Revisiting Doctor Who: Series 4, Episodes 1-10

I am getting sooooooo slack. I haven’t posted since January. I do realise how appalling this is. I must get more dedicated.

On the Doctor Who front however, in my defence The Lad and I haven’t been ripping through episodes at the rate that we were used to. We took a bit of a break after The Voyage of the Damned as The Lad turned his attention to other things – Harry PotterStar Wars and a limp Nic Cage vehicle, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – to name a few.

But his Nana bough him a copy of the Doctor Who kids’ magazine which contained a pack of mini-Daleks, and it was like flicking a switch. “When can we watch some more Doctor Who Dad?”. He didn’t have to nag me much.

Series 4 is outstanding in so many ways, not least because of Catherine Tate’s performance as Donna Noble. The Runaway Bride demonstrated the potential of this pairing – no sexual tension, lots of gobby banter, and a relationship between Time Lord and Companion which in my book proves to be one of the most enjoyable, successful and ultimately tragic in Doctor Who‘s history. Not since Sarah Jane Smith has there been such a deep friendship, and not until Amy Pond will we see it again. Which isn’t of course that far away, but anyway…

Episode 1: Partners in Crime

The Doctor investigates a new weight-loss pill being tested in London by Adipose Industries, only to stumble across Donna Noble doing exactly the same thing. They team up to stop so-called businesswoman Miss Foster (Sarah Lancashire) from killing thousands of people in London during the birth of the Adipose, cute blobby aliens made from body fat whose nursery planet has been “lost”.

Of course Donna’s real motivation was a desire to find the Doctor, her life having seemed unbearably mundane since her previous adventure with him ended. In an hilarious exchange of banter which sets the tone for their entire relationship, Donna secures her berth on the TARDIS and a new season begins.

This episode is almost entirely played for laughs, and as a result it plays well for both grown-ups and six-year olds. It is just a good bit of fun, and there’s nowt wrong with that.

Episode 2: The Fires of Pompeii


The Doctor treats Donna to a visit to ancient Rome… except his navigation is a bit wonky and they arrive in Pompeii just before the 79AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The Doctor’s first instinct is to leave immediately, as the destruction of Pompeii is a “fixed point in time”. But it soon becomes apparent that the psychic abilities some of the inhabitants are displaying are connected to the Sybilline Sisterhood and their alien masters, the Pyroviles. But how can the Doctor interfere without disrupting human history?

Big fiery rock-like aliens – big tick as far as The Lad is concerned. With some good quality special effects and the bonus of a sympathetic performance from Peter Capaldi, this episode moves at a brisk and entertaining pace. Donna gets the chance to challenge the Doctor in their first instance of genuine conflict as well. Good fun.

Episode 3: Planet of the Ood

The Doctor and Donna arrive on the Ood-Sphere in the year 4126, at a factory where the Ood are prepared for sale to humans as domestic servants. They soon discover disturbing information concerning the nature of the Ood species, information which dispels any possibility of their slavery being benign and reveals the true horror of their condition. Together, the Doctor and Donna resolve to free the Ood from their cruel bondage.

The details of the Ood’s physiology and culture (and the tantalising hint that they are related in some way to the First Doctor’s Sensorites) are actually rather interesting, and do much to reinforce feelings of sympathy towards them (even when things turn a bit homicidal). There’s lots of death by electrified brain implant/communication globe, but nothing for The Lad to worry about. And the return of the Ood establishes another element in this season’s story arc…

Episodes 4 & 5: The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

Yay! Sontarans! Yay! UNIT! And if not quite a “Yay” on that scale, then it is still nice to see good-old Martha Jones again as a UNIT medical officer no less. We have a sinister plot to “terraform” Earth into a Sontaran clone-breeding planet using the ATMOS devices which are now a ubiquitous feature of road vehicles the world over (apparently). We have a revelation about the purpose of the Sontarans’ critical vulnerability, their “probic vent” (well, it was a revelation to me anyway, though it seems blindingly obvious now). And we have supporting roles from Donna’s good old Mum and Granddad (the always enjoyable Mr. Cribbins).

But what did The Lad like best? A childish but nonetheless rib-ticking gag by a likeable (and sadly doomed) UNIT soldier about the unfortunate resemblance between a Sontaran and a certain type of edible tuber. The Lad still chuckles about that.

Episode 6: The Doctor’s Daughter


The TARDIS, of its own volition, whisks the Doctor, Donna, and Martha Jones to the planet Messaline, in the midst of a savage war between humans and the fish-like Hath. Martha is abducted by the Hath shortly after their arrival, so rescuing her becomes the Doctor and Donna’s main priority, as well as attempting to put a stop to the ugly war that has consumed the planet. However matters are complicated by the fact that the humans have just used the Doctor’s DNA to create a warrior clone, Jenny (Georgia Moffett – incidentally, the daughter of Fifth Doctor Peter Davison and eventually to become the wife of Tenth Doctor David Tennant!).

This episode somewhat annoys me. It is cleverly plotted and builds to one of those neat little twists beloved of the sci-fi short story form. But Jenny’s survival unnecessarily complicates the series’ back story and continuity. We now have, wandering around space in the far future, a young woman who is not only genetically a Time Lord (or a Gallifreyan in case the distinction is meaningful) but who shares 100% of her DNA with the Doctor. Why would you bother writing this in unless you had plans for the character in the future? And if you do, where are they? Did Mr. Moffat throw this one away when Mr. Davies handed over the reins? Did he use the same disappointing plot device he would, in Series 5, use to wipe away other parts of the Doctor’s recent history he didn’t like?

I know dithering on about continuity in the case of Doctor Who is a fool’s errand, I really do. What with time travel and Time Wars, there is all manner of excuse for ignoring things you don’t, as a writer, care for. Having this luxury is necessary when there is 50 years of TV history and semi-canonical spin-off media to consider. But introducing a character as potentially universe-shaking as Jenny, and then forgetting about her, seems at best careless, and certainly a missed opportunity.

Episode 7: The Unicorn and the Wasp

The Doctor and Donna travel to England, December 1926 and meet the renowned murder mystery writer Agatha Christie (Fenella Woolgar), who is attending a party at Lady Eddison’s (Felicity Kendal) country manor. They investigate a jewel robbery perpetrated by notorious jewel thief the “Unicorn” and a spree of murders committed – naturally – by an extraterrestrial wasp.

The solution to the murder and the meaning of Agatha’s famous real-life disappearance are bound together in this amusing stand-alone story. It was a bit lost on The Lad though, except for the giant wasp bits.

Episodes 8 & 9: Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

The Doctor and Donna land in the 51st century to visit the greatest library in the universe, encompassing an entire planet, but are baffled when they find it deserted. To the best the Doctor can determine, the library has been closed for 100 years, so the arrival of a team of archaeologists led by Professor River Song (Alex Kingston) comes as something of a surprise.

Not only do they find themselves dealing with the unseen horror of the Vashta Nerada, a swarm of microscopic carnivorous creatures living in the shadows, but Donna finds herself trapped in a mysterious alternate reality at the mercy of a frightened little girl called Cal who isn’t at all what she seems…

This two-parter is a gem, well-written, tightly plotted and tense from start to finish. But of course the most tantalising part of the tale is the introduction of River Song, a brilliantly-intelligent woman who holds her own against the Doctor in all respects, and as a time traveler herself is privy to secrets even the Doctor does not know – because they are to be found in his own future time line. So with the poignant end of the second episode in the story, the tale of River Song comes to an end and touches all of the Doctor’s future encounters with her with sadness.

The Lad struggled with the timey-wimey stuff, as he will every time River shows up…

Episode 10: Midnight


The Doctor and Donna are taking a bit of a break from their adventures and chilling out on the planet Midnight. The Doctor leaves Donna at a spa while he takes a four-hour trip to the beautiful Sapphire Waterfalls. When the vehicle stops for no apparent reason, the passengers hear a noise coming from outside the vehicle and begin to panic. An unknown influence begins to possess Sky Silvestry (Lesley Sharp), causing the passengers’ paranoia and fear to escalate dangerously.

Ah, this one is brilliant. It is all dialogue and taut ensemble performances and claustrophobia and ratcheting tension with virtually no special effects. Lesley Sharp is a bit hysterically batty, recalling her superb acting in Afterlife, but being taken over by an alien intelligence will do that to you I guess and it is a genuinely disturbing show. For all of these reasons, The Lad thought it was boring, but for me it ranks as one of the best.


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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