Revisiting Doctor Who: Series 3, Episodes 8-13 & The 2007 Christmas Special

It has been over a month – about six weeks – since my last post. Really sorry about that, but as we all know, work gets a bit mental as Christmas approaches, and then I popped off on a three-week holiday with the family. Very nice thank you! As a relative newbie to the world of blogging and Twitter, I really should have got with the programme a bit more and posted a few micro-updates from abroad. But I didn’t. Sorry, will do better next time.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand – Doctor Who. One thing I forgot to mention in my post on the first half of Season 3 was Murray Gold’s re-scored theme – I really like it. There is a compelling, driving bass-line which was absent from the first two seasons and it gives the whole opening sequence a sense of urgency and drama. Well done Mr. Gold.

The beauty of this second half of Season 3 is that it contains six of the best episodes of the revived series, one after the other, building to an inexorable climax. These were an absolute joy to revisit and to share with The Lad, though I had to do a fair bit of explaining as we were watching, the plots becoming somewhat complex for a six-year-old in places.

Episodes 8 & 9: Human Nature, The Family of Blood 

This two-parter is a masterpiece. Adapted by Paul Cornell and Russell T Davies from Cornell’s own 1995 Doctor Who novel, Human Nature, these two episodes have been widely acclaimed, gathering Hugo Award nominations, rave reviews and for Tennant the Constellation Award for Best Male Performance in a 2007 Science Fiction Television Episode for his dual role as John Smith and the Doctor.

The Family Of Blood are a clan of semi-corporeal aliens, technology scavengers cursed by incredibly brief life-spans. Pursuing the TARDIS through time and space, they seek the Time Lord they know must be piloting it in order to possess his body and acquire immortality. The Doctor and Martha’s only advantage is that the Family have not actually seen them and therefore don’t know what they look like. Seeking to avoid a confrontation, the Doctor uses the TARDIS’ “Chameleon Arch” to rewrite his DNA, transforming himself into a human. His Time Lord “essence” – his bio-data, his memories and his true consciousness – are stored in a special fob watch, to be opened when the danger has passed. The TARDIS provides the Doctor with the artificial identity of “Mr. John Smith”, a schoolteacher at Farringham School for Boys in England in 1913 (the year before the start of World War I). Martha, adopting the guide of Smith’s maid, ensures the TARDIS is hidden and watches over the Doctor until it is safe for him to restore his Time Lord identity. Naturally, all does not go according to plan as the Family manages to track the TARDIS down and takes over a trio of host bodies to begin their hunt for the Time Lord.

There are so many wonderful things about these two episodes. The acting from Tennant in his human identity of John Smith is outstanding, and Agyeman gives perhaps her best performance to date (she gets better and better). The lovely Jessica Hynes is touching and Harry Lloyd becomes entertainingly lunatic as the stiff, awkward prefect possessed by the psychopathic “Son of Mine”.

The superb acting is of course enabled by some truly fine writing. The blossoming romance between Smith and Joan Redfern (Hynes) is worthy of the best BBC period drama, as is the haunting backdrop of a land on the edge of a terrible war, and a of a school drilling its students with ideas of honour and courage which would soon be tested to their limits and beyond. A nice touch is the use of Smith’s delicately illustrated  “Journal of Impossible Things” which definitively establishes the link with the classic series’ continuity (and does Paul McGann the welcome honour of reinforcing the canonicity of his performance as the Eighth Doctor, in case there was any doubt).  What is particularly powerful however is how the use of the “Chameleon Arch” gives Martha the chance to express her true feelings for the Doctor, while the human Smith shows by contrast just how alien and how lonely the Doctor really is. In the words of Tim Latimer, the young schoolboy with psychic gifts:

 “He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm and 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.”

Who could say it better than that? No-one perhaps, but the Doctor could certainly demonstrate it – as he does, at the climax of The Family of Blood, when his true power and fury are hinted at, and the Family discover to their cost that the Doctor hid from them not out of fear, but in an act of mercy.

Episode 10: Blink

What next? Another blindingly good episode, penned by Steven Moffatt. More rave reviews from critics, ranked second best episode ever by the readers of Doctor Who Magazine, winner of two BAFTA awards for writing, a Hugo Award and a Constellation Award for Carey Mulligan’s performance as Sally Sparrow. This is getting exhausting.

The Doctor and Martha’s screen time is largely limited to appearing on a series of DVD “Easter eggs”, creating a time-travel puzzle which must be solved by protagonist Sally Sparrow in order to escape the sinister, menacing Weeping Angels. There is no need to explore the plot in detail, suffice to say this is an outstanding self-contained tale of sci-fi horror which succeeds by putting the Doctor firmly in the background. It conjures a dim, chilling atmosphere, introduces the best new monsters of the revived series, delivers some real scares and makes ingenious use of the time travel plot device. Much of it went over The Lad’s head, but he enjoyed the frights just the same. A corker.

Episode 11, 12 & 13: Utopia, The Sound of Drums, The Last of the Time Lords

This stunning three-part climax to Season 3 begins with the welcome return of cheesy but loveable Captain Jack Harkness, with some fun dialogue as he, Martha and the Doctor meet and/or renew their acquaintance. They end up on a planet billions of years in the future, teetering on the final heat-death of the universe, occupied by a small colony of humans who still look all too human, and the savagely devolved Futurekind who all look like Darth Maul. They all live in a place that looks like a quarry in Wales, drive conspicuously 20th-century vehicles and have guns that shoot bullets.

I mean, give me a break. Billions of years in the future and everything looks like a cheap Max Max sequel? Please.

Anyway, moving on. This colony is building a spacecraft (actually a very trad-looking rocketship) to get them to “Utopia”, a rumoured place of salvation. And who is the scientist in charge of the project? Sir Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana, putting in a fine, endearing performance as an old man trapped in a web of his own inadequacies. Everybody loves Professor Yana, feeling sorry for the poor old man plagued by pounding drumbeat headaches.

Except that Martha notices the Professor has a fob watch which looks kind of familiar.

The writing, direction, editing, and musical scoring come together to perfectly conduct the tense, revelatory climax to “Utopia”. The Professor is the Master, resurrected by the Time Lords as the perfect soldier for a Time War (following his unambiguous destruction in the 1996 movie), hidden by his own Chameleon Arch. Jacobi’s turn from bumbling, lovable eccentric to murderous psychopath is brilliantly entertaining high camp. A pity he gets so little screen time to revel in it before events force him to regenerate, his new incarnation performed by John Simm.

Plunging back to the 21st Century, Simm plays the Master with comedic, sinister hyperactivity, a portrayal which some find a little one dimensional, if not exhausting. But it is really more nuanced than that, as you would hope from an actor of Simm’s calibre, though it is true that it is a fresh interpretation with little relationship to the character from the classic series. But then he has survived the last Great Time War – is is surprising that he would be scarred by the experience?

I’m not going to explore the plots of the next two episodes of the finale. Suffice to say loose ends, arcs, clues and hints from across Season 3 are tied up. Martha gets plenty of screen time and a pivotal role to show what she can do, and at the end she decides to rescue herself from the pangs of unrequited love and leave the TARDIS. So the Doctor spins off alone, saddened at the loss of yet another companion…

… and yet again they screw up a poignant ending by ramming the prow of the Titanic  through the TARDIS walls. Can’t they give the Time Lord a century or so to wallow? Regardless, The Lad loved these three episodes, though I have to try to explain the nature of time paradoxes and how the Doctor tapped humanity’s collective psychic energy though the Archangel Network to a six year old. No, of course he didn’t get it. But it didn’t dampen his excitement either.

 (Actually, at this point it is a really good idea to check out the 2007 Children In Need Special: Time Crash.  It slots in just before the very end of The Last of the Time Lords and is a beautiful bit of comic nostalgia.)

2007 Christmas Special: The Voyage of the Damned

So it wasn’t the real Titanic with which the TARDIS collided. It was an alien space liner built in homage to the Titanic. Of course. Nice cast, including Russell Tovey, Geoffrey Palmer, Freddie Jones and Kylie Minogue. But they are all wasted on an essentially uninteresting episode which is basically The Poseidon Adventure in space. Meh.

Bring on Series 4.

About Mark Winter

Dark Fantasy novelist (INFERNAL PREY). Blogging on politics and current affairs (GibberLog), science and history (BlatherLog), sci-fi, fantasy & horror (WittlerLog), business, product development & start-ups (MutterLog). View all posts by Mark Winter

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