Doctor Who: Series Four Retrospective

“Now and then, every once in a very long while—every day in a million days when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call—everybody lives.”

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Get in the Blue Box (Part the Fourth)

This one is an animal to define, for lots of reasons. The cliffsnotes are that because of innumerable real-life circumstances, Series Four is kinda-sorta a two-year series, but not really because the second year is a run of one-shot special episodes.

So what we’re gonna do is talk about the conventional series bit here, and later we’ll talk about the Specials.

All good? Good. Let’s dance.

SERIES FOUR (25th December 2005, 5th April – 5th July 2008)
EPs: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner, Phil Collinson
DOCTOR: Ten (David Tennant)
COMPANIONS [inhale]: Astrid Peth (actual factual Kylie Minogue, Voyage of the Damned) Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Martha Jones (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky The Doctor’s Daughter + The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End), Rose Tyler (Billie Piper via numerous cameos + Turn Left – The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End), Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End), Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End)

Doctor Who: Series Four
“You have no idea how funny this image is going to become.” / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

So we open on Voyage of the Damned, which in the tradition of Who Christmas specials is absolutely bonkers, up to and including casting Kylie Minogue (!) as one-shot companion Astrid Peth. The whole thing picks up where Series Three – or, alternatively, the nifty (if fanwanky) short Time Crash, where the Tenth and Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) banter at each other for five minutes – leaves off, with the prow of the Titanic piercing the walls of the TARDIS (Ed. note: This also started off a very sweet connection between Tennant and Davison. More on that later).

But it’s not the Titanic, it’s a Titanic. Specifically, a giant luxury space-cruiser run by Max Capricorn, a sleazy-looking fella who has plastered videos of himself all over the replica 1912 interiors. The Doctor sneaks on board in full tuxedo (though he’s still wearing his natty de-branded Converses) and quickly befriends the oddballs and misfits on the passenger manifesto, including husband-and-wife Morvin and Foon Van Hoff (Clive Rowe, Debbie Chazen), little red conker man Bannakaffalatta (perennial Who fixture Jimmy Vee), tragically misinformed tour guide Mr. Copper (Clive Swift), and wanderlusting cocktail waitress Astrid. Which is all well and good until the Captain (Geoffrey Palmer) deliberately smashes the ship into an asteroid.

Doctor Who: Series Four
PADAM PADAM / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

The ‘why’ of this ultimately turns out to be a convoluted stock-market manipulation scam by Capricorn (George Costigan), who has been reduced to a severed head on a big square robot body, which is bad for business because his home planet of Sto has #prejudices. His main agents are the sinister Heavenly Host (Paul Kasey), angelic-looking robot information desks that he’s turned killer. Astrid dies tragically (Ed. note: THEY KILLED KYLIE), the Doctor desperately tries to resurrect her, and Mr. Copper finds out he’s a millionaire by accident.

It’s all really lovely, even when it’s naff as hell (the Doctor riding to the top floor with a host of angels is, even for RTD, extremely on-the-nose). There’s been some discussion about whether Copper not getting a ride in the TARDIS is an example of the Doctor only choosing ‘the pretty ones’, but it’s fairly evident that Copper wouldn’t have taken him up if he’d offered – he’s already travelled as a salesman, and clearly wants to settle down. Minogue is excellent, if a little ill-defined, and all the other guest stars get great little standout moments.

Oh, and the Doctor stops the Titanic crashing into Buckingham Palace, which will be important later (Ed. note: You couldn’t have just clipped the Palace, Doc? As a treat?).

Doctor Who: Series Four
“I caught a fish that was this big!” / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

Moving onto the series proper, you get a middling opener – the supremely silly but ill-considered Partners in Crime, which reintroduces Donna to the Doctor and orbits a sinister weight-loss pill that creates little chubby baby aliens out of body fat – and then two absolute crackers in The Fires of Pompeii and Planet of the Ood (Ed. note: Bangers, both of them). With no need to establish a dynamic between Donna and the Doctor, these episodes get right into the fray with a heavy-duty story about ‘fixed points’ in time and an even heavier-duty story about what is ultimately industrial-scale slavery.

In Pompeii, the Doctor and Donna are forced to trigger the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius to prevent the invasion of the stony, lava-y Pyroviles (who have ‘lost’ their homeworld – keep an eye on that word!), and in Planet, they discover that the allegedly-docile, naturally-servile Ood are in fact being bred en-masse by a sinister corporation that also docks them of their second brain, which is held in the hand and replaced by the ‘translation orb’ that allows them to converse with human beings.

Doctor Who: Series Four
This, too, is an image that will become funny. / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

Both episodes also have some gnarly body horror going on, with a High Priestess turning into stone and Tim McInnerny (as the boss of Ood Operations) sloughing off his own face as he transforms into an Ood himself. This, alongside the adorable Adipose of Partners in Crime, sets up the recurring theme in the series of ‘people becoming something they’re not’.

Yes indeed, this is a series with a heavy focus on doppelgangers, transformations, pseudo-offsprings, and the like – from the aforementioned baby fat blobs to the symbiont parent-brain in Planet of the Ood to the cloned Martha Jones in the two-part story The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky and the Doctor’s force-grown daughter in The Doctor’s Daughter. A heavy focus is put on what responsibilities our heroes (or just as often, the villain of the week) may have towards their duplicates or spontaneously-generated children, which ultimately foreshadows the return of the ‘father’ of the Dalek race, Davros… And the extremely icky way he’s founded a new, ‘purer’ form of the species (Ed. note: Insert shameless plug of Rhi’s Dalek essay here).

Doctor Who: Series Four
“I am a man of constant sorrow / I’ve seen trouble all my days / I bid farewell to ol’ Kentucky / The place where I was born and raised” / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

The focus on responsibilities becomes extremely pronounced, too, in the prelude to the finale duo, Turn Left, and the finale episodes (The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End) themselves. As the previous series spent a great deal of time exploring inverse axioms of television’s beloved Doctor Who, here a great deal of time is spent exploring whether or not television’s beloved Doctor Who is all that great a guy or not. Certainly, he is morally upstanding and courageous – but in episodes like The Doctor’s Daughter or the effortlessly spooky Midnight, we begin to get an idea of how his grandstanding, his unwavering principles, and his staggering arrogance can be as alienating and disturbing as any monster best seen from behind the sofa.

In The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, Donna returns home for a visit, and it quickly transpires that the nefarious potato-like Sontarans (themselves a race of clones) have hijacked Earth’s craze for environmentally friendly vehicles to kickstart a terraforming programme, as (there it is again), their world has been ‘lost’. There’s an insufferable rich-and-brilliant kid that’s serving as their patsy, callback gags, and a lot of emphasis placed on how overbearing and awful Donna’s mother, Sylvia, is to her daughter and her own father, the unbearably brilliant Wilfred Mott, played by the unbearably brilliant and sadly deceased Bernard Cribbins (Ed. note: Icon. Will make you cry with just a look)

Doctor Who: Series Four
The new gimp suits got an interesting reception. / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

These aren’t a great pair of episodes, but they’re extremely useful in setting up the crux and core of Donna’s vast galloping self-esteem issues and provide a neat and nifty parallel to the aforementioned themes of parenthood, responsibility, and similar. Sylvia is a stark contrast to the previous mothers of Revival Who, in that she neither grows as a person nor has realistic or reasonable concerns informing her behaviour. She’s an absolute harridan, and that’s what she’s proud to be. And in seeing her suffocating, smothering, sneering behaviour towards Donna (and, again, her own father!) we can begin to understand how Donna – who is by every measure an exceptionally kind, compassionate, and considerate woman – has no belief in herself, and why she’s so eager to abandon her life on Earth to be the Doctor’s best mate for life (Ed. note: He just wants a mate, not to mate. A very important distinction).

And they bring Martha back into the fold for a spot, which is always a good thing (Ed. note: SHE).

“Hey, David. Am I a collectible, to you? Just wondering.” / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

Following the Sontaran two-parter is The Doctor’s Daughter, which opens on a contrivance dragging the Doctor, Donna, and Martha to a distant world in the future and is a straight-up banger (Ed. note: You’re goddamn right it is). The opening scenes have the Doctor plugged into a person-manufacturing machine in the middle of a warzone, and out pops the irrepressible Jenny, his daughter in every way that counts (Ed. note: Literally. She’s Peter Davison’s daughter and ended up marrying David Tennant a couple years later. They are an incredibly cute couple). Stakes are high – this war is between human beings and the fishy-faced Hath over ‘the Source’, which may or may not be ‘the Breath of God’ – and soon it transpires that what appears to be a long, protracted generational struggle has actually lasted one entire week, churning and burning through successive artificially-generated ‘generations’ of human and Hath.

Then along comes The Unicorn and the Wasp, which is very much ‘the silly one’ of the series, and (regrettably) written by Gareth Roberts (Ed. Note: Hiss. Booo. Fuck that guy), who has since become an open and vicious transphobe. Wasp concerns a visit to Agatha Christie and generally operates as a goofy pastiche of her detective stories, culminating in the reveal that a society hostess was knocked up by a space wasp some decades prior, and her abandoned offspring is out for revenge. It’s a harmless, fluffy episode with some excellent gag sequences, albeit one where the plot is threadbare and shallow. And again, there’s that thing about weird children… And a mention of bees, another recurring line in the series.

This Bento Box contains spoilers for the next ten years of the show. / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

Moffatwatch resumes with one of his lesser stories, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, which, while atmospheric and spooky as all hell (orbiting as it does the Vashta Nerada, shadows that eat you and drive your skeleton around), simultaneously has too many ideas and not enough plot to justify being two episodes long. Not only is it seeding the long-form myth arc of the enigmatic Professor River Song (Alex Kingston) – a woman who evidently knows the Doctor very intimately but who, from his perspective, he has never met (Ed. note: Another icon. More on her later) – but it’s juggling two discrete plotlines, one of which is only introduced in the second episode but which ultimately serves as a wheel-spinning exercise (although there are some excellent spooky beats scattered throughout).

It’s very prescient of what Moffat would go on to do on longer, larger scales during his first three years as showrunner, with a puzzle-box slow-drip story that can be solved about halfway through if the viewer is keeping track of the asynchronous clues, and it’s also got some hard-core fanwank involved (the key character ‘Doctor Moon’ was proposed as a far-future incarnation of the Doctor, a ‘mayfly’ iteration only present for one episode – and although this doesn’t remain in the story, the same motif will be repeated elsewhere in his run).

“Who farted?” / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

Library/Forest is followed by two of the out-and-out best pieces of writing the show has ever had (which also kick off a long, long chain of episodes written either solely or partly by Russel T. Davies) – Midnight and Turn Left. The former is a bottle episode, locking the Doctor up tight in a little tourist car with a gaggle of strangers, while the latter is the early culmination of Donna’s series-long arc and a bold reintroduction of the long-lost Rose Tyler, who makes a number of eerie cameos throughout the series until that point. 

Midnight is a harrowing little story about some incomprehensible bodyjacking, language-stealing parasite, but ultimately functions as a study of normal people when they are exposed to something frightening and disorienting. It’s a constantly rising shrill and haunting note, relentlessly ratcheting up the tension until it is abruptly released by the noble self-sacrifice of one of the one-off characters. Turn Left, meanwhile, explores (at first) what Donna’s life would have been like if she hadn’t taken up the job that led her to becoming a Runaway Bride, but rapidly escalates into an absolutely harrowing ‘What-If’ story. Nobody escapes in Smith and Jones… The Titanic smashes into Buckingham Palace (Ed. note: Yay!), causing a nuclear winter (Ed. note: Oh)… People die in droves during the events of Partners in Crime… And it only gets worse from there.

I can’t even put a funny caption here, this scene is so grim. / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

And then, of course – of course – we’re plunged into the events of the finale, which by Who standards is a star-studded extravaganza.

The essentials of the finale, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, are that the Daleks have nicked planet Earth (and all the other ‘lost’ planets mentioned throughout the series) to use it to power the ultimate in doomsday weapons, the Crucible, which emits an energy field that is corrosive to any and all matter. The goal? Total multiversal obliteration, leaving only a void where the Daleks will live. But their creator, Davros – played with brilliant lunatic energy by Julian Bleach – has a much more personal score to settle, working out of his prison in the Dalek’s basement to tear down the Doctor’s ego.

This is the beginning of a very long series of stories (many of them finales or mid-season finales) – by both RTD and Steven Moffat – which aim to dismantle the ‘legend’ of the Doctor and expose him as someone mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Davros’ plot is simple enough: he aims to ‘allow’ the Doctor’s companions to assemble in their own time with their own discrete plans to disable and disarm the Daleks, and so prove to the Doctor that while he professes to be a harmless, hands-off stranger he is in fact constantly armed – that he ‘grooms’ his friends and loved ones into weapons of war.

Billie Piper took control of her contract in a very direct fashion. / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

This is part of why I am firmly of the belief that the Tenth Doctor’s profound excesses – his tendency to grandstand, his flat anti-weapons stance, his swaggering braggadocio – are intentional flaws. This is the first climax in a series of climaxes that will see the Doctor humbled, brought low, and in many ways ‘reset’ from the towering superhero of space and time to a more traditional ‘wacky cosmic uncle’. Of course, in the process, the programme will also shed much of the high-concept religious and allegorical themes and begin to become something more of a metatextual commentary on itself.

In this way, Revival-era Doctor Who can be compared to that other immortal institution of British media: James Bond. Both are, in a totally distinct and discrete fashion, the method by which (as sentience is the universe observing itself) the remains of the British Empire observe itself, and both are party to a radical reinvention in the mid-2000’s that rapidly shifts gears from being deconstruction to reconstruction, transitioning from standalone statements to extremely internal works.

I won’t go any further into that right now, but I will establish here a running observation on how much the programme is about big-picture things, and how much it’s about itself. Journey’s End in particular is extremely insular, but largely focused on the Revival thus far. Subsequent stories and series will go much, much further into the thematic ouroboros.

“Roll up, roll up! Come witness the incredible oracular powers of Dalek Caan! Only a buck!” / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

The first half of the story ends on a truly bonkers cliffhanger, with the innumerable side characters all facing certain death and the Doctor about to regenerate from a glancing blow from a Dalek gunstick…

And then it gets wild. See, back in The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor’s freshly-regenerated hand was sliced off, and since then, Captain Jack Harkness kept it around. It passed into the Doctor’s possession during Utopia then swiftly became an essential part of the Master’s scheme in The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, allowing the Master to forcibly age the Doctor twice over. Here, the Doctor transfers the excess regenerative energy – that is, the energy that would’ve forced him to roll over to the Eleventh Doctor – into the hand, which subsequently ‘calls out’ to Donna and interacts with her biology, growing a second, spare Tenth Doctor (Ed. note: What a handy spare hand that was).

‘Our’ Tenth Doctor, meanwhile, is summarily dressed down by Davros and his oracular buddy, Cult of Skaro survivor Dalek Caan, who has gone totally bonkers because he penetrated the ‘time lock’ preventing outside interference in the legendary Time War. Even the spare Doctor (usually referred to as the ‘Metacrisis Doctor’ or ‘Tentoo’ by fans) isn’t enough to save the day…

Even Daleks have to watch the train timetables. / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

But Donna, who has absorbed the Doctor’s DNA as the half-human Metacrisis Doctor absorbed hers, is (thanks to an attack by Davros) suddenly able to perform outstanding feats of her own, and turns the tide. Indeed, this is broadly foreshadowed throughout the series, and soon enough, the Daleks are all exploding, Davros is hollering vague ominous threats, and then everything’s fine, with all the stolen planets returned to their rightful place and Earth being towed back to the solar system by the TARDIS (which, it turns out, is supposed to be piloted by six people).

But then, of course, it’s time for things to get sad. First comes the Doctor’s goodbye to Rose in a fascinating, emotionally-complex sequence where he still can’t bring himself to say he loves her – but the Metacrisis Doctor, who will live and die like a normal human, certainly can. And this is swiftly followed by the gut-wrenching reveal that Donna’s half-Time Lord state is killing her (a nice parallel to the Bad Wolf story of Series One, in that once more someone is dying of Knowing Too Much). The Doctor, in true Superman II fashion, blocks out all her memories of her time with him to spare her a grim fate, which of course undoes every single bit of growth she’s experienced across the run of the show (Ed. note: Paaaaain).

It’s… A lot. And it’s deeply tragic, of course, but also remarkably difficult to assess thematically and narratively. We’re left hoping, however vainly, that Sylvia will treat her daughter more kindly and that Wilf will be there to support her, but on the whole, it’s the most broadly tragic and despondent an ending a series of Revival Who will ever have, with nary a shred or glimmer of hope that perhaps Donna will be able to recover – because knowing anything about her life with the Doctor will doom her to die again.

“Sorry, y’all, I’ve got Shakespeare to act in.” / Doctor Who: Series Four (2008, BBC)

And so the Doctor departs, rain-soaked and sombre, as we end Series 4. Mercifully, the now-traditional “the Doctor sees something absurd and goes ‘what’ three times” stinger is nowhere to be found here. Instead, we’re left with only a short teaser for… The Next Doctor?

What the –

(Ed. note: Thanks to The Black Archive for the images used in this article. See you next week!)

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