sound and fury of The Shakespeare Code, and can't remember much of anything about 42. But in Gridlock, Blink and Human Nature you have three stories that could quite easily take a place in the top twenty of any of those all-time Doctor Who greats polls, and that's no small achievement.
I oughtn't just to mention those and move on, of course, so to make a kind of capsule case for each of them...
Gridlock: a barmy fable taking the commuters' nightmare of an eternal traffic jam and turning it into a discussion of religion and humanism. Some critics of Davies tend to assume that because his own firm atheism is well-documented - not to mention that the word 'atheist' itself still carries negative connotations, despite it being a basically redundant term for anyone to whom it actually applies - any treatment of religion in his work must therefore be shrill polemic. More than once I've read "Davies is on his soapbox again"-type remarks about his work - when the Daleks found God in Parting of the Ways, for example - and they're wildly off the mark. Davies isn't making an argument against religion, because frankly that argument is won already. There's no need for polemic where there's nothing of substance to argue against. Instead, he explores religion's role as part of the human experience. It's well worth pointing out that, more than any writer of Doctor Who in its long history, Davies repeatedly references the language of the bible, and uses religious metaphors; it's on his watch, after all, that the Doctor becomes a quasi-messianic figure. In fact, it's in this very story, this tale of the saved, where that idea begins to take hold.
Human Nature/The Family of Blood: extending the theme, here's the story where the 'lonely god' Doctor becomes a mortal man and falls in love, pitched somewhere between the plots of the Jesus story, Superman 2 and Goodbye Mr Chips. Upon resuming his just-about-immortal identity at the end of this adventure, the Time Lord immediately sets about dishing out some old testament-style justice, as yer average deity would. Those themes aside, this is basically a really good yarn. Adapted from writer Paul Cornell's own novel, it actually works better on screen than it did in the book, especially with the neat added detail of having the Doctor's real identity squirreled away inside a timepiece. Jessica Hynes is an inspired choice for Joan, and David Tennant is outstanding as John Smith, going all out to make him a far more likeable man than the occasionally vain and mannered Doctor. His performance as he flips between the two personas is riveting. I think this is the serial that removes all doubt: while his Doctor may not always be loveable, and sometimes he's rather irksome, Tennant remains the finest actor ever to play the role.
Blink: I think it was Steven Moffat himself who pointed out that the sum total of of the Weeping Angels' achievements in this episode is to take over an abandoned house. But don't be fooled by the humility: he knows he can get away with pointing out the achilles' heel of this timey-wimey tour de force without diminishing its stature one jot. This whipcrack-sharp episode is the first Doctor-light one to make the lead man's relative absence a complete non-issue, even cheekily using the same bit of footage of him more than once, and making its re-use an inspired part of the plot. It's biggest success is the Angels of course: the first monster in the 21st century series to join the upper echelons of favourite baddies and be talked about in the same breath as Daleks and Cybermen. It remains to be seen whether they have the shelf life of those old favourites, of course, but what's notable about them is their conceptual cleverness - monsters who operate just outside of perception - married to a long-standing Doctor Who tradition of taking everyday objects and making them sinister. They're also a creation of latter-day television technique, something that could never have been done as effectively in the old series in terms of editing and subtle, steadying effects work. Like the Silence in the current season, they're your basic man-in-a-suit creations elevated by conceptual brilliance. Oh, and they're angels, carrying on that theme of religious imagery.
I must admit, I had my doubts about Steven Moffat as heir to the show early on; when I say early on, I'm talking 2005/06. Obviously it was clear right from The Empty Child that he was a master of story structure, but there was a surfeit of glib one-liners in that story which suggested he had a shopping list of things he wanted to poke fun at about the show and had overdone it when given a shot at doing so: "Some day I'll travel with someone who gets the whole 'don't run off' thing", "Gimme some Spock, would it kill you", the sonic screwdriver exchange. It was affectionately meant, but irritating for its relentlessness, as opposed to its intent. It was only ever a superficial problem for me, but after watching The Girl in the Fireplace, and by the time Blink rolled around, my early concerns had been eased to the point of nonexistence. Just occasionally Moffat will include a line that I find just a bit too 'sitcom' - in this episode, "Sadness is happiness for deep people"; I mean, what kind of twat refers to themselves as 'deep'? - but by this point those concerns started to feel churlish and slight. To watch Blink is to watch Steven Moffat sign on the dotted line to take over the show. And this episode, too, resonates with the Human Nature two-parter - another deathbed scene, another meditation on the beauty and transience of our lives.
Again, I'm alerted to the way all these adventures pull so gracefully in the same direction. Even the lesser episode The Lazarus Experiment contributes to the development of this theme of mortality versus its opposite, and with its own (albeit really crass) biblical reference. That episode also advances the nuts and bolts of the Saxon plotline.
But I could have said the same thing about these particular episodes any old time between first viewing the series and now. Those problems I first noticed about the season - the bloated finale with its looming plot reset switch, Martha's perfunctory character arc - what of them?
Well, for Martha Jones, there's really nothing more to say. The story of her unrequited love for the Doctor remains middling, and a little bit dull. Part of this stems from the fact that the show seems keen to maintain Rose as its great iconic companion, who becomes more so in her absence, giving the Doctor a recent loss to mourn. Perhaps Davies and his producers didn't want the audience to feel she had been simply forgotten about, as departed television characters often are, or perhaps they wanted to keep the memory of her fresh because they really did plan all along that she would come back and grow a new Doctor out of his remarkable plot-facilitating severed hand. But if the constant mentions of Rose make Martha Jones grumpy, they make those of us who want to see Martha enjoy her own time in the spotlight irritated too. The bit in The Shakespeare Code where the Doctor wistfully yearns for Rose's capacity to know 'just the right thing to say' is either a comment on how readily we rose-tint (no pun) the past and idealise what we've lost way beyond its actual reality or else is supposed to be taken at face value, and is sheer crap.
Odd thing is, I'd say unrequited love and loss are what Russell T Davies' writing in Doctor Who is about, more than anything else. And yet when he baldly addresses those subjects in this season, with Martha and Rose, it somehow ends up lacking.
Anyway. I think what's altered the critical mass to tip me more firmly in favour of this season is a reassessment of two of its more controversial stories.
Let's start with the minnow: Evolution of the Daleks (I've plumped for the less embarrassing of its episode titles). Some people hate this schlocky serial, but personally I never actually disliked it. Yes, there's the wilful naievete about everyone banding together in harmony in the Great Depression, there's the nutso take on science and genetics that lets the Doctor have his victory, there's the outrageous 'kwarfee' New York accents and there's the army of pig-men once fantasised about by Kramer in a Seinfeld episode, but...
Um. Where was I going with this?
No, the thing is, it's never less than enjoyable to watch. It might be silly, but it's not actually dull. And it does attempt to do some new things: setting a story filmed mainly in South Wales in 1930s New York is bold, and it just about gets away with it. Having the Daleks be architects of the Empire State Building is loopy, yet weirdly fitting, given their vaguely art deco look. It's the first Doctor Who story to do a song and dance number. For the kids of all ages among us, it has Daleks in sewers, a human-Dalek hybrid, a Dalek sucking a whole bloke up into its big green tentacled body, Daleks flying around shooting at stuff and Daleks making a dramatic entrance on a stage. It has the Doctor euphemistically mistaken for a musical theatre lover. It lets the bloke who is so obviously going to die before the story is over - because after all we can't leave a pig man running around oinking his way through history - live and have a happy ending after all. It's about the only time we get Daleks in the RTD years without it being big season finale time too, which means we can see the Daleks in action without the yearly apocalypse raining down upon our heads.
Basically, the best way to appreciate this one is to think of it as one part the third Peter Cushing Dalek movie, two parts a 1930s horror flick, complete with lightning and disfigurement. If only they could've CG'd Lionel Atwill into it. It's poised between noble failure and deeply flawed success, but I tend more towards the latter now. A guilty pleasure, then.
Next there's the huge diseased Leviathan, the two (or is it three?) parter season finale.
This has been the big turning point for me. I get it more now. Doctor Who has never been so wildly, recklessly ambitious and confident as this. The Master as Prime Minister of the UK. Present-day Earth invaded and subjugated. Martha travelling the Earth telling stories of the Doctor, while the Doctor himself is aged and shrunk to a piece of gristle in a birdcage. The Doctor making his second coming through the power of prayer! Captain Jack's nickname. The Valiant. The identity of the Toclafane. The ultimate death of the universe itself. And ... in this of all contexts, domestic abuse. Not to mention gratuitous Rogue Traders, Scissors Sisters, McFly and Reggie Yates. Not only does it seem too much to take in and make sense of - it has also never bloody happened by the end.
Of course, the thing is ... well, it never happened anyway, did it? It's just something off the telly. We all know this, yet we always get shirty when events get undone within the story itself. And yet Francine's right in a way: for the characters we're following, all those things did happen. The Master isn't less of a murderer because the Doctor found a way to restore his victims, and the Doctor's victory isn't diminished by the fact that no-one knows afterwards that he ever did anything at all. A broken Lucy Saxon kills the Master because of the events of the story, even if those events have been unravelled, and Martha comes into her own all thanks to her quest in a reality that's been cancelled out. Ideally, yes, we'd follow through on every one of the consequences of what happens in this story, leaving humanity to rebuild from the ruins rather than pick up from where it left off. But Doctor Who's an ongoing series that relies on the everyday as a touchstone, so this can't happen.
Oh and, to be fair, the Doctor's cannibalised TARDIS is identified as a paradox machine before the invasion happens, so the reset doesn't simply come from nowhere; its mechanism is established if not fully explained before the events take place. And it makes sense - Doctor Who sense anyway - that, as an impossible event, it would be cancelled out and undone.
More than that, though, it's the lurking big reset button that gives this serial licence to go as far as it does. I think part of the reason the climactic episodes leave such a lingering bad taste is less the wild array of things thrown at the screen - even the closing moments take in a mix of Return of the Jedi, Flash Gordon, Martha's emotional epiphany and the Titanic - as the subject matter, which is essentially the Master's malice.
Here on prime time Saturday night television is an exploration of absolute depravity (insert your own X Factor jokes here please), with the Master ruling a decimated Earth as a tyrant, wiping out a significant number of the population, simultaneously leading their far-future counterparts into a vile mutilation of their own history while planning to wage war on the universe - and basically doing all of this just to create a reality debased enough to finally shove a withered Doctor into a little cage in. Because that's how obsessed he is with the Doctor: far more than Martha Jones could ever conceive of being. Not since the days of Jim'll Fix It have we seen this many vile whims given vent on Saturday evening TV. Like with his theme for the Doctor, Murray Gold's music for the Master quotes the Doctor Who theme, in this case trapping the villain in a stunted version that never gets past the opening notes, a rhythm without purpose, melody or conclusion. It conveys desperation, the idea - new to the show but retconned way back to the beginning - that the Master is driven by an inexplicable internal torment.
What's more, the narrative is complicit in the Master's mania, bounding along to the relentless sound of drums showing us cabinet exterminations, the gleeful slaughtering of a journalist, Teletubbies, a flashback to Gallifrey (just when we thought that Susan Foreman callback description in Gridlock was all we were getting), the murder of a US president who's clearly supposed to be George Bush - played by an actor who's portrayed him on TV - and the destruction of Earth unleashed to the sounds of a cheesy pop song. At least half of the time, we do appear to be expected to laugh along with the Master as he adopts a Doctor-esque patter and makes silly, inappropriate, gravity-undercutting jokes. Even by adopting and adapting the Doctor's mannerisms, he degrades him, makes his act suddenly appear horribly flimsy. (Incidentally, I do think Tennant plays the Doctor as a man putting on an act a lot of the time; something all the 21st century Doctors shares to greater or lesser extents, actually. This could only be said of Sylvester McCoy out of the old Doctors, so whaddya think of that?) In a season that builds up the all-powerful 'lonely God' idea of the Doctor, these episodes spend an awful lot of time brutally ripping the piss out of him. And in an inspired fourth wall-busting touch, the Master as Saxon begins a televisual address to the nation with a buoyant "Britain, Britain, Britain!" - so determined is he to parody the Doctor, he borrows from Tom Baker's Little Britain narration. And this is before he offers around the jelly babies.
What's kind of brave and alarming is the way this drunkenly walks the line between entertaining and genuinely grotesque. Like Saxon himself, Davies isn't shy of chasing unabashed populism, and after Harriet Jones' message to the American president in The Christmas Invasion got such a good viewer response, you feel he's deliberately taking it on a step by having a stand-in George Bush murdered by the Master. It's a moment designed to provoke a cheer, not a boo, and it's notable that even after the paradox is ultimately reversed, the Doctor and the script make it quite clear that quasi-Dubya remains good and dead. This verges on distasteful in a script that has only just finished celebrating humanity's best qualities, and the virtue of forgiveness.
Similarly, there's the scene at the beginning of Last of the Time Lords with the Master prancing around to a Scissors Sisters track while shoving a decrepit Doctor around in his wheelchair (and this after we've seen the Doctor stumbling on all fours out of a tent marked with a water bowl marked 'dog' next to it). It's absolutely horrible stuff, but directed like it's delightful comedy. That's not to say the direction is misjudged; indeed, I think it's deliberately depicting the scene as the Master sees it, it's grotesque on purpose. At the end of the last episode, the Doctor pleaded with the Master "If you could see yourself", but of course he can't; this is what he sees. It's certainly not comfortable viewing though, especially as Lucy Saxon's black eye is revealed, a touch of a real-world domestic variety tyranny amidst the comic book/Bond villain stuff that bizarrely makes it feel grubbier, nastier, just because it's not the kind of detail you expect in this context. Likewise with the Master not so subtly suggesting that his wife lezz it up with his masseuse (perhaps the smuttiest thing to be not-quite-said in Doctor Who until Madam Vastra's tongue put in an appearance), in itself the Master's twisted parody of the Doctor's relationships with his various companions; if the Doctor can be an alien in human drag, then I'll do it, but more so. There's a hint of 'well, it's what we're all thinking' about this too: this is a show whose every season in the Davies years featured a clip of the Doctor and his companion having a snog, for what always turns out to be some deeply contrived reason. The Master rubs your face in this desire for titillation, exposes its cheapness. Indeed, at times, Russell T Davies grabs the opportunity to parody his own version of the series with almost sucicidal relish.
Married to this, though, is one of Doctor Who's more ambitious looks at the future of the human race. A couple of times in the show, both old and new, we've explored the idea of the Earth's end, and what happens after it, the survival of the human race without its home planet. The ultimate destiny of humanity is one of the central questions tackled by science fiction as a whole, so it's not surprising that Doctor Who has tackled it more than once, and in stories that pretty well contradict each other; it's just too massive an idea to only be looked at the one time. If anything, it's surprising the series hasn't done it more. Obviously this causes headaches for us fans when we're trying to come up with a consistent continuity. But big-scale continuity across the history of the show just a parlour game for the dedicated. It's quite good fun for us to come up with these theories, but it's rightly not a concern for the makers of the show.
(The irony is that Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat both have the exact same detailed knowledge of the show's history that Ian Levine did; they just employ it differently. Indeed, Russell T Davies quotes from the classic series with reverential precision when the Doctor hails the 'indomitable' humans in Utopia.)
In Utopia, Davies actually contradicts his own earlier vision of humanity's future from The End of the World (in which they are said to have evolved into numerous different strains of digi-humans, post-humans and such) and covers it with a line about them always reverting to the basic, 'classic' human template, which is why the people we see in the year one hundred trillion look pretty well unchanged from us. Bit dodgy, but you go with it.
Davies' version of Who always thinks big. I can see why people say 'too big' sometimes, with the 'more is more' ethos of the season finales in particular sometimes bludgeoning sense itself into bloodied, weeping submission (I'm thinking particularly of seasons 2 and 4 here), but on the whole I admire the relish in taking on big-scale ideas. So this time around, the thought is 'well, we're looking ahead; let's look all the way'. After having shown humanity's survival into the far future as something to rejoice about in The End of the World - and enriched the theme with (ahem) New Earth and, more successfully, Gridlock - Utopia extends the question to its logical conclusion: asking what happens to a human race that has fought for its continued survival up to the point where the universe itself is on the verge of perishing. The RTD era of Doctor Who addressed the subject of mortality right from the start, and this can be seen as a logical, final extension of the theme.
This is skilfully handled, sneaking all the exposition for the big finale into an episode that, on first glance, only has a tenuous connection to it. But because we've spent a whole episode in the darkness with the last remnants of humanity as they await their shuttle to salvation, there's a a huge sense of gravity to call upon when the Toclafane pod is opened and its withered human occupant recognises Martha Jones and quotes "The sky is made of diamonds"; the naive optimism of the child in Utopia brutally juxtaposed with its exact opposite. As the Master himself puts it, the invention that has sustained mankind through the aeons finally turns in on itself, with the doomed humans regressing into murderous children spliced with machine parts. There are echoes of the Daleks and Cybermen in this, of course, but it plays on fresher, more recent concerns: the Cybermen were first conceived of in the 60s as human beings who'd lost their humanity through technology, becoming unemotional and robotlike. It's an idea a little bit past its sell-by date now, despite valiant attempts at an update based on the 'upgrade' motif, man becoming his own mobile phone. The 'Toclafane' humans are an expression of something different and more pertinent to the world toda: of ever-improving technologies giving people new ways to express their savagery; humanity having an ever-increasing number of complex tools at its disposal, and yet basically remaining the same animal and using those advanced tools to club each other with. Humanity can be both an immensely old and advanced race, and yet still an instinct-driven irrational child; indeed, it's the combination of both these things that keep it going, and surviving. "Because it's fun!" is a killer line because you recognise its truth; no clever plot reason, nothing tied into a splendid arc; just a child smashing its toys and cutting up worms.
In fact, the entire scene where the identity of the Toclafane is revealed plays out just about perfectly: intercutting Martha's confrontation with the deranged human in the pod with the Master's taunting of the Doctor, telling us the story partly through the narration of the Master's wife, who tells of how she saw 'everything dying trillions of years in the future' and decided there was 'no point to anything, not ever', as it suddenly becomes clear what caused her mind to crack in the first place (Alexandra Moen does an excellent job in this role, playing a woman trying to be less human than she is, because she's gone too far to turn back). Shared betwen seven characters, the scene is played as conversation rather than the monologue it might have been.
A Doctor Who story this bleak, and this concerned with the subject of depravity, needs one bloody happy ending to take the bad taste away. And so we have the Doctor floating back into life with day-glo superpowers after the combined thoughts of everyone on the planet restore him, via the Master's psychic Archangel network of satellites. What do you mean, 'contrived'?
It'd be easy to mock this ending, but, to be honest, it works for me. It did on first viewing, in fact, but I think I'd probably have been more abashed about admitting it then, since I could see the weaknesses in it, but couldn't satisfactorily account for why I didn't mind them so much.
Ironically, since I grumbled about the inevitable reset-switch of the plot, I now think this is probably the most satisfactory of the Davies era series final resolutions. There's a nuts and bolts logic to the way it comes about that's missing from, say, the dreaded regenerative metacrisis, and it works as a culmination of what's come before it in the season (whereas season two stopped developing about halfway through and ended up killing time waiting for the big finale). The religious theme from Gridlock recurs, with the Doctor making a virtual second coming as the denizens of Earth chant his name, a messiah brought to life by the combined will of the people: the Doctor saves them, but they save themselves too.
I've mentioned here the misguided idea that Davies is on a 'soapbox' about being atheist, but I suspect his stories are probably more open to pro-religious readings than any other Doctor Who writers' in its history. I mean, when did Robert Holmes last theme a denoument around faith, hope, prayer and forgiveness? I'm not interested in making a religious reading myself, but I'm sure a case can be made. The fruitful tension here is that Doctor Who is basically myth: myths are ways of understanding reality through story, but they're also traditionally stories about gods. The Doctor's therefore a god in a series that doesn't believe in such things. And nowadays he has the added power, that claim on our souls, of being the mythic figure from many of our childhoods. Indeed, in 2010 he's Amy Pond's imaginary friend who also happens to be completely real and arrives at her wedding when invoked. The show never comes to any definite conclusion about this - in fact, it probably never will and can't - but I think its best expression comes in The Voyage of the Damned, which follows this episode, with the Doctor's heavenward ascent with robot angels played as both absolutely serious dramatic moment and outrageous pisstake at the same time.
Yes, questions arise about the capabilities of the Master's psychic satellite network. Granted he's a Time Lord, an alien from what this very serial tells us was 'the oldest and most mighty race in the universe', so it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to believe that the Archangel network is capable of much more than any technology we would recognise, and could indeed enable the Doctor's resurrection from 900 year-old prune status. This is, after all, a story where he was aged within an inch of his life by a laser screwdriver. And yet... well, whenever Davies mentions a matrix or matrices in the bafflegab, you kind of know he's doing it tongue in cheek, offering the barest figleaf of scientific plausibility. It's not too far off - a couple of lines elsewhere and earlier would have helped - but the mythic sweep of the story helps it get away with it. If you dislike it, I can see why, but all things considered it works for me now.
And thus, yep, so does this season as a whole. Flawed yes, sometimes deeply, but I really love by far the greater part of it, and that eases me over the bits that aren't so hot.
I don't know why its should be that I offer praise for something with a sense of foreboding more suited to a man prodding about at a hornet's nest, but I can't leave it without adding that the 2007 season also showcases composer Murray Gold's best work for the show, with some superb new themes for the Doctor, Martha, the Master, Gallifrey and more. No, Gold doesn't exactly do 'subtle', but that's so very much not what this incarnation of the series calls for. I mean, I could probably trace my enjoyment of atonal electronica to growing up with the weird sounds Doctor Who used to make in its classic days. I will happily listen to a iPod playlist where Crystal Castles and HEALTH mingle with the music out of The Sea Devils and that opera about Darwin that The Knife collaborated on. But that's just not what Russell T Davies', or Steven Moffat's, Doctor Who sounds like. Ever since it returned to our screens, Doctor Who has aimed for a filmic quality, and Gold's expansive music is movie-sized, always expanding the epic scope of what we see on screen by creating a bigger world in your head. I guess this is a matter of personal taste; I've heard an awful of classic series folk on DVD commentaries complaining about the loud, intrusive modern-day music 'telling you how to feel' and such, but, a couple of blips aside, I've always found that a good musical score enhances rather than distracts from what we're watching on screen. Kind of like Hitchcock and Herrmann or John Williams on Star Wars and Jaws, Murray Gold's score is an absolutely integral part of this era of Doctor Who, it's a storyteller. The reason Steven Moffat retained him is because he does a bloody good job. I mean, good luck getting the music from Vets in Love played at the Albert Hall.
The Doctor Forever, one of his pieces is called. After a lull, 2007 saw the series soaring once again.
The Love Has Gone by Thomas Cookson 21/5/13
Whilst RTD's writing style was cynical, angry and hard to swallow, I could maybe believe there was a glimmer of a noble purpose behind the anger of Series One. Maybe even the fan-baiting moments were about galvanising anger and nerd-rage towards a positive goal. Series Two was admittedly shallow, but also very exhilarating. Unfortunately the run from Love & Monsters to The Runaway Bride represented the worst excesses of the era.
Smith & Jones already feels like RTD reusing his old tricks. Martha's simply a Rose-clone with another detestable family of petty-minded, self-involved shrews and commoners. Ending with some shrill street argument between the petty family and accusations that Martha made the whole life-threatening ordeal up. Proof indeed that in RTD's degraded perma-sneery vision, nothing life-threatening or mind-expanding ever changes people for the better or makes them more appreciative. RTD himself shows his usual lack of imagination with both rhino-men for aliens with completely contradictory laws that show up how RTD didn't even bother thinking them through. Transplanting the entire hospital to the moon especially smacks of cynicism, as if RTD doesn't believe the audience will be involved in an alien world unless a huge chunk of the familiar everyday world goes with it as the main backdrop. What's more offensive is the Doctor still acting like an unpleasant jerk "not her, she'll only hold us up", and the story effectively indulging camp villainy up to the point where the villain's death is played for wholly comic effect. Not to mention the idiotic science of turning a Chemotherapy suite into a nuclear bomb that could decimate half the Earth from the Moon.
The Shakespeare Code should be great. Alas, Shakespeare is written as such a pastiche; he never convinces as a real person. The whole thing becomes a runaround that occasionally stops for cumbersome info-dumps and lame jokes, and ends with the heroes literally talking the Carrionites away. The witches are possibly the most unimaginative villains in a season composed of almost nothing but. What's worse is that, amidst this light frivolity, the Doctor's indulgent heartache over Rose, as though she's the most important thing in the universe, not only reduces our hero to a pathetic shadow of himself, but it almost seems to blatantly say that because the Doctor's trivial feelings for Rose are the only thing that matters, nothing else in the story is important or to be taken seriously, or even consequential. Couldn't Russell see that this was dramatically fatal? Because now there'll never really be any spirit of adventure, but just wallowing in past miseries. It's a terribly uneven story in that regard because it at once brings a horribly defeatist aspect to the show, and yet aggressively asserts the kind of forced frivolity and 'don't bring me down'-ness of camp in such a way that genuine misery or unhappy feeling is no longer welcome (case in point being how Shakespeare's reminiscence of losing his son is tastelessly dismissed by another "that's good I'll write that down" joke). This is what I mean when I describe RTD's era as antagonistic.
Gridlock is yet another RTD plot dependent on the human race being all gullible idiots, consistent with Russell's arrogant, sneery view of the masses. Really, the pregnant woman who has an 'honesty' drug, I think says everything about Russell's distrusting view of his audience. Yet again, we have artificial comedy characters, the Doctor acting like a belligerent loudmouth dick as though he's a one-man mafia, and a plot resolved by the Doctor wiring something together and a token self-sacrifice. What gave it some edge and heart for me though was the story of the Sister's long penance of redemption for her crimes in New Earth, only to lose the one who looked after her.
Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks felt like a very token Dalek story indeed. But it could have been good. Helen Raynor did write one of the better, more unpredictable Torchwood episodes, Ghost Machine. Here unfortunately she's constrained by a shopping list, and she seems to write down to the younger audience. There are signs she's really thought through the setting of the Great Depression as a thematic focus, but the forced, cynical happy ending flushes it down the toilet. The characters are utterly two-dimensional, the second half is beyond boring and uneventful, the Daleks come off pathetically, and Caan basically runs away at the end rather than kill the Doctor. The Doctor comes off even more stupidly in both offering himself for extermination in the vain hope the Daleks will stop killing everyone else, and letting Caan live and escape at the end. Suddenly it's as if the Doctor's forgotten everything he knew about Daleks beforehand.
The Lazarus Experiment features the usual worst aspects of New Who. The new show's ageism and anti-intellectualism sees Professor Lazarus portrayed not as an idealist, but as a selfish money-grubbing, sleazy cad. This blows an opportunity to make his transformation into a monster at all sympathetic. Instead, he shows no guilt for his killings at all. It's as if the writers are deliberately trying to make this a lesser story.
In the RTD fashion of making mother characters utterly horrible yet forcing us to care about them anyway, Martha's mother Francine comes across far nastier than even Jackie did. Given that Martha's an educated, grown woman it makes no sense for Francine to be so suspicious of Martha's new 'date', especially once he starts working to save everyone. It would have made far more sense and been more emotionally affecting had Francine initially trusted the Doctor to protect Martha, then after his explosive stint in the chemistry lab puts Martha in danger, Francine feels understandably betrayed. But no, she's just a suspicious-minded control freak because the show's seemingly made by and for such people. As with Rise of the Cybermen and The Runaway Bride, its focus is on work-do parties to pander to a nation of petty-minded jobsworths with a portrayal that makes them feel cool and hip. After all, RTD's sycophants in fandom tend to be the most trumped-up jobsworths of all, and RTD's show was designed to win over Michael Grade. The biggest, pettiest, most snidey jobsworth of all.
42 is near seamless and yet utterly forgettable. Such is its efficiency, it rarely stops to actually be about anything. I actually think that Torchwood's first season could have been excellent on the strength of Ghost Machine, Small Worlds, They Keep Killing Suzie and Out of Time, if it wasn't for the enormous drag factor of all Chris Chibnall's stories. This is a Chibnall story with all the mean-spiritedness that goes with it: the characters are never thought through and there's no display of heart to it. Michelle Collins becomes the first of Chibnall's token clumsy women who meet harsh reprimands and vengeful come-uppance for a mistake that really anyone could make. Chibnall would go on to similarly taint Series 5 in this way.
Just like Enlightenment and Revelation of the Daleks, Human Nature/Family of Blood and Blink are so light years ahead in quality of their contemporaries that they seem to belong to another show entirely. Human Nature might be the saving grace of RTD's third year (as Midnight is to his fourth), as Russell being such a fan of the book not only adapted it to screen, but pulled out all the stops to make it perfectionist in its details. Martha's put to her best use all season. David Tennant gives possibly his best performance and shares beautiful chemistry with Joan Redfern. The time period is vividly recreated and the Family are superbly quirky, frightening villains.
But I think Blink trumps it. It's Moffat's best party trick but it's also perfectly structured without the viewer ever being aware of its structure - and it's beautifully life-affirming too. It's about the moments that make up a life. It's superbly acted too. There's something bittersweet about Sally Sparrow reading her dead friend's letter talking of the long past life she's enjoyed, and the police detective realising on his deathbed that it's the same rain. It's of its time, in that Blairite period of affluence and youthful optimism where life and opportunities seemed up for the taking. It's of its time without being horrendously dated in the way RTD's own stories have quickly become. Which is why the old, calcified, lonely weeping angels make such a perfect contrast to the happy, spontaneous protagonists. But, like The Twin Dilemma following The Caves of Androzani, it became clear that if this injection of quality didn't turn the show around, nothing ever could, not whilst this control-freak producer holds overrules all achievements. The three-part season finale saw my capacity to care anymore just disintegrate. And yet Utopia sets up such a great premise. The Doctor and the Master stuck at the universe's end while humanity clings to life, and only the Master's knowledge can save them all. Unfortunately, this premise is utterly discarded and abandoned because RTD felt the audience could only relate to it affecting the present day.
Whilst Derek Jacobi made a fantastic Master, overpowering Chan To by sheer force of will, Russell's ego probably couldn't bear that this Cornell-Shalka version of the Master might succeed, so he threw Jacobi under the bus just to prove his way was better. John Simm makes the worst Master ever, showing no calculating intelligence or maturity, being a tool for desperate, asinine comedy for a show that's substituted genuine wit or imagination for inane sarcasm. I don't buy this Master, and he's ruined by being made utterly detestable, hence why the Doctor weeping over his enemy feels both twisted and insincere. It could have worked if the Master actually had tried to prove himself to be a benevolent dictator, but found the power too corrupting. Or if the Doctor intended turning the Master human again, letting his knowledge live on, with the potential to live as a good man and shun his evil.
Like Iago, the old Master had no redeeming qualities, yet one couldn't help admiring his calculating intelligence and slightly wanting him to win. But you never wanted John Simm's Master to win. I once argued that RTD had at least reimagined him as a yuppie villain for whom mass murder was part of his unquenchable consumption habits, but he's actually just a puppet for RTD's most mean-spirited writing and pointless deaths. The Master opening and closing the airtight door on the dying journalist's screams seems to particularly pander to sociopathic teenagers that find violence and cruelty funny.
By now, Russell was spread thin between this and spin-offs. For some reason, the fans couldn't disassociate New Who's popular success from RTD's alleged 'genius'. Given how much he chopped away the show's essence to prevent it 'alienating' the masses (alien planets, the Doctor's Victorian demeaor, scientific refinement and maturity), it's a wonder it could even still be called Doctor Who. But it showed up how much Russell convinced himself that bringing back the show was a risky gamble, and he chickened out far more often than going for gold. But he seemed to convince himself he'd achieved the impossible nevertheless, and yet the insecurity that it wouldn't last unless he kept playing safe remained. Each season he completed was a boost to his already-bloated ego, seeing himself as a miracle worker. By now, he'd developed a full-blown messiah-complex, which here became forced onto the Doctor in cringeworthy fashion.
When the Doctor magically heals himself and develops God-like superpowers, and time reverses itself so that everyone's brought back to life again, the story undone and unwritten, all my dramatic investment in the show became broken beyond repair. Almost against my will I stopped being able to care about the show, until The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone finally reasserted some solid plot structure and rules, allowing me to care about the show's dramatic suspense again.
When even Time and the Rani has more respect for solid plot mechanics, it's clear something has gone very wrong.