Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get in the Blue Box (Part The Second)
This is, for my money, where Revival era Doctor Who first enters a fully archetypal mode – where it settles into a groove, becomes comfortable in itself, no longer feels pressure to ‘perform’ as a piece of television, and instead establishes that it is its own beast.
None of this is to say that you can skip Series One, though, which is to this day a distressingly common refrain (Ed. note: You’re an idiot if you do this).
This is the series where spin-offs are seeded, where continuity creeps in. This is also (quietly), a series that carries some extremely weighty, heavy-duty themes, which I will get into somewhere in this piece.
SERIES TWO (25th December 2005, 15 April – 8th July 2006)
EPs: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner
DOCTOR: Ten (David Tennant)
COMPANIONS: Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke, The Girl in the Fireplace – The Age of Steel)
The first big tradition set up by Series Two is the Holiday Special – initially, and until the Chris Chibnall run, consistently a Christmas Special. These bumper-sized episodes were a bold and daring experiment in making Who into appointment television on what is traditionally one of the most crowded days in the most crowded TV period in the UK.
Thus, The Christmas Invasion, which re-introduces us to Rose Tyler (Piper), her mum Jackie (Camille Coduri), and Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke), and sees Tenth Doctor David Tennant crash the TARDIS into the Powell Estate (not literally) in the opening moments, before we’re again reintroduced to an established character in Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton) – formerly the MP for Flydale North and, due to the momentous events of Aliens of London/World War Three, the current Prime Minister. She’s spearheading a Mars mission, which goes awry when the probe is eaten by a spaceship made out of an asteroid.
The story leaps between the wildly camp (there are robot assassins wearing Father Christmas masks armed with weaponised brass musical instruments) and the remarkably spooky, with the baddies du jour, the Sycorax, looking like flayed freaks and wielding Clarkesian ‘magic’ that compels everyone with Type A+ blood to stand poised to jump off rooftops. The Doctor is out of action for a solid portion of the runtime, stuck in a post-regenerative coma and only reviving when roused by a good cup of tea (Ed. note: How very British of him).
And then it’s all guns blazing! Tennant plays the Doctor as an assured, cocky jack-the-lad, swaggering around the Sycorax ship quoting The Lion King and doing voices before he sabotages the whole shebang and engages the boss in a swordfight that costs the Doctor a hand (Ed. note: He gets better).
That will be important later. Twice, and possibly a third time (we’ll let you know after the 60th drops).
The Doctor’s new fatal flaw is introduced at the far side of the episode, where he refuses to accept Jones’ sovereignty and, on the back of her blowing the Sycorax to kingdom come, opts to sabotage her entire career with a catty remark. This derails the future of the UK outlined by his immediate predecessor and leaves a power vacuum that will ultimately be filled in the next series (Ed. note: A masterful decision by Russell the Davies).
Yes indeedy, the Tenth Doctor is a complicated character, at once genuinely and deeply empathetic yet prone to staggering and dangerous acts of moral grandstanding. Here, in his first series, he is largely a happy-go-lucky spacetime sex-haver (implied) who simply cannot stop himself from making snap judgements that will bite him on the ass, either within a story or on a more long-term basis.
Rose, too, is brighter and breezier here, with her crush on the Doctor quickly evolving into a full-time (implied) romantic and sexual relationship (Ed. note: If you took a blacklight into the TARDIS…). This series is all about the Doctor and Rose as an insufferably doe-eyed couple, knocking boots in the TARDIS before jumping out to do something heroic and silly, which is of course – of course! – a decision made to ensure that the series finale, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, hits like a goddamn freight train.
Rose ‘dies’. She doesn’t die, but she’s lost to a parallel Earth (one where her father is alive and wildly successful) and can, we’re told, never see the Doctor again. Her fate is a direct result of her electing to stay with the Doctor and him allowing and accepting this. If Other Pete (that’s her parallel dad, played by Sean Dingwall) didn’t intervene at the last second, she’d be properly dead.
And this got me thinking. Series 2 is, in short, a story about two young, free-spirited people shagging willy-nilly all over the universe, thinking they’re invulnerable precisely because they are young, dumb, and in love – and about how that’s never, ever been true of anyone. It’s about how loss strikes in the most unexpected moments and how it robs you blind. And it’s a show run by Russel T. Davies, an out and proud gay man of a certain age.
So I started looking over the substance of the episodes and noticed something. The opening episode, New Earth, is about a hospital keeping virulently ill patients in stasis to extract cures from them. The following episode, Tooth and Claw, is about a ‘lupine wavelength haemovoriform’ (werewolf) that lives in the blood of the host. The fifth and sixth episodes, two-parter Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, concern a terminally ill genius inventing the Cybermen (on the aforementioned parallel Earth) to stave off his sickness. The seventh episode, The Idiots Lantern, focuses on a 1950s family keeping some shameful secret in the attic and a ‘hard man’ dad who resents his ‘soft’ son…
And then there’s Love and Monsters, the eleventh episode and the first example of a ‘Doctor-lite’ installment, taking advantage of parallel production to shoot a modest-stakes story about the Doctor’s impact on ordinary people. It’s largely a contemplation on toxic ‘big name fans’ – a study on what happens when a small group of people with a diverse range of interests are leveraged by a vile individual through their strongest common interest to unclear, selfish ends. But that individual is the ‘Absorbaloff’ (Peter Kay), a slavering chunky beast that, well, absorbs you through touch.
And all of this rattles around in my head for a bit while I consider RTD’s most recent work, the AIDS drama It’s a Sin, and his seminal Queer as Folk. The ideas of disease, unsafe touch, societal shame, and ravaged close-knit communities hang around this series like a miasma. And, of course, the Doctor and Rose go about thinking they’re indestructible when they’re anything but, and they find that out abruptly and brutally.
It’s my humble suggestion that Series Two is quietly, gracefully, about the impact HIV and similar diseases can have on the lives of the unsuspecting.
And of course, it’s also about Torchwood!
Torchwood (an anagram of Doctor Who), originates as a real-life smokescreen for the the show’s production. In Tooth and Claw, Queen Victoria (who is, in fact, not amused) founds the Torchwood Institute to keep tabs on aliens at large and the Doctor in specific. By our time (that’s 2007, because until Series 5 or so, the show remains one year ahead of the release year), Torchwood is a distinctly, curiously British MIB. Everyone uses the Imperial system! They talk about the Empire like it’s not past tense! They appropriate all their technology! And so forth.
Torchwood will dovetail with the dangling thread of Captain Jack Harkness, who died and was revived by the All-Knowing Gnosis-Unlocked Rose during The Parting of the Ways, in an eponymous spin-off show that was by equal turns ridiculous campy farce and genuinely brutal drama (Ed. note: The disparity between sex gas that makes you horny and children being herded into camps to serve as a fix for drug-addicted aliens is wild). We might talk about that, I don’t know!
Standout stories, for my money, include Love and Monsters – which despite a staggering amount of tonal dissonance, hits every major mark – and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, a two-part story about Doctor Who VS The Actual Devil (a concept which, astoundingly, had happened at least once before in the Classic Series, and nearly happened as a full-length feature film called Scratchman). Planet/Pit concerns a planetoid stranded in an ‘impossible’ orbit around a black hole, which turns out to be a prison for ‘the Beast’, which is probably the literal Devil himself (Ed. note: It rules). Largely portrayed via a booming dubbed voice from Gabriel Woolf, the Beast is always three steps ahead of our heroes, almost instantly costing them the TARDIS (for the majority of the story) and worming its way into the heads of archeologist Toby Zed and the servile tentacle-faced Ood. Later, he is also a Big Red Man with Horns.
Planet/Pit also features one of my very favourite interactions between the Doctor and Rose in the series, where – as they’re stranded, and see no way out of it – they talk briefly about settling down. Piper’s sing-song delivery of “You’ll have to get a mortgage” is incredible stuff, simultaneously playful and mournful and full of love. Brilliant.
Also extremely notable is that this is the series where overt (as opposed to implicit) ties to Who Classico start being drawn, most crucially in the third episode School Reunion. Absolute Who icon Elizabeth Sladen returns as Sarah Jane Smith (Ed. note: SARAH JANE SMITH!!!!!!!!), a companion character that hung out with the Third and Fourth Doctors. She’s in rare form here, managing to sell not only a full thirty years of off-screen character growth but a complicated blend of wide-eyed nostalgia and jaded disaffection. She’s still a journalist even after all these years, and she’s poking around at a secondary school (that’s a combination middle school and high school, for the Americans among us) that’s up to no good. The episode also really hammers home that the Doctor and Rose are ‘a couple’ – Mickey even refers to the meeting of Rose and Sarah Jane as “the missus and the ex”.
This episode also seeds a spin-off show, the softer and more child-oriented CBBC programme The Sarah Jane Adventures, which ran literally as long as it possibly could before Sladen’s tragic death in 2011 (Ed. note: I’ve never recovered if I’m being honest).
Stylistically, Series 2 is a little more chaste than the often-experimental Series 1. There’s a lot more consistency, but it’s a very milquetoast consistency, with little in the way of truly punchy shots and setups. Shout-out to the MacGuffin of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, a giant floating sphere that doesn’t do anything, and that’s precisely why it makes everybody who looks at it deeply, deeply uncomfortable. It is eventually revealed to be full of Daleks (Ed. note: That, in turn, was spoiled by a very funny mishap at an award show a couple of weeks beforehand, wonderfully anecdoted in RTD’s vital companion book, The Writer’s Tale), in the most egregious example of the angry pepperpot men derailing what was already a perfectly good finale (Ed. note: Shameless plug for Rhi’s brilliant Dalek essay).
Tennant’s gear is, of course, a standout from the costuming department, a deceptively complicated pinstriped suit-and-tie number with grace notes in a pair of (de-branded) Converse high-tops and a big, swaggering coat. It looks really nice on-screen, and yet that precise niceness eludes a staggering amount of cosplayers and wannabes. Piper’s ensembles are more confident and mature, showing a lot of Rose’s growth from barely-a-teenager/hanger-on to in-it-for-life adult space-time traveller. The baggy orange spacesuit that has become a rite of passage for modern Doctors debuts here, too (Ed. note: Iconic, perfect, no notes. If Ncuti doesn’t wear it, something has gone very wrong with time).
As far as monsters go, Series 2 has a lot of fun. There’s not just the reimagining of the Cybermen – who have gone from ‘has surgery gone too far’ to ‘literally just a human brain transplanted into a robot soldier’, and in the process become thick, chunky fibreglass costumes – but a whole host of prosthetic-based beasties, from the cat-faced nuns of New Earth to the Absorbaloff, who was designed by a British child in a television competition and originally envisaged as the size of a bus. There’s the werewolf, who first appears as a kidnapped youth with jet-black eyes and winds up with a relatively-impressive CGI construction (and a genuinely very good werewolf design!), and the Wire, who impersonates legendary children’s TV host Annette Mills via actress Maureen Lipman and eats your face clean off your body.
I haven’t even mentioned the extremely weird penultimate episode, Fear Her, which is simultaneously about the 2012 Olympics (then six years away and very exciting) and a young girl trying to recover from heinous domestic abuse through the lens of alien-empowered art! It’s not good (Ed. note: Not good at all), but it bloody swings for the fences, so it gets points for trying (but it’s really, really not very good at all).
There’s an assortment of ‘firsts’ in this series – debuts for monsters or concepts that will become standard over the RTD run and beyond. The aforementioned Ood, described here as a race so ‘naturally’ inclined to servitude that without a ‘boss’ they will pine away and die, will come back several times (Ed. note: And make you cry). There’s Torchwood. There’s a reappearance by cameo character The Face of Boe that seeds the following series’ big arc. That one’s actually pretty interesting from a real-life perspective because it builds on details Davies initially wrote for a reference book relating to Series One! The new Cybermen will remain the design standard for a remarkable seven years, and the next two series’ Dalek stories (Ed. note: And beyond, a direct line can be traced to Matt Smith’s first encounter with the pepperpots!) will be about the fallout from Doomsday and its unusual Dalek characters, the elite Cult of Skaro (smarter, bolder, more cunning Daleks who have names).
Moffatwatch continues with The Girl in the Fireplace, which was extremely well-received at the time but does not, I think, age particularly well. It’s a really strong example of a story focused on ‘vibes’ over making any narrative sense, but the vibes aren’t enough to sustain the amount of heavy lifting the episode tries to do – or to explain the absolutely dunderheaded decision the Doctor makes at the end of the story. It’s also really interesting as a kind of test-bed for the first companion story arc during the Moffat run of Who, treading the same essential narrative beats, but in 45 minutes instead of a full series (Ed. note: Even I, a noted Moffathead, can’t fully go to bat for this one).
Oh, right, yes. The series ends with what’s probably the most infamous of the finale ‘hooks’ – you know, a little tidbit to make sure you come back at Christmas time. The Doctor tries (and fails) to tell the dimensionally adrift Rose that he loves her, and then – pow! He turns around and there’s a shell-shocked ginger woman in a wedding dress standing in the middle of the TARDIS.
That’s Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate, and she’s not happy, lads (Ed. note: Icon).
That scene’s also really interesting from a production perspective because it’s pretty much the last-ever time the TARDIS is shot in the moody, broody low-light conditions it’s been shot in for two years now. The jump between ‘looks’ from Doomsday to The Runaway Bride meant that the entire sequence needed to be reshot!
Series 2 ends up a very mixed bag of a series, and a lot of that is down to the tone and execution of individual stories and beats. It’s disarming and charming, but also a lot more camp, which can begin to grate by the back third and really starts to hurt the more dramatic beats. The show as a whole also begins to treat history as a theme park (Queen Victoria is practically a cartoon), which – to the more politically minded among us – can begin to feel a lot like an apologia, and that will really start to hurt the stories in the long run (Ed. note: Hi Churchill!). The programme finding its feet here means it isn’t pushing the envelope in the way the previous series did, and while there’s good, good material throughout, your tolerance for it will entirely depend on how compelling you find the central relationship, on how much wacky post-nut shenanigans you can endure.
Join us next week, as the Tenth Doctor enters his sad boy phase and one brilliant medical student (Ed. note: A perfect angel who deserves the world) gets caught in the crossfire as we discuss Series Three!
(Ed. note: Thanks to The Black Archive for the images used in this article. See you next week!)