Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Silence in the Library

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Spoilers.

In a very real sense, the Steven Moffat era begins here.

That, admittedly, is not the most unique or original observation that you could make (on a related but probably less obvious note, I’m inclined to argue that the Capaldi era actually begins with The Name of the Doctor, or even really actually Asylum of the Daleks) but it also, of course, isn’t any less true as a result.

Admittedly, up to a point you can say that of any of his episodes. There are just certain themes and ideas that Moffat is always interested in in Doctor Who, and styles and patterns that recur as little echoes of the future. Aspects of The Girl in the Fireplace feel almost like a first draft of Amy in The Eleventh Hour, while Blink is time-y wime-y in a way that presages various puzzle box plotlines, and The Empty Child is of course the first time that “everybody lives” (and actually, in light of that, probably hasn’t been given enough credit in terms of how indicative it is of Moffat’s later approach). Everyone has seen the old forum post from the nineties where he put forward an idea that turns up in A Good Man Goes to War, there’s the whole theory of time travel from Continuity Errors, and, of course, literally everything about The Curse of Fatal Death, which has been weirdly and unintentionally prescient in more ways than one.

But Silence in the Library feels rather different to those, in a way. Again, there’s the debut of ideas Moffat returns to in future – the library feels like it foreshadows some of that focus on stories, for one thing – as well as the obvious. Up to a point, it might just be because the announcement that Moffat would be taking over after Davies left was first announced on the 20th May 2008 – it would’ve been part of the paratext of this episode. Here offers us another opportunity to delve into memory lane, because I do broadly speaking remember the reaction to it – in my own circles, limited to real life interactions alone. Reaction was generally pretty positive (I was still a year away from being presented with my first ridiculous fan petition, an anti-Matt Smith piece I was wise enough not to sign) given Moffat was largely well-liked. Everyone thought Doctor Who would be much scarier; for my part, I thought it’d be funnier, which isn’t a bad insight from a nine-year-old.

(There were actually two such opportunities to check out memory lane with this one; around a year, maybe two, after the broadcast of this, I was in a queue behind some people talking about how their friend was in this episode and played CAL. I immediately decided I should befriend this person too, because then I’d have a friend who was in Doctor Who, and then promptly did not make any effort to do so because talking to people was, and remains, terrifying.)

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With ten years of hindsight, though, there’s one aspect of Silence in the Library that stands out especially: River Song.

This is, I’d guess, probably the first time I’ve rewatched Silence in the Library in years – I’d be surprised if I’d watched it between now and The Time of the Doctor, and I don’t think I’d seen it for a few years before then anyway. In short, today was the first time (probably) that I’ve gone back to watch River’s introduction after having seen her episodes with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.

What’s most impressive, I think, is how fully formed a character River already feels. Not just in terms of the storytelling, and the in-universe backwards character development that was going on, but from a more practical production standpoint – imagine for a moment that Kate Winslet, who was initially offered the part, accepted the role. Would she have come back? Probably not, and if she did, almost certainly not with the frequency and enthusiasm of Alex Kingston. The seven years River appeared and developed as a character, while there was undoubtedly a lot of plate spinning and improvisation going on behind the scenes, are in fact a pretty remarkable achievement – I think that’s something we forget, being so used to the final product, which does seem mostly seamless.

On the basis of this episode alone, there’s an obvious potential to River as a character – there’s a real frisson to Alex Kingston’s performance, and River Song offers a genuinely fascinating limit point for the character of the Doctor. It’s a dynamic we’ve not seen before – not just in terms of the obvious time travel aspect, but also just the way she speaks to him. One of my favourite lines, actually, is when the Doctor is berating Lux, going on about how he won’t let one man’s arrogance endanger people’s lives – and River responds with “why don’t you sign his contract then?” It’s a fantastic line, because it’s one of those rare moments where a character gets to critique the Doctor, and the critique lands. (Of course, there’s something notable about how he then doesn’t sign the contract, essentially letting his arrogance endanger everyone’s lives – in discussions of the arrogance of the Tenth Doctor, this one doesn’t tend to crop up as much, but it’s probably one of the most direct examples of such.)

In a broader sense, though – considering the episode in hindsight, in light of the rest of River’s story – it’s a deeply emotional piece. There’s a real poignancy to River’s realisation here that this is the first time the Doctor has met her, calling forward to her discussion with Rory in Day of the Moon about the moment she fears most. It’s genuinely quite affecting; I’ve already mentioned how good Alex Kingston is in the role, but honestly, it bears repeating. It really is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role; I often talk about how actors elevate material, and yes, that is what she does here, but also it’s perhaps more accurate to say Kingston accentuates and embodies a script that’s already strong, and together the result just sings.

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When it comes to the rest of the episode, it’s perhaps more difficult to talk about; as ever with two-parters, it feels like seeing the conclusion is necessary to offering a fuller commentary. (Not just in terms of the basic plot stuff, for what its worth; one of the things I wanted to highlight was just how well Steven Moffat writes Donna, before deciding to hold that for next week, where she’ll be a bit more of a focal character.)

The Vashta Nerada are a fairly neat concept – an escalation of the ending of Blink, pervasive and ever-present, and easily translatable into a playground game to boot. (I’ve got no memory of actually avoiding Vashta Nerada, but equally, I went out of my way to eat fish custard, so I probably did this too.) It’s well directed, too, by Euros Lyn; there’s some effective lighting going on to sell the Vashta Nerada as a concept, and just generally a pretty nice control of tone throughout, creating some genuinely pretty tense moments.

Same goes for the Library, actually – an entire planet, turned into a library. (Although 4022 people really isn’t very many, is it? Perhaps it’s a very small planet.) Someone once remarked upon the number of concepts Steven Moffat will throw into any given episode – the majority of his stuff is just bursting with ideas really, and that’s particularly apparent here as he throws together several different high concepts that could justify episodes on their own. As, indeed, some of them later did!

Ultimately, in any case, I really liked Silence in the Library. I suspect I’d have enjoyed it more, actually, if I let myself watch Forest of the Dead immediately afterwards – I’ve been trying to preserve a degree of fealty to transmission, so it’ll be a week before I watch the next one. But, yeah, this was a great episode – the first properly great one in a while, to be honest. As evidenced, I suspect, by the fact I’ve had a lot more to engage with here!

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Unicorn and the Wasp

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Can we return to sanity? There are no such things as giant wasps!

So, I had this review structured slightly differently, but it was bothering me, so I performed a bit of a quick cut and paste job. Leaving us, then, with this.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is pretty much the first episode of the new series to just unambiguously and straightforwardly play the whole thing as a comedy. And it works! It is a funny episode. There are lots of good jokes. I was particularly entertained by Colonel Mustard’s double layered flashback, that entertained me.

But I find comedy almost uniquely difficult to write about. A lot of that, for sure, is down to my own – numerous – limitations as a writer, but I’ve never quite been able to review comedy without essentially just descending into putting together a bullet point list of all the funny lines. At that point, it starts to beg the question as to why you don’t just go and watch the original piece, you know? And I’m finding largely the same issue with The Unicorn and the Wasp; accordingly, this is probably the closest I’ve ever come to just giving up and writing a fairly simple, one-line piece affirming my enjoyment. “Yep, that was pretty entertaining”.

Nonetheless, though, here we are. And I’m increasingly reminded of my need to reposition these reviews as something a little more intelligent, and not half collected thoughts put together immediately after watching the episode, in a rush so as to not miss a self-imposed deadline. Still, though, I’ve not managed to make the switch this week, so we’ll stick with it, and see how much – in this typically disorganised fashion – I can actually make of The Unicorn and The Wasp.

(I also feel the need to note, incidentally, that Gareth Roberts is absolutely vile. This was not something I said when I wrote about The Shakespeare Code, because it didn’t entirely feel relevant. Now I’m much less concerned with relevance, and feel like it’s worth noting anyway, because he really is quite awful.)

Anyway. What is there to be said about The Unicorn and the Wasp?

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There is probably an interesting line of criticism derived from just how, exactly, Doctor Who tends to engage with artists of history. With Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie and later Van Gogh their enduring appeal is grounded and talked about largely in terms of the fact that their works sold a lot, or continued to sell a lot, essentially forever. It’s easy to argue that there’s something more than a little capitalist about that, and quite uncomfortable as a result – distilling the worth of art down to its monetary value, as opposed to any other intrinsic value it might possess. That said, I don’t think that’s entirely what these stories are going for; more accurately, it’s about how they continue to be consumed. People continue to want them and engage with them and, in the case of Agatha Christie, buy the books. In that sense, it feels decidedly in line with Davies’ more hedonistic embrace of art, because it’s a stand in for continued enjoyment.

But of course, for all that there are lots of people who very much enjoy Agatha Christie novels and will continue to buy them for a billion billion years, I am not actually one of them (so far), because I’ve never read a single Agatha Christie book. No particular reason for it, I just sort of… haven’t.

It’s not an obstacle to my enjoyment of the story, though, which largely treats Christie as a set of symbols and archetypes to engage with – it’s the Agatha Christie story as a genre, more than anything else, and that’s very easy to recognise even if you’re not intimately familiar with the actual stories themselves. A game or two of Cluedo is basically enough to get the joke.

And it’s a good joke, as it goes. We’ve already established it’s funny. Catherine Tate makes it work really, really well. It’s probably a stretch to call it a good episode for Donna, but it’s definitely a great episode for Catherine Tate, one of the first times she’s got to flex that comedy muscle in quite a while.

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The only other thing that jumped out at me, I suppose, is the ending. Since reading The Writer’s Tale, I’ve been watching these episodes largely in light of what that book discusses, and the changes made to The Unicorn and the Waspdo strike me as quite interesting.

So, the original ending to The Unicorn and the Wasp had the Doctor run the Vespiform over in one of those 1920s cars – knocking it into the river, I think, as opposed to leaving a big squashed wasp in the middle of the road. That was filmed, but changed because David Tennant pointed out, rightly, that essentially that was the Doctor committing murder. Which isn’t great, obviously.

Whenever I read that, though, I could never quite remember how the episode itself ended. So it’s interesting to notice that they basically swapped the Doctor murdering the Vespiform for Donna doing it – which doesn’t strike me as much of a solution at all? Perhaps if this had been much earlier in the series, and we’re meant to read it as being a crucial point in her development where she realises aliens are people too, even the ones who don’t really look like people, it might have worked then. But I don’t know. It’s a weirdly misjudged moment – especially considering that, at one stage, they’d planned to have the body of the vicar float up to the surface, like some kind of reminder that the Vespiform had spent all those years living as a person anyway.

It’s the one weird moment in an episode that had, for the most part, always controlled its tone quite well. This feels decidedly different from all the comedy murders we’ve seen so far – it’s outside the joke of the genre, after all, and it’s just decidedly uncomfortable.

I don’t know. I suspect this was a fairly substanceless review, even by the standards of these fairly weak posts. I’d try and make it into a commentary on a substanceless episode, but that’s perhaps unfair. I don’t know. It didn’t inspire a great deal of thought in me. It was fine. A fine episode. You know. I just sorta struggled to bring myself to care about this one, though I did basically like it.

6/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Doctor’s Daughter

the doctor's daughter doctor who review title card stephen greenhorn alice troughton series 4 russell t davies retrospective analysis david tennant georgia moffett peter davison catherine tate donna noble martha jones

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.)

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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.

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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.

5/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Poison Sky

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Don’t tell anyone what I did! It wasn’t my fault! The Sontarans lied to me!

I go back and forth a bit with these reviews. Especially, really, the episodes like this – the ones that, as established last week, can be a bit difficult to write about.

I don’t think it is a wildly inaccurate claim to say that billions of words have been written about Doctor Who – right? Between magazines and books and every little blog on the internet, it’s got to be something approaching that number, no? Perhaps in excess; I’m not brilliant with numbers, as we’ve probably learned previously. But, sure, let’s stick with that number, much as we could just as easily have made up a new number entirely, in proper Russell T Davies fashion; I’ve just googled “doctor who the poison sky review” and got 2,350,000 results, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to say that there’s twelve-point-five-slash-apple words on the subject.

Which begs the question, you know, what am I adding with these? Sure, there’s a certain level of personal anecdote from time to time – my resounding memory from this one is the Confidential afterwards, actually, and Danny Hargreaves talking about how there’s a shot where you can see his arms just before ‘Sylvia’ swings the axe into the car – and I think there’s a value to that, the perspective of someone who’s coming to this critically after having grown up loving it unreservedly, but then there’s just as often very little in the way of personal history to these. Or, frankly, criticism. If there’s room for the first piece of writing and the best piece of writing, these reviews have been neither; it’s a slightly rambling, unsure thousand words that I dash together mainly because I’ve been doing it for the past few years anyway and I don’t really want to stop. (Which is an odd one to hold onto, I suppose. I stopped writing about the Capaldi episodes when those became too difficult to keep up with. Though I’d still like to go back to them again.)

I don’t know. Someone said to me the other day, about writing, the question is “why are you writing this? Why are you writing this? Why are you writing this?” – so, more accurately “the questions are”, but whatever. The point sort of stands. I don’t know that I can answer those questions of these pieces. Likely enough I’m overthinking it, because the main thing is that I like watching Doctor Who and I like writing down what I think about it, and these are consciously not articles in the same sense I might write them for Yahoo or wherever.

Still, though. Let’s try for something a little better next week, maybe.

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It strikes me, again, that the most interesting part of this story is Luke Rattigan – probably largely by accident, given the reason why I find him so interesting is because of how he feels so relevant even now. But then, I suppose the sad fact is that he was likely just as relevant back then, because some things don’t really change.

Basically, he’s an incel. Or, not an incel exactly – mind you, that line about the breeding programmes? – but certainly Luke Rattigan is in that mould of insecure young men, swept up by a hyper-masculine ideology and damaged as a result. (That sounds a little overly sympathetic, actually. It’s not meant to.) It’s the most interesting thing that the story does with the Sontarans, I’d argue; there’s lots to be said about how they represent a particular strain of militaristic jingoism and aggression, but you get that from a lot of different Doctor Who monsters. Certainly, the broad strokes of the invasion/ATMOS plot could’ve been played out with other aliens – the Zygons are an obvious candidate, I think, though you could probably modify it such that it works with the Slitheen too. Some rogue Judoon, maybe, or the Sycorax. What makes the Sontarans interesting in this story, at least to my mind, is the fact they’re defined by their influence on Luke – it’s taking all those ideas of conformity, and exaggerated, performative aggression, and essentially positing a microcosm that shows how damaging and toxic that can be.

The end of the episode is interesting in light of that. It’s another violent act, basically in line with the Sontaran ideology – they’re beaten back at the end by a bigger explosion, basically, as opposed to any intellectual efforts. You’d think, perhaps, that given we’re meant to read Luke as being inspired by the Doctor, he’d come up with a response to the Sontarans that falls outside that paradigm. So, how do we read that? Another comment, perhaps, on how destructive that ideology is – because Luke is, essentially, reflecting their own plan back at them. Or, alternatively – given we’ve seen how easily the Doctor fits into UNIT, and the way they were paralleled with the Sontarans – it’s indicative of how the Doctor, and his means, aren’t quite free of certain aspects of that ideology – otherwise, wouldn’t they have found a better way? I don’t know, really, but I think there’s an interesting tension there that’d be worth exploring someday.

There’s still bits that don’t quite work. Quite apart from anything else – and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about a story resolved with a character’s suicide, but – the fact that none of the Doctor, Donna or Martha actually remark on Luke’s sacrifice is a pretty glaring omission – I know it’s difficult to do it without seeming trite, especially since they generally either didn’t know him or like him, but…?

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Nonetheless, though… I mean, the thing about these stories is that there is actually pretty consistently lots of little things that are really genuinely great. If you wanted to, and often for the most part I do, there’s enough little things you can pick out and celebrate and in turn stretch an article to meet whatever wordcount you want.

There’s a moment where Martha’s talking to her clone, and she calls her Martha. It’s a lovely little detail from Martha, respecting her clone as a living being with an identity – when the Doctor doesn’t, notably – and Freema Agyeman plays it wonderfully. But, outside of that? I know the line on these Series 4 episodes is that Martha does much better when she’s freed from being “the one who fancies the Doctor”, but actually, I’m not convinced – after all, it’s not like this episode really gives her anything to do, is it?

Bernard Cribbins is, of course, brilliant. He’s got great scenes with Catherine Tate here, and it goes a long way towards fleshing out Donna’s home life and making her family feel distinct from what we’ve seen before. Jacqueline King, I think, either doesn’t quite get enough weighty material, or plays it with a little too much levity; I don’t think the oft talked about sense of Donna’s difficult home life quite comes across here the way it should.

I know the “are you my mummy?” thing is well loved, but I’m actually not a fan.

Anyway. That’s quite a bitty, strung out close to the review, isn’t it? And not a lot of the content is even about the episode! Ah well. I enjoyed it, generally speaking; for the most part, I suspect, I enjoyed it out of nostalgia moreso than anything else. If this were an episode, line for line and shot for shot, in Jodie Whittaker’s upcoming season, I’d be disappointed; much as there are interesting ideas you can pick out in this episode, I’d much rather they got more focus and exploration than this episode gave them.

6/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Sontaran Stratagem

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You’re carrying a gun. I don’t like people with guns.

It is always a little difficult to write about these episodes. In part, the problem is derived from being the first part of a two-part story; there’s a certain degree of incompletion there, since it’s not the full story, which in turn makes it harder to write about the episode as a discrete piece.

Also, though, it’s the matter of the format and structure. The first two-parter of each of the Russell T Davies series, and the second two-parter from Moffat’s first series – written, perhaps notably, by Chris Chibnall, which is probably basis enough to speculate we might see them return in some form or another – tended to be what you can charitably call “broader episodes”. Less about big ideas than big set pieces, they’re rendered in sweeping brush strokes and aimed, generally speaking, at the younger audience members. It’s very much not a bad thing, or so I’d maintain; the monster two-parter has always got a bit of a lambasting. Not just from fans, who are going to be myopic and overly critical about most things; a quick google search for a review from 2008 described this episode, and previous years’ equivalents, as a “breakneck nosedive into abject embarrassment”. So, while I’ll generally always defend them for what they are, what they are is relatively simplistic television that can be difficult to write much about.

Still, though, that’s what you might call the received wisdom (and, actually, glancing through that review it strikes me as a fairly trashy piece, so we might not want to call it wisdom). It’s certainly something Russell T Davies always disagreed with – granted, he would, but when he contested the description that these were “just for kids” he might well have had a point. Looking back, you can see some clear satirical elements to Aliens of London/World War Three, I actually think that Daleks in Manhattan throws out some interesting ideas, and hopefully I’ll figure out something for Rise of the Cybermen before I publish this.

So, with this admittedly slightly tenuous premise now established in more words than are strictly needed, let’s consider: what’s going on in The Sontaran Stratagem, other than the bright colours and the returning monsters that look a little like potatoes?

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What stood out to me as being – at the very least – interesting was the… I don’t want to call it a central conflict, because that suggests it has a bit more prominence than it actually did, so let’s say the tension between the Doctor and UNIT.

It makes a degree of sense, for the series in its post Time War state, that the Tenth Doctor is going to bristle when confronted with soldiers. In a wider sense, too, there’s an obvious tension lurking there – really, one that’s lurking in any UNIT story – because the Doctor so often finds himself working against armies in some respect or another. There’s a lot of ideas of authority and aggression tied up in there, which are often the traits you see the Doctor rebelling against; hence, then, the juxtaposition of UNIT with the Sontarans, who are the most exaggerated version of jingoism and brutality that you can get. Look at the two UNIT soldiers who come across Skor; look at the way the taller one, Private Harris, mocks and taunts Skor. It’s a vision of a very particular idea of the army – bullish and brash and filled with bravado, and ultimately also quite toxic. There’s something interesting about that, I think, given how you’d normally expect the alien fodder supporting cast to be written in such a way that they’re immediately sympathetic – it feels like an almost conscious attempt to get us to dislike him, and dislike the way he throws his weight around.

But look also at Martha and Luke Rattigan. Martha is now pretty much explicitly a soldier, and for all she talks about reforming the system from within, there’s a certain ugliness attached to it. (How else are you meant to read the line about “searching for illegal aliens”, before she starts questioning an Eastern European worker?) Similarly, there’s that great moment where Luke starts to join in with the Sontaran chant, imitating them and aspiring to be like them; it’s there that, suddenly, it makes sense why you emphasise the Sontarans as a clone race – because they’re all about conformity. That’s the big issue with the army, and in a sense you can see this almost as foreshadowing the problems we later see the Twelfth Doctor have with soldiers too.

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Having said that, though, that opens up another angle of consideration. One of the big points of conflict between the Twelfth Doctor and Danny Pink was that, for all the Doctor’s disdain of soldiers, he treats them like he’s an officer. And you can see that here, because as soon as the Tenth Doctor is on site, he’s giving orders too – he fits right into the command structure, much as he insists he doesn’t. They draw attention to it, albeit as a joke, but it’s interesting to see how a lot of the ideas that are on display here crop up again during the show. I doubt that Steven Moffat was referring back to The Sontaran Stratagem consciously during the planning of Series 8, but it’s neat to see how the same character traits are preserved across the length of the series. Or, maybe not preserved exactly, but recur.

What’s also still interestingly relevant is Luke Rattigan (with two Ts), who feels very much the picture of some of the worst of society today – the entitled teenager, driven to violence because he feels isolated and lashes out. Even where the episode has dated, being built around satnav as it is, it’s still deeply topical in some ways. In a way, it’s kinda making me regret the way I approach these reviews; they’re all quite stream of consciousness, probably more accurately described as just a collation of thoughts than a proper review, written immediately following a single watch. I think if I were to approach this more studiously, there’s actually a lot to say about The Sontaran Stratagem – certainly, far more than I expected going in.

But, equally, yes. It’s weak in a lot of ways. For one thing, the incidental music really stood out quite poorly here; it’s often way too oversignified, hindering the episode rather than augmenting it. One particular moment that stands out is when the Doctor remarks that no one has told Luke Rattigan no in a very long time – David Tennant plays that line brilliantly, but the music blunts it entirely.

In the end, though, I liked it a lot – a lot more than I thought I would – and I’m looking forward to next week quite a bit.

7/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Ood

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It’s not so different from your time.

In a sense, Planet of the Ood was always going to be necessary. Following their introduction in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, the Ood demanded a follow up; indeed, one was initially planned for Series 3, in the episode that became 42.

The reason it was necessary is simple, if not necessarily obvious. It’s not the fact that the Ood have a distinct and memorable design, though they do; it’s also not a case of budgetary limitations and the need to reuse props, though I imagine that did play a part. Rather, it’s because the fundamental concept of the Ood demands consideration and deconstruction as soon as it’s raised, and that’s not something they found the time for in their original story.

At first glance, we were told that the Ood were a race of natural slaves, a servant race who need to be given something to do – ‘employing’ the Ood, as it were, was a kindness more than anything else. It’s not difficult to see the parallels between that and historic justifications of slavery; when those parallels exist, and as overtly as they are in the case of the Ood, it’s important to take them and respond to them. If ignored, it’s an uncomfortable lapse at best, and a damning flaw at worst – look at the House Elves in Harry Potter, for one thing. (Of course, there’s a lot of things like this in Harry Potter if you look back on it in hindsight.)

So, yes, Planet of the Ood – an episode dedicating to questioning and deconstructing the assumptions made during the Ood’s first introduction – was necessary. Arguably especially necessary in something like Doctor Who, in fact, given that a big part of the series is about, at least nominally, helping people, questioning authority, and standing up to injustice. That’s a poor encapsulation, admittedly, but it’s the basic idea – certainly in an episode where humans have been enslaved by funny looking aliens, you’d expect the plot to be about freeing the humans. So, yes, of course it’s necessary to do an episode about helping the Ood.

That having been said, though, the most interesting part of Planet of the Ood is how it’s very pointedly not about ‘helping the Ood’.

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It looks like it is, certainly. There’s definitely a sense of active involvement; it follows the same broad shape of most Doctor Who episodes, and between the chase scenes, action set pieces and eventual confrontation with the villain, it feels like the Doctor comes in and saves the day.

Instead, Planet of the Ood actually avoids that – sure, the structure obscures things, but for the most part the Doctor and Donna are actually just observers, just watching a revolution from the outside. In doing so, Planet of the Ood very neatly refutes the white saviour concept that can, in fact, be read into a lot of episodes of Doctor Who. The Doctor doesn’t wade in and save the day, because there’s actually not a need for him to; it’s not his place to. But there’s another smart thing going on here too, advancing that idea further. The episode doesn’t just position the Doctor and Donna as observers, but up to a point, they’re arguably complicit. Certainly, there’s a very pointed critique of how the Doctor acted in The Impossible Planet, and the way he just accepted the suggestion the Ood are naturally docile, naturally servants. He might be an observer, but he’s not outside the system.

In turn, it’s worth looking at Donna, and her role in the story. If there was still any expectation that Donna would be a silly, comedic companion, this would surely have disproved it entirely; this episode has some of Catherine Tate’s best work in the role. What’s particularly notable is that for all the past few years of Doctor Who have been about opening companions eyes – Rose’s speech about “a different way to live springs to mind – this is the first time the show has really delved into that. Listening to the song of the Ood is much more of a different way to live than simply walking in a time long since past or breathing in the alien air. It’s a far more nuanced and considered portrayal of how TARDIS travel can change perspective than we’ve seen so far, and it’s something I hope we’ll see again in future.

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Admittedly, it’s not perfect – there’s one particular flaw that springs to mind.

The ending feels a little easy, almost as though it’s missing part of the point of the wider episode. By that I don’t mean the moment where the Doctor turns off the psychic dampener affecting the Ood brain – though one does sort of wish Sigma had been allowed to have that moment – but rather the line about how all the Ood will be returning home soon. It’s less than convincing, a line that seems to aim more for a neat conclusion that trying to ring true particularly; if you look back in real life, it’s never really that simple. Even after slavery was made illegal, it still continued for the next few decades – and that’s even before you get into the whole “who do you think made your clothes” sort of thing. It’s difficult to believe that everyone would simply go “well, better send the Ood home now” – arguably, it feels like a blindspot that would prompt another story in the same sense that The Impossible Planet’s claim the Ood were a natural slave race prompted this one. Indeed, you can easily imagine a Jodie Whittaker story set on a mining base a year or two after this story, with a corporation taking advantage of illegal Ood labour they’re simply not mentioning.

But that’s one flaw in a story that has a lot to like going on within it. Russell T Davies described this story as being quite grim, and he’s not wrong exactly, but equally – Planet of the Ood is a pretty effective model of ‘mature’ Doctor Who. It’s still got a certain humour and levity to it, but there’s a very thoughtful, very conscious through line to the story; this is the sort of story to aspire to, rather than big battle scenes and threatening aliens.

Ultimately, then, it’s a very strong episode – the best of Series 4 so far, and I suspect were I ever to try and rank them, I’d consider it amongst the best of the Tennant era full stop.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Fires of Pompeii

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Don’t you think I’ve done enough? History’s back in place and everyone dies.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that an episode that’s about the idea of the future haunting the past is similarly haunted by the future of the programme, starring not only a future companion but also a future Doctor. Funny that.

There’s something difficult about these episodes – and by “these episodes”, I mean the ones that deal with the laws of time travel. Obviously, they’re necessary up to a point; it’s always going to be a question that pops up after a while in any science fiction piece, but especially so in Doctor Who, where the lead character is seemingly changing time every Saturday. Why can you save Donna in 2008, but not Caecillius in Ancient Rome? After all, it’ll be Ancient 2008 one day. (It feels like Ancient 2008 now.) And, in turn, the fact is that these things are always going to be entirely arbitrary, and to present them as anything otherwise is really just a sleight of hand; you can dress it up in technobabble, but essentially “fixed points in time” amount to “just because”. Or, really, “because the eruption of Vesuvius is something the viewers know about”. Something they did on Quantum Leap once, which is interesting and might be worth learning from, was to have the past changed into what we know – so, there’s an episode where Scott Bakula travels back in time and changes time so that Jackie Kennedy wasn’t assassinated along with JFK. That’s potentially quite a neat write-around to avoid the constraints of the audience’s knowledge.

The solution that The Fires of Pompeii finds, insofar as it actually is a solution, is to frame it not about the laws of time travel but rather to examine it in terms of the ethics of it. It’s a clever approach, but it’s a difficult one to quite get a handle on; ultimately, what it comes down to is a trolley problem, which is… I mean, I think I am generally more forgiving of trolley problems as dramatic contrivance than people tend to be, but it’s still a little tired. There’s a lot of other ways to frame the debate (the most obvious being status quo vs revolutionary ideas, which feels in line with Doctor Who) and it’s difficult not to feel as though this particular way of approaching it didn’t quite work. Especially, actually, since it’s a fairly hollow ‘debate’ – much as “fixed points in time” amount to “just because”, the debate amounts to “I know better than you”.

But that doesn’t mean that The Fires in Pompeii doesn’t have anything to say, or that it’s not an episode that’s instructive about the characters – it just needs to be considered from another angle.

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The most interesting part of The Fires of Pompeii, I think, is the way David Tennant pitches that line, “TARDIS, Time Lord, Yes”. It’d be quite easy to play that in a more comedic way – certainly, Catherine Tate does it with a sort of affronted air that makes it feel a little like a punchline – but it’s not the choice he makes. No, instead he really snarls it, leaning into the arrogance and the superiority; he is in charge, and he’s demanding she acknowledge that, demanding she acquiesce to him.

That’s the more engaging way to look at The Fires of Pompeii – a study in the Tenth Doctor’s arrogance. It’s palpable, seeping off the screen; he’s patrician and condescending, and so screamingly steadfast in his convictions. In turn, it’s this that alienates him and makes him monstrous, turning a blind eye as people perish all around him. It’s actually quite horrifying to see the Doctor leave, the sound of the TARDIS transformed into something threatening as he nearly leaves Donna behind. Of course Donna doesn’t agree with the Doctor, even after pushing the button with him. (Why did she do it, then? So he didn’t have to do it alone. That’s a fascinating detail about her character, there.) You could quite easily imagine something like this used as the basis for a Kill the Moon style confrontation between the Doctor and a companion; there’s something genuinely quite awful about it all. For all that people talk about the Davies era as being about framing the Doctor as a lonely god, it feels quite rare for them to discuss it in terms of this episode – when The Fires of Pompeii is, surely moreso than any other story of his tenure, the piece that most emphasises the gulf between the Doctor and everyone around him.

I almost wish, really, that the episode had been more willing to commit to that, to be a little more critical of the Doctor in that regard. It’s a far more compelling way to look at these time travel parables, I think, throwing up much more to consider than a trolley problem – you sort of wonder, really, what The Fires of Pompeii might have looked like as a contemplative late series episode rather than a big, broad part of the series launch.

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The grace note, of course, is supposed to be the moment where the Doctor saves Caecillius and his family. But what makes Caecillius so worth saving? It’s that he and his family were the supporting cast, the only people the Doctor and Donna got to know. It’s that he’s got the famous face of Peter Capaldi, the actor the audience are going to recognise. If you like, it’s that he’s got the future face of the Twelfth Doctor, marking him apart from everyone else in much the same way the episode stresses the Tenth Doctor’s separation from humanity.

There’s little about what the Doctor says to Caecillius at the end that you’d describe as comforting. It’s not the caring conversation that Donna has with Evaline; it’s about the long lens of history, contextualising them as ants next to a giant. It’s cold, without empathy, while Caecillius stands and watches and cries – thinking, perhaps, about friends and colleagues and people he passed on the street and people he didn’t meet. Saving Caecillius isn’t kind, it’s fickle, and arbitrary, and ultimately just down to a whim. To be at the mercy of someone like that? Talk about cruel and unusual. The joke at the end is that Caecillius and his family didn’t understand the Doctor and Donna, thinking of them as gods – but maybe that’s a more accurate way of looking at them, in the end.

A few years later, when Peter Capaldi popped up again and turned out to be the best Doctor Who we’ve ever had, they returned back to this episode to explain it away. Why does the Doctor have Caecillius’ face now? As a reminder to save the little people. But is that what he did here? In a way, it feels much closer to that speech in Boom Town, about how every now and then even the worst monster will spare someone just to make themselves feel better.

Ultimately, then, I think The Fires of Pompeii is a very good episode – but one that’s often celebrated for the things it’s not actually doing.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Partners in Crime

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The fat just walks away…

Alright, so. Those of you who’ve been following this series since the start – even if it is, you know, only the one of you – might be wondering where the Series 3 roundup post is. The answer is more than a little bit underwhelming: I had a near-catastrophic computer failure not long after I was supposed to upload that piece (though it was more than a little late anyway) and I’ve just kept delaying it ever since. The plan was to publish it a little bit before this review, but I got my dates mixed up – I thought Partners in Crime had aired on April 12th ish – so that ended up being difficult. I’ll probably post it in a week or so, maybe.

(Note: I never did that, but I restored it to its proper place when I moved to WordPress.)

As to the rest of you, you might perhaps be wondering what this is. They’re reviews, but also, they’re not. Really, it’s a series that’s just as much about my experience of watching the episodes the first time around as it is the episodes themselves – I’d call it a personal history via Doctor Who, but that is probably overstating it more than a little bit in terms of exactly how personal it is. But it’s very much contextualising the review in terms of my memories of the episode, my own experiences in terms of being a fan since then – there’s opinions and hopefully a degree of insight, maybe, but it’s not exactly academic. Often, it’s about that gulf between a decade old memory, and the more measured approach of someone who’s ostensibly a television critic, but generally speaking I’m pretty positive about it all anyway (series 4 contains The First Episode of Doctor Who I Actually Disliked – which you won’t guess – so that should potentially be an interesting review).

What’s notable though, I suppose, is that Series 4 is probably the stretch of modern Who I’m least familiar with – with the exception of maybe Series 6 – which is a result of both the length of time since broadcast, and the fact that I didn’t have them on DVD, so never really re-watched them. In a sense, then, while I’m not coming to the episodes fresh, they’re pieces of television that I know much better in terms of the paratext that’s sprung up around them – most notably The Writer’s Tale, which I re-read every few months anyway. It was definitely something I was quite conscious of while rewatching episode; I’m really, really unfamiliar with a lot of the basic visual grammar of the episode, how the different set pieces are structured, and so on. There’s a version of it that I’d built in my head, but often that was quite different from what was actually on screen.

So, all of that said, let’s talk about Partners in Crime.

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The obvious part of this episode that bears discussing is Donna – who’s still one of the most popular companions Doctor Who has ever had, even ten years later, which is a real testament to Catherine Tate and Russell T Davies. (I believe it was TARDIS Eruditorum that posited that you could more readily divide Davies’ tenure into the Rose and Donna eras than by Doctors, which is very true.)

As a reintroduction to Donna after The Runaway Bride, it’s very effective. I know there was a degree of trepidation – to put it lightly – about the character returning full time (for my part, I was very positive, but then I was positive about essentially everything about Doctor Who at the time) but it’s actually a really good concept for a Doctor Who companion. It’s a little bit like those astronauts who came back to Earth, but couldn’t readjust to life once again – the ones who failed to walk in the dust and so on. It’s also, of course, very in tune with the ideas at the heart of the Davies era: that the Doctor changes people, emboldening them and enriching their lives. In a sense it comes back to the conversation Rose has with Mickey and Jackie in The Parting of the Ways; what we see with Donna here is almost a version of what could have happened if Rose didn’t find her way back to the Doctor. Doing that with a character we know and already recognise is a great way to approach it – we’ve seen the starting point, we’ve seen the refusal, so we know that backstory. It also – not to get ahead of myself – ties in quite well with Donna’s departure, in the end, given how it plays upon those ideas of the Doctor’s influence.

And, of course, the parallels drawn between the Doctor and Donna in the episode (the Doctordonna, if you want to read it as foreshadowing) drive this home further. It’s not that the character is defined in terms of him, exactly – certainly, in Donna’s first appearance, she was defined as an opposite figure – but that on her post-Doctor life, and the attempts to find him again, Donna’s become something of a Doctor-analogue herself. She operates in the same way as him, their outfits mirror one another, she’s even got the blue car; in that sense, it’s quite similar to how Moffat presented his companions towards the end of his run. I suspect when the time comes to talk about Journey’s End I’ll find myself writing about Clara, but it’s interesting to pick up on how, even at this point, you’ve got Donna being positioned as akin to the Doctor – and how her story followed that path, and where it ended up.

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Another aspect of this episode I quite liked was the Adipose – they’re very manifestly not the typical series opener monsters, and it’s good to subvert the standards we’re used to. There’s something quite refreshing about how they’re not the straightforward antagonists of the Judoon or the Autons. Davies’ series opener episodes generally tended to be quite broad, and in a way the Adipose/Miss Foster combination feel like that approach taken to the furthest point: the creature is secondary to the Doctor and Donna’s plotline, and there’s very little focus on the eventual resolution of such. Indeed, there’s a couple of moments where the actual narrative plot is quite… not slapdash, that’s unfair, but it’s very obvious that Davies simply isn’t that interested in the mechanics of it.

Aside from that, they Adipose are quite a neat concept on their own – they tap into a lot of ideas about body image and so on, and they’re kinda cute in a way. I’d be quite interested in seeing them return at some point, actually; it feels like there’s a certain versatility to them that means you could still do a lot of different stories with them. Definitely, there would have been some potential for them in Class, with a story about anorexia and drug addiction. What’s also interesting about that, though, is how it highlights that a lot of Partners in Crime could still fit in Doctor Who (or associated) today; indeed, interesting to consider the episode in light of later ones, particularly the criticisms Moffat’s pacing – something like Partners in Crime really rollicks along, in a way that wouldn’t feel massively out of place even during series 7.

Ultimately, then, I quite enjoyed this episode. It’s an entertaining piece, and an effective re-introduction to Donna. Hopefully, subsequent episodes shouldn’t creep up on me the same way this one did, so I’ll try and write some stuff that’s at least a little more insightful!

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Voyage of the Damned

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I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I am 903 years old and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives, and all six billion people on the planet below.

Yes, it’s a Christmas special review – but probably not the one you were expecting.

Long-ish term readers, of which I’m sure I have at least three, will probably remember this on and off series of retrospectives where I look back on and review whatever David Tennant was up to a decade ago. It is largely but not exclusively filtered through the lens of my own personal recollections – i.e. that of a small child who was only vaguely aware of who Kylie actually was and really wished that everyone would just stop talking during Doctor Who, though I suppose that’s really not all that different to me today.

The three of you who have been following this for a while probably have also noticed that I never quite got around to posting my full season retrospective on Series 3; a combination of procrastination, nominally important exams, and near-catastrophic computer failure meant that those kept getting postponed to the point that it never quite materialised. Currently, the plan is to write that up – or finish writing it up, half the document still exists somewhere I believe – between now and April, which I believe is when I’ll start reviewing series 4 (I’m not entirely clear on the dates off the top of my head).

And, of course, for those of you who are more interested in the more pressing and current issue of the day – Twice Upon a Time, ahh! – I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get something written about that in the next few days. More likely than not it’ll be something of a commentary on the Twelfth Doctor’s era as a whole, rather than a straightforward review as such; I’m still hoping to do a series of reviews on all of Capaldi’s episodes between now and Jodie Whittaker’s first episode, so we’ll see how that all shakes out.

In any case, though, I suspect I’ve probably waffled on enough to fill up the wordcount. Let’s get onto Voyage of the Damned.

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A big part of these Tenth Doctor reviews has been a re-examination of the wider perception of an episode, and how that contrasts with my own memories of such. It’s not exactly a perfect process; a decade on, my memory of it all is usually fairly shake-y, and I didn’t exactly have massively sophisticated opinions beyond “It’s Doctor Who, of course I love it!” (some would contend that my opinions have not yet developed beyond this). There’s also the fact that, generally speaking, I tend to be comparing said opinions to standard fan myopia – the accepted rules that incorrectly state, for example, that Love & Monsters is rubbish.

Interestingly, though, this time there’s the opportunity to take a slightly different tack. Famously, this is the Doctor Who episode with the highest domestic viewing figures of all time; seen by 13.9 million viewers, you can make the case that this is probably the resounding impression of Tennant’s Doctor left across the country. It received pretty positive reviews overall (even if it did offend certain Christians and a survivor of the Titanic) and, per Wikipedia, received an “Appreciation Index rating of 86 (“excellent”), above the average score of 77 for drama programmes, and was the highest Index rating for any programme shown on terrestrial television on Christmas Day”. Just to contextualise that in terms of the rest of the show, that’s better than Father’s Day, equal to The Eleventh Hour, and just shy of Journey’s End. Now, the numbers shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value on their own, but it’s worth remembering that on release the episode got largely rave reviews from most mainstream outlets.

In short, then, this episode is largely beloved. Or, if not beloved, certainly it’s one which is generally held in quite high regard by quite a lot of people. And that certainly runs counter to the traditional fan belief that it’s a duff episode, doesn’t it?

All of which is to say that it’s worth finding something to love in this episode; after all, in amongst every episode you’re not so sure about there’s something that someone’s going to enjoy. Watching it back again today, I couldn’t help but think the opening was really nice, and very Doctor Who; a simple moment of enjoyment, where the Doctor just throws himself into it all with gleeful abandon, poking around and making friends and having fun. It felt like a nice reminder of what it’s (sort of) all about, in contrast to recent years where the focus has been a little more on the ‘Doctor of War’ (or even a contrast to distant years of the Time Lord Victorious!) than on this sort of thing.

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Granted, though… well, it’s not without flaws. Much as I enjoyed it back in the day – and, don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly entertaining now – and as much as I still think it’s worth highlighting what was good about it and what worked about it, there’s still a few noteworthy issues.

Part of the benefit of rewatching these episodes with a decade’s worth of hindsight is the new perspective – more specifically, though, the perspective of someone who pretends to be a professional television critic, and wants to pretend to be a professional television writer. Plus, it’s also that of someone who’s read a lot of books about Doctor Who, and the production of it – in this specific case, it’s having read The Writer’s Tale, and knowing about the difficulties Russell T Davies had writing this episode.

Davies was right, I think, to be concerned about the disaster movie format fighting with the Doctor Who format. The easiest flaw to point out is structural; where disaster movies tend to pick off the cast one by one, Voyage of the Damned more or less just disposes with a large chunk of them all in one lengthy set-piece. It doesn’t exactly work, dividing the episode into two slightly disjointed halves. On top of that, though, there’s the feeling that maybe none of it quite lands – that tonally, as it swings from tragedy to broad humour, the impact doesn’t always register. (And I don’t think that’s a rule, as such, rather that it just doesn’t quite work here.) Arguably, in a way, that makes it feel darker – as the loses aren’t quite acknowledged, the moments of levity feel out of place, leaving it all just a little bit grim. Part of the issue feels difficult to articulate exactly, because it’s not really one thing that’s wrong – rather, there’s lots of nice moments and fun details that don’t exactly add up to the potential sum of their parts. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as perhaps it could have.

But, I suppose, it returns to another little fact from The Writer’s Tale – an anecdote where a journalist describes Voyage of the Damned as being fun. They meant it dismissively, but you know what? It is fun. And there’s a place for that – especially at Christmas.

7/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Series 3 Overview

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This one is a little (well, a lot) late; no particular excuse really, only that other work got in the way and I didn’t feel as beholden to a specific date for this one as I did the actual reviews themselves (for obvious reasons). Though, interestingly, I notice that I wasn’t on time with the Series 2 retrospective either – I overslept, apparently – and I still haven’t even gone near the Primeval series retrospective. Perhaps I’ll post that ahead of the next series, because I’m absolutely silly enough to try and write about Primeval in depth again.

In any case, though – here’s this year’s episode rankings!

  1. Smith and Jones | Russell T Davies | 8/10
  2. The Shakespeare Code | Gareth Roberts | 7/10
  3. Gridlock | Russell T Davies | 10/10
  4. Daleks in Manhattan | Helen Raynor | 8/10
  5. Evolution of the Daleks | Helen Raynor | 5/10
  6. The Lazarus Experiment | Stephen Greenhorn | 5/10
  7. 42 | Chris Chibnall | 6/10
  8. Human Nature | Paul Cornell | 8/10
  9. The Family of Blood | Paul Cornell | 10/10
  10. Blink | Steven Moffat | 9/10
  11. Utopia | Russell T Davies | 10/10
  12. The Sound of Drums | Russell T Davies | 9/10
  13. Last of the Time Lords | Russell T Davies | 10/10

There is of course also The Runaway Bride, and The Infinite Quest. I don’t tend to count The Runaway Bride as part of series 3 (admittedly an arbitrary choice, yes) so it won’t be on the bar graph below, but I’ll include it in the statistical analysis for interest’s sake. I never watched The Infinite Quest in its omnibus edition, nor did I give it scores at any point – let’s say it was probably a 4/10, though. I’m not going to include it in the statistical analysis, though, because that’s just silly.

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So, as ever, we’ve got the mathematical analysis. (It occurs to me now that this might be the only maths I do for the rest of the year.)

Overall, the series got a score of 105/130; if you include The Runaway Bride, which got 8/10, we reach a total of 113/140. This divides down to a mean score of 8.08/10 per episode (or 8.69/10 if you include The Runaway Bride.) Interestingly, this places Series 3 as the weakest of the revived series so far; admittedly, however, there’s not much in it, given that I gave Series 1 107/130, while series 2 received 108/130 (excluding, of course, The Christmas Invasion; with the inclusion of The Christmas Invasion, Series 2 is able to increase its lead, with a score of 117/140.)

In comparison to the two Peter Capaldi series’ that received this breakdown, series 8 and series 9, Series 3 does come out somewhat better in comparison – series 8 received 7.47/10, while series 9 received 8.83/10. Series three slots neatly between them; I admit, however, I’m not necessarily sure how reflective that is of my current tastes anyway. It’s worth remembering that, in referring back to this old data, my own opinions and perspectives have changed a lot. Indeed, that’s true of just this series – looking back on the grades above, there are a couple of places where I think I was unfair. It’s The Shakespeare Code that sticks out particularly as being too highly graded (although I felt that the next morning after finishing the review, really, when it’s problems stood out more in hindsight) though as ever I’m going to stick with the initial scores in the interests of consistency.

On the face of it this does appear to suggest Series 3 is weaker in quality; I think it’s perhaps worth noting that it has four episodes that scored a 10/10, in comparison to only one in series 2. (Again, that’s interesting; while I agree wholeheartedly with my choice to give that episode a perfect score, I’m surprised I didn’t decide to bestow the same on other episodes.) Series 1 received only two such perfect scores; series 8 received only one, while series 9 received a whopping six perfect scores. (I’m slightly shocked at that in a few cases, actually, though I also don’t know that I could really meaningfully argue against it. Series 9 was a very strong series, though in retrospect I was unfairly kind to the Whithouse episodes.)

In that sense, then, it’s perhaps fair to argue that Series 3 was an inconsistent season, rather than a poor one exactly; certainly, that’s what the dip around the middle indicates. (Those might also have exacerbated one another, frankly – each successive subpar episode feeling more and more like a rut, contributing to overall feelings of negativity.) This can perhaps be attributed to Davies’ reduced involvement on those episodes, because of an illness during that period of the production; equally, though, it could perhaps be contended that it’s more down to how I approached the reviews. Certainly, the more analytical and nuanced reviews, that saw episodes receive lower scores, were ones where I had more time to write; the later instalments, rushed as the were, tended more towards the positive.

On that note, I’d like to highlight Last of the Time Lords and Evolution of the Daleks as being amongst my better reviews of the series; I think 42 was also a stronger one as well. Going forward, I think I might perhaps do well to impose a new, higher word count, given that I find the longer ones are also the stronger ones; equally, though, I might be approaching that from the wrong perspective. In any case, though, I do think I need to work on actually improving the written quality of these reviews, which was to my mind poor in several places.

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Something of a running theme across these reviews has been to say something to the effect of “this episode treats Martha poorly, but that’s less of an issue with the episode itself, and more of one with her overarching series plot”. Here, now, is time to discuss said arc.

And yet it’s rather difficult to say anything particularly incisive, I must admit. Upfront it’s clear and must be said: it doesn’t work. Certainly, I’d contend that it could have – but here, it didn’t. The reasons are well trodden and well understood; the narrative too explicitly positions Martha as second best to Rose, defined in terms of her unrequited love for the Doctor. It’s an unsupported affection at best anyway, really – it grows out of the kiss in Smith and Jones, and it’s pretty firmly in place by The Shakespeare Code. (Which, I must insist again, deserved two or three points knocked off the score I gave it.) But then, consider – The Shakespeare Code is only a few hours after Smith and Jones. By the time of, say, Daleks in Manhattan, where Martha is discussing her crush on the Doctor with the wonderful Tallulah, she’s known him a day or two. Three at the most, I’d say – you can probably reasonably assume Gridlock took place on the same day as the Dalek two parter, given that it seemed to be a fairly ‘short’ episode. It’s just too fast to be a convincing love story.

If you compare that to Rose, it’s clear Martha gets the short shrift; the bond between Rose and the Doctor developed much more slowly, more organically. Certainly, she wasn’t in love with him by The End of the World. When Sarah Jane popped up in School Reunion, it wasn’t all about how Sarah was much better than Rose – which was very much the case whenever Rose was mentioned around Martha. Up to a point, it’s understandable why Rose continued to haunt the narrative of Doctor Who. She had been the main character; arguably, losing her was a bigger reinvention of what the show was than losing Eccleston. Continuing to address her absence, up to a point, makes sense for audiences; undoubtedly, though, it was taken too far.  In a way, that’s what makes the unrequited love angle worse – if it had just been unrequited love, or just been comparisons to Rose, it perhaps would have been better. Both together, however, is difficult to sustain.

In terms of improving it? Most obviously, spacing it out. You can maintain the flirty banter of the earlier episodes – Freema Agyeman plays it well, establishing a casual attraction to the Doctor – but Martha shouldn’t fall in love with the Doctor until later in the season. I’d elect 42 for that moment, particularly  Martha’s conversation with Riley about their partners – the near death experience and high tensions of 42 make sense for that sort of realisation. I also think that Gridlock and The Lazarus Experiment should switch positions; there’s a need, I think, for The Lazarus Experiment’s “I want to be a proper companion” scene to come earlier in the series. And, of course, minimise the references back to Rose – it’d help, perhaps, to have Sarah Jane in The Lazarus Experiment, a reminder to the Doctor that he’s had other companions before and it’s alright to have more again after Rose. Little things would need to change too, of course; I still think they need a line about landing in a random time during Human Nature, and The Lazarus Experiment definitely needs to remove that awful moment where the Doctor pulls a face at Martha’s underwear. But still – just a change in emphasis, and it’d improve massively.

It’s a real shame these issues arose at all, to be honest – particularly with Doctor Who’s first POC companion.

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The other running theme for these reviews was an increasing understanding of just why people dislike Tennant’s Doctor.

It has to be said that he’s served just as poorly by the unrequited love angle as Martha is; ultimately, it’s a failure for both characters. At best, the Doctor is ignorant and inadvertently cruel; at worst, there are the occasional hints that he knows how Martha feels, and simply leads her on regardless. It’s difficult to take a lot of what he does at face value; there are many moments where what he does is simply quite awful. (I continue to struggle with the events of Human Nature, and making Martha live as a maid for three months; that a similar thing happens in Blink is quite galling too.)

Still, though. Let’s see if we can make something interesting of it.

The Doctor isn’t, at any point, the sympathetic character in terms of his treatment of Martha. It’s often implicitly criticised, and indeed the final episode sees Martha’s exit form an explicit rejection of how the Doctor treated her. This is, I think, particularly interesting when contrasted against one of the other big themes of the series – the increasing deification of the Doctor. The idea of the Doctor as a ‘lonely God’ figure has been a recurring one throughout the series,

[Now, it’s worth noting that while I wrote the majority of this back in July 2017, because of a series of computer failures and suchlike, I’m only finishing it now, in August of 2018. I actually left the piece in the middle of a sentence, right at that comma above, so I’m not really sure where I was going with it. What follows is an attempt to best finish this post under the circumstances, acknowledging that it’s obviously been a bit compromised from my original intent, whatever that was.]

 

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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