Doctor Who Series 2 has The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit. Doctor Who Series 4 has Donna Noble in every episode. Ah but Doctor Who Series 3 is my favourite Tenth Doctor season. It’s a tough call, but in 2007, Doctor Who was fresh and exciting again. It was scary and beautiful. It introduced Martha Jones (Freema Agyman) who I fell for immediately. And yet, it has the distinction of featuring the first series finale that genuinely let me down. For the first time, modern-day Doctor Who had truly disappointed me.
Oh, sure, some previous serials weren’t up to muster. Love & Monsters wasn’t great. New Earth left me feeling very anxious about the show. But Last of the Time Lords was the first time I sat in front of the TV and thought, “That was awful.” As far as 16-year-old me was concerned, Doctor Who had built to a crescendo and let me down appallingly.
Sadly, it was a feeling I’d have to get used to. I felt similarly about The Stolen Earth/ Journey’s End. Much of Series 8 left me cold. And Series 11 barely registers as Doctor Who. I guess that’s the price you sometimes pay for investing so heavily in a programme. But here’s the interesting thing: I forgive a lot in retrospect. I’ve warmed to Series 8 considerably, for instance. I’m seldom put off rewatching a story because I didn’t enjoy it so much when it first aired, so I’ve come to appreciate much of what I hadn’t before. I now think New Earth is fantastic fun (and one line about nanogenes would’ve cleared up any fuss over its ending).
So have I forgiven Last of the Time Lords? I’m not sure just yet. It leaves me conflicted: it’s made better because Series 3 is otherwise so strong; then again, it’s much worse because the rest of the season is wonderful.
I’m an optimist, however, so permit me to enthuse about why Series 3 is brilliant – and criminally underrated.
4.6 Billion Years Ago
Has your life ever turned completely on its head in a very short amount of time? Of course it has. We’re delicate creatures, our lives pushed and pulled around by the smallest of things: a word; a feeling; a broken heart; a passing; an opportunity; a birth. These things can come from within us, but more often than not, our lives are determined by other people.
It’s underlined by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. This is a storytelling template that begins with the “Ordinary World”, i.e. how the protagonist currently lives, proceeds through various stages – like “Approach to the Inmost Cave” (the trip to the main goal), “Ordeal” (a major test of a hero’s strength), and “Resurrection” (protagonist versus antagonist) – all the way to “Return With The Elixir”, which charts the final reward.
But here, we’re concerned with “Meeting the Mentor” and “Crossing the Threshold”. The Doctor (David Tennant) is the mentor and the TARDIS allows Martha to cross the threshold. His life is a selfish one, and he lets others share this selfish attitude – until, that is, the consequences catch up on them. Our lives are determined by other people, and for Martha’s whole family, the individual in question wears a blue suit. You can blame the Master (John Simm). You can also blame Martha. All those evaluations are apt. It’s the Doctor, though, who picks Martha up and drops her in at the deep end, leaving the other strands in her life to follow.
Between Rose and Aliens of London, a year passed, meaning Rose Tyler’s family and friends felt the consequences of her gallivanting off into time and space. In that year, we only saw Rose visit the year 5.5/Apple/26 and 1869. In contrast, Martha Jones’ family suffered the consequences of her gallivanting off into time and space – in just a few days. That’s one thing I really love about Series 3. The lives of the Joneses change completely over… what, maybe 3 or 4 days? In that time, however, Martha has been everywhere. She’s been to Shakespearian England; saw the Moon landing numerous times; visited New New York; met Daleks while the Empire State Building was being finished; and nipped off to see the end of the universe (via a brief sojourn to Cardiff).
Meanwhile, Francine (Adjoa Andoh) votes for a madman.
Everything changes for them in just a few days; which makes the juxtaposition of Martha’s far-reaching travels all the more enjoyable. Because Series 3 is bookended by the beginning and the end – specifically, the beginning of the Earth, as witnessed by the Doctor and Donna in The Runaway Bride, and the end of everything, with the human race scrabbling in the darkness as the stars go out.
Series 3’s scale is extraordinary. But that’s where Russell T. Davies excels, in clashing everyday life with the astronomically mind-blowing, and in finding wonder in both.
This is encapsulated by this lovely scene in The Runaway Bride, in which the Doctor shows Donna the formation of the Earth, while the latter is mourning her relationship. The Doctor wins her around, but his initial promise, “Donna, we’re going further back than I’ve ever been before”, is met solely with silent sobs. It nicely demonstrates Catherine Tate’s acting skills because let’s face it, she surprised us all. I liked Donna in The Runaway Bride, but I didn’t think she could prop up a whole series. I was wrong – thankfully. Tate blew me out of the water every single episode. Her departure in Journey’s End is heart-breaking. There are always tears when the Doctor’s involved, huh?
And Series 3 is quite a dour beast. There’s a lot of darkness. A common arc for series is for them to gradually get darker, but this run is pretty dark from just the third episode.
But if we continue to look at things chronologically, Martha’s furthest trip back in time is quite a lark.
It’s strange to think that, on screen at least, Martha only travelled as far back as the 16th Century. This, her first trip in the TARDIS, found her watching Love’s Labour’s Lost and discovering what happened to the Bard’s lost masterpiece, Love’s Labour’s Won.
The Shakespeare Code is Gareth Roberts’ first script for the series (after his novel, Only Human, impressed RTD), and it’s indicative of the his other stories: it’s a lot of fun; has very clever, often “meta”, dialogue; and is as confident as the Doctor – walking around like he owns the place. I much prefer this less preachy, more practical take on historical racism to that seen in Thin Ice. Martha takes it all in her stride, an attitude that continues throughout the series (notably how she rises above the casual racism and misogynism displayed in Human Nature).
Freema Agyeman brings a new energy and enthusiasm to the show. Her excitement is infectious and makes The Shakespeare Code a real joy. It bubbles over to the Doctor too: when she compares the power of the stage to the TARDIS (“It’s like your police box – small wooden box with all that power inside!”), the Doctor relents, “Oh, Martha Jones, I like you.”
It makes his reluctance to accept her even more frustrating. It’s good to see the Doctor in a negative light now and then. It reminds you he really is alien. You get that unearthly ferocity in The Unquiet Dead, but in The Shakespeare Code, it’s quieter, more cutting. He’s idolised his ex, essentially: “Rose would know. A friend of mine – Rose. Right now, she’d say exactly the right thing,” the Doctor says, lamenting that he’s missing something. Then, with an ignorance that begs for Martha to slap him: “Still, can’t be helped. You’re a novice; never mind. Take you back home tomorrow.” It’s testament to Freema that you’re already invested in Martha, despite this only being her second episode. The Doctor doesn’t just hurt his new companion; he hurts the audience too. It could be the first time the Tenth Doctor is portrayed in such a negative light.
The actual lighting in this episode creates a wonderfully grim tone, as if witchcraft has turned the landscape. Yes, this is partly necessity due to the time period, but it’s highlighted in the scenes set at the Globe Theatre – bright and clear in comedic moments (mostly with Kempe and Burbage, both excellent players), then gloomy and sinister when the Carrionites’ plans march on. The final act, as the Carrionites descend and begin “the millennium of blood”, is an onslaught to the senses. It’s all too much – but punctuated by a wit that’s laced throughout the narrative.
This is where Roberts really excels. The humorous pay-offs. The puns. The silliness. His vision for Doctor Who is clear. It’s fun and funny. It’s ridiculous, which is exactly what Doctor Who should be.
In the panic, the Doctor and Martha rush to the Globe. He immediately puts aside his companion’s objection that they’re going the wrong way… then relents. “We’re going the wrong way.” It’s a simple sight gag, but executed brilliantly. So too is the doomsayer, gleefully watching the chaos at the theatre and exclaiming, “I told thee so!”
And how great that the audience, after witnessing the events of Love’s Labour’s Won, simply applaud. It accurately undermines the idea, bred into students the world over, that everyone understood Shakespeare, and that only the dumb don’t “get it”.
Shakespeare himself is fleshed out nicely too, particularly as we learn about his family, about Hamnet, and the depression that pursued him. Martha is a good identification figure, immediately questioning his lost son’s name and fitting that into our contemporary contexts. Her repulsion at Bedlam is fitting as well, though importantly, Roberts shows that time will make asses of us all and that you’ve got to understand others, even if you don’t approve. “I’ve been mad,” William says. “I’ve lost my mind. Fear of this place set me right again. It serves its purpose.”
Dean Lennox Kelley is a superb Shakespeare: a tough task, considering the weight of expectation, following in a long line of people who have played the Bard. How does he stack up? He’s cheeky and witty, matter-of-fact yet romantic. He’s a frustrated celebrity and a disheartened genius, one minute ahead of his time and the next simpering and childish. He’s very much pulled from the real works of Shakespeare.
That’s The Shakespeare Code to a tee: knowing and churlish. That extends to sneaky references to plays (Roberts did it better in The Unicorn and the Wasp, however), allusions to other Doctor Who serials, and numerous mentions of that other writer synonymous with magic, J. K. Rowling. She’s good too. But hey, she’s no Shakespeare.
10th– 11th November 1913
Should Doctor Who adapt novels, comics, or even audio adventures for the small screen? The matter, perhaps, is academic – not only is Paul Cornell’s Human Nature based on his book of the same name, but Series 3 features another tale loosely based on a short story (which we’ll come back to). The Lodger (2010) is similarly based on a tale from another medium, that of the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip.
The point is, it’s been done a few times. And done very well.
Human Nature/ The Family of Blood is one of the highlights of Series 3. Unquestionably a beautiful work. And once more, the Doctor is often portrayed in a negative light. He utterly disregards Martha and the rest of humanity in favour of the aliens. Why? Because he was being kind. If the choice is humanity or the alien, don’t be too sure which way the Doctor will swing.
It’s most telling when Joan asks, “If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died?” It’s with stinging disdain that she then dismisses him merely with “You can go”. And John Smith isn’t exempt from this criticism. Especially shocking is his allowing the school’s bullies to beat up Tim Latimer (Thomas Sangster) for falling behind on the shooting range. His cruelty here shows how much he’s integrated into this time. Then there’s his willingness to get the schoolchildren to defend the place. Joan Redfern tries to pull him out of this, though the students still have to fight off the creepy scarecrows. One of the best-delivered lines comes from Hutchinson: “Then no one’s dead, sir? We killed no one?” Before, so willing to fight; now, thankful he’s not a murderer.
Of course, it’s a sad fact that kids that age did have to see warfare. Cornell shows the tragedy of the situation beautifully, extending it right to the end as the Doctor and Martha face the consequences of all that’s happened. It feels right that they observe the aged Tim from afar; this was his war and, while he knows he’s not alone, he’s allowed to remember and grieve in his own way. Despite being a part of Tim’s formation as an adult, Martha and the Doctor remain removed from this particular situation.
John Smith’s similarly harsh with Martha, as he falls back on his true feelings for her: he only likes her as a companion; there’s no love involved. It makes Martha’s admission – “He’s just everything to me and he doesn’t even look at me, but I don’t care, because I love him to bits” – one of the bravest things in this two-parter. It’s a truly gut-wrenching moment, understated yet strong.
Fortunately, John Smith isn’t entirely unrecognisable from the Doctor. Most notably, he partially redeems himself with an astonishingly impossible throw of a cricket ball. Tennant makes Smith likeable, so you really care when he’s having to face the truth. You feel his anguish too, even though you want the Doctor to return. The whole situation is steeped in dramatic irony: arguably, because you know the Doctor will always win the day (okay, there are occasional exceptions), this always sits at the heart of the show, but it’s more apt here – the audience knows the Doctor will return and that John is merely fighting the inevitable. But crucially, this doesn’t matter. It adds to it, in fact. The tragedy is palpable. Part of this comes from knowing that the Doctor argues that he does want such a life. When the Eleventh Doctor was asked by Kazran Sardick what he wanted, he simply replies, “a simple life.” When the Ninth Doctor hears how Sarah Clark and Stuart Hoskins met in Father’s Day, he finds amazement in the small details and laments that he’s never lived that way. Of course, this seeming desire is a lie, one the Doctor tells himself, which makes Human Nature/ The Family of Blood a cruel fantasy.
Nonetheless, there’s a clear distinction between the Doctor and John Smith, and well done to David Tennant for portraying that so perfectly. I’d argue it’s his episode – if it weren’t for the strong performances from the whole cast. Harry Lloyd (he’s the great-great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens, y’know) as Baines/Son Of Mine is especially creepy and memorable, and Lor Wilson, Rebekah Stanton, and Gerard Horan follow suit for the rest of the family. Thomas Sangster’s perfectly cast as the sensitive Latimer, a quirky soul who nicely represents a stereotypically repressed student. And Jessica Hynes is warm and charming, resolute yet shaken, as Redfern. She, too, is a character whose life has been irreversibly changed by the Doctor – which is partly why I never believed that scene in The End of Time where Hynes returns for a cameo and assures the Time Lord that she was happy in the end. It detracts from Human Nature/ The Family of Blood, an isolated piece that should remain untampered with.
Kathy Nightingale finds herself in Hull in 1920, a victim of a Weeping Angel. In a neat metaphor for the Doctor’s world colliding with our own, all it takes is a single touch.
1st November 1930, New York
Of course, it’s not always the Doctor who alters lives. In Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks, we’re presented with fictional life-changers and real-life ones: the former is obviously the Daleks, kidnapping and changing the citizens of New York; and the latter is the Wall Street Crash, which plummeted the United States into the Great Depression. (This followed a similar stock market crash in London in September 1929.)
The two-parter, written by Helen Raynor, deftly captures the juxtaposition between the Roaring Twenties and the subsequent economic downturn, and how easily a period of growth can contract again. “It’s the Depression, sweetie,” Tallulah (three l’s and an h) tells Martha. “Your heart might break, but the show goes on. Because if it stops, you starve.” We see plenty of that opulence: the glamour of the theatre, the excitement of backstage, the expansion of Manhattan, and the construction of the Empire State Building. The latter is an immediately magnetic presence throughout the story; then again, the Empire State Building is probably my favourite place in the world (okay, home ranks pretty highly too), so that was always going to be a highlight of the story. It’s nicely contrasted with Hooverville and the sewers beneath the city. We’re presented with the goods and the ills of capitalism, told in a less preachy way than Oxygen but certainly not without a wagging finger. (For my part – not an opinion likely to garner a warm reception in the current climate – I don’t think capitalism is an inherently bad thing; what’s more to blame is how the system is used to create such extremes, though this perhaps isn’t the time to discuss such matters.)
Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks has a lot going for it – including teaching many about this time, and especially the existence of Hooverville, the real-life shanty town populated by the homeless. Solomon sums it up nicely: “But I will say this about Hooverville – we are a truly equal society. Black, white: all the same. All starving.”
Sadly, Hugh Quarshie’s American accent lets him down, though I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as many say. Far better is Andrew Garfield (who would go on to be my favourite live action Spider-Man, for anyone taking note), who makes Frank likeable, engaging, and fleshed out, despite not enjoying a wealth of screen-time. The same can be said of Miranda Raison, who manages to give depth to what could otherwise become a caricature. Her New Yorker drawl is hilarious (“Haaands in the air and no funny business”) but she still pulls it off, likely because she fizzes with energy. Tallulah’s a wonderful creation.
The best bit of Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks, however, is James Strong’s direction. It looks beautiful. The colours are rich, the angles inventive, and lighting deceptively clever. The darkness constricting, while the city’s glow feels somehow both optimistic and tainted, like it’s trying to brighten the night but it’s not enough, not just yet.
All naysayers should rewatch the story with an eye on direction. Doctor Who has seldom looked better.
So what lets Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks down? I’d say it’s primarily three things.
The first is Dalek Sec. Poor Eric Loren really suffered under that restrictive headgear: the whirring machinery inside meant he couldn’t even hear the other actors. Nonetheless, he gives it a good shot and, if you overlook the prosthetics, he largely succeeds. There’s a sensitivity to his performance, a sadness and realisation about missed opportunities and wasted lives – not just Dalek Sec’s but also, I feel, Mr Diagoras’. I particularly like his considering music, quietly stretching his new palm across the speaker. Loren shows the growth of ideas and the sadness that brings with real precision.
It nonetheless feels right that he’s killed by his former kin. A tragic end for a tragic character. Yet the ending is another disappointment. It ends not with an extermination but an emergency temporal shift. The hybrids are killed, two Daleks blow up, and Dalek Caan gets away. It’s by necessity that the race survives, sure, but it still feels like the narrative built to something big but instead opted for a whimper.
The biggest crime, though, is the Doctor, shown here at his angriest and most idiotic too. Considering Raynor was Script Editor too, so should’ve known the central character inside-out, the Doctor’s particularly badly written, and Tennant also dials it up to eleven.
The pinnacle of this stupidity and rage is when the Daleks attack Hooverville and, seeing Solomon killed, the Time Lord yells for extermination “if it’ll stop you attacking these people”. But, uh, it wouldn’t. The Doctor’s begging for a pointless death. It’s utterly ridiculous and flies in the face of everything we know about him. Ultimately, it’s an uncharacteristic stand, merely a way to get to this scene’s endpoint: Sec stopping the Daleks from killing. His hesitation is a good moment, but unjustified.
These niggles are a shame because we can save much from the fire of Daleks in Manhattan/ Evolution of the Daleks. It has something interesting to say about Doctor Who‘s best-known antagonists, but that tale is muddied and sullied. A line can be drawn between its approach and that of The Evil of the Daleks; however, the comparison doesn’t do the Series 3 two-parter any favours.
Here, we find the Doctor and Martha, stuck in the past without the TARDIS. As years go, there are worse. At least Billy Shipton gets to enjoy the moon landings (an event that’s obviously, and rightly, important to writer, Steven Moffat; he’d focus Day of the Moon in this same period in 2011). It’s a year where humanity ventured further than ever before. I’m always amazed at how far the moon is from us. It’s 1.3 light seconds from Earth. We can see 46 billion light years in all directions, giving us a diametrical reach of 92 billion light years. It’s mind-blowing to consider that the furthest mankind has physically ventured onto an alien body is “just” 1.3 light seconds away.
Perhaps this is why. In 1987, Kathy Nightingale dies – very likely before she was even born. It highlights the fragility of our lives.
So what remains of us? After exploring our limitations, surely there must be some redemption, some legacy. DNA lasts. It’s not a particularly romantic notion, but it is a fact. It’s estimated that its bonds are irreversibly broken after 6.8 million years. In more sentimental terms, your bloodline sustains.
For me, the more romantic notion is that stories, or at least ideas, last. There’s a solid argument that our ability to communicate ideas is what makes us human. I rather like that; it’s something I deeply believe (although I admit it’s partly because it places great importance on the storytellers, and that’s essentially what all writers are. Clearly, this is going to my head).
Admittedly, individual stories might not last the test of time. We mull over Shakespeare, Homer, and Enid Blyton, but there’s no guarantee that mankind will be reciting Othello, The Iliad, or Noddy Goes To Toyland in coming millennia. In fact, it’s highly unlikely. But the themes will remain. The structures, the archetypes, even the legends. Stories have a way of coming back to us, in different forms. They’re how we understand the world, however changeable that may be.
(I also find it sweetly fanciful that Lucy the Australopithecus, who shifted our understanding of common descent, is named after the Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds because it was played by paleoanthropologists when her fossils were brought back to camp; you can imagine her coming alive, those intervening generations melting away as we see similarities, not just differences. A lovely melding of science and stories.)
One common theme is how an “everyman”, albeit typically a smart and savvy everyman, can help the strongest overcome an obstacle. An example of this, and the cyclical nature of stories, is ‘What I Did on My Christmas Holidays’ By Sally Sparrow, a short story by Steven Moffat, published in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual (i.e. on sale in 2005). It’s Blink without the Weeping Angels: rather a touching tale about its titular hero, Sally Sparrow, returning the TARDIS to the Ninth Doctor, who has got stuck in the past. Moffat obviously thought the premise held more promise – resulting in one of the greatest-known serials in the show’s history…
Yep, it’s Blink, a modern-day classic, often seen in fans’ Top 10 lists. You can see why.
The plot is deceptively simple. Just as with ‘What I Did on My Christmas Holidays’ By Sally Sparrow, it’s about Sally getting the TARDIS to the Doctor. Moffat finds smart ways for the Doctor to communicate with Sally through the years, but the main driving force is through DVD Easter Eggs, making Tennant a presence throughout. It’s an ingenious way of making a Doctor-lite episode without it feeling like the main character is entirely absent (The Girl Who Waited does it best, in my opinion).
Saying that, if I were to rate the Weeping Angels serials, Blink would come just below The Time of Angels/ Flesh and Stone, purely because we do get to spend a lot of time with the Doctor in that Series 5 two-parter.
Nonetheless, the Time Lord’s absence makes the whole situation feel more dangerous. The Angels themselves are terrifying, made doubly so through the performances of the cast and Hettie Macdonald’s direction. The statues’ movements are either scarily obvious or creepily understated; chiefly, the latter happens in the backgrounds – like when Sally retrieves the TARDIS key from an Angel’s grasp while one watches behind her.
Steven’s stories written under Davies’ lead are all superb, and I’d argue that Blink is probably the weakest of these – which says a lot about how enjoyable The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, and Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead are. Because Blink really is a masterpiece.
The TARDIS returns to Cardiff to soak up the remnant rift energy, and the Doctor puzzles over the fact the rift’s been active recently. The events leading into Utopia took part in Torchwood Series 1, specifically End of Days, and it’s a tad odd seeing Captain Jack Harkness back in Doctor Who. It’s reassuring to have another familiar face on screen; still, you can’t dismiss all that he’s done – and all that’s happened to him – in the spin-off show.
I guess that’s the whole point of a spin-off. And yet it feels as if Doctor Who is rubbing shoulders with the New Adventures universe again. It’s a bit riskier, a bit grubbier, a bit… less like warm, friendly, approachable Doctor Who. Presumably the TARDIS translation circuits filter out all the swearing.
So yes, I like seeing John Barrowman again. Captain Jack is more than welcome. It just leaves me slightly unsettled.
Also 2007 (Probably)
The Master lands on 21st Century Earth and begins constructing a fake life and the Paradox Machine.
24th December 2007
The Runaway Bride is the best Tenth Doctor Christmas special. There, I’ve said it.
Back then, 2006 felt like The Best Christmas Ever. We had Doctor Who, the last few episodes of Torchwood Series 1, and the launch of The Sarah Jane Adventures on 1st January 2007. The Runaway Bride was fittingly exciting and poignant, exactly what you’d expect from festive viewing. And that’s what’s so great about The Runaway Bride – it’s a solid coda to Series 2 while also fizzing with potential.
Let’s not forget that Donna was the first one-off companion and the first after Rose Tyler, who quickly won the audience over when Doctor Who returned. It’d be understandable if such a companion were fashioned in the same vein as Rose, but she’s not. Admittedly, her trappings are loosely the same, as are Martha’s – a typical family life, the sort Russell writes so beautifully, with a disapproving but loving mother. But Donna is stronger than Rose, more realistic, and, despite her natural protestations over not being able to attend her own wedding seemingly because of the Doctor, less selfish. Donna is a brave character – both as a person and as a creation. She’s unashamedly Donna Noble. No wonder Davies brought her back for Series 4.
Catherine Tate was seen as a comedy actor, so it’s understandable that there was some trepidation over her casting. Remember how shocked we all were at the end of Doomsday when she popped up in the TARDIS?! Remember the headlines?! Oh, Russell, you clever man.
Clever, too, for seeing that Tate’s abilities stretched far beyond having perfect comedy timing. Her chemistry with Tennant makes this pairing work well. You can first see this during the fantastic taxi/TARDIS race, in which Donna trusts the Doctor and takes the leap (metaphorically and literally). “Is that what you said to her?” Donna asks. “Your friend, the one you lost? Did she trust you?”
“Yes, she did,” the Doctor replies, and look at his sparkling eyes when he adds: “And she is not dead. She is so alive. Now, jump!”
I love how this partnership goes from warmth to comedy on a pinhead. Just prior to that exchange, Donna yells that she can’t jump – she’s in her wedding dress. Quick as a flash, the Doctor comes back with, “Yes, you look lovely! Come on!” Superb writing, enhanced by excellent performances. It’s nice to have the Pilot Fish back too, with creepy new plastic faces. Maybe one more outing would be cool, especially if the Nestene Consciousness decides to invade the festivities.
Meanwhile, the main villain, Sarah Parish’s Empress of the Racnoss, is pantomime-esque, and that’s just fine. It’s better than that, actually. She chews the scenery, hissing and spitting and being vile in the most mesmerising way. It’s telling of her impact that, 13 years on, fans saw the Series 12 trailer and asked whether a particular monster was a member of the Racnoss race. Sure, people complain that we don’t get to see the spiders crawling up out of the ground, but that’s a minor niggle, especially considering how impressive the Empress model is. They had to come all the way from the centre of the Earth – give ’em a break, folks!
The Empress is a memorable antagonist, and her cruelty brings out the worst in the Doctor. Once more, his detachment and bitterness makes the Doctor a concerning figure. Donna stops him from going too far (a thread later picked up in Turn Left), but this is what he’s always done, surely? Donna just saved him from the flood too. He’d already killed another species. This time, he planned to stick around; as noted in Boom Town, he’s normally the first to run off, scared of the consequences.
The Doctor’s had a major impact this Christmas special, not solely on the Racnoss (victims of the Time Lords, with the Doctor providing the final nail in the coffin) but also Donna. She plans to travel the world. She doesn’t. The Doctor travels largely without limitations; those he leaves behind are sadly left confined to one time, one place, one existence. They have to go the long way round.
Day 1 in 2008
My favourite Tenth Doctor Christmas special leads to my favourite Series 3 serial – Smith and Jones, and yes, that might surprise many because this is the season with Gridlock, Human Nature/ The Family of Blood, and Blink. It is a tough choice, but there’s so much I love about Martha Jones’ first episode… and a large part of that is Martha Jones.
She’s extraordinary. I don’t know how else to say it. What an actress and what a companion!
I remember being excited about Smith and Jones. Really very excited. The clips we’d seen, the trailers released, the press interviews – they all hyped up a season that promised a fresh take on Doctor Who. As the music kicks in after the title sequence, we meet Martha, zooming through life, being pulled around by familial arguments, then stopped, suddenly, by a mysterious stranger who seemed to know her, who removes his tie and speaks as if he’s in mid-conversation. It’s a fun framing device that aptly demonstrates the Doctor’s care-free attitude and willingness to impress.
And he does set out to impress Martha. She’s clever and intuitive, reasoning and witty. You can see the Doctor earmarking her early on, even if it’s somewhat begrudgingly; he simultaneously wants to move on from Rose and doesn’t. He doesn’t go into a reverie, as he does in The Snowmen following Amy and Rory’s departure, but carries on investigating the strange. We can perhaps credit Donna for this: her attitude spills over to the Doctor, as does her assertion that he sometimes needs someone to stop him.
The Doctor and Martha spark off one another immediately, so much so that he accidentally makes her overlook her basic doctor training. They continue to bring out the best and worst in each other throughout this episode and the rest of the season. Bring on Series 4 and the Doctor concedes that Martha did him a lot of good.
The Doctor did her a lot of good too, opening up her world and her mind – it’s telling that she won’t believe the Doctor’s mad stories for much of Smith and Jones, not even when they end up on the moon, courtesy of the Judoon.
Charles Palmer’s direction is incredible, as is the CGI. This episode looks stunning, whether that’s seeing the hospital in the middle of that lunar landscape; zooming down corridors, giving the serial a cracking pace; or in the limited confines of the Royal Hope’s rooms. A particularly strong shot comes when the Judoon leader scans the MRI: it’s tight on the alien’s face, showing off the great prosthetics, tipped at an angle so we can still see much of the room behind, and crackling with the glow of the medical equipment.
What’s not to love about Smith and Jones? The main niggle is that the Doctor saves the day by pulling the plug on the MRI. An anti-climax, yes, though the point is how Martha’s not only learnt from what she knows about the Doctor (two hearts!) and has acted upon it, but also that she’s willingly sacrificed herself to save Earth.
(I also love the Doctor’s annoyance at recalling the sonic screwdriver’s destruction, right when he’s about to use it on the scanner.)
No wonder the Doctor decides to give Martha an escape from everyday life.
Would she come to regret that decision? Not especially, but her family probably would. Their lives change a massive amount in such a short time. It’s not the Doctor’s fault, per se, but there is a recklessness there that makes him a deeply fallible character.
Day 2 in 2008
This theme becomes more obvious when the Doctor offers Martha one trip in the TARDIS at the end of Smith and Jones. And then he offers her an extension. And another. Martha’s constantly on the edge – which trip will be her last? It’s only when she’s become comfortable with her new life that he decides to drop her back home again. Her palpable excitement when asking the Doctor where they’ve landed is utterly heart-breaking when he retorts, “The end of the line; no place like it”, and she opens that door to find herself back home. For a full 7 seconds, I was fooled. Maybe this was the end for Martha. Who knows? Series 3 was proving unpredictable, after all.
Fortunately, this instead led to an underappreciated runabout tale that highlights the dangers of living too long.
That motion is quite common in Doctor Who, understandable given the protagonist’s age. The End of Time shows that death will always be that great unknown, no matter how long you’ve had to think about your immortal soul; The Time of the Doctor mulls over what happens when such a long life is confined to one place for too long; and Twice Upon A Time concludes that living too long just means you end up on your own.
That’s what The Lazarus Experiment tells us too. Richard Lazarus manages to change what it means to be human, but it’s still fleeting. He’s not the person you’d like to see outlive everyone else: he’s driven by greed and bitterness, a nature exacerbated by Lady Thaw; the pair are so similar, they’ve just got worse as they grow older. Their selfishness has consumed them, long before Richard actually consumes his other half.
Speaking of selfishness, we come back to the Doctor. His testy attitude to Lazarus is understandable, but it can come across as competitive. He’s afforded a long life, yet seems resistant to the idea that others would like such an extension too. His argument – that it’s not how long you live, but what you manage to pack into those years – is undermined by what happens to Tish Jones, played by the gorgeous Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In retrospect, she’s a pawn in the Master’s scheming; nonetheless, she involves herself in Martha’s new life and subsequently has to run away from a monster who she was going to kiss an hour or so before. She then has to rely on a complete stranger to save her.
The scenes at Southwark Cathedral are beautiful, a rare instance of Doctor Who taking place in such splendid surroundings. It’s an eerie desolation yet resplendent and holy. Faith plays an important role in Series 3, notable here, Gridlock, and Last of the Time Lords. It’s certainly true that faith is frequently misplaced.
Day 3 in 2008
It’s Election Day. Francine Jones has just taken a series of calls from her daughter, who, in one instant, asks her trivia about Elvis and the Beatles, then the next tries to have a heart-to-heart. Francine’s treated especially badly this season; you can completely understand why she’s so against the Doctor. As previously noted, he does bring out the worst in Martha, sometimes by necessity. Let’s not forget that Francine hears a horrible scream and Martha hangs up on her. After all, how could she explain what’s happening on the SS Pentallian?
Mind you, things are just as insane at home…
Days 4 and 5 in 2008
Presuming the polls closed at 10pm, Harold Saxon is appointed Prime Minister the following day, meaning his plan with the Toclafane kicks into gear the day after that.
The plan is madness, of course. That’s the Master for you. But it does actually work, so let’s give him some credit. True, there was only one way it could end; still, the situation does seem pretty hopeless. The Sound of Drums is a tour de force of an episode. It throws in all that it can and most work brilliantly.
The Master is in charge of the country. He’s arranged a visit from aliens. The President of the United States is drafted in. Anyone who learns the truth about the Master is killed violently. UNIT is powerless. Torchwood’s on a wild goose chase. The world is effectively hypnotised. The TARDIS team is on the run. The Jones family are incarcerated. Mankind greets said aliens on an aircraft carrier. The sky cracks. Murderous spheres fall from the blackness. The Master – and have you met the wife? – watches it all while listening to Rogue Traders’ Voodoo Child.
Madness. Utter madness. Utter, brilliant madness.
It’s not perfect, though.
I’ve long thought that The Sound of Drums was the ideal chance to have an episode entirely featuring the Master. Don’t bother bringing the Doctor and co. back until the very end. Admittedly, you’d lose the Fugitive-like scenes, but Last of the Time Lords does this anyway, albeit only Martha. The Sound of Drums could’ve been the 21st Century’s Mission to the Unknown. John Simm is more than capable of filling the screen-time. He’s exceptional.
A lot has been said about how this incarnation is really insane, chewing up the scenery, proving hilarious and threatening at the same time, gassing the entire cabinet because… well, why not? Less is said about this Master’s quieter moments, but they’re just as significant.
His levelled conversation with the Doctor over the phone, beginning with “I like it when you use my name”, is a superb exchange, even if it doesn’t last long. That’s okay: small scenes like this recall the brief instances in Classic Who when the Master’s mask would crack and he’d reveal how he couldn’t live without the Doctor. (Arguably, this thread is picked too much with Missy and starts coming apart: do we really think this particular character would take complete control of the Cybermen, converting countless humans, dead and alive, simply because “I want my friend back”?)
Most chilling is the Master’s consideration of the Doctor’s choice at the close of the Time War: “What did it feel like, though? Two almighty civilisations burning. Tell me, how did that feel?”
This, from the man who admitted he was too scared, that he ran away when the Dalek Emperor took control of the Cruciform.
The Master is a mass of contradictions. He is, in every sense, mad.
The Year That Never Was
But it’s in Last of the Time Lords that this descends into true deranged lunacy.
There’s a lot wrong with the Series 3 finale. Many take issue with the ending, but strangely, I’m okay with it. It depends on how you approach it, of course. If you see it as a religious parable, it’s a deeply flawed allusion, a huge misunderstanding about the nature of faith. It’s hard to see past it: essentially, the prayers of mankind resurrect a saviour who flies and has amazing God-like powers, capable of casting aside the Devil’s props, stopping such evil, and then ultimately offering forgiveness. It’s a troublesome notion. It’s divisive, in making the Doctor into a holier-than-thou figure, and encouraging people to pray because something amazing will happen as a result; yet isn’t true faith surely about not needing an answer? Mankind, too, becomes an enabler, a catalyst: we must instead rely on a greater power to save us.
But strip all that back and you’re left with a better proposition: the Doctor uses the same psychic network the Master set up to hypnotise the nation against him. It’s Doctor 101. I can live with that. In fact, I think it’s a decent conclusion.
What really irks, however, isn’t the ending to Last of the Time Lords; it’s the ending of The Sound of Drums. In a few seconds, the weakened Doctor concocts a plan to save Earth using incredible foresight then translates this to Martha, who pops off to spread the word. It’s nuts. It’s impossible. “Use the countdown”, the Doctor tells his companion. WHAT COUNTDOWN?! The Master’s not mentioned anything about a countdown. Sure, it’s the Master, so he’s bound to have a greater scheme that involves a ticking clock… but how does the Doctor know he’s not going to put it into fruition in a week’s time? Or a month? Or even a few days later?! Either way, Martha wouldn’t have time to travel all across the planet and tell tales of the Doctor. It’s baffling. It’s frankly insulting.
So too is devolving the Doctor into that Gollum creature. Why get two of the best actors in the business – David Tennant and John Simm – facing off against each other, then take one off-stage and replace him using CGI? I don’t understand that logic. At all.
You can see how well they bounce off each other in a scene added purely to pad the episode out a little. The pair of them have teleported away from the Valiant and stand atop a hill, overlooking missiles fitted with black hole converters. It’s a great scene, the calm amid the storm. Two ancient enemies demonstrating their deep knowledge of each other. Colin Teague’s stark direction comes as a shock here, oversaturated and harsh – and that’s not a criticism. It looks wonderful. It’s good to have the Doctor back.
Day 5 in 2008 (Again)
Of course, the Paradox Machine is the glaring Reset button. As such, Last of the Time Lords plays out how you’d expect: Jack destroys the Master’s TARDIS add-on and Earth reverts back to how it was. Mind you, the sight of the Paradox Machine is a wonderful, chilling thing.
You often wonder what’s happened to the Master’s TARDIS; did he lose it in the Time War? I assumed he butchered it, just as he does with the Doctor’s, but maybe he’s only content taking this approach on his enemy’s Space-Time Ship. Or is it still milling about somewhere? The Doctor Falls implies the latter, so what happened to it after he fled and used the Chameleon Arch? I expect Big Finish will have an explanation…
Either way, it was a nice twist to see the Master refusing to regenerate, thereby “winning”. We never knew Time Lords could do that, and here, the Master doing it out of spite is a excellent move. I was gutted to see this initially – I knew the Master would be back, but not John Simm. I figured this would be his only outing. Though The End of Time was cobblers (technical term there), I was so glad to see Simm back, and again for World Enough and Time/ The Doctor Falls. His Master has a lot of potential still, and we’re lucky to have had Simm in the show.
And we’re similarly lucky that Freema Agyeman spent so long with Doctor Who. Okay, she only stayed one full series, but she came back for Series 4 plus Torchwood; as such, she’s an important part of Doctor Who and it shows how much Freema enjoyed being in that universe.
42nd Century, SS Pentallian in the Torajii system
If you want to see Freema’s range, check out 42, an often-forgotten story significant for: 1. Taking place, generally speaking, in real time; and 2. Being the first episode written by current showrunner, Chris Chibnall. It’s also his strongest script to date.
His understanding of the Doctor is at its peak here – it hasn’t yet devolved into the one-note zaniness evident from his Series 7 work onwards, nor is this Doctor afraid to upset people. He’s sensitive enough, while maintaining an eye on the clock. Tennant, as well, is excellent because he’s both terrified and terrifying. His anguished screams as the infection spreads through his body is chilling; you feel exactly as Martha does, watching with panic as the figure we rely on is effectively tortured. This is scary. It’s that simple.
The Doctor’s growling “burn with me, Martha” is haunting, crackling over the intercom, a threat for all to hear. His exhaustion at the end is nicely portrayed, especially as the light from his eyes slowly drains away. Tennant is almost husk-like, trying to find what remains of the Time Lord after he’s been burnt away.
Admittedly, his infection is a tad odd. The infection is seemingly spread by light, meaning the whole Torajii system would be victim. Transferring the plague between humans seems a more complicated affair (largely consisting of smoke and excessive shaking), whereas the Doctor is just exposed to the sunlight because, well, he sees it.
But that’s alright. It’s forgivable because it follows a stand-out sequence, in which Martha and Riley’s pod drifts away from the Pentallian, seemingly separating the Doctor and his companion forever. Or at least until they all burn alive. It makes the Doctor more determined, more daring. Conversely, it makes Martha immediately frenzied, then calm down and reassess her life. Her phoning Francine is a lovely, true touch, the kind you expect from the Russell T Davies era. Martha’s about to die; of course she wants to talk to her mum.
These downbeat sections nicely juxtapose against the rushed hysteria elsewhere in the episode. As Martha needs a moment to reflect, so too does the audience.
42 is all about light and shade, the loud and the quiet: contrasts that make this grubby piece of drama stand out as a production. It’s strange, then, that many overlook it; perhaps it, too, is lost in the shadow cast by Human Nature/ The Family of Blood and Blink.
Make no mistake: 42 is decent Doctor Who. It’s not blindingly brilliant, but neither does it deserve to be left in the wastelands of forgotten adventures.
5,000,000,053, New New York
Light and shade is a solid description of Series 3 in its entirety, really. It’s never more evident than in Gridlock, in which the Tenth Doctor takes Martha to New New York, the same planet he took Rose to one their first trip to the future. The mixed morality of this isn’t lost on Martha.
And while the TARDIS took Rose to the over-city, it takes Martha to the slums. I like to think the TARDIS not only assesses pressure points in time to determine when the Doctor can help, but also finds one it thinks his companions can deal with too. I’m not sure how Rose would’ve coped with the gritty under-city; Martha, though, is more mature, more capable, despite only travelling with the Doctor a very short time.
Pharmacy Town is certainly where you find the dregs of humanity. The idea that drugs have evolved so much, they’re sold quite readily to all and sundry, and that they’re there to simulate emotions, is genius and painfully sinister – as is Forget. That’s not tampering with emotions; it’s a deeper cleansing of brain activity.
There is a lot wrong with New New York, but little with Gridlock.
Davies apparently isn’t religious, but from this parable, you can tell he understands the need for faith, and certainly its benefits to society. Yes, it can divide: the rules of the car-share policy, for instance, are stretched so that Martha’s abduction isn’t seen as wrong, just a means to an end – a different interpretation. But the people trapped on the motorway aren’t alone because faith has brought them together. Their singing hymns is an uplifting sequence, propping up an otherwise dour middle and providing closure for the audience and Martha at the episode’s end as the Doctor regales her with tales of the Time War. Martha’s put her faith in the Doctor, but he proves here that he’s more than happy to lie to her. Can you trust the Doctor? Not entirely. As Emma Grayling puts it in Hide, there’s a sliver of ice in his heart.
Gridlock is a dark tale. It tears down the Doctor before trying to redeem him. It envisions a future where we’re hooked on things that help us escape, be them drugs or cars and the chance of a better life. It’s always greener on the other side, right? It’s those addictions that doomed us – Bliss tore through the over-city, killing billions, presumably including the new branch of homo sapien created by the Doctor and Lady Cassandra in New Earth. And many must’ve died on the motorway, dreaming of what awaits them if they just manage to get out of their trappings and take that brave step into the unknown.
The Macra are a welcome treat, one which no one expected back in 2007. Because why would we?! The Macra Terror is missing from the archives, and the first animation, The Invasion, had only just been released. Further DVD releases of lost classics were a pipedream, and that’s all. A contemporary audience never thought the Macra would make their return before the Master, before the Silurians and the Ice Warriors and the Sontarans. That was laughable. Well done to Russell for pulling off such a wonderful move!
Of course, the New New York community overlooks things. Disappearances, notably. They know the rumours of the fast-lane, but it’s none of their business. They just carry on with their own lives, believing something or someone will save them.
They’re right. The Doctor saves them. Once more, he’s cast as their saviour, even if the Face of Boe has done all the hard work.
It’s a shame this is the last we see of the big old boat race (whatever happened to those baby Boeminas, mentioned in The Long Game?), but he does at least provide us with a dollop of foreshadowing with his final message: “You Are Not Alone”.
This line leads us to the end of the universe, further than the Doctor’s ever gone before.
Utopia cheekily delivers nothing it promises. The episode isn’t even set on Utopia. Utopia, too, is simply a dream, as it always has been. Instead, we find ourselves in a distinctly sticky situation, on the planet Malcassairo, where people are running from the vicious Futurekind. They look like us, albeit savage, their teeth sharpened, dialogue segmented. Their reliance on fire in the ever-decreasing light calls An Unearthly Child to mind. They also have an affinity for piercings, but that’s neither here nor there. Meanwhile, the elite few millions have decided to follow the call that came from across the stars: come to Utopia. It’s a well-worn sci-fi trope, but not one Doctor Who‘s done very often: the planet is doomed; we’ll leave some behind because hey, we’re off to seek paradise. A neat notion, and no, the Doctor doesn’t bat an eyelid about leaving the Futurekind to face their demise on Malcassairo. I guess equality only applies to those who can string a meaningful sentence together.
This is partly because, even though that’s the narrative, it’s not the story. The story is the Master, finding out who he is again. It’s all about that moment when he flings a cable at Chantho and declares, “I am the Master.”
Do you remember your jaw dropping too?
And cor, Derek Jacobi is good, isn’t he? He nails the character straight away, proving deceitful and scheming, evil and strangely charming – yet churlish in his dismissal of Chantho (who still manages to get her own back by shooting him and forcing his regeneration).
Utopia is a microcosm of the Master: it’s dark and surprising, but also smart and with a charismatic warmth. The Doctor’s interactions with Captain Jack are typically warm, as is his reaction to seeing this last vestige of mankind clinging to the fragile world as the universe enters its endgame. The episode is piqued with positivity, but at its heart, there’s a grimness underlined by Last of the Time Lords: in defeating the Toclafane, sending them back to where they came from, the Doctor dooms us to suffer the end of everything. Series 3 concludes on a pitch-black note. As the Master describes it, “Furnaces burning. The last of humanity screaming at the dark… All that human invention that had sustained them across the eons: it all turned inwards. They cannibalised themselves… The universe was collapsing around them.” It turns out, nothing is eternal. But it was good while it lasted.
Martha finds that life is full of good things and bad things, but without the lows, we can’t expect the highs. We wouldn’t have it any other way. We may never get to the promised land, Utopia tells us. But that’s not the point. It’s the journey that matters.
NEXT: Isn’t that wizard?