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.]

 

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Last of the Time Lords

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Will it stop, Doctor? The drumming? Will it stop?

John Simm’s Master is terrifying.

There is, I think, quite a widespread school of thought that essentially argues the opposite; he’s too camp, too erratic, just a little too crazy to pose any meaningful threat. Certainly, the Scissor Sisters scene at the beginning no doubt contributes to this – I’ve always loved it – but honestly, looking beyond that, I struggle to understand why he still retains that reputation.

For me, the key to all of this is Alexandra Moen’s performance as Lucy Saxon; it’s subtle and nuanced in some really clever ways – arguably, despite only a very small part, she’s one of the standout aspects of the episode. Moen plays the character essentially as disassociating the whole time; it’s not just nihilism in the face of seeing the end of the universe, rather a response to trauma. It’s clear in turn what this is; indeed, it’s rather explicit, when one sees the scars and bruising on Lucy’s face, but you can see how it informs Moen’s performance across the whole piece. (One detail I particularly liked was in the way she held herself; flinching when the Master punches the Doctor, for example.) It’s subtle, but it’s there – the Master is abusing her.

And so, beneath all the mania, there’s a real and genuine veneer of brutality to the Master. Yes, that’s clear enough from the violence associated with the character – killing Tom Milligan, the fear in the eyes of the people when he walks among them, references to the horrors of the past year. Yet it’s never more effectively illustrated than by Lucy (although, of course, by extension the Jones family) and her response to him. The rest of it is just theatrics, really; this is a far more intimate, uglier sort of evil, and one that surely can’t be separated from the character at large.

Naturally, it’s also worth commenting on Simm’s performance too – much like last week, he’s fantastic. Better, in fact; he’s given a lot more material to work with and dig into here. The Master unleashed, rather than a separate side of Harold Saxon. It’s even more evident here just how obsessed with the Doctor he is; everything that motivates him derives from his envy, his jealousy, and above all else, a want for the Doctor’s attention. That’s what it all comes down to, really – that’s all it ever does. In a way it’s almost childish; a fit of pique, just trying to get a rise out of him. From working with the Toclafane to his pursuit of Martha, from creating a new Gallifrey to having a wife – it’s all about the Doctor.

That’s why the character works as well as he does – more than anything, there’s a crystal clear motivation for the Master. However, it’s a far more layered and, indeed, human one that we’ve seen in previous years; the Daleks may want to destroy reality, but the Master has a far more mundane motivation than that. It’s an obsession – a love, a lust, a need. More than that, there are moments when you get the impression the Doctor feels the same; it’s why he forgives him for it all, in the end. The Doctor and the Master, as characters together, are defined by that relationship; they work best when, as in the modern series, that aspect is placed at the forefront of their dynamic. Last of the Time Lords does a fantastic job of establishing that, and indeed acts as the basis for all the Master’s subsequent appearances in Doctor Who. It’s absolutely perfectly pitched.

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Much as I love this episode, there is admittedly a slight problem to contend with.

The ending doesn’t make even the slightest bit of sense. Nor does the middle, exactly. Really just the last third, basically.

To recap, for those of you who don’t recall: Martha, brought upon the Valiant to be executed in front of the Doctor and her family, starts to laugh. It turns out that she wasn’t travelling the world trying to assemble a weapon to kill the Master – she was actually spreading the story of the Doctor, inspiring people, and giving them hope. More than hope – an instruction. Everyone, all at once, think of the Doctor. When they did, the collective belief and psychic power, contained and amplified by the Archangel network, was enough to briefly give the Doctor telekinetic powers and restore him to youth once more. From there, it’s a relatively simple case of destroying the paradox machine, and thus reversing the effects of the last year, up to the point the paradox began – the Master’s reign of terror is undone.

So. Let’s unpack this a little.

The latter half of this is basically fine; for all the complaints of an undo button, it’s worth noting that the events still happened for our characters. The emotional impact remains intact, going on to provide the basis of Martha’s reason to leave the TARDIS, and giving us a particularly powerful scene with Adjoa Andoh. In that regard, there’s little issue – it’s the other, rather more notorious, aspect that I struggle with.

A lot of the criticism directed at this episode focuses on the fact that, when it comes down to it, what basically happens is the faith, trust and pixie dust (or somesuch – if they want to be really derisive, it’s the power of love) lets the Doctor float around (fairy Doctor, space Jesus Doctor, magic Doctor – all terms we’ve come to know and love) and thus save the day. Often the word deus ex machina is bandied around. Now, these critiques aren’t wrong, per se, but I somewhat suspect they’re missing the point a little bit. Yes, it’s a bit nonsensical – but it’s not the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last time either. Certainly, you can argue that it’s a classic Doctor Who resolution, leaving the villain hoisted by his own petard, his downfall engineered by turning his own advantage against him.

It’s not the plot mechanics of this that bother me – yes, they’re nonsense. But they also don’t bother me. No, the trouble is that I’m not convinced this makes any thematic sense. If we’re to take this story, broadly speaking, as being about Martha stepping up and taking control over her life, what relevance does this have? Even if you’re reading it as being about the Master and the Doctor’s relationship, it begs the question – what’s the significance? (Well, I’m sure you could spin something out of it, but I suspect that might be stretching it too far.)

There’s no easy fix, really. It would have been better, I think, to simply leave the Doctor ‘aged’ rather than ‘ancient’; while the idea is nice, taking David Tennant out of the equation was a mistake. (Though, equally, it’s worth noting that it’s not actually as obtrusive as you’d think – it prompts the narrative to focus moreso on Martha, which is nice.) Equally, I also think that in and of itself, the moment of unity would have been better if everyone was thinking of Martha, rather than the Doctor; the episode would be more obviously about her, her story, and her own ability and worth.

Though that doesn’t really solve the plot mechanics. Maybe everyone thinking of Martha could give her laser eyes? I don’t know.

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Of course, speaking of Martha, this is very much her finest hour – the episode that does, at last, stand aside and give her centre stage. It’s a defining moment for Martha in the same respect that The Parting of the Ways is for Rose, or Turn Left is for Donna, or perhaps… actually, I’m struggling to pick more obvious ones for our later companions. Suggestions to the usual address.

In any case, yes – this is Martha’s moment in the limelight. Even before her departure scene, it’s all about her autonomy; proving to herself, and indeed the audience if they have any final reservations, that she is good. There’s something quite harrowing about what she goes through, really – the year of hell, and all of the trauma it entailed. Certainly, I think what Martha did is in fact far more impressive than absorbing the Time Vortex, which is in effect just an impulsive risk; this was sustained difficulty and conscious choice across a year. It speaks not only to Martha’s dedication but the strength of character that she possessed that she’s able to go through that; it would have been particularly interesting, I think, had she stayed on as a companion for another year to explore how that would have affected her.

Further, Martha’s departure – well, it really is very well written. I’m reminded of Russell T Davies describing a scene in one of his soap operas, where he had two characters breaking up without ever saying “break up” or words to that effect – it’s a similar principle in effect here. A lot of the understanding is carried by the performances; the dialogue is direct but understated. It’s one of the stronger companion exits, I think, and I’d like to see more in a similar vein – not under similar circumstances, exactly, but a mutual acknowledgement that things have come to an end. If not a happy ending, per se, certainly the chance at one.

I’m still not entirely happy with Martha’s overall arc; in many cases, it was outright damaging to the character. Strong though this episode is, both for the character and as a conclusion to the arc, I can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late – we should have had a scene like this much longer ago. I don’t want to pre-empt myself particularly – next week I’m going to do an overall series retrospective, in which I will no doubt have much to say about Martha’s storyline – but there’s something quite disappointing about how the character was treated overall. Much as I consider this a standout moment for her, there’s perhaps some questions worth asking about why her moment in the limelight is also, essentially, as the Doctor’s hypeman – it all comes down to an obsession with him.

(Oh, there’s a thought – is that the unifying thread of the episode, a fixation on the Doctor? The Master, Martha, and the people united by the Archangel Network? Certainly, that makes them thematically relevant, and starts to bring the episode together more cohesively… but I’m not sure what the point would be. Perhaps something to ruminate on for next week.)

It’s difficult, then, to grade this episode. In terms of my own enjoyment, I know what I want to give it; when I consider my own critical perspective, there are certain aspects of the episode I can’t quite justify. A high mark would be given in spite of rather than with respect to these aspects. But ultimately, I think I know which would win out.

I watched this episode twice today, in preparation for this review – immediately replaying it after it finished the first time. That’s not what I usually do (though perhaps I should, since this review was much better than previous ones) – I just enjoyed the episode that much. With that in mind, then…

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 13)

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Just held together by wishful thinking!

Technically, I’m cheating doing this.

The last part of The Infinite Quest didn’t air on its own – the thirteenth instalment and overall conclusion to the piece was only broadcast as part of an omnibus edition of the story. Really, right now, I should be reviewing the entire story as a whole, to comment on and analyse how it fits together as one piece. Indeed, I certainly would have watched it that way, and it would have been in this format that any occasional rewatches would have been.

But, to be honest, I can’t take it. I cannot bring myself to go through The Infinite Quest in that much detail. I’m sure it’d be mildly entertaining, and a perfectly pleasant way to pass the time – but if I watch it in its entirety, I’m inviting myself to write a full thousand and something word review. And I’ve already dedicated more than enough time to The Infinite Quest. (I suspect I’ll come to regret it and some point.)

In any case, it’s not actually a very good conclusion. There’s a point at which it’s worth being forgiving of a child’s animated story, and a point at which you have to say – actually, no, look, there was a lot of potential here that you simply didn’t use. In the end, the story flounders, and it’s a shame. The idea of “your heart’s desire” is an interesting one – a simple one, and a basic one, but undeniably an interesting one. It’s surely one of the more resounding ideas across fiction and storytelling across time; there are countless Greek myths that refer back to it, and it’s a staple of fables and allegories and so on. It comes down to temptation, basically – which is right there in the Garden of Eden. So it’s a pretty grand idea, but there’s still a lot to do with it.

To simply go “I don’t believe in this” as a way of resolving it is – well, it’s weak. There’s no other way of looking at it. It could have been taken in a much different direction; really, the idea of your heart’s desire is enough to sustain a single 45-minute Doctor Who episode on its own merit anyway. (Consider The God Complex, which basically proves that concept, albeit by working from ‘greatest fears’.) What does it mean that Martha’s greatest desire is the Doctor?

Actually, it’s worth considering what this might have been like as a full episode. Not to pre-empt a future post, but I’m firmly of the opinion that Martha’s love for the Doctor should have been built up much more gradually – it was, to my mind, established far too early. It might have been interesting if, following a few episodes of set up, seeing the Doctor as her heart’s desire was what made Martha herself realise how she felt. There’s something interesting to play around with there, I’d argue (especially if she doesn’t get it at first – “my desire is to be rescued”, perhaps?).

Still, though. I’m overthinking this a bit. Of course I am. It’s a cartoon for kids – a bit of fun, throwaway fluff that wasn’t subject to anywhere near the level of oversight as proper episodes. It’s just a little bit of “ooh, this exists, that’s nice” filler. I suspect I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I wasn’t trying to draw blood from a stone each week – or, you know, five hundred ish words a week.

It’s alright. That’s about that, really.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Sound of Drums

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I looked down upon my new dominion as Master of all, and I thought it good.

What strikes me about this episode is quite how fraught it is.

In part that’s because it’s grounded, in a way that previous finales haven’t necessarily been. Bad Wolf drew its strength from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the terrifying with those brilliant game shows; Army of Ghosts, while it began based in the everyday, soon worked its way into the conspiracy theories and aliens more at home in the sci-fi genre.

Here, though, it’s different. The episode is, as I’ve said, grounded; the fight is against politicians, the police, CCTV cameras. There are no Daleks or Cybermen to speak of. Yes, there are certainly fantasy elements to it, and the ‘realism’ is far from the focus of the episode – but, for a time, our main trio are labelled as domestic terrorists and forced on the run.

From that comes a certain powerlessness to our characters, in a way we haven’t quite seen before – understandable, given that the villain is the Prime Minister. There’s a certain level of authority there we’ve not exactly seen to a villain so far; when the Doctor, Martha and Jack are driven to the streets and hide in the dark, it feels significant. There’s a deconstruction of their entire position – the narrative collapse is put into effect.

It’s because of course, at this point – rather unlike the previous finales – the ‘bad guys’, as it were, have already won. The Master is the Prime Minister. Martha’s family has been arrested and her house destroyed. There is no help coming. There’s a real tension to this, and it makes the episode all the more effective.

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One of the big things that works about this episode is John Simm’s Master.

I touched on this a little last week, and I suspect I’ll expand upon it again tomorrow, but the Master here is perfectly pitched to work alongside Tennant’s Doctor. There really is a sense that the pair are equal and opposite in every way; Simm’s own manic behaviour mimicking Tennant’s inclination towards the same, but also the slick control and charm. They work together fantastically; the phone conversation in the middle of the episode is one of my favourite interactions between the Doctor and the Master ever, and it’s played perfectly by John Simm. Despite everything, despite the fact that the Master holds far greater power than the Doctor, he plays it with a real vulnerability – one that really underscores the depth of feeling, of love and of lust, that’s shared between the two men.

It’s because of that that Simm playing against Capaldi tomorrow is quite so interesting a concept – in a sense, there’s a lot of the same promise that a multi-Doctor special offers. There will, I assume, be a certain frisson resulting from it – a juxtaposition of the two styles and characterisations, particularly when throwing Missy into the mix.

Indeed, over the past few weeks I’ve been saying that Capaldi and Gomez are perhaps the best Doctor/Master pair we’ve ever had, but I’m inclined to qualify that once again. Because the dynamic between Tennant and Simm is fascinating, really; it’s absolutely the right way to pitch the two characters for the show at this point, both diegetically and extradiegetically. It grows not just from the Time War and that personal isolation the two characters have, but there’s a real feeling of emotional depth and weight to the pair here. Certainly, the backstory and motivation presented for the Master is controversial amongst some circles; personally speaking, I’ve always liked it. For better or worse, it grounds the Master in a certain means of storytelling that puts emotion at the forefront – he’s not quite a pantomime villain anymore.

(Yes, I know, the obvious response is to point to any of the scenes where the Master is over the top or camp and say “really, that’s not a pantomime villain?” – but I think that’s missing the point slightly. Those moments of humour underscore the insanity of it; you’re not losing the pantomime aspect, but rather adjusting it, presenting it in a different light alongside the more serious moments.)

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In a way though, and one that’s not often commented on, this is quite a pivotal episode for Martha. Obviously, we know, with the benefit of history, what’s going to happen next week – but taken on its own, you can see that a lot of the groundwork was established this week to make that work.

She gets a rough time of it again here. There’s no arguing against that. Her home, and presumably the majority of her possessions, are destroyed. Her family is kidnapped. Also, there’s the end of the world, and the fact that she’s left to deal with it pretty much alone. (Actually, what’s Martha’s job situation like? Does she still have her position at the hospital? That might be an issue.) Of course she gets the worst of it – Martha is grounded in a way that Jack and the Doctor aren’t, so a story that’s as fundamentally grounded as this one is will naturally affect her far more deeply. It’s her world in a far more manifest sense than it is theirs, and it shows across the story.

But for the first time though, Martha more obviously takes a stand and directly argues back. There’s a steel to her, and a steel to her frustration; the character is in a much different place to earlier points in the series. Even as recently as Human Nature, one suspects that she would have taken a lot of the instructions given to her – here, though, contextualised around her family, Martha refuses to.

It makes sense, of course; the personal stakes give Martha a reason to take more direct control. However, I do wonder if this highlights a broader issue with the series as a whole – that Martha, effectively sidelined by her own unrequited love arc, didn’t really get the opportunity to exercise her own autonomy enough. It’s an ongoing truism of the show that the companion never listens to the Doctor – but I’m struggling to think of any particular occasion when Martha does ignore the Doctor? That might just be a personal lapse, but I think the overarching point stands. I do like Martha, and I don’t want to pre-empt myself too much when it comes to the overall series commentary, but I worry that this moment standing out only serves to underscore how limited her role has been so far.

Ultimately, though, I do really enjoy this episode. It’s another strong one – much like Utopia, and indeed I’ve always been particularly fond of this trilogy. It’s nice to be able to look back on it and to feel justified in that; it’s not actually the rubbish it’s oft criticised to be. (I’m worried for next week, to be honest; one moment in particular gets a lot of criticism, and I hope it doesn’t let me down.)

In the end, though, I quite enjoyed this one.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 12)

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You’re a bad influence.

There is literally nothing to say about this one. Less than nothing in fact, I suspect.

The opening, I admit, confused me – the Doctor on his own, stranded on the planet. Is that how it ended last week? I’m fairly certain I haven’t missed an instalment; rather, it just didn’t make that much of an impact on me week-to-week. That, I suspect, would have been a weakness of the series as it aired – could anyone actually remember each bit, week on week? Was that ever a concern, particularly? Difficult to get inside the mind of an eight-year-old to ask about it, really, and I certainly don’t remember myself.

Again, I’m inclined to question the necessity of the serial structure somewhat. I don’t think, given the format of the series, it actually works – with three-ish minute episodes, there’s not going to be enough time to develop an ongoing narrative appropriately. In part that line of thinking might have motivated this – the belief that you can’t build a discrete narrative each week, hence you should have a cliffhanger structure to build something larger. But, as I think I’ve elaborated on at length, this doesn’t actually work here.

Certainly, there some meat on the bones of this story. There are lots of interesting ideas throughout; I wonder how this would have worked as a whole series, expanding each minisode to 45 minutes in length? It wouldn’t, I suspect, have been wholly sustainable – an interesting experiment, but you’d end up spending too much time on single ideas for a series that’s meant to thrive on variety and change and the fact that there’s something different week on week. Perhaps a novel series, then – a series of quick reads? That I suspect would work – indeed, they did something quite similar to that in 2009, following the same basic structure, and the search for a similar mysterious MacGuffin. I think Alan Barnes might have written for it, actually.

There is something quite nice about The Infinite Quest, which I perhaps haven’t given the series adequate credit for. It does, obviously, aim to be “Doctor Who for children” – but at no point does it dumb things down. It’s not patronising, it’s not simplistic; in short, there’s nothing here that couldn’t sit quite comfortable within an actual television episode of Doctor Who. (Irrespective of quality and all that.)

Which is because, of course, Alan Barnes is remarkably well steeped in all of this. I mean, I know that, of course – I’ve read and enjoyed lots of his Doctor Who work before. I fear I’ve given him too much of a ribbing for The Infinite Quest, really; it’s limited by its format far moreso than its content, but it really could have been both. Much as I’ve complained about the difficulty of writing about it, the fact that some sort of intelligent (ish!) comment can be sustained about it demonstrates that, in the end, there is something good about this.

And, you know, having something good to write about is my heart’s desire, or something. I don’t know. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tie my posts together with nice little concluding lines.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Utopia

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End of the universe and here you are. Indomitable, that’s the word. Indomitable!

Russell T Davies has long been one of my favourite Doctor Who writers – if not, indeed, my favourite.

In a way, of course, that makes a certain degree of sense; he was the architect of the vision of Doctor Who that I was first introduced to, and so in turn a lot of the things I love about Doctor Who are things that came from him. (Obviously over the years I’ve grown to love a lot of what Steven Moffat has brought to the show, and I’m sure the same will be true of Chibnall’s tenure – eventually I’m sure I’ll have an even more eclectic vision of the show, drawing from all sorts of different places. And then I’ll inflict it on you all, and you’ll all grow to love my version of it. Hopefully.)

Regardless, though, it’s Russell T Davies’ vision of Doctor Who that I first fell in love with. His book, The Writer’s Tale, is basically my bible – I’d attribute a lot of my desire to write to that book. Not solely to it, of course – it had been a longstanding ambition prior to that – but it solidified the desire in a much more meaningful way. (Steven Moffat said once that if you read the book and still want to be a writer, you probably will be. I hope he’s right!)

Of course, the book isn’t just personally inspiring in that way. It’s also a really great look at Russell T Davies’ writing process; how he approaches the scripts, the way he thinks about them, what he thinks is important. There’s a huge amount of it that’s instinctual; there’s an anecdote in there about Utopia, where Davies explains how he wrote the script in about three days, after weeks of delaying, and it all just slotted into place.

In a way, you can see that in Utopia itself. It moves along at great pace, and structurally, it’s… well, it almost entirely rejects a lot of the traditional structural rules. It’s doing a huge amount of lifting for the rest of the series, establishing lots of different ideas and concepts that are going to come into play for the next few episodes. It’s a collision of different set pieces and ideas, a lot of which don’t necessarily mesh together very well – one of the more obvious ones is the fact that, to introduce the Doctor’s hand, Martha needs to have been nosing around in Jack’s bag for some reason! Yet at the same time, they’re all remarkably well put together – every little detail is paid off down the line. One of the things that stood out to me, for example, was the introduction of the livewire used early on in one of Jack’s deaths, before using it again as the Master kills Chantho; it’s a subtle detail, but it really ties the piece together.

All of which is to say that I think Utopia is remarkable in displaying one of Russell T Davies’ greatest abilities as a writer – making it up as he goes along, improvising the hell out of it, and making it all work brilliantly. In a way it’s because he’s never really cared about simple plot mechanics; a lot of the reason why this hangs together so well is because of his attention to character and to theme. An episode like Utopia works so well in part because of its panache and its confidence – there’s a sheer, effortless skill on display here.

Utopia isn’t Davies’ best episode; it’s not my favourite of his episodes. It’s not even my favourite of this series, to be honest. But I think it might the one that I would point to were I to try and explain why I think he’s such a good writer.

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Of course, that’s a remarkably ‘me’ opening to write, focusing as it does on the script of the episode (and, characteristically, fawning over Russell T Davies). So I think it’s also worth focusing on another aspect of the episode, which is something I wouldn’t necessarily comment on – the direction. Utopia, of course, is directed by Graeme Harper – you can tell from his signature ‘shot through blurry thing’ trademark, and you can probably also tell from my description of such how poor I am at discussing visuals. Nonetheless, though, Harper is oft regarded as one of the best directors to have worked on Doctor Who, alongside the likes of Nick Hurran and Rachel Talalay; while I’m not sure this is an episode people would point to as his best, per se, it’s certainly an impressively directed piece.

On an idiosyncratic level, one reason why I really like the direction of Utopia is because it gives us – for my money, anyway – one of the best quarry planets of Doctor Who history. Really! Much as I know it is just a quarry at night, there’s a certain bleakness to it; it comes, I think, from just how dark it is. There’s a real feeling here that every light in the sky has gone out, and this is the end; it’s perhaps the most nihilistic night sky ever put to screen. The setting has a certain power to it, then, and it comes from how well directed these scenes are. This makes for a nice contrast against the refugee camps at the silo – that juxtaposition there, from the emptiness to the scenes bustling with life, really sells those lines about the human race being “indomitable”.

Another aspect of the episode that demonstrates how well directed it is is the mounting tension throughout. That can be quite difficult to pull off, really – and I suspect it might have been made more difficult given the less traditional style of Davies’ build up to the climax of the episode. But Harper acquits himself admirably – as you’d expect – and as such the episode is quite an effectively made, taut piece. There are some excellent chase scenes early on in the episode, but beyond that it’s a real master of tone; the confidence of Davies’ script can be seen translated to a similar confidence in the direction, with an easy, even effortless, conviction in how to handle each scene. There’s something quite alluring about that, and it gives the episode even greater strength as a drama.

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Of course, Utopia is one of those episodes where the cliffhanger entirely overshadows the rest of the episode – this is known as the one where the Master comes back.

It’s probably worth questioning, given that this is in part a personal history of my relationship with Doctor Who, whether or not I knew the Master was coming back. After all, every analysis of this episode – and indeed this series – basically works from the assumption that the entirety of the audience was, to some extent, aware the Master was coming back. That’s just what you do after the Daleks and the Cybermen, right? The surprise wasn’t his return, it’s the fact that he came back as Tony Blair. But then, those analyses are all written from the perspective of the fan audience – the type of person I am now, I suppose, who pays deeper attention to clues and foreshadowing and knows about the classic series. (Series 10 is totally going to bring back Susan. Obviously.) What would it have looked like to an 8-year-old obsessive?

Well, sadly this is one area where my memory is somewhat shakey. I would have known who the Master was at that point; I also remember an article from Doctor Who Adventures magazine hinting at a possible return from a Time Lord. I suspect that I would have cottoned on to who Yana was just before the actual reveal, or been left reeling after the line itself; it was probably quite an effective twist. Hmm.

Even so, Professor Yana is actually a pretty great character, and in a way provides an apt microcosm of just what makes the Master work at his best. Here, he’s a direct parallel to the Doctor – the kindly and self-sacrificing scientist, a genius trying to help others, even with his own companion in Chantho. The idea continues with John Simm’s portrayal, of course; the Master as a twisted mirror of the Doctor, specifically paired to that incarnation of the Doctor. (It’s why Missy works so well alongside the Twelfth Doctor – she’s a Master firmly for that Doctor – and why it’ll be so interesting to see the Twelfth Doctor alongside a Master who, in effect, ‘belongs’ to a prior incarnation.)

Ultimately, then, Utopia is a great piece of television. I’ve always loved this episode, really – I suspect I would have rewatched it far more often than the two episodes that accompany it. Hence the score I’m giving it – totally and utterly undeserved, really, apart from in the sense of my own personal enjoyment, and indeed deep respect for it. But what can I say? All these numbers are quite subjective anyway.

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 11)

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The Infinite isn’t real!

I’m cutting it pretty fine with this one – twenty minutes to the deadline. I think, if I found the Infinite, my heart’s desire would be the ability to manage my time better. (Certainly, no one could ever argue that The Infinite Quest doesn’t have an alluring idea at the heart of it! I think the last Doctor Who MacGuffin that I wanted this much was those sleep pods from Sleep No More, because I would love to not have to sleep as much as I do.)

This instalment opens with Cor, the golden bird from the start of this miniseries, flying in – and dying. That’s one of the things I did remember from The Infinite Quest, the fact that the bird died. And the fact that it had a slightly confused system of morality and was a bit of an inconsistent character, but hey. It seems that everyone’s a critic, even when they’re young.

Regardless, though, this moment does demonstrate something of a difficulty with The Infinite Quest. Essentially, you can’t make emotional moments land. That’s just an obvious result of having literally two-dimensional characters – not only is there not a great deal of facial expression, there’s not a huge amount of vocal work to carry these moments. Freema Ageyman gets, I believe, a lot of undeserved criticism for her acting, but I do feel like voice acting isn’t exactly a strength of hers. (Though it’s probably also worth noting that she likely wouldn’t have had a lot of preparation time for The Infinite Quest, and probably hadn’t gotten particularly far into filming series 3 and actually performing as Martha anyway – I’m sure she’ll do a wonderful job with Big Finish when the time eventually comes!)

From there we move into the TARDIS. There’s an odd little quirk there actually, where the animation just gives up and they do a fade shot – which, interestingly, happened the last time they had to go into the TARDIS too. Is it particularly difficult to animate a movement across rooms? It feels like it shouldn’t be something that’s too hard – but again, if it is, it’s something that perhaps makes you question this style of animation. It’s really just not fluid enough.

(Of course, though, my lack of knowledge about animation is probably on full display at this point. I just do not know enough about it – how much more expensive is it to give us the more expressive, more fluid style of animation? My understanding is that this sort of flash animation from Cosgrove Hall was favoured by the BBC because not only was it good with likenesses, it was cheap – and I can certainly understand the cost cutting motive. If it was just for the likenesses, though, I’m not sure it was worth it – much better to go for visual style than accuracy, I’d say.)

Ultimately, then, this is a bit of a duff instalment. But, with the return of Balthazar, it does seem as though next week’s episode might be something a little more impressive…

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Blink

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Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead.

This is a difficult episode to review.

Most immediately, that’s because it’s a bit of a non-standard episode of Doctor Who, in that the Doctor isn’t really in it very much. It picks up on the same basic premise as Love & Monsters, being the episode without the Doctor, essentially a necessity of the shooting schedule required to film thirteen episodes. It’s in a bit of an odd position though because the last time they tried that Doctor-lite episode, it wasn’t very well received at all: the large majority of people seemed to hate it. I would contend, of course, that the large majority of people were wrong, but it’s difficult not to imagine that at some point in the development of Blink the successes and failures of Love & Monsters were discussed.

So, there’s an episode which is about as far removed from the Doctor Who standard as any one episode could be considered to be. That’s already one that’s quite difficult to talk about and to review, particularly if you’re trying to rank it against other episodes.

But then, of course, there’s another aspect to contend with. Rather unlike its predecessor, Blink is in fact widely loved. Arguably, indeed, one of the most loved episodes of Doctor Who ever – it’s quite routinely cited as The Best Episode. It’s won a couple of Doctor Who Magazine polls to that effect, regularly finishing within the top 5 episodes of all time, and routinely being positioned as the best episode of the 2000s.

This is in turn invites any review of Blink to grapple with that truism – there’s almost an obligation to comment on that idea, either to dispute it or to affirm it. (That is, I suspect, in part why there’s been a bit of a turn on it in recent years – it’s a nice lynchpin to base critique of Moffat around, in terms of displaying a lot of his early ideas and stylistic tics.) That of course again makes it difficult to review the episode, because there’s a huge weight of critical consensus to work against (or to keep in step with) when you’re writing about the episode.

Personally speaking? I don’t think it’s the best episode ever. I don’t even think it’s Moffat’s best episode ever – I’d be inclined to select quite a few of his other scripts ahead of this one. In turn, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years… not disparaging Blink, per se, but certainly I’ve considered it to be quite overrated, with a reputation and stature not entirely befitting of its actual quality. So watching it now, I was interested to see whether or not I was actually right – or if it was, actually, the best ever episode of Doctor Who.

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What immediately struck me is that this is, quite simply, just a very well-made piece of television.

Credit, obviously, is due to Steven Moffat in this regard. It’s a particularly intricate script – perhaps one of his most – and it has to be, to make the timey-wimey aspect work. But that’s threaded through the script remarkably well; I’m always impressed by how the earlier excerpts of the Doctor as an easter egg come to make sense when Sally eventually has the final conversation with him. However, it’s also worth remarking on the actual heart of the script, which I suspect sometimes gets lost underneath all the wibbly wobbly sleight of hand. There’s some real weight to this script in places, which is in no small part down to how well characterised each individual is – obviously there’s a greater space to do this when you don’t also have the Doctor to shift the focus, but that also speaks to just how important it was to put forward some well-rounded and nuanced characters. We needed to believe in Sally Sparrow, because this week it’s her programme – and Steven Moffat did an excellent job with writing the character. I suspect that no small part of the episode’s popularity is down to that character, who genuinely is a fantastic creation.

(Of course, that’s also largely to do with Carey Mulligan’s performance – she’s absolutely exceptional here, and you can see why she went straight to Hollywood not long after this episode. It’s rare for me to remark on the work of Andy Pryor, the casting director on Doctor Who, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to pay heed to him here – he’s clearly abundantly talented at his job, and it was a brilliant choice to cast Carey in the role. It’s difficult to believe the episode would have worked even half as well as it did without her.)

It’s also worth remarking on the work of Hettie MacDonald, the director of this episode. Blink is remarkably well-directed and edited – a huge amount of the tension comes from the direction of the episode, as well as the wonderfully clever choice to position the camera as an observer of the Angels. MacDonald invites the audience to read the scene as though they’re there, having a genuine diegetic influence on the story – which does, of course, only make it all the more involving and all the more frightening. Certainly, this is one area in which the material does live up to its reputation – Blink is scary. There’s a proper tension throughout; yes, it comes from Moffat’s writing, but MacDonald does a great job to realise this with some wonderfully claustrophobic shots. It’s clear why people found Blink so scary, and indeed why they still do.

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The other big thing that this episode is remembered for is the Weeping Angels – possibly the most iconic monster of new Who, even today. (Really, nothing can supersede them – the Weeping Angels are up there with the Daleks and the Cybermen, undoubtedly. They’re the most meaningful impact on the popular zeitgeist of the 21st Century that Doctor Who can lay claim to; certainly, not as many people remember the Slitheen, the Krillitane, or the Jagrafess.)

And, yes, they’re brilliant. How could they not be? They’re the one Doctor Who monster you can’t hide from behind the sofa. It’s a fantastic central conceit, one which is – as already mentioned – really emphasised by Hettie MacDonald’s fantastic direction. That the Angels don’t move if we’re not looking at them includes us further, invests us – that they can move when the camera isn’t on them only makes them scarier. The threat they pose is, in a sense, real.

There’s something wonderfully simplistic about that central conceit. In a way, it’s almost a shame that there’s been more autonomic monsters in years past – almost as though they’re encroaching on Weeping Angel territory, diminishing them in a sense. Certainly, it almost feels like they lost their mystique in a way – there’s something powerful about presenting the Weeping Angels as “creatures of the abstract”, as the Doctor puts it here. Did further stories diminish them? Perhaps in their ubiquity. I’m quite fond of the idea that the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel, and I remember little of Angels Take Manhattan. (Though, if we’re raising the issue of diminishing the Angels, I suspect Class likely would have – Patrick Ness intended to show an Angel civil war, as well as the planet of the Angels. Tantalising ideas, perhaps, but I’m not sure they’re worth pursuing; quite apart from reducing the mystique of the Angels, I can’t help but feel that would lead to too much introspection, robbing them of that isolation and loneliness that helps make them so interesting.)

Ultimately, though, I’ve still not quite answered the question. Yes, there’s a great monster. And, yes, there’s an absolutely fantastic premise, in a really well directed, polished episode. While I’ve never quite agreed with recommending Blink as someone’s first Doctor Who episode, you can see the logic behind it.

And yet… well, it’s still not actually the best episode of Doctor Who ever. It’s very good. I have no particular complaints. But it’s not the best.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 10)

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It’s the only way.

Conveniently for me, there’s some rumours afoot that BBC Worldwide want to put forward a new Doctor Who spinoff (presumably disappointed with Class), and that it’s likely to be an animated series.

At the minute, they’re quite unfounded rumours – I’d be quite dubious of reading much into them, to be honest, and there’s not really any concrete confirmation, or much likelihood they’re necessarily true. (Although having said that, depending on the form they take, they could tie in quite nicely to the fresh start under Chibnall – not too dissimilar to the TARDISODES they tried out when David Tennant started, or the minisodes and general ephemera at the beginning of Matt Smith’s tenure.)

But in any case, it’s a nice springboard for me to talk about something that’s tenuously connected to The Infinite Quest, without actually having to talk about The Infinite Quest very much, because this week’s one was rubbish again. Which rather neatly leads me to my grand point about how to do animated Doctor Who (which I’ve touched on previously) – don’t try and serialise it.

Or at least, don’t try and serialise it if you’re only doing three minute clips, because that’s not really going to sustain a proper narrative. The Infinite Quest you know always had one eye on the omnibus edition, but it was created for these weekly instalments. Any Doctor Who animated show would presumably fall in the same basic format – I’d be very surprised if they announced there were going to be proper half hour stories, because that’s surely too expensive – and so it needs to be pitched in a way that it can work in a self-contained manner.

Basically, a Doctor Who animated cartoon would have to be the longer Simpsons couch gags – a mini narrative, but still something quite creative and with a distinct identity of its own. It’d likely be well placed to draw from the backlog of Doctor Who comics that are out there, which have basically adapted quite well to the limitation of “short Doctor Who story, making use of a primarily visual medium without the actors”.

It’d also likely have to have the incumbent Doctor; the furthest you could diverge from that would be one offs about the monsters and suchlike, rather than bringing back Paul McGann, which everyone seems to want. I know there were plans for a Doctor Who animated programme, akin to what I’m describing, albeit with classic Doctors again – I’m not so sure about that. I know I’d love it, but… actually, I’ve almost changed my mind mid-sentence. It could work! But I think that’d have to be something you build up to, for a possible second series, rather than being part of the premise from the start. (But then, maybe I’m wrong.)

I also suspect it’d need to be relatively light in tone – frothy and fun, rather than dark and depressing. I’m sure animation can carry those themes, but I’m not wholly convinced that that’s the place to try and do dark Doctor Who. You would also have to sacrifice photo accuracy for fluid animation – one of the big problems with The Infinite Quest is how static it is. Something like this, where the characters are stylised yet still recognisable, is basically perfect.

Having written all this, I’ve actually managed to convince myself an animated Doctor Who type thing (which would definitely go on CBBC and YouTube) could actually be quite fun. So long as they learn from The Infinite Quest and make something… well, something that’s entirely the opposite, I suppose.

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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

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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