A Doctor Who n00b Watches Series 3 (SPOILERS)
Last we saw the Doctor (David Tennant) at the end of series two, he had just said his goodbyes to Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) in spectacularly heartbreaking fashion before immediately confronting an intruder aboard the Tardis—the befuddled and betrothed Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). And so too begins series three, a remarkable run of fourteen of episodes that see the Doctor finding a new companion in Martha Jones (Freema Agyemon), battling his archnemesis the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman John Simm), and, of course, adventuring through time and space.
One of the things I loved most about Who during series two was its vast capacity for diverse storytelling. As the precredits scene of an episode began you never knew exactly what kind of story you were in for: it could be a tale of terror like The Satan Pit, an action epic as in The Age Of Steel, or something that evoked the fairy tales of old a la The Girl In The Fireplace. The show didn’t always succeed at what it tried (I’m looking at you, New Earth) but it tried so many different, interesting things it’d be tough not to admire it for its sheer ambition alone even if it didn’t reach the highs that that season did (I’m looking at you because I love you, The Girl In The Fireplace!). Where series two contained science fiction at its most humanistic, series three uses science fiction to explore what it means to be human; and though its final hours serve as a resounding call for optimism, this year Doctor Who makes sure that that optimism is tested and truly, devastatingly, earned.
Or at least, it is in the year’s second half. Sure, the series’ first six episodes are all good fun (even the Daleks In Manhattan two-parter, probably the season’s worst episode, is an enjoyable bit of cheese—especially if you enjoy old timey Noo Yawk accents AND BOY DO I), but the run of episodes from 42 through Last Of The Time Lords are a sight to behold—each one is distinctive in tone, inventive in story structure, and grand in theme; it is in this crop of programs that Who fan favorite Blink comfortably resides, an episode that had been built up and built up to so great a degree I feared the actual episode could never match its reputation, but thankfully those fears were for naught. It is of course fantastic, another feather in the cap of Stephen Moffat who proves time and time again his rare talent for using the machinations of science fiction not as a diversion from a story’s heart but as a direct line to it. Blink would easily have been my favorite episode of series two but, alas, in series three it had to contend with what I’d argue with the absolute masterpiece that is the Human Nature/Family Of Blood two parter.
Human Nature/The Family Of Blood takes a premise that is relatively small scale by Who standards and from it spins a yarn as sweeping in its reach as anything I’ve seen on a television show. On the run from an alien organization known as The Family, the Doctor and Martha take refuge in an idyllic, turn of the century English town. The Family can track Time Lord DNA, so before hiding the Doctor changes his genetic composition so as to create a new human identity for himself—one who only half-remembers his years as a Time Lord as some strange, recurring dream. This new identity, named John Smith, starts a quiet life for himself. But then The Family finds him. It’s two hours of television that serve as an anchor for the season as a whole and, for my money, the definitive take on who Tennant’s Doctor is—which is all the more impressive when one considers how little time Tennant spends as The Doctor in the episodes. That slight distance affords the show a rare opportunity to scrutinize its protagonist with just the right mix of empathy and criticism; The Doctor has to make tough decisions in these episodes, and he does not always make the right ones. Tennant’s Doctor has always been written as a flawed man, but some of his actions in The Family Of Blood are so staggeringly inhumane they humanize him in the most devastating of ways. If the dual questions of “what does it mean to be human” and “why is humanity worth fighting for” hover over the season as a whole, it is in these two episodes that they take flight and soar. The themes of the season may be most explicitly addressed in the very, very good three-part finale, but it is in Human Nature/The Family Of Blood that they feel most palpable, and most elegiac.
- So, new companion! What do you all think Of Martha? I liked her quite a bit, even more than Rose to be perfectly honest. There’s a point in the series’ middle where her defining character trait seems to be having a crush on the Doctor, and that’s frustrating, but in her early episodes and the finale she exhibits a strength that exists not in spite of her vulnerability, but because of it – it’s a complex characterization and I think Freema Agyemon nails it.
- John Simm’s portrayal of the Master as a kind of dark mirror of Tennant’s Doctor is just fantastic. He’s so funny and so terrifying, usually at the same time.
- I have never loved another human being as much as I love David Tennant’s performance as The Doctor. At this point it’s hard watching episodes, knowing each one brings me closer to his bow from the series. GAAAHHH stay on the show forever Tennant!
- Worst Episode: Evolution Of The Daleks (still enjoyed it though!)
- Best Episode: Human Nature/The Family Of Blood
- RIP John Smith