This week we dissect Series 3 of the modern regeneration of Doctor Who. Over the last two weeks we looked at Series 1 and 2, in great length, and naturally it’s time to move on to the third, in what is David Tennant’s second season as the titular character.
Series 3 gives us something of a fresh start. Rose Tyler is, supposedly, forever lost to a parallel Earth following the events of ‘Doomsday’ with the rest of the Tyler clan. The Daleks and Cybermen have also been defeated indefinitely, so the Doctor is left to himself to travel once again and go on new adventures. For those adventures, he of course needs a new companion, from a new location, with a different background and perspective, so that opens up new possibilities and offers a chance to reset, to a degree anyway.
Moving into the third series, that is exactly what the show needs. Everybody loves Rose and the end of Series 2 was an emotional rollercoaster, but without her a change in dynamic was needed and with that the possibilities should be endless. Thankfully, the show achieves this, eventually. It does feel different, there is a shift of focus onto other characters beyond the Doctor and companion, and while the series is certainly inconsistent and takes time to find its rhythm, it just about manages to refresh the show by its end, and is a big improvement overall on Series 2.
Before we get into the episodes, for those of you reading these reviews for the first time, they are being written in light of our upcoming Doctor Who walking tour of Cardiff. The Welsh capital has served as the backdrop to most of the new episodes filmed this century, be it in studios or around the city’s streets and buildings, and a tour of those locations will become a reality later this year (hopefully). In the meantime, consider these reviews a light introduction into what may or may not feature on those tours in the future.
The biggest addition to the show at this stage is Freema Agyeman as the primary companion, Martha Jones. She is a welcome change in personality to Rose Tyler but not exactly totally different either. She is essentially a convenient half-way-house between Rose and the next companion, who we may not have been ready for yet by this time. Martha is strong-willed, independent, intelligent but also a romantic, and while she starts slowly, she eventually proves her worth as a character. We have seen her before, of course, but not as Martha Jones. Agyeman appeared in the series 2 finale as a brainwashed Torchwood operative. The casting directors must have liked her because she came back as Martha Jones from the first regular series 3 episode, and her presence in series 2 was explained away as being her, coincidentally identical, cousin.
Continuing on the Welsh theme, Swansea’s Russell T. Davies is still the head script writer and executive producer, albeit for the final time. Additionally, Wales arguably plays a visibly bigger role this year than ever before, with the city of Cardiff and its buildings and central streets used extensively and obviously in ‘Smith & Jones’ (Queen St), ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ (The Senedd and National Museum), ‘Blink’ (Mount Stuart Square) and ‘The Sound of Drums’ (The Friary), and they’re just the obvious ones.
Let’s quickly touch upon the Christmas special, ‘The Runaway Bride’, where we meet Catherine Tate for the first time. Thankfully, Donna Noble does get better after this. Very much a bland, generic Christmas episode, it just didn’t really offer anything to the episodes directly before or after, and the villain was lacking any real substance to even care. However, Harold Saxon does get a mention, giving the order to shoot down the Empresses ship, with what was only the second reference to Saxon. The first came, quite early too, in ‘Love & Monsters’.
‘Smith & Jones’ is where the series really gets going properly, as we meet Martha for the first time. Again, the villain is disappointing but we do meet the Jadoon at least, and it sets up the partnership of the Doctor and Martha as the name suggests. A slow start but the manner in which they met was fun.
‘The Shakespeare Code’ promised a lot, especially following Charles Dickens’ characterisation in Series 1, but it just never really feels like the real Shakespeare. His accent, and dialogue, just don’t fit with our perceptions of the man unfortunately. However, the setting looks good, it’s cool how the real Globe Theatre in London was used, and we start to get to know Martha a bit.
Martha had it tough. In her first three episodes she went to the moon, 16th century London and in ‘Gridlock’ visits New New York. However, she was on the verge of death so often she never had the chance to enjoy any of it, and we only very slowly get to know her as a result. This was an interesting episode, with a positive message ultimately and interesting concept, featuring a multi-layered hierarchical future-city with an array of fun guest appearances, all waiting as long as it takes to reach a paradise they knew nothing about. Overall it was something of a throwback to noir sci-fi like Bladerunner, or Dark City, and even The Fifth Element. By the end, a real connection between the Doctor and Martha is forged, and The Face of Boe sets up the series finale nicely too.
‘Daleks in Manhattan’ & ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ is the first double episode story of the year, and is where series 3 really starts to ramp up and leave its lasting mark on the show. The Daleks may be overused by now but they are genuinely threatening again. Merging Daleks with humans, and the consequences for Dalek Sec as a result, is an interesting concept (even if it looks weird). Martha’s understanding of the Doctor grows and she proves useful as his companion and as a doctor. The story included heartbreak, in the form of Laszlo and Hooverville, but also hope for what might come in the future.
‘The Lazarus Experiment’ brings Mycroft, I mean Mark Gatiss, out of the background and into the action for the first time. Honestly, in the first draft of this blog this episode was completely forgotten about. However, it’s interesting from a Cardiff perspective, making good use of the city’s finest buildings. Despite that, what might have been a great episode, seeing Martha and the Doctor together in the present day with Martha’s family, it ultimately falls a bit flat, even if it does set up future developments and cements Martha’s allegiance to the Doctor.
Unfortunately, ‘42’ might be the worst episode of the series. It was an homage to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, continued the storyline involving Martha’s annoying mother, but otherwise was of little consequence and not much happened. The concept of playing out in real time, or in 42 minutes, was exciting, but the consequences and tension never matched the countdown.
The remainder of the series gives us six memorable episodes in three long-lasting stories. Firstly ‘Human Nature’ & ‘The Family of Blood’ provides something we haven’t seen before: the Doctor as a human being. This concept gives Tennant opportunities to show his dramatic range as an actor, which really comes to the fore in the tear-jerker of a finale in which he finds himself torn between John Smith and the Doctor, between happiness and duty. The Family of Blood are also a good villain and meet a memorable end of their own. The final words from Joan Redfern to the Doctor will live in the memory also,
“If the Doctor had never visited us, if he'd never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died?
You can go.”
‘Blink’ is one of the most acclaimed stories in Doctor Who history, and probably the best episode of the modern incarnation of the show up to this point. It has a terrifying villain, wonderful performances (which is not always the case from the supporting cast), just enough Doctor to satisfy viewers as well, and a fascinatingly intricate time travel plot. The best episodes are always those that would stand alone as a piece of television in any genre, in any age, and this is certainly true with ‘Blink’. The setting and locations (in Cardiff and Newport) and even weather all contribute to making this both spooky and memorable.
Which brings us onto what is technically the first triple-header of NuWho, with ‘Utopia’, ‘The Sound of Drums’ & ‘Last of the Time Lords’; one at the end of the Universe (and Cardiff Bay), the next on present-day Earth and the finale in an apolalypical, dystopian Earth of one year in the future. These episodes don’t quite nail it in the way that the Series 2 finale does. However, the first episode re-introduces Jack and the tension is slowly raised, as we learn Jack can’t die, as the Doctor realises he is not alone after all, and as Martha confronts Professor Yana (get it?) about his watch. The second episode sets the scene in London (Cardiff), raises the stakes further even though Harold Saxon as Prime Minister was subtly teased throughout, and we get to learn of the Master’s intentions, and in turn the Tardis Team seem to be facing a losing battle. Finally, the third act increases the drama, raises the tension until everything seems lost, but in a bizarre twist Martha saves the day by getting the entire world to think about the Doctor at the same exact moment to undo a year of time. We got the finale we wanted but in a preposterous and unsatisfying manner unfortunately. The four-component-gun ruse would have been less ridiculous ending.
Unfortunately the ending, the way it came about and the consequential reversal of time (save for the handful of people on the Valiant) was convoluted and far too slow-moving. So not a perfect ending by any means but there were a lot of positives in getting there at least, with some great episodes and performances, especially from John Simm as The Master, who has barely been mentioned until now. While David Tennant was the undoubted star throughout and really grew as an actor and character in Series 3, John Simm really complimented that well and was an outstanding villain, and antithesis to the Doctor. His contribution to the final two and a bit episodes can’t really be understated, and the Master is arguably the best enemy the Doctor has faced up to this point, rather than the old favourites of the Daleks or Cybermen.
As mentioned, Tennant really shines throughout as the Tenth Doctor. He always does but really comes into his own this year. He is always zany, idiosyncratic and full of energy and he brings that to a new level, but also compliments it with a touch of humanity, never more so than in ‘The Family of Blood’, and to a lesser extent with The Face of Boe in ‘Gridlock’.
Martha makes herself useful eventually. It takes time to get used to changes, be it the Doctor or the companion but the episodes didn’t really help Martha either. She wasn’t really allowed to shine in her own right until at least ‘Evolution of the Daleks’. Eventually, it was refreshing to see a doctor in the more traditional sense join the Doctor, and she made valuable contributions in ‘The Family of Blood’, ‘Utopia’ and ‘The Last of the Time Lords’ but her love for him seemed a bit unnecessary and forced. It did at least make her departure plausible and understandable. With Rose it was a question of how would she possibly ever leave the Doctor, and it took something insane to get that to happen, but with Martha it was more logical. A lesson was learned by Series 3 that not every companion needs to fawn over the Doctor.
In previous years it’s been all about the Doctor and Companion dynamic to carry the show, but it was not as much the case here, and it was a welcome step away from that. As much as it worked in the first two years, the show needed to change, and in hindsight Martha is a nice stepping stone to Donna. We have a companion who unfortunately loves him still, but is independent, strong-willed, intelligent and doesn’t need the Doctor to survive, as Rose did. With that relationship not necessarily always carrying each episode, it means the episodes can speak for themselves as stories, and other actors and villains can take centre stage more strongly than they were allowed in the past, like the surrounding characters of Hooverville, the drivers in Gridlock, the school kids of Human Nature, and more obviously the cast of ‘Blink’. Even the Daleks add something new in Manhattan and The Master is like nothing we have met before. There is more room for the stories and characters to breathe this year compared to the first two seasons, and that has allowed for a more complete series compared to series 2, and has re-energised viewers and creators ahead of series 4, which many consider to be the finest installment of NuWho, which we will discuss next week!
Favourite Episode - 'Blink'
The best episode since ‘Dalek’ in Series 1.
Worst Episode - '42'
Some will like the lost in space set in real time vibe, but it was just too inconsequential.
Favourite Character - The Master
A great addition, a perfect opponent for the Doctor carrying a real threat and John Simm brought everything to the role.
Favourite Villain - Weeping Angels
A bit of a toss up with The Master, but the angels didn’t have any lines to be considered the best character. However, they were genuinely scary and intriguing, in what was a tense episode with great acting.
Favourite Moment - When Captain Jack mentions his old nickname from his modelling days….The Face of Boe they used to call him.
Best Welsh Reference - Finishing off the series on Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff Bay was probably the most visible Welsh reference in a season with no obvious Welsh language references or actors.
Best Guest Star - Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana
Jacobi is a well known actor in his own right, and his subtle performance gave little indication of what was to come by the end of ‘Utopia’.
Location you didn’t realise was Cardiff/Wales - Cardiff Heliport
It was not really the top of the Empire State Building, but rather Cardiff heliport in Cardiff Docks.
Location very obviously Cardiff - A very obvious one here, as the Tardis literally lands in Cardiff Bay on Roald Dahl Plass at the beginning of Utopia. Captain Jack runs up the Plass and jumps upon the Tardis as it takes off. It features again in the finale, as mentioned above.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment and look out for more Doctor Who content every week in our Blog.
Fogo’s Free Tours is an independent walking tour provider operating walking tours of Cardiff and Swansea. We have been in operation for the past two years, and have conducted hundreds of tours to thousands of people from one hundred countries. However, all tours in Wales are currently suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they will return as soon as possible. Please keep an eye on the homepage for further schedule updates, tour information and more reviews and blog posts.
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