DOCTOR WHO: A Companion’s Companion – Series 4 and Specials
by Kyle Anderson on November 15, 2013
After being out of the works for over a decade, Doctor Who now had three seasons of new episodes under its belt, thanks to showrunner Russell T. Davies and crew, and his then-current star, David Tennant, was two years into a highly popular TEN-ure. (I’m sorry; I’m so, so sorry.) For his third and final full series, the Tenth Doctor would be paired with a familiar face, and one that is often cited as the favorite companion. Unfortunately, for my money, she’s saddled with probably the worst story writing, a mix of boring and lame. It does contain four of my favorite episodes, though. Too bad we don’t start with that one.
Voyage of the Damned was the 2007 Christmas special, and easily the worst of the RTD era. If you’ll recall, the TARDIS gets a Titanic in it at the end of the previous series, but that doesn’t last too long. After some quick maneuvering, the Doctor separates and then finds himself aboard the spaceship Titanic, a cruise ship with rich people on it. A bunch of them go down to Earth and pretend to know about Earth culture. Then, the guy who owns the ship tries to crash it into Earth to collect insurance money and the Doctor has to stop it. It’s like The Poseidon Adventure but in space, get it? Lots of people die, get it? Kylie Minogue is in it and dies too, get it? It’s a terrible episode, get it?
Series 4 – 5 April 2008 – 5 July 2008
Now, for this series, Catherine Tate was brought back to play Donna Noble, the pseudo-companion in the 2006 Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride.” She’s brilliant and her story arc is really beautiful, about her becoming the Doctor’s friend and never wanting to stop traveling with him and growing as a person from shallow and abrasive to compassionate and heroic. This all works amazingly well, it just happens to happen through a season with way more thuds than booms.
We begin with Partners in Crime, in which the Doctor and Donna both independently investigate a diet pill that makes people’s fat literally fall off. It falls off and congeals into adorable little creatures called Adipose, and eventually people die from all the fat that they lose. The Doctor and Donna re-find each other and battle the woman behind it all. We see Donna is much more introspective than she was in the Christmas special, and spends time looking at the stars with her granddad Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins), who is lovely. Silly, this story is, though. It’s very, very silly.
At least this is followed up with Fires of Pompeii, which actually features both Karen Gillan, who’d go on to play Amy Pond, and Peter Capaldi, who is forthcoming as the Twelfth Doctor. The Doctor takes Donna back to Ancient Rome, or at least he thinks it’s Ancient Rome; it’s actually Pompeii on the eve of Mt. Vesuvius erupting. It turns out that the eruption is necessary to stop evil magma aliens called Pyroviles from converting humans into molten whatevers to rebuild their lost home world.
This is an excellent example of the “fixed point in time” situations. The Doctor, in righting the timeline, actually ensures that Vesuvius will erupt and therefore kill tens of thousands of people (though I learned recently on QI that most Pompeiians got away before the volcano went boom). Donna has a hard time believing this, and says they have to do something. She convinces him, tearfully, to help one family, just one. Which he does. This sets up right away the importance of the Doctor having someone to question him and keep him humane, and that Donna isn’t just a shrill and loud person but that she’s very deep as well. Love this one.
Unfortunately, now we get 5 straight middling episodes, which are fine, I guess, but really nothing special. First is Planet of the Ood. Guess where they end up? That’s right, the planet of the Ood. After being creepy in Series 2, the Ood are back to again be creepy, but this time be more than just servants who go bad. I’m not sure why RTD loved the damned Ood so much, other than the fact that he created them. Shrug.
Next, it’s the two-parter that brought back the Sontarans, who are a great alien in theory but have only really been used well one and a half times. The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky surmises that the short war potatoes need help from an annoying and wealthy boy genius to poison the entirety of Earth through apparently court-mandated car air conditioners. What have we learned from Doctor Who, people? If something is done by everyone on Earth, it’s probably part of an alien invasion. UNIT is back for this, so that’s cool. And Martha works for UNIT now. Wait, why does she work for UNIT? And why is she back already? Shrug.
Martha goes along with the Doctor and Donna for the next episode, The Doctor’s Daughter, which is very stupid. They happen upon a war going on for “generations” in a hallway between half-cloned humans and fish aliens the Hath. The Doctor is half-cloned right away and a fully-grown blonde girl, eventually named “Jenny” (Georgia Moffett), is the Doctor’s sort-of daughter. Because Jenny got away at the end, a bunch of people STILL keep holding out hope that she’s going to come back. She won’t. In real life, Georgia Moffett is the daughter of Fifth Doctor Peter Davison, so she is in fact the Doctor’s daughter. She’s also married to David Tennant, making her also the Doctor’s wife. Gross.
And the final middling ep is actually okay, if you look past how goofy it is (or if you like how goofy it is). The Unicorn and the Wasp is an Agatha Christie mystery that actually has a young Agatha Christie in it. There’s a person who is an alien wasp that’s killing people in a large manner house in the 1926. This is undoubtedly a fun episode, and of any of the aforementioned middling ones, I like this one the best. It’s a bit of lightness before the next few, which are heeeeeeeavy, boy.
Steven Moffat’s two-parter Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is very interesting, and we find out later, very important to the future of the story. The Doctor and Donna head to a planet that is entirely a library and it houses every bit of knowledge ever. They’re surprised to find, though, that the library is entirely devoid of people. Soon, there is an expedition that arrives with people in spacesuits, believing the air to be toxic. They’re looking for evidence of what might have happened. Among this expedition is Professor River Song (Alex Kingston) who apparently knows the Doctor but has never seen him “so young” before. She knows him in his future. Scary, I know. Even scarier is that the library is all infested with a shadow insect race, or whatever, called the Vashta Nerada which live in the darkness and, like piranha, can devour people in seconds, leaving only their date-recorder to speak for them. “Hey, who turned out the lights?”
The library’s computer system is alive, and inside its matrix, it thinks it’s a little girl. Donna gets “saved” before she is eaten by the Vashta and ends up inside the matrix, thinking she’s married and has children, living a whole life, in fact. This can’t last forever, though, and River Song sacrifices herself to save the Doctor as he tries to destroy the shadow monsters and retrieve his friend from the computer. Even though she appears to have died, River is saved and the Doctor races to implant her essence inside the matrix where she takes care of Donna’s fake kids and hangs out with all her dead-but-saved expedition friends.
I liked these episodes okay at the time, but I LOVE them now in retrospect, now that we know what we know about River Song and her timeline. While the whole of her life isn’t as interesting as it started in our view of things, this ending is satisfying both backward and forward in the chronology. Plus, it’s nice to see her with Tennant just once, seeing as she’d spend so much of her time with Smith thereafter.
After those, we have my favorite episode of the year, and actually one of my top 5 new Who stories ever: Midnight. On the planet Midnight for rest and relaxation, the Doctor is restless and leaves Donna by the pool to go see the strange sapphire fjords or whatever the hell on a tour transport. It takes a couple of hours to get there, and the small group of passengers don’t really seem to want to chat, but the Doctor forces them to by messing with the entertainment system. Unfortunately, the transport soon finds itself infiltrated, perhaps, by an unseen entity. It gets into one passenger (Lesley Sharp), and she begins repeating things people say, mostly the Doctor because he talks the most. Soon, though, she’s saying things at the same time as him and the other passengers start freaking out even more than before. They start to turn on the Doctor and do so even more when, somehow, the alien starts saying things BEFORE the Doctor, who seems incapable of not saying the thing. The passengers all assume he’s the alien now, but can he convince them otherwise?
I just adore this as a piece of stand-alone storytelling. Written out of necessity, the whole thing more or less takes place in one windowless space, the transport, and all of the drama is done with the cast, who are all excellent. (Among the guest cast is David Troughton, son of Patrick, and Colin Morgan, who’d go on to play the eponymous character in Merlin.) This is some of Tennant’s best work in the whole of his tenure, and it’s such a bleak, dark story with troubling themes and unexplained motivations. Even for an RTD episode, this is some dark stuff.
That was the companion-lite episode, so what of the Doctor-lite one? That would be Turn Left, which a lot of people absolutely love, but I’ll tell you this: I don’t like it. It’s not that there isn’t terrific acting in it from Tate, Cribbins, and Jacqueline King as Donna’s mom. All of them are wonderful, no question. It’s that it’s a “what-if?” storyline which takes place because Donna has a hallucinogenic spider on her back (?) and it causes her to make one decision differently before she ever met the Doctor and her whole life changed. The Doctor dies, Torchwood is destroyed, all sorts of bad things happen, and the people in England have to cram into tiny abodes and live on rations and things. Then Rose Tyler, who’s been popping up periodically this season, shows up to remind Donna of what was supposed to happen and then they try to make it so.
Here’s my problem with “what if?” storylines: Who gives a shit? They aren’t real. They have no bearing on the future. It’s not like anything that happens in “Turn Left” really has much impact on the proceedings and it all goes back to one at the end. I’ve heard arguments that it’s important to show that Donna is important and that even someone as seemingly meaningless as a temp from Cheswick can make a difference. Okay, we knew that already. Donna’s been proving that all series long. So, again I ask – Who cares? It’s a wasted episode if you ask me, and no amount of arguing has made me change my mind.
And we end the series on what is (or should have been) the most epic two-parter ever: The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. It sees the return of everybody. That’s right; everybody. Rose, Jackie, Mickey, Martha, Captain Jack, his Torchwood crew (the living ones), Sarah Jane, hell, even Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister, pops up to stop the Daleks’ plot to pull various planets out of their orbit (including Earth) to create a mechanism of some sort in space. It’s Davros’ fault. Oh yeah, Davros is in this, too. At the end of the first episode, the Doctor is reunited with Rose, or would be if he didn’t get grazed in the chest by a Dalek blast. He tries to stop it, but he starts regenerating… Oh no…
What a CLIFFHANGER! Is David Tennant really regenerating? Did they hide it that well? Oh no! No, it’s a cop out, fuckers. He instead, like a dick, siphons off his regenerative energy into his own severed hand, which Captain Jack had in Torchwood and brought back with him. So, he can stay the Tenth Doctor for a while longer. Umm… okay.
The problem, though, is that Donna, who feels like she has nothing to contribute to the death of everybody, touches the hand and infuses some of the Time Lord energy into herself and some of her humanity into the hand. The hang grows into another Tenth Doctor, this one human, and Donna gets to be all smart and Doctor-y. She’s the “Doctor-Donna.” She ends up saving everybody’s life and stopping the Daleks. Everybody goes back where they belong and the Doctor leaves Handy Doctor with Rose, because why shouldn’t she have everything she ever wanted like she’s the most important human who ever lived or whatever? Unfortunately, Donna can’t sustain being part Time Lord, and so the Doctor has to take her brain back to where it was before he met her, meaning she’s back to being a shallow and abrasive person with no memory of the Doctor.
This ending is the saddest companion departure maybe ever. It’s so good and sad that it almost makes up for the complete load of TRIPE the rest of the episode is. Come ON! The Daleks invented a “Reality Bomb.” Rose came back… why the hell does Rose keep being important?!?! Just because she was the first companion doesn’t mean she’s like the Doctor’s all-time greatest got-away love. Gag me with a spoon, people. The Handy Doctor is sure convenient, isn’t it? This is RTD having his cake and eating it, too. UGH. But, I will say this: it’s a hell of a lot better than David Tennant’s actual final story.
Specials – 25 December 2008 – 1 January 2010
When it was announced that RTD and Tennant were leaving, it was then announced that Steven Moffat would be stepping in as showrunner. They decided to give him a year to get his ducks in a row, and so a full calendar year-and-a-bit consisting only of five specials was devised, one on Christmas 2008, one on Easter 2009, one in the middle of November 2009, and a two-parter for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day 2009-2010. One of these is good, one of is okay, and the others are crapola.
The okay one is The Next Doctor, an evocative title in which the Doctor goes back to Victorian England at Christmastime and encounters Cybermen, Cyber Shades (which are like cyber-ish ape-dog things), and someone claiming to be the Doctor (David Morrissey) but with no memory of any of the other lives he had. He’s got a sonic screwdriver (which isn’t sonic), a companion, and a TARDIS (which is a hot air balloon). But, he’s actually a guy named Jackson Lake who just thinks he’s the Doctor. There’s a giant, Godzilla-sized Cyber Controller in this story too, which is actually complete crap. Why did I think this one was okay? Cuz of David Morrissey? Okay.
Second, it’s Planet of the Dead, in which the Doctor gets on a double-decker bus on Easter which goes through a wormhole and ends up on a desert planet on which flying shark things exist and they want to devour things whole, so them coming through the wormhole to London would be a bad thing. On the bus is jewel thief Lady Cristina de Souza (Michelle Ryan), who in any other case WOULD have been the next companion, but we’re to believe the Doctor is sad and alone and doesn’t want to face his future, in which his time ends and four knocks will usher his death. This is a pretty dumb story.
In November, we get the one that’s actually brilliant, The Waters of Mars. The Doctor goes to Mars for fun and comes across the first human settlement. He knows everybody there from the history books and is so excited, except he figures out that he’s arrived just as the crew all are supposed to die, at the hands of liquid aliens which infect and zombify them. He tries to ignore the fact that he wants to save them, but eventually he gives in in a big bad way. He decides he isn’t just going to play time’s game. He’s the Time Lord Victorious; he didn’t just survive the Time War, he won it. Why shouldn’t he save people who are meant to die, even if it means positive things that happen from their deaths don’t happen? When Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) refuses to let the Doctor win, she kills herself, ensuring her own daughter will know greatness. That’s hella dark, you guys. The Doctor seems ready to face his fate now, doesn’t he?
Welllllll, no. Instead, he minces about for two more episodes and acts like a spoiled brat and not the hero we’ve all come to know and love. In The End of Time, Parts 1 & 2, the Master (John Simm) is reawakened via potions, is unstable, tries to make himself every human on Earth, and brings back the Time Lords, who want to use the Earth as their new Gallifrey, before eventually helping the Doctor defeat Rassilon (Timothy Dalton).
The Doctor, meanwhile, doesn’t want to die, and tells Wilf that he’s scared to become a new man, even though we’ve always known the Doctor remains, the same man just changes. It’s a moment few Doctors have, the fear of not being around anymore, and I’ll grant the Tenth Doctor this, because it’s a nice scene. However. By the end of the episode, he hasn’t heard the four knocks, but when he does it’s because Wilf is trapped in a room that will soon fill with radioactivity. The Doctor gets ANGRY at Wilf and the fact that he has to save him, and thus sacrifice himself. Wilf, because he’s a saint, even tells the Doctor to let him die (!), because the Doctor is more important than he is. But no, the Doctor does save Wilf and absorbs the radiation and begins literally the longest “I’m gonna regenerate soon” period any Doctor ever has.
He goes and does one more good deed, no matter how silly, for all of his past friends and companions. He saves Martha and Mickey, who are married for some reason, from a Sontaran. He sets Captain Jack up with the midshipman from “Voyage of the Damned,” he saves Sarah Jane’s son, Luke, from being hit by a car, hell he even visits the great granddaughter of Nurse Redfern, whose name is Verity Newman. He gets Donna’s father in the past to buy a winning lottery ticket to give to Donna on her wedding day. Then he goes and sees Rose just a couple of weeks before she’ll eventually meet the Ninth Doctor. He sees EVERYBODY and says goodbye to ALL of them. He should be satisfied. But what does he say? With tears in his eyes, like a child, says “I don’t want to go,” making the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration the least satisfying thing in the history of anything.
Seriously, my anger at this ending cannot properly be quantified. Why would he STILL not want to go? Fucking man up, Doctor. Yes, maybe it is unfair, but you’re the goddamned Doctor. The Fifth Doctor saved one person and it caused him to regenerate. The Third Doctor faced his fears, thus leading to his death. The Tenth Doctor whined like a baby and made an old man concede to his own death. I adored the Tenth Doctor up until the end of Series 4 and then Russell T. Davies just started making him a knob. And worse than that, an unheroic knob. Heroes don’t cry because they got an extra 30 years to say goodbye to everybody. GAH.
Anyway, after this incredibly overblown and melodramatic finale, which was much more about RTD leaving than about Tennant leaving, Matt Smith shows up and is weird and kooky and exciting and definitely not whiny. I couldn’t wait for the Smith/Moffat era to begin, and because it premiered in April, I didn’t have to wait long. And because I’ll write another one of these for Monday, neither will you.