Saturday, 14 July 2007

Doctor Who series 3 review

Doctor Who has come a long way since it first returned to our screens in 2005. From risky reinvention to mainstream hit, the big question at the beginning of series 3 was "will they be able to keep up the quality and keep it fresh?"

If anyone doubted the answer to that question was "yes", then the opening story Smith and Jones swiftly laid those doubts to rest, with an assured and action-packed tale that introduced Martha Jones to the Doctor when the hospital she was working in was transported to the moon by a platoon of Judoon. New girl Martha proved to be a warm and likeable character, different from Rose but still very much in the 21st century girl explorer mould. We also got a couple of mentions of some guy called "Mr Saxon"...

This was swiftly followed by The Shakespeare Code, a witty script teaming up the Doctor and Shakespeare against the witch-like Carrionites, who use the power of words for their nefarious ends. The alien invasion by having a small group of villains open up a portal for their army is rather unoriginal even by Doctor Who's promiscuous standards, with stories such as The Unquiet Dead and series 2 finale Army of Ghosts having recently covered similar ground. But it's good to see an historical setting so spectacularly realised, and the whole yarn is told with such style and gusto that it's still massively entertaining despite these elements of unoriginality.

Off to the year 5 billion next for a return visit to New New York, for one of the oddest and most charming Doctor Who stories yet attempted. What other show could have a 20 year long traffic jam, a giant head in a jar, cat nuns, Macra and hymns, and tell a good story with it all? While Russell T Davies freely acknowledges sources like Mega City One from Judge Dread, here it's all remixed into an original and touching meditation on faith and hope. With giant crabs.

Off then back to old New York in the Doctor's latest encounter with the Daleks. Daleks in Manhatten may not have been to everyone's taste story-wise, but few can deny that it looked amazing, with a small amount of filming in New York helping to create spectacular shots of the city in the 1930s. Personally, I loved this two-parter. It was great to see the Daleks scheming and plotting away rather than just blasting in as an army, and I loved the dissent among the Cult of Skaro, with their independent thought and personalities. Yes, some of the science was a bit dodgy, but for a show based around a time-travelling police box, I can suspend my disbelief.

The Lazarus Experiment and 42 took two sci-fi tropes, the mad scientist, and an alien nasty loose on a spaceship, and did them fairly well, too, but coming back to back couldn't escape the feeling of being somewhat generic runarounds. They were lifted by some effective moments, such as the showdown with Professor Lazarus in the cathedral, and the Doctor's fear at being possessed by the alien sun, but up to this point, series 3 was "only" consistently very good, rather than reaching the dizzy heights of excellence achieved by, say, The Girl in the Fireplace. But that was all to change with Human Nature and Blink.

I picked up a copy of the novel Human Nature at Hay-on-Wye a few years ago, and it deservedly has a reputation as one of the best of the original Doctor Who novels published while the show was off the air. It's a simple idea: the Doctor become human. It's the story of the incarnation, or Superman II. From the classy period setting to the delightfully malevolent Family of Blood and their scarecrow servants, it's a great story, and gives the Doctor a very human love story as he falls in love with Joan. The contrast between the humanity of John Smith and the Time Lord nature of the Doctor is fascinating, and the story also examines questions of war and how to respond to evil. The way the Doctor deals with the Family of Blood in the end is brimming with righteous rage and Old Testament fury, both very scary and very cool. The Doctor is good, but don't ever mistake that for nice.

The next episode also didn't have much of the actual Doctor in it, for different reasons. Since Doctor Who started having Christmas specials, there hasn't been enough time in filming for the Doctor and his companion to film 14 episodes-worth of material, and so there's one episode a year in which they only appear briefly on-screen. Last year's "Doctor-lite" episode, Love & Monsters, is the Marmite of Doctor Who stories, with many either loving it or hating it. Personally, I really enjoyed L&M, but Steven Moffat's Blink made a virtue of a smaller budget and a largely absent David Tennant to deliver a brilliantly creepy tale of weeping angels that was on another level entirely. It managed the impressive feat of not seeming disappointing after Paul Cornell's superlative two-parter. Carey Mulligan carried the episode well as Sally Sparrow (and was very cute), putting her at the top of many fans' wish-list for new companions.

Series 3 managed to better disguise its penny-pinching towards the end of the series than series 2, where we ended up with two cheap contemporary Earth stories back-to-back before the Cybermen vs Dalek epic finale. Utopia takes us to an alien planet at the end of the universe, distracting us from the cheap, old-school filming in a quarry by making it a pivotal "event" episode and giving us some cracking performances from regulars and the supporting cast. The first big hook was the return of Captain Jack, but he wasn't the only time-traveller from the Doctor's past making a reappearance. Although the episode probably didn't make enough of its end of the universe setting, it crackled into life in the final quarter of an hour with the return of the Master. Derek Jacobi masterfully manages the transition from kindly human Professor Yana to evil Time Lord, and John Simm is just electric as the regenerated Master in the final scenes.

The series finale goes bigger than ever before, with the Master actually succeeding in outsmarting the Doctor and taking over the world, and ready to start his takeover of the rest of the universe. Some fans seem to want a serious Master more like Jacobi, or Roger Delgado who first played the role, but I love John Simm's manic mirror-image of the Doctor, casually taking over the country and murdering the cabinet, stealing many of the best lines from the Doctor. It's a pity that after starting by defying supervillain convention by refusing to tell the Doctor all his plans so the Doctor can work out how to defeat him, the Master then falls into the trap of keeping all his opponents alive so that he can gloat. It's just a pity that the production team didn't stick to their guns and kill him off without the Flash Gordon-style "The End... or is it?!?" scene of someone (Lucy Saxon?) picking up his ring from the funeral pyre.

The "one year later" conceit allows for a refreshingly different post-apocalyptic setting for the final episode, though it makes it rather inevitable that Russell was going to hit the reset button by the end of the story. But he actually makes it work: the Paradox Device is set up in advance, and the characters have to struggle through a year of hell to put things back to normal. This is no easy victory.

And while the world is saved, there are consequences for all the characters: the death of the Master, the Doctor's loss both of his old enemy and Martha Jones as she leaves him, Martha taking charge of her life and giving up on her unrequited love for the Doctor, and her family needing to face up to what they've all been through. While it doesn't quite manage to pack the same punch as the Ninth Doctor's regeneration or Rose's departure, it finishes off the series in fine style.

Now that's my episode-by-episode analysis, but what of the themes of the series? One of the big themes of the revived Doctor Who is the question of "what does it mean to be human?", which was explored more in this series than ever before. It crops us for the first time in Smith and Jones with the Judoon cataloguing people as human or not human. The Doctor describes Shakespeare as "the most human human who ever lived", while Professor Lazarus set out to "change what it means to be human" with disastrous consequences.

Daleks in Manhatten has Dalek Sec attempting to create Dalek/human hybrids, leading to a discussion of what defines humanity - is it our compassion, creativity and the like, or our aggression, our propensity for self-destruction and war? Human Nature faces the Doctor with the choice - the life of a Time Lord, a wandering lonely god, or the life of a human, to have a wife and family, and to grow old and die. This is one of the things the show does best - by showing us all these monsters and aliens, casting a fresh light on our own nature as humans.

This series also saw the development of the Doctor as a messiah-figure. From the Doctor's own incarnation as a human being and his heart-wrenching choice to end his life as a human to save the world in Human Nature, to Martha walking the world spreading the Gospel of the Doctor in Last of the Time Lords, the Christ-like parallels have rarely been more blatantly drawn. Is this just to give a bit of extra mythic zing to the show, or is something more going on?

Russell T Davies seems to be deliberately giving Christian imagery a humanist spin. The whole world saying "Doctor" in the finale was very prayer-like, but it inverted the Christian idea of prayer, where power comes from the one being prayed to, God. Here, power came from those "praying", from humanity's combined psychic power, which the Doctor attunes himself to using the Master's telepathic field. It's a homage to the power and potential of humanity, to hope as a source of strength in itself.

Arguably, however, the show gives a lopsided view of humanity, showing its potential for great good, which is undoubtedly true and one of the real strength of the show, but without dealing honestly with our corresponding capacity for great evil. Although the show's monsters are often warnings of what humanity could become, it would be interesting to see the show pick up on the idea in The Christmas Invasion where the Doctor says he ought to have warned the Sycorax to "Run and hide because the monsters are coming: the human race." But overall, Doctor Who's broad humanism is one of the great things about it, and Russell T Davies resists the temptation to make it an explicitly and exclusively secular humanism.

To return to the original question, they didn't just keep up the quality of Doctor Who in series 3, but surpassed it. There's some concern over the casting of Catherine Tate as the new companion, but from only really seeing her in the Christmas special, I'm inclined to think it could be a lot of fun, as long as Donna is developed as a character. She seems unlikely to fall in love with the Doctor, which would get a bit repetitive a third time around. But if the last three series are anything to go by, series 4 of Doctor Who will continue to surprise and delight.

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