‘‘Not even the Time Lords came this far.’ The first new series three-parter (the proof of the pudding is the placement of the Next Time trailer at the end of the credits, per other multi-part story cliffhangers, rather than at the top) begins with an opening that, like The Seeds of Doom’s, tells an effectively terse and self-contained story that gains greater weight and horror as subsequent events unfold. Like director Graeme Harper’s masterpiece The Caves of Androzani, this is a “spiralling descent” which begins relatively innocuously with the standard Cardiff joke (Martha is horrified to have landed there), and then builds inexorably towards an astonishing, relentless final act which stands even above Earthshock or Army of Ghosts as the greatest returning baddie moment ever. In the process, RTD looks at Moffat’s hidden-in-plain-sight solutions and laughs at them, as he wraps Gridlock and Human Nature into a pay-off that, at the time, was jaw-dropping.
‘Don’t turn your back, don’t look away, and don’t blink.’ Steven Moffat’s reworking of his 2006 Annual story, What I Did on My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow, is the third adaptation this series, which might suggest a show running out of fresh inspiration except Moffat’s key new addition is the Weeping Angels, the only new series monsters that approach the old favourites in public recognition. They’re truly brilliant creations, brilliantly realised: the placid, Axon-like stares of the neutral Angels flipping to horrifying Medusa masks when they attack. You can draw a line back from them to Bok or the Malus, and there’s something of the original Autons in their ability to hide in plain sight then spring to life, but it took Moffat’s genius to mix these influences and Granny’s Footsteps.
‘They’re all safe, aren’t they? The children, the grandchildren. Everyone’s safe?’ After the set-up of Human Nature, the first half of this episode is almost relentless action as the Family and their scarecrow army attack the school and Smith mobilises the boys into a makeshift fighting force to the disgust of Joan. Given the emotional heft of the back half of the episode, it’s easy to overlook the power of these sequences. The Headmaster’s stand-off with Son of Mine, a threat he doesn’t understand and can’t conceive the enormity of, is superb. Son of Mine carries the knowledge of the wars to come, and the Headmaster can’t stand against the entire weight of history. The scene of terrified children machine gunning scarecrows to pieces is a horrible analogy for what is going to happen to them in just a few years.
It sets the scene for an episode about the nature of sacrifice, laying down your life for people you’ve never met. Smith’s revulsion at the idea of the Doctor, the possibility of a long and happy life with Joan, is offset against ‘war across the stars for every child’. In the end, Martha’s appeals for Smith to become the Doctor because she loves him and it was always meant to be are basically irrelevant to Smith’s decision. It’s Joan’s appeal to his duty of care to the children, first at the school and then basically everywhere that makes the difference. Under Moffat, the series often returns to this idea of the Doctor as protector of children. While the Family of Blood are equally committed to making sacrifices for their own Son of Mine: ‘This is all for you so that you can live forever’, theirs is motivated by selfishness not Smith’s final, literal selflessness. Arguably, the Remembrance Day service at the end labours the point, but I think seeing an elderly Tim having enjoyed a long life is the pay-off to the earlier flash forward to an aged Smith: he died, but Tim lived, there’s balance.
The whole piece lives or dies on the relationship between Smith and Joan. Tennant’s performance didn’t need to be his strongest so far, but the fact that it is lifts this towards greatness. Smith is a tangibly different performance from the Doctor, which shines through in the scenes when he flips between the two (especially when he slips into Doctorese when Tim hands him the watch). But for me, the greatest moment is his reaction when Joan asks the Doctor the killer question: ‘If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died?’ Tennant’s eyes harden as the Doctor realises how much Joan, ever so politely, hates him.
Jessica Hynes is brilliant as well, beautifully playing Joan’s public and private faces. I love the way she clings to the journal whenever Martha and Smith’s arguments start to get heated, as she represses her own emotions in a very period-appropriate way. I also admire Cornell and RTD for making her spout the racist views of her time, rather than writing her as an impossibly perfect anachronism.
It’s a masterpiece, then. Like the Dalek Emperor using the Human Factor to help define the Dalek Factor, it makes Smith’s incipient pacifism, bravery, basic decency and floundering humanity highlight the Doctor’s defining traits. The major difference is the pitiless punishment of the Family, putting on screen the often promised but rarely shown ‘no second chances’ side to the tenth Doctor. Sitting right at the middle of Tennant’s run, this might just be his definitive story. Should have called this episode Love and War, though.
Next Time: Blink
‘No man should hide himself, don’t you think?’ Given it’s a fairly straight adaptation of the most acclaimed of the tie-in novels, this is unsurprisingly great. In theory, it’s a fairly standard sci-fi trope (e.g. Buffy: Normal Again; WandaVision; Superman II; Deep Space Nine: Far Beyond the Stars), of a lead character becoming “ordinary”. This gives David Tennant the chance to create John Smith, a character distinct from the Doctor (although with anachronistically great hair) and play a slightly useless human, while Freema Agyeman gets to be the protagonist, desperately looking for a way to foil the alien killers looking to possess a Time Lord and make themselves immortal. The complication is that the Doctor hasn’t accounted for the human factor and falls in love, and not the dramatic, Rose and the Doctor kind of love, but the awkward, clumsy, human sort of love.
‘Burn with me.’ Chris Chibnall graduates from Torchwood to Doctor Who with a script that’s efficient and effective. There’s a slight sense of Bob Baker and Dave Martin in the monster’s repeated mantra, ‘burn with me’, and you can squint to see bits of Dragonfire (Korwin’s face-cradling touch of death) and Earthshock (Michelle Collins doing her best Beryl Reid hard-bitten space captain). There are moments that feel good enough to have been revisited in different contexts the following year (Martha and the Doctor silently communicating through windows is repeated as farce with Donna in Partners in Crime; the conclusion of McDonnell hurling herself out of an airlock with the monster recurs in Midnight – which in some respects feels like RTD rewriting this to focus on the best element of the Doctor being possessed by the monster). You wouldn’t necessarily guess this was by a future showrunner, but you could say the same about The Krotons.
‘Lazarus: back from the dead. Should have known, really.’ The Doctor/Martha relationship starts going a bit sour here, for me, tipping from thoughtlessness (the bedroom scene in The Shakespeare Code) to downright oafishness on the Doctor’s part (waving Martha’s knickers at her as he turns her out of his TARDIS). I understand what this is driving at – the Doctor still misses Rose, he isn’t quite ready to move on (the production team are cautious about “replacing” Piper) – but taking her home and announcing ‘the end of the line… no place like it’ suggests he knows exactly what he’s doing to her, and it seems cruel. Fair enough, the episode ends with Martha getting some agency back by forcing the Doctor to extend a proper offer, but no other companion (barring possibly Mickey, which opens a – completely inadvertent – racial dimension to this) has had to go through such a protracted negotiation. I really don’t like it, it’s the one flaw in this series.
‘You told us to imagine, and we imaged your irrelevance.’ This is more like it. It’s incredibly retro, but in quite an engaging way, mashing together bits of The Evil of the Daleks (all the stuff about Human and Dalek Factors), Revelation of the Daleks (the Daleks converting dead people), and even Resurrection of the Daleks (Davros promising the Doctor he can create more compassionate Daleks; the ‘pure’ Daleks turning on Davros when his solutions prove to be unpalatable). Which makes this the most authentic, old school Dalek story of the entire revival. Even the title sounds Classic.
‘This action contradicts the Dalek Imperative.’ In some respects the most old-school episode since the series returned, with a plot that’s not a million miles from Davros’ 1980s’ experiments to build a better Dalek. It’s a decent enough idea pretty thoroughly undercut by the appearance of the human Dalek Sec, which pretty much looks exactly like what it is: a man in a Dalek mask. The stunted appendages are an additional laughing point. It’s not a good sign in 2007 when you suspect John Friedlander might have been able to come up with something better in 1975. Give the mask more human expression, like the Pig Slaves’, perhaps a single human eye staring out like Stengos in Revelation of the Daleks, and you might have had something more horrifying, or at least less jokeworthy.
‘You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.’ A story that’s superficially a Ballardian (or Stephen Wyattian, I suppose) black comedy about a global traffic jam. But, like the motorway, it has layers upon layers, of blind faith and true faith, and the difference between a belief and a lie, of sacrifice and redemption, and of the undercity rising up to inherit the (New) Earth.
‘The grief of a genius.’ After Series Two cautiously trod in the footprints of Series One, with a Victorian werewolf instead of ghosts for example, Series Three has upped the ambition considerably. This flirts with the template of The Unquiet Dead, taking a mysterious lost work (Edwin Drood/Love’s Labour’s Won) as a plot element, supernatural monsters and a great author in historic England, but is bigger and bolder, done on the scale of The Empty Child, in recognisable London locations.