Well, that was embarrassing.
When the production crew quietly announced the title of the sixth episode of the fourth season as The Doctor’s Daughter, I didn’t have many doubts originally. However, when the first buzz around the story centered around David Tennant’s performance, and just his performance, I started to wonder. My concern coalesced around a conversation that I had with Cameron a couple of weeks ago, when we mentioned that the role of the Doctor’s daughter was to be played by Georgia Moffat, the real-life daughter of the actor to play the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison.
Says Cameron: “I hope it isn’t just a case of stunt casting.”
Add to this an unimpressive trailer at the end of The Poison Sky, and I have to say that I wasn’t too surprised to conclude after watching The Doctor’s Daughter that we have encountered the worst episode of the season. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that this is the worst episode of the revival. No wonder the production crew hyped David Tennant’s performance. The acting is about the only redeeming feature in this production.
A more spoilery review after the break.
Okay, let’s spend a minute talking about the plot of this story, because it feels like there’s a lot of it, shoved into a suitcase that’s way too small to handle it.
Taking off from the end of The Poison Sky, the TARDIS yanks the Doctor, Martha and Donna to a strange planet, largely at the behest of the Doctor’s severed hand. Emerging to look around, they are accosted by soldiers who see that the Doctor hasn’t been “processed”. So they abruptly process him, sticking his hand in a whacking big machine that snatches a tissue sample and extrapolates it to form a girl soldier. Who is, essentially, the Doctor’s daughter, ready to fight for the human colonists against the traiterous fish people — I mean, the Hath.
Okay, put like that, there’s not a lot of plot, is there? Which is odd, because the story doesn’t so much flow as ricochet, from one unlikely contrivance to another. Oh, look: we’ve sealed up the tunnel to stop a Hath attack, thus burying the TARDIS. The Doctor’s daughter doesn’t have a name, since she was “generated”, so let’s call her “Jennie”. Oh, look, we’re in a theatre underground. Oh, look, this is a colony that’s been at war for generations, and the Doctor is suddenly able to get the rickety old computer to display a larger map of the area, sending humans and Hath to the mystical “Source.” Oh, and lock the Doctor and company up. I’d almost wish that they’d had a second episode to really tell this tale, using the extra time to get the atmosphere and the emotional resonance right, except I’d be afraid that they’d muck up the second part as well.
The acting is almost the only thing that saves this production from complete and epic failure, and there are remarkable moments. Georgia Moffet does a good job here, and there are good moments between her and the Doctor as the Doctor initially tries to deny his lineage, only to have those emotional walls collapse with the discovery that Jennie has two hearts. That is a wonderful moment that should have been at the heart of a wonderful tale, but instead seems a bit out of place in the mess. Donna and Martha also get a lot to do, with Donna acquitting herself well in figuring out the secret of the colony, and Martha fending for herself alongside the Hath. I have to say that I did enjoy her grin-and-bear-it discomfort at being established as the Hath forces’ good luck charm.
It’s unfortunate that the script and the direction just don’t keep up. The directing is a surprising miscue here, with Alice Troughton overplaying almost every element so that the plot lands with the subtlety of a brick, especially the Tinkerbell-Jesus resolution with the terraforming device. And as good as David Tennant’s acting is, even he can’t save the eye-rollingly over-the-top moment (with unnecessarily florid dialogue) where everybody lays down their arms, and he tells the new society to straighten up and fly right (David, David: speak from the heart, don’t give us a speech! I can see Greenhorn’s fingerprints all over these lines, and not the Doctor’s). If Jennie’s backflips through the laser light-show was meant to be effective, it’s a dismal failure, that prompted snorts of derision at this household and who knows how many more.
The scene where Hath Peck sacrifices himself to save Martha is The Doctor’s Daughter in a nutshell. The good bits include the chemistry between the two characters, Martha’s acting up to this point, and the genuinely touching idea that a sacrifice is called for here. Now for the bad: Martha overacts her heart out as Peck sinks beneath the water, probably at the behest of director Alice Troughton. And, unfortunately, writer Stephen Greenhorn hasn’t given Martha pause to remember that Hath Peck is a big fish guy! He’s got gills! HE BREATHES FRICK’N WATER!! HE’S NOT GOING TO DROWN!!! At most, he’s going to starve. He’s fine — or, at least, he will be fine long enough for Martha to look for a long rope, or scuba gear, or possibly just walk over to the Source, letting the Hath know (“hey, one of your number is in a mucky pond somewhere”), and sending back a search party. Assuming she hasn’t forgotten.
No, Freema gives it her all, but she’s sabotaged by the director and the script.
The great frustration with The Doctor’s Daughter is to consider how good it could have been if the editors had used a lot of red ink and forced a couple of rewrites. If you could just make the dialogue sound less stilted, softened the unsubtle elements (not to mention the utterly predictable actions of General Cobb at the end) and given us more to suspend our disbelief on, we’d have had something interesting. As it was, the good moments, the Doctor’s discovery of Jennie’s two hearts, the surreal setting of a war happening in darkened theatres and other buried public buildings (sort of Planet of the Apes-ish), the banter between the Doctor and Donna, Martha’s trek along the surface, and the revelation of how long the war has really been going, stand out only as small bright sparks in an episode that would otherwise be worthy of being heckled by Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
Oh, well. At least Harry Sullivan can take heart: thanks to Martha, he’s no longer the only companion capable of falling into a whacking great subsidence like that.
Sorry, guys. Better luck next time. Thankfully, next week looks like a fun romp, and it’s written by Gareth Roberts! And two weeks from now, Stephen Moffat saves us!
- Anybody else but me think that it was highly convenient that the extrapolation chambers “shut down for the night”, thus preventing Donna and Martha undergoing a thirty-second process resulting in a son or a daughter of their own? What possible reason could these chambers be keeping bankers hours for, eh? And the hand of Stephen Greenhorn crushes yet another piece of plot logic.
- I’m less upset about this, but could Donna’s statement “I’m going to be travelling with this man forever” be any more foreshadowing? Poor woman. It’s wholly in character, but I’m surprised that the Doctor didn’t happen to overhear, and force the woman to turn around three times and spit.