Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Family of Blood

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He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun.

Any review of this episode is going to start from essentially the same premise: it’s perfect.

Yes, a bold claim. But let’s be honest – it is, isn’t it?

Russell T Davies once described this episode as the type of special story they wrote to give David Tennant the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles, and show everyone just how impressive his performances are. It’s absolutely true; Tennant’s work here is magnificent. It takes real skill to portray a character like John Smith, differentiating him so meaningfully from the character Tennant plays each week – somewhat ironically, it’s perhaps a clear candidate for one of Tennant’s best performances during his time during his tenure as the Doctor. Admittedly, it’s perhaps a slight shame that we don’t get to see the moment where John Smith does ultimately choose to die – and yet in positing it as a moment of quiet, private courage, it further sets the two characters apart, a world away from the bombast that here defines Tennant’s Doctor.

It helps, of course, that he’s got a great chemistry with Jessica Hynes, who gives a brilliant performance as Joan Redfern. In many ways, it’s her performance that anchors this piece; without a well-rounded character here, the love between John Smith and Joan Redfern would be entirely false, and the episode couldn’t function at all. But Hynes does a brilliant job of conveying the love that Joan feels for John – and at the same time, emphasising the tragedy that she realises before he does that the Doctor is the real man. It’s a skilled, layered performance, and perhaps the best guest turn of the series so far.

It’d be remiss not to mention Freema Agyeman, though – this is, after all, one of Martha’s best episodes. Removing the Doctor from the narrative gives Martha the space to step up and command the story on her own terms; there’s a certain authority and assertiveness here that the character hasn’t always been given. It really helps Martha to see her this way – her unrequited love for the Doctor feels more earned than it has previously, yet she doesn’t seem dependent in the same way she has in prior episodes. And who doesn’t love the moment when Martha explained the bones of the hand, subtly focusing on her middle finger just to really emphasise the moment? It’s fantastic stuff for the character – it’s just a shame she wasn’t given it earlier.

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The spectre of World War One hangs over this episode; not only informing the feel and texture of the episode, but giving it a deeper thematic weight that isn’t always there in other episodes. War comes early to England in this episode – and The Family of Blood does a great job of demonstrating not only the damage, but the damage on a personal and intimate level.

Something that struck me about the scarecrows is that, essentially, they’re a metaphor for the boys – particularly during the attack on the school, which is a wonderfully shot moment from director Charles Palmer. The scarecrows are shot down, as though they’re made of straw (which, of course, they are) and they’re in exactly the same place the boys will be in just a year later. It’s a great way of tying the monsters – which already have a great visual design – into the broader thematic concerns of the episode; indeed, the sequence as a whole is deeply effective, like I’ve already mentioned. The long, lingering shots that explicitly tie together not just the violence, but the boys crying at being thrown into it – it’s a huge departure from last week’s military drills, and indeed a deliberate parallel. It’s a good way to underscore some of the themes of the episode.

But then, interestingly, it does begin to feed into some broader ideas that the episode suggests. The novel, of course – which I’ve admittedly not yet read – is much stauncher in terms of its pacifism and rejection of violence. Timothy was a medic in the war, not a fighter as he’s presented here; you could imagine that final line being “they’ll need a Doctor” rather than commenting on the need to fight, particularly given how often Timothy was paralleled with the Doctor across the episode. But instead, there’s an assertion of the need to fight – perhaps suggesting a need to be monstrous, to fight the monstrous?

It’s an interesting idea; if nothing else, the questions it raises, when linked to both war and the Time War as a wider idea, are intriguing ones for Doctor Who to tackle in its current form. It’s not necessarily a question with an answer, exactly, but it’s looking at a frustration at the heart of the show in this form, and indeed Tennant’s Doctor.

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Some interesting questions are raised about the Doctor, though, and his behaviour. Over the course of these reviews I’ve started to change my opinion on the Tenth Doctor somewhat; certainly, series three gradually begins to posit him as cruel, albeit inadvertently, in terms of his treatment of Martha. That’s similarly clear in this episode, but goes beyond that too – the Doctor’s arrogance causes the tragedies of this episode, the violence and the heartbreak.

It’s clear from the beginning that the Family followed him here, of course; I touched upon this last week, remarking on why they’ve all ended up in 1913. But Joan Redfern makes it explicit here, launching a critique that emphasises the Doctor’s culpability in everything that happens here – one that begins to present the Doctor as being just as monstrous as those he fights. Certainly, that’s how it feels with the closing punishments – a condemnation of the Family that feels grossly out of proportion with their crimes, not by virtue of how harsh they are, but in some ways because how petty they are. “You wanted to be immortal? Well, here you go then!”

In a sense, it becomes about what the Doctor is like without his humanity as well – emphasising the other extreme, in comparison against the character of John Smith we’ve seen so far. There’s a cruel streak of arrogance there, and it’s what earns the Doctor that description as “fire and ice and rage”. Brilliantly, though, Paul Cornell does what he always does, and brings this back down to the small and the intimate. The most damning moment isn’t the Doctor’s punishment of the Family – it’s his final conversation with Joan. As he stands there, lying to her about being able to love her again, it’s motivated solely by vanity. (That might be a reflection of my developing feelings on the Doctor here, admittedly; previously I’d always read it more as a kind lie, in the knowledge that Joan wouldn’t take him up on it – now it feels as though it’s simply posturing, a grand display of arrogance once more.) That’s scary in its own way – and in some ways, moreso than the epic grandeur of the punishments of the family.

Ultimately, then, The Family of Blood is a nuanced and subtle piece; it’s a genuinely impressive character piece for the show, and I’m ever so glad it exists.

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Human Nature

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I dream I’m this adventurer. This daredevil, a madman. The Doctor.

Here’s another one I remember primarily in terms of my own early viewing experience. Which is convenient, really, because it’s also a difficult episode to write about – the opening episodes of two-part stories often are.

Certainly, I recall – not the twist, because that’s not quite the right way of describing it – the premise, in particular the pre-credits scene, being quite a shock. Even then I was reading as much as I could about the series, albeit in a fairly limited and constrained way – Doctor Who Adventures magazine was pretty much my limit. I don’t think I’d discovered the internet yet. (Don’t you all wish I never had? So do I, sometimes.) In any case, then, the only descriptions I’d read where to the effect of “When John Smith’s dreams start to come true, where is the Doctor?”, or something like that – there was no analysis of how this was probably an adaptation of Paul Cornell’s novel from the 90s or suchlike.

That was nice, actually – I sometimes wonder if, in becoming so plugged in, I’ve lost something of the actual viewing experience. Not just in terms of Doctor Who, but television in general; simply by virtue of how I approach it these days, with the analytical mind and the keen interest and so on, the actual watching isn’t quite the same. I don’t mean this in the way that people sometimes decry critics for – the inability to ‘just switch off and watch it’, because I wouldn’t want to just switch off. I love the analysis, and I do get more from that.

But at the same time, I can’t help but feel I bring a real baggage and weight of expectations to a lot of what I watch these days. Be it Doctor Who, where I’ve been reading the magazine (I’ve graduated to the ‘grown up’ one now, but its counterpart will always hold a special place in my heart) in advance of the episode for months, or indeed any other television show, where I’ve been reading message boards and tumblr and news websites ahead of time. There’s less surprise to television now, I suppose. (On that note: I think perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve been loving The Good Fight so much is because it’s consistently surprising to me in just how good it is.)

I guess that that, then, is what I associate with Human Nature primarily. A real sense of surprise. It’s not fair to say it’s an integral part of the episode, per se – though certainly there are a few moments where it could have swerved off into something unpredictable, it does begin to start feeding us information (very effectively) quite early on.  But for a few moments at the beginning, it does (or did) genuinely shock me, and I’ll always love the episode for that.

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Obviously, as a Paul Cornell episode, it’s really well written – absolutely lovely throughout. That’s something I can comment on, even though this episode is existing just on its own until next week.

The entire piece just sings, really – it’s very well done. From the absolutely lovely development of John and Joan’s relationship, to ensuring that John Smith is a charming character in his own right yet still fundamentally of his time, with all the human faults and foibles we don’t normally see of the Doctor. It’s a quick but deft sketch of two characters, but an entirely necessary one – so much of next week’s episode is going to rely on these two characters working and working well, and the setup here is absolutely fantastic.

While I’m mentioning the character work, a quick word on Jenny and Baines. Minor characters, yet, but never caricatures; in their own way, they both feel real, in such a way that when they are taken over by the Family of Blood, there’s something meaningful about it. Certainly, Jenny’s death is genuinely sad, and it’s difficult not to feel for Baines too – despite his priggish nature, it’s the moment of fear that sells it. Seeing the characters in their element and then taken out of it entirely, undercutting any confidence or defence mechanism they’ve built up. It’s fantastic stuff, and it’s to the episode’s credit that it takes the time to make these characters work as characters first, before they’re possessed.

One moment I’d like to highlight as a personal favourite is the bit with the piano and the cricket ball – you know the one I mean. That’s something else I specifically recall from the first broadcast; it made quite the impact on me. I remember watching Confidential after the episode, and Russell T Davies and Charles Palmer (I assume, I’ve not checked) were discussing how difficult the scene was to achieve – but ultimately also how essential it was, to demonstrate that the Doctor was still in there, beneath the layers of John Smith. That’s exactly why I love it so much – not only is it a wonderful set piece, but it’s such a wonderful example of the ingenuity and panache and indeed, yes, heroism that (to me, at least) defines the Doctor. It’s moments like this that make the character matter, really. That’s something Paul Cornell understands, and has always understood, innately and intuitively.

Got to love a Paul Cornell episode. Been meaning to read the original novel for some time now – I’d hoped to get a review of it to go up some time over the next week, but that’s not going to happen now – and to get into some of his original novels. Chalk looks quite good. Still, though – I know you said you were sticking with your original work from now on, and that’s genuinely quite admirable, but (selfishly speaking)… come back and give us another Doctor Who episode, please? You’re damn good at it.

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I’ve spent quite some time gushing over this episode – which in turn begs the question, was there anything I didn’t like? Well… in some cases, it was almost too good for its own good.

I criticised The Shakespeare Code some time ago for its historical treatment of race, and recently celebrated Thin Ice for much the opposite. Human Nature occupies a rather lovely middle ground in that respect – it’s a deft and subtle handling of how Martha’s race would impact on her experiences in 1913, leaving it implicit yet at the same time very direct. There’s something really impressive here; in some ways, I’d argue that it paved the way for Thin Ice’s success later on, demonstrating acutely that Doctor Who can handle historical racism in a nuanced and sensitive way.

But like I said – it’s almost too good. Because it’s so, so damning of the Tenth Doctor in a way that’s almost staggering to behold. There’s the moment where Martha laments the fact that he didn’t consider what would happen to her if he fell in love with someone, and like, yeah, sure – but did he not also consider the months of racism, abuse, and servitude? Damn. There’s an implicit cruelty here that’s difficult not to lay at the Doctor’s feet, which I was struggling to come to terms with. Why 1913? It’s a lovely setting and Paul Cornell does some great work within that, so I’m not inclined to argue it particularly – but from a Watsonian perspective, as it were, what on Earth was the Doctor thinking? Why not go to 2007, and stay with Martha’s family, Lodger style? It almost feels like there’s a need to throw in a line about sending the TARDIS to a random location in Earth’s history, just to absolve the character of some of the responsibility he’s putting on Martha.

It’s not a huge dent on the episode. It’s a lovely episode. In some regards, it’s a good thing – I almost feel like that questionable discomfort is part of the point, particularly given what I recall of next week’s episode. But still, it’s a bit of a sticking point.

Ultimately, though, this is a really good episode – one that proves why Paul Cornell is so good, and why we should be praying for his return. Thankfully, though, even if he doesn’t come back – we’ve still got next week’s!

8/10

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Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

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Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits!

This episode, much like Thin Ice before it, feels very keenly relevant to 2017. Admittedly that’s perhaps more of a reflection of myself and my own perspective; the themes inherent to this episode are largely universal. But by the same token, an overtly political Doctor Who episode feels at home in 2017 – indeed, required in 2017 – in a way it wouldn’t necessarily have in the years prior. And, certainly, it’s something I’m more able to appreciate now than I would have previously.

Admittedly, there’s a part of me that almost has trouble calling Oxygen “overtly political”. Surely, it’s not, is it? It’s a well written and engaging thriller that also just so happens to make the point that capitalism is bad. There’s some nice incisive lines and so on, but it’s not exactly arguing a point. Right?

Except, actually, that’s why in the end I do feel right calling Oxygen “overtly political”. It’s not moralistic, it’s not a screed – it’s not even really an angry polemic, though it certainly had the potential to veer into one. It is, however, a story with a very specific ideological bent, one that informs every aspect of the episode that grows out from it.  The monsters are a metaphor for the dehumanisation of workers, and the lack of autonomy afforded to them by a capitalist system. The faceless, bureaucratic enemies are motivated by their bottom line. The dialogue has that fantastic, angry awareness of everything that’s fundamentally wrong with the system.

Oxygen feels like a masterclass in how to handle a Doctor Who story like this; it’s built out of an awareness. It’s not a very special episode, but one that reflects its themes across every aspect of the text. Of course, I say all of that; I could be wrong. It might just be that Oxygen demonstrates one very good way of going about this, rather than the best or only way to do it successfully. I’d probably quite enjoy an angry polemic – particularly if it’s one that advances that same (correct) general position as my own.

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There’s a worthwhile comparison to make with 42, Chris Chibnall’s episode from the 2007 series of Doctor Who. It’s on my mind a little bit, given that it was the most recent episode that I looked at as part of my Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor series. Broadly speaking, you can see a lot of similarities between Oxygen and 42 – they’re both high-octane thrillers, set in space, with something of a political bent. (In that the ‘villain’ of 42 is eventually revealed to be the victim of a capitalist mining process, though I don’t think anyone would be inclined to argue this is a particularly successful aspect of 42 in comparison to Oxygen.)

One of the big failings of that episode, highlighted in my review, was the relative anonymity of its supporting cast. Few of them made any particular impact, relegated largely to a series of stock characters to be picked off one by one, and occasionally filling in the plot mechanics to keep the story moving. Oxygen, for obvious reasons, faced similar issues – and, arguably, falls into the same pitfalls to an extent. (An issue with Oxygen was the fact that the two men playing Tasker and Ivan did look a little alike, meaning it was easy to confuse the two of them – losing some of the impact when one of them died and the other had an emotional moment towards the end.)

However, Oxygen does manage its supporting cast of characters far more adeptly than 42 ever did. Part of that is in having a smaller and more manageable cast – but another part of that is the fact that each of them got a moment of focus and some time to shine. Dahh-Ren had a great comedy moment, Abby fills the role of critical antagonist well, and Ivan’s emotional moment is actually very well constructed. His final meeting with Ellie is a great payoff to the pre-titles sequence, and gives the episode a really nice grace note at the end.

More than that, though, this is a very good episode in terms of characterisation in general. Bill is excellent, as is the Doctor; there are some absolutely fantastic interactions between the two of them. That the Doctor’s rendered blind trying to save Bill is really effective, and the way it impacts their dynamic across the episode is great to see. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes across the rest of the series, for however long that might last. I’d like to particularly highlight Nardole, though. I was hesitant about his inclusion when it was first announced, but it’s fast becoming clear that there wasn’t a particular need to – there’s a real steel to Matt Lucas’ performance, and the inclusion of Nardole genuinely does enhance the episode. I can’t wait to see where the character goes from here.

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It’s not just on this political angle where the episode succeeds, though. It’s a taut and well put together thriller that’s genuinely very tense in certain places.

Part of the reason for this success is the opening sequence with the Doctor’s lecture – it’s an expert piece of exposition, and right out of the gate it establishes exactly what the episode is setting out to do. “Make space scary again.” It’s an opening that pays dividends across the rest of the episode, because we’ve got a very immediate frame of reference as to what’s going to happen to Bill – helped, of course, by Charles Palmer’s long and lingering direction, that really lets the danger sink in. The risk posed to each of our characters is always at the forefront of the episode; the audience is never allowed to forget about that. There’s no moment space seems like anything less than a threat – the final frontier is trying to kill you. It’s a villain in and of itself; the very setting of the episode, out to get them.

In a sense, there’s a contrast that forms against Knock Knock the week before; even though that was the episode self-consciously styled as scary, Oxygen is far more successful at actually being scary. A lot of that is down to the fact that Jamie Mathieson is a very talented writer, with a great eye for what makes a successful monster. The suits have a fantastic visual design, and tie into the rest of the episode particularly effectively. We’ve not really had any outright zombies on Doctor Who before – they’re usually couched within some other twist to the premise – but Oxygen takes us quite close to that, and does so brilliantly.

Ultimately, then, Oxygen is a really strong episode. It’s another great instalment from Jamie Mathieson – and, while he’s clearly positioning himself as a possible replacement for Chris Chibnall one day, it’s an episode that really excites me to see where he might take the show in the future.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Shakespeare Code

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Stand on this stage, say the right words with the right emphasis at the right time. Oh, you can make men weep, or cry with joy.

In many respects this is an episode that’s quite well tailored to my interests – if not aged 8, certainly now, when I’ve got into literature a bit more. (Or, more accurately, studied it in depth a bit more.)

Certainly, the basic ideas are all ones that I quite like; language shaping and influencing reality is a great concept, particularly when tied into Shakespeare and the obviously iconic witches. In some respects, this central conceit just about writes itself. It’s undeniably effective; while a lot of details are sketched in shorthand, they can afford to be, because a lot of the imagery it’s trading on is so iconic. There’s a sense of atmosphere that’s created easily and conveyed effectively, carrying across the story and defining its tone quite well. I’d have liked it more, admittedly, if it had gone a little deeper on the Shakespearean aspects though; while what we got what was fun, it was also in some respects just superficial iconography. Maybe some deeper thematic allusions, or writing the entire episode in iambic pentameter (though I freely acknowledge that’s an absolutely nonsensical demand to make).

Still, though, this idea very much works within the conceit of Doctor Who – it’s the power of stories. (In that regard, it might be more in line with the thematic interests of the Moffat era, really, with his focus on story and memory, but I’m getting ahead of myself there.) It’s great to see the show embracing this, but again, it’s something I’d have hoped to see explore in more detail – it’s a concept with so much potential, you can really dive into this. (One day I’ll bring the Carrionites back, don’t worry.)

This feeds into my largest quibble, admittedly: the “expelliarmus” line. It’s nice in theory, but I am inclined to question the structure of it from a dramatic point of view – surely the solution should grow from Shakespeare, using a word he invented? Admittedly, something like “assassination” or “zany” or “skim milk” does lack the potency of “expelliarmus”, but then perhaps it shouldn’t have been structured in that way at all? I suppose it casts JK Rowling and Harry Potter in the same tradition of great literature, and would probably enthuse children towards Shakespeare by comparing them, but something about it still feels a little bit off.

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Haunting the narrative, though, is the story of Rose. She’s still being set up as this ideal to compare Martha against (even as Martha repeatedly proves her competency, again continuing this idea that she’s the model companion) and it… well, it’s not great.

Most obviously, when putting Rose on a pedestal, it warps everything else around her. You can understand this in the general terms – Rose was the story of Doctor Who in those first two years – but I can’t help but feel like it’s been overdone here. Arguably from a story perspective, it makes sense, because the Doctor would miss her, but it’s being done too overtly, too openly. This should really be relegated to subtext – after all, we’ve seen the Doctor grieve for Rose in The Runaway Bride, and this is some time after that for the Doctor, but crucially also for the audience. It could simply be that I’m more familiar with the concept and I’m willing to accept companion changes intuitively, and maybe it was different for audiences then, but having been watching the series in ‘real time’, I’m not sat here missing Rose. I liked Rose a lot, sure, but I don’t actively miss her. In turn, then, I’m inclined to question just how necessary this all was.

Necessary or not, it’s a problem – specifically, it’s a problem for Martha. I’m reminded of a bit in The Writer’s Tale (my bible) where Russell T Davies is a bit panicky about how The Daily Mail or someone took quotes out of context to make it seem like he said Martha would always be second best to Rose. Which is an understandable concern, but for the fact that they do present Martha as a second best to Rose. Overtly so, in fact – yes, you can argue that it’s just the Doctor who believes that, and it’s part of his character arc for the season, but insofar as we consider the Doctor an authority over the narrative (and we must, since he’s now transitioning to the main character in a way he wasn’t before when Rose was around) that in turn means we’re inclined to treat Martha that way too.

Which is quite unfortunate, to say the least. Particularly so since we’re sticking with the idea of Martha being in love with the Doctor – again, it’s a bit of a problem. There’s no reason why it couldn’t work if it was built to more gradually (this is, after all, leading straight from Smith and Jones, so Martha’s only known the Doctor for about a day!) but here it feels far too quick. It’d be enough of an issue on its own terms, really, but alongside the fact that the Doctor is treating Martha as second best? It’s not great.

Indeed, the whole thing really undercuts her character, taking the wind out of her sails completely. Admittedly one gets the sense that this is less a specific failing of The Shakespeare Code and more that Martha is just being poorly served by the overarching narrative of the series, but nonetheless, it’s difficult to see how this is appropriate.

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Another interesting aspect of this episode – albeit a fairly fleeting one – is how it treats race. Martha is, after all, Doctor Who’s first non-white main televised companion (various caveats withstanding, of course) so this is an angle that’s worth some exploration, right?

Well, no. The episode more or less sidesteps it completely; while Martha does question it, the Doctor dismisses her concerns with one of the most fascinating and breath-taking displays of privilege the character has ever uttered. (More on which shortly.)

I’m inclined to say, almost, that this is probably the best way to handle it in an episode where you’re not going to make a thing of it. But then that does beg the question – why wouldn’t you make something of it? It’s not that it can’t be handled deftly or appropriately (not to spoil things too much, but this is an idea they return to later in the series) and it certainly throws up some interesting potential – Martha is going to have a fundamentally different experience with time travel than Rose would, so why not depict that? I suppose the decision was to acknowledge it but not dwell upon it, which – while I can understand that – I do question somewhat.

Far more interesting, though, is what the Doctor said:

Just walk about like you own the place, it’s what I always do.”

That’s an absolutely fascinating quote, in terms of how it highlights just how different his perception of events is. (Really, it’s sort of awful, and the Doctor should absolutely have made more of an effort to resolve Martha’s concerns rather than dismiss them, but that’s another issue again.)

In turn, though, it’s also the one line in the entirety of Doctor Who that so fundamentally encapsulates why I’d love to see a female Doctor, or a non-white Doctor. A huge part of Doctor Who is throwing the character up against these power structures, seeing the character backed up against a wall, etc – a female Doctor offers an entirely new perspective on every aspect of the series that we take for granted. It wouldn’t change the dynamic, per se, but it’d filter it through an entirely new lens, offering a huge amount more potential – isn’t that exciting?

Not that the above has a huge amount to do with The Shakespeare Code, admittedly. But still. It’s a perfectly entertaining episode – it’s very funny, and I suspect I enjoyed it a lot more this go around than I would have last time, on account of actually understanding more of the Shakespeare references.

And yet the episode is hobbled somewhat – both by its treatment of Martha, and oddly by its treatment of Shakespeare, who can’t quite be important enough within his own story to actually save the day. (Contrast this with Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, where the resolution did revolve around him.)

So, it’s an imperfect but enjoyable second episode. It’s not a problem, because in the end, this always happens – after all, the course of Doctor Who never did run smooth…

7/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Smith and Jones

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We’re on the moon. We’re on the bloody moon!

Back once more with another series of Doctor Who reviews, this time I’m looking at Smith and Jones. We’re quite firmly entrenched in the period of Doctor Who that I remember, and was an active fan for – not that I’ve ever been an inactive fan, I suppose, but this is definitely an era that I recall fondly. Actually, probably quite a lot of my Who-watching memories are from around this point – if not the material substance of the episodes, a lot about what surrounded them.

For this episode, it’s those publicity photos – David Tennant in the flowery shirt for Freema Agyeman’s casting announcement, and of course the picture below of the Doctor (in a blue suit!) and Martha on the hospital roof building. It’s also the DWA previews, and discussing the episode with my friends on the Monday morning (the teacher told us off for dawdling after assembly). Oh, and the episode of Doctor Who Confidential that accompanied it, where they talk about how David Tennant suggested the Doctor could mouth “it’s bigger on the inside” as Martha said it.

All of the above, admittedly, has absolutely nothing to do with the actual episode itself. But I find it interesting to try and contextualise these episodes in terms of how I would have experienced them the first go around; after all, I suspect that this whole age based re-evaluation of the episodes is the most unique angle I’ve got going for these reviews, so I should probably lean into it a little more.

It’s quite interesting to try and remember what I thought of the episodes on their first broadcast – in lieu of any detailed notes or reviews (those didn’t really start until series 7a) I’m really only going on hazy recollection. And, to be honest, I liked basically every episode of Doctor Who back in the day (the first one I remember feeling genuinely let down over was Midnight, but we’ll get to that next year) so there’s not exactly much of a view to counter.

But then, I guess, that’s probably the theme of these reviews in a nutshell anyway – is the thing I’ve loved for most of my life (indeed, loved for longer than I haven’t) actually as good as I thought it was? Is it as good as I want it to be? Or has all of this just been a bit of a waste of time really?

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The most interesting thing about this episode is Martha. Obviously, it is, because this is her debut episode, and she’s the new companion – although, rather crucially, she’s also the first new companion. That can be difficult to remember sometimes, I suspect, because we’re looking back on this episode with the lens of history – five more companions down the line, this sort of cast change is clearly part of Doctor Who. But after so long of the show having been Rose’s programme, really moreso even that it was the Doctor’s, this could be quite a jarring shift.

And I think, generally, the consensus is that Martha is a bit of a problem companion; the one who never worked, exactly. I’ve always felt that’s unfair, and at times I’ve referred to her as one of my favourite companions for that very reason – I love all of Doctor Who, and I’ll champion even the bits people are less fond of. (This, I suspect, is also part of the reason why I’ve said the Sixth is my favourite Doctor, and Love & Monsters my favourite episode.)

While I’ve generally re-evaluated this stance – albeit to more or less reject the choosing of favourites altogether – I am still quite fond of Martha. And quite interested in her status as a problem companion, because I remain largely unconvinced that’s actually correct.

One critique I remember in particular was of Martha’s introduction, and the phone call to her family – basically suggesting it was unwieldy and overly complicated. I’d reject that entirely; as a piece of shorthand across one scene, it’s actually a really effective way to create a deft sketch of who Martha is as a person. In some ways, it tells us as much about her as the montage at the beginning of Rose did about Rose; we can see Martha’s the mediator in her family, which in turn shows us different sides of her character. Then at the hospital, we’re seeing different sides to her again – it’s a really nice way of giving us a character who’s quite well rounded. Yes, it’s still only a starting point, but very quickly Martha’s gone from someone entirely new to a character we’ve got a decent sense of.

The other interesting part about Martha – and this is far from a new observation – is that she’s being set up as a direct mirror to the Doctor. He’s a Doctor, she’s a medical student. It’s an interesting mirror that presents a lot of potential across the rest of the series, in terms of her development as a character. Crucially, and this adds to those parallels, Martha is also a character who’s from a sci-fi world in a way that Rose wasn’t; understandably, because the audience is a lot more used to sci-fi than they would have been in 2005. Martha comes along and she’s from the Doctor’s world; when she references the Battle of Canary Wharf and aliens and so on, it’s because she’s someone who has lived in Doctor Who for the past few years.

So, yes, I think this is quite a good introductory episode for Martha. Her character is grounded quite well; she’s someone who’s going to make a good companion, and that’s her starting point. She gets how to do it – she’s going to become a Doctor herself. She’s going to earn that title; her arc is clear from here on. And the potential, moving forward, is exciting.

(Admittedly, yes, there’s a few scenes in which Freema Agyeman’s performance is a bit patchy, but I’d stress that is only a few scenes; for most of the episode, she’s great. I checked online, and this was the first episode she filmed – so it’s understandable that she’s not quite getting into the part completely yet. And also, just to address the other perennial concern – I wasn’t particularly impressed by the kiss in this episode, no. Not this time, or when I was 8! I did like Martha’s teasing flirting with the Doctor at the end though. More on all this in the coming weeks, of course.)

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In terms of the rest of the episode, I was surprised at how fast paced it was. I don’t ever particularly remember these episodes as being that fast paced, but they rattle along surprisingly quickly. In some respects, I think it’s probably because of all the criticisms that have cropped up in the last few years about Doctor Who being too fast paced, or not letting everything breathe enough – you forget that the show has been fast paced for a very long time.

Which isn’t to say, incidentally, that Smith and Jones doesn’t let the episode breathe, or is too fast paced; I’d argue it’s actually quite well constructed, as an episode. While it might rattle along very quickly, it does so in such a way that it’s quite economical with the script – there’s almost a ruthless precision in terms of how it moves.

Certainly, the piece is structured very well, and makes a nice implicit distinction between the monsters (the Judoon) and the villain (Mrs Finnegan). It moves between plot beats quite effectively, setting them up in a nice, almost Chekhovian way – Mrs Finnegan drinking the Doctor’s blood is a clever conceit, particularly as the episode allows Martha to figure it out just ahead of the audience, again cementing her as a good companion. (We can see another mirror to the Doctor as Martha arguably makes a similar sacrifice to him, giving up the last of her oxygen – potentially dying – to save him. Admittedly, that this was only so the Doctor could unplug the MRI does cheapen it a little.)

In fact, Mrs Finnegan is a rather wonderful character, because of how utterly perverse she is; the defining aspect of her villainy is the same juxtaposition of the mundane and the otherworldly that gave us a hospital on the moon. That an innocuous old woman, seemingly harmless, can be so dangerous is part of the frisson of her character – particularly when you throw the bendy straw into the mix. Actually, that straw is fantastic, because it grounds the horror in a more mundane way, yet at the same time being quite gleefully sickening. So, yes, Mrs Finnegan is a particularly perverse villain (especially considering her “she was asking for it” speech to justify her actions) and a very effective antagonist for the episode, even if everyone does only ever remember the Judoon.

So! Smith and Jones. It’s actually a very good episode; while I’ll concede that it wasn’t brilliant in places, it clearly demonstrates that Doctor Who can continue without Rose. And – more to the point – it demonstrates that I wasn’t so wrong to like this show, all those years ago.

8/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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