I called Voyage of the Damned Doctor’s Who imperial phase and series 4 definitely continues this. The latitude the show has is astounding. Most episodes overrun, some by about five minutes, the finale by twenty. Again, it’s kind of weird watching it, knowing the scrimping and saving that will follow.
I’d previously thought of series 4 as so-so stories bolstered by a good companion, but I’d probably revise that now to generally good stories with a great companion. Catherine Tate is magnificent as Donna. It helps that the character is 70% different to how she was in the Runaway Bride (which is sort of passed of as a plot-point and mentioned by Wilf, but it’s a convenience more than anything). After the self-obsessed and poorly acted Martha, Donna is a breath of fresh air, bringing both levity and humanity to the show. Tate’s work as a “proper” actress tends to get overshadowed by her comedy, especially when her sketch show was big, but she’s always been a solid actress (I think I first saw her in Starter For Ten as James McAvoy’s mum). There’s a lot asked of her in this series, from the gobby comedy she’s known for to some big emotional moments (in Turn Left, Fires of Pompeii), aping Tennant and reeling off some really heavy technobabble in Journey’s End and she manages it all with aplomb. And it’s just really nice to see the Doctor hanging round with someone he likes as just a friend, someone whose company he can enjoy on relatively simple terms. And that definitely comes across here. Tennant’s Doctor gets to be more relaxed and casual than he has previously.
Unfortunately, Martha keeps popping up and my response every time was just “oh, fuck off, Martha”. That line from the start of the first Sontaran episode, where she calls him and says “I’m bringing you back to Earth” is just so terribly delivered. Agyeman manages to suck the drama out of any scene she’s in, not least the one where she has to act opposite herself, as Martha tries to comfort her dying clone, a scene with all the excitement of two trees creaking in the wind. She adds nothing to The Doctor’s Daughter, where she’s brought along only to be dumped into a side-plot, presumably designed to let her be Doctor-ish, but where she does nothing of interest apart from get her companion (the unnamed Hath, who isn’t given English dialogue - a choice that RTD mentions in the commentary for the finale as being a good one, but one which I think robs the race of any real depth) killed in a sink hole.
There’s no real outright stinkers of episodes. Some aren’t great: the Sontaran two-parter for instance, and The Unicorn and the Wasp, which is just about funny enough to compensate for its smug tone, weird brown-nosing of Agatha Christie and plot that completely fails to actually do anything interesting with Christie’s disappearance, the real world event that was supposedly the reason for the episode existing. Silence in the Library is another Moffat story that feels weaker with hindsight, thanks to repetition of its themes and the later over-exposure of River Song (although she’s fine here), but there’s some really clever stuff in the second half with the conventions of cuts in story and their relationship to time, as Donna is convinced to fill in the blanks between the simulation’s key scenes.
My favourite episode of the series, and I think one of the best episodes in the show’s history, is Midnight. A companion-lite episode, to go with the season’s Doctor-lite episode Turn Left (which is also pretty great), Midnight is the Doctor almost stripped of his powers. Although there’s a mysterious alien entity trying to kill everyone, it’s a story about the Doctor having to fight against human nature. The other people on the bus thing are the real villains in the story and it works wonderfully. Amongst all the hoo-hah about the “gay agenda” and deus ex machina heavy finales, RTD’s ability to be wonderfully, subtly, caustically, cynical about humanity tends to get over-looked. The episode shows why the Doctor needs a companion to get by properly, as he’s left floundering when the room turns on him and he finds himself saying he’s special. And Davies doesn’t explain anything. We don’t find out what the creature is, what it was really doing and how or why. It’s just a harrowing, unexplained incident that leaves the Doctor nearly dead.
We’ve talked on here before about how Doctor Who doesn’t quite fill the same space in the mainstream media consciousness as it did in the RTD years and that can be seen in the “specials” that padded between series 4 and 5. The fact that they even exist is a testament to the power of the show and the Beeb’s reluctance to have it absent for a year (compared to the last few years, where it’s been happily chopping series in half, taking gap years and whatnot). The End of Time is essentially a Christmas special that ran to over two hours and got cut in half (interesting comment from RTD on the deleted scenes for s4 is that Voyage of the Damned could be any length they wanted, which seems incredible). They do very much feel like an over-extension, like the juggernaut of the show is running on fumes.
The Next Doctor’s fine but underwhelming. It’s got perhaps the most half-assed Christmas setting - generic Victorian London - and though it has two solid concepts, it doesn’t make enough of them. The Doctor being thrust into the role of companion to someone else who may or may not be the Doctor is interesting, but I don’t think it entirely works here. Morrissey’s pseudo-Doctor is too much a parody of Tennant’s Doctor to justify the suspense over whether he really is the next iteration. Steampunk Cyberman should be brilliant, but we just get a few bronzy Cyberheads stuck on some people crawling around in cloaks for the “Cybershades” and then the Cyber King, which is a silly steam powered giant robot (and if I’m slagging off a steam-powered giant robot then it’s really not great). Dervla Kerwin’s pretty good though.
Planet of the Dead feels so tired. It tries way too hard to make Christina feel like a viable companion, as if to justify spending time with her and make her not joining the Doctor a big deal, but it all just feels like artifice. The swarm creatures are fine, but we again get some aliens not given understandable dialogue (the fly-people whose name I can’t remember) and it simply makes them strawmen waiting to get killed. Lee Evans’ eccentric scientist Malcolm is pretty fun though and Daniel “Posh Kenneth” Kaluuya deserves more as Barclay.
Waters of Mars is again a bit so-so. Water elementals/zombies isn’t a terrible concept, but it all feels pretty flat. The “I musn’t interfere” bit is a less interesting retread of Fires of Pompeii and none of it really justifies the Doctor’s manic “Time Lord Victorious” thing, which comes out of nowhere and then evaporates at the first sight of an Ood. I feel like it’s a theme that deserved more - being built up in the previous special with him unable to save someone and then becoming the cornerstone of his regeneration/death plot, as the consequences catch up with him, but as it is, he pretty much gets away with it scott free (and Adelaide’s hasty replacement death doesn’t convince in being able to repair the timeline).
And then the End of Time. There’s a lot to like in here. Dalton as Rassilon, Bernard Cribbins as Wilf, Tennant being brilliant in some of the more emotional scenes. But the pacing’s really screwy (which admittedly does allow for the slow bits) with the Doctor often just sitting around doing nothing. The Master’s resurrection is hokey and his super-powers and Master race scheme a bit naff (why would any one version of the Master agree to take orders from another? He’s awfully co-operative for a meglomaniac). The fair well tour at the end has nice bits (marrying off Martha and Mickey is a sweet idea, that finale Rose cameo is lovely) but stiff feels like a naff self-indulgence and doesn’t improve over the goodbyes at the end of series 4.
Anyway, next up, some young guy with big hair and a strange face. Wonder how that’ll turn out.