Sunday, June 14, 2015

10 Years of Doctor Who Reborn: Series Four

Hello, Whovians everywhere and to all the ships at sea AND in space!

Over the last three weeks, I've been presenting a series of posts looking back over the 10 years since Doctor Who ventured forth from the wilderness to return to our televisions. So far, I've looked back at Series 1, Series 2 and Series 3. So if I've done my math right, today we're moving on to Series 4.

Reviewing Series 4 was the most challenging for me so far. Usually I have some idea where various episodes might go and indeed I usually have a solid lock on the two at the bottom and the two at the top.

This one was different. Except for the Episode at #14, every episode of Series 4 changed positions several times. Even up to within hours of posting this, I was still flipping episodes around.

If you're wondering why this was so challenging for me, you'll see as we move through the list. But speaking of move, let's get moving on.

Series 4 reunited the Doctor with Donna Noble in what as got to be one of the most interesting Doctor/Companion pairings over the course of both the classic and modern series. Gone were the young, love-struck girls pining away for the Doctor (as if he would notice). Rose and Martha were quite capable companions but Donna looked the Doctor in the eye and said, "You're not mating with me, sunshine!" and things were running from there. So after our lovely photo of the Doctor and Donna Noble,let's crack open Series 4 and see what there is to see. 

#14 Voyage of the Damned **
Before we get to Series 4 proper, let's take a look at the 2007 Christmas special with SPECIAL GUEST STAR Kylie Minogue. The thing about Doctor Who Christmas specials is Russell T Davies had to shoehorn Christmas into them. (Steven Moffat has been more overt with holiday influences on the specials he has written.) If you take the Christmas out of this particular Christmas special, it would be fairly neat episode, playing with the tropes of the classic disaster movie such as oddly mismatched people struggling to survive while being picked off one by one. Still, there are things that seem a Max Capricorn was not particularly effective as the evil mastermind; really, he was more sleezy evil than evil evil.  As for SPECIAL GUEST STAR Kylie, she's not that great but she's not that bad.

#13 The Sontaran Strategem ***
#12 The Poison Sky ***
Putting this 2-parter at the bottom of the list for Series 4 meant that writer Helen Raynor winds up at the bottom of the list for 2 weeks in a row. Last week's assessment of Raynor's two part Dalek story was negative and deservedly so. (Although much of that was attributable to bad effects and bad casting.) Raynor's pair of episodes for Series 4 which bring back the Sontarans to the revived series are far stronger. But as we progress through these episodes, you will see it was also a stronger season. 

There's a lot to set up in Part One as we see UNIT back in action, the return of Martha Jones and Donna reunited with her family. There's a mystery with killer cars and an annoyingly prick of a genius. And there are the Sontarans, the alien potato warriors who really, really like fighting. 

Part Two delivers on the promise of the 1st installment with Freeman Agyeman in a duo role as Martha and as Martha's evil clone, Donna alone against the Sontarans ("Back of the neck!"), UNIT actually demonstrating some strategic thinking instead of just shooting at things and the Doctor fast talking his way to a solution. All in all, a solid pair of episodes with a respectable return of a classic Doctor Who foe. Any other year, these episodes would've been higher on the list. 

#11 The Unicorn & the Wasp ***
Oh, I really wanted to rate this one higher. The Doctor and Donna throw themselves into 1920's English society as a garden party gets disrupted by a murder worthy of an Agatha Christie novel. It's perhaps a good thing Agatha Christie herself is present to help sort things out. The tropes of the classic drawing room mystery are well played here with perhaps our alien giant wasp thing being a bit much over the top but still. There are quite a lot of absurdities piling up in this story but danged if I didn't enjoy it.  

#10 Fires of Pompeii ***
The Doctor and Donna head off to ancient Rome but winds up a bit short of the mark, landing in Pompeii instead and, wouldn't you know it, right before volcano day. There's a weight of doom over the proceedings: the eruption of the volcano is a fact of history. Also add a big dollop of creepy with weirdo seers and soothsayers. The relationship of the Doctor and Donna gets burnished here as we see both struggle with Pompeii's destiny: Donna is determined the Doctor has to do something while the Doctor is equally determined there is nothing that can be done. In the end, they're both right. And look: it's future Doctor Peter Capaldi who snatches up the TARDIS as 'modern art'. 

#09 The Doctor's Daughter ***

This is the episode that introduced a character that Whovians have demanded to see again, Jenny, a soldier cloned from the Doctor's DNA. Which means she can fight and be very clever. We see the Doctor's refutation of this person as his daughter, dismissing her as a soldier who knows only how to kill. (In case you thought the whole hostile to soldiers thing was unique to the 12th Doctor.) Donna comes through with a vital observation that cracks open the mystery at the heart of the episode. (Best temp in Chiswick, indeed!) Martha is on hand as well although her role in the story is rather superfluous; still, good to see her in action. This is a solid episode with humor, drama and action. 

#08 Partners in Crime ***

Aliens made out of human fat? Yeah, Doctor Who veers off into the absurd but who cares. Once again, something that is commonplace (overweight people) is turned into something menacing even if the Adipose are just too darn cute. 

Meanwhile, Donna Noble has been investigating weird things in the hope she'll run into something weird enough to involve the Doctor. Seems she's had a change of heart since The Runaway Bride and wants to explore time and space with the Doctor. The Doctor and Donna do finally encounter each other in what has to be one of the funniest sequences in the history of Doctor Who. A solid start to a new series and a new(ish) companion. 

#07 The Silence in the Library ***
#06 The Forest of the Dead ****
Steven Moffat's back with an intensely scary two parter that makes us scared not of what's in the dark but of the dark itself. The Doctor and Donna find themselves in an oddly deserted planetary library save for an expedition crew led by...River Song. Yes, Alex Kingston makes her debut as the adventuring archaeologist who knows the Doctor even if he doesn't.  She also knows something that the Doctor has never told anyone: his real name.

Even without the added bonus of meeting River for the first time (or last, depending on your perspective), these episodes are taunt with terror. The first episode is strong but the 2nd part really delivers. And bravo to Catherine Tate who invests so much humor and pathos into Donna's "life" with her husband and kids.

#05 Planet of the Ood ****
The Doctor and Donna get caught up in a strange and frightening uprising by the Ood who are not as benevolently accepting of their fate as servants as others would have us believe. This episode is a potent mix of horror and science fiction coupled to a strong social message. There's action, drama, comedy, tragedy and compassion in this story. Donna may have been self-centered when we first met her but her compassion for the Ood is the strong heart of this episode. 

#04 The Stolen Earth ****
Doctor Who meets Marvel's Avengers? I know I was geeking out as I watched so many threads from across 4 years of Doctor Who come together, also pulling it's classic past as well. Rose Tyler, Martha Jones and UNIT, Jack Harkness and Torchwood, Harriet Jones: Former Prime Minister (yes, we know who she is), Sarah Jane Smith with her son and her super computer, the return of Davros, a visit to the Shadow Proclamation. Wow! And that ending! The most astonishing cliffhanger ever in Doctor Who history!

#03 Midnight *****
The Doctor is on his own with a bunch of strangers trapped on a strange alien world with something that cannot be seen but seems to determined to kill them. Or make them kill each other. This is one creepy intense episode from start to finish with the Doctor not only cut off from Donna and the TARDIS but also from every fast talking trick he usually uses to get out of trouble. The people trapped on the Crusader One aren't having any of the Doctor's quick "I'm more clever than you" double talk. Then when the alien presence paralyzes the Doctor where even speech is beyond him, the horror continues to build. Humanity in a small space isn't pretty as tempers flare and fear escalates. This one is on par with Blink from Series 3 for downright scariness. And it's not an encounter that even the Doctor can easily shake off, even at the end, reunited with Donna. 

And speaking of Donna...

#02 Turn Left *****
...and also speaking of humanity in tight places as Donna and her family live in a world without the Doctor and its not a very good world as various alien threats create damage that the Doctor had otherwise been there to stop. But as Donna moves from one life altering crisis to another, she keeps getting told there's something on her back. And she certainly has someone on her tail as Rose Tyler appears at different points guiding Donna on a journey to save everything with no guarantee of survival and all hinging on one simple decision.

Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins give stand out performances as the world Donna and Wilfred know keeps coming undone around them. And kudos to Billie Piper who imbues Rose with a wit that comes from someone who has learned well from her time with the Doctor. 

#01 Journey's End *****
Remember all that fan boy gushing I did about The Stolen Earth? Well, crank that up to a eleven with this follow up as the Doctor Who Avengers come together, the Doctor regenerates...well, almost, not quite. We get the debut of the human Doctor and the more of Davros eating up all the scenery! That bit near the end with the Doctor and everybody on board the TARDIS bringing Earth back home has got to be the most fun, triumphant, uplifting thing ever on Doctor Who. But that is only near the end. No, the actual end brings about the fulfillment of a grim prophecy and the Doctor experiences a loss like none other.

Donna Noble's journeys with the Doctor in the TARDIS were marked by her considerable growth as a person beyond the self centered person we met in The Runaway Bride. Even over the course of this episode, we see Donna go from grappling with uncertainty and self doubt to leading the way in defeating the Dalek. Donna Noble as the Doctor Donna, what the universe was waiting for. Alas, the universe couldn't keep her. And in all the ways a companion has ever left the Doctor in both the classic and the revived series, this has got to be most heartbreaking loss ever. Yes, there is a fate worst than death. But the fact that this ending hurts so much is testament to strength of the Donna Noble character and her development over the course of a particularly strong series of episodes. 


And that brings us to the end of Series 4. As the last scene of Journey's End faded away, Whovians had no idea of the journey that awaited us.  Including saying farewell to a much beloved Doctor.

Next week 10 Years of Doctor Who Reborn continues with Series...4 1/2? Hey, works for me! We look at the specials that spanned the end of an era. 

Carl Kasell

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