Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Dead

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The aristocracy always survives.

One of the more interesting things Steven Moffat has said about Doctor Who – one of the things that’s informed my own thinking about the programme, and what I expect from it – came in 2014, as part of the promotion for Capaldi’s first series. Moffat, talking about Danny Pink’s role as a foil to the Doctor, as well as Robot of Sherwood, “a high-born nobleman, used to wealth and privilege, who decided to come down among us lot and help out. He thinks he’s one of the guys, but never stops assuming that he’s in charge and that people will make him tea”.

Since I read that, and indeed across the Capaldi era and some of the more frustrating aspects of Whittaker’s opening series, it’s struck me as one of the more compelling points of tension to the character. (Actually, it could perhaps be a particularly compelling lens to approach Series 11 from, given Whittaker’s Doctor seems less inclined to take charge of a situation in the way her predecessors would – how much of that is down to an evolving position on the Doctor as an autocrat, can it simply be ascribed to her gender, is there anything more engaging to consider beyond dismissing it as the limitations of Chibnall’s writing? Admittedly, the answer to that last question might just be “no”, but you know.)

It was on my mind again watching Planet of the Dead, in case that weren’t already clear. The quote often feels particularly applicable to Tennant’s Doctor, actually – much as I do genuinely love this take on the character, and much as I am willing to defend it to its detractors – but it seems especially relevant to Planet of the Dead. Not because of any egregious excesses on the part of the Doctor here (this episode is, for the most part, an almost self consciously ‘business as usual’ piece, very much the light episode that comes at the start of a series), but his almost-companion this episode: Lady Christina.

Christina is embarrassing, frankly. There was something more than a little uncomfortable about the bourgeoise cat burglar, from Michelle Ryan’s cloyingly self-satisfied performance (which, in fairness, is exactly the right way to pitch the character) to her dismissive jokes about the other characters, and indeed the still-recent financial crash. One imagines the latter would’ve played somewhat worse in 2009, but even now it’s hardly endearing.

What’s embarrassing, though, isn’t simply that the character is so obnoxiously, so aggressively bourgeoisie – rather, it’s embarrassing to see Doctor Who hold this character up as a perfect foil to the Doctor. More than that: the ideal companion.

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If Planet of the Dead can be said to have any particular throughline – and it is, otherwise, a remarkably slight affair – it’s how the episode parallels the Doctor and Christina.

It’s far from subtle, certainly: she’s a Lady and he’s a Time Lord; they’re both always prepared for any eventuality, both always looking for adventure; he’s a thief just like her, revealing I think for the first time in the new series that the Doctor stole the TARDIS. The point is screamingly obvious – they were made for each other, as the dialogue even declares. It’s hardly unique to this episode; as a way to introduce a new companion, overtly paralleling them with the Doctor is one of the more obvious options to pursue. (Indeed, it’s why I spent most of Series 11 caught between surprise and relief that Chibnall never really drove home the Yaz-is-a-policewoman/the-Doctor-lives-in-a-police-box angle.) The last time Davies introduced a companion as an almost-Doctor figure (he tended to be less fond of it than Moffat), though, it was Martha – a resourceful medical student, a character as clearly from the Doctor’s same sci-fi milieu as Rose was separate from it. There’s something a little similar to Lady Christina – she does, arguably, trade on a lot of adventure fiction staples that recur throughout Doctor Who – but there’s a vast difference between Martha-as-perfect-companion and Christina-as-perfect-companion. (Perhaps particularly considering how obviously attracted the Doctor is to Christina, and how he very much wasn’t to Martha.)

Another version of this story wouldn’t have been quite so positive about Lady Christina; there’s a version of this story, a more interesting one I suspect, that uses the parallels as a way to complicate the Doctor, to question his privilege and to question his actions. It’s the sort of story Tennant’s Doctor might have benefitted from, and surely would’ve fit well within the examination of his hubris and arrogance that forms the bulk of this gap year. (Or, at least, I recall forming the bulk of the gap year; Planet of the Dead, and indeed Waters of Mars, are quite plausibly the episodes I’ve rewatched least.) It also, of course, very much isn’t the sort of story I’d expect Gareth Roberts to write; openly bigoted and openly conservative (and openly Conservative, insofar as that can’t be assumed already), one struggles to imagine him writing an episode that questions the Doctor along those lines. (Davies, for his part, probably would be more inclined too, but he’s much too enamoured with the aesthetic of the rich cat burglar to actually do it – and, I suspect at this point, basically content with having a comparatively throwaway victory lap episode that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.)

No, instead the point is to show that the Doctor, despite meeting the perfect companion, turns her down. It’s a story about how much he’s struggling after losing Donna; it’s about the deliberate refusal for Planet of the Dead to be the first episode of Series 5, turning down the prospect of thirteen episodes with Lady Christina.

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Christina, of course, is the wrong character to tell this story with. It’s difficult not to think it might be considerably more effective with another Lynda-with-a-y type character in Christina’s place, someone closer to the Tracy Flick type envisaged as an alternative to Christina. The version of Planet of the Dead that sees the Doctor reject, you know, Daisy Evans, or a similarly botanically named character, would likely go a long way towards underscoring the actual point of the episode.

Granted, it’s likely just a personal thing – my own general disinclination towards a character like Lady Christina, and the sort of self-critique I’d like to see Doctor Who occasionally offer. (As an aside, though, I’m largely convinced that Michelle Ryan thinks you’re supposed to dislike Christina too; the way she delivers the line about getting people-dust in her hair is markedly different to how Catherine Tate might have read a similar line, part of a wider disinterest in making Christina especially sympathetic.) It’s not difficult to imagine people liking this episode, and liking Lady Christina – if Big Finish is anything to go by, there’s apparently a market for a Lady Christina spin-off, so. Maybe there’s an appeal to the character I just don’t understand.

Nonetheless, though, I’d still maintain that Daisy Evans is the better character for a story like this – if the point is to shut down Tennant’s next series, to deconstruct the conventional opening episode we’ve become so used to, a character more straightforwardly evocative of previous companions is likely the more effective way to demonstrate that. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine a version of this episode that’s much more obviously structured as such; there’s potential, for example, to introduce Daisy’s version of Jackie or Mickey on the bus alongside her, the life she’s forced to go back to after seeing her first alien planet, her first alien species. That, surely, is an episode that’s much more important to the broader interrogation of the idea of the Doctor alone.

As an episode, this story is altogether less ambitious than the series openers it models itself upon – showy and arrogant, a programme so convinced of its own strengths that it doesn’t actually get around to displaying any of them. Planet of the Dead amounts to little more than a shrug, in the end; if this is the beginning to the end for the Tennant era, it’s also the most obvious indicator that there’s nowhere left to go.

4/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Partners in Crime

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The fat just walks away…

Alright, so. Those of you who’ve been following this series since the start – even if it is, you know, only the one of you – might be wondering where the Series 3 roundup post is. The answer is more than a little bit underwhelming: I had a near-catastrophic computer failure not long after I was supposed to upload that piece (though it was more than a little late anyway) and I’ve just kept delaying it ever since. The plan was to publish it a little bit before this review, but I got my dates mixed up – I thought Partners in Crime had aired on April 12th ish – so that ended up being difficult. I’ll probably post it in a week or so, maybe.

(Note: I never did that, but I restored it to its proper place when I moved to WordPress.)

As to the rest of you, you might perhaps be wondering what this is. They’re reviews, but also, they’re not. Really, it’s a series that’s just as much about my experience of watching the episodes the first time around as it is the episodes themselves – I’d call it a personal history via Doctor Who, but that is probably overstating it more than a little bit in terms of exactly how personal it is. But it’s very much contextualising the review in terms of my memories of the episode, my own experiences in terms of being a fan since then – there’s opinions and hopefully a degree of insight, maybe, but it’s not exactly academic. Often, it’s about that gulf between a decade old memory, and the more measured approach of someone who’s ostensibly a television critic, but generally speaking I’m pretty positive about it all anyway (series 4 contains The First Episode of Doctor Who I Actually Disliked – which you won’t guess – so that should potentially be an interesting review).

What’s notable though, I suppose, is that Series 4 is probably the stretch of modern Who I’m least familiar with – with the exception of maybe Series 6 – which is a result of both the length of time since broadcast, and the fact that I didn’t have them on DVD, so never really re-watched them. In a sense, then, while I’m not coming to the episodes fresh, they’re pieces of television that I know much better in terms of the paratext that’s sprung up around them – most notably The Writer’s Tale, which I re-read every few months anyway. It was definitely something I was quite conscious of while rewatching episode; I’m really, really unfamiliar with a lot of the basic visual grammar of the episode, how the different set pieces are structured, and so on. There’s a version of it that I’d built in my head, but often that was quite different from what was actually on screen.

So, all of that said, let’s talk about Partners in Crime.

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The obvious part of this episode that bears discussing is Donna – who’s still one of the most popular companions Doctor Who has ever had, even ten years later, which is a real testament to Catherine Tate and Russell T Davies. (I believe it was TARDIS Eruditorum that posited that you could more readily divide Davies’ tenure into the Rose and Donna eras than by Doctors, which is very true.)

As a reintroduction to Donna after The Runaway Bride, it’s very effective. I know there was a degree of trepidation – to put it lightly – about the character returning full time (for my part, I was very positive, but then I was positive about essentially everything about Doctor Who at the time) but it’s actually a really good concept for a Doctor Who companion. It’s a little bit like those astronauts who came back to Earth, but couldn’t readjust to life once again – the ones who failed to walk in the dust and so on. It’s also, of course, very in tune with the ideas at the heart of the Davies era: that the Doctor changes people, emboldening them and enriching their lives. In a sense it comes back to the conversation Rose has with Mickey and Jackie in The Parting of the Ways; what we see with Donna here is almost a version of what could have happened if Rose didn’t find her way back to the Doctor. Doing that with a character we know and already recognise is a great way to approach it – we’ve seen the starting point, we’ve seen the refusal, so we know that backstory. It also – not to get ahead of myself – ties in quite well with Donna’s departure, in the end, given how it plays upon those ideas of the Doctor’s influence.

And, of course, the parallels drawn between the Doctor and Donna in the episode (the Doctordonna, if you want to read it as foreshadowing) drive this home further. It’s not that the character is defined in terms of him, exactly – certainly, in Donna’s first appearance, she was defined as an opposite figure – but that on her post-Doctor life, and the attempts to find him again, Donna’s become something of a Doctor-analogue herself. She operates in the same way as him, their outfits mirror one another, she’s even got the blue car; in that sense, it’s quite similar to how Moffat presented his companions towards the end of his run. I suspect when the time comes to talk about Journey’s End I’ll find myself writing about Clara, but it’s interesting to pick up on how, even at this point, you’ve got Donna being positioned as akin to the Doctor – and how her story followed that path, and where it ended up.

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Another aspect of this episode I quite liked was the Adipose – they’re very manifestly not the typical series opener monsters, and it’s good to subvert the standards we’re used to. There’s something quite refreshing about how they’re not the straightforward antagonists of the Judoon or the Autons. Davies’ series opener episodes generally tended to be quite broad, and in a way the Adipose/Miss Foster combination feel like that approach taken to the furthest point: the creature is secondary to the Doctor and Donna’s plotline, and there’s very little focus on the eventual resolution of such. Indeed, there’s a couple of moments where the actual narrative plot is quite… not slapdash, that’s unfair, but it’s very obvious that Davies simply isn’t that interested in the mechanics of it.

Aside from that, they Adipose are quite a neat concept on their own – they tap into a lot of ideas about body image and so on, and they’re kinda cute in a way. I’d be quite interested in seeing them return at some point, actually; it feels like there’s a certain versatility to them that means you could still do a lot of different stories with them. Definitely, there would have been some potential for them in Class, with a story about anorexia and drug addiction. What’s also interesting about that, though, is how it highlights that a lot of Partners in Crime could still fit in Doctor Who (or associated) today; indeed, interesting to consider the episode in light of later ones, particularly the criticisms Moffat’s pacing – something like Partners in Crime really rollicks along, in a way that wouldn’t feel massively out of place even during series 7.

Ultimately, then, I quite enjoyed this episode. It’s an entertaining piece, and an effective re-introduction to Donna. Hopefully, subsequent episodes shouldn’t creep up on me the same way this one did, so I’ll try and write some stuff that’s at least a little more insightful!

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Voyage of the Damned

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I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I am 903 years old and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives, and all six billion people on the planet below.

Yes, it’s a Christmas special review – but probably not the one you were expecting.

Long-ish term readers, of which I’m sure I have at least three, will probably remember this on and off series of retrospectives where I look back on and review whatever David Tennant was up to a decade ago. It is largely but not exclusively filtered through the lens of my own personal recollections – i.e. that of a small child who was only vaguely aware of who Kylie actually was and really wished that everyone would just stop talking during Doctor Who, though I suppose that’s really not all that different to me today.

The three of you who have been following this for a while probably have also noticed that I never quite got around to posting my full season retrospective on Series 3; a combination of procrastination, nominally important exams, and near-catastrophic computer failure meant that those kept getting postponed to the point that it never quite materialised. Currently, the plan is to write that up – or finish writing it up, half the document still exists somewhere I believe – between now and April, which I believe is when I’ll start reviewing series 4 (I’m not entirely clear on the dates off the top of my head).

And, of course, for those of you who are more interested in the more pressing and current issue of the day – Twice Upon a Time, ahh! – I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get something written about that in the next few days. More likely than not it’ll be something of a commentary on the Twelfth Doctor’s era as a whole, rather than a straightforward review as such; I’m still hoping to do a series of reviews on all of Capaldi’s episodes between now and Jodie Whittaker’s first episode, so we’ll see how that all shakes out.

In any case, though, I suspect I’ve probably waffled on enough to fill up the wordcount. Let’s get onto Voyage of the Damned.

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A big part of these Tenth Doctor reviews has been a re-examination of the wider perception of an episode, and how that contrasts with my own memories of such. It’s not exactly a perfect process; a decade on, my memory of it all is usually fairly shake-y, and I didn’t exactly have massively sophisticated opinions beyond “It’s Doctor Who, of course I love it!” (some would contend that my opinions have not yet developed beyond this). There’s also the fact that, generally speaking, I tend to be comparing said opinions to standard fan myopia – the accepted rules that incorrectly state, for example, that Love & Monsters is rubbish.

Interestingly, though, this time there’s the opportunity to take a slightly different tack. Famously, this is the Doctor Who episode with the highest domestic viewing figures of all time; seen by 13.9 million viewers, you can make the case that this is probably the resounding impression of Tennant’s Doctor left across the country. It received pretty positive reviews overall (even if it did offend certain Christians and a survivor of the Titanic) and, per Wikipedia, received an “Appreciation Index rating of 86 (“excellent”), above the average score of 77 for drama programmes, and was the highest Index rating for any programme shown on terrestrial television on Christmas Day”. Just to contextualise that in terms of the rest of the show, that’s better than Father’s Day, equal to The Eleventh Hour, and just shy of Journey’s End. Now, the numbers shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value on their own, but it’s worth remembering that on release the episode got largely rave reviews from most mainstream outlets.

In short, then, this episode is largely beloved. Or, if not beloved, certainly it’s one which is generally held in quite high regard by quite a lot of people. And that certainly runs counter to the traditional fan belief that it’s a duff episode, doesn’t it?

All of which is to say that it’s worth finding something to love in this episode; after all, in amongst every episode you’re not so sure about there’s something that someone’s going to enjoy. Watching it back again today, I couldn’t help but think the opening was really nice, and very Doctor Who; a simple moment of enjoyment, where the Doctor just throws himself into it all with gleeful abandon, poking around and making friends and having fun. It felt like a nice reminder of what it’s (sort of) all about, in contrast to recent years where the focus has been a little more on the ‘Doctor of War’ (or even a contrast to distant years of the Time Lord Victorious!) than on this sort of thing.

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Granted, though… well, it’s not without flaws. Much as I enjoyed it back in the day – and, don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly entertaining now – and as much as I still think it’s worth highlighting what was good about it and what worked about it, there’s still a few noteworthy issues.

Part of the benefit of rewatching these episodes with a decade’s worth of hindsight is the new perspective – more specifically, though, the perspective of someone who pretends to be a professional television critic, and wants to pretend to be a professional television writer. Plus, it’s also that of someone who’s read a lot of books about Doctor Who, and the production of it – in this specific case, it’s having read The Writer’s Tale, and knowing about the difficulties Russell T Davies had writing this episode.

Davies was right, I think, to be concerned about the disaster movie format fighting with the Doctor Who format. The easiest flaw to point out is structural; where disaster movies tend to pick off the cast one by one, Voyage of the Damned more or less just disposes with a large chunk of them all in one lengthy set-piece. It doesn’t exactly work, dividing the episode into two slightly disjointed halves. On top of that, though, there’s the feeling that maybe none of it quite lands – that tonally, as it swings from tragedy to broad humour, the impact doesn’t always register. (And I don’t think that’s a rule, as such, rather that it just doesn’t quite work here.) Arguably, in a way, that makes it feel darker – as the loses aren’t quite acknowledged, the moments of levity feel out of place, leaving it all just a little bit grim. Part of the issue feels difficult to articulate exactly, because it’s not really one thing that’s wrong – rather, there’s lots of nice moments and fun details that don’t exactly add up to the potential sum of their parts. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as perhaps it could have.

But, I suppose, it returns to another little fact from The Writer’s Tale – an anecdote where a journalist describes Voyage of the Damned as being fun. They meant it dismissively, but you know what? It is fun. And there’s a place for that – especially at Christmas.

7/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Evolution of the Daleks

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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

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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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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Satan Pit

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If I believe in anything, I believe in her

There’s a certain camp of the audience who would hold this episode up as the best of each of the Doctor Who two parters – certainly, the best of the Tennant era in any case. Of course, right now, I can’t really comment on that (I try my best to make sure not to make such sweeping generalisations without having, you know, seen the episodes within the past few years) but I can certainly attest to the fact that this episode really is pretty damn good.

In my reviews I do tend to focus on the writing side of things, because that’s typically what I’m interested in – I like to think of myself as something of a writer, so it’s the story side of things that I’m most concerned with when it comes down to these reviews. To an extent I’ll also talk about the acting, but I know that I often let that fall by the wayside. It’s rarer still that I refer to and commend the direction, the score, or the set design; in part, because they’re not really my area of expertise, but also, admittedly, a tendency on my behalf to take them for granted.

Now seems as good a time as any to rectify this, because The Satan Pit is an impressively well-constructed piece of television.

James Strong, the director, did a wonderful job of making this a very atmospheric episode. Something that stood out to me at the time – and has remained with me ever since – is the ventilation shaft chase. It’s a brilliant sequence, which is genuinely, properly tense; probably one of the best air vent chase sequences I’ve ever seen. Jefferson’s death is particularly chilling, in fact, and well portrayed by all involved.

Last week I spoke about the design, and how impressive it was – largely, though, I was focused on the base. I didn’t really mention the underground cavern; impressive though it was, it didn’t really get a lot of screentime last episode. It’s a really lovely design though; a wide expanse, hinting at an impossibly old civilisation. When Ida says it’s beautiful down there, well… she’s right.

As ever, of course, there’s also Murray Gold’s music. He comes under criticism at times for overdoing it – making the scores very overt, telegraphing exactly how you’re meant to feel at any given time – but the musical cues are, I think, undeniably quite effective here. There’s one recurring motif that crops up quite often in this episode, and it’s absolutely the right sort of piercing noise for this quite frightening episode.

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One of the central ideas of this episode is the fact that the Doctor confronts the Devil. On paper, that’s both insane and irresistible – the Doctor confronting the ultimate evil? It’s reaching for something so grand and so compelling that it’s a hugely rich concept in and of itself… but it’s also very difficult to execute, isn’t it? I mean, on some level, doesn’t that implicitly do away with the vision of the Doctor as just a guy with a box, if he’s someone who comes up against the Devil? Then again, perhaps it’s an idea that’s more palatable following the Time War – even then, though, what do they say to each other? How do you write that dialogue? What does the Devil say?

At first glance, they avoid this confrontation. Just write around it entirely, really; the Doctor never does speak to the Beast. He confronts only the body – only the animal. Except it’s not really true, there, because what the Doctor is actually confronting is the iconography of the Beast – the image of evil, and the idea of it. He’s forced to examine his own beliefs; right at the beginning of the writing process, that was the pitch for this episode. To write a scenario where the Doctor has to genuinely assess what he believes to be true. You can see him genuinely having to take pause throughout; not just in terms of whether or not the Beast can be “before time”, but also whether or not there genuinely is one single entity of evil. He’d normally take the same stance as Ida, in her neoclassical church, that evil is simply the actions that men do… but what if?

Rather fantastically, though, this debate is woven through the fabric of the episode itself. Because the beliefs the Doctor has been espousing so enthusiastically across this two parter – about the ingenuity and curiosity and initiative of the human spirit – is one that is in a fundamental diametric opposition to this endless, inconceivable evil. It’s brought up early on, of course, when the Beast first starts sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the crew, but it’s always there as a creeping undertone.

And, ultimately, it’s left down to interpretation who wins out in the end. The Doctor’s fall is stopped – so perhaps that niggling desire to fall is bested by the positive desires to explore. But then he does have to fall; he has to be subsumed by the unknown. You’ve got Jefferson’s death – is it a noble sacrifice, or pointless brutality? Right at the end, the focus of the episode isn’t the Doctor’s faith in Rose; the final word goes to the Ood. The last note of this story is death.

Maybe the Beast was sent into the Black Hole. But if the Devil really is just an idea… who got the last word?

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Also following on from last week is the further development of the relationship between the Doctor and Rose.

And I can wholeheartedly say that they are indeed blatantly in love with one another.

It’s quite clear throughout, really; they’re genuinely distressed at being separate from one another, far moreso now than ever before, because here it seems like it might be permanent. Rose is terrified of a life without the Doctor – even to the point of being more willing to stay in the base, facing certain death, than she is to face a life without the Doctor.

Earlier in the episode, you’ve got the moment where the Doctor is about to fall into the pit – facing god knows what, with no way of knowing whether or not he’d come back. Facing, quite possibly, a far more permanent death than ever before. And his final thought is of Rose, but he still can’t quite articulate it. He’s about to say he loves her; we all know that – but he believes she knows it too. It’s a nice little parallel (or more accurately, piece of foreshadowing) to what’s coming at the end of Doomsday.

What’s most interesting, though, is that in the face of the Beast, what they ultimately assert is their faith in each other. If the Doctor believes in one thing, he believes in her – and that is the best statement of their relationship that exists. Certainly, it’s this episode which deserves to be held up as one of the most iconic of their relationship, because this is the story where their relationship is most emphatically defined.

It’s a really, genuinely triumphant moment – when the Doctor says at the end, all he knows is that they beat the Devil… the reason for that was because of the bond he shares with Rose. That, according to Doctor Who, is what you need to beat evil – faith in the people around you. The people you love.

That’s probably the most innately Doctor Who philosophy that this episode could ever have proposed. A really, genuinely, properly Who thing to say.

So! A very good episode this week. I enjoyed it a lot.

8/10

(Gotta say, I am hugely looking forward to next week, because the episode that follows this one is amongst my favourite Doctor Who episodes of all time. Yes, honestly.)

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Impossible Planet

doctor who the impossible planet review matt jones james strong russell t davies ood satan 666 david tennant billie piper

We are the legion of the beast. The legion shall be many; and the legion shall be free.

One of the most interesting aspects of these two part stories is their capacity for world building. Given the style and format of the average 45-minute episode of Doctor Who, there isn’t necessarily the opportunity to really delve into the culture and society of each place the Doctor and Rose land week on week. Consider, for instance, something like New Earth; we get a deft sketch of the hospital, yes, but there’s not a huge amount of detail regarding how it works, what the rest of the world is like, and so on and so forth.

Don’t get me wrong, that absolutely works. I think one of Russell T Davies’ most useful skills as a Doctor Who writer is his ability to give the impression of a wider world with just a few short lines. He’s great at things like that, quite often deploying evocative and imaginative lines, referring to the planet Felspoon, where the mountains sway in the breeze, and so on and so forth. It’s a clever way of hinting at and showing us the shape of a broader world, while still working within the constraints of the format.

But! It’s still really nice to be able to spend some time getting to know a place more slowly, learning about the characters, and just generally sort of luxuriate in the world itself. There was a scene in this episode where we took a couple of minutes to watch Scooti take a space-walk and do some maintenance; though it also works as set up for a later sequence, it is genuinely difficult to imagine this sort of thing happening in the Moffat era, with its hyper compressed narrative speed. It wouldn’t always work, of course, and spending too long on the slower moments would be a mistake… but in this instance, I was quite fond of the little stuff.

The entire episode makes great use of the dirty, “used future” aesthetic that was so popular in movies like the original Star Wars trilogy, or the Alien franchise; we get a real sense that this base is lived in and battered and genuinely right out there on the edge. It’s a really nice way of giving us a sense of a living, breathing world; these people are right out there on the edge of the frontier, just barely holding on and pulling through. You get a sense of that through the characters as well – little details like Zachary Cross Flane (a fantastic, eccentrically futuristic name) being the Acting Captain, rather than the original Captain, giving the impression of the peril they’d been through previously.

Similarly, the Ood are a wonderful race. Neil Gorton did a fantastic job with the prosthetics and the general design – personally speaking, I think the Ood have the best look of all the New Series Doctor Who monsters. That, I imagine, is why they’re so iconic – it’s all down to that bulbous head and those dangly fronds. The design belies a similarly interesting concept, which is that of a slave race. As we know, this is followed up on in the fourth series, but for now, we’re once again given a look at a new and unfamiliar side of the universe.

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Another notable aspect of The Impossible Planet is the manner in which it blurs the lines between different genres, being simultaneously one of the furthest that new Doctor Who has gone into ‘hard’ science fiction, and the one of the furthest that Doctor Who has gone into a sort of… fantasy horror type genre.

Before this point, the closest to a ‘hard’ science fiction was The Long Game, but even then it was centred quite firmly around Earth and the human experience, given that it was a news satellite orbiting our planet. Here, though, we’re almost entirely divorced from the Earth – yes, obviously, we’ve got a human crew, but that’s just about it. There are a large number of Ood hanging around, we’re on a gritty and grimy space base, and we’re on a faraway planet orbiting a black hole, of all things. This is as sci-fi as Doctor Who has ever been in the past two years.

(I’m using the term ‘hard science fiction’ loosely, realising that Doctor Who takes many liberties with science quite often; I’d be genuinely surprised if any part of this episode was in any way accurate at all. What I’m referring to is more the iconography and the images associated with it, which are of course on full display in this episode.)

At the same time, though, it’s the most overtly horror/fantasy story that the series has done so far as well. We’ve got an ancient language that defies translation, powerful sigils and possession. There’s even the idea of the Devil himself – not a devil, or a demon, but the Devil. Satan, Abbadon, Krop Tor. I’ll talk about this a lot more next week, obviously, as the story delves into this idea more, but for now I just want to highlight how well these aspects work, and the genuine sense fear and tension that’s palpable throughout the episode.

(Again, the term ‘horror/fantasy’ is a bit of a loose one here. I’m aware of things like The Unquiet Dead, obviously, but I feel like the difference is that this is much more of a sort of… almost cosmological horror, really. The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw both saw fairly traditional monsters – ghosts and werewolves respectively. This, to me, feels like something a little more off the wall and outlandish in its approach.)

Essentially, what we’ve got is a sci-fi story which is being haunted by something much older, and much more complex. It gives the whole story a really rich and compelling tone throughout, far more so than it would have had had it simply been about a space base under siege, or a possession story on Earth. By blending these ideas together, The Impossible Planet has a much more powerful set of iconographies working in its favour, and the episode is stronger because of it.

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It’s also worth talking about Rose and the Doctor here, not least because there’s some further development of their arc together, but also simply because I’ve not really discussed it in a while.

Often, we talk about the Doctor and Rose as being a love story, and… to an extent, yes, that’s been there for a long time. Certainly, there are little impressions of it during the series – Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel both have quite a few moments where you can see how devoted they are to one another – but for my money, this is where it stops becoming subtext, and starts becoming more overt.

A moment that sticks in my mind is when the Doctor and Rose are discussing the possibility of them getting a mortgage. It’s an entertaining exchange in and of itself, because of how utterly the Doctor rejects the idea of a normal life, but there’s a lot more going on there. It’s clearly building to Rose trying to ask the Doctor about the pair of them living together, but when she does bring up the shared mortgage, she ultimately fumbles the moment.

And I liked that! It was awkward, but it felt true to life. The pair of them share such a deep bond, and they’ve saved each other’s lives countless times, but they still struggle with the more banal expressions of affection. To me, that was a pretty nice moment in terms of the development of their relationship, and the general continuation of that plotline.

They both got a lot of nice individual moments too, of course. I was particularly fond of the Doctor asking to hug Acting Captain Zachary, and Rose expressing empathy towards and taking an interest in the Ood works really well. It’s a nice moment which is in keeping with what we’ve seen from her so many times before, and it feeds into the broader message of compassion and tolerance which is so central to Doctor Who.

Obviously, it’s difficult to properly judge this episode, given that it’s only half of a much larger story. I know that the relationship between the Doctor and Rose is going to develop further next week, and similarly the idea of the Beast is going to become much more central to proceedings next week also.

Nonetheless, this episode is still an entertaining episode in its own right; while I’d never just watch it on its own normally, having done so this week, I don’t feel like my enjoyment of it is dependent on seeing The Satan Pit as well.

Still, though.

I’m very much looking forward to it!

8/10

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