Retro ‘Doctor Who’ Reviews – Vol. 10.6
I feel like I’m in one of those ticking clock narratives. Reviewing every Doctor Who episode before the 50th Anniversary seemed like a fine plan a year ago but time is running out!
In an example of the classic ‘ticking clock’ narrative technique, this episode sees the Doctor and Martha answer a distress call from a ship only to become trapped on it themselves with only 42 minutes to save the day. Whilst Martha and crew member Riley work through a series of doors locked using pop culture trivia (for some reason) an infected crew member begins spreading their condition and killing other crew members.
Trapping a crew on a spaceship with a limited amount of time until they hit the sun is always a good way to set up an adventure. The infected crewmembers find their body temperatures rising to extreme levels, somehow being infected by the sun they are heading towards. The wielding mask clad infected with their burning temperatures are interesting looking folk, and create a very real threat. One of the strongest features of this episode is the writer’s ability to create a genuine feeling of peril. The small moments where Martha contacts her family reinforce the notion that there might not be a solution to the problem that they find themselves in.
The episode is solid and features some good writing. The audience does feel sympathetic towards the character that we only meet for a small amount of time. The finale isn’t as powerful as it might’ve been. A really good ending paired with the monster design and strong pacing could’ve turned this into a truly memorable Doctor Who episode. Alas, it’s simply good.
Human Nature/The Family of Blood
This two-part episode begins with one hell of a hook. An unseen enemy is attacking the TARDIS, reported to be the ‘Family of Blood’ who seek to drain his Time Lord Life Force, preventing him from regenerating. To deter his pursuers the Doctor traps his Time Lord essence in a pocket watch, rendering him a human unaware of his true nature. The Doctor instead becomes John Smith, a teacher in 1913 at a boy’s school, while Martha poses as a maid.
Rather than being a gimmick used to frame the story this becomes a heart-tugging tale of a man discovery that this life is not what he thought it was, and having to make a supreme sacrifice. The only way his real life leaks through is in dreams, which he documents in his ‘Journal of Impossible Things’. John Smith, meanwhile, is more concerned with the school nurse, Joan Redfern. The two fall in love, creating a dilemma when it comes to bringing the Doctor back to defeat the Family of Blood. John Smith goes from being sceptical to fearful over the course of the story, giving David Tennant the opportunity to demonstrate a wider range of acting ability other than quirky. It’s his inability to come to terms with what is happening and his relationship with Joan that make this a memorable couple of episodes, and that’s not even factoring in the villains.
After the Family of Blood track the Doctor to Earth they set out to infiltrate his life and uncover him. Being incorporeal they take possession of the local people, including a young girl, a student from the school, a maid and a farmer. Armed with a ray gun that disintegrates their target and a small force of mobile scarecrows. With John Smith as scared of them as everyone else they present more than a formidable enemy. When they take Joan and Martha hostage in an attempt to force John Smith to reveal his true identity it creates tense situation.
There are other plot threads that contribute to the wider story arc, including the immensely talented young performer Thomas Sangster as a young student gifted with ESP. Everything contributes to a strong and well written story that culminates in a showdown at the school that sees the students forced to take up arms against the aliens. Eventually it all boils down to John Smith having to confront the enemy on their own ground, which wraps up the expansive story nicely. Part of the strength of the episode is that, unlike double episodes of the modern era it does not try to make the story an epic that puts the entire world at risk but rather a small community. Genuine people invested mostly in each other are put at risk for it proves far more effective than the usual Dalek invasion of the world. An excellent set of episodes. It may be even more highly regarded is it wasn’t immediately upstaged…
There’s a certain irony in one of the most popular and famous adventures of the Doctor barely features the title character. Instead he takes a back seat to a naïve newcomer, a human named Sally Sparrow, as she encounters the most terrifying of creatures. Sally is a Londoner who has an interest in exploring old buildings, and on one adventure she finds all manner of unusual things. Firstly, there’s a decades old message for her hidden behind the wallpaper. Then there’s a key dangling from the hand of a statue. After taking the key – and failing to notice the statues are moving behind her back – Sally leaves.
This begins with a tightly woven and perfectly unfolding mystery about the angel statues and the quirky ‘Doctor’ who has left hidden messages on a random assortment of DVDs. Without wanting to say too much, there’s a circular plot that sees Sally providing the Doctor with information in future that he can use in the past to warn her of the Weeping Angels. The angels themselves have quickly become one of the most iconic of all Doctor Who monsters and although their impact has lessened with repeat appearances they do still bring the terror in this first episode.
The Weeping Angels, or Lonely Assassins, are quantum locked killers. As a highly evolved defence mechanism they revert entirely to stone whenever they are being watched. The moment their target turns away the Angels can move with incredible speed, and all it takes is a touch for them to send their victim tumbling into the past. The Doctor and Martha have been send decades back by the Angels and now rely on Sally to return the TARDIS to them before the Weeping Angels can get it.
There is no part of this episode that isn’t perfect. The casting of Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow (before she’d achieved fame as a movie star) is fantastic. Inside of this 45 minute episode she outshines some of the long running companions. The first appearance of the Weeping Angels was all the internet talked about for weeks following the airing of this episode. They’re imaginative and terrifying, and the otherwise simple design only lends more to their deceptive nature. All of it ties together in a fantastic mystery that only becomes more interesting the more it is explained. If you only watch one Doctor Who episode, make it this one.