Space Rhinos on the Moon!
(Smith and Jones Reviewed)

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Oh, bravo! Now that’s more like it!

As season openers go, Doctor Who’s Smith and Jones fares far better than last year’s New Earth. Indeed, the story is as fun and as well crafted as Rose, though I tend to give Rose higher marks because it not only to introduce the new companion, but to reintroduce the whole concept of Doctor Who, full stop. But Smith and Jones introduces us to Martha Jones and kicks us into the revival’s third season with aplomb.

With not even a pre-title teaser sequence, we’re dropped right into the life of Martha Jones, a young medical student a few exams away from becoming an MD. She’s rushing to work, talking on the phone with every member of her nutty, high-strung family. Her mother’s divorced (but looking very professional), her father’s dating a golddigger, and everybody is franticly preparing for her brother’s 21st birthday party that they know is going to go down like a lead balloon. But as rock-in-a-storm Martha keeps the peace, the Doctor abruptly steps in front of her and takes off his tie. “See? Just like so!” he says, and walks away, leaving Martha nonplussed.

Well, as we Doctor Who fans know, when the Doctor shows up, chaos is sure to follow. Martha continues on to work, and does her rounds with the other interns, interviewing patients and learning medicine at the hands of Dr. Stoker… when she runs into the Doctor again, although he claims to have been in bed all morning (with stomach cramps). On examining him, she discovers he has two hearts, but he manages to get her to keep his secret with just a nod and a smile.

Other strange things are happening at the hospital. People are being hit randomly by static shocks, two menacing bikers in all-leather suits and tinted helmets are making a mockery of the hospital’s security procedures, and a storm cloud has formed directly overhead making passers by wonder if somebody inside hasn’t called up an assistant named Igor. But things really get strange when, while Martha is on the phone to her younger sister, the pouring rain starts to fall up. There’s a flash and a bang and… suddenly the whole hospital is on the moon.

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It’s a considerable challenge to follow a character like Billie Piper’s Rose, who has made a considerable splash and has had herself wholly identified with the current Doctor Who revival, but Freema Agyeman rises to that challenge as Martha. Whereas Rose was an intelligent young woman who had slipped into a boring life, Martha is already surrounded by excitement. She is an intensely practical person — clearly the peacemaker in her family’s many skirmishes. And she has always worked hard to get where she is — and is indeed a little arrogant about it (note the line where she initially refuses to call the Doctor by his title, since that’s something she believes has to be earned).

Russell T. Davies is well in his element, here. He builds up Martha’s character and the characteristics of her family in short order, with small but effective details. And it’s no wonder that Martha quickly catches the eye of the Doctor. While everybody is panicking about finding themselves on the Moon, Martha is loving every minute of it. Sure, she could die any moment, but she’s on the fraking moon. By that definition alone, she’s already had a fuller life than most people on her planet and she’s instantly thankful for it.

Martha is also very in tune with her life — almost the antithesis of Donna in The Runaway Bride; whereas Donna was blissfully unaware of the many alien incursions on Earth over the past three seasons, Martha remembers. Indeed, she lost a cousin during the Cybermen’s attack on Canary Wharf (a nice touch to explain away the fact that Freema played a character in Torchwood during Army of Ghosts and Doomsday. Martha is so ready for the wonders of the universe that she’s already taking them in. I suspect that whereas Rose, as the ninth Doctor’s companion, attracted the Doctor by finding that bit of humanity within him and bring it out, Martha comes across as sharing the alien Doctor’s sense of wonder — a knowledge that there is a big universe out there and a desire to explore it.

Then we get to the meat of the story. The hospital is boarded by a group of space rhino policemen (work with me here) called the Judoon. Thankfully for us, the Doctor’s met them before and is able to provide us with a quick precis in order to keep the plot moving. There’s obviously an extraterrestrial fugitive in the hospital, and the Judoon are here to search him, her or it out. They’ve pulled the hospital to the moon since Earth is out of their jurisdiction (for anything but their transporter beams, I guess). Which is bad for the Doctor since he’s an alien that looks like a human, and the Judoon are very clearly the shoot-first, ask-questions-never type of policemen. The Doctor and Martha have to find the real fugitive fast, before the Judoon decide the hospital is harbouring it — oh, and before the oxygen runs out within the forcefield surrounding the hospital building.

Director Charles Palmer makes an impressive debut, here. There is an energy to all of his scenes, especially during the moments of panic. There are also great moments where tension is built by other characters staring gob-smacked at some big and frightening thing, while the camera stays frustratingly pointed away from said thing, because it’s telling this story from Martha’s point of view, and it ain’t moving until Martha moves, so MOVE MARTHA!

But credit should go to Russell T. Davies, who writes a script that plays to his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. Martha’s character is interesting and her emotional story well told. Her family come across as real people, and her chemistry with the Doctor is wholly natural. The dialogue, especially between the Doctor and Martha, but also between many other characters, is rapid-fire, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. A number of people get good lines, including Dr. Stoker who has an excellent death scene, and a young intern who tries his best to take command of the situation, and actually does quite well for himself. Will we be seeing him again, I wonder, should the mysterious Mr. Saxon take notice and be similarly impressed?

The plotline is also fairly simple and manages to hold together with few inconsistencies, or contrivances of convenience. Yes, it’s fluff — the fugitive is a vampire (oh, sorry, “plasmavore”) who sucks blood out of people using a plastic straw. It’s Space Rhinos on the Moon! This isn’t Shakespeare (that comes next week), but it’s a wonderfully entertaining forty-five minutes, nonetheless. And there are some deeper elements worth noting.

It’s interesting how all three sets of aliens in this story display a form of inhuman callousness. Yes, three. There is, first and foremost, the Judoon, who are so single-minded in their pursuit of justice (though, really, they’re simply single-minded in their application of the law) that they summarily execute anybody who offers any resistance. They claim to have no jurisdiction over the Earth, but they are willing to rip hospitals out of the ground and subject over a thousand humans to the most terrifying experience of their lives (you’d think there’d be a law against that, but obviously there isn’t, so the Judoon sense of justice is thus fulfilled).

Then there is the plasmavore Florence, played wonderfully by Anne Reid (in such a way that I’m reminded of Zoe Wannamaker’s Cassandra). To survive capture and execution, she’s quite happy to kill not only the Judoon, not only everybody in the hospital, but every living thing within a 250,000 kilometre radius (possibly to take out any hovering Judoon spaceships in the area, perhaps? But still). As the Doctor coyly notes, that radius includes the Earth, to which Florence coyly responds, only the side of the Earth facing the moon. Talk about being cheerfully inhuman.

And then there’s the Doctor. Russell T. Davies puts in a very quick and very subtle moment that highlights his alien nature, and points in the direction of where the character might go. Take a look at the moment when all of the people in the hospital first realize that they’re on the moon. Martha is in a semi-private room with her friend and fellow intern Julia. Martha is in awe, but Julia is scared to her toes, as most would people be. Martha’s enthusiasm so impresses the Doctor that he takes her into her his confidence, but his attitude towards Julia borders on cruel. “Don’t take her along, she’ll just hold us up.”

In The Runaway Bride, Donna correctly identified that the Doctor needed someone to hold him back. This moment illustrates what it is Martha might need to hold the Doctor back from. Couple this with the scene where the Doctor and Martha encounter Mr. Stoker, the hospital administrator (played by Roy Marsden, better known to Mystery fans as the original Adam Dalgliesh), where the Doctor is ready just to go running off, but Martha holds him up to close Stoker’s dead, staring eyes.

I’m ready to say now, after seeing The Runaway Bride and Smith and Jones, that Rose represented a lead weight to the tenth Doctor’s character. A deliberately placed lead weight, but a weight nonetheless. The two clung to each other like seventeen year olds in love, allowing the Doctor to hide or ignore his alien nature. With Rose no longer obscuring that vision, we see the Doctor forced to confront his alien depths, and David Tennant plays this to a ‘T’.

The heart of Smith and Jones comes in a short conversation between the Doctor and the Plasmavore, where the Doctor deliciously (no pun intended) pretends to be a blathering innocent postman in order to deflect suspicion and, ultimately, manipulate her into consuming him. Although Florence doesn’t clue into the fact that the Doctor is an alien, she does see his blather for what it is: the Doctor is laughing at the dark. My friend Cameron says it best: “the Doctor not a fool who doesn’t recognise the darkness of the Universe, he’s playing the fool precisely because he recognises the darkness of the Universe and this is his way of dealing with it. It’s funny to watch, and kind of heartbreaking, too, when you look a little bit deeper at it.”

Donna saw it, and saw that she wasn’t the person who could protect him from the abyss. Martha might be able to, but she’s got her work cut out for her.

Anyway, the rest of the episode plays out well, with a minimum of lazy plotting to get the Doctor out of his predicament. Oh, we can quibble with the lost opportunity of dealing with the destruction of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, or the fact that the resolution is both a combination of being surprisingly easy, and entirely dependent upon the unpredictable actions of the Judoon. It’s covered by a well-directed but ultimately fruitless scene where, summoning the last of his strength, the Doctor picks up the unconscious Martha, carries her out of the Magnatron and down the hallway, to… to… well, not do more than look out the window, actually.

Yes, it is borderline convenient for Russell T. Davies that the Judoon just happen to replace the hospital back on Earth as they leave, although there is an explanation that fits with the creatures’ callous nature: that, by sending the thing back, it sends it away 250,000 kilometres, and puts the Judoon ships well out of the blast radius, or so they think. Screws Earth, though. But that doesn’t appear to be against their rules.

And this is probably why the Doctor has to laugh at the universe: he’d cry your eyes out if he didn’t.


Doctor Who Notes

  • Note minor continuity error as the Doctor and Martha are running from the Slab. As they’re bolting down the corridor, with of the camera behind them, one of the lights goes out. Camera quick cuts to a view from the front — corridor is fully lit. Camera quick cuts again to shot from rear, lights are on; quick cuts to front, corridor completely dark. But this is definitely a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, of interest only to continuity geeks like me.
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