Doctor Who: The Complete Series 3 Box Set Review
I am still undecided. Watching The Runaway Bride on Christmas Day 2006, I now realise that the amount of enjoyment that could be extracted from was much more to do with being fat on Christmas cheer and not anything to do with how good (or bad) the episode is, how easily David Tennant fits into the role of the Doctor nor how a giant spider played by Sarah Parish makes for a pretty effective monster. Watching that same episode at half-past-nine on a Thursday night is an altogether more glum experience. And it all has to do with Catherine Tate. As Donna, Catherine Tate could not be any more annoying if she was sitting beside me during the hour-long episode and poking me in the side with her elbows, all while asking, "Am I bovvered?" The only time that she might be thought as being alright is in the final minutes of the episode when she finally stops shouting, varies the tone of her speaking voice - throughout the episode, it has been the monotone of an outraged housewife - and prepares to leave the Doctor alone in the TARDIS. Her exit could not have come quickly enough and, for a good part of the year, it looked as though Catherine Tate would have been a minor aberration in a very long-running show, one that Doctor Who could easily recover from.
Then Russell T Davies was quoted on the BBC's website as saying, "We are delighted that one of Britain's greatest talents has agreed to join us for the fourth series." That suggested Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Helen Mirren...the Chuckle Brothers even? Who could he mean? Catherine bloody Tate, that's who, a woman who I wouldn't describe as being one of Britain's greatest talents even if Britain had a population of two and I was the only other resident. "Viewers can expect more ambitious storylines and a whole host of guest stars in 2008!" It reads like press release for the Royal Variety Performance and not a show famous for terrifying younger children. I'd rather have Bonnie Langford than Catherine bloody Tate!
So you can see why I am still undecided, which is a shame as in between The Runaway Bride and the fairly dreadful last couple of episodes, this third series of Doctor Who hits some fairly impressive highs. The four standout episodes are The Shakespeare Code, Human Nature, The Family Of Blood and Blink and throughout watching this series once again for the purposes of this review, I've been struck by just how superb these four are. The Shakespeare Code gets better with every viewing. The period setting is remarkably good, there's plenty of humour, knowing lines - "To be or not to be...oooh, that's quite good!" - and those cackling witches ought to send the young ones to their hiding places behind the cushions. A murder, for which witchcraft is suspected, sets the tone of the piece, Dr Martha Jones finds herself amongst the screaming inmates of Bedlam and there's a murky sense of horror in amongst the boarding houses and taverns. And in portraying Shakespeare as a womanising genius, one feels they might have done the man more honour than did Shakespeare In Love. The only blemish on this otherwise great episode is the Doctor, shuffled up beside Martha on a bed, mourning the loss of Rose. "Rose would know...a friend of mine, Rose, right now she'd say exactly the right thing. Still, can't be helped...you're a novice. Take you back home tomorrow!"
Early in this series, even later on to a lesser extent, the impression is that Martha is something of an unnecessary presence on board the TARDIS, tagging along until the Doctor returns her home and is done with her. Certainly, it takes him a long time to warm to Martha as he did Rose and comments more than once that she has a tendency to say or do the wrong thing or simply get in the way. Inasmuch as any feelings of love between the Doctor and Rose looked forced, so too does the way in which he so quickly dismisses Martha. It doesn't feel natural, more the hand of a series producer trying to keep hold of a story arc while a bunch of unhappy writers who would rather just get on with telling a story without having to shoehorn references to Rose Tyler into their scripts. Worse would be to come later in the series with the Doctor and Jack Harkness travelling to the year 100 trillion and competing with one another as to who misses her most, which Jack wins by dint of his hanging around her old council estate hoping to catch a glimpse of her. What is most unfortunate about this story is that in spite of what this series tries to do in remembrance of Rose Tyler, Martha Jones quickly wins out by being written smarter, funnier and more prone not to let the Doctor away with so much.
The turning point with Martha comes with Human Nature. Beginning in flashback to the Doctor and Martha in the TARDIS and under attack, the Doctor tells Martha that their escape will be guaranteed by his transforming himself into a human for three months, after which time those pursuing him will be dead. The part of the Doctor that was Time Lord is now stored in a unique fob watch, which Martha is charged with guarding. Passing himself off as a teacher in England shortly before the First World War, the Doctor is entirely unaware of his past but for dreams that he sketches in a notebook. Martha works as a maid in the school and in hiding the Doctor, must protect him and, in a move that will be more difficult the longer he remains human, eventually ask that he opens the fob watch. The Doctor remains largely helpless throughout. One can't help but think that the matter of the Doctor taking a back set works in favour of these three episodes. The lazy episodes here, such as The Runaway Bride or Smith And Jones, create a panic while the Doctor, with a knowledge of the aliens gained through time travel and a superior intellect, merely lets the villain, in the phrase made memorable by The Incredibles, monologue for a long enough time before (a) revealing to them their name and (b) taking sufficient action to neutralise the threat they pose. The Sound Of Drums is no different. The Doctor bides his time in his caged prison before finally turning on the Master. Human Nature and The Family Of Blood depend entirely on Martha. Being almost entirely human and without any knowledge of time travel, the Doctor is content with his life as a teacher and as fiance to Joan Redfern. It is a merciless Doctor who returns after seeing the savagery brought by the Family, who realise, much too late, that the Doctor would rather they had died in space than face the prisons he has planned for them.
Blink is even better. Sally Sparrow and her friend, Kathy Nightingale, are exploring a house when there is a knock at the door. A man that Sally has never met before introduces himself as Kathy's nephew and hands her a parcel, containing letters from Kathy and photographs of her husband and family. Elsewhere in the house, Kathy Nightingale has disappeared, touched by the Weeping Angels and sent back through time to 1920. The Doctor and Martha are without the TARDIS and are lost in time and via a series of clues, guide Sally Sparrow to a fight with the Weeping Angels. Tearing away the peeling wallpaper, Sally finds a note to say, "Beware the Weeping Angels...duck now!" just as a brick is thrown at her. She discovers an Easter Egg on a DVD of the Doctor having half of a conversation about time travel. She meets Billy, a policeman, who, again a victim of the Weeping Angels, is sent back to 1969. Billy gets into video and DVD publishing and encodes a videotaped conversation with the Doctor onto every DVD his company releases. Eventually, she meets the Doctor and Martha who have no knowledge of her. He exists in her past while she exists in his future.
Too often, the matter of time travel is explained away with humour or in either a period or future setting, not something integral to the story. As an example of this, Queen Elizabeth I greets the Doctor at the end of The Shakespeare Code with an, "Off with his head!" Having never met her before, the Doctor runs off laughing as he imagines what he might have done in his own future to warrant such a reaction. However, in Blink, the entire story is driven by time travel. The villains are dark, monstrous and attack entirely without warning. That final confrontation in the cellar is as frightening as any previous Doctor Who story. The same could be said of the scarecrows and their alien masters in Human Nature/The Family Of Blood, the burning killers in 42 and the witches in The Shakespeare Code. These are the episodes that children and their parents will remember, for huddling up together on a sofa on a Saturday night and having to hide younger ones from the sight of the Weeping Angels.
The problem with these four episodes - I would also include 42 amongst the best of this series - is that they seem like aberrations, odd ones out in a show that is more frequently light-hearted. According to Wikipedia, Russell T Davies described the Human Nature/The Family Of Blood story as being too dark for the program's audience. I suspect that he underestimates what his audience can tolerate. Doctor Who is always at its most memorable when it is being terrifying. Ardal O'Hanlon dressed as a cat is not what the show built its reputation on, nor The Master and wife dancing to Rogue Trader's Voodoo Child but monsters like the Weeping Angels are.
There are moments in these three series that cause my spine to tingle like it did in the good old days of watching The Stones Of Blood, The Sea Devils and the spooky English horror story of K-9 And Company. The Empty Child is one, The Unquiet Dead another. With the first series with David Tennant, we have The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit - its Satan-possessed Ood still give me shivers with their, "We are the legion of the beast. The legion shall be many; and the legion shall be free...Some may call him Satan. Or Lucifer. Or the King of Despair. The Deathless Prince. The Bringer of Night. And these are the words that shall set him free!" - and the werewolf of Tooth and Claw. Years from now, children who watched these episodes will remember the very night they first heard, "Are you my mummy?" or stared at the Weeping Angels flickering in the light of the cellar. They'll remember, "Burn with me!" as though it had always been with us and the witches of The Shakespeare Code. And most of all, they'll remember the tears shed by the Doctor as he puts John Smith behind him, the children manning guns firing upon the scarecrows in a foretaste of the Great War and the Doctor, shorn of pity, trapping and immortalising the Family in space and time. I envy children whose memories of Doctor Who will be as strong as those.
The Runaway Bride (60m19s): The view from space is of London. A wedding is taking place but as the bride walks down the aisle, she screams, dissolves and, flying through space, appears in the TARDIS. "What? What?" is all the Doctor can say. Donna, the name of the bride, cannot and does not believe where she is. The Doctor, always willing to help, opens the door of the TARDIS, allowing her to gaze out at a supernova. More to the point, though, how did she get aboard the TARDIS and why? Torchwood, Huon particles and an underground laboratory in London. But so too is a spaceship travelling through space towards the Earth, carrying a alien species imprisoned since the dawn of time.
Smith And Jones (44m30s): Dr Martha Jones notices two strange things on her way to work. The first is a strange man who stops her and takes off his tie. The second is a biker, dressed in black leather, who barges her out of his way at the entrance to the hospital. But that day is going to get even more strange as the rain that falls on the building falls upwards, lightning strikes overhead and the hospital leaves Earth for the moon. There, amidst the panic, a brutal police force, the Judoon, search for a non-human lifeform. Non-human...as in alien. And it all has something to do with two patients, one a shape shifting bloodsucker and the other that odd man who gave Martha his tie, who is now sitting up in bed in the hospital dressed in his pyjamas.
The Shakespeare Code (45m38s): It is 1599 and the Doctor and Martha arrive in the TARDIS in the London of Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare and witchcraft. It is the night that William Shakespeare has premiered Love's Labour's Lost at the Globe Theatre and, rashly, announces that he will follow it up with Love's Labour's Won. In the audience sit three witches, Lillith, Doomfinger and Bloodtide who influence Shakespeare to declare that he will finish it that night and will be performed the following evening. What little time the witches have is running out and it is the power of Shakespeare's words that will open a gateway to let their ancient race pour through onto Earth.
Gridlock (45m03s): The Doctor returns to New Earth, taking Martha with him but instead of the near utopia he found before, New New York is a gritty, bad-tempered smoggy place where cars hover in traffic jams that can least for years. With Martha kidnapped at gunpoint by Milo and Cheen, who need a third adult to progress into the fast lane, the Doctor joins the motorway to find her, taking up with Cat Person Thomas Kincade Brannigan, his human wife Valerie and their two kittens. Brannigan tells the Doctor that he has been in this same traffic jam for twelve years and has only travelled five miles. And far down below, something stirs in the darkness, a hungry beast with a good many claws. Meanwhile, an old friend waits for him in the city with a message that will change the Doctor's life.
Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks (46m57s, 46m29s): The Doctor and Martha land in New York in 1931 at the foot of the Statue Of Liberty. Not New New York as Martha is happy to note but the Big Apple, where jazz floats out of nightclubs and where a good time is in store for a girl who's just arrived in town. But the Doctor is struck by a newspaper headline that says Hooverville Mystery Deepens and rumours about disappearances. Underneath the shadow of the Empire State Building, the Doctor and Martha investigate these missing persons and find some hideous creatures working in the sewers underneath Manhattan. But if they are the servants, who are the masters and why is it so important that the communications mast on the Empire State Building be finished that night?
The Lazarus Experiment (43m08s): The Doctor takes Martha home, the morning after the day they first met and in Martha's bedroom where, after switching on the television, they see a Professer Lazarus announce to all those watching that before the day is through he will forever change what it means to be human. Saying farewell to Martha, the Doctor disappears in the TARDIS but returns in seconds, his interest piqued by what Lazarus could possibly mean. Donning a dinner jacket and accompanying Martha to a private reception at Lazarus Laboratories, the Doctor finds out exactly what he meant. With Lazarus stepping into a capsule and activating it, the crowds watch in horror as the machine appears to overload. Fearing for Lazarus, the Doctor pulls the plug on the machine but Lazarus steps out unharmed. In fact, he looks better than he has done in years, decades even. Announcing to the press the success of his machine, Lazurus basks in the glory that comes with having invented an anti-aging machine. The Doctor, fearing that Lazarus will have overlooked something in his research, warns the professor but Lazarus leaves for his office upstairs with his wife, Lady Thaw. It's when he comes back alone and in a change of clothes that the Doctor becomes concerned. The body of Lady Thaw lies upstairs drained of life.
42 (45m29s): The Doctor and Martha arrive on a spaceship and, leaving the TARDIS, are surprised to be greeted by a crew in something of a panic. With the door closing behind them, they're told by Captain Kath McDonnell (Michelle Collins) that they're on the SS Pentallian, that the engines are no longer operating, that it is becoming increasingly hot and that they don't have much time. The Doctor explains about the TARDIS but via a dial on the door that closed behind him, he's told that it's now out of reach. The temperature in the room that he materialised into is now three thousand degrees and rising. Looking out of a window, the Doctor learns why the ship is so hot - the SS Pentallian is falling into a nearby star and according to the onboard computer warning of the possibility of collision, the Pentallian and the crew aboard it have only 42 minutes left. In the medical bay, McDonnell's husband Korwin (Matthew Chambers) is suffering from a fit. Applying a sedative, Korwin is put to sleep but as the rest of the crew leave to fix the engines, medic Abi doesn't notice Korwin's hands begin to move again. But her screams echo through the ship as Korwin rises and, opening his eyes, tells him to, "Burn with me!"
Human Nature/The Family Of Blood (45m03s, 42m59s): To escape an alien race in pursuit of the TARDIS, the Doctor captures his spirit within a unique fob watch, one that is possessed by all Time Lords. Changing into a human to avoid detection, he and Martha arrive on Earth in the years prior of the outbreak of the First World War. They hide the TARDIS and hide away on Earth, the Doctor as meek schoolteacher John Smith and Martha as a maid within the boarding school. Martha is to guard the Doctor, opening the fob watch when the Doctor is needed once again. But the Doctor falls in love with school nurse Joan Redfern and quietly romances her. He dreams of his past adventures, jotting down drawings of his previous selves in a notebook he calls his Journal Of Impossible Things. But the Family did not die in space as the Doctor had hoped. Reaching Earth, they search for the Doctor, hoping to become immortal and to conquer all of space and time by absorbing the soul of a Time Lord. They bring the scarecrows in the fields nearby to life and death follows them, not least when the Family intrude on a dance.
Blink (43m42s): Although the fence is there to keep her out, Sally Sparrow breaks into an old house called Wester Drumlins. Inside, she finds a note hidden behind the peeling wallpaper. Tearing the paper back, she finds it addressed to her, telling her to, "Beware the Weeping Angels...duck now!" Just as she does a brick passes over her head. The next day, she returns with her friend Kathy Nightingale, the two of them noting the strange statue in the garden outside. A knock at the door brings a man with a letter from Nightingale full of details about the life that she lived in Hull in the 1920s, about the man that she loved and the family she raised. Unknown to Sally, the Weeping Angels touched Nightingale and sent her into the past. A key hanging off one of these statues leads Sally into a life very different from the one she knew...a life of time travel, of secret messages on DVDs and of a strange blue box in the basement of Wester Drumlins.
Utopia (45m57s) The TARDIS lands in Cardiff to recharge but doesn't hang about for very long. Instead, heads off to the end of the universe to the year 100 trillion and to the planet Malcassairo. Further even than the Time Lords have gone but not Captain Jack who arrives courtesy of the Doctor, hanging on to the outside of the TARDIS. There, they find the last humans living within a guarded compound where they are safe from the Futurekind, cannibals who live in the wastelands. Within the compound, the Doctor, Martha and Jack find that the few thousand humans left alive are waiting for Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi) and his assistant Chantho (Chipo Chung) to complete the drive system on a spaceship destined to take them to Utopia. But there is something peculiar about Yana and it has the Doctor thinking about what the Face of Boe said to him. You are not alone. Then the Professor produces a broken watch, one that he's had all his life but which Martha finds very familiar.
The Last Of The Time Lords/The Sound Of Drums (46m15s, 51m28s): The Doctor, Martha and Jack arrive back in London in the present day to find that the mysterious Mr Saxon (John Simm) is the Master. Unfortunately, it is the morning after the general election and Saxon/the Master has swept into power (and 10 Downing St) with an unprecedented majority. However, as the Doctor watches the Master arrive in Downing St, he hears him bait the Doctor with his first televised message, "This country has been sick. This country needs healing. This country needs medicine. In fact I'd go so far as to say that, what this country really needs, right now, is a Doctor!" Without his TARDIS and with nowhere else to go, the Doctor makes a call to Saxon. It is then that the learns what the Master has planned. It is then that he tells the Doctor of the Toclafane. The next day, the Doctor learns that the Toclafane are not the Gallifreyan fairytale villain as he'd thought, at least not when a rift in time and space opens up above the Earth and six billion of them arrive, killing one tenth of the human population in mere minutes. "The Toclafane... what are they? Who are they?" asks the Doctor. Putting his hand on the Doctor's hearts, the Master tells him, "Doctor, if I truly told you...your hearts would break."
This is largely a reprint of what was written for the standalone DVD releases of Volume 2 and 4 of this series. On DVD, this doesn't look or sound very much different to how it did on broadcast television. Granted, the picture is better given how DVD affords the show much more bandwidth than either Freeview or Sky Digital did, leaving us with a sharper picture with less artefacting and more detail throughout. However, the quality of each episode can vary. 42, The Shakespeare Code, Blink and the Human Nature/The Family Of Blood pair all look good but they have interesting settings and the effects department were clearly working overtime on them. Smith And Jones is more Holby City than Doctor Who with its comparatively dull hospital setting while The Last Of The Time Lords/The Sound Of Drums looks rather soft with its CG-heavy ravaged Earth. Utopia is good at times but only within the military complex, not so when in the quarry. However, what with a noticeable softness to the picture at times, it still could be better and may even ought to have been a show that the BBC could have tested the high-definition waters with.
Further to a mistake on my part - copying and pasting the part of the review that dealt with the audio track - I incorrectly stated this boxset comes with a DD2.0 track. This review has been updated to correct the matter. My mistake and I apologise.
This boxset, unlike the standalone releases that have been issued throughout the year, comes with a DD5.1, all of which are very good. In fact, there's something very pleasing about hearing that theme song surrounding the viewer but the tracks are generally fairly free of problems. 42 probably sounds the best of all with that physics-defying roar of the star sounding as massive as the sight of it on the screen, not least when Martha falls into it in an escape pod. Blink has a quiet, chilly feel to it, which works well due to the clarity of the soundtrack. There's a resounding crack to the storm in Smith And Jones and an authentic bustle in The Shakespeare Code but special mention must go to the playback of the score in The Family Of Blood, which, in spite of sounding a little like the theme to Cadbury's Flake, soars every time one hoped that it would. Finally, there are English subtitles selectable off the main menu as well as English descriptive audio tracks for each episode and menus.
Commentaries: Every episode has an accompanying commentary with members of the cast and crew coming and going throughout. As such, the quality of these commentaries tends to vary. Those commentaries that bring key members of the cast or crew together, who have gotten to know one another well through the making of the series tend to be the best, particularly those where David Tennant and Russell T Davies are together or where Davies is joined by another writer. Davies, no matter what you might think of this scripts for Doctor Who, is a very amiable and very chatty presence on those commentaries he adds his voice to, equally at home with Tennant on Smith And Jones and Utopia or with Chris Chibnall on 42. Those commentaries are a real pleasure to listen to as Davies' love of the show is clearly evident as is his interest in absolutely all things Who, from the tie-in novels, to the fans who write in, to the production and just to seeing his favourite show on the screen.
Equally as good are those commentaries with David Tennant, such as his recording with Julie Gardner on The Runaway Bride, with Christian Cole (Lillith) on The Shakespeare Code, with Mark Gatiss on The Lazarus Experiment and with Freema Agyeman and John Barrowman on The Last Of The Time Lords, which finds the Doctor and his two companions on fine form as they watch the end of the series. However, not all commentaries are up to the standard of those listed. Writer Steven Moffat and Composer Murray Gold on Blink is interesting but somewhat more muted, as is the commentary with Murray Gold, Director Charles Palmer and Writer Paul Cornell on Human Nature. Writer Helen Raynor, actress Miranda Raison and Costume Designer Louise Page on Daleks in Manhattan is a chatty but fairly flimsy affair while Gridlock's Julie Gardner, actor Travis Oliver and Visual Effects Producer Marie Jones isn't the best track in the set. However, unlike a good many boxsets that offer a commentary on each episode, these are never dull and with the mix of cast, crew, writers and producers, the viewer gets a very broad range of experiences of the making of Doctor Who.
Music And Monsters (58m35s): This Doctor Who Confidential was a Christmas special that took a behind-the-scenes look at a Doctor Who gala concert held in aid of Children In Need. In front of an audience of 2,000 people, David Tennant introduces clips from the show, including a sneak-peek of the then-unseen The Runaway Bride, and an orchestra playing themes and pieces of music from Doctor Who. Daleks, Cybermen and the clockwork droids from The Girl In The Fireplace all guest star and there are some interesting pieces on the music of the show, including how the famous theme to the show has changed over time with much credit given to Ron Grainger and Delia Derbyshire for its original composition and arrangement.
David Tennant's Video Diary (28m53s, 40m04s, 27m05s): Beginning with the photo shoot that announced Freema Agyeman's part in the series, this video diary mixes behind-the-scenes footage with interviews with David Tennant, Freema and various members of the cast and crew. The two of them talk about the public's reaction to the show, the need for security on the set, the locations used, including Tennant's surprise at being granted permission to use the Globe Theatre and the extensive amount of make-up in the show, spoken about most often by those members of the cast struggling to act from beneath it. This comes in three parts, the first taking the viewer through Smith And Jones, The Shakespeare Code and Gridlock, the second beginning with The Lazarus Experiment and on through Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks, 42 and Human Nature/The Family Of Blood and the third going through the production of the final three episodes in the series.
Doctor Who Confidential Cut Down: In my reviews of two standalone releases, I complained about the lack of bonus material, saying that Doctor Who Confidential and Totally Doctor Who offered the BBC a wealth of behind-the-scenes features. The Infinite Quest from CBBC's Totally Doctor Who has since shown up on a release of its very own while Confidential, in a series of thirteen episodes, makes it to the sixth and final disc in this set. However, each episode of Doctor Who Confidential, as shown on BBC3 after each episode of Doctor Who, normally lasts for forty-five minutes while these cut-down versions run to somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes each. So, while they are Doctor Who Confidential, they aren't quite the full experience that fans might be looking for. In some respects, this is a good thing. Each reduced-length version of Confidential deals with the most pertinent points of the production - special effects, makeup and the like - without caring a great deal for the detail. What the BBC have remembered to do is to include the most interesting parts of each episode. Monsters Inc., the episode that accompanied The Lazarus Experiment, features Mark Gatiss' look back at some of the most memorable monsters in Doctor Who since its return in 2005 while Do You Remember The First Time allows David Tennant to take a nostalgic view behind the success of the show with writer Steven Moffatt.
Finally, every disc contains the Trailers shown by the BBC at the end of each episode. Hence, there is no trailer for either Smith And Jones nor The Runaway Bride but are present from The Shakespeare Code onwards. Each trailer lasts for twenty seconds or thereabouts.
I was going to end the main section above with a further comment on Catherine Tate but found that after listing the highlights of Blink, Human Nature and The Family Of Blood, any mention of Tate just seemed so very wrong. No matter that I watched The Runaway Bride once again for this review, those episodes, along with 42 and The Shakespeare Code, are what one remembers most of this series, not least the final fifteen minutes of The Family Of Blood, which offers the viewers two memorable speeches, the fury of the Doctor and the utter sadness of the Doctor giving up on a life of normality for the loneliness of a Time Lord. It is simply magnificent. Any show that offered that alone would be worthy of merit. That this series does it several times over makes it the strongest series of Davies-era Doctor Who to date.