Dancing in the Margins
(Partners in Crime Reviewed)

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Images courtesy the BBC.

It’s marvellous to see Doctor Who back on the small screen again.

Well, I’ve taken the poll and it seems that most readers with an opinion don’t want me to wait for the CBC before reviewing the episodes of Doctor Who’s fourth season. So I’ll oblige. It’s frustrating waiting in any event, and it only serves to remind me that the CBC has yet to announce when the fourth season will debut on their screens. You might want to write to the CBC and give them a nudge. Or a kick.

But respecting the 1-in-5 of you who are concerned about spoilers, I’ll continue the practise of posting the spoilerific portions of my review beyond the cut line, so it doesn’t appear on the main page. And I’ll also be careful about what photographs I use, in case it gives the game away. For the record, I don’t think the picture above is a spoiler. We already knew that Catherine Tate would be back, and that she’d bring a welcome edge of physical comedy to the proceedings.

Overall, Partners in Crime served its purpose of reintroducing us to the story and sparking interest in the rest of the season. Click on the link blow to see my full review.

A year or more after the events of The Runaway Bride, the Doctor and Donna are older and somewhat wiser. The Doctor is coping with his time alone (yet again) and feeling guilty for inadvertently messing up his relationship with Martha. Donna, on the other hand, is regretting her (let’s face it, probably wise) decision to stay home rather than accept the Doctor’s invitation to travel to the stars.

With her life at a standstill, out of a job and living with a nagging mother, Donna has taken up searching for the Doctor, reversing her willful blindness to all the alien things around her, and embracing all the flaky conspiracy theories as part of her hunt. Her theory is a sound one, if a little reckless: since the Doctor seems to be at the centre of trouble wherever it’s found on the planet, she should go looking for trouble, and thus find him.

Her search takes her to Adipose, a pharmaceutical corporation which is marketing a miracle weight loss drug. Despite almost no clinical testing whatsoever, the company has somehow managed to find a million customers in the Greater London Area already. And with their slogan being “the fat just walks away!” and this being Doctor Who, it looks like those million or so customers are in for an… icky time.

Partners in Crime is fun and fluffy, and writer Russell T. Davies does his job in reintroducing Donna and setting up the pins for the rest of the season. The story is not as much fun as Space Rhinos on the Moon, but it still shows promise.

It’s in the writing where the episode’s weaknesses are most apparent, however. As Dan notes, Davies is recycling the plotline for the Sarah Jane AdventuresInvasion of the Bane. He’s also a couple of notes out of tune when it comes to Donna’s newfound desire to leave her boring life behind, and this is most apparent in the scene where Donna talks to her skygazing grandfather about her regrets.

Davies doesn’t take the time to show Donna’s change of mind, and instead spends time telling us, which doesn’t feel natural. It’s such a change from Donna’s reaction at the end of The Runaway Bride that it is jarring and feels forced. And while Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s grandfather steals the scene and makes me root for it, It’s impossible to see the pre-Runaway Bride Donna being anything more than smilingly tolerant of her grandfather’s skygazing habits and talks about aliens and space travel.

It’s important to note that Donna’s decision to refuse the Doctor’s offer to travel with him on board the TARDIS is the moment that raises Donna above Rose and Martha as starry-eyed groupies swooned by David Tennant’s sex appeal. I appreciate the fact that Donna tells the Doctor that she does not see him as a sexual creature (and it will be interesting to see if this sticks), but Davies doesn’t allow us to see Donna change her mind.

This isn’t to say that Donna shouldn’t have been changed by her experiences in The Runaway Bride. It easy to picture Donna catching sight of Adipose’s shenanigans now that she’s been involved in similar things. One can even picture a storyline where she tries to search out the Doctor to tell him that this is something he needs to deal with (or possibly she decides to deal with it because she doesn’t see him around). It’s also within one’s suspension of disbelief that Donna would regret her decision to stay home, but we don’t get any growth. Catherine Tate does her best to save the scene with Donna’s grandfather, but in the end can’t help but mouth Davies words and leave us keenly aware that it’s Davies’ who is speaking, and not Donna. Yes, if Donna was forced to change during the episode, we would have been robbed of that wonderful scene where we discover she’s already packed for her trip in the TARDIS, but the result would have been a more satisfying development of her character.

Fortunately Catherine Tate is Catherine Tate, and she brings to the episode a physicality (and a touch of physical humour) that hasn’t been on the show for the past three seasons. She is marvellous to watch, her brash and bold style clearly intimidating the Doctor and putting David Tennant in the wonderfully unfamiliar role of straight man. The scenes where Donna and the Doctor miss each other by minutes and in some cases inches as they both investigate Adipose goes on a little long, but Tate makes it work. Even better is the Doctor and Donna’s silent reunion across a crowded office while the villains interrogate their hostage. It’s brilliant! The picture at the top of this review is from that scene, and only Tate could be in such a picture. Can you imagine Billie Piper or Freema Agyeman acting like this? Probably not.

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And like any good comedian, Tate does a great job as a dramatic actress. Her face is so expressive, it’s perfect for conveying the range of emotion she’s called upon to here, from horror at the death of Suzette Chambers, to fear at being hunted in the washroom by Miss Foster’s goons.

Tate could not carry this episode as well as she does without the support of David Tennant. The two really strike sparks off each other. In the silent reunion scene with Donna, he says more with a single raise of the eyebrows that most actors do in a movie. But beyond his struggles to keep up with Donna, there are hints of a darker edge, here. How long has it been since The Last of the Time Lords and Voyage of the Damned? I’m thinking a while. While the scene where the Doctor talks to himself in the console room suggests he’s still unused to travelling alone (despite all of his assurances), he is looking older. Donna notices this. His fear over repeating his mistakes with Martha (which seem a bit of an act of retroactive continuity — did things really go that bad? Why should the Doctor feel so guilty over what amounts to a nice speech by Martha at the end of last season?) is also unusual. This Doctor is at a loss for how to handle his relationships, moreso than usual. It remains to be seen where the show goes with this.

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The rest of the cast and crew contribute to an ultimately successful episode. Jacqueline King is well cast as Donna’s mother, and Bernard Cribbins steals scenes as Donna’s grandfather. Sarah Lancashire has great charisma as the wily Miss Foster, and is able to hold her own against the script that makes her go somewhat over the top. Director James Strong stage manages the dance between the Doctor and Donna throughout the episode and handles the scenes of mass panic very well. Murray Gold had a bit of an off day with the music, however, with old, recognizable themes jarring their way into the narrative.

Strong and Davies did make the right call in terms of how cute to make the Adipose aliens. Erin and I were expecting the little fat creatures to go all Gremlins on everybody but I’m glad that didn’t happen, ultimately. That would have been a distraction that the story Partners in Crime needed to tell. And it looks like Adipose plush figures will be selling well in time for Christmas.

And speaking of good calls, Donna’s scene saying goodbye to her grandfather was perfectly played and gave the story precisely the ending it needed. It softens Donna’s character is precisely the right way, and makes me look forward to seeing how she responds to seeing the stars.

Flawed though Partners in Crime is, it succeeds in showcasing the possible strengths to come in future episodes this season. We have an excellent actress in the form of Catherine Tate and a edgy character in the form of Donna. We have a fresh and new sibling-style relationship between Doctor and companion, and we have that balance between humour and horror that is the hallmark of the series. All in all, I’m optimistic about the next twelve weeks, and look forward to seeing Donna come into her own.

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Random Notes on the Episode

  • When Miss Foster comments that she’d spent a lot of time searching for a country full of obese people before settling on the United Kingdom, I couldn’t help piping up and saying, “you searched so hard and you didn’t settle on the United States or Canada?
  • The excellent comic timing of this episode is exemplified in the scene where the Doctor and Donna communicate silently across Miss Foster’s office. As Donna became more and more animated in her hand signals, Erin spoke up saying “and they’re going to get caught any minute now?” And, right then, they were.
  • Penny the journalist is an interesting character and it will be interesting to see if she turns up again. She’s a bit of a throwaway otherwise, one more interest investigating strange happenings at the Adipose building when we already have two main characters involved in separate investigations. Why the extra unless more visits are planned?
  • I did love Penny turning up, still tied to a chair and rebuking the Doctor and Donna at the end of the episode. It was a nice random comic moment that contributed to the offbeat character of the story.
  • Do you ever notice how prominent cell phones are in the scenes of mass human panic on this show? I’ll be interested to see if there is a period-style nod to this when panic set in in Pompeii…
  • And while this may be frivolous, I have to say I’m missing the old theme music. The new music for the season is okay, but not as good as what went on before. Why the change?
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