...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Day 2281: DOCTOR WHO: Smith and Jones


HONESTLY! As if it wasn’t bad enough that last year Dr Who returns to CAT MONSTERS, this year Dr Who returns to STUPID THICK RHINOS!

Where are the SPACE ELEPHANTS, then? Wise and kind and wearing nuclear-powered rocket packs!

I am off to start a PETITION for Space Elephants in Doctor Who – I will leave Daddy Richard to write some stuff about last night’s adventure.

The question that everyone wanted answered was, after the departure of Billie Piper, after Torchwood, would the magic still be there? Well, the answer is a resounding “yes”, with that fantastic mix of the brilliantly bizarre (a hospital transported to the Moon), the horribly frightening (blood-sucking vampires), with down-to-Earth relationships (a whole new family to get to know) and finest British whimsy (a dotty little old lady with a straw).

When the Doctor asks Martha if she really believes they’ve been abducted by aliens, her answer might as well be about the success of Doctor Who itself:

“A couple of years ago no one would have believed it, but these days, what with that space ship hitting Big Ben and then Christmas…”

“Smith and Jones” consciously plays up similarities to “Rose”, the first time that Russell T got to introduce us all to the Doctor’s newest friend. Opening with a musical sequence and rapidly intercutting scenes to give us the shape of Martha’s life; the Doctor taking her hand with the word “Run!”; and the introduction of the TARDIS with a full explanation of the acronym. This isn’t just because “Rose” was such a brilliant primer on all the series’ basics, but also to express the contrasts between Martha and Rose as much as the similarities, and we quickly come to love Martha as much for those differences as for the courage and zest of life that she and Rose have in common.

Martha challenges the Doctor. Where the Doctor expected Rose to keep up with him, Martha expects him to match her, in deductions and observations and actions. For her he has to earn the title of “Doctor”. Like Rose, she saves the Doctor’s life in her first story; unlike Rose, she uses her skill and intelligence instead of instinct – as a trainee doctor herself she knows the technique of CPR, but she is also smart enough to adapt immediately to a patient with two hearts. Martha is clearly much more sorted than Rose, settled on her path in life and going places. Even though she is the one that her family seem to turn to as the calm source of advice who can get things put right, she is obviously much more independent.

The Jones family are necessarily drawn in sketches so far, appearing only in the opening and closing minutes of the show, for obvious reasons. I hope and expect that we’ll learn more about them over the season. Dad Clive in particular seems a bit of a cartoon at the moment, with his Ricky Gervaise-esque cry of “this is me putting my foot down!” I thought Mum Francine was wonderful: a go-getting lady, like both her daughters, but with an acid sense of humour used to cover up some deep hurt. It’s Russell’s genius to draw such a fleshed out character with barely two scenes.

On the other hand, it’s also clear that Martha’s instincts lead her wrong, because she has read rather more into the Doctor’s offer of a trip round the universe than he may have intended to offer. Even knowing that he’s an alien, she’s still assuming that she can read human meaning into his behaviour. Even knowing about Rose, she hasn’t twigged that he’s already given both of his hearts to her. The second of the BBC’s trailers for this season – the “I need a guy who’s smart…” one – suggests that Martha isn’t just looking for a taxi driver. There may be tragedy ahead because of this.

Anyway, in between all this genuine emotion, real-life trouble and strife, there is an exciting adventure on the Moon. Again like Rose, the plot is a bit secondary to all the introductions going on: there’s a villain on the loose in the hospital and someone has sent in the space-police. Or rather a bunch of hired Judoon thugs. And just like mentioning the Time War, Russell uses off-hand little asides to suggest that this is all part of a bigger picture: the Doctor telling Martha about intergalactic law and that the Earth is off limits because of it.

The Judoon are the military police of the galaxy, it would seem. Though who elected or appointed them to the position is a bit more questionable. They stick to a strict legal code and that makes them different to other aggressor species that we’ve come across so far. Not necessarily more predictable or more pleasant but at least with a different motivation. And of course, people who are convinced that they are doing the right thing (like upholding some arbitrary version of “the law”) are often more dangerous than outright villains, especially when – as here – they do not give a stuff about collateral damage. I have no idea who these heavy-handed new centurions of the galactic order could be referring to. The lovely moment when the Judoon captain hands Martha a wad of useless currency because she requires “compensation” says it all.

Their arrival is fantastic. As if the hospital on the Moon wasn’t already a fantastic visual, the landing of the three truncheon-shaped Judoon spaceships, and the deployment of their troops onto the lunar surface is awesome.

The costumes too are great – and a little bit camp, with their leather battle kilts – great big black space armour with huge helmets, leading up to the shock reveal that underneath they’re… Well now, Russell did do the same trick with the Sycorax helmet masks, but here it’s even more obviously an homage to “the Time Warrior”. You do have to admit, the Judoon are very, very Sontaran-like: heavyset warriors and, well, a bit thick. On the other hand, the Sontaran obsession with war and nothing else would make them inappropriate for this police role, still less the idea of working within anyone’s galactic law other than their own. Probably means we’re not going to see the Sontarans in the new series though.

The prosthetic mask for the Judoon captain with its fully animated mouth was really brilliant, though, one of the finest “creature” creations I’ve seen on television. Makes a Star Trek bumpy forehead look really shamed. We can’t wait for the action figures.

And they aren’t interested in conquering us, so they conclude their business and just go – perhaps with the opportunity to return later in the season, or the next time intergalactic law needs some enforcement.

In spite of the harm that they do, however, the Judoon aren’t the real villains of the piece: that honour goes to the Plasmavore. Tall, gaunt, arrogant Mr (Bram, do you think) Stoker is a brilliant bluff and it is, of course, the batty little old lady who is the real enemy. Never has a straw been made to seem so sinister. Her solid leather sidekicks (does it need to be said reminiscent of the sold plastic Autons?) are convenient (and easy to costume) heavies, but it is a terrific turn by Anne Reid as vampire Florence that really sells the idea, turning on a dime from ditzy to deadly.

There is of course absolutely no connection to the character of Nurse Crane played by Anne Reid when she last appeared in Doctor Who in “The Curse of Fenric” almost twenty years ago… when she was bitten by the vampiric haemovores (no relation).

The best scene is in fact the moment between her and the ever-marvellous Roy Marsden as Stoker where he dismisses the concerns of the old lady patient because they are now all going to die on the sodding Moon. Only she in turn dismisses his concerns because her plans involve the use of not his assistance but just his blood.

Not that the rest of it isn’t marvellous too, in particular the two leads. David Tennant has reigned in his “look how wacky I am” tendency, and this is a great improvement. Underplaying the Doctor’s crazier scenes – taking his shoes off, taking his tie off – actually makes them seem more barking and less affected. He still does that on-off thing with the deadly serious so well, as the Doctor’s mind flits from one obsession to the next, and is able to light up with every discovery of joy, of which Martha is the latest. What is also rather nice is the way that he probes and tests her throughout, as though even though in the aftermath of losing Rose he actively rejects company at the moment, he still can’t help road testing a potential new companion. And he seems to have come up with a new little wink, just for Martha, that is very quick and very charming.

In some ways – perhaps subtly reflected in the way the title is “Smith and Jones”, splitting it fifty-fifty making it more a relationship of equals than the all-about-me title of “Rose” – this story is the Doctor discovering Martha just as much as she discovers him and his world.

And, of course, Freema Agyeman is just as brilliant; what a discovery she is. From her casual amused byplay with her crazy family members in the opening, through her intelligent and yet thrilled reaction to finding herself on the Moon to her sassy, okay we can play hard to get acceptance of a place aboard the TARDIS, she really nails it. Everyone has said that Billie Piper’s Rose would be a hard act to follow. Well, Freema’s following, catching up and equalling.

This being a Russell T Davies script, Dr Science is barely troubled since the laws of physics aren’t nearly so important as the laws of what makes spectacular television.

The thoughts about the air are good – Martha’s observation of the lack of explosive decompression that first impresses the Doctor about her and then the gradual running out as the people use it all up.

“Ooh,” says Alex, “People suffocating on the Moon: it’s gone all ‘Timewyrm: Revelation’.” As if Russell T Davies would go around remaking one of Paul Cornell’s novels for television…(!)

But although we remember the sudden lack of air, we do overlook the abrupt 83% drop in local gravity. Still, that’s rather harder to film than just people lying down gasping, isn’t it.

And yes, of course those Judoon ships are so powerful that the sound of them can be heard through a vacuum (we post facto justify by saying that the sound is being transmitted via the lunar surface, or the shockwaves are causing vibrations in the force-field that holds in the air).

But these are trifles compared with such great images as the rain falling upwards that precedes the hospital-napping.

The Doctor’s ability to absorb radiation and move it around his body may be what Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood would angrily describe as a random super-power (one that would have been handy at the end of “Planet of the Spiders”), but it’s really no more than a giggle. And when the effects people have taken the trouble to paint in the Doctor’s skeleton, visible as he X-Rays the Slab to death (and the solid leather Slab’s lack of a skeleton at the same moment) you have got to appreciate how much love goes into this show.

And, as in previous years (“Bad Wolf”, “Torchwood”), it appears that the creators are deliberately setting something up as an arc to reward the committed viewer. This year it’s “Mr Saxon” – first seen in a newspaper headline on Victor Kennedy’s newspaper in “Love and Monsters”. In “Smith and Jones” he gets a name-check on the radio, as Martha’s colleague Oliver recounts the days events and says that “Mr Saxon is right about the threat form aliens!” Who Mr Saxon might be and what is his agenda will have to be revealed over the coming weeks, but so far it would seem that he is a politician and intends to do a bit of an “Amazing Mrs Pritchard” – i.e. come to power on a wave of populist support. Whether he will then govern like a dictator remains to be seen. And, if I can make a stab at a guess, is it too much to expect that Martha’s high-flying PR woman sister, Tish, might end up being called on by a such a man in search of a good campaign?

It does occur to me, though, that the opportunity to take over the British government like this might only have arisen because the Doctor decided to topple the previous government of Harriet Jones. (No relation, we assume!)

Finally, I know I’m always dwelling on timing and chronology, but this is a series about time travel, so it feels right to try and pin it down where we can, especially when the new series seems to have made a serious effort to give us the clues to do so. Here we seem to have a bit of a knot: off air evidence of Martha Jones’s My Space blog and Mr Saxon’s election campaign material seem to date it to the present day, i.e. 31st March 2007, rather than the one-year-in-the-future that we had become used to while Rose was on board.

It would seem (from the same material) that Mr Saxon isn’t Prime Minister yet – but he will be by Christmas 2007 when “The Runaway Bride” is set, since he gives the orders to shell the Racnoss’ spaceship. So, slightly perversely, this seems to occur before the immediately preceding story (at least in Earth’s timeline). But that would all be consistent, particularly if there is an election going on in Spring 2007 because of Harriet being defeated in a no confidence vote after the Sycorax invasion.

But, Martha refers to the Cybermen, and to her cousin (don’t groan) Adeola vanishing at Canary Wharf, meaning that these events are post-“Doomsday”. (Not that dating “Doomsday” isn’t tricky enough already with the Cybermen having taken three years to get across the void, and therefore being at least three years after “The Age of Steel” in Pete’s World, but apparently later the same year in ours.) Doomsday does have to take place “some months” after “Love and Monsters” because that’s how long the world has had to get used to the ghosts; and “Love and Monsters” itself takes place at least three months after “The Christmas Invasion” because that’s how long LI’N’DA lasts for. So “Doomsday” ought to be at least Summer 2007, or possibly sometime in 2010.

For the moment let us tentatively say “late summer/autumn 2007” and hope for better clues later.

Where “New Earth” was a bit shaky as a season opener – working better as a second episode after the new Doctor’s big introduction in “The Christmas Invasion” – this year has got off to a spectacular start, all the better since “The Runaway Bride” was a much more stand-alone story. The intimations for the next three stories are all good too (I hope!) with Daleks obviously to look forwards to, and before that the conclusion of the “New Earth Trilogy” and the keenly anticipated secret of the Face of Boe. But, as presaged by the blue time tunnel at the end of “Smith and Jones”, history first.

Next time… “Why Mr Shakespeare, what an enormous Globe you’ve got!” in Gareth Roberts’ “The Shakespeare Code”.

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