Doctor Who

Ten things about the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who

Stunt Doctor and the TARDIS high above Trafalgar SquareA recent thread in Roobarb’s, one of the relatively sensible cult TV forums, was headed “Fifty years of grumbling – why do we love Doctor Who so much?” And it’s true that fandom of Doctor Who – or any cult show – can often feel very negative. One of the definitions of a ‘cult’ TV series is that it is of interest to its fans over and above its role as a TV series: that is, fans don’t just care what happens next, they care how it is made and who’s involved. When the show is great, they feel happy and proud beyond the normal enjoyment of enjoying a bit of TV; when the show lets them down, it’s painful. So a lot of what has happened this year regarding Doctor Who has mattered a lot to a lot of people – more than it rationally should. This is my take on ten of the things that have gone on.

All in all, it’s undeniably been a good year to be a dedicated Doctor Who fan, particularly for veterans of the 90s wilderness years, who should be able to get even the negatives into perspective. What’s more debatable is whether it’s been a good year to be a keen regular viewer of Doctor Who. But let’s start with the good stuff…

The Day / Night / Time of the Doctor
dayIn many ways it now seems that the entire Matt Smith era has been constructed by Steven Moffat to lead up to the 50th anniversary special and subsequent Christmas special. Moffat stated at the time of Matt Smith’s departure that three series plus these two specials was always the plan, albeit that he tried to persuade Matt to stay longer – this certainly explains the decision to spread out the 2012 series across two years, as the alternative would have been to go into the fiftieth anniversary year with a new and untested Doctor, which would undeniably have been a high risk plan.

Taking the specials as a package with the three series before them, they’re an impressive run of sci-fi storytelling of the sort that one normally associates with American shows. The Christmas finale did indeed tie up the outstanding plot points from the previous series, as well as resolving the “twelve regenerations” problem, for the next few decades at least. It met with a markedly mixed reaction though – Roobarb’s was utterly split on it, which is very unusual as normally it’s very warm towards the new series, and I gather it got the show’s lowest audience appreciation index figure since 2006. Perhaps it didn’t add up to much beyond the resolution of existing plotlines and catalyst for a regeneration – there was little to it beyond those aspects, and the fact that it stood alone rather than coming at the end of a series that had been building to it maybe meant that approach worked a bit less well than it might have done. As a finale to an era though, I thought it was great – anyone watching the whole Smith run as a boxset binge will find it a satisfying ending.

Far less difficult was The Day of the Doctor, which was superb. Yes it had its fanwank elements – a new ‘secret’ Doctor, the time war business – but an anniversary special will inevitably delve into the mythology. David Tennant gave one of his best performances as the Doctor, and his interplay with Matt Smith was great. It also managed to have a convincing epic feel while ultimately being character-driven and still light enough to remain watchable throughout. In one of the online quasi-Confidential videos, Moffat remarks that it’s with scripts like this that he really earns his money, and he’s not wrong – it’s hard to see what other writer could have delivered such a rich yet nimble script for the anniversary.

McGann

Finally, Paul McGann’s on-screen return in the mini-episode The Night of the Doctor was very well deserved. Through his audio performances for Big Finish he has proved himself an accomplished Doctor (indeed, his audio adventures alongside Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller count as some of my favourite Doctor Who in any medium), and his lovely turn here really underlines how we were robbed by the failure to make a series starring him (though if it had come from the production team behind the TV movie, unfortunately it would probably have been pretty ropey).

Overall the episodes of November and December did a great job of celebrating the show, rounding off an era and setting Doctor Who up for the future. Very well done.

The casting of Peter Capaldi
CapaldiI shouted “yes!” out loud and I know I wasn’t alone. It still seems hard to believe that such an accomplished actor would come to Doctor Who with such a great career behind him, so little to prove and, really, so much at stake should it go wrong. But on reflection it does make sense: Capaldi is now relatively late into his career (not all that late of course, one hopes), yet he’s never had a truly household name type role – yes, there’s Malcolm Tucker, but that’s very much post-watershed and ultimately The Thick of It remains a relatively niche interest show. Breaking the Tucker association and taking on such a popular role, rather than representing a risk or step back for Capaldi, could crown his career. Word is that Moffat also plans a shift of tone for his era, the key word being gritty rather than fairytale, so it should be exciting.

Also, for all the moaning that they’ve cast another white man, let’s not overlook the significance of casting someone of Capaldi’s age: if he does the now-traditional three years plus specials to stretch his run to four, he’ll become the oldest actor ever to play the part (he’s already the oldest since 1974) – and the online reaction from younger fans shows that having a mature actor in the part is a big deal, perhaps more so for some than casting a woman, for instance, would have been.

The departure of Matt Smith
Matt SmithWell the rumours were swirling from early in the year, and I (sadly, in many ways) drew the conclusion that Matt was on his way some time before Ian Levine spilt the beans and forced the BBC into a rush announcement. While three years plus specials now looks like the standard deal, it’s really not all that long – a fourth full series from both Tennant and Smith would probably have been better. As it was, I was left wanting more both times – but maybe that’s the skill.

If anything, I felt Matt’s performance surpassed David Tennant’s (minority view, I know): he brought a more marked off-beat, alien tone to it – as Moffat has remarked, despite being the youngest actor in the role, he took it back to the ‘eccentric scientist’ aspect first envisaged for it in the sixties, and really did convince as an old man in a young man’s body. Both he and Tennant got a bit bigger and more shouty in their performances towards the end of their eras – a reflection of the writing as well as their own instincts – and I preferred their earlier more reflective performances. One nice thing is that Matt seems to have been turned into a fan by being on the show, the first time that’s really happened; he’s been, and will surely remain, a great ambassador for the series as well as a great lead actor.

Doctor Who
If there’s been one less rewarding aspect of the anniversary year, it’s been Doctor Who. By which I mean that the series itself, outside the anniversary and story arc hoop-la, seemed to be firing on slightly less than all cylinders. As mentioned, I think the reason for the low episode count was almost certainly to eke out Matt Smith’s tenure to include the anniversary rather than because of any other rumoured cause – a falling-out between Smith and Moffat, a greater focus from the latter on Sherlock, budgetary problems and so on. That said, the rumours around Caroline Skinner’s undeniably sudden departure didn’t sound at all good, and were leant credence by an abrupt end to her high profile in promoting the show informally via Twitter.

A more meaningful problem was the decision to swing away from series six’s heavy arc-based approach by making every episode of series seven a single, stand-alone story. Ever since the show came back it’s been clear that a single 45-minute episode can be a hugely powerful format for Doctor Who, but the best have often been the smaller-scale stories (Blink, Midnight and Turn Left spring to mind – the latter grand in scope in some ways, but clearly focused on a single character more than what’s going on around her). The idea of each episode being a mini-movie in its own right led to lots of attempt at creating scale, usually successful… but at the cost of some very thin plot – when all’s said and done, 45 minutes is only 45 minutes, and there’s a reason most films are 90 or more: creating a whole world and satisfying story usually takes quite a bit of screen time.

I found the start of the second half of the series massively disappointing: The Bells of St John was an enjoyable if slight runaround, but The Rings of Akhaten had almost no story at all, and Cold War’s story beats amount to “I will destroy the world” / “Please don’t” / “OK”. The next two episodes remain unwatched on my Freeview box hard drive – like I said at the start, when you’re a fan of something (TV show, football team, whatever) and it lets you down, the disappointment runs a bit deeper than just not enjoying the latest episode, match or what-have-you. That said, The Crimson Horror did an effective job of pastiching Hammer (notably, lower-budget and smaller-scale films than the rest of the series might have aspired to ape) and The Name of the Doctor was clearly the first part of a de facto trilogy with the two subsequent specials, so the series managed to claw back some ground by its end.

I’ve also struggled to warm to Clara. For plot purposes she was clearly meant to be a bit of an enigma prior to the season finale, but it did have the effect of making her seem a bit of a generic Moffat Who girl (though I don’t subscribe at all to the “Moffat can’t write women” nonsense – however bland Clara might be, it couldn’t be argued for instance that in Sherlock Mrs Hudson, Irene Adler, Donovan and Molly are the slightest bit interchangeable). In fairness, writing companions is extraordinarily hard: they have to have a certain set of characteristics (plucky, willing to run off into time and space etc.) and ever since 2005 it’s been hard to write them truly distinctively – probably only Donna Noble stands out as a bit different, chiefly because of her age and its implications, but certainly Rose and Martha were virtually interchangeable. It’s also not clear that having a companion who doesn’t actually travel with the Doctor really works. I liked the approach with Rory and Amy, allowing them periods travelling with him and periods not as their lives moved on, and the Doctor’s close bond with Amy allowed that to make a certain sense. But in what sense Clara is a current companion, other than that the Doctor keeps turning up to see her, is a bit of a mystery. Not a reflection on Jenna Coleman however, who has been consistently great in delivering the material she’s been given.

With a new Doctor and a full series on the way in 2014, there’s a bit of a sense of the programme regrouping after losing its way a bit. Possibly a completely unfair sense – and don’t get me wrong, I’m firmly of the view that Steven Moffat is one of the towering screenwriters in British TV history, to whom the show owes an enormous debt of gratitude – but that’s how it seems.

 An Adventure In Space And Time
adventureI was looking forward massively to An Adventure In Space And Time, which told the story of Doctor Who’s creation in 1963 and the tenure on the show of its first lead actor William Hartnell. And it didn’t disappoint – it was a lovely production, the one snag being that, as a Doctor Who anorak to begin with, I knew exactly what was going to happen. Nicely done though, including lovely location filming at TV Centre and recreation of the show’s original TARDIS set. The Matt Smith cameo at the end pulled me out of the story completely, unfortunately, but was compensated for by Reece Shearsmith’s cameo turn as Patrick Troughton: he didn’t look anything like the second Doctor, but caught Troughton’s air and mannerisms uncannily. It was a lovely addition to the anniversary celebrations though.

50th Anniversary Celebrations
5ishIt can’t be said that the BBC didn’t do the 50th anniversary justice, with various documentary programmes if different kinds – I doubt I’ll ever bring myself to watch the BBC3 efforts, and I’ve yet to get round to The Science of Doctor Who, but it was great to see them all get made. Again one I’ve yet to watch, but I gather the Doctor Who at the Proms celebration included an appearance from Dudley Simpson, the most prolific composer on the original show, and performances of some of his music, which was especially pleasing. My favourite of the many satellite programmes though was The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, written and directed by Peter Davison and containing lots of wonderful fannish nods, not least David Troughton as a Dalek operator, alongside the real life voice of the Daleks Nick Briggs, and the revelation of John Barrowman’s greatest secret. The genuine bitterness subsequently expressed by Colin Baker regarding the non-appearance of most classic series Doctors (though I’m pretty sure I saw them all on-screen, quite cleverly incorporated via archive footage within its non-HD limitations if you ask me), but cameo by Tom Baker, in the anniversary special soured it a bit, by scraping the veneer of irony off it slightly. But never mind – all told, it was an imaginative, funny and affectionate piece.

Big Finish 50th anniversary stories
When the TV series hit its wobbly spell earlier in the year, I began particularly looking forward to Big Finish’s planned celebrations. Not only did they plan a full-on reunion story for all eight Doctors, but a companion set of three stories all set in 1963 featuring the fifth, sixth and seventh Doctors. In the event, the respective TV and audio adventures showed why the makers of the TV series get to play with pictures as well as sound: the first of the 1963 stories, Fanfare for the Common Men, was a fun runaround involving Peter Davison’s Doctor and a Liverpool band who aren’t quite the Beatles; Colin Baker’s outing, The Space Race, was an oddly-paced mess of Russian space exploration and talking animals, almost as if Andrew Cartmel had written it in the early 90s; and I haven’t picked up the seventh Doctor story yet – though as it reunites the main series with the excellent spin-off Counter Measures, I’m more optimistic. The anniversary story itself, however, The Light At The End, was the worst thing I’ve ever heard from Big Finish – so awful I gave up on it half-way through. The plot was a rambling, unimaginative mess, with a cartoonish Master setting some implausible trap or other for the Doctor – if nothing else, it showed just how hard it would be to do a full reunion of tons of Doctors on-screen, as plotting it must, in fairness, be almost impossible (the most the show has ever attempted in practice was four, with The Five Doctors in 1983 – Tom Baker got stuck in a time eddy or something, so things to do had to be found for only four of them). Worse still, the impersonations of the three deceased Doctors sounded nothing at all like them, despite the no doubt good intentions of all concerned – it was embarrassing. Who knows, maybe it gets really good in its second half, but I just couldn’t bear to hear any more of so much writing and acting talent being put to such poor use. The story was totally lacking the wit and imagination that Big Finish brings at its best – I wish it had been written by Alan Barnes…

DVD releases
Spearhead from Space Blu-ray CoverThe original series of Doctor Who has been coming out on DVD for over a decade now, since well before the show’s return was announced. This year was to be the year in which the final releases came out. Because of the difficult nature of the archive holdings for Doctor Who – many black and white episodes missing, some colour episodes surviving only as black and white copies – the last few releases were the ‘difficult’ ones. Several black and white sixties serials that had an episode or two missing have had the gaps plugged with animations, while a few Jon Pertwee stories have been restored to full(ish) colour.

So the fiftieth anniversary saw the release of some long-awaited stories on DVD, though in truth they were long awaited because of their archival status more than their quality as drama, which was mixed. In the event, the last knockings of the DVD releases have spilled over into 2014, so not all are out yet, but the dedicated team who have worked for the last decade and more to restore the show for DVD and leave a legacy of high quality masters in the archive has, officially, finished its work.

My favourite release of the year, however, was the single high definition release of a classic Doctor Who story: all bar one of the show’s original serials was made partly or wholly using 405 or 625-line video, and so cannot be given a full HD release. Jon Pertwee’s debut, Spearhead from Space, was however shot entirely on film, and so has been polished up into HD and put out on BluRay. It’s a glimpse of what a more expensive, all-film, 60s or 70s Doctor Who might have looked like, and it looks great as well as being one of the high points of the original series (shop window dummies coming to life and bursting through the shop windows – that’s the one). The release was done on a shoestring as these things go, and we should be grateful to everyone who made it happen.

The missing episodes
DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s a complete coincidence that all this has happened in the anniversary year, but it’s still been – and promises to continue to be – massively exciting. Rumours of a major haul of missing British TV shows recovered from African stations grew strong early this year, and shot round the internet, mutating as they did so. I swung from utter scepticism to cautiously feeling there may be something to it, to disbelieving again. Finally in early autumn, things solidified and a consistent rumour of three Doctor Who returns emerged: Marco Polo, The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. And in October, the release on DVD was confirmed of… the second and third of those. The quizmaster in my pub quiz has a friend who claims to be well-connected, and had told me firmly that the announcement was on its way a couple of days before it emerged… he also reports that Marco Polo is now with iTunes ready to go on sale, its restoration having been delayed by technical troubles. We’ll see if that pans out. Certainly the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, speaking in the documentary screened at this year’s Missing Believed Wiped, seemed to confirm that there is indeed a big haul of stuff from Africa – although he rowed back from this firm position subsequently (but I was there and heard what he originally said, whether a mis-speak or not). It looks likely that there is therefore much material about to be returned to the archive, at least some of it likely to be Doctor Who. Will we really get the number of missing episodes down drastically? It’s a shame in some ways that the constant speculation is overshadowing the remarkable achievement of getting the missing total down below 100, which I certainly would not have expected twelve months ago. On its own, that’s a great bonus for the anniversary year.

JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner
jntMost aspects of Doctor Who have had at least one book written about them, and this extends to biographies of some of the key actors and personnel. This is probably the best of them all, and is a great piece of biography in its own right that should be of interest well beyond Doctor Who fandom.

John Nathan-Turner was the final producer of the original run of Doctor Who, overseeing it from Tom Baker’s final season all the way through to its cancellation at the end of the 80s. He was a complex man, and his story both fascinating and ultimately very sad. A rising star in BBC production, he saw himself as a potential future controller of BBC1, and many around him during his early career wouldn’t have seen that as crazy. His career stalled on Doctor Who, however: his first role as producer, in his early thirties, should have been a stepping stone on to other things; in the event, his near-constant efforts to move to or start other shows went nowhere, changing operational models at the BBC closed off future avenues as production was made a freelance business, and the increasingly troubled and ultimately failed production of Doctor Who dragged him down with it.

Richard Marson writes from the perspective of both a Doctor Who fan and a TV producer himself, having had a long stint at the helm of Blue Peter, also a long-running and sometimes flagship BBC show. He traces with authority both why JN-T was deeply loved by many who knew him, and deeply loathed by almost as many – both, as the book makes clear, with some good reasons. Certainly he rose to the limits of his incompetence: he had no understanding of drama, which hobbled the show throughout the decade as it put the whole onus for the creative direction of the show on the script editor (during the most successful periods in its original run, Doctor Who was guided creatively by a producer and script editor working closely together to develop the creative ideas underpinning the show – but JN-T just couldn’t fulfil this function, and worse still didn’t realise it). His frequent proposals for new shows were without exception gimmicky insubstantial rubbish, showing no grasp at all of how drama actually works. He was a highly able nuts-and-bolts man, however, and saw the programme made in the teeth of repeated production crises and eye-wateringly small budgets – no mean feat at all. Marson suggests, probably correctly, that he might have been a better light entertainment producer, or in a salesman / promoter type role for for the show globally – he was an instinctive showman, that much is clear.

JN-T’s personal life is also rightly prominent in the book, though never salaciously or in any way not justified by events. He was a promiscuous gay man who enjoyed contact with young men – plenty of whom came his way given the nature of the Doctor Who fanbase. Had he still been alive, there can be little doubt that he would have been dragged into the post-Saville swirl of retrospective scandal around the BBC; as it was, one or two tabloids picked up on the contents of this book and ran with it long enough to drag Colin Baker in, totally unfairly, but the story inevitably went nowhere. Throughout nearly all his adult life however, JN-T was in a devoted relationship with long-term partner Gary Downie – an association that Marson suggests might have harmed his career, as Downie was a difficult customer prone to rubbing people up the wrong way in every possible sense.

JN-T died aged 54 in sad circumstances; I won’t go on any further – just buy the book. I came away from it not particularly admiring John Nathan-Turner, but certainly liking him.

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Stephen Fry’s armpit

The announcement of Karen Gillan’s casting in Doctor Who effectively announces that filming is due to start shortly on the first full Moffat series, we are less than a year away from its broadcast, and that’s an exciting thought.

I’m also reminded of one of the best magazine columns I’ve ever read, also from the pen of the Moff. It’s from a few years ago, before David Tennant had even made his full on-screen debut. I particularly sympathise with the views on hugging – confronted by a looming Stephen Fry, I imagine I would have done much the same…

hug in a moff

Doctor Smith

Today is a day that arrived a good ten years earlier than I expected. Today the next actor to play the Doctor is younger than me.

When the talking heads on Doctor Who Confidential let slip the first clue – that the new Doctor is the youngest ever – I envisaged writing something along the following lines in this post: a young Doctor strikes me as a mistake, but Steven Moffat is a great writer and producer who is rightly paid to take these decisions, and he will get it right and prove me wrong.

Moffat himself evidently had the same preconceptions, and expected to cast an actor in his forties.

But actually… my first reaction is that Matt Smith is likely to be very good. From the clips shown – and I’ll confess Ruby in the Smoke and Party Animals are both programmes I intended to watch and then didn’t, bar a perhaps unrepresentative ten minutes of the latter – he seems to have that magnetic charisma on-screen that the part requires. He also has a face that is 50% chisel-jawed heroism and 50% wonky excess head area – a quirky combination that must be right for the role.

So: four more David Tennant specials, then Matt Smith in 2010. Excellent!

Just in case anyone missed it: Smith’s first appearance is promised for Spring 2010. The date of Tennant’s last special has not been announced, but the latest rumour seems to be Easter 2010 rather than Christmas 2009. Could it be scheduled to kick-start the first Moffat-Smith series? Could be a great move, or a dreadful one. Or maybe it’ll be a Christmas Day regeneration after all.

Though, to come back to the age thing… if ever there’s something to make you feel like you’ve totally wasted your life to date, it’s seeing the title role in Doctor Who go to someone younger than you.

Headlong rush into fan sadness

Firstly, apologies for the lack of updates. It is likely to continue (if it’s possible for a lack to continue… I suppose it is) – I have rather less spare time now than I used to, and higher priorities for writing.

One casualty of this is likely to be my episode-by-episode reviews of Doctor Who. But while I’m here, I have some fan frustration to get off my chest. In The Stolen Earth, Davros was deliberately depicted with a mechanical hand, on the basis that the last time he was seen in the “classic” series – 1985’s Revelation of the Daleks – his real hand was seen being blown off.

Except… that wasn’t the last time he was seen in the old series! He was seen again in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks, and by that time he was reduced to a disembodied head inside a Dalek casing. Youtube handily backs me up on this…

So why has the new series deliberately trashed the old? There’s no possibility of a mistake: you’re dealing with proper fans on the Doctor Who production team – they would not even have had to look it up, and they certainly wouldn’t have forgotten. And if Davros supposedly grew himself a new body… why didn’t he grow himself a properly-functioning body, not a withered, disabled one? That can’t be the explanation.

Of course, acknowledging this change would have meant that the iconic image of Davros, half man and half Dalek, could not be recreated… but with all the ingenuity of RTD and the gang, there must have been a better way to get round this.

Also, this is the second bit of ret-conning relating to Remembrance of the Daleks: at the end of that story, Skaro is destroyed, but in Daleks in Manhattan last year it was stated that the Daleks’ planet was destroyed during the Time Wars. Now, the destruction of Skaro could have been the start of the wars I suppose, but more likely it was just a plain case of the new series riding roughsod over the old. Usually I’m impressed with how the show manages to reinvent past elements without trashing them, but it seems to be making a point of contradicting this one particular story.

Now, this is not a unanimous view with Doctor Who fandom, but Remembrance is generally one of the better-regarded McCoy stories – the era as a whole remains enormously divisive among fans, but I think it was in many respects one of the old show’s strongest periods. Perhaps RTD feels otherwise. Even if he does, it’s hard to see how he can justify picking and choosing what bits of the old show are now canonical and which are not. What’s the point of doing fanwank like bringing Davros back, and then getting it wrong?? It’s deeply sad, I know, but it just bothers me. That’s all.

Doctor Who – ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’

Firstly, I’m not doing a separate review for last week’s episode, The Poison Sky: by and large it continued the good work of the first instalment. Good CGI in places, liked that. Nice reference to the Brigadier – though they should have elevated him to the Lords, not just a knighthood!

And now… The Doctor’s Daughter is an episode that will have divided fandom. The trailing of it did rather imply Georgia Moffett would be playing some long-lost descendant, and as this would entail the Doctor having had some sort of reproductive congress in the past this would have been a big no-no for many fans (jealous of their hero for actually getting some action at some point in the last 900 years, no doubt). What we actually got was rather different – although the idea of the Doctor having a family still on Gallifrey at the time of the Time War is a bit implausible given the number of times he visited the planet in the old series without so much as dropping in for a cup of tea… Still, you can probably explain it away if you wish. And then there’s his grand-daughter Susan, living on a future Earth… Perhaps it’s just sad to get bothered by it, but for the most part RTD’s Doctor Who has invoked past elements of the show without massive contradictions or even ret-conning, and it’s a bit disappointing he’s not managed to strike the balance here…

Anyway, back, at length, to this week’s episode. First observation: it didn’t half look cheap. All those interiors, small cast… Second observation: contrary to claims in Doctor Who Confidential, Jenny’s death at the end of the episode was utterly predictable. In a pattern we’re already well familiar with, after Lynda-with-a-Y in Parting of the Ways and Madame de Pompadour in Girl In the Fireplace (I’m sure there’s at least one other example that’s escaping me), once the Doctor gets as far as saying he’s willing to welcome someone on board the TARDIS who hasn’t been announced as a new companion in the press, you know they’re a goner. That said, while the lack of a regeneration is a bit perplexing from an internal logic point of view, it’s good to see a new potential recurring character, particularly a slightly ambivalent Doctor-ish figure: it’s something RTD’s Whoniverse has lacked.

Overall, I actually rather liked this episode. The business of the short timeframe of the war was an original idea, and gave a neat pay-off to the business of Donna obsessing over the numbers. The interplay between Jenny and the Doctor was excellent, as their similarities gradually emerged and she challenged his moral authority. The pace of the running around was nicely judged, and Joe “Chris from Skins” Dempsie was engaging to watch.

I’ve no idea why Martha was brought along for this episode rather than left on Earth at the end of the last one: her runaround with the Hath seemed utterly tacked-on for the sake of getting her out of the way, and the self-sacrifice of her companion Hath was rather predictable and tedious. Nor am I totally sure whether I think the Hath design was totally successful, thinking about it – their initial appearance storming through the tunnels was eery, grotesque and striking… but prolonged screen time did make them look a bit silly.

Cob too was a failure as a character: a hackneyed mindless soldier of the type the series, both old and new, has presented far too often. But I don’t wish to criticise Stephen Greenhorn too much – for the Jenny-Doctor interplay alone his script deserves to be remembered with admiration.

I’ve paid relatively little attention to the running order of this series, to the point where, unlike for the last two years, I don’t know what episode is coming up next until the throw-forward at the end of the episode. Perhaps this series rewards that approach, as I’m enjoying it rather more than last year’s, to which I was paying closer attention. Not sure if this is a mark of good TV, but nevertheless this episode struck me as another that was, on balance, successful. But I hope there are higher peaks to come from this series – role on the Steven Moffat two-parter!

Doctor Who – ‘Planet of the Ood’

I’m glad the production team decided to give the Ood another run out – they are certainly the most effective new monster race created since the series returned (except the Space Pig maybe, but he was a one-off sadly). But I wish they had done a bit more with them. The sight of the screaming, rabid Ood was effectively frightening, but beyond that they became a bit predictable: enslaved by evil humans as a vague soft-left parable for sweatshop labour or imperialism or sumfink… The Ood’s subservient status was their defining characteristic when they first appeared, and the Doctor’s blithe acceptance of it does his credibility a bit of damage, given that it turned out they were enslaved. It’s a shame they couldn’t think of something more interesting to explain it.

And overall, the episode had a rather dull, linear structure: the storyline, such as it was, centred on the Doctor and Donna wandering around. Now, I really like the Tenth Doctor and Donna combination, and it’s obvious the writers are really enjoying getting their teeth into writing the dialogue, but I wish there had been something else going on alongside it. The corporation types are rather one-dimensional, and almost certainly intended to be disliked by the viewer; though the choice of the marketing girl to stick to her job and dob the Doctor and Donna in was, I felt, actually a more plausible human reaction than it would have been if she had broken ranks and assisted them – sad she was shown to get “just desserts” for it.

By the end, we were staring at a giant brain… Well, did Time and the Rani teach Russell T Davies nothing?

As a saving grace, Tim Mcinnerny’s transformation into an Ood was phenomenally effective – indeed, rather stomach-turning for a family show; I doubt The X-Files would have shown much more. But his back-story was rather unconvincing; all that business about his father made this intergalactic slave corporation seem incredibly tin-pot.

This wasn’t bad TV by any stretch of the imagination, and I rate it more highly than a lot of the journeyman-written episodes from last year… But even so, it didn’t leave me feeling I’d been watching the most brilliant TV programme ever made – and as it was an episode of Doctor Who, that represents a failure, albeit a narrow and on the whole enjoyable one.

Doctor Who – ‘The Fires of Pompeii’

As with Gridlock last year, this episode promised a lot more than it delivered, but while it was in its promising phase, it was very good indeed.

The Pompeii set-up was marvellous: the use of the Cinecitta sets was thoroughly worthwhile, and the use of the Cambridge Latin Course family names certainly amused me – particularly the “you’ll be remembered” line to Caecilius at the end. It’s a shame there were a few shots of Lucius striding up a very obviously Welsh hillside to double for Vesuvius at one point.

The guest cast were excellent, particularly Phil Cornwell and Peter Capaldi. The Welsh gags were also nice touches. The use of make-up design, with eyes painted on hands, was downright eery; and the shrivelled old seer was effectively repulsive. Above all, the build-up was fantastic: how could the Pompeiians know so much about the Doctor and Donna, but not about the eruption? What did he mean by “there is something on your back”?! What is going on with the volcano? Fantastic.

And then, with only fifteen minutes left, they decide they need to explain it all… and the whole thing becomes utterly bog-standard. Aliens stranded on Earth for millennia, will destroy the planet… the Doctor stops them. Tsk. I mean, how many buried alien spacecrafts can one planet accumulate? The Racnoss, this lot, Daemons, Zygons, there must be loads more… And the Doctor fixes it all with the sonic screwdriver and outruns a volcanic eruption. Cheap peril, and even cheaper resolutions.

Also, it rather seems as though the Doctor and Donna can just nip back and forth between Pompeii and the Volcano as if they were right next to each other – in fact they’re about seven miles apart. Nor did the business with the household gods at the end, nor the coining of the term volcano, really add anything.

Still, it was a top-notch production, and certainly enjoyable. Just a shame about the plot.

Doctor Who – ‘The Sontaran Strategem’

There are a couple of trends in RTD-era Doctor Who that are potentially relevant to this episode. One is that episode four of each series is always the first of a two-part aliens-invade-Earth type story, which is usually a bit below par. The second is that many episodes are good at the build-up, but offer poor, or at least overly simple, resolutions. The Sontaran Stratagem might fit the latter characteristic, though as it’s part one of two and is all build-up, as an episode in its own right it won’t suffer as a result; but it has so far not disappointed.

As a return for both the Sontarans and UNIT, this potentially had fanwank written all over it, but overall restrained itself. Inevitably, the Doctor entering the mobile HQ was reminiscent of the last full-on appearance on UNIT, in 1989’s Battlefield; it’s a shame the UN’s unhappiness at being associated with a military force dedicated to defending humanity (!) has meant they have had to dispense with the blue berets and change the name to “Unified Intelligence Task Force” – but on the up-side, the joke about UNIT dating was, to me at least, hilarious. I didn’t get much of a sense of today’s UNIT, however: the commanding officer was well-played, but lacked depth – much as Lethbridge-Stewart did at times, of course, but Nicholas Courtney’s strangely bluff charisma was sadly not replicated. I do hope he gets a cameo in next week’s episode – it will be a sad opportunity missed if not.

As for the Sontarans, I am a bit baffled that RTD chose them from among numerous other potential “second tier” monsters to bring back – they were always a bit rubbish really, weren’t they? Still, their visualisation worked better than the initial promotional pictures had suggested – their faces had been made to look rather too cute in the stills I saw. Overall, they are a credible monster, though I’m not sure their “returning” status really adds anything to them. Still, no point reinventing the wheel, I suppose.

Also returning to the show, throughout this year’s series, is some surprisingly strong horror: after the Ood transformation last week, the shrivelled old woman the week before and the grotesque belly-bulging antics of the season opener, the clone-in-a-tank was perhaps the most grotesque and unnerving monster ever seen on the show. Utterly horrible, brilliantly realised. But is it really appropriate for a pre-7pm transmission? Well, it’s the BBC’s problem.

Oh, and also also returning: Martha Jones. I tried hard last year to give Martha the benefit of the doubt, but after the series ended, and after her stint in Torchwood, I concluded rather sadly that Freema Agyeman just can’t cut it, unless (as in Human Nature, for instance) she’s given some really good material to work with. Obviously Helen Raynor’s script provided sufficient grist to Freema’s mill, as for the most part she was decent here, although at times, for instance the “I’m bringing you back to Earth” line she still seemed a bit too stagey.

But Martha’s character development is excellent: I can’t recall seeing a companion come back having been in many ways transformed: engaged, newly qualified, and in a new line of work. The only comparison is Ace’s development into a battle-hardened soldier in the New Adventures – thinking about it, it’s hard not to think there might have been a bit of an influence going on there.

And before I forget, also also also returning: that bloody bridge at Cardiff docks! As seen in Army of Ghosts, the Torchwood episode with the people being taken and returned by the Rift, and now as the (admittedly very effective) backdrop to the episode-opening car crash (yet more strong horror for a 6:20 TX!)… They really need to find some more varied locations. The re-use in Partners in Crime of the corridor in the Millennium Stadium previously seen in Dalek and The Runaway Bride – even shot at almost exactly the same angle as in the latter – has also been blindingly obvious, and I’m sure there must be other examples of re-used locations that have been spotted by people more eagle-eyed than I.

The story itself in many ways re-assembled the staples of an Earth-set Doctor Who story, but with enough twists to make it interesting. So, an alien attack plunges the planet into chaos – but this time it’s a threat on the ground rather than a spaceship looming out of the sky or marching alien hoards breaking cover. Again, the Doctor meets the companion’s family – but this time, actually, he’s met them before. Again, UNIT responds – but this time, the Doctor is an integral part of the operation, and the outfit takes centre stage in the narrative. Indeed, the matching-up of the militaristic Sontarans with the military UNIT is surely a deliberate decision.

The teenage genius… not sure we really needed another riff on this, but I suppose Doctor Who hasn’t done it before (has it? Maybe Adam in the 2005 series…). I particularly liked the Doctor’s reaction at the academy-thing: striding around, identifying all the massively sophisticated technology at a glance, teleporting casually off the planet and back again, then defeating the alien with some improvisation using everyday sporting equipment – it doesn’t get much more Jon Pertwee, albeit the pacing has been appropriately upped.

All told, this episode does very little that’s totally new, but manages to get a lot of thing spot-on right that have only been more-or-less right, or worse, in the past. And for that reason, it counts as one of the more successful episodes of its kind.

Doctor Who – ‘Partners in Crime’

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.