The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: Series 3

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For previous installments:

 

The Best:

Human Nature, and The Family of Blood

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I really enjoyed this particular story for several reasons. The timing of the story, the really effectively scary foes, and the emotional payout between the alias John Smith and Nurse Redfern. On top of that, Martha Jones was really shown well here and her skin color was not the least ignored. According to the Den of Geek review of Human Nature:

In an interesting confluence of events, this week saw Martha having to charge of events in Doctor Who proper, just as it was vaguely rumoured – and denied – that she was off the programme by the end of the series. Now, we are talking about the Sun here, so it’s not exactly from a beacon of truth-telling respectability. But there still may be something in the rumours.

Given the paper’s previous priority access to many big Who stories, like Cybermen and Dalek pics, it could conceivably be the programme-makers floating the idea and seeing what people would think of ditching her. And mercifully, the reaction seems to have been a stern ‘she’s quite good, actually, leave your hands off.’ The idea from the quoted BBC source that the falling ratings are Freema Agyeman’s fault would be more believable if they weren’t entirely, unerringly 100% attributable to unimaginative writing.

Human Nature neatly demonstrates why Martha’s a good thing. With the Doctor tied up in human form and falling in love (incidentally, FAR too quickly to be believably played out, even by the wonderful Jessica Not Stevenson), she rolled her sleeves up, scrubbed floors and gamely took racist comments. Her declaration of love for the Doctor seems unlikely to end up anywhere interesting, but it can quietly burble away in the background. A hands-on ballsy lieutenant is what the Doctor needs and what she’s provided, looking after him in human hiding.

The Doctor, meanwhile, having become human, seemed to act remarkably like the Doctor. He always did cut quite an Edwardian schoolteacher figure, so it’s not an overwhelming surprise. That he was so well-anchored in convincing Edwardian times, without the need of explaining and dissecting every piece of class division or social staidness as normally happens with new surroundings in Who, would suggest that splitting the Doctor and Martha up was a good idea. Well, that, and there’s a decent writer in charge for once.

Still, you can understanding why there’s the need to hide from the actually-quite-scary Family of Blood. This is largely thanks to Baines’ face, a spiteful sneer of joyful malice that plays out like a young Mr Burns. The scarecrows were nicely Jeepers Creepers scary, although how sinister they’ll be without some fancy straw tricks up their tatty sleeves for next week is yet to be seen.

Still, it’s good acting a-plenty in the countryside. Jessica Not Stevenson (yes, I’m going to make that stick) always does play bumbling lovely folk so nicely, and both war prophet Tim and the girl with a red balloon managed to be child actors who can actually, well, act.

All in all, a good episode that shows that Martha should be kept aboard the Tardis. Now they just have to work out how they’re getting rid of the current Tennant, and there will be a full complement of crew who can act properly.

According to the Den of Geek review of The Family of Blood:

Let’s start off with the emotional stuff, because that is so often the Achilles heel of new Who. John Smith actually felt like a different person to the Doctor this week, which was a great starting point to set up him and Nurse Redfern inevitably being torn asunder. Incidentally, it showed how much David Tennant needs to rein his performance in when he spent the whole episode being sympathetic as Smith, and became his usual flailing egit self at the end, bellowing at Tim before the Tardis took off.

I’ll also partially take back what I said last week about attempts to squeeze in a touching romance in too short a space of time, and the last scenes together were surprisingly moving, although it was undermined somewhat by the ridiculous flash-forward in life. Jessica Not Stevenson’s cold fury at the Doctor for bringing death to her life, though, was raw enough to leave it on an effective dramatic note.

The villains were also effectively sinister, with the one exception of the scarecrows. Last week they were ramming their faces in the camera and making me jump like a goosed intern. This week they awkwardly wondered around and were each destroyed by a single gun shot. Still, the Family of Blood made up for it. The girl with a red balloon, which could so easily have spilt over into a complete cheesetasm, was effectively saved by a child who can act. The fate of the foes, too, was great. Giving Baines a brief voice over to show how they were each imaginatively dispensed of was a nice way to write out a villainous family unit, seeing as Death Squad was probably off the menu.

It certainly helps to break up the increasingly oppressive ‘themes’ that seem to blot out everything the Doctor and Martha currently do. How much longer they can flog the ‘he’s all-powerful but consequently all-responsible and also kind of lonely’ horse is an unknown, although he does seem to be getting happier to mete out more ironic punishments to all those who won’t fall on their swords by the week.

The one major problem with the eWpisode was with the World War One overtures – I really can’t decide if it was an effective way to locate the conflict for younger viewers, or an overconfident TV production demeaning something too big for them to tackle (which wouldn’t be the first time they’ve managed that this series). Showing John Smith – who, after all, is explicitly not the Doctor – choosing not to use a gun whilst children wept and used theirs definitely hit a bum note, although the more oblique references, such as Tommy’s portents of the future, felt more darkly suitable.

Still, it’s restored my faith in Who doubles. And next week has that guy out of the Doritos Friendchips ads of yore in perilous danger. Jimmy Savile obviously got my letter.

On World War One: The mentions of Wold War One was one of my favorite additions to the story, actually. According to The Economic Consequences of the Peace, by John Maynard Keynes, Chapter II:

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.

I think this is really captured well at the beginning of the story with the depiction of Jeremy Baines in Human Nature, before becoming Son of Mine.

 

The Worst:

Gridlock

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Gridlock, for the most part, was a very flat story, with little to offer. According to The A.V. Club review:

I don’t say this lightly, but “Gridlock” might be the most nonsensical Doctor Who story of all time. The story kicks off with a pre-credits sequence that features, for some insane reason, the farmers from American Gothic being attacked by unknown forces while a news hologram blares. The story only gets weirder from there, as the show’s third trip to the year 5,000,000,000 or so presents us with unscrupulous mood merchants, decades-long traffic jams, a woman who apparently gave birth to kittens, a society so averse to carpooling that you need to kidnap someone just to get into the fast lane, and the obligatory monsters who just happen to be relics of a Patrick Troughton story that’s been completely lost for decades. Looked at logically, none of this story makes any sense at all. But episode writer Russell T. Davies is challenging us to look at this story in something other than strictly logical terms. I’m not absolutely convinced that that’s something he should be challenging us to do, but there is a handful of moments where it really clicks into place what he’s trying to accomplish with “Gridlock.”

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I remember the setup of this episode utterly shattered my suspension of disbelief when I first watched it back in 2007, and I wasn’t really persuaded this time around until the reveal that the Face of Boe was behind the traffic jam. I still find it preposterous that people would unquestioningly accept being in a traffic jam for years and years, especially when cooped up in such horrifyingly tiny vans. Davies’ stories often suffer from issues of scale, and the ridiculous duration of the traffic jam in “Gridlock” is a good example of that. Like its predecessor The End Of The World,” this episode owes a stylistic debt to Douglas Adams, but the writing and the acting in “Gridlock” don’t consistently nail the very specific, archly absurd tone needed to carry off such a massively implausible scenario. This time around, I was more convinced than I expected to be by the revelation that the system’s many massive, seemingly obvious flaws were really features in the Face of Boe’s ingenious scheme. The key takeaway from “Gridlock” isn’t exactly that humans would ever be fooled by such a ridiculous setup; more precisely, this episode is interested in exploring what it says about the human condition that we might go along with such a scenario, and how we would respond to something as bleak yet strangely communal as an eternal traffic jam.

Indeed, this story really has to be understood on metaphorical grounds, so it’s a very good thing that “Gridlock” has such a strong metaphor to present. The episode’s crucial scene is the motorists’ daily contemplation, a lovely sequence underscored by Thomas Kinkaid Brannigan’s defiant observation: “You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.” What’s telling about the subsequent hymn is how the characters respond to it; the people of the far future draw the strength they need to go on, Martha is moved to tears, and the Doctor stands there stony-faced. “Gridlock” doesn’t spell everything out here, but that scene is the perfect illustration of what separates the Doctor from humans (and catkind, I suppose). We respond to even the most impossible, insane of situations by building communities, by looking to each other to find strength, and there are times when we must indulge in certain comfortable illusions in order to maintain our collective sanity. The Doctor no longer has any other Time Lords with whom to build such connections. He is utterly alone, and so the only things he can draw strength from are the pursuit of knowledge and his sense of right and wrong. Besides, he’s got a companion to save, even if he isn’t quite yet willing to admit that that is what Martha is.

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On Martha Jones: Due to Martha being kidnapped and trapped on the motorway, this is such a Damsel in Distress (see Feminist Frequency‘s Damsel in Distress Series) situation, which is unfortunate for such a fantastic companion.

 

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Next is the best and worst of Series 2.

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8 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: Series 3

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