Revisiting Doctor Who: Series 4, Episodes 11-13 & The 2008-9 Specials

The Tenth Doctor begins his headlong rush towards doom…

Episode 11: Turn Left

On a visit to the planet Shan-Shen, Donna has her fortune read while the Doctor is sampling nearby market stalls. However the sinister fortune teller is in league with evil forces, and in the shadows of her chambers lurks an alien creature with strange powers and stranger hungers. Donna inexplicably finds herself in an alternate time line, one where she’s never met the Doctor or joined him on their many adventures, which results in disastrous consequences for Earth and the entire universe. Only the Doctor’s lost love Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), who has managed to travel from her parallel universe, can help Donna to restore the status quo and warn the Doctor of a danger which threatens not just one universe, but all of them.

This is a powerful episode. intelligent, dark and frightening, with hints of peril maybe too scary for younglings. With Mr Tennant having little screen-time, Ms Tate and Ms Piper must carry the show and they do it brilliantly. Only one thing got on my wick – Ms Piper had quite clearly just had her teeth done (I don’t remember there being anything wrong with them, but there you go) and her voice has taken on an irritating lisp as though she was talking with a gumball in her mouth. “Why is Rose talking funny?” asked The Lad. Why, indeed.

Episodes 12 & 13: The Stolen Earth, Journey’s End

Oh boy, what a season finale. Episode 11 leads straight into 12 in a way that makes the finale seem more like a three-parter, just like last season. The Earth has been literally stolen out of time and space, along with 26 other planets, by none other than the Daleks led by Davros himself. As the planet is invaded by the Dalek forces, enter a grand reunion of companions and sidekicks – Captain Jack and the (surviving) Torchwood crew, Sarah Jane and her adopted son Luke, K-9 and Mr. Smith, Martha, Donna’s mum and granddad, Harriet Jones MP, Mickey Smith and of course Rose. Throw in a healthy dose of absurdly creative – bordering on lunatic – plot devices, truck-loads of drama and a healthy dollop of poignancy, and this is what season finales are meant to be. Yes, the term deux ex machina has never been more apposite, but it is rip-roaring good fun and ties up a few loose ends along the way (especially if you are wondering what happened to Dalek Caan and the Doctor’s severed hand…).

The only downer is the desperately sad conclusion of Donna’s tenure as the Doctor’s sidekick. It was all over too soon, as far as I’m concerned.

2008 Christmas Special: The Next Doctor

Travelling solo in Victorian London, the Doctor finds himself teaming up with another Doctor (David Morrissey) to battle the Cybermen and their megalomaniacal human collaborator, Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan). At first, the Doctor assumes he has crossed his own timeline and is working with his own future incarnation, but as usual, nothing is quite as it seems. In fact, the truth is rather tragic for a Christmas special, though the ending manages to lift the mood somewhat.

Not a bad episode but certainly nothing special. The Cybermen really need an injection of originality I reckon. The parallel world, Cybus Industries Cybermen were I guess an attempt to add new interest to this old favourite, but I found that plot device unnecessarily complicated. And a gigantic Cyber-King Dreadnought-Class Warship striding over Victorian London? Fun, but of course as this event is not recorded in Doctor Who history, we have another mess which will no doubt be fixed with timey-wimey stuff at some point.

I have to say though, The Lad did enjoy it even if I was nonplussed. Much like the first of the 2009 Specials….


2009 Special: Planet of the Dead

So this was the year that Mr. Tennant had other commitments and everyone decided to take it a little easier, instead committing to two specials and a two-part Christmas extravaganza. Not a bad idea, indeed a good one for whenever the series needs a break or a radical reinvention. I always thought the 1996 TV movie with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor was like that. I could see why the Doctor needed to be retired in 1989, it just needed a really good rest, but if only the show hadn’t gone so out of favour at the BBC and annual specials could have been produced. Oh well…

NOT annual specials like this one though. While investigating a wormhole in London, the Doctor meets master thief Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan) and they are both accidentally transported, along with a double-decker bus and half-a-dozen passengers, to a desert planet infested by flying sting ray-like aliens. Fair enough. On Earth, UNIT takes charge, unfortunately encumbered by the excreable Lee Evans as a science boffin. None of this would be a problem for a normal mid-season stand-alone episode, in fact it could have been taken for the light fluffy fun it is.

My problem with it is that in a year when we are starved of Doctor Who action, and we all know the Doctor is heading towards the end of his Tenth incarnation, this episode is just an insubstantial wasted opportunity. Personally, I would have pulled forward the next episode (The Waters of Mars) and extended the apocalyptic events of the 2009 Christmas special over three episodes to create an epic story arc and really develop some of the concepts that are touched on in that story. But that’s just me.

Yes, The Lad liked it of course. It was at this point that I download the Sarah Jane Adventures two-parter, The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, which I believe falls at about this point in the Doctor’s timeline. The Lad certainly enjoyed this, having been getting into SJA on his own, especially as this is the first appearance of the Doctor in the hit CBBC series. I wonder what a Captain Jack guest slot in SJA would be like…?

2009 Special: The Waters of Mars

The Doctor visits Bowie Base One, Earth’s first colony on Mars, led by Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan). The Doctor immediately realises he has picked the wrong time to visit – it is the day of the base’s unexplained destruction, an event which sets off a chain reaction in human history and without which Humanity would not have expanded across the universe. This makes it a “fixed point in time”, and he resolves to leave. Unfortunately, a waterborne virus from the glacier used for the water supply begins to infect the crew, turning them one-by-one into hideous vessels for the virus’ murderous intelligence.

This is a classic example of an episode which hits my joy button full-on, being a grown-up, but which not only had limited appeal for The Lad, but had content that was wholly inappropriate for a 6-year old boy. On the plus side, it is an exceptionally tense thriller, with a strong female lead who challenges the Doctor as he has rarely been challenged before. An underlying theme, which will have tragic consequences, is the Doctor’s sudden narcissism and arrogance. We can see how it is spawned from prior events, and we can see how it is a necessarily consequence of his experiences, but it does seem to emerge a little bit from nowhere. Nevertheless it adds a welcome dose of psychological complexity. As the Martian infection rages through the base, the terror experienced by the crew is palpable, which is one thing I thought a bit overpowering for smaller kids. The worst bit for children – completely appropriate to the story and dramatically devastating – is however the fate of Adelaide at the story’s end. It raised themes I was not really ready to discuss with The Lad, and I had to do some dissembling.

The Doctor makes a fond reference to the Ice Warriors, even musing that perhaps they had locked the malign infection away in the glacier before abandoning Mars aeons earlier (no mention of the Osirian pyramid which kept Sutekh in check though, but I’ll let that pass). It was also interesting to hear how the Dalek invasion of 2008 (The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End) was such a formative event in Adelaide’s childhood. Which makes it more irritating when we learn what “happened” to the Dalek invasion next season… (oops, getting ahead of myself a bit).

2009 Christmas Special: The End of Time, Parts 1 & 2

A portentous voiceover from an unseen narrator opens the Christmas two-parter, heralding events that we know will bring the end of a wonderful era in the revived series of Doctor Who. Donna Noble’s grandfather, Wilfred Mott (played with his usual gentle charm by the wonderful Bernard Cribbins) receives a visitation from a mysterious woman bearing a message concerning the Doctor. In scenes reminiscent of Hammer’s classic Dracula films, the Master is imperfectly resurrected by his cult of adherents, using the ring salvaged from his funeral pyre at the end of The Last of the Time Lords. The Doctor – haunted by the events of The Waters of Mars – finally responds to the summons of the Ood, having been meandering through time and space in an effort to avoid facing his own pride and arrogance. The mystical Ood have a warning from him, a warning of the end of time itself.

Racing to Earth to find and apprehend the insane, undead Master, the Doctor is forced to confront the sins of his own past and the terrible guilt he carries from his actions in the Last Great Time War. For the Master has seized an alien medical device which lets him re-write the DNA of everyone on Earth, transforming nearly the entire population into duplicates of himself – The Master Race. This act has unintended consequences – amplifying to an unimaginable degree the persistent drumming in the Master’s head, emitting a signal which resonates throughout time and space, even penetrating the time lock which seals away the heart of the Time War. For that portentous voiceover from Part 1’s opening? It is none other than Rassilon, Lord President of the Time Lords (played with magisterial presence by Timothy Dalton), presumably resurrected by the Time Lords in their desperation for leadership, even as they had previously resurrected the Master to serve as their soldier.

In this story we learn the true horror of the Time War which the Doctor had never previously revealed – that in their desperate struggle against the Daleks, the Time Lords had decided to deploy the Ultimate Sanction, triggering the destruction of all of Creation so that they might rise victorious as beings of pure thought. It was to prevent this that the Doctor had been forced to turn against his own people and burn both Gallifrey and Skaro to ashes. However, knowing the Doctor’s intent, Rassilon had instituted a strategy which had the Master at its heart, a means of escaping from the time lock just before Gallifrey was destroyed, freeing the fallen guardians of Time to annihilate everything to ensure their own survival.

It is a huge, epic story – one which could have been extended far beyond a mere two episodes. This is the core of my disappointment with The End of Time, that a story arc five years in the making should be concluded so briefly. The stunning rendering of Gallifrey and the Time Lords, the towering performance of Dalton, the tragic desperate sadness or the Doctor… none of them have enough screen time. The sight of Gallifrey looming in the sky above Earth has insufficient impact. It all feels rushed. Add to this some ludicrous plot elements that play like an homage to Star Wars (i.e. the silly Vinvocci spacecraft and its pursuit by missiles) and the sense of an opportunity not missed but fumbled is hard to shake.

But there is much to admire. Tennant infuses his swan-song with a Shakespearean pathos – witness his emotional breakdown over tea with Wilfred in a London cafe as he admits his own flaws, and who could be unmoved by his last words – “I don’t want to go”? John Simm’s positively loopy Master – coupled with his eventual redemption – provide a fitting end to this character, or at least this incarnation of him. Personally, I thought the whole Master Race plot had a wonderful internal logic and provided much-needed light relief as well as menace.

I have very mixed feelings about this two-parter, and I can’t help but feel that more of Series 4 and the 2008-9 Specials could have been given over to building this epic tale. But in the end, Tennant ensures there isn’t a dry eye in the house as he begins his rather protracted regeneration cycle, fighting to postpone its conclusion so he has enough time to say farewell to all of his old companions one by one (a good excuse for an unashamedly sentimental set of cameos). We really have the sense here that Davies is handing the reins to Moffat, and trying to provide him with as clean a slate as possible by tying up loose ends and permitting dignified goodbyes. We even demolish the old TARDIS interior, as the Doctor’s regeneration energy flares out of control (due to his refusal to accept his fate, even at the last? Or simply due to the build-up of energy caused by the Doctor’s refusal to complete the process earlier?), making way for a complete redecoration in Series 5.

Hold on to your hats…

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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