Reviews

Doctor Who: The Complete Fourth Series

In its strongest outing yet, the Doctor meets several new friends and old enemies, leaving some classic episodes and one very bloated finale in its wake.


Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Billie Piper, Freema Agyeman, John Barrowman
Network: BBC
US Release Date: 2008-11-18
Amazon

There has always been something sinister lurking within Doctor Who.

The Doctor -- in all his incarnations -- has traveled through space and time with an ever-changing lineup of companions, stopping would-be historical atrocities before they happen and saving the universe, parallel universes, and (sometimes) all of existence in about an hour's time. Though he's quintessentially British, the Doctor is still fundamentally human: always curious, burning with a sense of adventure, and brimming with an infectious love for all life no matter what form it takes.

Yet there is a question that is brought up only in passing for the Doctor: what is the cost that is paid as a result of the Doctor's actions? There are scenarios that the Doctor is put in that are so extreme that sometimes he must sacrifice a few lives in order to save thousands more.

Yet who is the Doctor to say who lives and who dies? And, furthermore, what effect does this self-imposed burden have on the Time Lord? Despite traveling the extremes of all time and space, the Doctor remains a profoundly lonely bloke, and it seems that true love (or at least true companionship) is always just out of reach for him.

Prior to the start of the Fourth Series of Russell T. Davies Doctor Who reboot, things were shaping up quite nicely for BBC's famed little show. After all, the show was still a ratings juggernaut in its homeland, it was becoming quite the cult hit Stateside, it was starring what may very well be the best man to ever inhabit the Doctor's shoes (David Tennant, dripping with infectious energy and undeniable charisma), and the Tenth Doctor was coming off of arguably his most popular companion to date, Martha Jones (played by the striking Freema Agyeman).

Yet unlike the end of Series Two in which the Doctor's companion/possible true love Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) was abandoned in another dimension, Martha did something quite unexpected: she calmly left the Doctor's presence following the Series Three finale in which Ms. Jones spent the better part of a year criss-crossing the Earth and saving all of humanity from a diabolical plan hatched by the Doctor's greatest nemesis, The Master.

Martha exhibited an independence lacking from previous companions, choosing to live out her life instead of spending the rest of her days being happily codependent on the Doctor's whims. So, really, the question must be asked: where does the Doctor go from here?

The answer is simple: upwards and onwards (or, as the Doctor would say: "allons-y!"). Series Four starts with the 90-minute Christmas special "Voyage of the Damned", in which the Doctor is onboard "the Titanic" -- a gigantic space vessel designed as a tourist attraction by the industrious billionaire Max Capricorn. It is here that the Doctor meets Astrid (Kylie Minogue), a lowly waitress onboard the Titanic who only took the job because she was looking for some sort of adventure -- something that clicks with the Doctor almost immediately.

Of course, being a Doctor Who episode, nothing can go as planned, and it's not long before the Titanic is in danger of crashing into Earth (the Doctor at one point asking if anyone on board knew what the original Titanic was famous for). Though the episode can very much be described as "typical Who", it's still a big piece of popcorn entertainment, meant to satisfy and please before starting its next chapter ...

... and boy what a chapter it is.

During the Christmas special at the start of Series Three, the Doctor meets Donna Noble (comedienne Catherine Tate), a bride who finds out that her wedding day is not what she expected it to be (see: husband trying to poison her for alien research). During the largely comical Series Four opener "Partners in Crime", both the Doctor and Donna are independently investigating the strange occurrences at Adipose Industries, as a new weight loss pill (Adipose, appropriately enough) is sweeping the nation, causing people to lose the exact same amount of weight (10 pounds or so) every night. What they don't know is that when Adipose leader Miss Foster (Sarah Lancashire) claims that the pill will make your fat walk out the door, she means it literally.

The Doctor and Donna meet and reconnect, and during the time that lapsed between Series Three's Christmas special and now, Donna has been thinking of the Doctor non-stop, eager to re-join his company at the drop of a hat. Suddenly, the Doctor is faced with issues regarding his maturity: as Donna unloads suitcase upon suitcase into the TARDIS, the Doctor simply stands by, staring, as if quietly (and somewhat reluctantly) accepting the fact that unlike before when he could whisk off some hapless girl through space and time, this one is actually moving in with him, choosing to be with him (instead of the other way around).

Yet Donna is not like Rose or Martha: there is not as much romantic chemistry between this pair. Their relationship is more chummy than anything else, which, inherently, leads to the duo sharing more comic moments than any previous Doctor-companion pairing. It is here that Series Four finds its strength: with the humorous moments being so plentiful this time out, the dramatic moments -- surprisingly -- gain traction, and, as a result, they have a stronger impact.

A Doctor Who Ood

Case in point: "Planet of the Ood". The Ood are an alien servant race that were first visited in Series Two's spectacular "The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit" two-parter, and it is on "Planet" that the Doctor and Donna meet the gigantic factory in which Ood are born and bred for servitude. Initially investigating why so many Ood have been going rabid as of late, the duo eventually stumble upon a cage in which "pure Ood" are kept: Ood creatures which have not been subjected to unyielding servitude as of yet.

As the Ood are huddled in a snow-covered cage, the Doctor points out how the Ood are singing a song. Donna cannot hear it, soon asking the Doctor to make her hear their sad chorus. When the Doctor places his fingers on her forehead, Donna hears the song of oppression that they're chanting, and almost immediately comes to tears, struck by its beauty but disturbed by its endless sense of sorrow. She demands the Doctor make her deaf to their song, but, upon doing so, Donna notes how the song still doesn't go away. Sympathetic in a way that the Doctor is not, Donna Noble is no longer mere comic relief: she's actually a multi-faceted character, and, as she proves, also one helluva companion.

Yet the strength of the Donna character is not the only muscle that the show's creative team is flexing: by and large, Series Four features some of the riskiest, most daring scripts that the Doctor has ever encountered. "The Doctor's Daughter" is just that: an episode in which the Doctor's DNA is used to create an immediate genetic offspring (Jenny) in a war-savaged society, and suddenly the Doctor is forced to take responsibility for a creation that was born out of wartime (albeit instantaneously). Jenny (Georgia Moffett) knows of nothing but war, and, despite the Doctor's non-violent tendencies, she argues with him about his militaristic nature:

Jenny: You keep insisting you're not a soldier but look at you! Drawing up strategies like a proper general.

The Doctor: No, no: I'm trying to stop the fighting.

Jenny: Isn't every soldier?

Yet this isn't the first time the Doctor's otherwise-impenetrable logic is defeated. In the stunning "Midnight", a creature inhabits a passenger on a tourist-friendly space freight, and the Doctor -- along with a small group of everyday people -- is soon phased by this alien's behavior, as the creature does nothing more than repeat back what everyone says, exactly how they said it. As the group panics and begins to worry, the Doctor goes through his usual calming speeches, except -- this time -- they're not working. The creature then stops repeating what people are saying, only to begin mimicking exactly what people saying as they're saying it. As the group grows more disturbed and panicked, they begin hurling accusations at the Doctor (claiming he's the creature's accomplice), scapegoating him because they have nothing else to hold onto. The episode crackles with psychological terror, and it serves as a reminder that sometimes Doctor Who can be a genuinely frightening show.

Of course, all of this deep philosophical debate can be a bit heady, which is why the well-played Agatha Christie episode ("The Unicorn and the Wasp") is such a pleasant sigh of relief, especially when it's proceeded by the Steven Moffat two-part epic "Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead", one of the smartest, deepest, and flat-out gripping stories to ever grace the series. Moffat -- the writer behind arguably the single best Who episode in existence (Series Three's "Blink") -- proves to be an invaluable asset to the show, which makes sense, then, that he will become the show's head writer during its impending Fifth Series.

Naturally, fans have been lamenting many of the changes to the uniformly-excellent Who of late: creator Russell T. Davies has announced his departure, along with producers Phil Collinson and Julie Gardner, at the end of the four specials they plan to run in 2009. Most surprising of all, however, was that two weeks prior to the release of this Series Four box set, Tennant announced his pending departure from the show as well, leaving both the on- and off-screen talent to an entirely new generation. Yet, though fans may lament these changes, Series Four acknowledges the rabid Who fan base with two very special stories, only one of which is actually carried off with grace.

The first is a short aired during the BBC's annual "Children in Need" special ("Time Crash", penned by Moffat), in which two TARDIS' collide in the time stream and the Tenth Doctor winds up meeting the Fifth Doctor -- Peter Davison gladly making a short, memorable cameo appearance. The chemistry between Davison and Tennant is immediate and infectious, Tennant getting a memorable send off by proudly telling Davison "you were my Doctor" -- a sly and loving nod to the show's storied past.

The same cannot be said, however, from the three-part Series-ending finale. Intended as the ultimate gift for Who fans, this finale, though certainly good, leaves too many questions and unsatisfactory resolutions in its wake. Donna, while visiting a fortune teller, winds up slipping into an alternate dimension in which she never meets the Doctor, which -- in turn -- leads to the Doctor's death and causes many Series Three/Four events to resolve in alternate ways (the Titanic crashes into Buckingham Palace, the Adipose fat creatures wind up killing 60 million Americans, etc.) In this alternate dimension, Donna meets Rose Tyler, who, in turn, helps her get back to the Doctor's "main" dimension, warning him of an oncoming darkness the likes of which he's never seen.

The rest of the finale involves (slight spoiler ahead, dear reader) numerous Daleks and their sinister leader Davros. By rearranging 27 planets together in a certain order (Earth included), the Daleks are able to create a sort of space-engine that is able to transmit a beam of destruction across the universe, literally destroying everything in its wake.

Of course, the Doctor can't solve this one by himself, so it's up to, well, every major character from every Who season and Who spin-off to join in: there's Torchwood's Captain Jack (John Barrowman), Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), and Gwen (Eve Myles); The Sarah Jane Adventures' titular heroine (Elisabeth Sladen), her son (Thomas Knight), their computer Mr. Smith (Alexander Armstrong), and K-9 (John Leeson); Who companions Martha Jones, Rose Tyler, Rose's mom (Camille Coduri), her ex-boyfriend-turned-dimensional-warrior Mickey (Noel Clarke), and -- just for the hell of it -- former British prime minister Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton). Though having such a galaxy of characters in one storyline certainly buoys fans expectations, the truth of the matter is simple: by having so many characters, the show loses focus of the main plot.

Indeed, the Torchwood crew and Rose's family wind up being relegated to mere subplot fodder, and even at the end when the Doctor is forced to remember all of those innocent people who have died in his name, not much is made of the revelation. This particular aspect is most irritating of all, as the Doctor has slowly changed over the course of four series. In Series One, the Doctor tries to blow up the last remaining Dalek in existence out of revenge -- this was a race that destroyed his entire planet after all. Yet Rose stops him and makes him reconsider his actions.

At the end of the "Family of Blood" two-parter in Series Three, the Doctor cruelly punishes the aliens that have wrought destruction on a small university with elaborate, torturous methods that only a Time Lord can pull off. By the time the Master is gasping for his last breath in the finale, however, the Doctor is pleading for him to regenerate as -- even though he tried to destroy all of the universe -- he is still the only other Time Lord in existence, and the Doctor does not want to be alone, even if the last of his kind is also one of the most evil of all kinds. So this short flashback of people sacrificing themselves in the name of the Doctor -- it should make the Doctor seriously reconsider his seemingly-peaceful missions throughout the universe, but, no, instead it is merely reflected upon once and never given second heed.

The resolution to the finale's main conflict is somewhat of a cop-out, but not as much as the resolution to the Rose story arc is. In watching the always-spotty Doctor Who Confidential behind-the-scenes featurettes, even Billie Piper admits that she's unsure of what to think of how the Rose arc is concluded, as -- for an encounter that has been built up over the course of the entire season -- it winds up being a very, very unhappy compromise for both parties. With Donna, however, Tate's character is given the proper, tragic justice it needs during its final moments, making of a somewhat bittersweet coda (and, most critically, the Series-closing episode is not interrupted with one of Davies' ever-annoying season-ending "cliff-hangers" that tend to kill the show's most emotional moments during their final breaths).

Though the special features are certainly generous [David Tennant's fun video diaries, a well-done retrospective doc, mostly-pointless deleted scenes (save for the alternate opening/closing to the Agatha Christie episode)], they do little to enhance what is arguably Doctor Who's finest season to date. Were the finale not as scattershot as it was, this great, surprisingly dark Series would easily rate a "9". As it stands, however, an "8" is still more than sufficient for one of the most entertaining sci-fi programs running today.

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