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: Evolution of the Daleks

doctor who review evolution of the daleks helen raynor james strong russell t davies tenth doctor david tennant martha jones freema agyema

You told us to imagine, and we imagined your irrelevance.

Back in Series One, when they were writing Dalek, they hit on a bit of a stumbling block: Terry Nation’s estate wasn’t playing ball. Eventually, they were able to sort it out in the end (with some help from Steven Moffat’s mother in law, Beryl Vertue), but there was a point when we would have seen a version of Dalek without any Daleks.

The suggested replacement for the Daleks was a sort of prototypical version of the Toclafane – future humans, encased in those flying spheres. We’ll get to the Toclafane in a month or so’s time, but what’s interesting to me is the fact that it was humanity that was going to be set up as the iconic villain of the new series of Doctor Who.

In a sense, it does make rather a lot of sense. The Daleks have always paralleled the humans to some extent; the number of stories where they try to discover the ‘human factor’ that will help them conquer the galaxy is fairly expansive, and of course the fact that they’re a Nazi allegory in the first place means that’s a connection that’s always going to be around. On some fundamental level, there’s a connection between Daleks and humans within the show that doesn’t, and can’t, go away.

So, there’s something quite interesting about seeing an episode engage with that a bit more directly, and to in turn offer an evolution of the Dalek concept. They’re one of the few Doctor Who aliens that resist change, and always have; you can’t even get away with redesigning them anymore! In some ways, that’s actually rather perfect – that they’re the still point around which the show turns, a perfect foil to a lead character who’s always changing, and the obvious villain for a programme about change.

But then, by the same degree, that’s why the promise of an evolution of the Daleks is so enticing. The rules are made to be broken, and this is one of the bigger rules that the show has. Some of the ideas being thrown out here, and the possibilities that are being broached – there is a world, somewhere, where Evolution of the Daleks is looked upon as the successor to Genesis of the Daleks in terms of what it achieved and what it represents. (It is possible that this is the universe where it was written by Steven Moffat, as was the original plan, but to be honest I doubt that too.)

It wasn’t, though. Even I’m willing to admit that, despite my defence of last week – this is undoubtedly a weak follow up. The question that’s to be asked instead, I think, is why this episode isn’t what it could have been.

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I think it’s worth looking at Dalek Sec, because he’s the interesting character here.

The episode is clearly positioning him as something of a renaissance man, in keeping with the great man of history theory – like the Doctor says, the right idea at the right time, coming from the right person in the right place, could change everything. It’s clear that’s what we’re meant to see Dalek Sec as, and it’s he that represents this evolution of the Daleks – and, I’d argue, the human-Dalek hybrid is a character who could have been as important as Davros.

Obviously, he doesn’t work here. There’s a couple of reasons why, although none of them are particularly interesting, and I doubt it’s any huge insight to point them out. Part of it is the design – it’s less that it’s goofy or anything like that (I’m still somewhat partial to it), but it’s clear that the prosthetics constrain the performance. And, to be honest, I’m not sure that Eric Loren really knows what he wants to be doing with the part anyway – it’s not an amazing performance, really.

But, equally, how could it be? There’s a sense that the script is just a little bit too rushed, and tries to cram too much in while moving too fast. Even though it’s dealing with a lot of interesting ideas, they don’t have the time to fit them in; you move from Dalek Sec fondly looking at the radio, to his big revelation with Solomon, to his about face on the entire Dalek doctrine. It’s just moved through far too quickly, and these aspects are left almost entirely unable to work. Part of that is the pacing; I’m not convinced this episode works in the two-part style. Or, rather, the story was too unbalanced – Daleks in Manhattan had a lot of filler, meaning this one has to move faster than it can manage. You almost wish, really, that the cliffhanger last week hadn’t been Dalek Sec’s reveal, but rather the moment he changes his mind; perhaps some ominous “It is time for the Daleks to die, Doctor” dialogue would have helped immeasurably.

How could he have been the next Davros? Well, maybe a lot of this is just coming down to the version that exists in my head (if I get the time, though I suspect I won’t, I might try to elaborate on that) but it does feel like… well, it feels like this is a character who has legs. Imagine for a second the prosthetics were less convoluted, and the human Sec was played by Julian Bleach; that the character was established more firmly, and given more interesting material here. You can – or, I can, at least – quite easily see the character becoming a longer running adversary to the Doctor, creating a genuinely new paradigm for the Daleks, and offering a huge amount of potential going forward. They could have continued this civil war idea, with Caan and Sec both providing different perspectives, perhaps with the threat of a new Dalek Time War emerging the next time they need an apocalyptic series finale. I wouldn’t even posit Sec as a good or moral character, particularly – just one who thinks the Daleks need to evolve to survive, but retaining the focus on nationalism, jingoism and racial purity and so on.

Alas, though. It wasn’t to be.

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The problem, I think, is in part the fact that the episode isn’t very well paced. But then, it’s actually slightly more than that – because despite grappling with lots of different ideas, not a lot actually happens. They take all the toys out of the box, but then they put them back in again after a little bit of a runaround; the actual scope of the plot is very limited, even as the possibilities of the story are wide reaching.

In that sense, the story is a victim of the Daleks themselves. Because the status quo snaps back at the end, and the icon resists change, in the same way it always does. There’s something almost ironic about that; the weight of the symbol means you can’t entertain any change to it, and so of course the story about them changing to survive doesn’t work. It can’t – because the Daleks have survived more than long enough without needing to change yet, so why would they need to now?

And that hobbles it, fundamentally. Evolution of the Daleks isn’t willing to actually evolve the concept – there’s no chance for a revolution of the Daleks in this story. At the end of the day, the people working on the show didn’t want to entertain a seismic shakeup to the Daleks. That’s more than fair; there’s certainly an element of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and there was still plenty of room to work with the Daleks recoiling from the Time War. It just means this episode doesn’t quite work as well as it should, or as well as it could, because so much about it would only function in the context of a springboard.

There’s certainly a lot to like here, still. I remain fond of James Strong’s direction, and there are some nice scenes with the Daleks in them. Admittedly, it’s the comedy bits that work best, but hey. And, of course, I absolutely adore Tallulah (with three Ls and an H!), who is probably one of the best supporting characters in the entirety of Doctor Who ever. But then, equally, it’s not like the weakness to the premise is the only big issue here. The way the Doctor, and the narrative, continues to treat Martha is pretty shocking; eventually, I’m going to have to write about it at length, because it is a problem.

All in all, then, it’s an episode that perhaps is befitting of the reputation that it earned, in a way that last week’s effort wasn’t. That’s a shame, really – because it could have been so much more.

5/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Daleks in Manhattan

doctor who daleks in manhattan review helen raynor james strong russell t davies series 3 martha jones freema agyeman nick briggs eric loren

I swore then I’d survive, no matter what.

It’s always difficult reviewing the episodes that are less popular. In some ways, it presents challenges that aren’t there with the ones that people tend to like, or even the ones that are controversial; you’re always trying to respond to a prevailing weight of opinion, that in turn shapes a lot of what you say and think about the episode. I couldn’t come to this clean – it was always “well, this is the one everyone seems to think is a bit crap”.

Oddly, the venom for this story is quite intense. Not in the same way that’s true of Love & Monsters, but in an almost more casual way – where people would dedicate lengthy essays to complaining about Love & Monsters, this one was always dismissed out of hand. It’s objectively poor quality is seen as so objective that people don’t even really feel the need to argue about it; it’s just accepted as fact. Just one of those things everyone knows.

Russell T Davies has this story in The Writer’s Tale about how, when Helen Raynor read the reviews of this story online, she felt like she’d been assaulted – that they were so horrible, so vitriolic, she was literally shaking. As in, the actual proper definition of literally.

That stuck in my mind somewhat when I was watching this episode. I was in two minds going into it, really. On the one hand, I’d not quite ever got the hate for this episode; though, as ever, I was relying on the memory of an eight-year-old who loved pretty much anything with a Doctor Who logo on it. Sometimes the memory cheats. And yet I couldn’t help but feel as though the criticism of this story has become overdone, almost as though a meme – really, I’d never seen much justification for it beyond gripes about how it’s rather silly.

And, actually, reading the IMDb reviews now (surely a more sensible refrain than checking GallifreyBase) it seems to be a lot more positive than I realised. What’s striking, really, is that it’s – generally speaking – the ones closer to the time that are more positive. It’s when you start to get into reviews from years after the episode first aired, that’s when they turn negative. So, maybe, perhaps a part of this episode’s poor reception simply is the perception that sprung up around it, negativity feeding into itself.

Which is good, actually. Because I rather liked this one.

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Part of the poor reception to the episode is, undoubtedly, because this is the ‘for kids’ episode. Generally speaking, the first two-parter of any given series was aimed slightly younger, painted in broader strokes, had the big monster scenes, etc. That’s a truism of the series – or, arguably more accurately, it’s a truism that it’s a truism.

It’s not fair, though, to dismiss the episode purely on that basis. After all, it’s a programme that’s for all audiences – by any reasonable understanding of that, you’re going to have certain episodes that lean more towards certain demographics than others.

But then, I don’t think that’s the most accurate way to categorise this. In the context of a Doctor Who episode, ‘for kids’ isn’t a genre per se – it’s an aesthetic. When people are criticising the fact that the characters are broader, or that they’re speaking in silly accents, they’re missing the point – that’s part of the texture of the episode.

To an extent, then, it comes down to personal taste, as all things do. I love the exaggerated aspects of the episode, and I love the sheer fun of it, and I love that dance sequence. These, I’m sure, are a lot of the aspects people would dismiss, unable to handle the “Noo Yoik” accents (I think Tallulah is fantastic) and in turn disregarding the episode as a whole… but, well, it doesn’t bother me. It’s fun in the same way a pulp-y Dalek serial is; it doesn’t mean the episode is bad, merely that you don’t respond to what it’s trying to do. (And, I reckon, succeeding at doing.)

Equally, however, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a particularly simplistic episode. Yes, it’s unsubtle in places, but it does have some interesting ideas at the heart of it. There’s a genuinely interesting advancement of the Dalek ideology here, pushing the concept of the Cult of Skaro to a new place and setting up some great stuff for next week to deal with. Similarly, setting it in the wake of World War One and the Great Depression is a great way of grounding it in terms of the themes of survival that are so central to the episode.

(The contrast between Solomon and Mr Diagoras is great, incidentally. Both gone through the same war, but left with very different beliefs about how to survive. And yet there’s that great little detail when Solomon leaves Frank behind, because he’s scared – there’s that underlying ruthlessness that the Daleks want to tap into. It’s not presented subtly, no, but there’s an interesting idea there.)

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Beyond that? There’s honestly quite a lot to enjoy about this episode. Lots of little directorial flourishes, for example – that shot of the Dalek exiting the elevator is fantastic. Indeed, it’s a very well-directed piece in general; James Strong maintains a great aesthetic throughout, keeping the sewers atmospheric and realising the visuals very well.

Similarly, I enjoyed a lot of the dialogue. I think Helen Raynor deserves a fair bit of credit here – my understanding is that this episode wasn’t rewritten by Russell T Davies to the same extent that most of the series was, because he’d been ill when this one was in development. She acquits herself well, certainly; like I’ve said already, I really enjoyed the aesthetic of this episode, and the way in which it is so brazen and on the nose about its themes. But even then, I do think it’s well written independently of that style – there’s some great Dalek dialogue here that wouldn’t be out of place in any other episode.

Is it perfect? No, it’s not. But then, the problems that I took from this episode are ones that are endemic to the series itself; I remain unimpressed at how quickly they moved into the whole “Martha loves the Doctor” angle, and maintain it should have been developed more slowly. This episode in and of itself is still pretty charming in many respects. For example, I love the fact that the Doctor has to spend time building a DNA scanner, when these days the sonic screwdriver would do it immediately – it’s blatantly padding, but there’s something lovely about it.

Again, it’s difficult to review this episode. It always is, with the first half of a two-parter, because so much of it is setting up and establishing a tone – in turn, it’s difficult to write about it without this just becoming a list of things that I liked.

But I did like this episode. It was charming, and it was fun, and it had some cool ideas running through it. Honestly, genuinely, what more could you ask for? This isn’t an episode that deserves the poor reputation it holds. Thankfully, though, that hasn’t mattered – because this episode survives.

8/10

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