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…



Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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