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Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Daughter (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 Doctor’s Daughter originally aired in 2008.

Not what you’d call a natural parent, are you?

They stole a tissue sample at gunpoint and processed it. It’s not what I call natural parenting.

Rubbish. My friend Nerys fathered twins with a turkey baster. Don’t bother her.

You can’t extrapolate a relationship from a biological accident.

Er, Child Support Agency can.

– Donna and the Doctor discussing parenting

The Doctor’s Daughter is the weakest script of the fourth season. It’s just a mess of high concepts and ideas and in-jokes mashed together and then cut down to fit into a forty-five minute time slot. It’s a fundamentally flawed episode that has some meritorious elements, but a whole host of other ingredients that just fall flat. It’s the speed bump in the fourth season of the show, Russell T. Davies’ final season of Doctor Who, which had started out of the gate so very strong.

I suppose the real positive of The Doctor’s Daughter is that it doesn’t cause too much damage as it stumbles.

The ball's in his court...

The ball’s in his court…

The Writer’s Tale is instructive here. A surprisingly candid account of the production of that fourth season, documented in emails between Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook, the book allows the reader to bare witness to the genesis of the episode – and it’s just as convoluted and messy as you might imagine. Extrapolated from an interview with Doctor Who Monthly where writer Stephen Greenhorn remarked that “the lead character never changes”, Davies decided to “really go for broke” in a story where “the Doctor really changes.”

In the same email, Davies offers an off-the-cuff plot synopsis for the episode which is broadly similar to what made it to screen – barring perhaps the setting, “an Earth colony in mid-invasion” in the email rather than a new colony being founded. At the same time, two paragraphs after being inspired to write a story where the Doctor “really changes”, he recognises the limitations on the story. “She’s got to die at the end, of course,” he observes succinctly, immediately negating his main hook right there as the story concept comes crashing against the requirements of a show like Doctor Who.

Well, I guess it was go big or go home...

Well, I guess it was go big or go home…

There are other outside concerns as well:

I went to bed gill of adrenalin, letting all those ideas buzz. But then, on the train back to Manchester this morning, I realised: 4.6 isn’t a blank slate, you dope! It’s actually tagged as the Martha Trapped in Space episode. She rejoins the Doctor on Earth in 4.4/4.5, but just as a mate, not as a companion, and then 4.5 ends with the TARDIS spinning off with her on board. The whole of 4.6 is supposed to be “Take me home!” And I forgot. Damn. How could I forget? I’ve promised that to Freema Agyeman.

And there, in the space of the first email outlining the episode – in March 2007 – the most obvious structural flaws with the episode are apparent.

Getting a hand-le on the situation...

Getting a hand-le on the situation…

The Doctor’s Daughter is a show that threatens to change the Doctor fundamentally, to turn his “sports car” into “a people-carrier”, but it’s quite obvious that the show isn’t going to change so dramatically and so quickly. It’s also an episode which features a Martha subplot that feels pretty tacked on, with lots of cutting away to her own adventure with a supporting character who doesn’t speak English and never develops a personality, only so it can underscore how absolutely terrible the universe actually is if you happen to be Martha Jones.

Okay, there are lots of other little problems here, but none of them are inherent to the premise. The fact that the Hath aren’t defined or the twist isn’t foreshadowed enough could all be sorted with tighter script editing or by expanding the episode or trimming some other fat. The biggest problem with The Doctor’s Daughter is the fact that it brings back an old regular for an episode where she gets to run through a quarry by herself, seeming to wander into the episode’s climax by sheer chance, and that the episode is built around a life-changing situation for the Doctor that will be conveniently washed away before the end credits roll.

Staying on point...

Staying on point…

The fact that Jenny survives (allegedly at the request of incoming show runner Steven Moffat) doesn’t change anything. The Doctor never discovers that she’s alive. He never has to take responsibility for her. He never has to act like a father towards her. Instead, he’s briefly confronted with the prospect he might be a father again in an episode that is already over-plotted and over-crowded. David Tennant does the best he can with the material, but it’s hard to invest in an arc that goes from “I don’t want to be a dad” to “I might not actually hate my child” to “this child who didn’t exist until a few hours ago is dead!”

It’s all a bit rather pointless, a closed circle that really offers little in the way of satisfaction. Even the explanation for the TARDIS flying off at the end of The Poison Sky feels a little lazy. “Jenny was the reason for the Tardis bringing us here. It just got here too soon, which then created Jenny in the first place. Paradox. An endless paradox. Time to go home?” I like paradoxes. Davies’ structuring of the third season as a giant paradox was quite clever, and Moffat has had great fun with the show’s time travel. Here, however, it feels like a bit of an after-thought. “And why did they end up here in the first place?” Davies and Greenhorn ask themselves. “Paradox!” they answer in unison.

Hell Hath no fury, like a mediocre alien design...

Hell Hath no fury, like a mediocre alien design…

Of course, Jenny ends up dead and probably forgotten about, consigned to the annals of Doctor Who trivia. Sure, Steven Moffat asked for her to be revived in the episode’s epilogue, and he’ll occasionally still concede that it’s possible that she could return, but The Doctor’s Daughter feels like nothing but an empty and headline-grabbing episode title. Indeed, it seems like the most interesting part of Davies’ original story idea have already been recycled and incorporated into Moffat’s Doctor Who, the notion of using the child of a Time Lord as a means of “psychological warfare.”

And then there’s Martha. Martha is a character who hasn’t been well-served by her time on Doctor Who. The third season seemed to spend most of its time exploring how she could never measure up to rose and putting her through various forms of psychological torture. The fourth season brings Martha back for five episodes, in a nice bit of world-building – proof of how Davies has developed the world of Doctor Who and given the show a vast network of supporting co-stars that help flesh out the world around the Doctor himself.

It's a war zone out there...

It’s a war zone out there…

Unfortunately, Martha’s primary story function in her first three episodes of the season has been to play out the classic Doctor Who companion role in contrast to the larger and more important role given to Donna. In The Sontaran Stratagem, we even get a nice shot of Martha screaming before she’s captured by aliens and used as a tool in their sinister plot using mental trickery as she’s coerced into betraying U.N.I.T. and the Doctor.

It feels like an obvious shout-out to Jo Grant’s first appearance in Terror of the Autons, arguably the companion who really sort of typified that rigidly defined companion role. While Donna gets to play be a maternal presence for both Martha and Jenny, and gets to help her own against the Doctor in philosophical debates, Martha is instead separated and forced to wander around a gigantic quarry with a silly-looking alien creature.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

Martha is really sort of filling the niche of the “classic” companion here, the role as expected for every female occupant of the TARDIS between Liz Shaw and Ace, with the exception of Romana. On paper, Martha is a startlingly competent companion. Rose and Donna never quite put up with the same volume of crap she experienced in episodes like Human Nature and The Last of the Time Lords. Martha can run around with the best of them, can protect the Doctor, can help him execute crazy Byzantine schemes.

Had Martha appeared on the classic show, she’d arguably rank with Sarah Jane as one of the best companions. However, in the revived show, with its evolved companion role, Martha winds up feeling under-developed and shallow. Rose and Donna are both defined as these larger-than-life presences, both pushing the role of the companion in bold new directions. Rose is a motivation to see the wonder in the universe, and even a potential romantic interest; Donna is an equal. Martha just is.

"And be home by Midnight!"

“And be home by Midnight!”

So she spends most of The Doctor’s Daughter separated from the Doctor and Martha, which seems funny. Given how big a deal her unreciprocated crush on the Doctor was made to seem, and how important it was for her to get over it, it feels funny that Martha has actually spent very little time with the Doctor here. (Compare, for example, how much time Rose and her supporting cast get to spend with the Doctor in Journey’s End.)

It’s a very weird dynamic, and it makes you wonder what the point of Martha guest-starring in this episode was. She didn’t want to go with the Doctor at the end of The Poison Sky, and she doesn’t want to go with him at the end of The Doctor’s Daughter. There’s no real arc there, no real change. Then again, the fact that the only thing that Doctor Who could do to wrap up her character arc in The End of Time, Part II was to pair her off with Mickey Smith suggests that the show never had any idea what it was going to do with Martha, but that it was nice to have Freema Agyeman around.

Quite touching, really...

Quite touching, really…

Which is arguably an example of the sort of indulgence we see quite frequently in this fourth season – the show has reached the point where everything has been established, so the production team can indulge a little bit in celebrating the perks of being one of the biggest shows on British television. It’s well-earned, and it’s hard to begrudge the show this celebration, particularly when it’s executed with considerable skill. After all, Journey’s End is just one big wrap party for the entire Davies’ era, and it’s a messy and beautiful and exuberant piece of television.

The fact that Martha’s mid-season return feels like the most gratuitous piece of Davies-era nostalgia in this season is probably a good sign. The return of Harriet Jones in The Stolen Earth, for example, feels like the show is coming a full circle. The appearances of the casts from Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures in the finalé bestows a pleasant legitimacy on those spin-offs. Even Martha’s role in the season finalé feels like it’s tipping the hat to her. However, her involvement here feels ill-judged and misguided.

Heart-to-heart...

Heart-to-heart…

Given that this is the episode that stars the Fifth Doctor’s daughter and the Tenth Doctor’s future wife, directed by a woman who shares the surname (but is no relation) of the Second Doctor, it feels weird that Martha’s involvement should feel so out-of-place. The Doctor’s Daughter feels like it should be a place for celebration of the show’s history, given all the converging elements, but it doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t quite work at all.

That said, there are some interesting elements of The Doctor’s Daughter, even if none of them quite work. The fourth season of the revived show feels like it owes a conscious debt to Douglas Adams and Graham Williams, the script editor and producer responsible for the most awkward part of Tom Baker’s tenure in the title role. The show was found of goofy and quirky high concepts that it couldn’t quite pull off, with a comic tone that felt quite surreal following on from the pulp horror of the Hinchcliffe era.

He doesn't like guns...

He doesn’t like guns…

This was the period of the show that gave us City of Death, but also The Horns of Nimon, The Creature from the Pit and Nightmare of Eden. It was a period of the show defined by ambition upon which it could never quite deliver. Appropriately enough, one of the most infamous legacies of that era is the notoriously incomplete Shada, an epic six-parter written by Douglas Adams, but thwarted by strike action. So much unfulfilled potential.

The fourth season of Doctor Who seems to be pitching towards that era. The season opened with Voyage of the Damned, a gigantic tip-of-the-hat towards Adams’ Starship Titanic video game. One of the arc gags of the season has been the idea that the bees have been disappearing – borrowed from Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The season tends to veer more towards the strange and the comical than the outright horrific.

Not really a nightmare of Eden, I suppose...

Not really a nightmare of Eden, I suppose…

Partners in Crime is the cutest invasion story ever, and The Unicorn and the Wasp is a spoof of Agatha Christie mysteries. The season’s first two-parter – the one traditionally focused around monsters – reintroduces the Sontarans, who are obviously more comical and less threatening than the Daleks or the Cybermen. I’d argue that, owing to the fact they don’t wear people-suits, they’re also less creepy than the Slitheen as well.

There are more horrific and bleak episodes along the way, but the season climaxes with yet another resurrection of Davros by the Daleks, a tradition that began when the character was revived in Destiny of the Daleks. I’d argue that a lot of The Doctor’s Daughter is best understood as an attempt to channel that surreal science-fiction vibe into the show. It’s very much a traditional Doctor Who episode, and it’s very easy to imagine it as an episode of the classic show featuring Tom Baker and some slightly dodgier make-up on the Hath. There’s a nice science-fiction twist at the end, and lots of running around corridors.

Daddy's little soldier...

Daddy’s little soldier…

Of course, there’s one big difference between a story on the modern Doctor Who and an adventure of the classic iteration of the series. Were The Doctor’s Daughter a Williams’ era story, it would likely be four episodes long. It would have room to breath. It might be slightly stretched out to four episodes, but we’d get a better feel for this world and its inhabitants. We might even care for Jenny. Instead, the episode scrambles to try to get everything covered before the credits roll.

You can see that in the structure. The episode contorts a bit to get the basic set-up working. The Doctor’s hand summons them to create Jenny, but why now? Why not any other time the Doctor got in the TARDIS since The Last of the Time Lords? And then we need a reason for why the two armies are only finding “the Source” now. Having the Doctor conveniently uncover “a new map, a different set of tunnels” while broadcasting to both sides feels rather trite. It’s the most efficient way of covering the necessary ground in the time allotted, but it feels clumsy.

Look, if I were playing the Doctor, I wouldn't be happy about this episode either, but this is taking it a bit too far...

Look, if I were playing the Doctor, I wouldn’t be happy about this episode either, but this is taking it a bit too far…

Jenny’s character arc feels far too abbreviated. As a result, the dialogue is just terrible, forcing Jenny to pretty much state the show’s subtext bluntly in order to get it across, because there’s no room to properly convey it. “I have a body, I have a mind, I have independent thought,” she explains. “How am I not real? What makes you better than me?” It’s a great idea, but there’s no room for it here. The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People might be two very flawed episodes, but they cover a lot of the same ideas more effectively, allowed room to work.

There are some great ideas here, though, and – in its better moments – The Doctor’s Daughter feels like “big idea” allegorical science-fiction. The “seven days” revelation is quite brilliant, even if picking seven days feels a little too pointed. The notion of an entire mythology exaggerated and distorted in a week through “Chinese whispers” is fascinating, even if the show feels a little bit too much like an atheist soap box as the Doctor explains “the Source” is just “a cocktail of stuff for accelerated evolution. Methane, hydrogen, ammonia, amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids.”

Doubts begin to surface...

Doubts begin to surface…

He tells the armies, “It’s nothing mystical. It’s from a laboratory, not some creator.” It feels a little blunt, as if the war between the humans and the Hath could never have been sustained if not for the vaguely religious mysticism surrounding “the Source.” There’s nothing wrong with using the set-up to explore the relationship between religion and science, but it feels rather clumsily grafted on to the end of a script that is already floundering under the weight of so many other concepts.

Still, there is some decent character work here. Donna is portrayed, yet again, as a character willing to stand up to the Doctor. When the Doctor protests that Jenny isn’t “really” his daughter, Donna points out that not everybody conforms to his own idea of parenthood. This is a nifty inversion of the common scene where the Doctor challenges the companion’s own assumptions about what challenges their preconceptions – like the way the Ninth Doctor challenges Rose in The Unquiet Dead, for example.

A Cobb-led together team...

A Cobb-led together team…

There’s also a nifty recurrence of the “female mythological figures” theme that has been running through the season. Associated with creation, “the Source” is explicitly identified as female, with even Jenny drawing attention to that. “In the beginning, the great one breathed life into the universe,” Cline recounts at one point. “And then she looked at what she’d done, and she sighed.” Jenny repeats, “She. I like that.” The source ranks along with Venus and Medusa as another of the strong female mythological figures populating the run, as if to draw attention to Donna’s (whose very name means “Lady”) importance, particularly as a female figure in contrast to “the Lonely God.”

There’s also something resembling a good idea to be found in the questions that Jenny raises about the Doctor. She is constructed from part of him, so his reaction to her arrival is obvious an extension of his own insecurities and issues. Much like The Poison Sky, The Doctor’s Daughter offers a somewhat cynical exploration of the Doctor’s pacifism. In The Poison Sky, he was a pacifist who ultimately relied on soldiers carrying machine guns. Here, he discovers that his daughter is the perfect soldier.

Lock-down...

Lock-down…

The Doctor has a tendency to be a bit of a hypocrite. “Hang on, hang on,” he yells at Cobb. “A second ago it was peace in our time. Now you’re talking about genocide.” He suggests that Cobb needs to get himself a dictionary. “When you do, look up genocide. You’ll see a little picture of me there, and the caption will read, over my dead body.” Obviously, he has a bit of a selective memory. The Doctor is just as capable of genocide as any of his foes. His ability to alternate between the extremes of genuine pacifism and incredibly brutality is shocking, and The Doctor’s Daughter does a half-decent job drawing on that character conflict.

“You keep insisting you’re not a soldier,” Jenny remarks at one point, “but look at you, drawing up strategies like a proper general.” She has a point. His method of war might be unconventional, but he’s still capable of waging a one-man war it he deems it necessary. The Doctor is taken aback by her suggestion. “I’m trying to stop the fighting,” he protests. Jenny replies, “Isn’t every soldier?” The relationship between the Doctor’s pacifism and the death that follows him around (and which he occasionally enables) has been the subject of quite a few clever episodes. Human Nature aired the previous season. The Doctor’s Daughter is far from brilliant, but it does hit the theme.

"So, we're agreed? Let's never mention this again."

“So, we’re agreed? Let’s never mention this again.”

Again, it just feels a little too blunt, and – like a lot of The Doctor’s Daughter – like it’s trying to cover too much ground all at once. The Doctor’s Daughter is a failure, and a substantial one. However, it’s also an episode that has a lot of ambition behind it, and one were the flaws seem have been embedded since its very conception. It’s the weakest episode of the season, but it doesn’t feel like the same sort of bland “nobody was trying too hard” failure as Fear Her or even the “nobody understands the fundamental concepts” sort of failure like Evolution of the Daleks. Which is damning with very faint praise, but we’ll take what we can get.

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

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