You talk all the time, but you don’t say anything.
If we take a moment to step back into memory lane, as we sometimes do in this ill-defined series of poorly written reviews, I’ll impart to you something that might seem strange.
The Doctor’s Daughter is perhaps the single episode I remember prompting the most discussion in the week before it aired. Endless theories! Probably the first time we all – and this was not, notably, just the geeks in the corner, because back then basically everyone watched the show – sat around discussing whether or not Susan was going to be coming back. (Entertainingly, in hindsight that’s not actually the most unlikely prediction people made – there was someone who was certain that David Tennant would backflip through the lasers after Jenny.)
I find that quite interesting to consider, because there was clearly something about the premise (and the title) that really captivated the imagination. And, actually, it’s not just the premise either, because it was still largely quite well liked after the broadcast as well. Maybe that’s not illustrative of much, since as far as I remember everyone liked every episode (we’re still a few weeks out from The First Doctor Who Episode I Actually Disliked On First Watch) – but it still suggests that there was some merit to this one.
That, of course, is a suggestion which is more than a little bit at odds with how The Doctor’s Daughter is perceived now – outside of the entertaining novelty value of the quirks of the Davison-Tennant family tree, the episode is met with a lot of derision. I wonder, though, if it’s misplaced criticism – that if the episode could captivate us back in the day, maybe there’s something of value to it. Certainly, in the past, I’ve defended the episode, in no small part influenced by remembering just how much I used to enjoy it.
So, we return to a question we’ve asked ourselves a few times in the past. Was this episode any good? Was I right to enjoy it, and pick this show to essentially base my life around? (Well, actually, if we start getting into that with The Doctor’s Daughter, I’ll have an identity crisis, and I don’t have the time for that.)
It helps, if nothing else, to think about it as the third part of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky; you can see the continuing threads of contrasting the Doctor against soldiers, or the colourful and fun monsters (I do love the Hath), and also Martha is there. Sure, it’d be a little too fast in places, and maybe some of the ideas aren’t quite explored as they should’ve been, and Martha still isn’t actually given anything to do, but if you look at it in terms of being another ‘for kids’ episode it works quite well. We’ve already seen, after all, the terribly convincing anecdotal evidence that about ten kids ten years ago really enjoyed it. Certainly, it’s not really any less entertaining than the Sontaran story that preceded it.
But it falls apart, though, because that very much wasn’t the point of the episode. It was conceived as an attempt to be a thoughtful, considered character episode for the Doctor, something that genuinely changes him – the equivalent of The Girl in the Fireplace or Human Nature in terms of intelligent drama, and a chance for David Tennant to show off his considerable acting skills. If that’s the benchmark you’re measuring it against – and why not, since that’s the aim the production team had – then there’s no way in which The Doctor’s Daughter doesn’t fail to live up to their lofty intentions. You might have noticed at the start of each of these reviews I always pick out a little quote, which I try and make sure is reflective either of the themes of the episode, or of the commentary I’m trying to offer on it. This week’s quote feels especially apt, to be honest; for all that The Doctor’s Daughter talks and talks – at quite some pace, too – it never gets anywhere close to saying anything.
Were I inclined to defend the episode from my own critique, I’d perhaps point out that even if it fails at one thing that doesn’t mean it doesn’t succeed at being another. And, yes, that’s true up to a point – but it’s also where it becomes clear that The Doctor’s Daughter was just grappling with too many ideas. An idea as significant as the Doctor’s family, particularly in the emotionally heightened, post-Time War Russell T Davies years, has to take centre stage and be explored properly – anything less is always going to be a let-down.
If this had ‘just’ been about that, or if it had ‘just’ been about the Doctor, Donna and Martha on a strange planet – Martha demonstrating how much she’d grown, finally given a proper chance to do something outside the confines of her series 3 plot – I’ve little doubt that the episode would’ve been much stronger.
Something else that bothers me about this episode, actually, is the reveal that the war had actually only been happy for a week – turning around and realising it hadn’t been years, it had been generations, and each generation only lasted a few minutes away.
Why did it bother me? Well, I used to love it, actually. It struck me as such a smart concept, and I thought it was really neat that Doctor Who had included something like that… until, many years later, someone pointed out that it doesn’t actually change anything about the plot. It doesn’t make a difference! After it’s been revealed that they’ve only been fighting for a week, everything continues as if they’d been fighting for a thousand years; sure, there’s the fact that the ship and the Source still work, but they’re both sci-fi inventions that could have just as easily been said to last a thousand years rather than any other arbitrarily defined point in time.
And that feels indicative, in some ways, of a lot of this episode. Ideas are thrown around, but nothing’s really done with them – even, as we noted previously, The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky were able to eke out more interesting content than this. The fact that Jenny was originally set to die at the end is telling, really; it’s the most final and emphatic way you could conceivably avoid actually exploring any of the ideas in the episode. Or, perhaps more accurately, the ideas that the episode gestured at – it’d be quite a stretch to say there’s any ideas in the episode, given that implies at least a little bit of thought and engagement and exploration of concepts.
This all sounds fairly negative, and in many ways it is. Certainly, it’s a lot more negative than I expected to feel before I watched the episode. But there’s something quite frustrating about realising that an episode I was previously quite fond of is in fact such a forgettable, throwaway bit of whatever.