Well, that was quite fun, wasn’t it?
Each year’s season opener has had the thankless task of reinventing the show in a new format (though New Earth had that burden slightly lessened by The Christmas Invasion), and this is always going to hamstring a writer going for an inventive plot. With the focus of new Who being so much on the companion character, the introduction of a new one means that the storyline must take something of a back seat to the character. This, if anything, was the biggest problem with the solid but unimpressive Rose.
Smith and Jones showed a marked improvement on either of the previous season openers in these respects, doing a good job of introducing a new character and also backing up it up with a well-written, logical, and often quite inventive plot. While Rose was a straightforward runaround and New Earth was a campy, plot-hole filled irritant, this episode was actually quite impressively offbeat. The settings, concepts and characters involved were far enough removed from the norm to impress, and the characters, while often rather derivative and/or two-dimensional got some great dialogue and convincing motivations (unlike, say, Cassandra’s inexplicable volte-face at the end of New Earth… I promise I’ll try to lay off criticising that soon).
The key to the story is, of course, the introduction of new companion Martha Jones. I must confess that throughout the second series, the smugness of Billie Piper’s Rose had become incredibly annoying, and I was really looking forward to a different kind of companion. Martha’s certainly that. While Rose was, to be fair, a very ordinary girl trapped in a very boring life, Martha is bright, immediately resourceful and obviously going somewhere. Freema Agyeman didn’t get a great deal of detail to work with but has obviously been given enough background for the character to give a rounded, convincing performance. Russell’s dialogue for the scenes between her and the Doctor fairly crackle with chemistry, but of a different kind to the Doctor/Rose relationship. While Rose was a girl, Martha seems more like a young woman, far more self-assured. Her reaction to being invited for a trip to the TARDIS is very much that of someone with her feet on the ground – “but I’ve got bills to pay.” As seems to be mandatory in the new series, her relationship with the Doctor is obviously going to be based around some form of romance, but Russell was cleverly playful about the nature of it. Martha’s clearly attracted to him – her reaction to that kiss showed that- but equally clearly in denial about it. Conversely, the Doctor is apparently oblivious to it; or is he? This will-they/won’t they flirting game has been played out well before in shows like Moonlighting and The X-Files, and Russell’s a good enough writer of character and dialogue to pull it off. It’s refreshingly different to the obvious mutual worship between the Doctor and Rose.
On the slightly more negative side of the show’s reformatting, Martha comes equipped with a large, unruly family, none of whom at present has more than the flimsiest of characterization. Her sister and brother seem fairly featureless, despite some good performances, but her mum, her dad, and particularly her dad’s blonde bimbo girlfriend are irritating soap-style characters already pregant with subplots to come. It’s worth remembering at this point that the initial characterizations of Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith were no better, and they may improve. But it gives me a sinking feeling to see that Russell obviously believes this soap opera aspect to be integral to modern Who. He has a point in saying we should examine what impact the companion just buggering off with the Doctor would have, but the whole Rose’s family thing came to dominate the last series in a way that made the Doctor more like some kind of family guidance counsellor than an intergalactic hero. There is a positive to it, though; the Radio Times episode guide shows that this year, there’s only one other story set on contemporary Earth. So the Jones clan hopefully won’t come to dominate the show…yet.
But what of the Doctor, I hear you say? Despite his more restrained performance in the Runaway Bride, David Tennant seemed back to his more manic, previous self. But there was a difference. The manic outbursts of thinking to himself seemed more considered, more judged. Tennant has obviously looked at his performance in the previous series and made a plan for how the character should go. So his solemn, sinister intonations are balanced by moments of high energy mania; not unlike, in fact, the great Tom Baker. If Tennant can keep a rein on his performance – and it looks like he can- there’s no reason why his occasional lapses into hair-pulling barminess can’t all be part of the fun. And indeed his hair was all over the place this episode, pushed and pulled hither and yon during moments of particularly frantic thinking. The TARDIS plainly has quite a supply of gel in it somewhere. Nice to see him get a new blue suit, too; we don’t want the characters lapsing into John Nathan-Turner style uniforms, do we? Still, by the end of the episode he was back in the brown pinstripe. Perhaps he’d been having it dry-cleaned.
Having a story set in a modern hospital is a good idea, and one that I’m surprised the series hasn’t done more often. There was the Bi-Al Foundation in The Invisible Enemy, but that’s hardly Casualty, is it? Oh and that one in New Earth. Best forget about that really. Then to have the whole hospital shifted to the Moon was a stroke of genius, the impact of which was slightly lessened for me by the memory of a contemporary church being similarly shifted to the Moon in Paul Cornell’s New Adventure Timewyrm: Revelation. I wouldn’t consider it a wholesale rip-off; new Who has very smartly taken many of the impressive aspects of Virgin’s well-regarded book series to its heart, and is the better for it. In any case, the hospital setting was used well, exploited to serve the plot in a convincing and logical way. The sets were hugely impressive, though the NHS-alike RHT logo puzzled me somewhat – is there no NHS in the Whoniverse, or could they just not get the rights to the logo? The inclusion of the gift shop was a nice throwaway gag, too. On the negative side, just where was the hospital? The long shot appeared to show it opposite Parliament, but showed no sign of the shops we’d earlier seen near it. The close shots made it appear to be somewhere else again – but that’s really just quibbling.
The plot was of necessity fairly lightweight, and riffed on the old Who standard of an alien fugitive being chased by another bunch of aliens, with the Doctor and co being stuck in between. The Judoon were a nicely realised alien race, their comic bureaucracy and casual brutality obviously owing a debt to Douglas Adams. They were given a nice sense of real menace to counterpoint the humour by disintegrating that poor bloke who hit them with what appeared to be a bedpan, but the kicker for me was their presentation of a voucher for compensation to Martha; none too bright, but doing things by the book.
Their target, the plasmavore sinisterly known as Florence, was played to the hilt by the marvellous Anne Reid, last seen in Who as Nurse Crane in The Curse of Fenric. Very much a stereotypical villain, she got some rather hilarious OTT dialogue, pausing before drinking someone’s blood to proclaim, “I’ve got a straw.” A 2D character, to be sure, but an entertaining one. Her two henchmen, the “Slabs”, brought nothing to mind more than twin negatives of Top Gear‘s The Stig. Not a bad thing, but you couldn’t help wondering when they were going to pile into a Lamborghini Gallardo.
Of the rest of the guest cast, it seemed rather a shame to get a terrific character actor like Roy Marsden and then kill him about ten minutes in without even really giving him much of a character. It’s a tribute to the man’s skill that he took some fairly uninteresting dialogue and played the part as a believable but slightly comic consultant in the mode of the great James Robertson Justice. Mind, he also got some toe-curlingly purple dialogue just before his big death, and I’m impressed he pulled that off with a straight face: “What use are names when some nameless creatures are approaching… on the Moon?” or something like that. Bad Russell. Though not as bad as the Doctor’s “shaking out the radiation” business. Not Tennant’s fault, he didn’t write it! Anyway, it made rather a nonsense of the Doctor’s previous susceptibility to radiation in stories like The Daleks, Destiny of the Daleks… but I digress.
So, a solid if not classic start to the new series that’s actually one of Russell’s tighter scripts, a real improvement on the calamity that was New Earth (last time I’ll dis it…for now). The good stuff – liked Martha, Tennant on good form, nicely realised aliens and some impressive FX. The bad stuff – the Jones clan, a few bits of excruciating dialogue… and that’s about it. Not a bad result for a Russell T Davies-scripted season opener. And glad to see a few, oblique references to the enigmatic Mr Saxon already appearing, though his election posters are rather drab. Perhaps he should hire Max Clifford…