Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get in the Blue Box (Part The Third)
Welcome, once again, to DOCTOR WHO – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get in the Blue Box, where I (Rhiannon Olivaw) sit down and go into the nooks, crannies, and other dark and spooky places of the long-running revival of the even-longer-running BBC sci-fi drama Doctor Who.
This week – Series Three! A personal favourite of mine (Ed. note: And mine!), and one that’s by equal measures under-loved and over-hated. What is probably the first concrete example of the revival dabbling in really long-form storytelling, definitely the first one where the cracks in the Tenth Doctor’s presentation as a happy-go-lucky dynamo start showing, and of course, there’s a new companion in the absolutely brilliant Martha Jones (Ed. note: She’s the best).
SERIES THREE (25th December 2006, 31 March – 30th June 2007)
EPs: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Phil Collinson
DOCTOR: Ten (David Tennant)
COMPANIONS: Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, Utopia – Last of the Time Lords)
As established the previous year, the series has a one-off Christmas special called The Runaway Bride, which introduces us to the booming voice and brash bombast of one Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), who will return to the show for a full series the following year. Bride is the campest the show has been to date, not entirely expertly mixing some very silly shenanigans (murderous robot Santa Clauses, exploding baubles, a motorway chase) with some strong emotional beats focused on the Doctor’s grief over the loss (but not death) of former companion Rose Tyler, which will become a core focus of the programme going forward (Ed. note: He’s a sad boy now). There’s a giant spider monster called the Empress of the Racnoss, and she flies around in a giant Christmas tree topper that shits lightning bolts, scheming to wake up the baby Racnoss buried at the Earth’s core. The Doctor fully commits to #genocide, intending to die in the process, but Donna snaps him out of it enough to drag him back to humanity (Ed. note: This will be important later).
This last beat will evolve into a recurring feature of the Tenth Doctor’s story moving forward. As mentioned last week, he is something of a moral hypocrite – prone to grandstanding and bellicose speechifying when someone else does something unforgivable, but fully capable of doing the exact same thing when he feels it’s justified. We will call this trend But When I Do It, It’s Cute, and in contrast to many viewers and critics, I think it’s fully intentional (Ed. note: The Time Lord Victorious doesn’t come out of nowhere, folks). Tennant’s Doctor is a loose but focused deconstruction of the broad public perception of what TV’s beloved Dr. Who is and does, devised perhaps by the adult fans making the show realising that pretty much every single Doctor previously has had moments of broad hypocrisy.
Anyway, the next time we see the Doctor, he’s passing himself off as an inpatient at Royal Hope Hospital, where he meets student doctor Martha Jones. The Judoon (a kind of space rhinoceros, also a kind of space beat cop) use backward rain to scoop the hospital up onto the actual Moon because Earth isn’t their jurisdiction but the Moon is neutral territory (Ed. note: A Judoon platoon upon the Moon, if you will). There’s a little old lady who’s actually some kind of space vampire and they want to put that bitch on ice.
Martha emerges fully formed at the outset, a hardworking and dedicated young lass put upon by her quintessentially ‘broken’ nuclear family, desperate for a reprieve and for some good old-fashioned acknowledgment. This is a woman who wants to feel seen, and as soon as she meets the Doctor in full charming affable swaggery form, she’s smitten down to her toes. It helps that he snogs her to futz with the Judoon’s DNA scans.
Anyway, when all is said and done and the day is saved, we’ve got a slightly moodier, broodier Tenth Doctor whisking the ever-so-smitten Martha off on ‘one trip’ as a kind of reward for good behaviour.
This does not work out for anyone involved.
The first six episodes of Series Three fundamentally cover that very long, very roundabout trip. We jump from Elizabethan England (where the Doctor is on full smug, smarmy mode and, regrettably, Harry Potter saves the universe) to the under-city floating motorway of New Earth – with just enough time to have the Face of Boe drop the myth-arc line “you are not alone” – then to Manhattan in the 1930s, where the Daleks are doing some naughty, naughty things with DNA, and then back to the London of 2008, where Professor Richard Lazarus is also doing naughty, naughty things with DNA.
This first half is largely a lighter, frothier blend of stories, where the stakes may be high, but the camp value is higher. Gags, japes, and silliness are frequent and serve to balance the tone rather effectively, which is absolutely essential given how dark some of the stories would be otherwise. Most notably, Gridlock – which covers the Doctor and Martha’s attempts to escape the underbelly of New New York (Ed. note: As seen previously) – is a particularly angry tale of the casual cruelty of the 1%, bordering on 2000AD tier meanness at points.
This is neatly balanced by a cavalcade of wacky drop-in characters, especially the delightful Brannigan (Ardal O’Hanlon), a jocular aviator-jacket-wearing Irish cat-man (and his wife, and their kittens), and his friends, the Cassini “sisters” (they’re wives). Gridlock also offers the single deepest cut of the series, with the looming threat beneath the stand-still motorway revealed to be the fucking Macra, who literally hadn’t appeared in Who since 1967 (Ed. note: Even at 9 years old, I screamed). Of course, in ‘67 they were calculating bastards who just so happened to be big crabs – here, they’re just big crabs. Really big crabs, though. Kaiju-sized crabs.
Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, the follow-up, is similarly tonally balanced between existential chats about the Daleks (Ed. note: Shameless plug of Rhi’s Dalek essay) and their purpose (and some discussion of Hoovervilles) and broad Broadway gags. The Cult of Skaro, introduced in the Series Two finale Doomsday, are down on their luck and trying to cause a quantum leap for Dalek-kind (Ed. note: Not the Bakula kind). It doesn’t pan out, but it gets as far as a ‘prototype’ in the squishy, oozy, head-tentacled hybrid between the philosopher-king Dalek Sec and nasty American pig Mr. Diagoras (Ed. note: By way of vore). Of note is that this two-part story does not make a goddamn lick of sense if you know anything about genetics. Like. Zero. Not a sausage.
Then we’re back in London, 2008, for The Lazarus Experiment, where the seeds of the metaplot really start getting sewn, and the show’s VFX budget is stretched to breaking point as Professor Richard Lazarus (Ed. note: Mark Gatiss, writer of Series One’s The Unquiet Dead and many future stories, making his first of four appearances in the show) hacks his DNA and accidentally awakens a parallel evolutionary path, turning him into a big silly were-scorpion thing. But much more importantly, Martha’s beloved smother – I mean, mother – is taken aside by sinister suits and warned about who the Doctor ‘really is’, courtesy of one Harold Saxon (Ed. note: I wonder what masterplan that guy is working on?).
And after all that, Martha’s on board full-time as a companion, and totally, achingly besotted with the Doctor, which is really the point of this first half. The Doctor, warts and all, is in full-blown mythmaking mode – vitally important when the three-part finale rolls around. Agyeman goes from strength to strength as the vital beating heart of Series Three, never so wide-eyed and aw-shucks as so many companions before her, but more confident, cannier, and more creative (Ed. note: As I said, she’s the best). If the Doctor wasn’t hung up on poor Rose, he’d be so very, very into her. Even her costuming is a testimony to her down-to-earth character, a sensible terracotta-coloured leather jacket, and everyday jeans, looking perfectly poppy next to Tennant’s sometimes-seen new all-blue suit (Ed. note: His best suit).
And a huge shout-out must be made to Adjoa Andoh as Francine ‘Mum’ Jones – the MVP of the series without question (Ed. note: Icon). A stark contrast to the eventual working-class warmth of Jackie Tyler, Francine is a sharp, challenging older black woman who does not trust the Doctor, his slick smile, and his devil-may-care approach to certain death. She certainly doesn’t trust him with her daughter, and there are so many rich, rich layers to that conflict that Andoh carries ably on her shoulders. There is a brittleness to Francine, a nuanced hurt that Black British actors are seldom afforded in tea-time appointment telly, and she absolutely nails it.
The back half of the series – the solo story 42, the two-part Human Nature/The Family of Blood, the iconic Blink, and the three-part finale Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords – take on a more elegiac, brooding tone and begin the work of establishing the Doctor as a truly mythopoetic figure. 42 (audaciously attempting a riff on 24 by being as close to ‘real-time’ as possible) gives Martha a glimpse into what it might be like to lose him altogether (Ed. note: This marks the first story by Chris Chibnall for the show, more on him later), and then she promptly does so when, to escape a predatory cosmic brood, he camouflages his mind, body and soul as a human being called John Smith and traps them in a boarding school in 1913.
Well, I say ‘trapped’. They can’t leave, because he’s deliberately forgotten everything about the TARDIS and his life as a Time Lord, hoping to stick out the time it’ll take for the ‘Family of Blood’ to starve to death without him. Of course, because the Doctor is both robustly arrogant and remarkably facile, he does not consider what living in 1913 will be like for Martha, who is forced to masquerade as his serving girl and is subject to some shocking racial abuse by his new and equally human paramour, Joan Redfern. Meanwhile, the Family begins possessing locals – including their presumptive leader, the genuinely batshit crazy ‘Son of Mine’ (Harry Lloyd) – and causing wanton mayhem to draw the currently-nonexistent Doctor out of ‘hiding’.
And it’s just so good! It’s so good (Ed. note: It’s very good). It’s an absolute tour-de-force on its own terms, and taking into account what purpose the story serves in the wider scheme of things – establishing that the Doctor’s mercy is what anyone else would call cruel and unusual punishment – it’s absolutely wild. Paul Cornell, who adapted these episodes from one of his licensed Who novels (also called Human Nature), only wrote three episodes (these and Father’s Day, of Series One), and they’re all bloody brilliant. Absolute lad. Lovely at conventions, too. Mensch.
Anyway, the two-parter also features an absolute gut-punch moment when the ‘Chameleon Arch’, the Magic Fob Watch that holds the Doctor’s irreducible essence, gives John Smith an abrupt vision of a long and happy human life with Joan (Ed. note: In turn leading to some of the best acting in Tennant’s extraordinary career) – and soon follows it with a second when Joan realises she does not care for the Doctor at all.
And then it’s Moffatwatch (Ed. note: My boy)! With his most iconic story of all, Blink! Which, to my delight, was adapted from the story he wrote in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual, “What I Did On My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow” – and it’s pretty much the exact same story, with the exact same core mechanic and even identically-named protagonists. But of course, there are baddies in this one, and what whopping great baddies they are. The infamous Weeping Angels – the first proper example of Moffat’s nifty habit of ‘what if [MUNDANE OBJECT/PHENOMENA] was aliens’ – burst onto the screen in all their (Ed. note: Nightmare inducing) immobile glory. Carefully constructed through judicious use of blocking and staging and absolutely tremendous makeup, these passive-aggressive hunter-killer machines look like stone statues and cannot move an inch when being observed, allowing for some absolutely killer jumpscares as hapless amateur journalist Sally Sparrow (Ed. note: Played by bloody Carey Mulligan!!!) is guided via old-ass graffiti and video messages secreted on DVD easter eggs to return the lost TARDIS to the Doctor and Martha, trapped in 1969.
And then –
Well, things get contentious.
First up is Utopia, which I’m pretty sure is still considered a very, very good story by and large (Ed. note: If you don’t, you’re wrong). And it is to be clear a very, very good story – a considered and careful contemplation of mankind’s place in the cosmos, the indomitable spirit of the human race, and of what it means to ‘be the Doctor’. See, Derek Jacobi plays Professor Yana, a kindly old genius largely responsible for the Utopia Project, a massive rocketship to carry the last remnants of Homo sapiens out of the dying universe. He’s made it out of food supplies and scrap metal. He’s a bonafide genius supreme, and he’s also faultlessly kind and self-sacrificing, even if he doesn’t notice in the slightest that his assistant, the bug-woman Chantho (who starts every sentence with ‘chan’ and ends them with ‘tho’), is hopelessly in love with him (Ed. note: Also, Captain Jack, now immortal, is back from his Torchwood S1 shenanigans, he goes back after this three-parter).
But of course, it’s a scam. A bamboozle, a con. Yana (You Are Not Alone) is in fact a constructed identity disguising the Doctor’s arch-enemy, the Master, and by trying to help him find himself, Martha sets him on the path to opening his magic fob watch and becoming himself again (Ed. note: Evil, manipulative, a fan of the Teletubbies, all the bad stuff). And he sets out immediately to ruin everything. He murders Chantho, sabotages the rocket, steals the telemetry, and shuts himself in the TARDIS (but not before Chantho manages to shoot him, causing his incredibly unsettling regeneration). And so it transpires in the opening moments of The Sound of Drums that the enigmatic Harold Saxon, who has just been elected Prime Minister, is actually much more evil than your common-or-garden Tory.
And again, the Saxon construct is a deliberate riff on what the Doctor ‘is’. He’s got a wife – he even calls her his ‘faithful companion’, and he’s got a screwdriver (laser, because he’s evil). And he’s got parochial paternalistic designs on the whole human race, by virtue of embarking on a cross-time paradox-laden extravaganza that rips a hole in the sky and allows the ‘Toclafane’, who are actually the degenerate cyborg descendants of the human race, to invade from the end of the universe. Davies threads all these needles remarkably, never choosing the wrong focus as the three-part story advances. Motifs are seeded and paid off with aplomb. It’s ingenious. “Here,” he says, “is everything wrong with the concept of Doctor Who. This is the naked colonialist bastard that hides in the heart of the franchise.”
And then he totally misfires with a resolution that, while carefully devised and thematically resonant, is howlingly silly. The Doctor (having spent the best part of the final episode forcibly aged into a cadaverous old man, and then aged further into a little wee goblin thing) wrests control of the Master’s hypnotic super-satellite network, ARCHANGEL, and transforms himself briefly into a faith-powered engine of sorcerous goodness. And it’s so, so silly. It’s not silly in the way you can respect, either. It’s torturous, the first example of Davies’ mapping Gnostic Christian symbology onto the series absolutely kneecapping it.
And it’s a bloody shame because outside of this one pivotal beat, Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords is an all-time banger, a genuinely tremendous piece of appointment television, using the plot device of a ‘Paradox Machine’ cannibalised from the TARDIS to allow the stakes to go to absurdly high levels (Earth’s population is decimated, Russia is unlivable, and so on and so forth) and undo them when the machine is deactivated, leaving only our protagonists – including Martha’s family, who have spent the year between Drums and Time Lords in indentured servitude – with any memory of the horror. It’s punchy, it’s powerful, and it goes to huge lengths to queer up (without anything specific being said or done) the Master/Doctor dynamic, with lots of pining looks and smutty dialogue (“I love it when you say my name”) and Byronic cliff-standing. John Simm, who plays the Saxon-Master, draws every possible ounce of angst and agony out of the character and suffuses it with a preening, sneering swagger, pantomiming not only an epochal evil but an archetypal horrible ex that every gay man in the audience has either had or been at least once.
Likewise, Tennant gets to act much harder and further than the role has allowed him thus far, imbuing the Doctor with a brittle and fragile dignity, which cracks like an egg when the Master wilfully dies out of spite and suddenly he’s pouring out all this heartache and pain and it’s so good. So, so good. And Agyeman comes at her material like a freight train, deftly demonstrating the world of difference between the Martha in Utopia and Drums and the Martha who carried the dying world on her shoulders for a year in Last of the Time Lords. Her departure, too, is elegant – she’s simply had enough of not being ‘good enough’ for the Doctor, and while she’s happy to keep in touch, she’s got better things to do than be his accessory, especially when being his accessory meant her family went through absolute hell (Ed. note: Like I said, she’s the best).
Series 3 is gold-standard Doctor Who. While there are weak spots, largely in the first half, every episode has something of note, something that you can mine for insight and import. As a whole, it’s largely about exploring the concept of ‘TV’s Beloved Icon Dr. Who’, and it does it with aplomb. Mark Gatiss’ Lazarus, the Family of Blood, Dalek Sec, and of course the Master himself – they’re all weird funhouse mirror distortions of the core version of the Doctor that lives in the head of every telly-watching Brit. There’s a militant consistency to the way the show, as it goes on under Davies, gets ever deeper into the cracks in the core messages and values it represents, a dedication to deconstruction that honestly begins to harm the programme by the end of his regime. It can’t commit to transforming into something else, so it begins to strain and buckle under the pressure of simultaneously being Doctor Who and a rigorous examination of why the concept of Doctor Who is acutely terrifying.
But more on that next week!
(Ed. note: Thanks to The Black Archive for the images used in this article. See you next week!)