Gugu Mbatha-Raw on Motherless Brooklyn

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I always think you can’t really play a genre. You have to be grounded and real, and then the world – hopefully – is built around you. One of the things that I loved about Laura is exactly that: she’s not your classic femme fatale, she’s not a 50s housewife. She’s a layered, multifaceted human being, and you know we don’t often see that very often in female characters – and certainly female characters of colour in the 50s – so I just tried to bring as many emotional nuances to her as possible.

This is very exciting! Another in-person interview, and – crucially – my own on-screen debut! (Well, sort of, the Edward Norton interview was actually filmed first.)

I have no idea how the video is – I now suddenly understand why some actors never watch their own films, even the idea of watching this back feels too awkward – but I do remember Gugu being very lovely to talk to. (And myself getting a bit tongue-tied!)

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Film Review | Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

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As Lionel Essrog, Norton offers a characteristically precise performance – every tic and spasm of the 1950s gumshoe’s Tourette’s syndrome meticulously recreated, in many ways the pinnacle of the careful affect Norton is known for as an actor. But to focus on the precision of the performance obscures its sensitivity. What might at first be written off as an ostentatious display of overly attentive histrionics, justified only by itself to itself, belies something much more tentative and tender. There’s a lightness to Norton’s work here, something gentle not lost in his formal dedication to the psychical neuroses; Lionel is rendered with vulnerability and treated in turn with empathy. There’s a depth beyond the superficially impressive imitation of the rhythms of Tourette’s – a crumpled, weary interiority suggestive of a man always slightly out of step with his surroundings.

Another new review from me! Something I was conscious of particularly with this one was how I wrote about acting, specifically; actually engaging with the details of performances is something I find difficult to articulate, so I’m trying to work on that a little harder. Fairly pleased with what I wrote in the end, actually, so that’s nice!

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

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

John Simm’s Master is terrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. Let’s unpack this a little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Lazarus Experiment

doctor who the lazarus experiment stephen greenhorn richard clark russell t davies ten years of the tenth doctor martha jones harold saxon

Oh, Martha Jones, you’re a star!

For the third week in a row, we’ve got an episode that isn’t particularly highly thought of – indeed, it’s another one of those that’s largely criticised and looked down upon.

I remember watching this one a few years ago, specifically because I found out that it wasn’t very popular but remembered quite enjoying it. And, indeed, I enjoyed watching it again. In fact, I just went back and checked my comments on it, because I wrote about it on a forum – and I thought it was “just brilliant”, apparently! Then I started criticising Neil Cross, which I’d probably be less inclined to do now, I suppose. Funny how four years change things.

On paper, there’s a lot of stuff that works; indeed, when translated to the screen, there are a lot of things that work too. Most of that is Mark Gatiss, actually. He’s clearly having a whale of a time, and enlivens the whole episode. Sure, he’s only playing around with an established trope, but he carves out a space for himself within it – chewing the scenery with great gusto, yet still managing to bring a degree of pathos to it where necessary. Even though it’s something we’re innately familiar with anyway – the mad scientist is a hallmark of the science fiction genre, stretching back as far as Frankenstein (though I’m inclined to argue that’s more horror than sci-fi, but anyway) – it’s not something that new Doctor Who had done up to this point. And, thinking about it, it’s not something they’ve done since – the closest I can think of is Miss Kizlet in The Bells of St. John, but that’s a bit of a stretch. Or maybe Mrs Gillyflower in The Crimson Horror? Debatable.

In any case, though, that means that Professor Lazarus, wonderfully unsubtle in both name and performance, is something of the definitive mad scientist of the new series of Doctor Who. Generally speaking, he fills that role quite well – like I said, Mark Gatiss gives a great performance – and the idea of the youth effect is actually quite a neat effect. And, of course, there’s a monster! It’s big and weird and fills the monster role very nicely. I don’t have much to say beyond that, but it

All of which is to say that, on its own, this is a nice episode. It’s an entertaining enough way to spend forty minutes, and that’s all it needs to be if you happen to be flicking through Netflix or just want to rewatch a non-event, almost casual Tennant story.

But it’s when taken in context of the rest of the season around it that The Lazarus Experiment just doesn’t quite work.

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Oddly, you can view The Lazarus Experiment as being something of a centrepoint for a lot of the themes of the Davies era. It’s one of the ones that most overtly grapples with the idea of the “curse of the Time Lord”, as the phrase was coined; where something like School Reunion dealt with this theme, The Lazarus Experiment tries to be about this theme, building itself around that idea. There are lengthy monologues (distinct from soliloquys, I now know) that are almost entirely about that – consider that line everyone loves to quote, “one person could live more in twenty years than another in eighty”. It’s dialogue that reaches for profundity, and it gives the episode a semblance of weight that goes beyond the mad scientist runaround it could have been.

But then, while it might reach for profundity, it doesn’t quite get it. Certainly, something like School Reunion is able to tackle those themes and have a degree of greater resonance because it has a tangible material connection to the past in Sarah Jane Smith. You can see the impact of the Doctor’s longevity, and that has a far greater impact than Mark Gatiss sat naked wearing a shock blanket in a cathedral.

If the episode lacks substance in that regard, then it would have to find it elsewhere – that makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, the problem with the quasi-profound dialogue is that it doesn’t really ring true. As is often the way with episodes that could have been great, it stumbles across the right stance to take without realising, and moves quickly forward: the moment when Lazarus asks the Doctor “who are you to judge me?” is key. Obviously, it’s playing on the fact that the Doctor is, actually, very old, but in some respects, it’s missing the point – which it gets so close too with “imagine what I could do in two lives, or three, or four”. With, of course, the implicit “or ten” following on shortly afterwards.

That’s what The Lazarus Experiment should have done, really. Mounted a challenge against the Doctor. I’m not suggesting he need to be accused of being a hypocrite or anything, but equally, this is the Doctor criticising a man for making himself younger to live longer, when David Tennant is eight years younger than Chris Eccleston. The idea that the Doctor gets younger every time he regenerates is an established one, if not necessarily accurate; the fact he lives lots of lifetimes is just a fact. There’s the potential for something interesting and introspective there – not dark and intense drama particularly, but you could absolutely pitch something at the same level as Thin Ice and how it interrogated the Doctor’s inclination to move on from deaths quickly. It wouldn’t have been difficult to do, particularly; given the mysterious Mr Saxon is Lazarus’ shady benefactor, it’d be easy to give him some knowledge of the Doctor. And, indeed, it could feed quite nicely into Francine’s problems with the Doctor, which are similarly unsupported.

It’s quite odd, really, that this episode waffles around the idea of criticising the Doctor, but ultimately stops short of it. Because he’s actually deeply, deeply unlikable here.

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The treatment of Martha in this series is one of the most contentious things about it; it’s this episode that tends to be one of the big examples in terms of the critique. It’s not difficult to see why.

A lot it stems from wider concerns to the series that don’t necessarily originate with this episode – that’s what I mean about this episode diminishing as a result of being placed in its wider context. It’s the choice to present Martha as being gifted individual trips, rather than taken on as an actual companion – in essence, the Doctor is stringing her along. Really, at times, it seems like he’s deliberately teasing her, if not treating her as somehow fundamentally lesser.

I’m not convinced this reflects poorly on Martha, as such; her willingness to put her foot down and demand appropriate respect is admirable, and foreshadows her eventual departure neatly enough. The character is, admittedly, weakened somewhat for still having this unrequited love for a man who has, frankly, treated her horribly – which is, for all I’m willing to forgive The Lazarus Experiment the demand of the series arc, particularly evident in the dialogue here. There’s a vein running through a lot of the Doctor’s interactions with Martha that feel condescending and dismissive, if not indeed outright cruel.

I wasn’t, I have to say, particularly pleased about that at all. Why would I be? The Doctor is not a character I want to dislike. Particularly this Doctor – my Doctor – and it’s a real lapse that this issue ever arose. You can really tell that Russell T Davies was ill and unable to be as actively involved in the production of this series (not that he would have rewritten Stephen Greenhorn’s episode, but certainly could have given him a few notes!) – although, then again, it’s obvious enough that the unrequited love angle was his idea. Maybe it just wouldn’t work at all.

(Well, actually. What should have happened is for The Lazarus Experiment to be moved forward, switching places with Gridlock; the cruelty of stringing her along would have diminished considerably if it wasn’t for such a long time. And, actually, I can’t help but feel that an appearance from Sarah Jane would have helped as well, although that’s another kettle of worms entirely.)

On a related note, incidentally: the depiction of Francine here is quite poor, isn’t it? There’s no real weight behind her dislike of the Doctor – basically just the fact that he seems to be Martha’s boyfriend, and she’s not heard of him before tonight? Even her eventual news from Mr Saxon doesn’t gel, because we don’t know who Mr Saxon is; it makes Francine an antagonistic force in a way that Jackie never was, so we can’t quite sympathise with her when we absolutely should. Once again it does seem that the episode is stunted for not properly criticising the Doctor, when almost every aspect of the episode demands it, if not needs it to function properly.

So, sadly, it’s a weak instalment from Series 3 here. Plenty of fun in places, and I’m glad it exists for the sole reason of letting Mark Gatiss be a Doctor Who villain (filmed on his birthday, no less!), but beyond that… well, there are certain weaknesses it just can’t move beyond. It’s very much not the work of brilliance I thought it once was.

5/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Smith and Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

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