Is the latest season of the Brit SF classic the best yet?
To coin a phrase, bollocks to Eccleston. The guy gets a lot of credit for being at the forefront of the revival of Doctor Who, possibly the best science fiction show ever commissioned *** But was anyone even paying attention to his characterisation of the Doctor, the immortal Timelord who is undoubtedly high in the pantheon of great TV characters? Sheer ridculosity, and that’s not even a word. Thankfully, our memories of his idiotic grins and nasty little leather coat were completely erased when David Tennant stepped into the role. Not only does the guy have a pitch-perfect look for a contemporary iteration of the classic character, he quite frankly embodies the soul of the time-travelling nomad. Still, with Billie Piper leaving the show at the end of season two, could the Doctor ever rekindle the soul and spirit of his dynamic with Rose?
The answer, thankfully, seems to be yes. With Freema Agyeman stepping into the shoes of the Doctor’s new companion Martha Jones, what Who lost in Rose’s fragile vulnerability and character arc it gained in Martha’s headstrong determination and, frankly, rather smokin’ looks. Okay, so the performance isn’t quite up to Piper’s standards, but the Doctor does work best with a young female companion, and it certainly helps highlight both the romantic and fatalistic components of his personality. In terms of the show itself, there was a lot for head honcho Russell T. Davies to live up to after the successes of the previous two seasons. From the evidence on display here, it seems that the same high standards were kept, at least in terms of ingenuity and storyline if not the myriad of cringeworthy pop-culture references that seem to permeate the modern Who (will anyone involved ever live down the turgid nadir of Anne Droid?). Only three episodes feature on this release, but they’re a solid start to season three.
Smith and Jones, the opener, is a decent (if slightly forced) introduction to Martha and the beginnings of her relationship with the Doctor, and succeeds where many recent episodes have failed in creating a genuinely interesting new alien race, the Judoon (who we have to assume will make a future appearance, as their costumes look way too expensive to be a one-off). The story goes that the rhino-esque galactic police force transport a London hospital onto the moon in order to apprehend one of its inhabitants - they have no jurisdiction over Earth, y’see. On a related note, how refreshing it is to see locales other than major American cities being affected by alien visitations. Anyway, after a good build-up the final third of the episode peters out somewhat, but it’s a nice taster of things to come.
The Shakespeare Code, as one might tell by its dodgy referential title, is the weakest link on the disc - as are most of the ‘historical’ episodes of Who - but is saved by some lovely special effects and a bizarre performance by Dean Lennox Kelly in the title role, re-imagining the quintessential British bard as a Liverpudlian wideboy. Aside from the initial idea (that Shakespeare is creating a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost, entitled… wait for it… Love’s Labour’s Won), the screenplay is actually quite tasty, with some lovely poetic flourishes from writer Gareth Roberts. The running joke whereby Shakespeare frequently pinches lines of dialogue from the Doctor is grating, though, and there’s just not as much of a feel about this episode as the others here.
Gridlock is the best on the disc, even if it does feature the return of those stupid cat-aliens, who annoy me so much I can’t even be bothered to look up their name. [Editor’s note: apparently they don’t even have one, they’re just referred to as ‘cat people’. Come on now, even the crappy Cheetah People from 1989’s Survival serial got a proper name!] The story, in which a large number of cars are depicted stuck in an endless traffic jam, is a bit of a ham-fisted metaphor, but there’s a fair bit of excitement about what lurks in the ‘lower levels’, and the final ten minutes featuring the return of the Face of Boe and some glorious exterior shots of New Earth are entirely worth it.
What has been increasingly grabbing me about the new Doctor Who series is the physical time constraints of the single-episode format. Everything feels ever-so-slightly rushed, and it would do the writers wonders to have the extra fifteen minutes to play with a full hour of material. While it would be interesting to see a return to the old serial format of the show, it seems Russell Davies is aiming for a more developed and involved drama which very, very nearly works to perfection. Unfortunately, trying to shoehorn in all the action, suspense and character development to go along with the funky alien stuff proves a tight fit for Who.
But regardless, it’s a pleasure to see the Doctor back on our screens, especially when he’s played with such spellbinding commitment as David Tennant offers. Here’s hoping the Davies/Tennant connection ensures a healthy future for Doctor Who as, on the evidence here, things are off to a great start and look to get better. Well, having seen most of the season already I know it takes a little dip after these episodes, but I’m trying not to spoil things.
*** With apologies to fans of Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Farscape and Red Dwarf, and a slap to the knees of Trekkies.
The DVD reviewed is the region two vanilla edition, and is unlikely to be released in region one - those guys will just have to wait for the finish of the season and the inevitable boxset . The feature running time is 2 hours and 18 minutes. Video transfer is 1.78:1 and is very good quality; the BBC is obviously increasing the show’s budget and production resources with every new iteration. Audio is pretty good too, although the only language track is English.
This being a vanilla edition, we get none, although the menus are alright. But you’re only buying this because you’re desperate for the episodes - anyone who wants the extras will hold out for the season boxset.
The 411: It’s a pretty good start, but with only three episodes on offer, plus the fact that the real meat of the season lies in the upcoming volumes three and four, it’s a qualified recommendation. This is pretty much essential viewing for fans of the show, however, and it’s hard not to recommend with Tennant’s astounding performance driving Doctor Who to places beyond even the fantastic production values.