Doctor Who (3rd season, 2006-07)

"He's completely insane… and a bit magnificent." That's The Doctor — strange alien from another world, traveling across time and space, finding trouble, and being casually heroic, usually with a wisecrack.

It's my favorite TV show, and I'm always up for another rewatch of its earliest, best seasons.

Right now, with me recovering from COVID and thus a bit intellectually stunted, watching old episodes is perfect — I already know the plots, so there's not much thinking involved.

After the first two very good years of the new Doctor Who, though, things leveled off for this third season. It's still fun, still better than 98% of what's on TV, and still recommended by me, but by Doctor Who standards this is a weak season. The show had settled into a routine, which never makes for terrific television.

S03E00: "The Runaway Bride"

Comic actress Catherine Tate was invited to play a one-off character, Donna Noble, in what's basically a stand-alone Doctor Who movie.

Some mysterious force has kidnapped Donna from her own wedding, but the plot is of only minor consequence. The delight is in the impatient, often insulting interplay between The Doctor and Donna. She has no patience for the "Spaceman," as she keeps calling him, and he returns fire with smartass quips of his own, which makes this is an enjoyably slapstick episode — Adam's Rib with monsters.

The monster of the week, though, is a shrieking intergalactic crab, and the actress playing the part seriously overplays it with drool and spittle, so eventually the episode starts to sink.

S03E01: "Smith and Jones"

Space rhinoceroses hijack a hospital, and plunk it down on the surface of the moon. That's ridiculous, and barely qualifies as science fiction.

What's worse is that the episode opens with The Doctor as a patient in that human hospital — a big mistake of in-universe continuity. The Doctor looks human, but he's a space alien with two hearts and a completely different physiology, so being the recipient of earth-style medical care would quickly reveal more than he wants revealed. This is something the show has dealt with previously, and ignoring it is as blatantly wrong as Spock telling jokes on Star Trek.

Despite that and the general dumbness of the plot, there's enough action to make it enjoyable, and at least one shiver-me-timbers classic Doctor Who moment.

This story also introduces Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), a plucky medical student who becomes The Doctor's new companion and immediately develops an unrequited crush on him. 

S03E02: "The Shakespeare Code"

The TARDIS lands in 1599, for a visit with William Shakespeare. It's basically a remake of the episode where The Doctor met Charles Dickens, from a few years earlier.

Wherever The Doctor goes in time and space, there are always space monsters, and this week's monsters are witches. Yawn. Witches aren't real, and bore me unless they're Elizabeth Montgomery and Agnes Moorehead, and I'm strenuously disinterested in whether the witches will prevent Shakespeare from writing his great lost play.

Bit of a bigger problem: Martha's black, so as soon as the TARDIS lands in the 16th century, she smartly wonders, "I'm not going to get carted off as a slave, am I?"

This is a sensible concern, which The Doctor waves away with, "Just walk around like you own the place. That works for me." 

Well, that works for The Doctor, because he's male and white and The Doctor. I don't think it would work for Martha.

If they played historical racism accurately, every trip back in time would put Martha at great peril. They wanted a story about Shakespeare, not race relations, and it's science fiction, not a civil rights drama — but the matter deserves more than the immediate dismissal it's given.

S03E03 "Gridlock"

I've seen this episode a dozen times, and it's one of my favorites.

We've returned to the "New Earth" of S02E01, but it's devolved since our last visit. Now it's nothing but a perpetual traffic jam, and Martha is kidnapped by a couple of motorists to be their third passenger, and qualify them for the carpool lane.

Traffic is so backed up, it takes six years to go ten miles to the promised land of the suburbs. Dealers sell moods (drugs), and religion offers reassurance, but everything in this society is about keeping people down, with only false hopes of a fast lane that doesn't exist. 

"What if there's no help coming, not ever? What if there's nothing — just a motorway, with cars going round and round and round, never stopping, forever?"

Immediately after The Doctor says that, theorizing that everyone on this world is clinging to deluded hopes, there's a chilling rendition of "The Old Rugged Cross."

The story is sketched without many concrete details, but the oppression and hopelessness feel real, making this one of the show's most subversive episodes. 

S03E04: "Daleks in Manhattan"
and E05: Evolution of the Daleks

It's 1931, and we're in New York City, where a pretty blonde's boyfriend has gone missing, and the dreaded Daleks are in charge of the construction of the Empire State Building.

The Daleks are assisted by treasonous humans, and by humans reconstructed as sorta pig-like things that walk on their hind legs. The blonde speaks Floozy fluently, which makes her mildly endearing.

Some of this is set in NYC's Hoovervilles, idealized and tidied up, with some good dialogue about the downtrodden, and the story is not boring.

Except for the floozy, though, it feels like a grab-bag of ideas left over from better episodes, remixed without much love or passion. It's a watchable two-part story, but it's also skippable without missing much. 

S04E06: "The Lazarus Experiment"

Professor Richard Lazarus is an old coot who's solved old cootery, using science to rejuvenate himself as a much younger man. But whoops, there's a malfunction along the way.

Mark Gattiss is excellent as Lazarus, but the story is wildly overblown, and even includes David Tennant playing a pipe organ in an ancient cathedral as Lazarus becomes a reptilian monster the size of an 18-wheeler. 

S04E07: "42"

One of the show's most common plot devices is that The Doctor and his companion pop in on an outer space workplace, where there's a dangerous situation that must be resolved. It's a story the show has told at least half a dozen times, often with great success, like just a year earlier, with the two-parter "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit." 

This episode tells that familiar story again, but it's the least interesting version. The story simply isn't a grabber, and plays more like an hour of people hollering. It's not actively bad, but there's nothing much to it, and it's another episode I usually skip on my rewatches. I watched it this time, as a sacrifice for you, dear reader.

S04E08: "Human Nature"
and E09: "The Family of Blood"

Enough sputtering — with this excellent two-parter, Doctor Who is back as top-notch sci-fi. 

The Doctor is being pursued across all of space and time by a relentless nemesis that's tracking him by his alien physiology. To hide, he needs to rebuild his body as human, and he also needs to be hidden even from himself, so he surrenders his memory — leaving only Martha knowing who he actually is.

Sinking into his new life where he's unknown even to himself, The Doctor becomes 'John Smith', a mild-mannered and somewhat cowardly teacher at a very British boarding school in the years prior to World War I. Martha works there too, as a maid.

Surrounded by students, staff, and genuine humans, something happens that The Doctor hadn't foreseen — he falls in love with Joan, a local widow.

Every aspect of the setting, the romance, the increasing peril is handled with depth, clarity, and feeling usually lacking even from very good television. That's because the writer, Paul Cornell, based these episodes on a 1990s Doctor Who fan-fiction novel he'd written, called Human Nature.

In the history of television, has that ever happened before or since? The author of novel set in a TV show's 'universe' is hired to adapt that novel as part of the TV show itself?

In every line, every scene, this is clearly much more than a script written for hire. Everything ticks like a high-tech pocket watch, and what's delivered on-screen feels more like a movie, perhaps even a novel, than a TV show.

Impressively, 'John Smith', The Doctor's alter ego, is a distinctly different character than The Doctor, and when he looks at Joan, you'll wish someone looked at you with such love in their eyes. Several of the students are unforgettable, and there's an epilogue that won't let them merely fade away.

This is one of The Doctor's greatest adventures, and honestly, it's among the finest science fiction ever made for TV.

I'd earlier criticized this season for pretending that Martha's race would be insignificant as she traveled through history, but in several scenes here she faces racism, even insults. It's accurate, and it hurts.

Also, the character of Martha had been written rather shallow until this, but here she'd given her own weaknesses and strengths, and everything rests on her shoulders, and she finally begins to seem like The Doctor's full-fledged companion.

"Have you enjoyed it, Doctor — being human? Has it taught you wonderful things? Are you better, richer, wiser?"

S03E10: "Blink"

Or more accurately, don't blink. The Weeping Angels are aliens in the shape of statues or gargoyles, inert when seen by anyone, but if you blink or look away, they'll get you.

It's an unusual episode, with The Doctor and Martha in it for only a few minutes. Instead it's about a young London lady named Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan), who puts together the clues to solve a mystery that makes no sense until the last scene, when all the pieces come together.

Written by Steven Moffat, it's the episode a lot of Doctor Who fans love best, and not coincidentally it's about devoted fans of The Doctor.

It's a very good hour of television — funny, scary, and thoughtful — and it won the 2007 Hugo Award, for Best Dramatic Sci-Fi Presentation. Personally, I would've gone with the previous two-parter, "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood," but there's no denying that "Blink" is beautiful.

"People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff."

S03E11: "Utopia,"
E12: "The Sound of Drums,"
and E13: "Last of the Time Lords"

Derek Jacobi guest stars as a lovable professor of a very distant future, after humanity has devolved to warring tribes on a wild land. Captain Jack Harkness, back from the show's first season, literally tags along, and we learn a sliver of his backstory.

Then it's revealed that Professor Jacobi is actually The Master (John Simm), a longtime enemy of The Doctor, who's been elected Prime Minister of Great Britain.

It's The Master's first appearance on modern Doctor Who, but he goes back decades in the classic series. He's an evil Time Lord, from the same planet as The Doctor, and they were childhood friends, but The Master grew up evil. He's a joker and lunatic and gleeful mass murderer, and he and The Doctor know each other well. 

Basically, he's 'Q' from Star Trek, or Mr Mxyzptlk from Superman — a villain with no motivation except to be a pain in the good guy's rectum. Whatever the situation, count on The Master to be obnoxious, murderous, cruel. The Doctor will always try talking sense to his old friend, but it's futile, because The Master has no 'good side' to be reached. 

This makes The Master a very boring, one-note character, and a hollow nemesis. And jeez, they gave him three episodes?

Worse, most of the episodes' other elements are distasteful: Martha's exiled to roam the world, her family is imprisoned, The Doctor is balded shrunken aged and caged, the Earth is in flames, the TARDIS cannibalized, etc.

Ah, well. Sometimes an idea works splendidly, and sometimes it's twaddle. Doctor Who still has a pretty good batting average — better than anything I've written, for sure.

Summarizing the season, it's four very good episodes, several so-so, and several big and small disappointments.

The biggest disappointment is Martha. She's gone at the end of this season, and Freema Agyeman seems to have been fine in the role, but — where's the role? With only rare exceptions, Martha isn't written with a fraction of the depth or personality of Rose (Billie Piper), The Doctor's companion for the first two seasons. She leaves as she arrived, as a medical student with an unrequited crush on The Doctor. There's little to the character beyond that.

Spoiler, though: In the show's following season, Doctor Who brings back Catherine Tate's Donna Noble, as his next companion. And the show starts rockin' again.

Previously on Doctor Who:
1st season     2nd season

Next: 4th season


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