Doctor Who Series 3 is better than I remember it. Which is not to say it’s particularly good, mind. But it’s not the trainwreck I remember.
The biggest problem it has is Freema Agyeman. I know she’s gone on to do other high profile shows and I’m open to idea that she’s good in those. But she is pretty awful as Martha Jones. Which is a problem given she’s the show’s co-lead and is regularly required to carry bits of it on her own. The final episode especially is built around Martha being out in the world on her own, surviving, and Agyeman just doesn’t carry it off. She’s too wooden, too unable to convincingly express most emotions, that it’s hard to buy into or care about.
Martha as written isn’t amazing though. The choice to go from Rose, who essentially had a love story with the Doctor, to Martha, who has an unrequited love story, is a poor one. She’s the second fiddle, the rebound, the replacement and what makes it worse is that she’s completely aware of it and frequently moans about it. Like when she and the Doctor run into Jack, who asks about Rose (naturally) and Martha gets all salty about it, as though it’s bloody terrible the Doctor had a life before her.
She isn’t helped by her bloody awful family. Jackie Tyler is instantly well rounded and somewhat endearing and that only grows as Rose’s tenure goes on. She’s the human tether that keeps Rose grounded, a link back to the real world, a source of drama and comedy. Martha’s family are just dicks. There’s too many of them, for a start. All the stuff with her divorced parents is straight out of a second rate drama and there’s no room for it to be made worthwhile. Tish has some potential but it isn’t realised and Louie (? Leo? Reggie Yates) is a complete waste of time and effort. That’s nothing against Yates, but even RTD realises it by shuffling him completely out of the way for the finale.
Story-wise, season 3 is a mixed bag. The Shakespeare Code presents the epitome of the RTD era’s approach to historicals, which is borderline hagiographic celebrity based pieces. All the nuance and novelty of The Unquiet Dead is stripped away in favour of that worst of tropes for historicals - “explaining” a writer’s ideas. There’s an air of inescapable smugness as the Doctor gives another quotation that Shakespeare seizes upon. Shakespeare and the actor playing him deserve more.
42 is pretty naff as well. The real time gimmick doesn’t particularly work (races against time aren’t especially novel for Doctor Who, so putting an accurate clock on it doesn’t add anything) and the story manages to feel completely by the numbers, with the “burn with me stuff”. The “all the doors are locked by pub quiz questions” concept is an idea that falls apart when you put any weight on it, especially given all the other doors relevant to the plot magically aren’t locked, just the ones leading to the macguffin to save everyone. I despair that the man responsible for this is going to be source of creative vision of the show from next year.
One episode that’s better than I remembered is
The Daleks Take Manhattan Daleks In Manhattan. When it first aired, it was marred by the fact that the whole episode is built up to the shock reveal of the Human-Dalek, which had been spoilt on the cover of the Radio Times the week before. That’s still annoying, but with distance, it’s easier to appreciate the good elements of it: the setting is fun, the supporting cast is solid - Hugh Quarshie, Andrew Garfield, Miranda Raison as a showgirl that’s walked straight out of a golden age Hollywood movie. It has problems, sure. It’s blatantly obvious they didn’t actually film in New York, the “wisdom of Solomon” scene is painfully on the nose (they could have at least called him Saul), but it works… except that it’s all building to that Human-Dalek thing, which is utter trash. It tanks the second episode, Evolution of the Daleks, completely and feels like more squandered potential. A story with Daleks in depression era Manhattan could have easily been good, but the direction it’s taken just isn’t.
The finale has the same problem. Utopia is pretty great. Ok, it’s more a series of good moments than a proper story, and the setting is a bit grim and far-fetched, but all the stuff with Jack and Yana is fantastic. Then The Sound Of Drums is pretty decent. Let down by Martha’s family, but the Master in Downing Street is entertaining, the stuff on the Valiant with the US President is great (RTD manages to throw in more snipes at the American political scene, as he did in the Slitheen story). But it all falls apart with Last Of The Time Lords, with the already silly old man Doctor trumped by the completely ridiculous Dobby Doctor, lots of “no, I’m going to kill the Master” macho posturing nonsense, Martha’s heroic journey of poor acting, the Doctor’s plan magically deaging him and letting him levitate a bit (but no actually doing much of anything to stop the Master) and then it commits the ultimate sin - getting out of it all by pressing a big “undo” button.
But series 3 has its high points. Human Nature and the Family of Blood are good (I don’t particularly like Jessica Hynes, which doesn’t help) and Blink is still utterly fantastic. Watching that again, I was struck by the realisation that if you want to do a good Doctor Who spin-off, you shouldn’t come up with some present day proxy-Doctor character/team like Class and Torchwood and Sarah Jane did, but just do an anthology series set throughout the Who universe, where the Doctor occasionally pops up in the fringes, as he does in Blink.
Series 3 is followed by Voyage of the Damned, which feels like the show’s peak in many ways, its “imperial phase”. Mainstream awareness was at its height, merchandising was booming, the ratings were solid. So here’s a big budget, extra long Christmas spectacular with arguably the show’s biggest guest star ever. An hour and ten minutes long, full of big CGI moments and effects and Kylie Minogue as a would-be companion. Despite mostly being an homage to the Poseidon Adventure, it still manages to feel incredibly Christmassy, perhaps more so than the previous Christmas specials. Kylie’s great (imagine if they’d got her for a full series), as are all of the supporting cast (although knowing that Clive Swift is a dickhead in real life undermines it a bit) and Max Capricorn’s a surprisingly effective villain considering how little screen time he gets. It’s big, it’s brash, it’s hopelessly self-indulgent, you could even call it gluttonous and it’s just a bit strange (in a good way) to look back on it now a decade (!) later, knowing that the show could afford to be that extravagant. I really don’t think it could now.