Series 3 (Feb 5, Feb 9 - Feb 22)

February 5: "The Runaway Bride"
February 9: "Smith and Jones"
February 10: "The Shakespeare Code"
February 11: "Gridlock"
February 12: "Daleks in Manhattan"
February 13: "Evolution of the Daleks"
February 14: "The Lazarus Experiment"
February 15: "42"
February 16: "Human Nature"
February 17: "The Family of Blood"
February 18: "Blink"
February 19: "Utopia"
February 20: "The Sound of Drums"
February 21: "The Infinite Quest"
February 22: "Last of the Time Lords"

February 5: "The Runaway Bride"

We interrupt our journey through the first series of Torchwood to bring you the 2006 Doctor Who Christmas Special, "The Runaway Bride"...181

If we go by the DVD, "The Runaway Bride" kicks off series 3 of the show.  But if we go by what we actually see, we're in a transitional state.  We don't get introduced to new companion Martha Jones at all.  Instead this episode picks up immediately where "Doomsday" left off, with Catherine Tate standing in the TARDIS wearing a wedding gown and yelling at the Doctor.  This meant a lot more to British audiences, who were more used to her hugely successful sketch show (hey, it's not every show that gets a word in the Oxford English Dictionary -- although Doctor Who is a show that can also make that claim) than overseas audiences.  Fair enough, it's a British show for British viewers; I'm just pointing out that the impact of this stunt casting is largely lost on those of us in the former colonies and beyond.

It's not an entirely successful opening to the show, though; after the initial shock value wears off, there's little to really keep you entertained.  "The Runaway Bride" really wants to be a screwball comedy, but in these initial TARDIS scenes Tennant and Tate exhibit little chemistry together.  That's partly because all Donna is doing is shouting unpleasantly, not listening to anything the Doctor is saying, and partly because we don't see any real interaction between the two: Donna is shouting and the Doctor is flying the TARDIS, and while they might be doing these actions at each other, it's more that each is going past the other.  This is also the first time that Murray Gold's music really gets in the way of the scene -- it's practically screaming at you to find this stuff funny, which makes you even less inclined to do so.

It gets a bit better when they're actually out on the streets of London -- there's a sense that they're actually listening to each other a bit more, and consequently the jokes land a little better.  I'm not too sure about that TARDIS/car chase down the motorway; I don't mind the idea, but there are some weird moments, like Donna asking the Doctor if Rose had trusted him -- that seems like a strange question to ask in the situation.  And the two kids in the car, shouting "Jump!" and cheering when Donna does, is really over-egging the pudding -- it's supposed to be triumphant but it feels crass instead.  (And the rest of the motorists -- including the parents of the kids screaming in the car -- seem awfully unconcerned about a police box flying down the road at high speed; almost as if they just filmed the drivers and then inserted the TARDIS afterwards...)

The Doctor and Donna watch the Earth form. ("The Runaway
Bride") ©BBC
Once the Doctor and Donna stop and have their conversation on the roof, that's when the two leads start to actually click; it's clear they've started paying attention to what the other is saying, and the result is noticeably better.  Of course, this is the scene that also introduces this episode's technobabble -- a type of subatomic particle that the Time Lords got rid of (what?) but nevertheless are contained inside Donna (WHAT?) and which caused Donna to be transported into the TARDIS in the first place (WHAT?).  Fine, we can just about accept this -- but when we later learn that you can extract Huon particles from water, you just have to shake your head in despair that they can't even keep their technobabble consistent.  Similarly, what possible reason does Lance have to sneak up on the Empress of the Racnoss?  Is he simply trying to be a jerk and give Donna false hope?

The Empress herself is hopelessly overacted by Sarah Parish -- I understand that it's hard to act through all that make-up, but she looks like she isn't taking any of this seriously.  And if she's not bothering, why should we?  The plan to drill into the center of the Earth and release her 4.5 billion-year-old babies with Huon particles is risible, as is the solution of draining the Thames into the hole.182

I'm being hard on this story, but it's not completely without merit.  David Tennant is generally good in his scenes, and once Donna stops yelling, Catherine Tate isn't bad.  The scene at the non-wedding reception is rather charming (and I like the special song, "Love Don't Roam", as sung by Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy).  The whole production is nice and slick (even if they are reusing the robots from last year's special), and Euros Lyn does a good job with the direction.  If you were watching this on Christmas, full of turkey and wine, and just letting it flow past, you'd probably be reasonably entertained.

But if you're watching this as part of the ongoing Doctor Who narrative (which should be just about everyone after the initial broadcast), then its flaws are harder to overlook.  There's just too much technobabble and not enough time to make the relationship between the Doctor and Donna work.  There's also a sense that Doctor Who now knows it's a hit show and should thus do all the predictable, crowd-pleasing things that's expected of them.  The change can be summed up by the snow: last year it was a subversion of the cliché, being the Sycorax ship breaking up in the atmosphere; this time it's actually snow.  This isn't a step forward.

February 9: "Smith and Jones"

The start of Doctor Who's third series sees us launch straight into the opening titles -- no teaser this time around (the first time that's happened since "Rose").  "Smith and Jones" also sees a new start for the show: Rose Tyler is gone and while David Tennant is still around, we have the debut of new companion Martha Jones.  But it's old in some ways, as we get a number of Who veterans in this episode -- Trevor Laird (Martha's dad) was in Mindwarp, Adjoa Andoh (Martha's mum) was in "New Earth", and Anne Reid (Florence Finnegan, the villainous Plasmavore) was Nurse Crane in The Curse of Fenric.  Even Freema Agyeman, the new companion, was in "Doomsday" as Adeola (here retconned as Martha's cousin).  And while Roy Marsden hadn't actually been in Doctor Who before, he seems like the sort of actor who should have been.  (Well, all right, he'd been in the Eighth Doctor audio Human Resources earlier in the year, but that's not what I meant and you know it.)

There's a lot to admire and enjoy in this episode.  Occasionally the revived show has felt rushed in its storylines, as it tries to cram in a lot of incident and action in a 45-minute slot, but "Smith and Jones" feels like it's just the right size.  We get lots of incident and action, but we also get quiet moments to breathe, to explore the characters a bit.  Obviously, there are a lot of introductions to get out of the way, but they never feel like it's too much too soon.  Instead we get a look inside Martha's life and we see how capable she is.  Freema Agyeman charms by being strong and sweet as Martha, with a nice helping of intelligence to boot.  Her interactions with David Tennant are good; they clearly have chemistry, and so their scenes together are very watchable.

The Judoon examine the overcharged MRI while Martha looks after
the Doctor. ("Smith and Jones") ©BBC
It certainly helps that they've got a clever little storyline to work with.  The Judoon are a cool creation, and the idea of them as slightly dim mercenary cops is entertaining.  I also like their solution regarding a lack of jurisdiction on Earth by taking the entire hospital up to the moon, which is the sort of mad idea that Doctor Who does so well.  Meanwhile, Anne Reid is so wonderful as the Plasmavore that you can't help but love to hate her.  The straw is a gloriously kitschy touch.

But it's really David Tennant who's in top form, from happily commenting on a little shop in the hospital to praising Martha for keeping her head in such a strange situation to his frankly marvelous performance as a confused mailman to get Anne Reid to suck his blood.  There's also the way he mouths "bigger on the inside" as Martha says it and then charges ahead: "Is it?  I hadn't noticed."  He is a joy to watch, and it's easy to believe he's the Doctor in this.  I also like the new blue suit and red Chuck Taylor's he's wearing, and the gag with the tie is great: "Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden.  Except for cheap tricks."

It's not perfect -- the bit with the Doctor shaking the radiation out of his body is a strange attempt at humor that takes you almost completely out of the story, and I'd like to know just how you could turn an MRI machine into a device that could kill half the planet from the moon -- but the confidence on display, matched with all the things that do work in "Smith and Jones", means that this is BBC Wales' most successful season opener yet.

February 10: "The Shakespeare Code"

And so this year's celebrity historical involves one William Shakespeare -- at a point before the Doctor ever met him it seems (in Shakespeare's personal timeline, that is -- see, among others, City of Death and The Mark of the Rani for suggestions that the Doctor has met Shakespeare before, albeit after 1599184).  It's also Martha's first trip in the TARDIS, and you can tell that writer Gareth Roberts (in his first official Doctor Who televised script -- he'd previously done "Attack of the Graske" and a number of the TARDISodes last series, but nothing that went out as part of the main series) is having a great time with it:
MARTHA: But are we safe?  I mean, can we move around and stuff?
DOCTOR: Of course we can.  Why do you ask?
MARTHA: It's like in the films.  You step on a butterfly, you change the future of the human race.
DOCTOR: Tell you what then, don't step on any butterflies.  What have butterflies ever done to you?
MARTHA: What if, I don't know, what if I kill my grandfather?
DOCTOR: Are you planning to?
DOCTOR: Well, then.
Martha's worries about her race are also shrugged off: "Just walk about like you own the place," the Doctor tells her.  "Works for me."  Easy for him to say, he looks like a white man.  The bit about there being black people in Elizabethan England is historically accurate, though.  What's probably less accurate is how no one makes any sort of comment about Martha's race (beyond Shakespeare referring to her as a "Dark Lady", which is actually a reference to his sonnets) or about the strange clothing she's wearing (again, one passing comment from Shakespeare and that's it).  But I suppose there's only so much you can fit in in 45 minutes and Roberts in interested in other things.

William Shakespeare on the Globe stage after a performance of
Love's Labour's Lost. ("The Shakespeare Code") ©BBC
Those other things include witchcraft, with three witches (actually aliens, but it hardly matters) using their witchcraft to get Shakespeare to free their fellow witches, and Shakespeare himself, who's shown to be keenly intelligent (note how he's not fooled by the psychic paper when Martha is) and in love with life -- the way he yells at the audience in the beginning of the episode ("Shut your big fat mouths!") being a prime example.  Dean Lennox Kelly does a fine job of presenting Shakespeare as a person, rather than just a caricature.  Even if he's less bald than we might expect.

But the idea behind "The Shakespeare Code" is that words have power, and that thus Shakespeare has the power to bring the Carrionites back from where the Eternals (see Enlightenment and a brief mention in "Army of Ghosts") banished them at the beginning of time.  It's a fun script, with lots of witch elements (including the now-standard three witches gathered around a cauldron) and some mysterious deaths, like that of the Master of the Revels, who appears to have drowned in the middle of a dry street.  ("I've never seen a death like it," says the Doctor, who seems to have forgotten all about the death of Professor Kettering in The Mind of Evil -- and if Roberts is enough of a fanboy to slip one of David Whitaker's lines from The Crusade into the "text" for Love's Labour's Won ("The eye should have contentment where it rests"), you'd think he would have remembered this.)  The way the Doctor and Martha keep making Shakespeare references is also cute, particularly since they do play with it a little (such as the reference to Henry V: "Wait a minute, that's one of mine").

But yes, witches and Shakespeare and genuine lost Shakespearean plays; it's a fun script, and even when it's showing us genuinely alien moments (such as the trip to Bethlem Hospital) it moves along.  There are parts to quibble over (such as the Doctor being an oblivious bastard to Martha while they're sharing a bed: "No, there's something I'm missing, Martha.  Something really close, staring me right in the face and I can't see it.  Rose'd know."  (Ass.  Bet she wouldn't, anyway)), and I'm of two minds about the Harry Potter references: on the one hand I find it a bit crass to put them in the same category as Shakespeare, but it does get across the point of the popularity of Shakespeare's works in contemporary times and helps make the connection for younger audience members.  (That said, the "Expelliarmus" bit is a bit too far.)  It does a good job of keeping the viewer entertained, with a lot of energy and deftness on display, and it's not afraid to play with its subject a little, which makes him seem more human and alive, and thus more relatable.  "The Shakespeare Code" gives us Doctor Who in confident control, and it's hard not to join in with the fun.

February 11: "Gridlock"

A trip to the past for Martha and now a trip to the future, as the Doctor takes her to New Earth and New...New York.  Martha is thrilled but also slightly peeved: "That's the view we had last time," the Doctor says, activating a scanner.  "This must be the lower levels, down in the base of the tower.  Some sort of under-city."  "When you say 'last time', was that you and Rose?" Martha asks.  "... You're taking me to the same planets that you took her?"  "What's wrong with that?" the Doctor asks.  "Nothing.  Just ever heard the word 'rebound'?" she adds under her breath.

The Doctor enters the Motorway. ("Gridlock") ©BBC
That's the set-up, but the actual storyline is so much more wonderfully mad than that.  Russell T Davies takes an annoyance from modern life, the traffic jam, and extrapolates a version that's worse by the nth degree.  In some ways it's a bonkers idea -- people being stuck in gridlock for over twenty years -- but because everyone on the inside of it treats it so seriously, we end up treating it seriously as well.

But what's especially nice about "Gridlock" is how everything seems to logically follow from that point, and Davies takes care to ensure that most of the viewers' questions about how this situation operates are answered.  Off-hand references to self-replicating fuel and muscle stimulants take care of some of it, and the businessman (the one who looks like Judge Dredd's Max Normal) describes how the ship's controls are locked off to the Doctor, which takes care of the big problem of "why don't people just drive illegally?"  So that takes care of some of the potential questions, and we're free to marvel at the society that exists inside the Motorway.

It's an interesting society, with each car consisting of its own microenvironment, tailored to the tastes of the occupant(s) who never leave the car.  But they can communicate with other cars and many seem to have established friendships that way -- and then they all join in singing the Methodist hymn "The Old Rugged Cross" for the Daily Contemplation.  Even when they're in their own vehicles they're still together.

All that and more from Russell T Davies, who brings back not just the Face of Boe but makes the strange creatures lurking at the bottom of the Motorway the Macra.  It's a bold move to bring back an alien species from a) 1967 and b) a completely missing story (I'm talking about The Macra Terror, if you need reminding), but it fits rather well into the context of "Gridlock" -- and if you don't know about The Macra Terror it doesn't matter, because it's not germane to the plot.  It's just a nice little present for long-time fans (and it retcons the Doctor's actions in that earlier serial to no longer be genocide).  We also get a really great action sequence, as the Doctor drops from car to car (which allows us to see a lot of different redressed versions of the same car, giving the story a sense of scope and individuality), and a nice triumphant ending, as the Motorway is opened and the cars leave.  Plus we get a final appearance from the Face of Boe, who expends his last remaining energy to help save the people in the Motorway and dies -- but not before providing the Doctor with one last mystery: "Know this, Time Lord: you are not alone."  Ooh, and a conversation between Martha and the Doctor, where the Doctor finally opens up to her (after some needling -- "You don't talk.  You never say," she tells him) about what happened to his people, and his description of Gallifrey matches the one given by Susan in The Sensorites (another gift to fans).

It's fast, it's fun, it's clever, and it's thoughtful.  It's also put together so well that it makes the whole thing look easy -- so easy, in fact, that if you're not paying attention you might not realize just how effortless "Gridlock" makes the show look.  Because it definitely looks effortless, but that's because they've done an amazing job of putting the work in ahead of time.  The result is that this is one of those overlooked gems -- but it's a gem nevertheless, and one of the best stories BBC Wales has given us yet.

February 12: "Daleks in Manhattan"

So Martha's "one trip" has consisted of a trip to the past, a trip to the future... and now another trip to the past (albeit the more recent past) -- and our third extended visit to the United States (after The Gunfighters -- which is technically set in a territory, not a state -- and the TV Movie).  I'm not counting the brief American interlude in The Chase -- but maybe I should: that interlude included Daleks at the top of the Empire State Building, and it turns out we get the same thing here, even if it's 35 years earlier.  It seems the Daleks were involved in the Empire State Building's construction.

Of course, since we're talking the Empire State Building's construction, we're talking 1930 and therefore the Great Depression.  That brings us to one of the many shanty towns constructed around the country nicknamed Hoovervilles, after then-President Hoover.  It seems that people have been disappearing from New York's Hooverville in mysterious circumstances -- and all the while the construction of the Empire State Building is moving faster and faster.

The Daleks select people for processing. ("Daleks in Manhattan")
But look!  It's Andrew Garfield as Frank, one of the Hooverville residents, right before he became better known as a movie star!  It's interesting to see him here in a minor role, interacting with David Tennant and Freema Agyeman as one of the people heading through the sewers.  Actually, I'd forgotten that he survived to the cliffhanger -- I'd thought the pig slaves had got him for good.

Oh right, the pig slaves.  It's not quite clear why they're around -- I think the idea is that the Daleks are practicing genetic manipulation on them before they do it to themselves, but that's never made clear.  Still, it's not a bad design, and it's certainly memorable.  Not quite as memorable as the cliffhanger, though, where the half-human/half-Dalek Sec steps out of his Dalek shell.  Now that's an image.

I like "Daleks in Manhattan".  There's a nice sense of building threat and mystery, and that cliffhanger definitely sends the story in a new direction.  I also like that we get a Dalek story that doesn't have any particular "event" significance attached to it -- it's just the next Dalek story (so it's like The Chase in another way).  We'll have to see how the second half is.

But let's be honest: "Daleks in Manhattan" is kind of a crap title, isn't it?

February 13: "Evolution of the Daleks"

Now "Evolution of the Daleks" -- that's a title!  Shame about the rest of the episode, though.

The Doctor talks to Dalek Sec. ("Evolution of the Daleks") ©BBC
All right, that's not fair.  There's a lot that this episode does right -- the "evolution" mentioned in the title is particularly interesting, and the suggestion that the Daleks might in fact dramatically change their way of life is fascinating.  "Do you trust [Dalek Sec]?" Laszlo asks the Doctor. "I know that one man can change the course of history," the Doctor replies.  "Right idea in the right place at the right time, it's all it takes.  I've got to believe it's possible."  In fact, for a while it looks like we might actually get a fundamental shift in the nature of the Daleks (or, alternatively, we're waiting for Dalek Sec to reveal his true colors and show that he's duped the Doctor -- but either way, drama), but the supreme nature of the unmodified Daleks takes over and we get a version of the original plan (make humans that are actually Daleks, even though they look externally human).  Still, the idea was fascinating for a while, and it's neat that they decided to push ahead with it as long as they did.  There's also an interesting subthread about the Doctor seeming to want to die (twice he basically orders the Daleks to kill him and braces for the shots that never come), as if he's finally decided that he's had enough and doesn't want to keep dealing with Daleks anymore.

The problem, however, lies in the sheer amount of technobabble that writer Helen Raynor (hey, our first female writer for the show since Rona Munro and Survival!) has to employ to get all her pieces in the right positions.  The DNA splicing between humans and Daleks is bad enough (and what, exactly, makes Dalek DNA spiky?), but fine, maybe there's some special chemical/technique we just don't about that would make this work.  But it's the moment where the Doctor is struck by a gamma radiation lightning bolt which passes his DNA down the cables to all the waiting would-be Daleks that makes you just throw your hands up in despair.  Unknown techniques are one thing, but electricity transmitting DNA sequences?  Those are two different things we know enough about to realize that they're completely incompatible.  That's a piece of technobabble too far, and it's so blatant a move to get us to a deus ex machina ending that it's incredibly frustrating as a result.

That's a shame, because for large chunks this story works surprisingly well.  We get some exploration of a new direction for the Daleks, we get some nice period stuff in New York, and a lot of the acting is top-notch.  But the resolution does overshadow everything, weakening the final product.  "Daleks in Manhattan" / "Evolution of the Daleks" is likely to be remembered more for that than any of the moves in its favor.

February 14: "The Lazarus Experiment"

So has writer Stephen Greenhorn ever actually seen Doctor Who?  Because "The Lazarus Experiment" looks a lot like what someone who had only ever been told about the show might come up with.  It looks more like the general public's conception of Doctor Who rather than what the show actually does.  And sadly, it doesn't even do that particularly well.

Professor Lazarus changes into a monster. ("The Lazarus
Experiment") ©BBC
The main problem here is that there's no underlying point for their monster story.  When the show has done monster stories in the past, frequently it's as an allegory for something else (such as the original conception of the Cybermen, which made Kit Pedler's fears about people slowly replacing their body parts and becoming less and less human as a result into an easy-to-visualize threat) or occasionally to keep the younger viewers happy while the older ones focus on the more conceptual problem that the story is worrying at (see Ghost Light for possibly the oddest realization of this).  But there's nothing like that here; instead the focus is on Professor Lazarus's meddling with nature, but there's nothing beyond that -- and as Lazarus is shown to be something of a lecher before he undergoes his transformation (observe the scene between him and Tish, and note also how all his assistants are pretty young women), they can't even go down the "good man overwhelmed by baser instincts" route (as seen in Planet of Evil, or Doctor Octopus in the movie Spider-Man 2).  No, the whole thing is an excuse for them to pull out their crap CGI monster and have it chase our heroes around for a while, justifying the exercise with some nonsense about "dormant genes" becoming active.

Then, bizarrely, they decide to lift the ending of Timelash (always a story you want to emulate) and have a second ending instead, in a move which looks designed to fill the remaining time rather than because of some story decision they wanted to make.  It doesn't take the story in a new direction; it just gives us another chance to see their crummy monster in action.  (And it really isn't a very good monster, is it?  The face in particular is a bad move as it never changes expression, making it look like something out of a PlayStation cut scene rather than a real world creature.)

It's not all bad; there are some good lines (such as "Really shouldn't take that long just to reverse the polarity.  I must be a bit out of practice") and Freema Agyeman continues to be one of the best things this series -- I love the way she brings up the DNA sample, or how she insists on being more than just a passenger in the TARDIS.  The Saxon subplot is also interesting -- it's the first time we get the impression that this is going to be more than a simple background clue, to remain slightly obscured until episode 12 of the series, and I also like the way Harold Saxon, whoever he is, is being set up in opposition to the Doctor.  (Although, worryingly, the lightweight nature of the main plot means that this Saxon bit is the part you're most likely to remember from the whole thing.)  But ultimately "The Lazarus Experiment" is a failure, an attempt to justify an episode-long monster chase with a monster that's not really up to the challenge.  This is the first out-and-out failure of series 3.

February 15: "42"

Seems we have a winner in the "shortest episode title" category (unless someone names an episode "X" or "?" or something)...

Here's the thing about "42": everyone involved in actually filming this episode is working almost flat out to make this work, and to their credit they just about do it.  It's hard to point at much in the episode we see on screen and be able to say, "That bit's terrible."  Graeme Harper is doing a great job of injecting action and tension in this, and David Tennant and Freema Agyeman have thrown themselves completely into this story.  The supporting cast is good, and the set design is pleasingly industrial (and in keeping with "The Impossible Planet" / "The Satan Pit", which is set in roughly the same time period).  So then why does the final product feel so underwhelming?

The thing is, a week ago we had something that looked perilously close at times to Doctor Who self-parody, with a giant monster chase serving as a substitute for an actual plot, much how the general public might think the show operates.  This week we get something that Doctor Who actually does: a "base-under-siege" tale, essentially, with an external force threatening to destroy everyone inside the base, and an intruder inside also wreaking havoc.  But "42" doesn't have a new spin on this sort of thing.

The Doctor is possessed by the sun creature. ("42") ©BBC
That's not the worst of sins, of course, but the other problem that becomes apparent once you stop to think about this episode is how much writer Chris Chibnall is throwing at this thing, hoping something will stick.  And so we get a bunch of locked doors (in what must be the stupidest security system ever -- incidentally, the answer about the most number one hits presupposes we're talking about British number ones, as the Beatles have the most number ones in the US), a sentient sun, possessed people (including the Doctor!), a situation with an escape pod, the real-time idea...  There are so many ideas that they're all jostling for attention, and thus none of them really get the attention they deserve.  And the thing is, there are some interesting ideas here -- the sentient sun should have probably have received a lot more focus, but instead it's just there to explain why the crew members are possessed.  And while the possession bit is actually rather well done (thanks, again, to the efforts of the people concerned with things that will show up on screen), with nice faceless masks that look properly intimidating, they never feel like too much of a threat -- partly because we then have to deal with the escape pod, and then the Doctor being possessed, and then the ship falling into the sun, and then...

(Oh, and if they didn't keep putting up the real-time countdown clock, you'd never notice.  Also, they cheat a few times -- such as between the first and second appearances of the clock.)

So there are lots of ideas, each potentially workable on their own but denied the development they deserve.  The result is a shallow, ultimately unsatisfying story, one that looks more like Doctor Who-by-numbers than something original.  That's a shame, because Chibnall has some interesting ideas here, as I said -- it's just that none of them get a chance to breathe.  To their credit, the cast and crew almost make something of this, but ultimately "42" is a rather disappointing tale.  (Even if it's better than Chibnall's series 1 Torchwood scripts.)

February 16: "Human Nature"

"Human Nature" is the first part of Paul Cornell's two-part adaptation of his own novel Human Nature -- one of the best received of Virgin's New Adventures line, which continued the Doctor's adventures after Survival.  In the original novel it was the seventh Doctor and his companion was archaeologist Professor Bernice Summerfield, who posed as his niece instead of a servant, but the general plot beats are the same between the two (which, if you think the books are "canon" -- as much as anything in Doctor Who is considered canon -- leads to some interesting conversations about whether this storyline had happened before the tenth Doctor put his Time Lord-ness in a Chameleon Arch).

John Smith and Nurse Joan Redfern. ("Human Nature") ©BBC
What's most obvious about "Human Nature" is how good David Tennant is.  He manages to make John Smith a distinct character from the Doctor, yet still one who still seems like he might have the Doctor in there somewhere.  As such, his shy, awkward nature -- around Nurse Redfern in particular -- is quite entertaining to view.  It's fascinating to get essentially a different take on how to play this character, and Tennant is clearly relishing the opportunity to do so.  And while Tennant is playing at being human, Freema Agyeman continues to excel in the rather more thankless role of looking after him without trying to be too obvious about it.  It's interesting to watch her deal with racism and looking "a little familiar" with John Smith, and Martha frankly does a good job of keeping her head about all this.  These scenes are good, but my favorite ones might be when she heads into the TARDIS and views the video instructions the Doctor left her before he transformed -- the ones that give all sorts of instructions but utterly fail to describe what to do if the Doctor falls in love.  (Even if the line about how the Doctor "had to go and fall in love with a human, and it wasn't me" rings a bit of a sour note -- yes, this is clearly the direction they want to take Martha, but it never feels right, for a multitude of reasons (least of all that it reduces Martha's role to that of pining hopelessly after the Doctor, which is a great injustice).)

I said the plot beats are largely the same between the book and the TV version, but that's not quite true; the televised version has a much better reason for the Doctor to change (here it's because he's being pursued by aliens; in the book it was because he was worried he was too out-of-touch with humanity, and the aliens showed up later), and the urgency that this lends events is really nice.  It gives a much sharper purpose, and it gives us a lot more foreshadowing about what's to come that works well in this story's favor.  The inclusion of the scarecrows as monsters is also a nice touch, and the way the Family of Blood all tilt their heads and sniff as they try to find the Doctor is simple yet effective.  On the other hand, the MacGuffin that holds the Doctor's Time Lord nature is essentially stolen by Tim Latimer, which is a bit problematic in pure heroic terms.  (In the book, Tim finds the MacGuffin outside.)

Still, it's a really well done episode of the show, even if it is pure setup until the cliffhanger.  The question is, how will the second half hold up?  The "next time" trailer after the credits certainly provides some interesting scenes...

February 17: "The Family of Blood"

Son of Mine and Mother of Mine gather their army. ("The Family of
Blood") ©BBC
Here's where the action is, as the Family of Blood start killing people and sending their scarecrow army against the public school John Smith is teaching at, all so that they can get their hands on a Time Lord and thus live forever.  To this end we get some good action moments, such as the boys shooting down the scarecrows and the Family bombarding the village to draw the Doctor out.

But ultimately, what this story wants to be is a character study of the Doctor: once you strip away all the "lonely god", "last of the Time Lords" stuff, what's left?  What is it that makes the Doctor tick?  Is the Doctor, at his core, a good man (to borrow one of series 8's promotional lines)?  The answer seems to be yes, but they try to have it both ways: to make a human Doctor still a good person, but all the while insisting that the full Doctor is one of the best things ever.  So what this means is that, while you might expect that John Smith has the basic traits and beliefs of the Doctor, that's not really what we get.  Instead we get the result of a human Doctor, and the result is...human.  Plain old homo sapiens sapiens.  He's not a bad man, but he's very much human, with all the failings and weaknesses that entails.

Here's a case in point: last episode, Tim starts daydreaming during machine gun practice, and so Hutchinson asks if he can go discipline Tim.  John Smith agrees without a second thought.  It's certainly in keeping with the time period, but it doesn't really match how we -- all right, I -- think the Doctor should be.  (A similar situation in the book gives John Smith pause, which might be why this sticks out to me.)  It is, however, a human reaction.

But so while the "Human Nature" 2-parter espouses the virtues of being human, it also details the benefits of being the Doctor -- best summed up in Tim's speech: "He's like fire and ice and rage.  He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. ... He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. ... And he's wonderful."  And that seems to be the point of this story: that it's good to be human, but it's also good to be the Doctor, even if he brings death and destruction with him.  The universe needs him.  But that's nothing new; that's been an underlying theme of the show for some time now.

And so here's the thing: this story is definitely firing on almost all cylinders -- there are only a couple odd moments, like the Doctor's rather vengeful punishments for the Family -- and David Tennant is incredible here, as he rages against becoming the Doctor.  It's also fascinating how much more distant he becomes once he's the Doctor again -- the scene between him and Nurse Redfern at the end is very powerful as a result.  The rest of the cast are excellent -- Harry Lloyd in particular is incredibly creepy as Son of Mine -- and the direction and design is gorgeous.  But I find that "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood" isn't quite the story I want it to be.  It sometimes feels like there's a missed opportunity, a lost chance to see what really makes the Doctor tick.

The Discontinuity Guide uses a phrase to describe The Caves of Androzani: "brilliant but over-rated."  That pretty much sums up my feelings on "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood".  It's wonderful, but I feel like it could have been even more wonderful.

February 18: "Blink"

It is, of course, one of the best episodes Doctor Who has ever done -- it's been in fandom's collective top ten since its debut and subsequent years have done nothing to tarnish its luster.  It reinforced Steven Moffat's reputation as an A-list Who writer (a reputation that only began to falter once he was required to write more than one story a year), and it won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form -- Moffat's third win in as many years.  No mean feat for an episode that barely features either main character.

Sally with a bunch of creepy statues. ("Blink") ©BBC
But like last series's "Doctor-lite" episode, "Blink" exists in the Doctor's shadow -- not as much as "Love & Monsters" did, but with a strong influence from the Doctor, as he's the one who brings this episode's main character, Sally Sparrow, into events.  (Well, sort of; by the end we know it's not that simple.)  But the focus is on Sally (played by another person just before she made it big, Carey Mulligan), as she slowly works out what's going on, thanks to clues that have been planted decades earlier for her to discover right now.  It's one of those plots that seems like it would have come up before, but for a show about time travel, Doctor Who seems rather reluctant to play with time much (except for Steven Moffat, who seems far more interested in it than anyone else writing for the TV version) -- but we get some ontological paradoxes, as the Doctor tells Sally what to do based on things she's told him as a result of his telling her what to do.  Or as the Doctor says, in probably the best-known line from this episode (and possibly the entire show): "People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey... stuff."  ("Started well, that sentence," Sally remarks.  "It got away from me, yeah," the Doctor replies.)

But while the time hijinks are fun (and there's something incredibly wonderful and tragic about the old Billy Shipton meeting Sally again: "It was raining when we met," Billy remembers.  "It's the same rain," Sally replies), the thing that really elevates "Blink" above its peers is the sense of tension and terror it induces.  Moffat has hit upon a winning formula with his Weeping Angels creation -- a monster that only moves when you're not looking at it.  It plays upon the fear of being watched when you don't know it, and of things moving that you only see out of the corner of your eye.  (There's also a more mundane origin: Moffat was inspired by the children's game "Statues".)  It's a very effective and creepy adversary, and even the way it "kills" you -- by sending you back in time and feeding on the life you would have had -- is inspired.

So, an incredibly effective monster, a great cast (Carey Mulligan justly gets a lot of praise, but Finlay Robertson, as Larry Nightingale, does a lot with a somewhat thankless role -- and look, it's Louis Mahoney, from various David Maloney-directed Who stories, as old Billy), wonderful direction, and some clever fun with time travel mechanics and paradoxes make "Blink" a special episode indeed.  It's clever and smart and just about everything we want the show to be, and the Weeping Angels are probably the greatest creation of the BBC Wales run.  It's not hard to see why this captured the imagination of so many people.

February 19: "Utopia"

Well, it took six months (in contemporary real world terms), but we finally find out what happened to Captain Jack when he ran out of the Torchwood Hub at the end of "End of Days" -- he clung to the outside of the TARDIS as it dematerialized (having stopped off briefly to refuel at the rift -- "Should only take twenty seconds," the Doctor remarks in one of the few acknowledgements of the events of Torchwood in Doctor Who; "the rift's been active"), and the TARDIS was so freaked out by Jack's presence that it went to the end of the universe -- the year one hundred trillion -- to try and get rid of him.

It's really great to see Captain Jack back with the Doctor again -- the chemistry between the two is well done, even with Tennant playing the Doctor as stand-offish (since, as we learn later, the Doctor finds Jack to be "wrong" now that he's a fixed point in time -- and this is the first time this now oft-recurring phrase gets used).  Fascinatingly, Jack snaps back into focus as a character; he's perfectly happy to accept orders from the Doctor, he's flirting with people again, and his energy and liveliness are back to where they should be.  The brooding Jack of Torchwood is nowhere to be seen.  (Although, oddly, it's in this episode and not Torchwood where we learn something about Jack's history between "The Parting of the Ways" and "Everything Changes", and how he used his Vortex Manipulator (the thing on his wrist) to travel back in time: "I thought 21st century, the best place to find the Doctor, except that I got it a little wrong.  Arrived in 1869, this thing burnt out, so it was useless. ... I had to live through the entire twentieth century waiting for a version of you that would coincide with me.")  One of the best moments of "Utopia" is the quiet conversation between the Doctor and Jack as Jack sets the couplings that will let Professor Yana's rocket fly.  Part of it is just bringing people up to speed/reminding them of past events, and part of it is to trigger things in Yana's head, but the way Tennant and Barrowman interact is genuinely lovely.

Professor Yana meets Martha, the Doctor, and Jack. ("Utopia")
But what's also great about "Utopia" is the story: Russell T Davies does a great job depicting the end of the universe (so the Doctor Who universe has an end then -- but then that's consistent with Logopolis, so it's not the first time the universe has been chronologically finite), showing that people still survive in some form, clinging to hope.  There may be no better exemplar of this than the character of Professor Yana, who keeps on plugging away at his rocket, giving the humans living on Malcassairo hope that they'll one day reach Utopia.  Sir Derek Jacobi is incredible as Yana, full of energy and enthusiasm and brilliance, all wrapped in a kind-hearted package -- albeit one bothered by a constant drumming sound in his head.  All that makes Yana's true nature all the more surprising and compelling, as he reveals that he has a fob watch just like the Doctor had in "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood".  Once Martha brings the watch to his attention, he starts to hear voices -- including a chuckle from Anthony Ainley and one of Roger Delgado's lines from The Dæmons: Professor Yana is in fact the Master.185

What's really impressive is how incredibly evil Jacobi is in his few short minutes as the Master.  It's all too easy to see that this is the same Master as before, selfish and vindictive and wanting to make the Doctor suffer -- in particular, the hatred in Jacobi's eyes as he confronts his assistant Chantho is frightening indeed.  You sort of get the impression that Jacobi is living out a dream here, to be on proper televised Doctor Who (remember, he'd already played the Master in Scream of the Shalka, but that's not really the same thing) -- and apparently he was.  It's somewhat sad that he's shot by Chantho at the end of the episode -- "Killed by an insect.  A girl.  How inappropriate" -- and regenerates into John Simm.  Not that that's meant as a slight against Simm, mind, but it would have been cool to have seen even more of Jacobi.

Hell of a cliffhanger, though, as the newly-regenerated Master takes the Doctor's TARDIS away while the Futurekind are trying to get at our heroes so they can kill (eat?) them.  "Utopia" is a gripping, enthralling success, with a glorious return for one of the Doctor's oldest enemies, and I can't wait to see what happens next.

February 20: "The Sound of Drums"

The second part186 of series 3's three-part finale (just like an old 6-parter!) brings us back to contemporary London, with our heroes able to escape after the Doctor fixes Jack's Vortex Manipulator.  The Master is in fact this Harold Saxon person we've been hearing about since "Love & Monsters", and he's just become Prime Minister.  That, of course, puts the Doctor and company in danger, what with the Master declaring them to be "Public enemies number one, two, and three" and all.

The Master introduces his allies, the Toclafane. ("The Sound of
Drums") ©BBC
It's occasionally hard to tell what John Simm is doing as the Master -- sometimes it looks like he's not taking this remotely seriously.  But that's clearly meant to be the point: this is a Master full of energy and life, in a very similar way to David Tennant's Doctor.  The difference is that the Master is completely unhinged.  But that doesn't mean he can't have a good time while he's being insane and evil.  (I really like the scene with the Cabinet and the gas mask, which combines this sense of fun with being evil.)  And we can in fact tell that this silliness is a part of the character (as opposed to Simm taking the piss) because of how serious his phone conversation with the Doctor is.  The conversation about the fate of Gallifrey, and how the Master was resurrected (and note the choice of word there -- presumably that's to deal with what was seen at the end of the TV Movie, but it's written vaguely enough that you can have all sorts of interpretations and theories about the Master's fate) to fight in the Time War, only to run away and hide, is proof that Simm can be serious as the Master.  What this means is that the combination of the two (serious and wacky) make for a dangerous individual, and clearly shows how the Master is meant to be the Doctor's counterpart.  And it definitely is the Master -- Davies slips in some references to the old Master just to make it explicit (his watching of Teletubbies harkens back to watching Clangers in The Sea Devils, and his line "Peoples of the Earth, please attend carefully" is deliberately meant to resemble the beginning of the Master's proclamation to the universe in Logopolis).

In many ways this story is a bit of a treat for long-time fans: in the Doctor's descriptions of the Master, we get some lovely views of Gallifrey as it was, complete with Time Lords wearing those Deadly Assassin high collars and the reappearance of the Seal of Rassilon (that figure-eight design).  But we also get an explanation for the Master's villainy after the fact: he's doing it because of the constant drumming in his head, because looking into the time vortex (via the Untempered Schism on Gallifrey) drove him mad.  (And as an aside, note how the young Master's costume is meant to look like the ones we saw in The War Games.)  We also get some fun dialogue between Martha and the Doctor about the relationship between the Doctor and the Master:
MARTHA: And what is he to you?  Like a colleague, or...
DOCTOR: A friend, at first.
MARTHA: I thought you were going to say he was your secret brother or something.
DOCTOR: You've been watching too much TV.
(There's also a lovely line, after the Doctor describes how a perception filter works: "It's like when you fancy someone and they don't even know you exist.  That's what it's like."  It's slightly annoying because that's Martha's "thing", the unrequited love bit, and the Doctor's just oblivious to it, but then Jack turns it on its head into a genuinely funny moment: "You too, huh?" he says, looking at Martha.)

This episode spends a lot of time setting things up for the final few minutes, as Harold Saxon has announced to the world that first contact with an alien race is going to happen the next morning.  This seems to happen on a UNIT helicarrier called the Valiant (so, not at all like Captain Scarlet's Cloudbase/Marvel Comics's SHIELD helicarrier, then (delete according to preference)), with the proceedings being run (briefly) by the US President Winters.187  It's an action-packed climax, to be sure -- President Winters assassinated (on live television, it seems), the Doctor reduced to an old man (thanks to the Master's laser screwdriver -- "Who'd have sonic?" he asks derisively), Jack killed ("And the good thing is, he's not dead for long!" the Master exclaims.  "I get to kill him again!"), and Martha on the run with Jack's teleport, as the skies fill with billions of Toclafane, raining death from the skies while Rogue Traders' "Voodoo Child" plays on the Valiant.  How are they going to wrap this all up in "Last of the Time Lords"?  It's hard to say, but if that's anything like these first two installments, we'll be in for a real treat.

February 21: "The Infinite Quest"

But before we get to the climactic series 3 finale, there's a piece of Doctor Who to deal with first...

Throughout series 3, the spin-off show Totally Doctor Who (which was a show designed primarily for children, giving them behind-the-scenes looks and testing their knowledge and resourcefulness) has been running an animated story -- with the voices of David Tennant and Freema Agyeman -- in roughly three-minute installments (so, strictly speaking, I haven't followed this story chronologically with the rest of series 3).  The final installment aired at the end of the edited-together "Omnibus" edition, which was broadcast immediately before "Last of the Time Lords" (if I'm reading the BBC's Genome website correctly, that is).  Hence why I've decided to watch it at this point in series 3.188

Technically it's rather well done.  The animation is really quite gorgeous, with lots of clean lines and some very smooth movement -- we've come a long way since Scream of the Shalka four years ago.  It also helps that everyone in the cast seems fully committed to making this as good as possible, with no one phoning it in.  (It probably doesn't hurt that a number of the cast -- David Tennant included -- are veterans of the Big Finish audio dramas.)  Anthony Head does a fine job as the main villain Baltazar, and Freema Agyeman seems to be having a good time with this too.

The Doctor and Martha confront Baltazar. ("The Infinite Quest") ©BBC
Where it falls down is the storyline.  Writer Alan Barnes (one of the more talented and prolific spin-off writers -- particularly in the audio format) has given us a relatively simple and straightforward quest storyline, as the Doctor and Martha try to track down an ancient spaceship called the Infinite before Baltazar can get his evil hands on it.  This is pretty clearly because the story is broken up into segments -- most of the locations are only on-screen for seven minutes or so -- but, watched all together, this is oddly like viewing a version of The Keys of Marinus that's been compressed into 45 minutes -- right down to the nature of the quest (data chips instead of keys, but the principle's the same).  Barnes tries to make a virtue of this, with lots of exotic locations and strange creatures (with the dung city and the giant insect queen being a highlight), but ultimately there's not much he can do.

Still, it's not too dumb or anything, and it generally remains entertaining throughout.  It's about as deep as a kiddie pool, but again, this is because of the nature of the beast.  No, in the end this is another pleasantly average and inoffensive story: fun enough while it lasts, but nothing particularly memorable about it.

February 22: "Last of the Time Lords"

Hmm.  This is a bit of a schizophrenic episode.  On the one hand it does some things really well, but on the other hand it has some flagrantly silly moments.

What works?  The "one year later" conceit works surprisingly well -- it actually lets the Master win for a bit, and we see that he's about as awful a ruler as you might expect.  He's crazy and selfish and generally terrible, but he's clearly having a ball being in charge.  John Simm is presenting us with an unhinged Master, one who has come a long way but hasn't quite completed his goal yet.  The way he humiliates the Jones family is handled well, and the abuse that Lucy Saxon endures is subtle -- a line here, a bruise there -- but effective; it makes sense that she would be the one to shoot the Master.

The stuff with Martha traveling the Earth also works well; we get to hear about some of the atrocities the Master has committed (such as the destruction of Japan) without the Mill having to knock up an unconvincing visual effect to try and sell it.  Martha is shown to be still in control, even despite what she's seen, and that's a good move.  Meanwhile, her discovery of the true nature of the Toclafane -- that they're the humans we saw in "Utopia" -- is a great moment, tying in with the first part nicely (if bleakly) and providing us both the reason why the Master turned the Doctor's TARDIS into a paradox machine and some insight into his mad plan to make the Toclafane into the new Time Lords and Earth the new Gallifrey.  (What's not clearly explained is why the Master thinks this will be an acceptable substitute, but we can probably excuse that away as a consequence of the drums in his head.)

Jack says goodbye to the Doctor and Martha. ("Last of the Time
Lords") ©BBC
Sadly, Jack doesn't get much to do this episode, as he spends most of it chained up, but the Face of Boe gag is cute.  (Although if Jack really is the Face of Boe, clearly something happened to his biology over the millennia to let him be pregnant.)  And it's nice that the Doctor has gotten over his prejudice against Jack and offers to let him travel with him -- but there's another series of Torchwood coming up, so Jack has to decline.

Where "Last of the Time Lords" goes off the rails is with the Doctor.  The old man stuff isn't too bad (although it took them a year to come up with a plan to get the Doctor the Master's screwdriver?), and while the little Doctor troll is daft, there's something charming about such a bold move as Davies makes here.  What's ludicrous, however, is the deus ex machina ending (yes, another one), which really is a move too far.  Nothing, not the earlier descriptions of the Archangel network, not the Doctor making a statement about how he had a year to "tune myself into the psychic network and integrate with its matrices", can paper over the sheer silliness of the Doctor being de-aged and flying around thanks to the power of worldwide love.  It's far and away Davies' most blatant deus ex machina resolution yet, and it weakens the whole episode.  The Master's refusal to regenerate, and the Doctor's desperate desire to not be the only Time Lord, is nicely played though.

So as I said, there are some good moments in "Last of the Time Lords" and some risible ones.  But when you take the first two episodes into account, you get a solid take and a great reintroduction for the Master.  It's only when tasked with a resolution to this story that Russell T Davies comes up short; everything else is firing on all cylinders.

But then that's been par for the course for most of series 3.  After the unevenness of series 2, Doctor Who seems to have regained its footing.  The stories are of a higher quality than last year's, and they've really lucked out with Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones, who consistently turns in an excellent performance and makes us care about Martha from almost her first moment onscreen.  It's a genuine shame that they made her primary characteristic appear to be pining after the Doctor, because both the character and the actress deserved better.  There's also the related problem that this series spends a bit too much time in Rose's shadow; it doesn't happen as much as it sometimes feels, but there is a danger of the show looking back too often instead of forward, and that's also grossly unfair to Martha/Freema.

But these concerns aside, series 3 provides us with a show that's shaken off its sophomore slump and reemerged victorious.  David Tennant is in fine form, and the show under Davies seems as vibrant as ever.  It's certainly the most consistent in tone and characterization that Doctor Who has been since 2005.  Now, will they be able to keep it going in series 4?


181 Owing to the fact that I'm trying to go as chronologically as possible (though it's gonna get tricky when we get to the Australian K-9 spinoff), and "Combat" was broadcast on 24 December 2006 -- aka the day before "The Runaway Bride".
182 Two points for old-school fans: when Torchwood (or whoever) dug into the center of the earth, did a bunch of them turn into Primords after touching a weird green slime?  And why didn't the Earth blow up anyway?  (And quickly pouring a lot of water into the center of the earth is a lot like Professor Zaroff's plan to blow up the world in The Underwater Menace -- so that's two ways the world should have been destroyed.)
184 Strictly speaking, they've screwed up the year, as Love's Labour's Won is mentioned in a book dated 1598.  But never mind.
185 Allegedly they wanted to use a clip of Eric Roberts from the TV Movie as well, but the complicated rights issues surrounding that production -- note that the US didn't receive a home video release of that story until 2011 for that same reason -- prevented it.  It probably would have been a line like, "Life is wasted on the living," but I like to think it would have been "I always drezz for the occasion."
186 There's actually a bit of debate as to whether "Utopia" counts as its own story or as part 1 of 3.  Russell T Davies has said that he thinks of it as a standalone episode that sets up the finale, and "Utopia" has some characteristics that set it apart from "The Sound of Drums" and "Last of the Time Lords": it has a different director (Graeme Harper) than the other two (Colin Teague) -- which isn't unprecedented (see, for instance, The Daleks) -- and it was filmed in a different production block, which is unprecedented.  However, Davies made his comment in a column explaining why you need to make the end of series 3 one 3-part story in order to get "Planet of the Dead" to be story #200, which is how they were promoting that episode (you also have to make The Trial of a Time Lord one story in order for that numbering to work -- in other words, there's no way you can have Dragonfire be story 150 and have "Planet of the Dead" be story 200 at the same time).  Doctor Who Magazine thinks it's one story, mind, and most people have followed suit.  But not all.
187 Much has been made by people (myself included, at one point) by the fact that Winters introduces himself to the Toclafane as "President-elect of the United States", which would seem to suggest that he's not actually the President yet, and so has been elected but not yet sworn in.  This would have been between November 2008 and January 2009 and thus looks like an effort by Davies to stick with the "current year+1" dating.  Except that causes all sorts of havoc with the rest of the dates we've seen in the series (regarding Saxon's election campaign in particular), which are hard enough to sort out without this extra bit of information.  In order to accommodate the other dates, some people have suggested that perhaps the timing of the election in the United States has moved -- but to an American, this would be like moving the dates of Decimal Day in the UK and thus isn't a great solution.  But what's also interesting is that this is the only time Winters is referred to as "President-elect" -- in every other case (in dialogue and on-screen graphics) it's simply "President Winters".  So it's probably easier to assume that Winters is in fact the full President of the United States, and he simply chose an odd way of stating he was the elected President.
188 In terms of internal chronology, it's worth noting that Martha's still wearing the outfit she wore in the first few episodes, when she was on her "one trip."  I'm going to tentatively suggest this takes place between "Gridlock" and "Daleks in Manhattan", but your mileage may vary.