On being a fan, and the first half of Season Four

I make no excuses for being an sf fan, and a Doctor Who fan. My day job requires me to engage with people trying to extricate themselves from long-running conflicts; when I get home and turn on the TV, or get out my book to read on the train, I want escapist entertainment, not intellectual stimulation – I think this is why, for instance Gene Wolfe and M John Harrison don’t really do it for me, ad why I prefer The Third Policeman to At Swim-Two-Birds.

New Who has been catering for my needs: smart scripts, decent special effects and a reasonable but not obsessive respect for the programme’s past. Indeed, my impression is that the current season has had more links to Old Who than ever, yet not so intrusively as to make it incomprehensible for those who are new to it. I wonder to what extent that will change when RTD hands over to Steven Moffat?

In fairness to Davies, he has not only revived the programme to beyond its previous peaks of popularity it hadn’t had since the 1970s, he has also lasted longer at the top than anyone except Barry Letts and JNT. Change is inevitable in human activity, and New Who has already surmounted the more visible challenges of changing Doctor and companions; I expect Moffat will build on the foundations in his own way.

I’ve enjoyed the first half of Season Four more than any of the others. Each of the previous seasons had a clunker among the first seven stories (Aliens of London / World War Three, The Idiot’s Lantern, the Dalek two-parter) but this year that hasn’t happened. While I didn’t object to the romance of Rose/Nine, Rose/Ten and Martha/Ten, I find the sparks between Tate and Tennant tremendously refreshing – not to say that there is no UST at all, but the change of emphasis is nice; and Bernard Cribbins is great as her grandfather (I fear that Jacqueline King as her mother is rather similar to all RTD mothers though).

I already wrote up Partners in Crime, but here’s my take on the rest of the season so far, in the absence of this weekend’s episode due to Eurovision.

The Fires of Pompeii

I must have been one of the few kids of my generation who voluntarily did Latin O-level. There were two of us in the class; our teacher was from Achill Island, and had studied classics in Galway through the medium of Irish (which she also taught at our school). However we used the Ecce Romani books, not the Cambridge Latin Course, so missed out on that particular set of in-jokes.

But I loved the Doctor’s shifty acknowledgement of responsibility for the Great Fire of Rome, and my Big Finish sympathies were satisfied with the fact that there was no explicit contradiction with what Seven and Mel were up to on the other side of town. I also liked the new take on the Tardis translation effect – “Look you!” – and the way in which the Doctor accepts responsibility for causing the eruption. There was that one moment reminiscent of the “You lucky bastard!” scene from Life of Brian, and I am aware that volcanoes on the whole do not contain such conveniently located corridors, but I was willing to take the ride.

Planet of the Ood

Russell T Davies was 15 months old when the first episode of The Sensorites was broadcast in June 1964, but it obviously made a deep impression on him – we had two explicit references to Susan’s description of her and the Doctor’s home planet last season, and now we have it confirmed that the Ood are close neighbours to the Sense-Sphere. I think The Sensorites is positively the worst First Doctor story, so to me it is a slightly weird choice, but I’m aware that this is not a universal view.

[My brother] pointed out at the time that evolving to the stage where you have to carry part of your own brain around in your hand doesn’t seem terribly viable. But that apart, I thought that the music was great, the parable about slavery and society decent enough, and Tim McInerny’s performance (and also Ayesha Dharker’s) really excellent.

The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

Here’s a funny thing: if you get appointed as UNIT’s medical officer, you may find that in your first televised story in that role you have to go undercover to infiltrate the bad guys’ headquarters; and then when the Doctor returns to Earth to meet you for the first time after you stopped travelling with him, you get replaced by an evil doppelganger. Apart from that, of course, Harry Sullivan and Martha Jones are very different, but I was amused by the similarities.

The Sontarans’ plan is as nonsensical as most alien invasion plans (and setting fire to the poison gas? Really?) but again I enjoyed the ride. The resolution of the UNIT dating controversy was brilliant; so was the Martha/Donna encounter going so very differently from the Sarah Jane/Rose encounter two years ago; so was the Doctor thinking that Donna was leaving him rather than popping back to her mum’s for a cuppa. And there were pleasing refs to both the Brigadier and the best Ninth Doctor story – “Are you my mummy?”

Having recently re-watched The Two Doctors, I felt that the Sontarans came across much better this time – as an actual army, complete with war chants. We have not often seen big groups of Sontarans before. And good performances from Ryan Sampson in particular as Luke Rattigan, but also Christian Cooke as Ross Jenkins and Rupert Holliday Evans as Colonel Mace.

The Doctor’s Daughter

I suspect that this is one of those “Marmite” episodes, in that you either love it or hate it. (For the record, I hate Marmite.) Georgia Moffett, who I had previously heard helping her father battle Ice Warriors in an early Big Finish play, is very cute and also very good. I loved her “Hello, boys!” at the end. Yeah, of course bringing her back to life was a bit of a cop-out, but we got to see the Tenth Doctor’s take on how the First Doctor had moved on from having his own family to other commitments, and then suddenly had the chance for it to start again, and then (as far as he knows) it didn’t.

And Donna got to be brainy. I love the brainy companions. (Am also trying unsuccessfully to think of another Who story which gives the Doctor three strong female sidekicks.)

The background to the story, as I spotted at the time (and Lance Parkin also noted, in a post which seems to have since been deleted) owes quite a lot to The Ark – the humans and their conflict with their non-human travelling companions, the room with the jungle at the end; another reference to the Hartnell era, and this time one that RTD just might credibly remember from the original broadcast (he would have been nearly three). The Hath are better than the Monoids though.

The Unicorn and the Wasp

In my early teens I read Agatha Christie almost as obsessively as I watched Doctor Who, so this episode was total nostalgic crack. I was noting every book title as it came up. I have even read Death in the Clouds, the book referenced at the end, which features a murder on an early commercial flight from Paris to London, after which the inquest jury wants to indict Poirot for the murder because he is foreign.

This is so much better than Black Orchid, the only other televised story I can think of set in this era. It was really fun to watch – very silly, but played with total conviction; all the guest stars were good, so it is invidious to single any of them out. Doing a story like this is, as I was saying of some of the Eurovision song contest entries, a high risk strategy, but I think it worked.

Spoilers for the rest of the season

So, we have another six episodes to look forward to – two by Steven Moffat, the return of Rose, more Daleks and everyone’s favourite mad scientist gets resurrected yet again. Looking forward to it.

Edited to add: The Doctor and Donna go to Belgium! But in 800 AD!

One thought on “On being a fan, and the first half of Season Four

  1. I didn’t like it when we read it for our book club. I was told by one person it was a comedy. still didn’t make me like it…

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