Warning: this review contains a big spoiler, so if you haven’t seen this episode yet, don’t read it and don’t scroll down to look at the screen grabs!
Opening episodes can be tricky things, whether of a new series or of returning shows. The first series of Skins had an opening episode that focused on introducing the characters, but did not even hint at the dramatic power of later instalments; its second series, by contrast, opened up by audaciously defying the viewers’ expectations. Robin Hood has established a pattern of having a couple of duff episodes at the start of each series, before getting rather good – by which time the critics have already set themselves against it. Ashes to Ashes started extremely well in my opinion, though most people’s reaction was a bit more lukewarm.
Doctor Who has a mixed track record with opening episodes. In 2005, Rose was not the best episode the series has produced, but it was certainly decent when set alongside many that followed; as an introduction to the format, and a bold manifesto for Russell T Davies’s vision of the show, however, it was a brilliantly successful 45 minutes – certainly it blew the doors off Philip Segal’s effort in 1996, and he had 80-odd minutes to play with. But in 2006 and 2007 the opening episodes suffered from being a bit slight: in particular, New Earth didn’t give us a chance to get to know the new Doctor, and was otherwise pleasant but unremarkable Last year, Smith and Jones made a virtue of the 45 minute format by presenting a reasonably small-scale plot, with some big set-piece concepts – trouble was, it was introducing a set of characters that, ultimately, didn’t work.
So, where does Partners in Crime fit in? As probably the most successful opening episode since Rose, in my opinion. As last year, it took a simple-ish plot, though it presented quite an intense load of fast-paced running around, and at time painted on a rather broad canvas. As with School Reunion in 2006, we join the characters as they are already getting into the adventure, so screen-time is not wasted on a “what’s going on?” set-up (unlike, say, The Lazarus Experiment). The plot itself has some subtle dimensions – the villains are ultimately wrong, but the monsters are not at fault, and a lot of people actually benefit from the weight loss. RTD never quite goes into a “fat isn’t necessarily bad” tack as he has elsewhere (Century Falls, for instance, where the central character is the school fat kid), although Donna’s comments about the Doctor being skinny chime in quite well with the rest of the episode.
Ah yes – Donna. Initially I had a horrible feeling that getting Catherine Tate on board for a whole series could be disastrous – nothing against Ms Tate, who deserves recognition as a great performer as well as a comedienne, but because the character threatened to combine the worst of Tegan and Mel. Ouch. But in practice, I think Donna will be a breath of fresh air from younger companions and “I’m in wub wiv ver Doctah” – I’m definitely enjoying the loud and bruising repartee between the two so far, and the mime-led chance meeting between the two was unashamedly hilarious; classically inventive writing from yer man Davies.
But of course both of the smitten former companions will be back later on in the series – though I was not expecting the cameo from Billie Piper at the end, which was an excellent surprise. Although, seeing Rose on screen again, it occurred to me that I hadn’t really missed her very much, and it’s a bit sad that the team only felt it could go for one series without exhuming her. Though it was good to hear Krautrocky the Doomsday theme from Murray Gold re-used as a new motif for Rose – it remains the best ever use of incidental music in Doctor Who.
One niggle: in a development slightly reminiscent of 1985, when a Doctor Who series written with a 6:30 timeslot ended up being broadcast at 5:30 and consequently seemed unsuitably violent for the timeslot, I really think the decision to broadcast at 6:20 meant the skin-stretching scenes were unsuitably grotesque. Worse still, the BBC seem intent on shifting it around the schedules, with a slightly different start time each week. RTD’s concerns about this are wholly justified – ratings will fall, and the risk is that the show will be blamed, not the schedulers.
All told, a pleasant surprise of a first episode: effectively paced, delightfully played by a small cast (Bernard Cribbins was excellent, although his entry in the cast was due to unfortunate circumstances), and an episode that has left me feeling more eager for the next episode than the start of either of the last two series managed. It was also highly amusing to see Doctor Who Confidential cannily edited to avoid naming Jo Frost explicitly; and a gold star to those who spotted the only-slightly-subtly edited-out “fuck off!” from RTD.