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Doctor Who: Series Four (or Thirty) (Review/Retrospective)

The fourth season of the revived Doctor Who is probably the most consistent of the seasons produced by Russell T. Davies. The first season had a very clear arc running through it, building to a fantastic final run of episodes; the second season had some strong individual elements, but suffered from a lot of behind-the-scenes shuffling; the third season suffered from a shoddy opening stretch, teething difficulties with the show’s first new companion lackluster finalé, despite some great ideas and wonderful experimental plotting.

While the fourth season is far from perfect, it does hang together a lot better than any of the previous three seasons. Watching from Partners in Crime through to Journey’s End, it definitely feels like Russell T. Davies had a stronger sense of where he wanted to go than he had with any of the previous three seasons. It helps that the past three seasons had been spent trying to acclimatise viewers to the workings of Doctor Who. The first season introduced the first Doctor and companion and the Daleks. The second introduced the first new Doctor and the Cybermen. The third introduced the first new companion and the Master.

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So the fourth season is the first time that the show doesn’t really have too much of a mission statement. Unlike the Daleks or the Master or the Cybermen, nobody was really clamouring to see the Sontarans reinvented, let alone to reintroduce Davros. Like a lot of the foruth season, it seems like the show was really enjoying any freedom from a sense of obligation. The public knew what Doctor Who was. The rules and players had been set out, the past had been acknowledged and the show defined.

As such, the fourth season feels a lot more relaxed for everybody involved.

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The fourth season is Davies’ final full season as executive producer, and it’s David Tennant’s final full season in the role of the Doctor. The past three years have laid out the groundwork and defined everything that really needs to be defined. So the fourth season seems a little more comfortable in itself. It’s a season of television where Davies feels comfortable incorporating multiple references to William Hartnell’s time in the lead role, with The Fires of Pompeii referencing The Romans and Planet of the Ood mentioning The Sensorites. Plot elements are homages to former script editor Douglas Adams, like the incorporation of the Starship Titanic or the references to the disappearing bees.

More importantly, the resurrected classic characters here are very definitely outside the “core” or “important” iconic aliens. Casual viewers will probably recognise Davros and the Sontarans, but it’s unlikely that many would have been demanding their return. Davros is a character who generally undercuts a lot of the menace and credibility of the Daleks, by giving them a more relatable face. The Daleks cease to be an anonymous genocidal force when they are defined by a crazed maniac in a wheelchair. Similarly, the Sontarans can hardly compete with the Daleks or the Cybermen when it comes to being iconic parts of Doctor Who.

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The Sontarans are, after all, militant potatoes. They are absurd. Look at a Sontaran – they are completely ridiculous. While the make-up for The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky improves on some of the work from the classic series, there’s no attempt to really make them more menacing. Unlike even the CGI renovation of the Macra in Gridlock, the presentation of characters like Davros and the Sontaran’s is decidedly old-school. The technical craft and production values have increased, but they look no less absurd than they used to.

And that’s important. Davies made the Daleks religious fundamentalists in the first season, but he revels in the camp sensibilities of the genocidal pepperpots here. Compare the mad screeching Dalek cries of “worship him!” or “do not blaspheme!” to “Daleks do not accept apologies!” or “we know who you are!” A lot of what makes Doctor Who so charming is the ability to balance cheesy ridiculousness with outright horror. There’s been a lot of that in the earlier seasons, but the fourth season pushes that balance to its logical extremes.

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The events of Voyage of the Damned and Partners in Crime are treated as absurd and almost camp. A replica of the Titanic falling to Earth? Absurd, but it’s Christmas! Monsters made of fat? Don’t be ridiculous! The Sontarans? Characters describe them as looking like “potatoes” or “trolls”, pointing out their short stature! However, Davies underscores just how terrifying these cute and absurd threats actually are. Turn Left offers a glimpse of a world devastated by these absurdities. The season seems to accept that threats don’t have to be as unrelentingly terrifying as the zealot Daleks or the reinvented Cybermen to be terrifying.

There’s a wonderful tonal balance at play in the fourth season. The third season had a remarkably grim through-line, with every episode from The Shakespeare Code featuring a remarkably dark undertone. Daleks planning a holocaust from 1930s New York! A giant man-eating ego monster! The murder of boys at a school before the outbreak of World War I! A lesson about what the word “decimation” actually means. Even the fun mid-season run-around of 42 featured the Doctor screaming and writhing in agony as he was burnt from the inside out.

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The fourth season manages to balance the light and the dark with a bit more ease. The Unicorn and the Wasp is a fun mystery adventure with Agatha Christie, but it also explores the character’s own tragic personal history. Silence in the Library centres around a dead child, features carnivorous shadows and walking skeletons, but it also features the Doctor flirting with a woman who might yet be his future wife. The Sontaran Stratagem features a plan to suffocate the planet masterminded by a bunch of over-compensating jocks. Journey’s End teases the destruction of reality itself, but basks in the camp absurdity of Davros and the Daleks.

Catherine Tate is a key part of this. Primarily known as a comedian for her work on The Catherine Tate show, her original casting on The Runaway Bride was very clearly stunt casting – in the style of recruiting Kylie Minogue for Voyage of the Damned. Tate went on to have tremendous chemistry with David Tennant, with the pair sharing remarkable comic timing. However, the real shock was that Tate was actually a pretty fantastic dramatic actress.

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That talent is quite clear from a few quiet moments towards the end of The Runaway Bride, but also in episodes scattered across the fourth season. The Fires of Pompeii relies on Tate conveying Donna’s emotional anguish as she struggles with the weight of time travel. Planet of the Ood requires her to be quietly enraged at the treatment of the Ood by humanity. Turn Left is the first “Doctor-lite, companion-heavy” episode in the history of the franchise, and it relies on Tate to carry it, which she does. Journey’s End would seem like little more than hallow spectacle if Tate couldn’t convey Donna’s heartbreak and fear at the prospect of going back home.

One of the features of the Davies era is the idea that the companion is just as important as the Doctor. They aren’t a simple plot function any longer – they drive the show as much as the Doctor does, and their character arcs are just as important as the Doctor’s. (The obvious exception is Martha, who really seems like a throwback to the “quietly suffering” companion of the classic show.) Rose finds a better life. Jack is introduced with a missing past and grows into a leader of men. Even Mickey is enriched.

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Donna pushes that to the logical extreme. Not only do the Doctor- and companion-lite episodes of the season serve as complimentary explorations of just how co-dependent the Doctor and companion actually are, Donna finds herself elevated to status of temporary Time Lady. Much like Rose becomes the Doctor as she journeys across time and space to save worlds, Donna becomes the literal fusion of Doctor and companion, expressing that both are essential parts of the equation, and that both bring something worth having to the table.

This is a nice way of foreshadowing Davies’ work on the specials, where the Tenth Doctor travels alone and bad things begin to happen. The Doctor on his own is a very bad thing. In Turn Left, it’s suggested that the character is suicidal – a weird bit of subtext running through the Davies era. In The Waters of Mars, it’s suggested that the companion exists to keep the Doctor’s ego in check. The Doctor needs a companion, and they serve a vital purpose together. Neither is complete without the other.

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And so it’s nice to have a purely platonic relationship between Doctor and companion. Rose and Martha both lusted after the Doctor, nursing crushes that were either unrequited or unacknowledged. Here, the Doctor and Donna exist as friends – as “mates.” Donna isn’t a junior partner. She doesn’t follow the Doctor around and listen to him lecture on how things work. When the Doctor orders her back to the TARDIS in Pompeii, Donna outright refuses. She makes a stand it’s hard to imagine Rose or Martha making, for fear the Doctor might revoke their TARDIS privileges.

The success of Donna makes me a bit sad that the Moffat era hasn’t been more experimental with companions. While Amy was well-defined and Clara seems like she could be fun, it’s a shame that Moffat has really stuck to the “young attractive woman” template. There’s a lot of room for diversity and experimentation there, and the ratings and critical success of the fourth season demonstrate that audiences will tune in to watch the Doctor hang out with somebody other than a beautiful young woman. (Although it is worth noting that having Rory in the TARDIS did offer a bit of a novel twist on the dynamic.)

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The fourth season isn’t without its duds. The Doctor’s Daughter is an unfortunate mess of an episode, which feels like a two-parter viciously edited down with a Martha plot awkwardly edited in. However, the problems with that episode are less fundamental than the difficulties with the weaker instalments in previous seasons – World War III suffered from the fact that Davies hadn’t yet figured out how to make a two-parter, while Fear Her was cobbled together at the last minute and it felt like people were just trying to get something on camera, and Evolution of the Daleks suffers from the fact that it seems like the production staff had forgotten how to write Daleks.

In contrast, The Doctor’s Daughter has a rake of good ideas, but it stumbles in the execution. In a season built around homaging and acknowledging the show’s rich history, The Doctor’s Daughter feels like a shout-out to the science-fiction stories of the late Graham Williams or early John Nathan Turner era, without realising that those stories had the luxury of more space to craft their worlds and more room to tell their stories.

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In contrast, the rest of the season holds together well. The second story of the season, The Fires of Pompeii, is designed to mirror the penultimate story of the Davies era, The Waters of Mars. The epilogues to episodes like The Fires of Pompeii and Planet of the Ood seems a little gratuitous out of context, but retroactively mitigate the brutality of Donna’s fate in Journey’s End. The mentioning of the spin-off characters in Turn Left serves as a prelude to their actual appearance in The Stolen Earth.

The character beats are even well set-up and foreshadowed and paid off. The flaws with the Doctor are exposed in Midnight, but Turn Left counters those criticisms by demonstrating that the Doctor is an absolute good in a chaotic universe. Agatha Christie’s fate in The Unicorn and the Wasp foreshadows Donna’s in Journey’s End. Even The Doctor’s Daughter forces the Doctor to confront the part of himself that is a soldier before he does it again in Journey’s End. It is a very tightly-constructed season of television.

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The fourth season is a fantastic accomplishment. Davies has already done an astounding amount of work to get Doctor Who to the screen. A lot of the previous three years have been devoted to laying groundwork and reintroducing vital parts of the mythology. Davies spent two years building up to the mention of the word “Gallifrey.” The fourth season begins with a lot more freedom as a result of that groundwork, and it feels appropriate that Davies and Tennant are allowed on last thirteen-episode season to finally and completely cut loose.

It’s far from perfect, but it is a triumphant accomplishment for all involved.

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

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