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Doctor Who: Partners in Crime (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Partners in Crime originally aired in 2008.

Would you rather be on your own?

No. Actually, no. But the last time, with Martha, like I said, it, it got complicated. And that was all my fault. I just want a mate.

You just want to mate?

I just want a mate!

You’re not mating with me, sunshine!

A mate. I want a mate.

Well, just as well, because I’m not having any of that nonsense. I mean, you’re just a long streak of nothing. You know, alien nothing.

There we are, then. Okay.

– Donna and the Doctor sort out the ground rules

From the outset, Partners in Crime makes it clear that the fourth season of Doctor Who is probably going to be lighter going than the show’s third year. To be fair, it was heavily foreshadowed by a Christmas special that drew heavily from the work of Douglas Adams, whose influence is keenly felt across this entire season – right down to repeated references to the bees disappearing.

Casting Catherine Tate, best know for her work on The Catherine Tate show, as the season’s female companion was a bit of an indicator, but Partners in Crime makes it quite clear – playing more as an affectionate spoof of a classic Doctor Who run-around rather than something equal parts witty and terrifying.

Then again, given that the end of the third season featured the death of one tenth of the world’s population, the assassination of the President of the United States, the destruction of a companion’s life and the Doctor’s crushing realisation that he’s so lonely he’d retire to serving as the Master’s warden, one might argue that “lighter” was the only way to go.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

To be fair, one of the wonderful things about Doctor Who is that it never really loses its sense of humour, even in the face of horrible threats and consequences. There were certainly comedic elements to Davies’ other season-openers, like Smith and Jones, Rose and New Earth. However, Partners in Crime still feels decidedly lighter in tone. Part of this is the stakes. In Rose, we’re presented with an alien invasion, complete with murderous alien shop dummies. In Smith and Jones, a hospital is beamed to the moon and half the world is threatened with irradiation. New Earth features plague zombies.

In contrast, the stakes in Partners in Crime really are decidedly low. Sure, on guest character is killed off early in the story to ensure that there are some dramatic stakes. At the climax, as Miss Foster increases the power on her generic evil device, it seems like half-a-million lives are at stake in the greater London area. Of course, you could argue that those are fairly middling stakes for a show that will tease “the destruction! of reality! itself!” at the end of this year, but Partners in Crime seems to treat these threats as necessary plot elements rather than the core of the story.

Chewing out the fat...

Chewing out the fat…

After all, if the Doctor and Donna had not intervened, it seems quite likely that Miss Foster and the Adipose could have completed their plan with no loss of life – and with the population of Great Britain significantly healthier than they had been before. Of course, it seems likely that the Adipose would have killed Miss Foster anyway, but it’s hard to get too shuck up about her passing. Watching the adorable little monsters get sucked up into the space ship, even the Doctor himself concedes, “Actually, as a diet plan, it sort of works.”

Partners in Crime seems to relish its low stakes and its relatively light atmosphere. After all, the next two episodes are going to get pretty heavy, so there’s some comfort in being able to start the season with something that doesn’t place the Doctor in the middle of a massive moral crisis. The show seems to argue that this is good for the character – that the Doctor doesn’t always have to be facing the end of the world or massive psychological damage in order to be interesting.

"Hm, the stakes are barely registering on this doo-hickey..."

“Hm, the stakes are barely registering on this doo-hickey…”

From a storytelling perspective, that level of gloom can become depressing. From a character point of view, it’s nice to give Tennant something to chew on, but a large part of the appeal of the Doctor is the fact that he’s travelling the universe having fun; not wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder. As they watch the Adipose being drawn into the gigantic space ship, Donna asks, “What you going to do then? Blow them up?” The Doctor gently replies, “They’re just children. They can’t help where they come from.”

It makes a pretty dramatic reversal from their last encounter, where the Doctor was forced to commit genocide to prevent the children for the Racnoss from swarming out of the Earth’s core and devouring the planet. Of course, the situation is different, but it’s still offers the reunion a nice thematic resonance. Donna herself notes the shift in the Doctor’s attitudes, suggesting it’s a positive shift.

Together, they fight crime... and aliens...

Together, they fight crime… and aliens…

“Oh, that makes a change from last time,” she observes. “That Martha must’ve done you good.” The Doctor replies, “She did, yeah. Yeah.” It feels like a conscious attempt by the show to acknowledge Martha as a companion – even if it feels like too little, too late. It never felt like the show ever defined Martha as anything beyond “not!Rose”, and that the series spent far too much time defining her relative to an ideal rather than exploring her as a character on her own merits.

Even after Martha left, the show seemed to have trouble figuring out what to do with her. In The Sontaran Stratagem, it’s revealed that she’s gone on to find a life beyond the Doctor, and The Doctor’s Daughter suggests that she has moved past the point where she wants to be traveling around the universe on a perpetual gap year. However, The End of Time, Part II quickly decides to write her out of the show by marrying her off to another character that it never really knew what to do with outside their relationship to Rose.

I'm on board with this...

I’m on board with this…

It’s worth talking about Donna a bit, as the primary purpose of Partners in Crime is to team the characters up together. The plot itself – as with so many of the show’s season-opening episodes – is a bit of an after-thought. It’s worth noting from the outset that Donna is a markedly different character from any of the other companions who have appeared on the revived show to this point.

Most obviously, Donna is significantly older than Martha or Rose, marking the first point that the new show has really moved beyond the “attractive young lady” companion archetype that has been part of the show since the the eighties. Sure, there have been male characters who have gone on trips in the TARDIS since the show began. Adam, Captain Jack and Mickey can all plausibly claim to have been male companions.

The cutest invasion ever...

The cutest invasion ever…

However, none of these male companions have lasted more than five consecutive episodes, and John Barrowman was the only one to make it to the title credits, as part of a single story where he didn’t ride in the TARDIS until after the threat had been resolved. So Donna feels very much outside the boundaries of what the new series has defined as a companion, an archetype inherited from the John Nathan Turner era of the classic show.

Which is interesting, because I’d argue the companion that Donna most closely resembles is the companion who was on the show right before the John Nathan Turner era. In terms of her role in the show, Donna feels like the most assertive and competent companion to ride in the TARDIS since Romana, who has the distinction of being the only Time Lord to appear as the Doctor’s companion.

The sky at night...

The sky at night…

Not coincidentally, Romana was an essential ingredient of the Graham Williams and Douglas Adams era of the show, the period that the fourth season seems to be consciously trying to evoke. Like Romana, Donna isn’t afraid to stand up to the Doctor. She isn’t afraid to call him out on his nonsense. She’s not subordinate to him, and the fourth season very much pushes the Doctor and Donna as equals. That’s apparent even here, where the first half of the episode is split almost evenly between the pair.

It’s something that is a recurring motif during the year. The Ood can’t distinguish between the pair (“the DoctorDonna”), they are both named as “household gods” in The Fires of Pompeii and the season ends with a literal merging of the two into one form with David Tennant’s mannerisms in Catherine Tate’s body. The two are equals and – as the name implies – partners. The show has a recurring gag where the pair are misidentified as a married couple, a more equal relationship than “young woman pines for oblivious man.”

A mad man with two sonic devices...

A mad man with two sonic devices…

Indeed, the show stresses the platonic nature of their relationship from the start, and Davies shrewdly decides to downplay the sexual chemistry between the Doctor and Donna. “I just want a mate!” the Doctor declares. Donna responds, “You’re not mating with me, sunshine!” When the Doctor, immodestly, points out that Martha had a crush on him, Donna rips into him, “Mad Martha, that one. Blind Martha. Charity Martha.” The Doctor and Donna are presented as two good friends, one of whom happens to be male and one of whom happens to be female.

This could be seen as somewhat ageist – the oldest, least conventionally attractive female companion is the only one who doesn’t get sexual chemistry with the lead? – but, after three seasons of unresolved sexual tension, it feels like a blessing. The fact that Davies is stressing this up-front is a good thing. It’s nice to know that Donna won’t be blinded by the fact that David Tennant is a strikingly handsome man, and that she won’t start dreaming of getting a mortgage with him, or feeling like a rebound.

What.

What.

Of course, part of the reason this works is because Tate and Tennant have terrific timing. Partners in Crime is a mission statement for the fourth season, promising something a bit lighter in tone than the third season, which could get a bit a bit dark in places. (Notably, 42 – the season’s “fun crazy nonsense run-around” episode featured the Doctor screaming as he was eaten from the inside out.) A lot of Partners in Crime is devoted to the duo’s interactions.

Timing is an essential ingredient of comedy, and so it’s no coincidence that Partners in Crime begins as a comedy of errors, with the Doctor and Donna repeatedly missing one another – played out to absurd degrees during the “head above the cubicles” scene. Tate has fine comic timing, and Davies knew this before he recruited her for the show. However, one of the most interesting aspects of Tate’s performance is the fact that she’s actually a pretty incredible dramatic actress. Not only can her comic timing match Tennant’s, she can hold the screen against him, too.

Foster care...

Foster care…

And Partners in Crime largely works because it treats Donna as a real person. She developed into a real character over the course of The Runaway Bride, growing from what initially appeared to be a one-note sketch character. It became quite clear at the climax of The Runaway Bride that Donna was more than just a punchline – more than just the broad outline of a joke about middle-class self-obsessed out-of-touch people. Partners in Crime takes that further.

Davies has a knack for quickly sketching the outlines of his companions. From each of the episodes introducing new long-term travelling companions, the viewer instantly gets a sense of what “the real world” looks like to these people, and why the Doctor represents such a dramatic break from all that. Sylvia and Wilf are only defined in the broadest of terms, but they still give us a context for Donna, a sense of who she is and where she comes from.

Attack of the blobs...

Attack of the blobs…

Of course, there’s a sense that the show is growing increasing comfortable with itself now. In the first season, Davies introduced us to the world of the Doctor through the character of Rose. Rose had her world – well, her job – literally destroyed by the Doctor. Everything went upside down, as she embraced a way of looking at the world unlike what she’d ever seen before. Even when Martha was introduced in the third season, the show made an effort to use her to bring the audience up to speed.

With the fourth season, it seems like the series is taking its popular appeal for granted. Everybody knows who Doctor Who is. Davies has spent the past three years bringing back the Daleks and the Cybermen and the Master, all important pieces of the mythos. Barring the occasional returning foe like the Macra, the show has generally referenced the top-drawer Doctor Who aliens and creatures. The fourth season sees Davies dropping references to the classic series left, right and centre.

Up to his neck in continuity...

Up to his neck in continuity…

Here, the Doctor references “cat people”, an obvious shout-out to Survival, the last serial of the classic show. In The Fires of Pompeii, he’ll make a brief mention of the First Doctor’s trip to Rome in The Romans. In Planet of the Ood, he’ll confirm a piece of fanon linking the Ood to the creatures from the first season episode The Sensorites. The season’s arc is built around the red herring of “the Medusa Cascade”, a place the Doctor visited in his earliest incarnation.

With the fourth season, Doctor Who feels comfortable enough with itself that it can bring back characters like Davros as Davies’ absolute “favourite monster ever” without worrying that he might “dominate” the Daleks. The season’s first two parter provides Davies with the excuse he’s been waiting for to resurrect the Sontarans, aliens who look like giant militant potatoes. Doctor Who has reached the point where it can take for granted that people know what Doctor Who is and that they are tuning in to celebrate it’s Doctor-Who-iness.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

Naturally, that extends to the revived show as well. According to The Writer’s Tale, The Stolen Earth‘s visit to the Shadow  was supposed to feature a return of many of the iconic aliens created for the new series:

Plus, a futuristic space station complex where lots of alien races are gathering for a conference. CGI: Bane, Krillitanes, Gelth, Isolus, everything we’ve got in the computer.

Prosthetics: Judoon, Slitheen, the Graske, the Moxx of Balhoon, Sisters of the Wicker Place Mat, plus a new female alien, a wise old counsellor, head of the space conference.

Even if reality tempered that attempt at self-celebration, Journey’s End does represent a gigantic self-congratulatory party with invitations dispatched to virtually every character linked to the show or its spin-offs over the past four years.

Tennant seems to be a fan of this approach...

Tennant seems to be a fan of this approach…

Bringing back Donna plays into this, casting her as a returning companion. (As, incidentally, does building an entire episode around the Ood.) Donna isn’t a newcomer to the world of the Doctor. She doesn’t need the Doctor to show her that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. She’s not swept up off her feet by chance. She actively goes hunting for the role of companion, seeking out the Doctor in the hopes of finding him again and joining him on his adventures.

She’s no longer the oblivious bridezilla we met in The Runaway Bride. She’s no longer blind to Cybermen or Daleks. Her time with the Doctor, however brief, has changed her. Like Sarah Jane in School Reunion, her time with the Doctor has made her better – it has allowed her to become an adventuring hero in her own story. She is looking for the Doctor, but she’s not defined by him – her investigations into Adipose Industries aren’t just showing up and waiting to catch the Tenth Doctor. Instead, she’s asking the right questions and following her own leads.

Adi-posing a valid question...

Adi-posing a valid question…

The Doctor has broadened her horizons. He has shown her new possibilities. “Because the thing is, Doctor, I believe it all now. You opened my eyes. All those amazing things out there, I believe them all.” When the Master sanctimoniously described the Doctor as “the man who makes people better” in The Sound of Drums, he was spot-on. Davies is quite critical of how the Doctor deals with society as a whole – as evidenced by episodes like Bad Wolf or The Sound of Drums – but he’s always optimistic about what the Doctor means to his companions.

Donna seems to approach the Doctor from a stronger position than Rose or Martha. Unlike Rose, Donna doesn’t see a handsome man with a key to a time-machine who makes her “special” by association. Unlike Martha, Donna doesn’t treat adventuring the Doctor as some sort of surreal gap year. After all, travelling with the Doctor is – as she points out – markedly different from “just travelling.” Recalling her failed attempts to recapture the experience, Donna explains, “I did try. I went to Egypt. I was going to go barefoot and everything. And then it’s all bus trips and guidebooks and don’t drink the water, and two weeks later you’re back home. It’s nothing like being with you.”

He;s happy. The universe will correct this.

He’s happy. The universe will correct this.

To Davies, travelling with the Doctor is about more than meeting historical celebrities or visiting far-off worlds. It’s about adopting a whole different philosophy of life. It’s something that tends to get obscured with Rose and Martha. Rose gets a wonderful speech about “a better way of living your life” in The Parting of the Ways, but she’s so entitled by the second season that a lot of the magic is gone. Martha is too busy being defined as “not!Rose” and being put through various forms of hell to appreciate what the tip means.

As such, Donna seems to be the only companion of the Davies era who seems to really appreciate the weight of travelling with the Doctor, and who is most dramatically improved by it – the one who really embraces the philosophical challenges and the myriad opportunities afforded by the trip. Which, rather naturally, makes the irony in Journey’s End seem especially bitter. But I suppose that we’ll come to that in time.

Hanging this around Miss Foster's neck...

Hanging this around Miss Foster’s neck…

The only other thing worth noting about Partners in Crime is the fact that it seems to have a decidedly American flavour. The show is build around the idea of aliens harvesting human fat. “Oh, it’s a beautifully fat country,” Miss Foster teases at one point. “And believe me, I’ve travelled a long way to find obesity on this scale.” This seems a bit strange, given that the World Health Organisation named the United States as the most obese country in the Anglosphere in 2007, the year before the show aired.

More than that, though, Partners in Crime seems to borrow quite a lot of American imagery. Miss Foster is frequently accompanied by two machine-gun wielding private security contractors, who at one point are so eager to discharge their weapons that they blow open a door rather than wait to open it. Given that the United Kingdom has some of the “toughest gun control laws in the world”, this imagery is quite striking for a British family television show. It feels much more in keeping with American television, where the use of those sorts of weapons is much more common.

Wave goodbye to fat...

Wave goodbye to fat…

(That said, it’s clear that Davies is playing around with the trope a little – the guns are comically over-sized and also completely useless. Miss Foster poses more of a risk to the Doctor with her sonic pen than her two hired guns can with their semi-automatic rifles. Along with the door-opening example, and the general tone of the episode, it’s quite clear that Davies is having some fun. Still, the imagery is quite striking when considered alongside the other American-isms of Partners in Crime.)

Indeed, much of the imagery from Partners in Crime is drawn from American pop culture. The Adipose space ship over London does destroy any British landmarks. Instead, it seems designed to evoke the craft from Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind, with bright lights shining out of the bottom. The scenes of the ship arriving over London seem designed to evoke Independence Day, an iconic nineties blockbuster. The show’s primary setting isn’t a council estate or a British hospital, it’s a massive maze-like office complex. It seems like Partners in Crime is drawing less from the quirky Britishness we associate with the show and more from the other side of the Atlantic.

At least she packed...

At least she packed…

It’s worth noting that the fourth season was the point at which the show began to really “break” in America. The Voyage of the Damned aired on the Sci-Fi Channel to the highest ratings since Rose. The season only climbed from there, ending with “double digit growth” over the third season. The show would only tighten its grip on American audiences over the next couple of years. Waters of Mars would give BBC America its highest ratings to date. 2009 would see the first of the show’s truly high-profile (now annual) visits to Comic Con. It had been a presence before, but now it became a big deal.

Doctor Who was on the verge of breaking America, and you can see Davies making a conscious effort during the fourth season. The Sound of Drums had unceremoniously killed off the President of the United States without bothering to conveniently retcon it, but this season seems a lot friendlier towards America. New York is a major part of The Stolen Earth, even if Davies did consider destroying it – according to The Writer’s Tale.

An uplifting ending...

An uplifting ending…

Partners in Crime is the start of the fourth season. It’s also the start of what is probably Davies’ most consistent season, and the point at which the show’s popularity truly exploded – both within Britain and beyond. It’s not necessarily the strongest opening episode, but it lays a lot of the necessary groundwork with remarkable grace and speed. It lacks the appealing quirkiness of Smith and Jones, but it’s clearly an attempt to herald a bold new direction for the franchise.

You might be interested in our other reviews from David Tennant’s third season of Doctor Who:

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6 Responses

  1. seems interesting. I will probably watch it 😉 Thanks!

  2. I watched “Partners in Crime” once, the day it first aired, and dismissed it, I think, as “penguin-shaped blobs of fat waving at the camera”. I am impressed with the depth you found, especially as it relates to the previous season and the season to come, and enjoyed the contrasts you made with Donna against Martha. Will look forward to watching this one again!

    • I liked it for what it was. The third season was very grim. I liked it a lot on first watch, but I suspect that it was just that I was in the right place at the right time for that. On rewatch, I find the third season a bit heavy. (I also don’t really like the strange sense of entitlement that Rose and the Doctor have during the second season.) I think the fourth season balances lightness and darkness a lot better. Partners in Crime is incredibly light, but it’s followed by two pretty bleak hours of television. The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky are downright goofy at times, with no sense of threat despite the scale, but they play well when weighed against the darkness of Midnight and Turn Left.

      • One deficiency I’ve found in my knowledge of the New Series is that I’ve never binge-watched an entire season, so I lose out on a lot of the interplay between, and recurring themes of, episodes in a given season (my own re-watch is currently in Season 3… of the classic series, or what’s left of Season 3). I have not even seen a lot of these episodes since 2008, come to think of it. In some sense I am dreading having to revisit The Doctor’s Daughter and the Library two-parter… so i’m hoping that your posts will help me gain a new appreciation for these episodes!

      • I think the revived series hangs together a lot better watched in series blocks, although it makes the structural problems with the second season a lot more obvious – what, Rose was supposed to leave, but then she wasn’t and we had to cobble together the entire last third of the season? I think it really helps the third season, where at least the awful deus ex machina is foreshadowed as the entire theme of The Shakespeare Code, for example. But I think the fourth and fifth seasons really work a lot better watched that way. (Haven’t done the sixth and seventh yet, but hope to over the coming weeks.)

        I quite like the Library two-parter, despite the fact it’s Moffat’s weakest script of the Davies era and it has some… troublesome gender undercurrents. It helps that I actually like River Song as a character, though. The Doctor’s Daughter is the (easily) worst story of the season, but you get the sense it’s an attempt to do a Williams- or early Nathan-Turner-era sci-fi story without the space necessary. I suspect it would have been better to scrap the Sontaran two-parter (which is the best first two-parter of the Davies era by virtue of not being crap, and that’s it’s half-decent is a bonus), make The Doctor’s Daughter a two-parter and come up with another single-episode story to fill the gap between the two-parter and The Unicorn and the Wasp.

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