Doctor Who returns to the CBC tonight at 8 p.m. with the airing of the third season premier, Smith and Jones. Then, set your DVD recorders for midnight as the CBC airs the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride (and be sure to set those recorders for at least 90 minutes, as The Runaway Bride has 60 minutes of running time rather than a usual episode’s 42).
I have been watching these episodes a few hours after they’ve aired in the United Kingdom and I’m happy to say that you folks are in for a treat. So far, the third season has, on average, been stronger than season two. Without Rose to moon over, David Tennant’s Doctor is darker and more alien, and Freema Agyeman is simply wonderful as Martha Jones. There has also been an interesting diversity this season. Every episode so far has been liked and loathed different groups of people, who have each found things to loathe and like about other episodes. So, chances are, if something isn’t to your taste one week, keep watching, and the next week will offer something more to your liking.
Here’s a preview of what to expect this season:
The Runaway Bride (by Russell T. Davies; directed by Euros Lyn)
Plot: The Doctor has no time to mourn the loss of Rose, as bride-to-be Donna mysteriously appears in his console room. Now the Doctor has to contend with a furious young woman who has a mean slapping hand and isn’t afraid to use it, as well as the robot Santas from The Christmas Invasion, and the mysterious goings on which zapped Donna into the TARDIS in the first place.
What to Expect: This is a Christmas special, which means that it’s fun holiday fluff and somewhat over the top. If you go into this story realizing this, you’re in for a good time. The scenes of the TARDIS chasing a rogue taxi down a busy motorway have to be seen to be believed.
My Impressions: A funny, fluffy story that turns out to be darker than one would expect going in. David Tennant’s Doctor feels more alien already, and without Rose to cheer him up, you begin to worry about where his character might go.
My Rating: 8/10 (Full review)
Smith and Jones (by Russell T. Davies; directed by Charles Palmer)
Plot: Martha Jones’ day gets seriously weird from the moment the Doctor pops out of nowhere and hands her his tie. Then the teaching hospital where she’s studying gets transported to the moon and invaded by Space Rhino policemen. Martha has to scramble to help the Doctor (posing as a patient in the hospital) to find the fugitive the Space Rhinos are after before the air runs out, and the Rhinos decide that the occupants are guilty of harbouring a fugitive (a capital offence)
What to Expect: Space Rhinos on the Moon! No, really! It’s a wild, frantic tale that never lets up, bolstered by strong chemistry between Freema Agyeman and David Tennant, with some deeper moments as the fugitive sagely pegs the Doctor for what he does: whistling in the dark.
My Impressions: Smith and Jones is a wild adventure that gives Freema Agyeman a lot to work with, and she works it well. This is possibly the best season opener of the revival, and I only rate Rose higher because of how much more it had to do. An episode that screams “Doctor Who is BACK!”
My Rating: 8.5/10 (Full review)
The Shakespeare Code (by Gareth Roberts; directed by Charles Palmer)
Plot: The Doctor takes Martha to 1599 London and a visit to the Globe Theatre. There, William Shakespeare promises a play that’s not on his list. Who’s playing with history and getting the great Bard to write plays he isn’t supposed to? The Doctor and Martha expose the plot of a trio of witches — really, beings from the dawn of time. The play’s the thing.
What to Expect: A story rich in historical detail and offering a great mix of horror, action and wit. Shakespeare references abound, of course, and the climax takes place right on stage. Everything is a little over the top as you’d expect from a stage production.
My Impressions: Brilliant! Dean Lennox Kelly is great as Shakespeare and the repartee between him, the Doctor and Martha is a joy to watch. Also, be sure to look for the Harry Potter references (yes, Harry Potter), as these lend just enough of a zany element to the proceedings as to bust your gut laughing at just the right moment. This is a play about the power of words, a love letter to great works of literature, and it might even encourage young minds to read, or take up the theatre.
My Rating: 9/10 (Full review)
Gridlock (by Russell T. Davies, directed by Richard Clark)
Plot: The Doctor and Martha visit New New York in the year 5,000,000,043 and find themselves in a traffic jam of air cars that have been idling, waiting for Godot, for the past twenty years. What’s going on in traffic control? And why do the cars that enter the fast lane end up disappearing?
What to Expect: An intriguing science fiction adventure of flying cars, giant crabs, cat people and emotion patches. The first half is played for laughs and the second half is played more seriously and tries to be uplifting. Be prepared to suspend your disbelief high for the ludicrous science of it all.
My Impressions: Gridlock is my least favourite episode so far this season, but it has its defenders, and no wonder. Russell T. Davies knows how to write for the heart. The story is well paced, and those who can ignore the science and not be turned off by the religious allegories may rate this very high indeed. Even though it is my least favourite episode, I still had to appreciate the quality of the acting, some great dialogue, some neat action scenes from the Doctor, some great set pieces, and one of the most subtle insertions of a returning monster I’ve ever seen.
My Rating: 6/10 (Weakest episode of the season) (Full review)
Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks (by Helen Rayner, directed by James Strong)
Plot: The Doctor and Martha detour to 1930s Manhattan and come upon the last four Daleks in existence (the four Daleks with names in Doomsday — they used an emergency temporal shift to escape being sucked into the void). These imaginative Daleks are struggling to survive and realize they must think out of the box. However, how far out of the box can you go before you cease to be a Dalek?
What to Expect: New Yorker accents that are real enough, but still grating. Beautiful shots of Daleks moving about in sewers. Nice Art Deco motifs, and an interesting plot about a Dalek stepping outside his shell and outside the usual Dalek way of thinking. Can a Dalek change his half-spheres?
My Impressions: I liked this story on an intellectual level, but I couldn’t help but notice that a number of elements fail to click. Why do the Daleks transform their human slaves into pigmen? Only to have Broadway signer Talullah walk into a prophetic line of the script. Why set this story in 1930s Manhattan at all? It looks beautiful, and seeing the Doctor agree to help his mortal foes is neat, but it could have been better.
My Rating: 7/10 (Full review)
The Lazarus Experiment (by Stephen Greenhorn, directed by Richard Clark)
Plot: Returning Martha home, the Doctor is about to leave when he overhears a scientist promise that his experiment will change what it means to be human. Turns out the scientist wasn’t kidding. But while the Doctor and Martha cope with a monster running amok, the mysterious Mr. Saxon takes Martha’s mother into his confidence. A trap is being planned for the Doctor.
What to Expect: A pretty grotesque monster complements some intriguing tension between Martha and her mother. This and he Mr. Saxon story is more interesting, frankly, but actor Mark Gatiss really does a great job as Professor Lazarus (whose name unfortunately telegraphs a fair chunk of the plot).
My Impressions: A pretty bog standard science-goes-wrong story. We’ve seen it all before. It’s rescued by some great special effects and the season’s backstory. A pleasant waste of an hour.
My Rating: 6.5/10 (Full review)
42 (by Chris Chibmall, directed by Graeme Harper)
Plot: Doctor and Martha: you’ve landed on a doomed spacecraft. You’re cut off from your TARDIS and have to get through the ship to activate the auxilliary controls. Moreover, one hot parasite is taking over members of the crew and burning others to little piles of ash. You have 42 minutes before the whole shebang falls into a sun. Go.
What to Expect: Lots of screams, a decent set of aliens, some great action and some really beautiful visuals. The Doctor gets put through the ringer here and Martha has to save the day. Oh, and the Mr. Saxon plot continues in the background.
My Impressions: The story feels like Impossible Planet-lite, which is a mark against it, but not much of one. Chris Chibnall keeps the story moving at a quick pace, there’s an interesting mix of heart-pounding moments and show-stopping ones, and Graeme Harper makes the most of his opportunities.
My Rating: 7.5/10 (Full review)
Human Nature / The Family of Blood (by Paul Cornell, directed by Charles Palmer)
Plot: To escape the Family of Blood, the Doctor transforms himself into a human being and locks all his Time Lord essence and his memory in a watch. Martha is given strict instructions to look after him, and open the watch at the right time but, as Professor John Smith, teaching at a boys boarding school in rural England in 1913, complications arise. The Family of Blood comes sniffing around the school. More complicated even than that, Professor John Smith falls in love.
What to Expect: A compelling drama anchored by Paul Cornell’s expert adaptation of his critically acclaimed novel of the same name. David Tennant shows off his acting chops, playing a Time Lord, then a human, then a Time Lord pretending to be human. The chemistry between John Smith and Nurse Redfern really sells this story, and while there are plenty of creepy moments and action moments, the scene where John Smith contemplates becoming a Time Lord again is really heart-wrenching.
My Impressions: This story is as good as it needed to be, but not as good as the novel promised. The novel provided us with the Doctor’s first love affair, and the effect is diminished on television what with the Doctor’s mooning over Rose all last season and falling for Madame de Pompedour in the superior The Girl in the Fireplace. But for those who haven’t read the novel, this is not a problem. This story has the best acting and the best writing and is an obvious highlight of the season.
My Rating: 9/10 (Full review)
Blink (by Steven Moffat, directed by Hattie MacDonald)
Plot: With the TARDIS in 2007 and the Doctor stuck in 1969, its up to young Sally Sparrow to fend off the attack of the weeping angels, with the help of her friends, and a mysterious message the Doctor has left for her on seventeen DVDs. Can Sally avoid capture by the quickest aliens in existence and send the TARDIS back? There’s a lot of screams on the way.
What to Expect: Despite offering no violent deaths, no blood and not even individuals being roughed up, Blink is one of the most terrifying things you’ll ever see. This is old school horror where things unseen are far more frightening than things seen, and the suspense builds to a frightening crescendo. And as is the case with Steven Moffat’s stories, theres some rich, witty dialogue, and neat, wacky characters. Sally Sparrow makes for a compelling heroine.
My Impressions: The plot is not perfect, but I don’t care. This story made me scream, and by connecting with me on that emotional level, I’m granting this tale several bonus points. The weeping angels are one of the best, most innovative monsters of some time.
My Rating: 10/10 (Best of the season so far) (Full review)
Utopia (by Russell T. Davies, directed by Graeme Harper)
Plot: When Captain Jack suddenly turns up, the Doctor tries to run away, and ends up carrying the former time agent through the time vortex to the year 100,000,000,000,000, close to the very end of the Universe. As Jack and the Doctor catch up, they and Martha contend with the task of sending the last of the human race to the mysterious Utopia, while hunted by the ferocious “futurekind”. The Doctor’s arrival triggers hidden memories in humanity’s protector, Professor Yana.
What to Expect: The return of Captain Jack and a guest star appearance by Sir Derek Jacobi. Talk about Utopia!
My Impressions: Possibly the season’s biggest surprise, and I won’t spoil it for you here. Derek Jacobi shines, and the season-spanning plot moves forward to a satisfying degree. Some plot elements may have be thrown away, which is a mark against the episode, but you might not notice.
My Rating: 9/10
The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (by Russell T. Davies, directed by Colin Teague)
Plot: The Mr. Saxon plot reaches its inevitable conclusion as Harold Saxon — a man the Doctor may have inadvertently elevated to the position of Prime Minister of Britain — springs his trap. It’s doubtful that the Doctor, Martha or Martha’s family will be the same after this.
What to Expect: John Simms plays Harold Saxon. The actor received acclaim for his lead role in the time travel police drama Life on Mars. What clips we’ve seen of him so far suggests that he’s a master of creep, and the prospect of him as Prime Minister of Britain makes him a formidable foe indeed.
My Impressions: This story has not yet aired in the United Kingdom.
So far, the third season of the Doctor Who revival has not matched the highs of the seasons before it (only Blink and The Shakespeare Code stand out for me, compared to The Girl in the Fireplace and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit), but neither has it matched the lows (Gridlock is far superior to New Earth and The Idiot’s Lantern). David Tennant has grown considerably into his role and his relationship with Martha is quite different from his relationship with Rose. We’re seeing a darker, lonelier character here, and it will be fascinating to see how this will play out with the Mr. Saxon plot.
The diversity of the first half of the season also impressed me; there was something for everyone to like, and each episode affected different people in very different ways. Russell T. Davies would appear to be at the top of his game. With David Tennant in fine form and Freema Agyeman doing more than just holding her own, things bode very well for the fourth season. I only hope that David Tennant stays longer than the traditional three years.