Friday, 23 October 2009

Review of DW S4 Episodes 1-3

Doctor Who 2008: A Noble Series
John Davies

I wrote this for a friend and nothing came of it - long story! Now, what follows may come as a shock to those who know me online (i.e. I actually express an opinion ;)) but here you go... Have fun with it.

Part One: Episodes 1 – 3

Return of the Temp

Would it start airing on April 5th or April 12th? Or could it possibly be March 29th? Would this be Tennant’s final year? Would Catherine Tate triumph, or would her re-casting be the point where the show jumped the shark? So began this year’s online speculation about the fourth series of Doctor Who. And in the months that followed, the debate never let up … hitting a point on June 28th where a number of websites actually fell over due to excessive activity.

All a far cry from a mere five years ago when the show was largely just a memory to the general public, a flame kept alive by its die hard fans and their endeavours. In 2005, with a wave of his psychic paper, the Doctor kicked down the door to the mainstream again, affirming what the truly enlightened have always known: this is quality stuff.

Drama, horror, comedy… Doctor Who has the blessed position of being the only show in the history of television to have the ability to convincingly deliver all of these things within the framework of its story telling. The only constaints are the Doctor, a companion(s), a time machine and a dilemma. The rest is, and always has been, open to the writer’s imagination. One week the Doctor may have to decide whether he has the right to destroy an entire species, the next he could be having a dance with a love struck teenager in a Welsh holiday resort. If one story doesn’t interest you, fine, tune in again for the next one – it’ll be a whole different ride.

So, what did the latest batch of adventures bring?

The Adipose Invasion

Series 4 began (on April 5th, fact fans) with Partners in Crime, a light hearted tale penned by series head writer Russell T. Davies. The Doctor, again played by the pitch perfect David Tennant, is on his own, investigating strange goings on at Adipose Industries, and so is a certain Donna Noble … a face familiar to many from the 2006 Christmas Special The Runaway Bride.

The last time we saw her, she turned down the Doctor’s offer to accompany him on his travels. In this episode, we discover she’s desperate to track him down having changed her mind. To say that the return of Donna was controversial would be an understatement. Not because of her character, but rather because of who plays her. Catherine Tate has developed a reputation for being a Marmite performer – either loved or loathed. In 2008, the Daniel Craig Syndrome reared its ugly head again – with many Marmite haters claiming that this could signal the end for the show. However, I call it the Daniel Craig Syndrome for a reason. Just as many anti-Craig Bond fans consumed ample amounts of humble pie following his stellar performance in Casino Royale, so a great number of Who fans put in their orders, too, following this episode, with the demand simply increasing in the weeks and months to come. I won’t make any bones about it, I adore Catherine Tate as Donna Noble. To have a companion who isn’t dewy eyed about the Doctor and is clearly there because she loves the thrill of the ride has been a joy. Forget the sometimes overdone ‘let’s show Catherine cry to get her appreciated’ scenes which have littered the series, the best moment with Tate, for me, has to be in The Stolen Earth when she spots Rose behind the Doctor. No angst, no jealousy – just the warmth of someone pleased in the knowledge that a friend, a ‘mate’ to use the Doctor’s own word, now has the chance to see a person that they know they adore – someone thought lost for good. It’s just a look. No more. Great actors know the truth is in the small detail, and Tate has demonstrated this time and time again this year. It takes great skill to turn in one of the best mime routines committed to camera and then spin on a sixpence to make you feel the soul of a character – and in doing so manage to keep the core of that character real.

However, that look was in episode 12, shown on June 28th. The day the internet shook. Months down the line. Back to episode one...

In tone often resembling the hit CBBC Doctor Who spin off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, it did what an opening episode has to do. It set the scene. With the focus clearly centred on reuniting Donna with the Doctor, the plot, by necessity was a background affair. A miracle diet pill isn’t all that it seems. In fact it’s a way of generating alien babies from human fat – one with a rather nasty side effect for the humans involved. The Doctor must stop the scheme, and he does. As the Adipose babies flew into the sky and the Sarah Lancashire’s deliciously camp Miss Foster Wile E Coyote-d to Earth, I was reassured and optimistic about the upcoming season. I also wanted an Adipose of my own, but that’s for my psychiatrist to worry about.

The episode didn’t overload any new viewers with too much back history, but in the same breath it gave its loyal fans knowing nods and winks – just look out for the references to classic era story Survival (or possibly New Earth/Gridlock), the inclusion of Bernard Cribbins, last seen in Voyage of the Damned, now named as Donna’s grandfather Wilf and, then, of course there was the scene no-one saw coming. With the Doctor having agreed to allow Donna to go with him, she hid her car keys in a bin and asked a blond girl to look out for her mum. As Donna walked away, the girl turned around, accompanied by a piece of music not heard in the show for two years - the musical theme from Doomsday. Rose Tyler! We knew that Billie Piper was coming back, but no-one expected it to be this early in the run. Trapped in a parallel universe, what on Earth was she doing there? Why does she then disappear? When will we see her again? RTD had pulled off a master stroke – the first of many this year. In this, his swan song season, he would go on to draw on many elements from his tenure as show runner… but never in a way to alienate the more casual audience.

Two final points with Partners in Crime - we had our first mention of the bees disappearing, and a planet vanishing. Ever since Series One intrigued us with Bad Wolf, key words or themes have run through each season. Series Two had Torchwood, Series Three (and other isolated episodes) had Saxon. In Series Four, however, the bees, and the planets, would be just two in a number a recurring themes – the next of which would be introduced in episode two, The Fires of Pompeii.

Volcano Day

In an era where speculation is rife, people want to know what the future of their favourite television shows holds well in advance. Soap magazines with huge plot reveals splashed cross their covers fly off the shelves, people pale through lack of sunlight as they post on websites… The love of spoilers is everywhere, and they even form part of a plot later in this very series… However, are they good, or bad? Well, when they appear in the tantalizing guise of prophesies in Pompeii the Jury was definitely formed of Twelve Intrigued Men.

Once again showing off the TARDIS’ capabilities to a new companion, the Doctor has whisked Donna back into Earth’s history. Believing there are in ancient Rome, the pair tour the streets demonstrating the joy their travels bring to them. There is also a lovely throw away line to a first Doctor adventure in there, and, once again, it was one that would delight fans but not confuse the general audience.

Of course, they are not in Rome. They are in Pompeii - at exactly the wrong time. Vesuvius is about to blow, destroying the town, wiping out an entire civilization. What follows is a triumphant examination of the show’s ethics. With the Doctor quite prepared to let history run its course, Donna, and we as the audience, want to know why. Why does a man who does nothing but interfere in present and future events hold back in preventing deaths in the past? What does he know that we don’t? Is it a web of time thing? Echoing Mr. Copper’s observation in Voyage of the Damned, what gives him the right to decide who lives and who dies? In effect what follows is a demonstration of Donna’s humanity and how, in the end, it manages to seep into the alien, time-sensitive alien.

Thrown into the mix of glorious location filming (in both Italy and, drum roll, Cardiff), Tranformer-like rock monsters, cults, the disappearance of another planet, draw dropping Volcanic eruptions and a water pistol wielding Doctor we have the alluded to prophesies. Now, while even at this stage it was easy for us to state with some level of authority that ‘she is returning’ refers to Rose, just what is on Donna’s back?

Talking of Donna, full credit must go to Tate again in this episode. Two scenes stand out. Firstly, the one in which she chooses to share the Doctor’s burden in actually blowing up Vesuvius. Donna is certainly proving to be no back seat driver even this early on. And, secondly, when she demands the Doctor goes back and saves someone from the carnage. Never before have we seen the Doctor bow to such a wish. In the past, he’s even let his companions die rather than interfere with history. Perhaps he secretly knew that one family had to survive, but it seems much more likely that Donna’s heart reminded him of Rose’s ability to heal and cure his Time War battered 9th self, and this is the moment in which, to him, Donna becomes a true companion. He certainly goes on to welcome her aboard a lot quicker than he did Martha.

Now, in breaking news, try watching this episode again knowing that the High Priestess is played by Sally Smedley from Drop the Dead Donkey. Whatever would nanny have said?

Sing When You’re Losing

Doctor Who is no stranger to tackling stories about repression and subjugation – in fact a good many of its adventures have featured this set up in some form or another to drive its narrative along. In a number of these, the preconception tables have been turned and it is revealed that all is not what it seems. However, what makes Planet of the Ood unique in this framework is that we know the Ood are slaves, we’ve met them before in such a role in Series 2’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. What this story concerns itself with is why they are seemingly happy to do along with this role. Surely no race can be legitimately born into and be content to stay in servitude?

Landing on the Ood Sphere, the playful banter between the Doctor and Donna is in full force again – and Donna does something quite unique in the history of the show. Seeing that the place is ‘freezing’, rather than going through the rest of the story suffering in a costume ludicrously unsuitable for where they are, she pops back into the TARDIS and changes – just as the Doctor is giving one of his speeches that other companions would just be listening to in awe. Keeping with the Doctor’s speeches, once again we are given a lovely little tip of the hat to the classic series in this story, once again non-intrusively alluding right back to the Hartnell era.

Planet of the Ood itself is a morally complex tale. One minute we are forced into questioning why the Doctor almost let the Ood fall off his radar in their previous encounter – something that ‘just isn’t you’; in another we are shown humanity at its most base and corrupt. Everyone there is dealing in profit, feeling nothing for life form deemed lesser than itself – and yet, on the flip of that coin, are we really meant to feel good at seeing the Ood resort to their level when they slaughter a number of the humans around them? When it is revealed that the whole of this slave industry is built upon crude vivisection rather that a desire to please, it is hard to shake to uncomfortable feeling that yes, some of these humans really did deserve to die.

Once again, Donna is the most humane character in the events of the story. Quickly banishing her disquiet at seeing an Ood, she feels for it as it dies, and later on, when the Doctor allows her to hear the Ood's captive lament, she openly weeps for them, demanding the Doctor remove her ability to listen to it. In that moment, Donna and the audience gain a valuable insight into the Doctor – he can’t switch that sound off, it’s with him constantly. Just what the Doctor is aware of and how humans are incapable of sharing that knowledge and awareness would return much later in this series, to devastating effect.

Talking of events yet to come, this episode ends with yet another prophesy. Addressing our time travelers, the Ood announce that, “Your song must end soon …” Is this an allusion to impending regeneration, or could it be a more personal message for Donna? As a viewer we just add this to the growling list of cryptic layers building up around the stories we are watching. Even this early on in the show's run, just three episodes in, there is much to debate and muse about.

So, as the Odd-Christened ‘Doctor Donna’ leave the Ood Sphere behind, they’re ‘on their way to fresh adventures’. However, someone will bring them back down to Earth - and not necessarily just former companion, Martha Jones.


  1. Oh, look, Mr. Davies has an opinion. He no longer resides in the land of neutrality.

    Nice to see. Also enjoyable to read. Although a bit long for where I suspect it might have been going, it is thoughtful and well-expressed. There's good description of what the episodes discussed were about, enough to refresh to lame memoried viewer and entice the uninitiated to give the series at least a look.

    Your love of the subject clearly comes through, John. Well done.

  2. It reads too well. Put in some typos or i'll get ANGRY YO!!

    Excellent over-view of the series though man, made me want to go back and watch it all again...