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A review of the first three episodes of Season Three of Doctor Who.

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Apr. 16th, 2007 | 07:27 am

All images in this review are copyrighted material belonging to the BBC, and are reproduced here for critical and non-profit making purposes, and can be removed on request.

To be honest, my expectations were low going into the third year of the resuscitated Doctor Who. An appallingly naff yet cynical Christmas special (The Runaway Bride) on the back of a somewhat lacklustre if not fairly mediocre second year (in terms of scripting, if anything) meant that I approached Season Three with a sense of creeping apathy. It was really a make or break time.

We’re now three episodes into the new series, and the good news is that a sense of genuine vitality has crept back into the whole enterprise. A lot of the artistic errors and irritating creative ticks that proved so irksome last year have not been totally rectified, but the show has regained its sense of confidence and discipline. The direction is inventive and sympathetic, the acting nuanced and sincere, the editing taut and sharp, the scripts… well… the scripts have moments of brilliant genuine wit and don’t lack ambition in terms of spectacle. They do, however, lack narrative cohesiveness, with more holes than a string vest, and still seem hostage to the idea of spectacle over sense. But one great episode, one fairly average attempt and one pretty dire story is a pretty good run, especially as there’s redeeming features in all of the stories so far.

But why is Season Three already better than Season Two, despite still suffering from last year’s failings? Well, Doctor Who now seems a show at peace with itself if not with key sections of its audience. If the Christopher Eccleston era aspired to being top draw fantastical drama, David Tennant’s Doctor Who is taking on Harry Potter in the light entertainment market, unashamed of its more outré ideas, self-indulgently guiding the audiences through an overly bombastic soundtrack, scared to bore, frightened to exclude. Last year’s Who was straddling both the dramatic and the throw away, and succeeded, more often than not, in failing in both fields. Season Three has given up on the serious and meritorious drama of the initial revival, and has successfully repositioned Who into the silly throw away escapades of the late 70s Tom Baker stories.

This is not necessarily a criticism. For me, the first season of new Who will remain a high watermark, the zenith of what you can (and should do) with the wonderful concept that is Doctor Who. But if the makers of the show are now committed to lowering the age (or should that be 'intelligence'?) of the target audience, let Doctor Who be escapist fun of the highest order, a rip-roaring adventure that constantly dazzles, continually striving for new spectacles on what is still a tiny budget, and is entertaining for all who happen to stumble across it whether they are 8 or 80, in Kent or Cairo.

Not that to be entertaining a programme should automatically go for a lobotomy, but if the BBC is now committed to selling so many Sonic Screwdrivers (rights reserved) through Woolworths each year, we have to expect a certain lowering of dramatic ambition. Let’s hope that the programme makers can hit their marks within those self-imposed, regrettably narrow horizons.

So, what about the first three episodes?

Smith and Jones (*SPOILERS*)

An uneven affair that highlights all that is both good and bad about new Doctor Who, and more specifically, the scripts of Executive Producer Russell T Davies.

On one hand, you have the superb integration of the mundane and the familial into a fantastical world of limitless possibilities. The new companion, Martha Jones, superbly played by Freema Agyeman (who within ten minutes steps out of the shadow of Billie Piper), has a wonderfully dysfunctional family background and a demanding job (trainee doctor), longing to escape the humdrum. Davies introduces Martha in a superb ‘conference call’ mobile phone conversation, with all her family on her back (and each others), the audience being drawn into her world effortlessly and with a wry smile. This is Davies at his best, the scene setting and the snap shots of ‘everyday life’.

Horny.

On the other hand, the script suffers from Davies’ usually glib high pitch concepts that cannot sustain themselves for 10 minutes let alone 45. It might be fantastic to go left field and relish such striking images of hospitals on the moon, rhino intergalactic policemen and sinister couriers who turn out to be robots made out of solid leather, but if you are unable to construct a convincing narrative that ties these ideas into a coherent (small ‘d’) dramatic whole, what’s the point and where’s the sustained interest? The end result is fast food fantasy, immediately filling but non-nutritious. You’ll get a sugar rush, but the stomach of the mind will be empty again within the hour.

It wouldn’t be so bad if most of the ideas were original as they purport to be or if there was an over-arching theme or use of iconography – but Smith and Jones lacks both. Fascist anthropomorphic policemen are a staple of the counter-culture comic strips of 2000 AD, which have long since permeated the fantasy mainstream (films such as The Fifth Element, to take one example) and sinister leatherboys/ bikers a staple of thrillers of the 70s and 80s. And the transportation of a everyday building to a fantastical place via a violent storm? The Wizard of Oz, anyone?

So the mish-mash of fantastical ideas are highly enjoyable if one disengages brain before viewing, yet their chaotic and seemingly random inclusion sit at angular odds with the focused, masterful care with which Davies draws and plots his main regular characters.

Better than last year’s dire season opener (New Earth) but lacking the genuine shock of the new that was the first episode of the revival (Rose), although that cannot be helped, Smith and Jones is a fun fairground ride of episode that is best enjoyed without too much detailed examination, greatly aided by a confident, more nuanced performance than we have seen before from David Tennant, who’s beginning to show a mystery and comic mastery that has not been seen in the role since the hey days of the aforementioned Tom Baker.

The Shakespeare Code (*SPOILERS*)

Shamelessly traditional, drawing from premises and traits of both ‘classic’ and new Doctor Who, The Shakespeare Code is one of the most masterful episodes of the show we have seen in a while. Thrilling and witty, with wonderful performances from the leads and guest cast, perilously veering to camp but enjoyably so, this ‘historical’ story is heavily indebted to ‘the one with Charles Dickens’ (The Unquiet Dead) and ‘the one with Queen Victoria and the Werewolf’ (Tooth and Claw). The literate-but-not-overly-so script, by fan writer Gareth Roberts, is superb although not flawless. The dialogue zips along, often producing a wry smile if not a laugh out loud, with the characters having a good grounding in the main plot, which is not always a given in new Doctor Who. The whole enterprise has a satisfying coherency and pace, never boring but never as fidgety as Season Two’s stories.

Tennant is again superb as the Doctor (two hits in a row) as is Dean Lennox Kelly as Shakespeare, played as a louche proto-celebrity (but not over doing it). The production values are of mainstream, big blockbuster quality, and I doubt you will see anything as so polished in terms of the overall look in a fantasy show this year (unless the Who production office trump themselves later this season).The direction by Charles Palmer is some of the best the series has had, and the editing enhances both the budget, pace and look by sympathetically complimenting the special effects (again, not always a given in new Who) and bringing out the best in the performances.

Martha Jones and the Doctor.

There remains, alas, niggles. The witches were too Little Britain and stereotypical, and failed to scare or convince (not fatal, given the overall tone of the episode), and Roberts’ traditionalist approach unfortunately rendered Martha a typical Doctor Who companion of old, a device to ask seemingly obvious questions for the benefit of younger members of the audience. This made Martha somewhat idiotic on occasion, and unintentionally reduced this alleged trainee doctor to 1970s “Doctor, what’s gravity?” Dolly Bird status. This regrettable dip in otherwise solid comic characterisation is fleeting however, and it does Roberts a disservice to blow it out of proportion – not so much misogyny, but more brief, badly handled exposition.

These annoyances and dire Dan Brown aping title aside, The Shakespeare Code is solid, exuberant Doctor Who that will be revisited many times while Season Two DVDs gather dust on the shelf.

Gridlock (*SPOILERS*)

Russell T Davies resumes scripting duty for this futuristic tale of traffic jams without end, killer giant crabs, cat nuns and Irish cat pilots, heavy-handed social moralising and fan-pleasing continuity.

Into the Davies idea blender goes J. G. Ballard, Blade Runner, Terry Gilliam, 2000 AD (again), Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and The Fifth Element (again), which let’s face it, is a pretty appetising cocktail – if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. Visually, the episode takes its cues from these sources as well, and more often than not meets these ambitions admirably (albeit with one or two duff shots/ effects – not bad though for 45 minutes that are pretty much set in a virtual environment).

However, when it comes to this cocktail, Davies is not much of a barman. All the ingredients have been thrown together, neither stirred or shaken, leaving a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth. Maybe Davies should have gone easy on the alcohol in this mouth-watering concoction… am I drunk, or is the Irish Space Cat singing “The Old Rugged Cross”? And is that David Tennant doing bad ‘angry’ acting again? I thought that was so last year! Is that a crude “Kids, don’t do drugs!” message stuck at the back of my throat...?

Furry from the deep...

Yes, somehow, Gridlock manages to negate itself, all that’s good about it tarnished by the Davies' leitmotif of having a non sequitur for a narrative, which can be taken apart by most intelligent thirteen year olds within a matter of minutes. What’s the point of poignant characterisation and social allegory if the plot does not credit any of the participants with the slightest bit of intelligence? Not wishing to labour what is in fact a tedious although valid point, if everyone on the ‘surface’ world has been wiped out by 'drug AIDS' (or something equally anti-permissive society – it’s not the first time new Doctor Who has revealed a pro-establishment, socially conservative sensibility), why is no-one in the subterranean motorway system bothered by the lack of contact or communication? Also would people really set out on a 12 year car journey consisting of perpetual log jam for an elusive paradise of ‘work’, unless they were all part of some kind of 1960s arts absurdist movement big on allegory? Er… no.

Subtle Gridlock ain't, and as if to distract faithful viewers from the somewhat cack-handedness of the whole enterprise, Davies throws in LOTS of continuity porn for fans, both old and new…

“Look! It’s the Face of Boe! You must remember him from last year… and the year before? And he’s got a secret… oh yes, a secret… oh… what’s that? A fan of an older vintage…. Well, listen… listen, I tell you… It’s the Doctor talking about the Timelords… oh yes, you remember them, don’t you? Yes, that’s right… from about the time when people stopped watching Doctor Who in the first place… still thinking of turning over? I know I cocked up such a wonderful premise, but we’ve been friends for a long time now… and I have a treat… oh, yes… you remember those giant crabs Patrick Troughton fought back in 1967?… you know, from that story that’s been completely destroyed and hasn’t been seen for 40 years?... Well here they are… LOOK! Please Look! It’s the Macra! Yes, The Macra!!! Don’t think about it (please, God, don’t think about it)… just look at the 1967 space crabs… in CGI!!!!! Don’t worry about Irish Space Cats singing 20th Century Evangelical hymns… don’t…. Face of Boe! Timelords! Macra! Nonsensical plot! What more do you whinging ninnies want, for Christ’s sake?… not that I believe in Christ… although I can’t shut up about God… but MACRA! TIMELORDS! BOE!”

And that unfortunately is the sum of it… again, great if Mr. Brain decides that he’s checking out on Saturday evening, but if you really want a programme that has something intelligible to say about its pretensions, or meaningful about its author’s social concerns, I’m sure Sky’ll be showing an episode of the new Battlestar Galactica on one of their channels.

Tennant, though, has morphed into something of a saviour of the show, and both Ageyman and him keep the programme on the road with some superb acting that moderates the unnecessary, demystifying, almost Spielbergian Doctor's reminiscences about his home planet into something emotional and meaningful amidst the reefer-madness, J.G. Ballard-via-Balamory social commentary that threatens to drag the episode to Sylvester McCoy-era depths.



So, one great episode, one average episode and one dire episode…. Season Three’s field is still wide open as to whether or not the viewer is backing a winner or an old nag that’s about to collapse at the last hurdle, but already they have been presented with a more exuberant model of Doctor Who than the 2006 brand, and rather fittingly, given the loose positivism that underpins the new series’ ethos, hope springs eternal for the future of Doctor Who.

Past Peter Crispin Doctor Who Reviews:
A review of Doctor Who: The Face of the Enemy by David A. McIntee
Doctor Who - The Runaway Bride
Doctor Who - New Earth

Official Site:
Doctor Who (BBC Site)

Unofficial Fan Site:
Outpost Gallifrey

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peter_crispin

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from: peter_crispin
date: Apr. 16th, 2007 12:05 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the tip - I'll re-edit later.

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