Spoilers for the "Doctor Who" third season premiere -- both the "Runaway Bride" Christmas special and the official premiere, "Smith and Jones" -- coming up just as soon as I get out my trusty bendy straw...
I feel I should start this review with two caveats/warnings.
First, I'm a relative "Who" newbie, having come to the franchise only with the Russell Davies/Christopher Eccleston team. I know a very small amount about the earlier incarnations of the character -- enough, for instance, to know what The Doctor's talking about when he invokes the name "Gallifrey" -- but chances are I'm going to miss out on some nuances and homages that those of you who can pick William Hartnell or Colin Baker out of a lineup. (Both names brought to you by Wikipedia.)
Second, while I'm aware the entire season is available through extra-legal means because it already aired in England, I'll be watching it at the same pace that Sci Fi airs it (for time management reasons as much as anything). So I'm going to ask those of you who've seen more than I have to be on your best behavior, spoilers-wise.
Now, onto "Runaway Bride" and "Smith and Jones." I'll be bouncing back and forth between the two, in part because they're thematically linked (The Doctor tries to get over the loss of Rose by latching onto new female companions), in part because I enjoyed them both so much.
It would have been an obvious choice to introduce The Doctor's new companion in the Christmas special the same way that "The Christmas Invasion" served as David Tennant's real entrance episode. But I think it works out better that "Runaway Bride" -- another budget-busting FX extravaganza like "Christmas Invasion" -- instead has The Doctor making a temporary connection. Rose was immensely popular, and even though Billie Piper left on her own, her immediate successor might be judged unfairly. (To borrow a sports metaphor, when Pat Riley quit the Knicks, it was said that whoever replaced him would be doomed, and that the ideal job would be as the guy replacing the guy who replaced Riley.)
In that way, Donna Noble works as an excellent lightning rod to protect Martha Jones from any kind of Rose-loving backlash. Donna is everything you wouldn't expect in a potential companion (again, from the modern series; for all I know, Tom Baker spent three seasons traveling with the British equivalent of Ralph Wiggum): loud, obnoxious, willfully ignorant ("That's not even a proper word! You're just saying things!"), and very much afraid of the life The Doctor represents. As an ongoing companion, I don't know that she works (and, yes, I'm aware that Catherine Tate has been hired to reprise the role full-time in season four), but as one-off comic relief to help take The Doctor's mind (and the audience's) off of Rose -- and to spare the new girl from having to hand-hold The Doctor through the grieving process -- she fits the bill nicely.
Martha Jones, meanwhile, is more in the Rose mold, but thankfully not a clone. She's smart and brave and curious about the world, but where those were qualities that Rose discovered in her time with The Doctor, Martha already has them going in, not to mention a life she has no innate reason to want to flee, TARDIS or no. (Rose had a dead-end job, a dead-end relationship and lived in a housing project with her daffy widow mom; Martha is leaving behind a promising, upper-class career and a large family she seems to adore unreservedly.) And because she comes from a higher station, socially and intellectually, she seems less in awe of The Doctor than Rose was (especially at first). I really like Freema Agyeman's chemistry with Tennant. I remember when she popped up in her small role in the season two finale, my wife (who knew Rose was leaving but had no idea who would replace her) said "She should be the next companion," so obvious was her screen presence. (And I like that they deal with the double-dipped casting by having Martha reference a cousin who disappeared at Canary Wharf.)
Tennant's Doctor has been a more overtly romantic figure than Eccleston's was, and here he shares several tender and/or flirtatious moments with both women. He loans Donna his jacket when she's cold (though this is also an excuse for a meta-joke about how damn skinny Tennant is), and while he tries to write off kissing Martha as "just a genetic transfer" to distract the rhino men, it seemed very unclinical. Season two kept edging very close to the idea of a Doctor/Rose romance, and maybe if Tyler had stayed they would have tried that down the road; I'm very curious to see how this relationship evolves. (And this would be one of those times where people who have seen the season will need to restrain yourselves.)
"Runaway Bride" and "Smith and Jones" are both relative budget-busters, what with the TARDIS/car chase (which, like the kids in the nearby car, I cheered at the end), the giant red spider queen of the Racnoss (played by Sarah Parish, who's worked with David Tennant so often that they're sort of the British equivalent of Hope Davis and Campbell Scott), the draining of the Thames, the hospital on the moon (though that one looked like it would have been at home in a Tom Baker episode) and the army of rhino men. Hell, renting or buying the three Segways for The Doctor, Donna and Lance ride through the underground lair probably cost more than the entire budget for your average '70s episode.
But what I love is the way the show juxtaposes high-tech and low-tech, how The Doctor saves Donna in the car chase with the help of a ball of twine, how the rhino men need to use magic markers to keep track of who's been scanned, and how the scariest person in either episode is the little old lady with the bendy straw. I did a paper in college about how an implied threat be scarier than the most graphic splatter effect if used correctly; Russell Davies knows how to use lots of things correctly, including this.
He's also great at wonder. Even when the effects are on the cheesey side, as the hospital on the moon is, the use of music, the performances and the script always make things seem more impressive than they should. I love that The Doctor and Martha stop to take a moment to appreciate the grandeur of being on the moon before the episode gets back to frantic chase scenes, The Doctor doing a wacky dance to shake out all the loose radiation (leading him to be barefoot on the moon), etc. I love that Martha takes an extra moment to close the eyes of Dr. Stoker (little in-joke, what with him getting killed by a bloodsucker and all), which is both a testament to her character but also gives some added gravitas to a guy who was a comic bully in the early scenes. I love how David Tennant delivers the line "Her name was Rose" at the end of "Runaway Bride," just on the right side of a complete breakdown, and I love the way Freema says "I went to the moon today" near the end of "Smith and Jones."
To quote Bizarro Jerry, me so happy. Me want to cry. What did everybody else think?