Friday, July 06, 2007

Doctor Who: You will believe a TARDIS can fly!

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?


Anonymous said...

Ooh, there's a line in this review that you're likely to go back and laugh about when you've seen the whole series. But -- on my best spoiler behavior!

I'm glad you singled out the music. Murray Gold's work has been consistently stunning. There are certain themes that'll pop up on random on my player, and no matter where I am, damned if they don't make me a bit emotional.

And yes, David Tennant is wonderful; there's not an actor on television I enjoy watching more these days. "Her name was Rose" got me again tonight, and this was my third viewing. Because, clearly, I'm a tremendous geek. But what a great show to geek out over.

Nicole said...

I should point point out that the CBC is airing the series and is just an episode ahead, so those near the border can get ahead by non extra legal means.

However, having seen the entire season, it's hard to really get into anything right now without revealing themes that don't get touched until later on. I enjoyed both these episodes and Martha made a really good first impression. For me, she only gets better as the series progresses. The second half will especially confirm this.

As for David Tennant, what can I say - he is dreamy. While some find him shouty at times, he really manages to convey that he still misses Rose in those quiet moments and I liked that he hadn't just forgotten her. I liked that he hadn't just moved on... at least for the Runaway Bride.

Also - I think the end moments between the Doctor and Donna show the potential future developments in their relationship as Doctor/ Companion, and so her announcement as the next companion (well sort of - but anyway) is not as odd as we think. She changed a bit even in her short time with the Doctor.

Unknown said...

Just thought i'd let you know that just like battlestar galactica the exec producers release a podcast commentary for each episode available from the bbc website at

The ones featuring russel davies, phil collinson and julie gardner are particularly funny

Anonymous said...

I like Tennant as the Doctor as well (I am likewise only familiar with the new incarnation of the series) but all the manic shouting can get in the way of understanding his lines sometimes.

I thought the line where he talks about how they were "together" was pretty telling too—I don't think the Doctor's ever had a companion like her, that this is going to be more difficult than he really thinks.

I like the new companion, though. Staying unspoiled is tough (I know one major thing but I can't fathom how it's pulled off) but I will try very hard to do so!

Anonymous said...


So I'm going to ask those of you who've seen more than I have to be on your best behavior, spoilers-wise.


I'm aware that Catherine Tate has been hired to reprise the role full-time in season four


Alan Sepinwall said...

I'd argue that casting news isn't a spoiler, especially since 1)It refers to a season that hasn't even been produced yet, and 2)It doesn't give away any plot about the current season.

Eric said...

The Runaway Bride was not my favorite episode, but when I put it into the context of a British "Chrismas Panto" I was a bit happier with it.

And in the '80s there were a few highly annoying companions: Adric, (more Lisa Simpson than Ralph Wiggum,) Tegan, an Australian air Stewardess who could be both whiny and self-righteous (most famously described as "a mouth with legs), and Peri, a theoretically American companion who was just irritating.

As for the season overall, I found the early episodes a bit flat, but it hits a 5 episode stretch towards the end that's as good as Doctor Who has ever been.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, real spoilers on that podcast page, since it allows you to download tiny mp3s of dialogue, each of which is of course tagged with its text. (A couple are real humdingers, whatever those actually are...) So if you're looking for commentaries only of episodes you've seen, stay in that section of the page (upper left-ish) and don't let your eyes wander.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure whether or not casting rumors are a true spoiler, but we are at a disadvantage in that there is casting news about the 4th season when we only just saw the premiere of the 3rd. It's not like Alan wrote that there were "major, major" spoilers and then posted a photograph of a major character who would die in the episode.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I think you need to let that one go, anonymous (whoever you are). I do my best to not give away spoilers, but I've also found that a good chunk of the readership is reading the blog through RSS or XML readers, where there's no spoiler protection. Occasionally, the only way to keep those people from not reading further is to strongly warn them up top. Clearly, in trying to help out one segment of the audience I may have given too much away to another segment.

Live and learn.

Toby O'B said...

I'm one of those way ahead on Season 3, planning to finish it off next Wednesday. But I'm along for the ride again even with the commercial interruptions on Sci-Fi because I enjoy it so much.

It's going to be a fun summer, especially with the opportunity to read your fresh takes on these episodes, Alan.

Freema is great in the role and I think she'll continue to grow as an actress. And Tennant has one of the most unique deliveries I've ever seen in an actor. (Almost right up there with the way Patrick McGoohan tossed off his lines.)

The Racnoss, the Judoon, excellent names and fun variations on the creatures we know to make memorable aliens.

It's a good start to a great season!

Taleena said...

One of the wonderful things about Martha compared to Rose is that she is not as heedless as Rose is. Perhaps it is because she is a scientist but she thinks and doesn't just wait for the Doctor to act.

What the Doctor does not need is a clinging vine right now and Martha is wise enough to lose herself in the Doctor's emotional well. She maintains herself distinct from the Doctor in a way that Rose did not.

Poor Mickey will play second fiddle to the Doctor his whole life; Martha would not do that to someone she loved.

Anonymous said...

Don't want to say too much now as I've seen all the episodes so far...

This was (and is widely considered) an incredibly strong start to the season. The background music during the Smith/Doctor scenes was simply amazing. Unfortunately, judging by fan reaction, I'm afraid that Catherine Tate didn't serve nearly as good a lightning rod as they intended. Freeman still suffered a rather dramatic fan backlash, the reason which will become apparent throughout the season.

I absolutely loved the Christmas episode. Much better than the silliness last year.

Eric said...

A side note: I just discovered that TWoP won't be recapping Doctor Who anymore. I am not happy, and may be done with them.

Anonymous said...

Alan, I know you're at press tour so don't know how closely you'll be able to track comments, but I wonder if you have any info on TWoP's decision to cut the recaps? I know you have praised Jacob's recaps (at least of Galactica) so I assume you have an interest in this. I also gather that you are friendly with Sars. I'm pretty torn up about it and just wondered if you might have any inside scoop and/or any suggestions as to how to help convince them to reverse the decision. Thanks.