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Doctor Who: The Poison Sky (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.

The Poison Sky originally aired in 2008.

They’ve taken it. I’m stuck on Earth like, like an ordinary person. Like a human. How rubbish is that? Sorry, no offense, but come on.

– take that, Jon Pertwee!

Like The Sontaran Stratagem before it, The Poison Sky is pretty effective at accomplishing what it sets out to do. The first two-parter was always a troubled part of the Davies era, and so it feels strangely appropriate that the production team should manage to nail it on the fourth and final go-round. The Poison Sky isn’t the best episode of the show’s superlative fourth season, but neither it nor The Sontaran Stratagem are the worst, either. Instead, it’s a solidly entertaining feature-length adventure featuring the return of various old favourites from the classic show (U.N.I.T.! Sontarans!) and the revived series (Martha! the Valiant!).

It is goofy, silly, and fluffy, but it’s entertaining fluff.

His finger on the button...

His finger on the button…

The Sontarans are militant potatoes, an inherently absurd bunch of villains. They arguably never really worked on classic Doctor Who under the pen of any writer other than their creator Robert Holmes, so the fact that The Poison Sky seems to use these aliens remarkably well is a testament to just how well-honed a machine the revival has become. The fact that the series doesn’t try to reinvent them (or even to scale up the threat posed by them) is a testament to how comfortable the revived series seems to be with the classic television show.

In many ways, The Poison Sky is a story about redeeming various parts of Davies’ Doctor Who that never quite gelled over the previous three years. There’s a celebratory feel to the fourth season of Davies’ Doctor Who. There’s a sense that the production team are very proud of what they’ve spent three years building and defining, and deservedly so. In a short three years, we’ve fully rotated the cast, reintroduced the mythology, resurrected the Daleks and the Cybermen and the Master. We’ve even visited Gallifrey.

Hard-wired...

Hard-wired…

Davies has also turned Doctor Who into a television highlight – to the point where the show was garnering incredible ratings, high Appreciation Index scores, selling on home media like hot cakes and just about to break in the United States. “The Doctor Who Christmas Special” was – at this point in the show’s run – already as much a tradition as the annual specials of East Enders or Coronation Street, and scores very highly.

So, after spending all that time doing the work necessary to get a show up and running, the production team can finally cut loose. There’s a sense in the fourth season that Davies and his team know just what a spectacular job they’ve done, and that they’re basking in the glory just a little bit. After all, the season ends with a massive tribute to the Davies’ era in Journey’s End, which is arguably more of a victory lap than The End of Time, Part II. (It helps that it has a lot fewer problems.)

All fired up...

All fired up…

And so The Poison Sky feels like it’s taking the opportunity to smooth out a few of the rough edges left over from Davies’ first three seasons. Most obviously, it introduces the Sontarans to the revived series, and in a manner that feels remarkably true to the original show. The Sontarans get a redesign, of course, but there’s no large-scale re-conceptualising like Davies did with the Daleks, the Cybermen or the Master. The Sontarans pretty much come as they are.

Notably, it’s the first story of the revived show to present U.N.I.T. as something resembling a competent military organisation. These seem like the kind of people who you could imagine making a half-decent show of protecting the planet while the Doctor is gallivanting around the universe. Rather than a footnote or an in-joke, this seems like the point at which U.N.I.T. really get their due – so their major involvement in later episodes like Turn Left and Planet of the Dead doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere.

On screen...

On screen…

More than that, though, The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky almost seem like an attempt to redeem the opening two-parter, often the most obvious structural problem with Davies’ seasons. Indeed, it was so troublesome that the biggest change Steven Moffat made in his first year as show-runner was to swap the two-parters around, pushing the scary high-concept two-parter to the start of the season (with The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone) and moving the “toyetic” classic monster two-parter towards the end of the year (The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood).

So The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky represent one last chance for the production team to “get it right.” And that they do. They scale back the weight on the two-parter by allowing the Sontarans to be treated like a joke, and they ensure that the episode’s emotional plotlines never overwhelm it. The other opening two-parters seem too packed for their own good, with ideas squeezing one another out and ending up under-cooked or poorly-thought-out as a result. The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky are measured much more skilfully, the ideas fit just right.

Bigger on the inside...

Bigger on the inside…

It’s also worth noting that the episode also redeems Helen Raynor. Raynor has been a script editor for the revived show, and the generally high quality speaks volumes of her skill. However, she was assigned to write Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks at the last minute, after Steven Moffat pulled out. That sounds like a no-win situation, no matter how you cut. The episodes were far from great, but for reasons that were well outside Raynor’s control.

The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky allows Raynor another shot at writing a bombastic two-part adventure, and offers proof of her abilities as a writer. It’s vindication for Raynor, who just had a massive amount of misfortune the last time around. Affording her a second shot at the first two-parter of the year demonstrates Davies’ faith in Raynor as a writer, but also how comfortable the show seems to be at this point in time. The series is in a space where it can comfortably gamble on affording a writer a “do-over” after striking out on their first two-parter.

Fun is key here...

Fun is key here…

Indeed, it’s remarkable how much of The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky sees Raynor using the same basic ingredients and story elements as her much-derided earlier two-parter. Both stories feature recognisable monsters using genetic engineering and sinister experiments to help them conquer the world. Raynor even throws in elements of the Doctor’s strange death wish, something that the show only ever seemed to tease rather than embracing head-on.

The elements here work a lot better. The Sontarans don’t come with the same weight of expectation of the Daleks, and the genetic experimentation is built into their concept a lot more readily than it is with the Daleks – a species defined by their hatred of all that is different. Even the Tenth Doctor’s attempt at self-sacrifice feels a lot more in-character here, sparing us a histronic breakdown for a solid justification.

Staal good, baby!

Staal good, baby!

“I’ve got to give them a choice,” he explains, which is much more heroic than begging the Daleks to kill you first so you don’t get to see them exterminate the entire planet. It helps that it plays to Tennant’s strengths as an actor – it’s a big moment that he underplays, standing in marked contrast to his more extroverted antics. His attempted suicide-by-Dalek in Evolution of the Daleks was a loud moment in a sea of loud moments.

It helps that “I’ve got to give them a choice” is the most Doctor-ish explanation for that scene possible, and demonstrates that the Tenth Doctor – despite his arrogance and hubris – is a hero. We’ve come a long way from “no second chances”, and I think that the show is the better for it. The Poison Sky cleverly decides not to milk the Doctor’s suicidal visit to the Sontaran ship. Like a lot of the rest of the two-parter, there’s no strained sense of scale here. It’ll all be resolved neatly, and the episodes respect the viewer enough not to pretend that it won’t be.

The Doctor doesn't like guns...

The Doctor doesn’t like guns…

Indeed, The Poison Sky reveals that the Doctor has always been ahead of the Sontarans and has always known about their mole inside U.N.I.T. Sure, he’s a little stressed over sending Donna inside the Sontaran ship, but the episode never really treats the Sontarans as truly large-scale Dalek-or-Cyberman-level threats. For once, there’s an alien race that can be stopped by “five rounds rapid.” Their armour seems to do them little good when U.N.I.T. retakes the factory, and it’s worth remarking how incredibly crap their internal security is. Apparently Sontaran doors are locked so they can only be opened with three fingers. Any three fingers. A simple lock-and-key mechanism would have foiled the Doctor and Donna there.

Quite a lot about The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky feels comfortable and almost easy – as if the team are a bit more relaxed going into this than they were going into any of the other two-part monster stories. It feels well-earned, with Doctor Who quite comfortable in its position as one of the most influential and well-loved shows on British television. All the really hard work has been done, and Davies and his team have assured the revived series a long future, so there’s a bit of breathing room a bit less pressure. And this two-part adventure really benefits from that.

On the march...

On the march…

At the same time, this energy and enthusiasm is tempered by a wry self-awareness. The biggest problem with the show’s second season was the sense of entitlement felt by Rose and the Doctor, as Davies repeatedly reinforced the idea that they were the very centre of the universe. There were occasional moments of self-awareness, but the two seemed so self-satisfied and smug that it was almost a pleasure to see Rose depart at the end of the second season.

The fourth season doesn’t make that mistake. There’s a conscious undercurrent building towards the Doctor’s fatal error in The Waters of Mars, as Davies builds off his characterisation of the Tenth Doctor to suggest that the character is fatally flawed. His arrogance and self-satisfaction represent aren’t virtues. He can be brilliant and witty and honest and sincere, but he can also be selfish and short-sighted and hypocritical and misguided.

Things are about to heat up here...

Things are about to heat up here…

To be fair, Davies has been hinting this from at least the start of the third season. The Doctor’s treatment of Martha was clearly never intended to endear him to anyone, and the Master is able to rise to power because the Doctor thought he knew better than Harriet Jones. The fact that he refuses to allow humanity any say in the punishment of the Master in The Last of the Time Lords speaks volumes about his self-centredness. However, Davies really emphasises this during the fourth season.

For one thing, the show gives us a companion who exists to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Doctor, rather than following him around in awe. Donna is loud and bombastic, but she’s also perfectly willing to call the Doctor out on his nonsense. It’s Donna who convinces him to save someone in The Fires of Pompeii. It’s Donna who pushes him to accept Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter. In Turn Left, it’s revealed that Donna also saved him in The Runaway Bride. Meanwhile, Midnight suggests that the Doctor probably shouldn’t be allowed out on his own.

A Valiant effort...

A Valiant effort…

Even here, in the fluffy blockbuster two-parter, the show takes care to criticise the Doctor’s conduct. He’s not the idealised hero riding to the rescue, as much as he might like to be. He repeatedly stresses how uncomfortable he is around firearms, but he still needs U.N.I.T. (and their guns) to help him re-take the factory. After all, for all the Doctor protests about U.N.I.T.’s trigger-happy policies, the show draws attention to the fact that the Doctor has a habit of working with them. In fact, he’s still on the books.

Colonel Mace was presented as something of a stuffy military archetype in The Sontaran Stratagem, but The Poison Sky is quick to suggest that he’s perfectly capable of handling himself. Mace gets two crowning moments in The Poison Sky. One involves the use of his fire-arm to put down a murderous psychopathic alien soldier, a moment executed without a hint of irony – suggesting that Mace’s use of violence in that circumstance was far more justifiable than the Doctor would concede.

Establishing an atmosphere...

Establishing an atmosphere…

Mace’s second moment comes when he effectively tells the Doctor to get stuffed. As the Doctor is trying to micro-manage the conversation, Mace cuts across him. “Thank you, Doctor. Thank you for your lack of faith. But this time, I’m not listening.” He then reveals his own military strategy, which involves the clever use of the Valiant and even impresses the Doctor himself. “Whoa, that’s brilliant.” For all the Doctor moans about Mace, the episode makes it clear that the Doctor is in the wrong here. He’s being pig-headed and short-sighted and not at all cooperative or helpful.

A quick side note on the Valiant, which first appeared in The Sound of Drums and reappears here: I love that Davies has essentially give U.N.I.T. their own version of the S.H.I.E.L.D. hellicarrier, long before The Avengers made it a piece of popular culture the masses would recognise. Davies draws heavily on comic books in his work on the show – his sci-fi satire seems to be influenced by 2000 A.D. and the relationship between the Doctor and the Master seems to draw from various charged comic book dynamics – Batman and the Joker, Luthor and Superman.

Masking his enthusiasm...

Masking his enthusiasm…

Another quick side-note: I like how Davies seems to be acknowledging the contributions made by Moffat to the show in his final year, recognising the work of the heir apparent. The opening scene of The Fires of Pompeii climaxes in a shout-out to Moffat’s first proper (non-spoof) Doctor Who script, The Empty Child. Here, the Doctor continues to express his fondness for the work of Steven Moffat. While goofing around and refusing to be helpful, the Doctor puts on a gas mask and asks “are you my mummy?”

The Doctor comes in for a fair amount of justified criticism here. He seems to be offended by the very existence of U.N.I.T., but remains an employee – even if only technically. He protests the use of fire arms, but he needs an army to get back into the factory so he can save Martha. He presumes to speak for Earth, and to make decisions on its behalf, despite refusing to keep Mace up-to-date on his plans and gambits.

Live feed...

Live feed…

“You’re not authorised to speak on behalf of the Earth,” Mace protests quite rightly, considering that he’s talking to a man who routinely disappears into time and space when stuff like Children of Earth happens. “I’ve got that authority,” the Doctor smugly responds. “I earned that a long time ago.” He has, of course, saved the planet countless times – but there’s something quite unsettling about how keen he is to assert that authority.

Indeed, The Poison Sky even finds time to foreshadow some of the Doctor’s pending character arc, which lends the episode’s human villain a bit more depth than he might otherwise have. Luke Rattigan is a fairly two-dimensional stereotypical television boy genius. He’s selfish, disconnected, embittered, petty, jealous. It’s a character type the show has done countless times in its decades-long history.

The whole universe at her doorstep...

The whole universe at her doorstep…

However, there’s shades of something a bit deeper here, as Rattigan is portrayed as a lonely genius who has grown apart from humanity. “I’m cleverer then you,” he protests in a near-nervous breakdown. “I’m cleverer then everyone, do you hear me? I’m clever!” There’s a sense of lonely entitlement to his actions, as the Doctor notes, “it’s been a long time since anyone said no to you, hasn’t it?”

Rattigan is a mirror to the Doctor, and seems to foreshadow the problems that occur if the Doctor is left alone for too long. All that intelligence turns to ego, turns to arrogance. Rattigan jokes about wanting to shape an entire world in his image, and isn’t that the fear of “the Time Lord Victorious” we meet in The Waters of Mars? A lonely genius who finally decides that he knows best. The show underscores this by allowing Rattigan to swap places with the Doctor at the climax and to make that suicidal gesture on his behalf.

Not a lot to shout about, eh?

Not a lot to shout about, eh?

Naturally, it’s not a perfect comparison. Rattigan is smart, but he’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks that he his. He’s just a tool of a higher power. Indeed, if I can’t help but wonder if Davies was planning far ahead to The End of Time, Part II, where it’s revealed the Time Lords were manipulating the Master and the Doctor. Still, Rattigan obviously lacks the Doctor’s charisma and intelligence, even if he does seem to point towards things to come.

Rather notably, the episode makes a point of emphasising that while Luke and the Doctor are both very clever, Donna isn’t really. She’s incredibly capable – she is the one who identifies that there’s something wrong with the factory staff – but she lacks the sorts of book smarts we expect from the Doctor. In The Poison Sky, her mother bluntly reinforces that. When Donna promises over the phone to help fix things, Sylvia sarcastically responds her, “Oh, like you’d know. You’re so clever.”

Shipping out...

Shipping out…

However, Donna doesn’t have to be clever. The Doctor is clever enough for both of them. Donna exists in contrast to that. She grounds him, anchors him. The difference between the Doctor and Luke Rattigan is that the Doctor is not alone. He’s still tethered to humanity, by his companions. The fourth season has really been hammering this idea home, with Donna not afraid to call him out if he drifts too far. The suggestion, and one that would pay off during the specials, is that the Doctor left to his own devices is a very dangerous thing.

Donna’s development and characterisation continues here. Her lack of bookish smarts is – again – contrasted with the Doctor, but it’s suggested that her emotional intelligence is far superior, and that the two balance each other out. When she meets Martha, the show casts her as an almost maternal figure – something that would come up again in The Doctor’s Daughter. She’s there to offer Martha advice and reassurance, and to pay attention to Martha’s problems.

When the Doctor inquires about Martha’s family in The Poison Sky, he’s very clearly testing his hypothesis about whether or not she’s a Sontaran clone. In contrast, Donna’s personal interest in Martha is more genuine. “You know, that coat sort of works,” Donna helpfully reassures Martha after the Doctor rescues her from the factory. “I feel like a kid in my dad’s clothes,” Martha remarks, wearing the Doctor’s trench coat. Donna observes, “Oh well, if you’re calling him dad, you’re definitely getting over him.”

The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky aren’t a high-point in the fourth season, but they do represent the first time that the opening two-parter does what the production team seemed to have wanted it to do from the outset. It’s a big, fun and sprawling story featuring memorable a memorable alien invasion that passes the time quite well. That’s not the stuff of great Doctor Who, but it’s the stuff of entertaining Doctor Who. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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

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