Four years in, the 2008 series of Doctor Who showed no sign of slowing down or losing popularity. Having had three years to work itself out, the show had survived a couple of bumps that could have derailed it completely: the change of actor playing the Doctor and the change of companion. The show at the end of 2007 had a completely different lead cast, the only thing linking the programme to that first episode that marked its returned in 2005 was the opening titles and the battered blue box the title character travelled in. Surviving this and still doing well in the ratings on a Saturday night (remember that, before 2005, drama at Saturday tea-times was unheard of) gave the show’s creators confidence – clearly, they were doing something right. They now knew how to do Doctor Who successfully. To paraphrase Professor Zaroff from 1966’s The Underwater Menace, nothing in the world could stop them now.
But before all that. Before the return of Donna Noble, the Sontarans and Davros. There was the small matter of the 2007 Christmas Special. A special that illustrates well the confidence the production team now had. Not only did they attempt a full-scale disaster movie on a BBC budget, but they only had the audacity to approach international pop royalty, Kylie Minogue to take on the role of special guest companion (and she only went and said yes).
As a Christmas episode, Voyage of the Damned works. As a disaster movie, not so much so. It has often been said how the Christmas episodes of Doctor Who cater to a different audience than the regular episodes. They need to appeal to a family audience distracted by Christmas celebrations and recovering from overindulgence. Out of all of Russel T Davies’ specials, this is probably the most effective in this regard. The plot relies on tropes of the Hollywood disaster movies of the 1970s (more often than not produced by Irwin Allen, who coincidentally was responsible for many American science fiction TV shows of the ’60s such as Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel). These films relied on an all-star cast which we not only have in Kylie, but also British telly stalwarts, Geoffrey Palmer and Clive Swift. Watching this, the audience knows what to expect – the cast of characters are going to be picked off one at a time. The drama comes from us getting to know these characters just before they leave the plot. Throughout we are rooting for them as we learn more. It is here the running time and budget restrictions let Voyage of the Damned down. Even with a running time of 70 minutes, the characters just aren’t given enough time for the audience to bond with them. No sooner do we meet Bannakaffalatta (and manage to remember his name) than he’s gone.
Where it does work is in throwing the world of Doctor Who into a traditional disaster movie. Only Doctor Who can set a story on a Victorian luxury cruise ship (albeit in space), populate with a variety of colourful aliens (and a pop princess), and have it work. And it is only a production team that truly understands Doctor Who and is trusted to deliver a solid product that would even attempt such an endeavour.
Making a bold, confident statement of what Doctor Who is (warts and all) for a one-off Christmas special is one thing but doing this over an entire series is something else.
Partners in Crime is a full-on screwball comedy. We are promised the reintroduction of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) from a couple of years ago. Getting Tate back as a regular was certainly a coup for the show. Famous for her eponymous sketch show that had been running since 2004, it was a surprise at the time that she would agree to move on from sketch comedy, particularly considering the long shoot Doctor Who would involve. But agree she did and it wasn’t without controversy in a similar way that casting Billie Piper as Rose was a few years previously.
Just as with Billie in 2005, those doubts soon vanished with the season opener. Again, this is an episode of Doctor Who produced by a team that knows what they are doing. “A Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec” is how Third Doctor Jon Pertwee describes the show. Partners in Crime certainly channels this. Donna and the Doctor both investigate Adipose Industries by infiltrating a typical office environment with the odd goings-on turning out to be related to the latest diet fad. Both of these roots the plot in the everyday; these are things most viewers would be familiar with or have knowledge of. It means the episode can concentrate on the reintroduction of Donna and discover how much she has grown since we last saw her.
And grown she has. One of Russell T Davies’ regular themes in Doctor Who is how travelling with the Doctor changes people. Watching Donna infiltrate the office, we see how different she is. The parallel narratives of Donna and the Doctor demonstrate a startling similarity between them. Donna only got a taste of the Doctor’s life and turned down the opportunity to travel with him. She can’t get what might have been out of her head. She doesn’t make the same mistake again.
It’s interesting looking at Davies’ four series as showrunner and noting how similar the structure of each run is. The first three episodes of every series feature an adventure set in the present day, one in the past, and one set in the future. And so it was in 2008. Donna’s first trip in the TARDIS takes her to ancient Pompeii. The Roman city well known to schoolchildren everywhere, preserved as it was by the eruption of Vesuvius, and giving us a lot of our knowledge of Roman life.
Landing just before Vesuvius is due to erupt, we are presented with that question that has been asked in the show ever since 1963: can the time traveller change history? The twist here that the sheer presence of the time traveller causes the historical event.
Once again the strong production values sing, unsurprising since the set used was built for the BBC/HBO epic series Rome. We meet a typical family from Pompeii (coincidentally the same family anyone learning Latin in the ’70s and ’80s would have met in the Cambridge Latin course). We see the first signs of the Doctor and Donna team coming together. The Doctor’s decision (echoes of Tom Baker’s “Do I have the right?” from 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks) is taken by both of them, not him alone.
Catherine Tate’s similarly incredible in Planet of the Ood, in which what mankind’s done to the titular alien race horrifies her so much, she asks the Doctor to take her home. It’s fortunately not something they follow through with, largely because there’s some redemption at the story’s conclusion, as the Ood manage to shrug off the chains of their masters and emerge as an empathic, forward-thinking, and peaceful race.
It’s a fantastic piece of drama, slightly undermined by the Ood’s promise to carry songs of the Doctor-Donna with them… despite the fact that they’ve not really done anything to enable the Ood’s freedom.
The traditional mid-season lull reaches us with The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. Inevitable since we’re considering 13 episodes, 9 stories here. Creating 9 unique settings (not forgetting this is the fourth time of doing it) means that not everyone is a gem. Curiously the Sontaran double episode works better than the previous mid-season two-parters. The threat feels prescient and genuinely chilling as we become more dependent on gadgets to guide us through life. Going back to Pertwee’s Yeti comment, how easy would it be to do exactly what the ATMOS devices did here? How easy would it be for a car navigation system to take over control?
What really stands out in this story is Donna’s return home towards the first episode’s end. As she walks down the street in Chiswick – we see how much she has been changed by her journey. With no words, Tate evokes a Donna that has been transformed. Almost observing her home through new eyes, foreshadowing the change she will ultimately go through at the end of the series. It is these sequences that make Davies’ Doctor Who so wonderful (yes, I know that this is a Helen Raynor script, but sometimes Davies’ final polish shines through).
Arguably the weakest story in the whole series, The Doctor’s Daughter still has interesting things going for it. The story’s twist gives the whole tale the feeling of a 2000 AD Future Shock. The story is brimming with ideas (the Hath’s breathing apparatus for example) but none of them feels developed enough. Martha feels almost tagged on and her presence and rapid return home leaves one puzzled why she was even in this episode – although it’s difficult to see Donna taking the trip across the planet’s surface. However, that Martha could make this journey does further explore the theme of the Doctor turning his companions into soldiers, an idea explored more fully in the closing episodes. Jenny, the Doctor’s daughter herself, feels little more than a commentary on the show itself. That she and her ‘Dad’ enjoy running through corridors is an amusing dig at the show, pushing at the fourth wall if not actively breaking it. The episode almost ends with Jenny winking at the camera, off to further adventures on CD and download if Big Finish can negotiate a deal (which they eventually did, of course). Sadly, The Doctor’s Daughter never delivered on the promise of changing the Doctor. Interesting, we will soon get a story that did exactly that.
However, before that, we have a brief sojourn to 1920s England and this year’s celebrity historical. There has always been a sense that Doctor Who is a very writer-led show so it comes as no surprise that the historical figures we have met so far have been writers. What’s great about The Unicorn and the Wasp is that it leans heavily on the fact that the BBC are dab hands at Agatha Christie adaptations and you can almost feel transported forward in time to a Sunday night when these adaptations are usually broadcast. Of course, as we discover in the next episode, the Doctor would never land on a Sunday: “Sundays are boring.”
It seems obvious for a writer so fond of playing with aspects of time that it would be Steven Moffat that would postulate what it would be like for the Doctor to meet someone that had already met him, but later in his life. Quite what the impact of Professor River Song would have on the Doctor we weren’t to know when this episode aired. But watching this back after seeing Professor Song and the Doctor’s relationship develop over the course of Moffat’s own stint as showrunner puts a whole new perspective on it. Alex Kingston excels in this, the pain she expresses when she realises that this man, this man she loves, doesn’t know her because this is the first time he has met her, despite her having just spent one night lasting 24 years with him on the planet Darillium is heartbreaking. Simply stunning stuff and something only this oh so special programme can do. (Did Kingston know? Did Moffat have River’s story planned out when he wrote these episodes? Apparently not, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.)
By 2008, the structure of the series had been well established, making production easier on the whole crew. By now, we knew that at some point in the year there would be a Doctor/companion lite episode. This time, Davies decided to do this over two weeks giving us a Donna-lite episode followed by a Doctor-lite episode. The restrictions in place led to two of the most experimental stories to come out of Doctor Who since the 1963 episodes, The Edge of Destruction and The Brink of Disaster. The Doctor-lite episode, Midnight is effectively a single-set base-under-siege story as the Doctor is trapped on the coach trip from hell as he embarks on a day’s excursion to see a sapphire waterfall. (“… A waterfall, made of sapphires!”) What makes this stand out from the usual base-under-siege stories is the quality of the writing and the strength of the individual performances. David Tennant and Lesley Sharp (as the possessed Sky Silvestry) particularly shine, but the whole cast benefits from having one of Davies’ strongest scripts to get their teeth into. The script is so strong that you could see this working just as well on stage. Alice Troughton’s direction gives it extra weight, putting most psychological horror movies to shame.
Just as we recover from the emotional rollercoaster, we are presented with an idea so obvious that I’m amazed it took the show nearly 50 years to do it. We need a Doctor-lite episode – let’s do an episode that dares ask the question, “What if the Doctor weren’t around to save the earth?”
There’s joyous energy to most of Davies’ work on Doctor Who. From the beginning of his tenure, we were promised the “trip of a lifetime”. Now, four years in, Davies allows himself to explore the more darker aspect of the world of Doctor Who. Just as Midnight shows how vicious human beings can get when presented against overwhelming odds (just look how willing the passengers are to kill Mrs Silvestry to save themselves), we get similar darkness as we watch society crumble due to the crash-landed Titanic from last Christmas because the Doctor wasn’t there to stop it. All this told through the eyes of Donna and her family. Family is key to much of Davies’ work (most recently in 2019’s Years and Years) and it is watching the Nobles survive the changing world around them (with a little help from the dimension-hopping Rose Tyler) that makes this unlike anything Doctor Who has attempted before. At times, it feels like a Wednesday Play or a Play for Today (the BBC’s anthology drama strands broadcast from the 1960s until the 1980s) with Whoish elements thrown in. Once again, this is a testament to the trust the BBC was putting in the team at Cardiff that they could get away with a piece like this. Jolly Saturday teatime fair this isn’t.
There are hints throughout the series that we are leading up to something big. There’s something about the Doctor/Donna team that makes them seem closer, at times almost symbiotic. Certainly not romantic (the running gag throughout is: “We’re not married.”) but something else. There are hints in Turn Left from Rose that there is something important about Donna and in the closing two-parter, Stolen Earth/ Journey’s End, we get to find out.
The closing episodes of this series are really Davies’ big finale. The specials form a coda, but this is where Davies’ story ends. And he brings everyone back for a curtain call.
The Stolen Earth/ Journey’s End is spectacular. Not perfect, but spectacular nevertheless. It is so quintessentially Doctor Who I sometimes find myself pointing to it and saying, this is why I love this show.
The villains hatch a ridiculous plan that makes no sense. The Daleks are transporting planets (just like they were trying to do in The Dalek Invasion of Earth) so they can use them to wipe out reality (of course). It has Daleks on a suburban street. It has Bernard Cribbins fighting the invaders with a paint gun (echoing the Doctor fighting off the Pyrovilles earlier in the series with a water pistol). It has a long rambling scene consisting mainly of the Doctor and the chief villain (Davros in this case) discussing the villain’s plan and philosophy (this time: why so many people are willing to kill in the name of a self-declared man of peace.)
Most of all, it is a love letter to the last four years of Doctor Who. A love letter to the creations both old and new that made this iteration such a success. You can imagine the applause if this were filmed in front of a live studio audience when we cut to Cardiff and we see the Torchwood gang, the whoop when we catch up with Sarah Jane Smith and her son Luke, and the roar of appreciative delight when the Daleks tell former prime minister Harriet Jones that yes, they know who she is.
It’s gripping and has a relentless pace and a cliffhanger that can only be done once. I still remember watching The Stolen Earth with a friend of mine after the pub on that Saturday night. He had yet to see it and I already had. As we approached the climax, I watched him as the ‘regeneration’ kicked in. I’ve never seen someone’s jaw drop as much as his did that night.
In the midst of all this spectacle, we reach the conclusion of Donna Noble’s story. The recurring theme of her not believing in herself, not recognising her strengths, not seeing the empathy she shows to the aliens she encounters, and how she makes the Doctor a better person and how the Doctor/Donna partnership is so much more than the sum of its parts comes to a head. Donna literally becomes the Doctor-Donna – she absorbs the Time Lord’s memories. The best temp in Chiswick becomes something more than a Time Lord. The spark that makes Donna Donna ignites whatever makes the Doctor the Doctor and produces a being that can seemingly solve anything with the flip of a few levers. Yes, the resolution borders on parody (“Closing all Z-Neutrino relay loops…”) and yet it works; it felt earnt.
The tragedy of all this is that it can’t last. The woman who didn’t believe in herself, yet was capable of saving reality, has probably the most tragic ending of any Doctor Who companion (yes, even Dodo). The human mind can’t contain all that Time Lord knowledge; the Doctor is forced to wipe her memory. We leave her with her Grandad and Mum. A Mum who we hope finally realises what a unique and wonderful daughter she has. “Maybe you should tell her that once in a while”, the Doctor tells Sylvia Noble. Words that hopefully have as much effect as “Don’t you think she looks tired?” did on the political career of Harriet Jones when this Doctor was but a few hours old.
Out of all the Doctor Who that has been made over the last 50-odd years, it is this one that exemplifies why we love this show so much. It’s funny, scary, and heartbreakingly tragic. It makes us think, teaches us about our own history, and inspires us to write 2000+ word articles about it. The 2008 series of Doctor Who is Doctor Who at its most Doctor Who. I doubt we’ll ever see anything quite like this run of episodes again.
NEXT: Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.