Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Another week in lockdown means another Doctor Who review. Naturally enough, following Series Three we are moving on to Series Four, which is an iconic year for the show. It's often considered the finest work of modern Doctor Who, a triumph for both David Tennant and Russell T. Davies in their final full season, it gives us great episodes, and for many, a best-ever companion in Donna Noble.
Any series that starts with a new companion or Doctor always feels like a clean slate, and that is the case here as well, to a certain extent at least. We have met Catherine Tate’s Donna before, in ‘The Runaway Bride’ of course, but the Doctor has moved on from Martha Jones and is looking for "a mate”, while Donna is read to get out of her rut of a life, so it feels like a fresh starting point for both of them. Before we go on any further, it must be noted for arguments sake that we will add in the numerous specials, including ‘ Voyage of the Damned’ and then the four additional stories that followed the regular season as part of this review. However, when discussing favoured episodes, for example, it strictly relates to the 13 standard Series Four episodes featuring Donna as the primary companion.
She’s been mentioned a lot already but the big change ahead of the fourth season is the addition of Donna Noble as the main companion. As discussed last week, Martha was a bridge between the clingy, desperation of Rose to what is a more casual, laid back dynamic now between Donna and the Doctor. Perhaps the show learned some lessons from the first three years that the companion can’t always be in love with the Doctor, and Donna is a welcome change from that previous trend. Donna is also a strong, independent, authoritative, persuasive character and works nicely as a foil for the Doctor but also serves as his conscious, such as in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, ‘Planet of the Ood’ and ‘The Poison Sky’. There’s no doubt she leaves her mark on the Doctor throughout, and even beyond. 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). Series Four is no exception, especially in ‘Partners in Crime’ (Churchill Road), ‘The Poison Sky’ (Cardiff docks) and ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ (City Hall), for example. In the meantime, consider these reviews a light introduction into what may or may not feature on those tours in the future. Regarding the stories, as mentioned this is considered a high point of NuWho, but there are some inconsistencies. The second half of the series is wonderful and incredibly consistent in its quality, and contains some high levels of fan service as well. At that point Donna had really hit her stride after a shaky start, and it lends itself to some great episodes. The first half of the season though, is a little less formidable and it takes some time to really get going. Saying that, there were no bad episodes overall, and there really was a building tension throughout that came together in a fairly satisfying climax.
The Stories 2007’s Christmas Special was the Titanic story, ‘Voyage of the Damned’. The concept promised so much and The Exchange in Cardiff offered a great replica of the ship’s interior, but it was hard to care about the characters or actors that much to be honest. It offered a nice Christmas experience in between Martha’s departure and Donna’s arrival, which is the aim, but a full version of the mini supplemental episode, ‘Time Crash’, where the Tenth and Fifth Doctor’s meet would have been better. In case you’ve let that pass you by, here it is...
Donna returned for the first time since ’The Runaway Bride’ in ‘Partners in Crime’, the first regular series episode in 2008. The episode was more about bringing the Doctor and Donna together in an amusing manner rather than there being any real threat from the little Adipose body-fat aliens. Rose Tyler makes a brief appearance also, hinting at bigger things to come down the line. The series setup is very much established from this point.
‘The Fires Of Pompeii’ was a classic historical episode much akin to the style of the original show. It was also noteworthy for Peter Capaldi and Karen Gillan playing totally different characters to what we know them for, and for its humorous Welsh/Celtic references (more later). A famous flaw first appears in this episode regarding set points in time and how major events shouldn’t be altered, yet the Doctor is convinced to save Caecilius’ family by Donna anyway. Overall an exciting setting and premise and a nice vehicle for Donna to show her personality. ‘The Planet of the Ood’ is where Donna finally begins to settle as the companion. We meet the Ood again for the first time since ‘The Satan Pit’ in Series Two, but this time we are brought into their backstory, creation and upbringing. As well as having a strong political and social point, this is where Donna’s personality really starts to have an impact on the Doctor and her character starts to grow stronger as a result.
The first two-part story is ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ & ‘The Poison Sky’, which brings Martha Jones back into the story, but this time she is a medical doctor working with UNIT. We also meet the potato-heads, the Sontarans, for the first time of many in the modern show. These episodes, while offering some interesting concepts like humans working with aliens, car GPS systems controlling people, gas providing a breeding ground for Sontarans, and cloning, it feels a bit slow for a double-episode.
Following a story that might have been better as a single episode, now we have a story that would have been better as a two-parter, ‘The Doctor's Daughter’. There was so much going on to fit into 45 minutes, with Martha on a side journey, the Doctor having a daughter, his coming to terms with that, and Donna solving the war in an episode that played with issues like religion and Chinese whispers. It didn’t have any consequences longer term though because we still don’t even know where Jenny is today. ‘The Unicorn and The Wasp’ introduces another literary figure following on from Dickens and Shakespeare, Agatha Christie. The story plays out like one of her own, as a whodunit mystery set on a country estate, and even ties in nicely to her real life events. The Wasp was a bit silly but overall an enjoyable episode, and Christie made a bigger impact than Dickens or Shakespeare.
The second two-part story was ‘Silence in the Library’ & ‘The Forest of the Dead’ and after seven episodes this is really from where Series Four gets going and earns its reputation as potentially being the high-point of NuWho. Firstly, great use is made of Brangwyn Hall and the Old Library in Swansea, and the world looks spectacular and eerily spooky in its silence. River Song is a fascinating character in what is her first story and the modern Earth subplot lends great suspicion and intrigue. The antagonist is also genuinely threatening and the fate of River and the rest of her team is an unexpected and satisfying end. One even feels some sympathy for Vashta Nerada.
The more one considers ‘Midnight’, the better it becomes. A Whoniverse version of a Bottle Episode, it almost entirely takes place in a shuttle on the resort planet of Midnight, the surface of which is bathed in lethal radiation. An unseen antagonist comes aboard the shuttle and begins to possess the passengers, using their own words against them. Ultimately the hostess sacrifices herself, believing in the Doctor’s innocence when it seemed all hope was lost. One of the show’s scariest villains and we don’t even see it, features a psychological breakdown of humanity at the same time, and Rose even makes a brief appearance.
‘Turn Left’ is very much a butterfly effect homage, but one which manages to incorporate the end of the world, as well as visitors (Rose) from a parallel world, and the Doctor even dies, as does Donna! Another great episode, relying heavily on Catherine Tate to carry the episode’s emotional lows as Britain becomes a dystopian/Nazi Germany style society. It sets up the finale perfectly. A simple premise in many ways, but it packs an emotional punch with potential grave consequences. And now for the real Series Four finale, ‘The Stolen Earth’ & ‘Journey's End’. The ultimate expression of fan-service brings Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Doctor Who together to make one super double-episode to signal (almost) the end for David Tennant and Russell T. Davies. Elements from across the series come together to make sense, like Rose, bees, the Medusa Cascade and Poosh, and there are some stunning planet-visuals throughout. The Daleks are more threatening that they had been for a while, especially with the Emperor, I mean Davros, around. Ultimately, despite everyone being present and there even being two Doctors, it is Donna who saves the day, which feels right. Despite being the most important person in the universe, she reaches a heart-braking conclusion as she’s unable to remember any of it. It feels as this review should stop here, as the emotional high point of the series is the fate of Donna , but there are four more stories to get through... The 2008 Christmas Special, ‘The Next Doctor’ is fun and playful but has a heartbreaking conclusion for Jackson Lake. It had a lot of initial intrigue but loses its way a little with the special effects and due to the Cybermen being a bit overdone, even though the giant robot actually looked OK. ‘Planet of the Dead’ is a much maligned episode unfortunately. It features plenty of Cardiff from the Civic Centre to Cardiff Bay so remains memorable for that at least. However, the time spent in the desert is a little too drawn out and at an hour in length it is a bit slow. Daniel Kaluuya is also so early in his career that he barely gets any lines at all. It, at least, does offer some setup that feeds into ‘The End of Time’. One of the best, if not the best, special that has taken place up to this point in time is ‘The Waters of Mars’. Set on Mars, it features astronauts, water monsters, a realistic look into the near-future of space travel, time-paradoxes and fixed points in time, and even suicide. There was a little too much slow-motion in order to drag out the run time, and the Doctor’s characterisation was all over the place and he portrayed an arrogance that he has never shown before. The end is shocking and thought provoking though and it is in keeping with what comes next. The End of Time parts 1 & 2 is two hours and 20 minutes of relentless action, and confusion, bringing The Master, as well as Gallifrey, back to life, and even features Donna. Timothy Dalton is even here as The President, but it’s all so confusing and happens so fast that it lacks impact, and Wilfred gets forgotten about for a while as a result. The Master’s plans are so insane that it’s ridiculous, and David Tennant goes full Gollum versus Smeagol in his final grandstand speech that it’s beyond parody. However, the last few minutes brings it all back together again as the Doctor saves Wilf, goes on his long, quiet, goodbye to see everybody and finally regenerates into Matt Smith. A fitting finale for the Tenth Doctor even if a little drawn out.
Firstly, a great overall series with some outstanding performances from Tennant and Tate in particular, with some amazing episodes like 'Silence in the Library' and 'Midnight', among others, and some fitting send-offs for some lovable characters as well. It is rightly considered one of the best years since the revival and even 12 years later its status seems to be as high as ever, and that is down to the acting, the quality of the stories, the building drama and tension and the high-concept but believable concepts and themes such as slavery (‘Planet of the Ood’), human nature (‘Midnight’) and religion and war (‘The Doctor’s Daughter’), for example. This can be defined as the Donna’s season. There was some initial scepticism about her character. She was abrasive, grating, egotistical, annoying and perhaps too big of a change from Martha and Rose, but she grew on the audience throughout and she eventually wore the audience down, and the Doctor, which was the point. With each episode she softened, she grew more intelligent and more compassionate and that gradually rubbed off on the Doctor as well. She grew from “a temp from Chiswick” into the most important person in the universe, and that journey from episode one to 13 was believable for the viewer. None of that would have been possible with Catherine Tate’s charm and acting ability either, and it all culminates into what is a heart-breaking send off for Donna, which wouldn’t have held such an impact if we hadn’t believed in her character arc over the series. Ultimately her fate is even more emotive than that of Rose in ‘Doomsday’, because she’ll never be able to remember anything that she has achieved and has reverted to her annoying original self. It shows how much she had changed and how far she had come, and how much she had impacted upon the Doctor, and us. Speaking of Rose, her conclusion was weird. You can’t have the Doctor but here is his slightly inferior and more dangerous version, have a great life together! This was presented as a happy resolution for her, as if it was something she would just gladly accept. The wonderful conclusion she had at the end of Series Two wasn’t necessarily undone, but it does take away from it a bit. She’s expected to just be satisfied now and live out her days merrily. Being the end for Tennant, and especially Russel T. Davies, there seems to have been a conscious effort made to satisfy every fan and tie up every loose end imaginable. The pinnacle of that is Rose of course, but as a result we get every character involved whether they are useful or not, like the Torchwood crew and even Martha, who is at a bit of a loose end once she doesn’t set off the bomb in Germany. However, this is the reason why the series is so highly rated online, because it caters to the fans more than any other, bringing together all their favourite characters from across four years and seeing them all fly the Tardis together.
It feels, maybe in hindsight, like a goodbye to phase one of the regeneration of the show, as we move away from old characters and step into something completely different from here out… Now we have to focus on the special episode’s a bit more in order to discuss the Doctor. It was a good send off for Tennant, doing it on his terms following three full series’ and effectively five years as the Doctor. The series itself might have been Donna’s, but the specials were for him. However, it seemed like both he and Russell T. Davies didn’t want their time to end here. We thought it was over after the 13th episode, but then we had the drawn out process of the specials. Despite liking Tennant of course, it was time for a change, especially following his very long goodbye and some questionable special episodes where his character's personality fluctuated wildly. His impact can’t be underestimated though. Doctor Who becomes an international sensation because of the Tenth Doctor, and for many he is Their Doctor, not just of modern times but ever. As a person and actor he is the Doctor and some of the finest stories of all take place during this time, like ‘Blink’, ‘The Family of Blood’, ‘Silence in the Library’, ‘Midnight’ and more. However, the gap between Series Four and Five left a longing for a fresh beginning though, and that’s very much what we get eventually. All in all, there was a lot to savour, some memorable, iconic moments that will define the show forever and overall just about as ridiculous as you can get while still pulling it off realistically.
Favourite Episode - ‘Silence in the Library’ A close run thing with ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’ but the blend of atmosphere, setting, colliding worlds, horror and an interesting villain made this one a stand out. Worst Episode - ‘The Poison Sky’ Picking one of the specials would have been easier, like ‘Land of the Dead’ of ‘Voyage of the Damned’ but that felt like cheating a little bit. 'The Poison Sky' is just too drawn out and lacks a bit of dramatic punch as a result.
Favourite Character - Donna Noble, in the end As mentioned, Series Four is really Donna’s series, and her journey and victory. It’s sad that it finishes right back where it starts but that is part of what makes her such an iconic character now. Favourite Villain - ‘Midnight’ Perhaps something of a theme, the best villains are those that we cannot see, as was the case in ‘Silence in the Library’ as well. The extra sense of mystery throughout and even since make it all the more scary. Favourite Moment - “Are you my mummy?”
A wonderful throwback to Series One.
Best Welsh Reference - “There’s lovely” ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ contains too references to Wales or the Welsh language, or Celtic, as they sometimes call it here. When Capaldi’s Caecilius realises that Donna is Celtic he greets her with the very apt Welshism, “There’s Lovely”.
Best Guest Star - Bernard Joseph Cribbins Cribbins played Wilfred, of course, but he also played Tom Campbell, a companion to Dr. Who in the feature film 'Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D', in 1966. The character of Wilf was also lovable and he believed in Donna more than anyone ever did. It was fitting that he got to be the companion for his last episode, ‘The End of Time’, even if he did inadvertently kill the Doctor.
Location you didn’t realise was Cardiff/Wales - The Exchange Cardiff appears throughout Series Four, as usual, from buildings to streets to countryside, but one noteworthy building that may have passed you by was the old Coal Exchange building in Cardiff Bay, which substituted as the lounge on the Titanic. That lounge is now the reception room of what is the Exchange Hotel today. Location very obviously Cardiff - Castell Coch in ‘Journey’s End’ Roald Dahl Plass is too obvious at this stage, and Castell Coch does appear again, less obviously, in the future but this is its first appearance. So, Martha doesn’t actually go all the way to Germany, she just heads up to north Cardiff, to the end of Bute Park, and visits Castell Coch, both inside and outside in fact, but the exterior is unmistakable even in the dark.
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