Friday, July 06, 2007

“She’s as clever as me. Almost.”: Doctor Who

After a heartbreaking end to season two that saw the departure of Rose Tyler (the lovely and much missed Billie Piper) and the Doctor suddenly all by his lonesome, show runner Russell T Davies cleverly surmised that what Doctor Who really needed was an injection of funny. And who better to deliver it than Catherine Tate, the immensely popular British comedienne? I’ve never been a big fan of Tate’s other work but there’s no denying her talent, and here she excels here as Donna, an unsuspecting bride who is randomly transported into the TARDIS and finds herself at the centre of another one of the Doctor’s adventures. Tate rattles off lines like “Stop bleepin’ me!” and “Santa's a robot!” with a hilarious mixture of enthusiasm and cynicism, and she is the main reason why ‘The Runaway Bride’ is so immensely fun.

Davies’ script is surprisingly different from all his others on Doctor Who. Usually the episodes he pens are full of gradual build-up, taking their sweet time in revealing all the layers of the mystery. ‘Bride’, in comparison, is positively madcap. Events whiz by one after another, and the usually necessary expositional dialogue is replaced with the kind of pace one has not come to expect from Who. Indeed, the most eye-catching sequence of the episode comes just fifteen minutes in, when the Doctor flies the TARDIS through the motorway in order to save a kidnapped Donna. While it’s a bit jarring to see what is essentially a car chase in Doctor Who, the sequence sums up the fun, almost carefree attitude that permeates this whole episode.

Gradually, however, the central mystery monster comes to the forefront and ‘Bride’ loses some of its initial energy. The Huon Particles work fine as an explanation for why Donna ended up in the TARDIS in the first place, but the script gets bogged down in overly complex explanatory stuff, that dreaded expositional element returning in full force. ‘Bride’ is front-loaded, you see – all the fun stuff comes in the opening forty minutes, while the remainder of the episode is dull in comparison. The charismatic performances of Tennant and Tate keep things interesting enough, but both are let down by their nemesis, The Empress of Racnoss. As portrayed by Sarah Parish, it’s unclear whether this enemy is intended to be frightening or funny, but she comes off as disappointingly tedious and frankly pretty lame.

None of this is meant to suggest that ‘The Runaway Bride’ is just Russell T. Davies having a bit of fun. There are dark undertones lurking underneath the proceedings. Rose’s presence hangs over all of the Doctor’s scenes, whether explicitly – Donna finds Rose’s shirt in the TARDIS and questions the Doctor about her on a few occasions throughout the episode, thus acting as a sort of audience surrogate in observing the effect losing Rose has had on the Doctor – or implicitly, in that the Doctor’s hyperactive efforts to help Donna could be interpreted as him making up for his comparative uselessness when Rose was in peril (it was Pete Tyler, rather than the Doctor, who actually saved her). The dark side of The Doctor, an idea Davies has explored throughout the revived series, also reared its head near the end of ‘Bride’ as the Doctor drowned not only the Empress but all her children as well, and then took a moment to take in their screams (a frankly horrifying sound effect, by the way) before Donna snaps him out of it. It’s a dark moment that only becomes more shocking in retrospect.

The final scene addresses each of these themes very simply: Donna advising the Doctor to find someone “because sometimes I think you need someone to stop you,” and subsequently asking what “her” name was. Tennant’s reaction and his delivery of those four heartbreaking, all-encompassing words – “Her name was Rose” – gets me every time. The man is truly amazing. This concluding scene is also a beautiful call-back to the Doctor and Rose’s scene at the end of ‘The Christmas Invasion’, with one big difference – where Rose said yes to travelling with the ‘new’ Doctor, Donna’s answer has to be no. This could be put down simply to Catherine Tate’s various other commitments, but I prefer to think of it as Davies using Donna as a representation of the kind of people never featured in Doctor Who: the lazy types, who would take a nice relaxing evening in front of the TV over grand adventures any day. Like it or not, most of us watching Doctor Who are these types, and with Donna, Davies is rightly pointing out that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.


After he lost Rose at the end of the second season, it would have felt entirely inappropriate if the Doctor had immediately found himself someone else. Luckily the Christmas special gave Russell T. Davies the opportunity to embroil the Doctor in a one-off adventure with a one-off companion, thus giving him someone to play off without having to jump the gun. As the third season began proper though, it was time to unveil what feminine force Davies had in store for us this season.

Like the very first episode, ‘Rose’, which put the focus on Rose Tyler, ‘Smith and Jones’ opens on Martha, swiftly and amusingly introducing both her and her chaotic mess of a family through a quick array of phone conversations which fly by as Martha is walking to work. It’s a brilliantly un-Doctor Who sequence that clearly shows Martha as the rock holding this very screwed up family together, thus swiftly establishing her strong and unflappable nature. Martha is played by Freema Agyeman, who had a small role in the season two episode ‘Army of Ghosts’ and was spotted by impressed producers. As with Billie Piper in the series opener, a lot of pressure is immediately put on Agyeman in this episode; she basically carries it for the first fifteen minutes. Thankfully, Agyeman is immediately in her element. Her energy and charisma prove more than adequate to hold our attention and get us on her side.

All that said, Martha is far from the perfect companion. What’s immediately noticeable is that Davies is not trying to mould another ideal companion who will share as harmonious a relationship with him as Rose did. For starters Martha has much less reason to go travelling with the Doctor – where Rose was stuck in a dead-end job, Martha is well on her way to becoming a doctor. Equally, Martha seems to be a busy and productive person, whereas Rose was bored with her humdrum life and wanted a change. At first glance, Martha does not appear to be a suitable candidate for travelling with the Doctor. Then again, the TARDIS is a time machine, and Martha’s noisy mess of a family has to be wearing her down. At first, Davies’ suggestion appears to be that Martha is simply bored. That alone would be a lame justification for her taking off with the Doctor, true, but it’s more than boredom – Martha has a taste for the exciting and the fantastic. Like the Doctor, she seems to be genuinely enjoying herself for much of this episode. While everyone else in the hospital freaks out and having been transported to the moon, Martha appreciates the uniqueness of the situation while also trying to work it out. She sticks out from the crowd, which is why the Doctor enlists her help and, later in the crisis, entrusts her with great responsibility (first to hold off the Judoon, then later to secure the capture of the Plasmavore).

The Doctor isn’t actually on the lookout for someone new to travel with him. The suggestion is that since ‘The Runaway Bride’ he has been travelling on his own for a little while, probably trying to ignore his own loneliness while also revelling in it. He enlists Martha’s help partly out of a selfish desire to discover what’s going on with someone else. As per usual, he also enjoys a bit of showmanship. However, over the course of the episode Martha manages to both grab his attention and impress him, no mean feat considering he’s a Time Lord. As for any sexual chemistry between the two, well, there’s certainly something there – the Doctor kisses Martha passionately as part of a ‘genetic transfer’ designed to keep the Judoon off his back for a while, insisting both before and after that it meant nothing. Martha doesn’t believe him, instead deciding that he fancies her. It’s an assumption that proves disastrous. For starters it was probably motivated by the strong feelings she was already having for him, evident in her disappointed reaction to his continued insistence that he feels nothing in return. Further, Martha’s assumption is based on her experience with other humans, but the Doctor is far more weird and alien than he appears – in other words, when he says he only kissed someone for tactical reasons, it’s fully possible that he’s telling the truth. Unlike with Rose, Martha’s romantics feelings for the Doctor is not an issue that goes unexplored this season – in fact, it becomes extremely key to the plot.

As a whole, the episode is a lot of fun. Tennant’s performance continues to be exemplary – thankfully he has dialled down his wackiness a bit since season two, giving the Doctor more of an emotional grounding. The monsters, from the rhino-like Judoon to the Plasmavore (which has disguised itself as a sinister old woman) are satisfying, as well as amusing (for instance, the Plasmavore’s over-the-top scream of “You’re gonna burn with me, burn in HEELLL!!!”). The gradually diminishing amount of air also lends the story a welcome intensity. There are some nice little touches: the Doctor’s genuine sadness at having broken his sonic screwdriver, only to toss it away a second later; Leo Jones’ birthday party swiftly collapsing as the family argues and everyone storms off; and Martha’s reaction to the Doctor proclaiming himself a time lord, “Right! Not pompous at all then.” ‘Smith and Jones’ is a very entertaining start to season three (I like to see ‘The Runaway Bride’ as more of an interlude) and I hope it will convince a decent-sized Sci-Fi Channel audience to keep up with the show.

Next week: Martha meets Shakespeare, and three cackling witches stir up some trouble.


Nea said...

I remember watching the original Doctor Who with my dad when I was very young. I really did not understand what was going on half the time, but I loved that there was a flying police box, funny robots, and a robot dog. I like that the updated version of this show has continued on in the same tradition as the original.

I really liked the Martha character, and thought there was a chemistry between them. I prefer her as a traveling partner over the Donna character so far. I also liked that the Doctor's wackiness was toned down. He does seem more serious, and I like that.

Carrie said...

Great, great recap Joey! I just finished watching the episodes and I loved them. I definitely prefer Martha as a traveling companion. (Honestly, Donna sort of drove me crazy.) I love Martha's quick mind and her fearless attitude, and I think her flirtation with the Doctor is quite interesting.

David Tennant just floors me. When he said, "Her name was Rose," I totally teared up remembering last season's finale. Great work on the dramatic and comedic by him so far this season. I'm looking forward to next week's episode already.