Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Journey’s End

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It’s been good, though, hasn’t it? All of us. All of it. Everything we did. You were brilliant.

Again, I want to start with a fairly simple, straightforward declaration: I love this one. I love every part of it, even the silly parts, even the bits I don’t like that much. It’s the apex of a particular version of Doctor Who, and when I watched it the first time, it was everything to me. So, there’s a degree to which I’m not really going to budge on that, now or ever.

Admittedly, that perhaps sounds like a preamble to an “admittedly…”, but no, I really do like this one a lot. It’s an episode that is, I think, easier to talk about for its questionable moments, and I obviously will talk about them, but that’s only really because of the nature of its strengths. It’s an episode that’s so bombastic and sprawling, so confident and sure of itself, that for a lot of it you’re left with little to do but point and gesture in wordless appreciation.

The review that follows – a particularly lengthy review, actually, because I wanted to try and do something hefty for what is a pretty significant episode, but also because I happened to have a lot of thoughts on it all – comes across, I worry, as being more negative about the episode than I actually feel. Like I said, it’s the sort of episode where the good things about it felt, to me, a bit harder to write about.

That said, though, I do just want to take a moment now to talk about my favourite moment of the episode: towing the Earth back home. It’s such a brilliantly sentimental scene, with one of Murray Gold’s best pieces of music from the Davies era, and I love what it represents. I love the way Freema Agyeman makes eye contact with the camera, too – it’s a strange, Blue Peter moment, and in a way it kinda threatens the integrity of the whole thing, as though it’s about to make it a joke. But, actually, it’s different from that, because it’s letting us in on the joke, including us, as though we’re piloting the TARDIS with them. I love the strange, crazy confidence to the way the scene just stops for an obscure Gwen Cooper continuity reference.

It’s really such a brilliant, brilliant moment. It’s actually the bit that makes it all worth it, to my mind; you could probably make some reasonable arguments that bringing all the companions together like this isn’t a brilliant idea – or at least you could try, because this scene shows how absolutely wonderful that is. I really, really loved it.

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Ethically, there are bits of it that are a little sketchy. Well, that’s perhaps the wrong way of putting it (if nothing else, it creates the impression I’m talking about something else) – rather, I suspect the moral quandary supposedly at the heart of the story is somewhat ill thought out.

One of the things that Journey’s End purports to grapple with – it doesn’t really; the idea is abandoned reasonably quickly – is this idea of the Doctor as a very dark figure, the Destroyer of Worlds. Not someone who emboldens and elevates those around him, shaping their lives, inspiring and empowering them to be better people, but instead moulding them into soldiers, weapons first and foremost rather than travellers or people or Doctors themselves. In and of itself, that’s debateable; certainly, I wonder how much, outside of this episode itself, that interpretation is actually supported by the Davies era anyway. Undeniably, there’s elements of it, and it’s more obvious with characters like Martha, but… well, is it true? I’m inclined to compare it to the Capaldi era, as I so often am, where the companions were left to become Doctor figures in their own right; I wonder if perhaps that’s the same as what’s happening here, but it’s a fundamentally different vision of the Doctor here than in the Capaldi era. That’s an interesting idea to grapple with – immediately the counter argument that they’re becoming, in effect, failed versions of the Doctor, missing the point, not the full version of such, which has an interesting resonance of its own – but I think befitting its own essay rather than a few stray paragraphs here.

More to the point, though, I think it’s worth considering what the companions are turned into soldiers against: the Daleks, the ultimate robot fascists. It is… difficult to argue, to be honest, in any meaningful sense that killing Daleks is wrong particularly. Certainly, in prior contexts – the Time War, or The Parting of the Ways – the point was not about the morality of killing Daleks per se, but killing Daleks while leaving massive collateral damage. That’s definitely the case with Martha’s final solution, but that’s not really emphasised in the text, and it doesn’t seem to be a factor with the warp star or… whatever it is TenToo did with the Crucible at the end. Instead, it does seem to be a fairly basic “killing Daleks is wrong”, which strikes me as questionable. It feels mainly like a broader version of the whole punching Nazis thing – yes, that is ethically fine. Just as it is, you know, ethically fine to blow up a Dalek.

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And that… not complaint, exactly, but certainly that little curio feeds into some wider points about the episode’s spine. Well, no, I’m reluctant to call it a spine exactly, because I don’t think it is – as I’ve said above, it’s dispensed with fairly quickly. It’s more that it’s just the subject of Davros’ rant, because if the villain is going to have a rant at all, it needs to be something with a lofty ethical point to be made.

I think I’d have preferred it if, on some level, there was an effort to refute that. I think it might have held the episode together a little better thematically if… well, if at any point the Doctor had been able to turn around and say “actually, we are so different, you and I”. Or, not like that exactly, but I think taking the broader point, about the impact the Doctor has on people, and showing it actually hasbeen a positive, that he actually is different, so on. I think it’s interesting to look at Sarah Jane’s line about how the Doctor has the biggest family of anyone on Earth, because actually, it’s debateable how much the episode itself actually seems to believe that; after all, the note that’s emphasised at the end is him, alone, crying in the rain.

More on that later, though, because what I want to talk about instead is TenToo. A lot is made of the suggestion that he’s this very dark figure – born in battle, full of bloodlust, all that jazz – but I’m not wholly convinced that rings true across the episode. Certainly, he seems broadly more cheerful and adjusted throughout than the brown-suited version of the Doctor does; you can chalk bits of that up to knowing Donna isn’t dead and the TARDIS wasn’t destroyed, so TenToo certainly has reason to not be as angsty, but even then. I think a big part of this, though, is that I’m still not especially convinced that killing the Dalek empire like that is an especially difficult decision; TenToo did the right thing, and Sarah Jane’s suggestion wasn’t wrong either. Martha is a bit more questionable, but at least that’s got an element of the trolley problem to it. (My hot take: Journey’s End would’ve worked better with the Slitheen, in that regard at least.)

What I do think works, though, is TenToo leaving with Rose at the end. Certainly, it’s a difficult scene to get right, and you can understand why Russell T Davies deliberated over it so much in The Writer’s Tale; very easily, it could have been a weaker rehash of the version from Doomsday. What’s impressive, though, is the way it’s doing something much more complex; where the last version was about Rose, this is about the Doctor – he’s manipulating her and pushing her away, essentially, making a choice because he thinks he knows what’s best for her. Actually, thinking about it, there’s an interesting connection to what he does to Donna later.

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Of course, there’s also the question of Donna. I’ve been deliberating over exactly how to handle this for some time now. To be honest, I was tempted to not bring it up at all; certainly, that would have been truer to my experience of the episode the first go around, because it was years and years before I realised there was anything to discourse about at all. For the longest time my thoughts on the subject began and ended with “that’s a tragic ending, I wish there had been some way for Donna to remember” – which, to be honest, I suspect was also the beginning and end of Russell T Davies’ thoughts while writing it.

But, equally, it’d feel too much like an unspoken elephant in the room if I didn’tmention it, and that doesn’t feel like something I can go without talking about. Particularly, actually, given that my beloved Capaldi era addressed this ending directly – more than once, actually, but most obviously with Clara, my favourite companion. So, it’d be a bit dishonest not to.

For anyone who’s not aware, the discussion centres around the Doctor mindwiping Donna; the – critique feels too mild a word, and perhaps misrepresents the strength of feeling of some of those who object to it – objection (not much better) regards how he ignores her wishes, disregards her autonomy and takes something from her without her consent. Part of the contention, too, is that it’s not really problematised within the narrative enough; the focus is largely on the tragedy, and how sad it is for the Doctor, as opposed to depicting it as a horrific violation of consent. That’s… I was going to say “That’s not an unreasonable interpretation, even though it’s not what the episode intended”, which manages to be both true and missing the point; whether it’s what the episode intended or not, that is essentially what’s on screen. I’m inclined to disagree heavily with certain sections of the debate, largely those that compare it to rape; I understand where they’re coming from, in terms of it being a violation of consent, but… it doesn’t sit well with me, for myriad reasons too extensive to really delve into here.

I think it’s probably best understood as a medical procedure; even then, there’s questions to be asked, but I think that’s a better model from which to approach it. (I also think it’s worth noting, in terms of comparisons to the Capaldi era, in Hell Bent and The Pilot, where the selfish, patrician nature of the act is emphasised, it’s not to save a life, which is manifestly different to what’s going on with Donna. Just to complicate things further!) It’s not a companion exit that sits with me entirely well admittedly; it’s cruel in a lot of ways, bleakly cynical in a way that sets it apart from the tragedy of, say, Doomsday. But… it also doesn’t, in a significant way at least, diminish the episode. At least not for me. I don’t know.

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One thing that did strike me as interesting is how easily this episode could have functioned as a series finale to New Who as a whole, if the specials hadn’t been commissioned.

Granted, you’d want a few changes made throughout; the version of this episode that was an actual ending would, I think, leave Donna as the DoctorDonna – the Doctor would finally have a companion and friend who really could travel with him forever (at the same time he gave Rose a Doctor who really could live with her forever, which would’ve been neat). Also, you’d kinda want there to be more of an effort to address Davros’ accusations, as I mentioned above; Journey’s End is interesting because it feels like it comes quite close to, or could have come quite close to, addressing the whole survivor’s guilt thing, and ultimately saying “actually, no”, but then ultimately eliding that in favour of a sad ending.

(Actually, personally, I think much more telling than the actual consent violation/mindwipe aspect is the fact that Donna isn’t allowed to keep her memories once she becomes a Doctor figure – a successful Doctor figure, in marked contrast to the others, beating the Daleks by tricking them into their own trap and hoisting them by their own petard rather than an aggressively militaristic figure. But where the others are failed Doctor figures who live, Donna is… not punished, exactly, but regresses. That, I think, is the difference between Donna and Clara; where “being the Doctor” is something anyone can do in the Moffat era, “being the Doctor” is a much more singular burden to bear in the Davies era. Again, that’s another idea worth returning to, particularly because I think Moffat’s conception of what it means to be the Doctor is one of the most interesting ideas of his tenure, and it’s actually probably one of the best ways to get to the heart of the whole lonely god idea in the Davies era.)

Anyway! Gosh. When this is finished it’s going to be over 2000 words, possibly approaching 2500; certainly, the longest of any of the X Years of the X Doctor posts I’ve done over the years. Actually, no, it could well be the longest single piece I’ve written full stop. It’s probably too critical in a lot of places, and doesn’t flow the way I’d like it to; equally, though, to repeat the usual refrain, these are often just the thoughts off the top of my head after watching an episode. A lot of the thoughts above are ones I’d like to elaborate on in future, though.

So. Journey’s End. I enjoyed it massively; I think that impression might not come across from this review, much as I would’ve liked it to, because so much of it dwells on the problem areas of the episode. That’s what got me thinking, I suppose.

I did have a slightly more elegiac conclusion in mind, but I’ve just remembered that next week I’ll be doing a general Series 4 overview. So I’ll save that for then!

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Stolen Earth

I came here when I was just a kid.

I love this one.

I also love the next one (arguably more, though I don’t tend to think of these two in discrete parts), but we’ll get to that in time.

I used to have all these Doctor Who action figures – no, collectibles – nah, action figures. A couple of David Tennants, quite a few of them missing hands; Rose from New Earth and Rose from Rose, a strange thing that looked like it was about to start a fight most of the time; Daleks, invariably missing their manipulator arms (alright, plungers) or guns or eyestalks, each one totally broken by the siblings and never by me. (That’s not, like, an attempt to talk around it or laughingly suggest it was me and I pretended it was them; it was them and they know it.) Judoon, Slitheen, Captain Jack from The Empty Child and Sarah Jane from her Adventures, complete with a little Graske, Martha from Smith and Jones and Mickey from Army of Ghosts, complete with half a Cyberman.

But, anyway, I collected them over the years, and played with them, obviously.  Always ridiculous, over the top narratives, with exterminations and resurrections and epic, galaxy-spanning stakes, and, of course, every companion ever. (Well, no, not every companion ever, because I never had a Donna figure.)

You can, I imagine, see where this is going. The Stolen Earth is Doctor Who as it always existed in my imagination, writ large across the screen. It’s sprawling and excessive and fun, Doctor Who taking joy in simply being Doctor Who. There was no way I wasn’t going to love it. Watching it at nine years old (probably) it was, genuinely, event television in a way I’d never really experienced before. Watching it ten years later, there’s still such a rush of giddy joy to it all. Across these reviews I’ve written about how I sometimes worry my opinions are based too firmly on how I first watched it, but with this one, I’m not worried about that. I know it, and I don’t care – this was the most amazing episode of Doctor Whoever then, and in more ways than one it still is now.

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There’s still, I think, a kind of… conversations about Doctor Who are still basically lead by the same types of people, and arguably in some cases the same people full stop. It’s people who grew up in the 70s, talking about Weetabix and Target novels and Tom Baker pants, and then being terribly ashamed of it all in the 80s and 90s (and in some cases still, bizarrely, carry the imagined weight of that around with them).

Less common – and to me, more interesting – is accounts of people talking about growing up under the revived series. Probably the obvious reason for that, I suppose, is that they’re mostly just not old enough yet; we’re still kinda at the point where it’s people who were teenagers when Rose aired are talking about it, as opposed to the 7 and 8-year olds. Maybe in a few years’ time we’ll start to see the stories of Cyber-strawberry frubes and Totally Doctor Who and David Tennant pants, which I would just like the record to state that I always found kinda weird and never had. Anyway, though, we’re definitely getting there. It’s something I’d like to have a go at myself one day, I suppose.

If, and when, people start getting around to it, I suspect The Stolen Earth will loom large in those accounts. It feels difficult, now, to quantify quite how big it was at the time. I remember that it was one of the last episode titles to be revealed; at that point I was following production news and stuff, albeit mainly through the Doctor Who Adventures magazine, and listing the title of episode 12 as CONFIDENTIAL (or TOP SECRET or what have you) – alongside, I think, what became The Sontaran Stratagem – really set me off. The anticipation! (Mind you, I was always pretty confused by the theory that Harriet Jones was the Supreme Dalek, though I’m pretty sure I found out about that after the fact.)

And, I mean, I’ve already said how much I loved this episode at the time. That picture of all the companions assembled together, ‘The Children of Time’, that was my computer background for years. It was then, and in many ways still is, such a wonderfully intense episode of Doctor Who, and one that’s really quite deeply bound up with the ways I watched Doctor Who at the time, the way I experienced Doctor Who, and, sure, the way I lived it.

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It still stands up today, I reckon.

The oft-repeated refrain when I write about the first part of any two-parter is, you know, that that’s quite difficult for all these reasons, which I recount mainly to fill up my own arbitrarily set wordcount, and as a bit of a caveat for the fact that I’ve not really said anything. Admittedly, a lot of this review is me talking around the fact, discussing what The Stolen Earth is and represents as opposed to anything that actually happened in it. On the flip side, though, it is mostly set-up and OMG moments and the cliffhanger of modern-Who, still yet to be topped, so maybe that’s not so bad.

Still, though. There’s a lot of great moments. The obvious bits, like any moment where Bernard Cribbins is on screen, have been rightfully discussed, but what stood out to me about this episode most of all was Elisabeth Sladen. It feels odd to say it, but she’s a much, much better actress than I ever realised –  not that I ever thought she wasn’t, or anything, but it really struck me that every emotional beat of the Dalek invasion works because of her. It’s her fear of the Daleks, at Davros, and for Luke, that makes it work – it’s genuinely the most impactful performance of the episode.

It’s quite the episode, The Stolen Earth. Quite the episode.

These days those action figures are all neatly displayed on my shelves – lovingly displayed, in fact. (I’d have to concede they’re actually maybe not that neat, and they pick up dust like mad.) I feel like maybe I should try and construct some metaphor out of that, that the things you love as a child start to hold a different place in your life as you grow up or whatever, but nah, that’s nonsense. Or it’s nonsense here, anyway.

I just wanted to tell you about them. I really love those things

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

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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

the sontaran stratagem doctor who review helen raynor douglas mackinnon series 4 russell t davies tenth doctor david tennant donna noble catherine tate

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: Series 3 Overview

doctor who series 2 review overview episode rankings logo lozenge russell t davies tenth doctor rose tyler billie piper david tennant

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

last of the time lords doctor who review title card sequence russell t davies colin teague john simm david tennant freema agyeman

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.

last of the time lords doctor who review john simm the master the valiant old doctor david tennant russell t davies colin teague series 3

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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