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Doctor Who: Gridlock (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.

Gridlock originally aired in 2007.

The sky’s a burnt orange, with the Citadel enclosed in a mighty glass dome, shining under the twin suns. Beyond that, the mountains go on forever. Slopes of deep red grass, capped with snow.

– the Doctor takes us to Gallifrey, for the first time in ages

Gridlock is the final (and best) of Davies’ “New Earth” trilogy, encompassing The End of the World and New Earth. The decision to focus the opening futuristic stories of the first three seasons around the same strand of “future history” is a very clever move, and perhaps an indication of how acutely aware Davies is of the way the modern television differs from television when the classic show aired. In short, it creates a pleasing sense of continuity between episodes that are very disconnected from the show’s main continuity.

This is far from the Powell Estate as you can get, and yet – three years in – it also feels strangely familiar.

The skyline's the limit...

The skyline’s the limit…

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Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem (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 Sontaran Stratagem originally aired in 2008.

Sontar-Ha!

– Sontaran hakka

The expectations for the opening two-parter of any Russell T. Davies season are markedly different from the expectations surrounding the second two-parter or even the season finalé – just as the expectations for the opening few episodes are different from the expectations for a mid-season stand-alone. It should go without saying, but it’s worth stressing at this point. The opening two-parter of a Davies season isn’t meant for the adults in the audience – it’s traditionally aimed towards the kids, with big epic iconic monsters, ridiculous set-pieces, broadly-defined settings and little room for nuance.

That’s not to excuses messes like World War III or Evolution of the Daleks, but simply to place them in context. The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky aren’t quite as profound or weighty as The Fires of Pompeii or Planet of the Ood. Instead, they offer bombastic spectacle, goofy visuals and a heightened sense of absolutely everything. In other words, The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky combine to form the strongest opening two-parter of the Davies era.

They hardly represent a crowning artistic accomplishment for the show, but they do a great job of accomplishing what they set out to do.

There's a potato eyes joke here, but I just can't make it work...

There’s a potato eyes joke here, but I just can’t make it work…

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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…

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Doctor Who – The Shakespeare Code (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 Shakespeare Code originally aired in 2007.

Goodnight, Doctor.

Nighty night, Shakespeare.

– talk about your British icons

The Shakespeare Code is the third season’s opening trip into British nostalgia, a celebrity historical where the Doctor journeys back in time to meet a famous character and to deal with alien menaces masquerading as something altogether more sinister. This time, the Doctor and Martha travel back to meet William Shakespeare. It’s a little on the nose, but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. After all, teaming the Doctor up with Queen Victoria in Tooth and Claw did seem a little cynical when the show opened with a gag at the expense of Margaret Thatcher.

The rather safe and occasionally quite “postcard-y” portrayal of British history aside, The Shakespeare Code is more interesting as a rather novel form of arc-building for the show. “Saxon” was the arc word for the show’s third season, but restricted to those episodes set in the present. However, The Shakespeare Code winds up offering major thematic foreshadowing of the season ahead.

Where there's a Will...

Where there’s a Will…

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Doctor Who: Smith & Jones (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.

Smith & Jones originally aired in 2007.

It’s only roentgen radiation. We used to play with roentgen bricks in the nursery. It’s safe for you to come out. I’ve absorbed it all. All I need to do is expel it. If I concentrate I can shake the radiation out of my body and into one spot. It’s in my left shoe. Here we go, here we go. Easy does it. Out, out, out, out, out. Out, out. Ah, ah, ah, ah! It is, it is, it is, it is, it is hot. Hold on.

Done.

You’re completely mad.

You’re right. I look daft with one shoe.

– the Doctor and Martha get off to a good start

I’d argue that Smith & Jones is Russell T. Davies’ most successful season-opener of Doctor Who. By its third year, Davies had firmly established the format of the show, to the point where he could successfully lose both of his leading actors. Christopher Eccleston had been replaced by David Tennant at the end of the first season, and Billy Piper had departed at the end of the second. Davies had demonstrated that the series could survive a cast rotation like that, and there’s a sense of looseness about Smith & Jones that suggests the show has really found its comfort zone.

The reason that Smith & Jones works so very well is not that it has an abundance of ambition. Its goal is relatively modest: to tell an enjoyable modern day adventure while introducing a new companion to the show. The beauty is in the execution. Smith & Jones races along, barely pausing to catch its breath, relying on Tennant’s abundant charisma, a constant flow of clever high concepts and a charming new companion to carry it through.

It works surprisingly well.

Standing in the Earthlight...

Standing in the Earthlight…

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Doctor Who: The Last of the Time Lords (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 Last of the Time Lords originally aired in 2007.

I just need you to listen.

No, it’s my turn. Revenge!

– the Doctor and the Master

I like quite a lot of The Last of the Time Lords. I think, for example, that Russell T. Davies does an exceptional job creating a version of the Master that manages to remain true to the character’s pantomime roots, while also seeming a credible threat and dark mirror to the Doctor. I also think that Martha’s character arc has a fairly logic and fluid conclusion. On the other hand, there’s a great deal about the resolution to The Last of the Time Lords that feels a bit rushed, a bit convenient, a bit tidy.

I’m quite fond of Davies’ writing style, but I’ll concede that he tends to favour theme and character over plot and structure. The Last of the Time Lords does an excellent job illustrating this, providing a bunch of fascinating thematic and character-based moments, but positioning them in a plot that doesn’t really work.

You know, for once I actually feel sorry for the Master...

You know, for once I actually feel sorry for the Master…

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Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest (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 Infinite Quest was originally broadcast in weekly instalments on Totally Doctor Who in 2007.

… And then I’ll have my revenge! Revenge! REVENGE!

– just in case you didn’t get that Baltazar was evil

The Infinite Quest is a 45-minute animated episode of Doctor Who that was broadcast as part of Totally Doctor Who in 2007, during the third season of the revived show. It was written by Alan Barnes, who has written a number of Big Finish audio plays for Doctor Who, and was directed by Gary Russell. The animation was produced by Cosgrave Hall, who animated the missing episodes of The Invasion for its 2006 DVD release. So there’s a fairly considerable amount of talent involved in this project, which is notable as not only the first full-length animated Doctor Who episode to be broadcast on television, but is the first fully serialised story to be told since the show was revived. It was originally broadcast in chunks of three-and-a-half minutes.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

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