Directors: James Strong, Euros Lyn, Euros Lyn et al. Written by: Steven Moffat, Russell T. Davies, Helen Raynor, Gareth Roberts, James Moran et al. Starring: David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Freema Agyeman, Kylie Minogue, Peter Capaldi, Bernard Cribbins, Lesley Sharp, Tim McInnerny, Steve Pemberton, Colin Salmon, Alex Kingston, Fenella Woolgar, Phil Davis, Jimmy Vee, John Barrowman, Elisabeth Sladen, Billie Piper.
Fourth season of the Doctor Who revival, thirtieth season total. This review contains spoilers.
We start off with a so-so Christmas Special, as is of course tradition. “Voyage of the Damned” tells the idiot story of a space cruise liner modeled after the Titanic, which runs into serious trouble due to sabotage while in orbit around Earth. There’s some decent comedy in this episode, but the sympathetic guest characters run face first into a singularly vicious script that insists on killing them off one by one just as we’re beginning to like them – joyful tidings this is not. Vee as Bannakaffalatta is a particular delight, and it’s fun to see Minogue as a feisty heroine, but the story doesn’t benefit from being dragged out to 70 minutes from the regular series’ 45 minute format. Rating: 5 of 10.
The season proper begins in an even sillier fashion with “Partners in Crime”, as the Doctor and Donna unbeknownst to one another investigate a weight loss company whose product has lardy side effects. The pace is quick and there are a number of fun set pieces, my favourite being Donna and the Doctor trying to communicate through panes of glass without being able to hear one another. Quite a bit of action and running around, but the cute little blubber beasties introduced in this episode are a tad too much to stomach without dyspepsia setting in. Rating: 6 of 10.
With “The Fires of Pompeii” it feels like the season yawns and looks around, coming awake at last. Planning to go to ancient Rome, Donna and the Doctor instead wind up in Pompeii the day before the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius, and get entangled with the Sibylline Sisterhood and a family of marble merchants. Oh sure, there’s the usual alien threat to the entire Earth, but it’s rather unusual in nature, and there’s ever so much fun to be had here. There’s a running gag where anytime Donna or the Doctor says something in actual Latin, the Tardis translates it into Welsh, and that alone is funny enough to watch the episode for, but apart from plentiful humour, James Moran’s script also delivers solid plotting and meaningful depth, as both of our time travelling heroes are forced to face the consequences of being able to change history. In the Doctor’s case, it’s a classical dilemma of ethics, but with Donna it’s the ultimate in helpless despair, superbly brought to us by Tate. This episode is also notable for giving us a “preview” of 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi, who plays the marble merchant here. Rating: 8 of 10.
Next we revisit our friends the Ood from season 3’s “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit”. Here they are being sold en masse as servants to humans across three galaxies. We find out that they may not be as eager to please as at first they seemed, and that they are in fact being systematically enslaved. This is a fine episode that delves into the issue of slavery and the rationalisations slavers and slave owners think up to be able to sleep at night. There are a couple of surprises along the way and quite a bit of action as the Ood once more become possessed and violent, albeit from very different causes this time around. On the downside, the balance of the different elements could have been better, with some nice material given short shrift, and I don’t believe for one minute, even within the confines of Doctor Who’s internal reality, that a species with the physical traits of the Ood could ever have evolved, let alone survived. Rating: 7 of 10.
I like the Sontarans, a species of stocky, bulky-headed aliens single-mindedly devoted to military pursuits, but they’re not really characterised properly in “The Sontaran Stratagem”/”The Poison Sky”. They’re all about honour and facing the enemy in glorious battle, which makes it rather embarrassing watching them skulking about in the shadows, using some kind of transmission to stop their enemies from firing their guns and, most ignominious of all, attempting to gas an entire planet from a secure remove. On top of that, a mildly diverting subplot about a boy genius collaborating with the Sontarans turns out to be merely a convenience to facilitate the climax. For all these shortcomings, this two-parter is still snappy fun, and the Sontarans are interesting even when they don’t practice what they preach. Their goal comes as a bit of a surprise too, which is nice. Flawed as it is, the story still holds interest. Rating: 6 of 10.
“The Doctor’s Daughter” is crammed to the brim with interesting ideas, such as a unique type of clone, the titular offspring, legends rapidly being created and conveyed through generations, and a cool new alien species. It’s a little sad, then, that the bulk of the story concerns a rather tedious armed conflict, and more than a little sad that the script is so full of plot holes and lapses in internal logic that they take up more space than the parts that work. Apart from the fishlike Hath species, this episode also looks uncommonly cheap. It’s a waste of good ideas, and of a potentially interesting new character, namely the Doctor’s daughter, played by Georgia Moffet, real life daughter of fifth Doctor Peter Davison. Rating: 4 of 10.
Things look up as we reach “The Unicorn and the Wasp”, where Donna and the Doctor meet Agatha Christie (Woolgar) at a country house party in 1926. A murder is committed and Christie and our time travelling friends try to solve the mystery, which of course involves an alien influence. More than anything, this episode is a celebration of Christie-style whodunits in posh environments, and it’s delightfully light, funny and fluffy. It’s written by the deft hand of Gareth Roberts, who delivered an equally delightful story about an author in season 3’s “The Shakespeare Code”. Rating: 8 of 10.
With “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” we reach this season’s Steven Moffat Moment. A little girl has visions of a planet-spanning library, which evidently exists for real, since Donna and the Doctor turn up there only to become embroiled in a mystery surrounding the library’s sudden abandonment a century earlier. Like so many of Moffat’s stories, you’re bound to wonder how he’s ever going to weld all the disparate components together, but as always it all turns out gorgeously logical while entertaining us all the way through. Also similar to his other tales, this one is rich in horror, creating another unusual and unnerving monster to follow the remarkable Weeping Angels from “Blink”. This, then, is an extremely clever story and a scary one, but it wouldn’t be Moffat without a healthy dose of comedy and pathos as well. These elements are provided by the appearance of Dr. River Song (Kingston), who has met the Doctor before … only he hasn’t met her yet. A lot of emotion goes into this subplot, which also of course gives us an additional mystery, but it’s lightened by the humour and seemingly effortless interplay between Kingston and Tennant. As expected, a brilliant two-parter that engages on virtually every level and doesn’t have a dull moment. Rating: 9 of 10.
In “Midnight” the Doctor takes a vacation, only to end up in a stalled “bus” in the middle of a radioactive wasteland on a diamond planet. An alien presence infiltrates the bus and takes over one of the passengers. This is, in budgetary terms, a cheap episode that takes place almost solely within the confines of the touring vehicle, and it shows beyond a doubt that good writing trumps dazzling special effects any day – this may in fact be Russell T. Davies’ finest hour on Doctor Who. The paranoia is cranked up mercilessly throughout the tale as even the Doctor is struggling to understand what is going on, and tension reaches fever pitch as the tourists approach an ugly lynch mob mentality that’s certainly scarier than any alien beastie. More than anything, this episode plays like an experimental stage play, and like you’d expect from one of those, no pat solution is offered. Big round of applause for Lesley Sharp, who takes a part that could easily have become tremendously annoying and turns it into something terrifying. Rating: 9 of 10.
Where “Midnight” focuses entirely on the Doctor, “Turn Left” does the same thing with Donna, who finds herself in an alternate reality where one small decision results in her never meeting the Doctor. In an It’s a Wonderful Life-style narrative, we get to see the disastrous results of her not being by his side. The intriguing premise is well executed, allowing for many funny moments as well as horrific ones, and it also permits Rose (Piper) to make an ominous return appearance. “Turn Left” is good stuff, intelligent and fast-paced, but it serves mainly to set up the season finale. Rating: 7 of 10.
I assume that two inexpensive episodes like “Midnight” and “Turn Left” saved enough money for the production team to afford the traditionally loud thunderclap of a finale. This time it’s louder and more cluttered than ever, as the Daleks return yet again, this time led by their creator Davros, to kidnap 27 planets from their various systems. It seems they want to destroy everything and its mother, and that their shiny new planetary constellation will help them do so. As if this wasn’t thunderous enough, “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” also features a cast consisting of everyone: apart from every cast member they could think of from Doctor Who itself, we also get the principal cast from the two spinoff series The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood. Oh, and we get two David Tennants for the price of one. I do take issue with this sort of thing, just tossing everything into the pot to beef it up and make the story seem more epic than it is, but yeah, the writing is pretty good and there are quite a few things that work well, and it’s hard to complain when Richard Dawkins has a cameo. But I still don’t see the benefit of the shows’ makers trying to surpass themselves in sheer spectacle at the end of each season. Tone it down and focus on the writing, for crying out loud. Rating: 6 of 10.
Overall a fine season with a number of sublime episodes enhanced by the spicy, pleasantly abrasive presence of Catherine Tate.
Followed by four specials between 2008 and 2010 before the somewhat retooled and restaffed fifth season got going in 2010.
Overall rating: 8 of 10.