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Doctor Who, Season Three

It took a while, but we finished watching the third season of Doctor Who last night, which means it’s time for the review of the whole shebang. (If you missed them, you can go back and read my wrap-ups for Season One and Season Two.)

Please be warned that there are some spoilers in the discussion below, so if you haven’t seen the whole season, you might want to come back after you have to read this.

Here’s how I thought the episodes stacked up, from best to worst:

  • Blink (written by Steven Moffatt)
  • Utopia (Russell T. Davies)
  • Human Nature/The Family of Blood (Paul Cornell)
  • Smith and Jones (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Shakespeare Code (Gareth Roberts)
  • Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (Helen Raynor)
  • Gridlock (Russell T. Davies)
  • 42 (Chris Chibnall)
  • The Lazarus Experiment (Stephen Greenhorn)

(We haven’t seen the two post-Martha Jones episodes listed as part of the season, due to the peculiar way in which we watch the episodes. No, it doesn’t involve BitTorrent downloads, because if it did then we’d certainly have seen them!)

In the large, I thought this season was considerably weaker than the second season, and you’ll recall that I thought the second season was a disappointment compared to the first. As is usual with such things, I think the fault lies in the writing, as even several episodes in the first division were badly flawed, and several episodes during the season were downright cringeworthy. I think many stories strive to be too cute or too clever and end up just being ridiculous. Granted it can take a truly outstanding writer to take a silly idea and make good drama out of it, but I’d hope that any decent writer would at least be shy away from the silly ideas that they can’t make work. On the other hand, obviously I have a different idea of what “works” for Doctor Who than the show’s creators.

On the casting side, I enjoyed Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones quite a bit. I appreciated that she came from a less-nebulous background than Rose Tyler, as Martha was a medical student. It was sometimes frustrating that Martha would have moments of whining about the Doctor not noticing her, mainly because I thought the show didn’t spend enough time on her unrequited feelings until the very end and so it always felt a little out-of-place. (Not to mention that it felt like a reprise of the main running theme throughout Season Two.)

I still haven’t fully warmed to David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and still pine for Christopher Eccleston’s more nuanced character. I think I’ve decided it’s not really Tennant’s fault, it’s just that the character is written as a one-dimensional figure: A hopeless do-gooder who’s sort of a brilliant oaf. This leads to some very unsatisfying plot developments, often involving the Doctor seeming completely baffled until he pulls a rabbit out of his hat at the very end. This exacerbates some of the silly stories that the episodes are based around. The Ninth Doctor’s air of self-superiority tended to give his stories a firmer ground on which to stand; when he seemed baffled it was usually because he genuinely had no idea how to proceed, while you never know where you stand with the Tenth Doctor: It he really baffled, or is it just bad writing?

Okay, to be fair we may be pushing the limits of the various elements which go into the Doctor’s personality: Haughty, noble, self-aggrandizing, super-competent, bumbling, clownish. These are the elements which largely define each of the Doctor’s incarnations. The really good Doctors tend to expand and deepen their core aspects (think Tom Baker and Chris Eccleston as prime examples) while the lesser ones seem to flog the same horse over and over (with the Colin Baker character being the worst such figure). The ones in the middle all have their various flaws, by Tennant’s Doctor still feels a lot like the Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy characters: The bumbling do-gooders who are largely undercut by inconsistent writing and oft-incompehensible plotting.

As for the episodes themselves, “Blink” was the clear winner here. Yes, the foundation is a bit weak, as thinking about the ecology of the Weeping Angels makes you realize that they don’t really make any sense except as a one-off plot device. But man, what a plot device! Sending characters into the past to kill them through the sheer passage of time, and telling the story through the character of Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan, who arguably out-acts almost everyone else in the season), with nifty little time dependencies and paradoxes, it’s creepy and moving and dramatic and it just hangs together better than anything else in the season.

“Utopia” is the other excellent episode of the season, and is the lead-in to the two-part finale. Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana is terrific, as one expects from Jacobi, and seeing Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) again and bringing closure to his disappearance after the end of Season One is a lot of fun. I still haven’t seen any of Torchwood, so I don’t know how his character has worked out there, but his presence here is entirely explained in the context of this series, and he’s a nice addition to the end of the series. Anyway, “Utopia” takes place near the end of the universe, and it’s built around a relatively modest concept – trying to help the last band of humans escape a hostile planet for a purported promised land – while being used as a vehicle to introduce the season’s climactic villain. And it does this very well, using bits set up in earlier episodes to build the suspense gradually. I think Russell Davies’ writing works better when his story’s venue is constrained like this; given a much larger canvas on which to work, his stories seem to get away from him.

Paul Cornell’s “Human Nature” two-parter is one of the stories which is basically a house of cards (the Doctor’s motivations for becoming human seem spurious in the extreme – he did all this to be merciful? What the–?), but it’s a pretty effective story nonetheless. The Doctor’s turn as a human results in a character with more depth and range than the Doctor himself has, which serves to underscore that the Tenth Doctor is one of the weaker Doctors, but it does give Tennant more to do than usual, and he does a good job with it. (This is one reason why I think the fault in the character lies in the writing and not the acting.) The story is perhaps overlong, but still pretty good. Special mention to Harry Lloyd as Baines, the prefect who’s taken over by the Family, who makes Baines into one of the creepiest human-looking antagonists I can recall in the show.

From here the season declines from “noteworthy” to “merely adequate” or worse. “Smith and Jones” was kind of a mess of an episode, although it gets extra points for the “Judoon on the Moon” line. The Judoon feel too much like unusually-silly Sontarans and the premise of transporting a hospital to the moon is even more ludicrous than the usual Doctor Who plot device. “The Shakespeare Code” was so pedestrian I have basically nothing to say about it.

Of the really bad episodes, “Gridlock” had a completely ridiculous premise which I just couldn’t get past to enjoy the rest of the episode. I haven’t really warmed to all the “New Earth” stuff which pops up in the series from time to time; I’d be happy if they just jettisoned the venue entirely. “42″ felt like a poor redux of Season Two’s “The Impossible Planet”, which itself was not a great episode. And “The Lazarus Experiment” started out as a science fiction cliche, and ended up as an unusually implausible Big Monster Story. Really bad stuff. This made the first half of the season hard going indeed.

That leaves the other two two-parters. “Evolution of the Daleks” lands as a slightly-below-average story, largely squandering the promise in setting a Doctor Who story in Depression-era New York, overshadowing it with the rather silly idea of evolving the Daleks into human-Dalek hybrids. This story certainly had the feel of the Daleks being well past their sell-by date; unlike the Jon Pertwee-era Dalek stories, which felt all to mechanical and predictable, the Tennant Dalek stories have turned the Daleks into some sort of bogeyman, seeming slightly pathetic and overused, and only frightening because they happen to be armored machines carrying guns. All of the emotional resonance of the excellent Eccleston episode “Dalek” (arguably the best episode of the new series overall) feels very much a thing of the distant past. “Evolution” has too much of the feel of two over-the-top Colin Baker episodes, “Attack of the Cybermen” and “Revelation of the Daleks”, seemingly thrashing around to figure out in what new direction the monsters should be taken, while simultaneously undercutting their essential menace.

Lastly, there’s the climactic two-parter of the season, in which the Master (William Hughes) returns to the 21st century (apparently a few decades in advance of our own era, as they have flying aircraft carriers here) and arranges to take over the world and use humanity to launch a war to conquer the cosmos. The Master here is portrayed as both calculating and flamboyantly insane, which is certainly quite different from his past personas, who were dark, manipulative villains. It’s a weird effect; it certainly makes him a surprising antagonist as he often acts in ways that I found surprising compared to his past behavior, but then, that’s sort of the point of regeneration, isn’t it? Arguably it was just a coincidence that the Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley Masters had basically the same personalities.

The downfall of the story is that it relies far too much on cheap tricks to work. Aging the Doctor to an old man, and then a ridiculously old man, was certainly creepy, but seemed gratuitous. And the story’s climax was nothing more than a deus-ex-machina, essentially allowing the Doctor to save the day by having all of humanity “think good thoughts” about him at the same time. Any time your heroes win because of a figure bathed in a glowing light, your story has gone badly wrong. (I’d been expecting that Martha had been telling humanity about the Doctor’s good works on their behalf in order to have them passed down the years to their descendants to short-circuit the Master’s plan from the other end.) This sort of magic solution was just as unsatisfying in “The Parting of the Ways” – the Davies script which concluded the first season – and I hope it doesn’t become a habit in what should be nail-biting season-enders.

The episode has a moment seemingly drawn directly from the film Flash Gordon when the Master’s ring is picked up from his funeral pyre by an unknown hand. I guess he’ll be back…

The new Doctor Who series is still fun, but it feels like it’s going steadily downhill. I hope they can turn things around in the fourth season, but I’m losing my optimism. Guys, a little madcap hilarity is okay once in a while (after all, how else could you really spin an episode called “The Christmas Invasion” than to have killer Christmas trees in it?), but I’d like more serious stories with believable premises and sensible resolutions, please.