Thoughts on: The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

The one thing this story did fantastically was the thing it substantially set out to accomplish: to re-introduce the Sontarans. I would confidently say this story was the Sontarans’ best, in the sense that the Sontarans were portrayed the best. This story was hugely successful in re-introducing the Sontarans, perfectly encapsulating what they were and what they were about: a race of clone soldiers who glory in war and violence. The Sontarans in this story were intimidating and fearsome, as well as somewhat comical, but not in such a way that detracted from their menace. I wasn’t as impressed with the story on the whole. The plot, concerning the mystery of the Sontarans’ uncharacteristically reticent invasion of Earth, was fleetingly interesting, but not so interesting to keep me gripped for the full ninety minutes of this fairly run-of-the-mill alien invasion runaround story. “Aliens are invading (21st Century) Earth” has become such a hackneyed trope in modern Doctor Who that stories employing the formula are invariably wont to be repetitive and tiresome. This one is no exception. As far as alien invasion runarounds go, it doesn’t particularly stand out: swap the Sontarans with any hostile alien species and one would scarcely be able to tell the difference.

Apart from the effective deployment of the Sontarans themselves, the only thing that redeemed this story was the characters—specifically Martha and Donna. Donna continues to endear herself the audience, showing what a very complex person she really is under that bluster and snark. She showed her insecurities about travelling with the Doctor in her dialogue with Martha, her concern for protecting her family, particularly her loving grandad, Wilf, from being hurt by her association with the Doctor. Although she’s not my favourite, Donna showed herself to be a unique companion in other ways: she’s not the perfect Mary-Sue that Rose and Martha were, she was petrified when the Doctor asked her to sneak through the Sontaran ship and activate the teleport pods. In a way that certainly makes her a far more relateable companion that Rose or Martha were, who both proved themselves to be extraordinary people. Although Martha spent the majority of the story locked in a basement while her clone gallivanted around pretending to be her, the little screentime real Martha got was wonderful, such as the touching dialogue between Martha and her clone. Wilf was also excellent. He’s becoming a really strong character in his own right, and easily the best friend-and-family-of-companion character we’ve had yet. One can’t help but think he’s inadvertently sending his granddaughter into danger so he can live vicariously through her…

The Doctor was good in this story, although the material he was given in the script didn’t exactly lend itself to a display of Tennant’s acting abilities. I did, however, find the Doctor a little too sanctimonious in this story—not only his frankly prejudiced aversion to soldiers (from an organisation he used to work for, no less), but his insistence on sacrificing himself at the end to “give them a choice”. How more idiotically pious could you get? The Doctor’s moralism is a central part of his character, but sometimes it goes overboard, as here. The Doctor would have known that there was approximately zero chance of the Sontarans’ backing down, so he was essentially knowingly embarking on an unnecessary suicide mission. Just not good writing, I think. I did, however, like the way the Doctor was shown to callously “use” Donna, putting her into danger for his own ends. That’s the morally-questionable-and-sometimes-outright-Machiavellian-but-essentially-good Doctor I know.

Some final thoughts: I thought Luke Rattigan was a really well-written character. He was a tragic villain in many respects. His motivations and objectives were so unforgivably selfish, but yet you can’t help feeling sorry for the snotty little oik, who was driven to make a terrible pact with the Sontarans out of resentment and grievance at the way the unappreciative world had treated him and his obviously vast genius. I hated the little git, but I also, in spite of myself, sympathised with him. That’s testament to very able acting on the part of Ryan Sampson, in any case. I thought UNIT were poorly portrayed in this story. They seem to have gone from being the beneficial and equal alliance of military and science for common endeavour that they were in the classic series to being a substantially militarist affair in this story. Finally, I thought the Doctor’s whipping up of the atmosphere converter to dispel the Sontarans’ poison gas could have been better explained; it looked like the Doctor just cobbled together a few bits and pieces from Rattigan’s laboratory that just happened to be the right components he needed.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords

I think Russell T Davies has finally done it. His attempts, in writing a finale, to perpetually outdo the previous finale have finally resulted in his overreaching himself and producing something that, while not necessarily a poor story, in many respects fell flat and failed to measure up to the previous years’ finales. There were good and bad aspects to this finale, but, ultimately, I think that, in its overblown extravagance, it came up a messy and unpolished story. Bringing back the Master and following a story about his diabolical conquest and tyrannising of the world was a decent story premise in itself, I just think it could have been played out a lot better—I think the story got overly caught up in the magnitude and epicness of it all such that quality of storytelling suffered as a consequence.

Among the fandom, particularly fans acquainted with the classic series, John Simm is something of a love-it-or-hate-it incarnation of the Master. Personally, I thought Simm as the Master was one of the genuinely great aspects of this finale. Simm’s Master was manic, menacing and delightfully deranged. I love that. I loved the maniacal, unhinged characterisation of the Master that Simm gave, and it’s easy to tell that Simm absolutely revelled in playing the Master that way. He looked like he was having splendiferous, rollicking fun playing the demented megalomaniac, making for a wonderfully entertaining and convincing performance. He also had a great dynamic with David Tennant as the Doctor—I really got the sense that these were two estranged friends (acquaintances?) with a complicated history and an even more complicated relationship. I came away with the impression that the Doctor and the Master were equally matched in wits and charisma, the last two Time Lords in existence. The dialogue between these two, particularly in The Sound of Drums, was electric. I also thought the Doctor’s grieving over the Master when the latter died at the end of Last of the Time Lords was profoundly moving, expressing so much more about the Doctor and the Master’s relationship than words could.

Moreover, I like the way the story gave the Master a depth of character and background that was previously absent in the otherwise uncomplicatedly camp and diabolical villain. The Master was changed by the Time War just as the Doctor was: the Master ran and hid himself away at the end of the universe to escape the war. There’s a quality—fear, submission—we never saw in the goatee-stroking Master of the classic series. The Master was also shown to have this condition, the unrelenting drumming in his head, which perhaps drives his endless destructive machinations. I appreciate this addition to the Master’s character. It offered a deep-seated and believable reason—madness, insanity—for the Master’s evil, which went some way in ceasing requiring our having to accept that the Master just hates everything for no particular reason. The Master is an enjoyable character whom it is always fun to see, but he needed some depth and development of his character backstory to be a convincing villain, which this story went a good way in providing.

In terms of plot, as I said, the story had a good idea which could have been better executed. The Toclafane, the Master’s laser-happy minions, struck me as a particularly ill-conceived idea. I don’t necessarily object to the idea of the Toclafane’s being the wretched humans of the distant future “saved” and brought back by the Master—which was suitably horrible—but the robotic sphere devices and those sickly-sweet childlike voices made them so comical that the horror of what they were was largely negated. That said, the idea that the Toclafane are what ultimately becomes of our species is truly gruesome (the blank look of defeatism on the Doctor’s face, like that of a man trying to come to terms with emotional trauma, really brought it home for me). That knowledge made it even more horrific when the Toclafane proceeded to execute the grandfather paradox on an unthinkable scale “because it’s fun” (although the sequences showing the Toclafane’s mass murder would have worked a lot more effectively without the overweening music). These were some very dark and grisly ideas, it’s just a shame the Toclafane seemed to be floating robotic spheres with Tellytubby voices.

I thought the device of leaving the Doctor helpless at the mercy of the Master, and to be helpless as the Master commits unspeakable atrocities against the world for a full year, was really effective. It did something that we don’t see happen enough in Doctor Who, which is showing the Doctor fail, showing the bad guys win, and showing that the Doctor won’t always save the day. Although we watch this show to see the Doctor save the day, and, of course, in the end, he always does, showing the Doctor lose so completely, and so undignifiedly, like this, has the healthy effect of disabusing us of the notion that the Doctor will always be there to save us. That said, I really liked the, erm… I don’t know how to describe it other than as a “religious” aura surrounding the Doctor when the “power of prayer” restored him and transformed him into a kind of angelic, godly figure, of whom the Master, wide-eyed with disbelief, trembled in fear. Coupled with the “I forgive you”, I don’t know how you could see that as other than a religious subtext. The message was that the Doctor was humanity’s salvation; the Doctor will deliver humanity from evil against all odds. That’s a glowing, heartwarming message, and made for a very emotively powerful scene, but my sense tells me that the show shouldn’t be going down the route of making the Doctor into a godly, messianic figure, given that he’s just an ordinary Time Lord (or is he?).

The Doctor’s being rendered helpless by the hands of the Master at the end of The Sound of Drums also made for an opportunity for Martha step into the Doctor’s shoes. She truly showed how extraordinary she was in her almost single-handed efforts in bringing down the Master and restoring the Doctor to a body that lent itself to combatting the Master. Her exit was understated but actually quite lovely, if bittersweet, given the heart-wrenching departure of Rose only a season ago. The tone of her exit (“So this is me… getting out.”) was a testament to how poorly treated her character was by the writers this season. I don’t blame Martha for feeling compelled to leave after such a short time with the Doctor; she groaned continually under the shadow of Rose, and she clearly deserved more than what she got from the Doctor, who seemed to be consciously spurning her emotional needs. For the Doctor, Martha really was just the rebound girl with whom he never had (nor really wanted to have, except perhaps after she’d finally decided to leave) anything like a genuine bond. I felt quite sorry for her.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: Utopia

Although Utopia forms a linked three-part narrative with the final two episodes of the season, I tend to consider it separate from The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords so will be giving a separate review from the latter two episodes. Utopia was fairly light on plot—there’s not much in the way of a complication or conflict to be resolved in this story, unless ensuring the success of the Utopia voyage counted. The threat of the Futurekind to the remnants of human civilisation represented the inkling of a substantive plot, but ultimately this and even the Utopia voyage itself proved to be peripheral to the focus of this episode. As such, although I’d normally considerably fault a story for such dearth of… well, story, I feel that it would be unfair not to overlook it here as the objective of this story was not on such substantive plot issues, but on setting up the finale. The whole episode was leading up to the revelation of the Doctor’s great arch-nemesis of old, the Master.

Derek Jacobi, playing Professor Yana and/or the Master, was absolutely phenomenal. He brought a theatrical majesty to the production that truly put everyone else to shame. David Tennant, who was by no means anything short of wonderful in this episode, looked positively average next to the acting genius of Jacobi. He portrayed both Yana and the Master masterfully (sorry). As Yana, he depicted powerfully the gentle old scientist’s internal trauma as echoes of his old life returned to him, brought on by the appearance of his old adversary, the Doctor. Yana’s transformation into the Master was chilling, Jacobi invoking the dramatic style of the stage in portraying adeptly, physically and verbally, his character’s fundamental metamorphosis from sweet old man to sadistic megalomaniac. The revelation of the Master in general was spectacular, one of the most dramatic and captivating sequences the revival has given us. Jacobi summoned up one last spell of theatrical intensity in the Master’s regeneration scene to give us what will surely live on as one of Doctor Who’s greatest moments.

Another great aspect of this episode was the welcome return of Captain Jack Harkness. I echo those who say his presence was missed in Series 2, but it was excellent to see him back again with the Doctor. He added a touch of humour and frivolity that made the majority of this episode a lot more engaging than it would otherwise have been. A much beloved character who’s always welcome in Doctor Who, Jack had great chemistry with the Tenth Doctor. They were very amusing to watch together, particularly their banter in the scene Jack was removing the engine clamps in the irradiated room. Martha didn’t have a particularly big role in this episode, making it, in my calculation, only the second episode where Martha wasn’t absolutely brilliant (the other being Blink, where she had all of 15 seconds of screen time). I’m a bit peeved that, even in the final throes of the series, Martha’s character is still living under the shadow of Rose. I think she’s justified in being resentful, and I think her character was poorly treated by the writers in that, even now, she’s still the “rebound girl”, Rose’s replacement, rather than a companion with a personal connection with the Doctor in her own right.

John Simm, in his few moments as the regenerated Master, was positively electric and terrifying. It seemed, in the apparition of Simm, as though the Doctor had finally met his match, a kind of demented version of himself, just as manic and as brilliant as he was. My heart was pounding at that point—the episode had just reached an exhilarating crescendo leading into… that cliffhanger. Yes, I couldn’t possibly write about Utopia without mentioning that torturous cliffhanger. Surely that has to be one of the best cliffhangers in the show’s history? Having decided beforehand to watch Utopia today and leave the final two episodes for tomorrow, it certainly left me with the urge to forge ahead…

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Blink

“Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast, faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back, don’t look away, and don’t blink. Good luck.”

Who could have followed up the masterpiece that was Human Nature/The Family of Blood but Steven Moffat, with probably the most acclaimed Doctor Who story ever. With the exception, perhaps, of The Empty ChildBlink is probably the creepiest thing Doctor Who has ever done. The Weeping Angels are an absolute masterstroke of a new monster, such a simple but chilling concept with an inspired psychological gimmick that makes these the best monsters since the Daleks. Giving them the form of angels has the curious effect of making them even more sinister a villain, in a similar way that evil clowns are a particularly terrifying inversion. The first time you watch this episode and see the angel’s face contorted in bestial passion is a truly startling and frightening experience. I’ve watched this episode countless times now, but I’m still struck by the terror the Angels, and the episode in general, is still capable of inducing, a testament to its timeless genius. Congratulations, Moffat, for once again terrifying an entire generation of children.

This episode was in general masterfully produced. It really encapsulates what makes a perfect single-episode story: it was exciting and gripping without feeling rushed; the pacing was perfect. The cinematography was superlative, effectively inducing an entrancing aura of claustrophobia, panic and mystery. The marked absence of the Doctor from the majority of the episode added to the sense of claustrophobia, as it created the feeling that a reassuring presence was missing. That said, that “Don’t blink” quote (above) by the Doctor in the recording was genuinely spine chilling. This episode revelled in timey-wimey creepiness that made for an intriguing plot device. We all know Steven Moffat loves his timey-wimey devices, but arguably timey-wimey was done better here than in anything he’s written subsequently; here it was used elegantly and with finesse and subtlety, while in stories like Pandorica and The Wedding of River Song (and pretty much Series 6 in general), it’s overly heavy-handed.

Carey Mulligan is to be praised for an exceptional performance as Sally Sparrow. Sally was an endearing character in whom the audience quickly became emotionally invested. She was clever, brave, kind and likable, and fit the bill perfectly for a “could-have-been” companion. I can see her travelling the universe with the Doctor, piping up with the occasional playful, snarky remark to keep the Doctor in check. Given that she became embroiled in this affair by wandering into an abandoned haunted house, I would say she definitely has the curiosity and character to be a companion. Billy Shipton was also a great character, played well by both Michael Obiora (Billy the Younger) and Louis Mahoney (Billy the Elder).

I don’t have any hesitation about giving this one top marks. Although not, in my opinion, the best Doctor Who story ever, it certainly comes close. Within the New Who run, I would rate only The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (another Moffat triumph) above it, as I stated in my definitive list of the top 20 New Who stories. Nevertheless, Blink is unarguably a timeless masterpiece of the highest quality which, as my own experience attests, never gets old.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: Human Nature / The Family of Blood

Okay, that was absolutely magnificent. It’s times like these that I’m left in complete awe of the sheer quality of television that Doctor Who is producing. Everything about this story was absolutely perfect. More than that, it was just an astounding work of art: some of the most creative and inspired writing this show has ever seen. It had a positively riveting story, peerless quality of acting, superlative visual production, and I’m just finding it difficult to do justice to this work in my words.

The inspired conceit at the heart of this story was the transformation of the Doctor into a human. Which Doctor better with which to conduct this experiment than the Tenth, the most human of all the Doctors? We gained a privileged glimpse into the Doctor’s nature by way of this experiment. If I’m right in having understood that John Smith was a “persona” of the Doctor, a constellation of aspects of his personality, stripped of his Time Lord consciousness, then this story presented us with a fascinating vision of what the Doctor would be like as a human. John Smith was a sweet, gentle man, thoughtful, and astonishingly brave. John Smith was a romantic, a man of passion, who savoured the keen tease of love. He would, if he could have, contentedly made himself a life with Joan Redfern, a whole new, human life. He would have settled down and lived out the rest of his human days in loving, contented bliss with a woman he loves, so very unlike the Doctor we know. Moreover, he displayed extraordinary bravery when he sacrificed it all, and all he was, to be the Doctor again. This is all the Doctor. It’s a side to the Doctor we never see because it’s buried deep inside him, perhaps as part of his subconscious, but this is who the Doctor would be if he were a human.

The Family of Blood were a suitably chilling adversary. They displayed a frightening villainy that truly disturbed, even more so because of their taking ordinary human forms: the jarring incongruity was disquieting enough on its own. Jeremy Baines, played superlatively by Harry Lloyd, was the most delightfully creepy of the lot, a slimy, unhinged public schoolboy whose discordant speech and his unearthly, ravenous gaze sets the hair on end. Lloyd is to be congratulated for a profoundly unsettling, villainous performance. A word of praise should also be given to Jessica Hynes, whose performance as Joan Redfern was entrancingly delicate and nuanced and perfect. Her portrayal of Joan’s suppressed heartbreak and sorrow at the loss of John Smith was touching, almost tearful. Hynes carried her script more than admirably, and I’m really in awe of her talents here.

Martha was fantastic, and Agyeman carried the all-important lead role exceptionally. Thrust reluctantly into the role of keeping herself and the Doctor safe until the threat of the Family had gone, Martha acquitted herself laudably and bravely. She endured committing herself to particularly undesirable work, racial prejudice, and loneliness, for the Doctor’s sake, and for that deserves high commendation. Martha continues to prove herself a more than capable companion, in this story more so than any yet. She’s particularly to be praised for telling the bigoted attitudes of the time to go f*ck themselves. As an aside, Doctor Who, usually engaging in disingenuous whitewashing of historical race relations (black courtiers at the Palace of Versailles anyone?), was uncharacteristically forthright about the less than commendable historical racial attitudes in this story—and for that is to be commended.

The spectre of war was a prominent theme in this story, one explored with sobering effect. There was no particular reason, it seemed, to set the story in 1913, but it created an opportunity to gain insights about England on the eve of war. A nation that had not been involved in major warfare for a century, it romanticised and gloried in war and the warlike ethic. It brought its proudest sons up to exult in the cause of King and Country, in killing and conquering for the military glory of the nation. How naive it all was, and how cruelly those romantic notions were shattered, in the “war to end all wars”. The tears and clenched teeth of the boys as they believed themselves to be mowing down human lives was profoundly disquieting, representing the moment those boys’ romantic ideas about war were horrifically shattered, an exceptionally powerful moment.

While in John Smith we saw one hidden side of the Doctor, in the Doctor’s retribution against the Family we saw another, less endearing side. “The Fury of the Time Lord” is truly a terrible sight to behold—yet another manifestation of the Tenth Doctor’s usually repressed “dark side” that I’ve written about before. Tennant’s acting throughout this story, by the way, was absolutely peerless. He’s gone above and beyond everything he’s done before and delivered a breathtaking, astounding performance, positively ripping into the equally astounding writing. Tennant is well past the shaky start and the nervous inconsistency of Series 2. I’ll give the last word to the talented Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Tim Latimer, who delivered a more than competent performance for his age. It’s easy to see here how he went on to his high-profile role in Game of Thrones

In sum, a masterpiece. Unarguably one of the best things Doctor Who has ever produced.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: 42

This episode was… exciting, suspenseful, emotive and delightfully agitated. It had a brilliant concept for a Doctor Who story—a spaceship is going to collide with the sun and the Doctor has 42 minutes to save them all. It’s one of the advantages of the New Who format of single-episode stories that the show can do these fast-paced, exhilarating race-against-the-clock stories. Nevertheless, I felt that, even with a wonderfully hectic “42-minutes-to-save-everyone” premise, this episode involved a lot of padding in the form of repetitive running around. In that respect, it was a fairly standard runaround, albeit an exceptionally well-produced runaround—it was all seized with an urgency and desperation that made it wonderfully exciting to watch. The grungy, steampunk aesthetic was also very effective in this regard. The sun creature thing that infected the crew members was an effective villain and posed a genuinely menacing threat, especially when it infected the Doctor—you know that when the Doctor is threatening to regenerate then the monster is serious business.

Despite the thrilling urgency of this episode, its best moments were the quieter moments, such as that between Martha and Riley in the escape pod drifting into the sun, and between a distressed Martha and her mother on the phone. As we get a glimpse of the mother-daughter dynamic between Martha and her mother, we get an idea of what makes Martha want to be with the Doctor: her mother seems very controlling and their relationship less than perfect. We’ve already seen that her family is not altogether functional. Martha likely wants to escape the frustrations of an unsatisfying personal life just as Rose wanted to escape the tedium and dissatisfaction of her ordinary life. Indeed, Martha as good as admitted it when she was speaking intimately with Riley. I like that. The Doctor’s companions are all extraordinary in some way: they all have some reason to leave their normal life behind and live a romantic, unreal life of danger and adventure with the Doctor; it’s very few people who would leave their life behind like that, but the Doctor’s companions are extraordinary, in more than one way. I think it makes for a more interesting Doctor-Companion dynamic, because both the Doctor and his companion are running in some way, and shunning ordinary life for some reason. It’s one of the reasons why Clara, trying to balance her “real” life and her TARDIS life, hasn’t really worked for me (although the final moments of Last Christmas look promising).

David Tennant and his character were excellent in this episode. Tennant has been far more consistent and robust over the course of Series 3 than last series, and he positively shone in this one, displaying with finesse the breadth and depth of his range: now indignantly demanding the crew’s obedience, now impassionedly pleading with Martha to believe he would save her, now agonisingly trying to resist the sun creature inside him. I was in awe of the Doctor’s bravery and determination in venturing outside the ship to rescue Martha, justifying Martha’s unwavering belief in him. Martha herself was unfailingly amazing in this episode, surpassing herself in justifying the Doctor’s choice of her as companion.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Lazarus Experiment

I thought this was the first misfire of Series 3. Actually, I thought it was an idea with great potential, but was poorly written and executed. The idea, of the dangers of toying with nature—specifically of playing with human genetics in pursuit of otherwise laudable objectives—contained the seed of a great story. I would have lapped up a mature discussion of the desirability of playing with nature in the name of “progress”, and, at certain moments, this episode came close (for example when the Doctor confronted Lazarus in the cathedral), but the absolutely ridiculous mutant beast thing really made a mockery of any serious thematic arguments the writers were trying to convey. It was really so overblown and preposterous that it quite ruined the episode for me. I’ll give the episode points for having a good idea and a few genuinely good moments and instances of dialogue pursuing that idea, but the absurd Lazarus beast is the great, writhing, mutated elephant in the room which I’m finding impossible to ignore.

A secondary theme this episode dealt with (again, compromised by the Lazarus beast), was reversing ageing and life extension. Lazarus and his experiment reminded me of Aubrey de Grey and his exciting research into “rejuvenation”. Although I don’t agree with them, Doctor Who’s contribution to the debate surrounding this and other anti-ageing scientific research raises valid concerns that humanity might have about the proliferation of medical remedies to “defeat” ageing, by reversing its effects (as de Grey is looking at doing) or otherwise. The Doctor’s monologue on the curse of a long life was particularly good:

I’m old enough to know that a longer life isn’t always a better one. In the end, you just get tired. Tired of the struggle, tired of losing everyone that matters to you, tired of watching everything turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty left is that you’ll end up alone.

Again, this could have made for the theme of a really relevant and penetrating story, but it’s hard to take the message seriously when age-reversal technology is depicted as turning a man into a giant, freakish, murderous, stampeding beast.

I’m glad the Doctor finally gave in and took Martha on full time. He knew he wanted to, right from the start, and it was plain that his heart wasn’t really in it when he was going to leave Martha at the beginning. I think, rewatching Series 3 for the first time in a long while, that Martha is cementing her place as my second favourite companion of the revived series (after Amy). She continues to be brilliant—however, I’ve waxed lyrical about Martha in the last four reviews, so I’ll spare you this time. I thought Mark Gatiss was exceptional in this episode. I thought he was the right choice for the part: he’s very good at portraying the old man in a younger man’s body, while the more intense moments, such as that in the cathedral, he delivered impeccably.

Rating: 5/10.