The End of Time

* Of all the one-off companions The Doctor has ever had, Wilfred is by far the best. He’s initially the focus of this epic story; we’re introduced to it through him, and his band of alien-hunting pensioners. How refreshing to have an older man fulfilling the traditional companion role, and for him to prove so worthy of the position – he dives in feet first, his deep love for The Doctor matching that of the audience.

* It’s a bit weird that, from The Doctor’s perspective, this doesn’t carry straight on from The Waters of Mars. It rather undermines the seriousness of that story’s climax; instead of carrying the weight of his huge mistake and his impending death, he swans in fresh from his holidays and boasts about shagging Queen Elizabeth.

* I’d forgotten exactly what Lucy Saxon’s role was in The Master’s resurrection. I’d seemed to recall that she was complicit in the plan – shooting him so that she could then retrieve the ring – but I must have been remembering my theory from beforehand, rather than the actual episode. Turns out that she’d just been caught up in all of it, and in fact managed to throw a spanner in the works right at the crucial moment.

*  Unfortunately, I’m not keen on the effects of her spanner. The whole concept of the resurrection was a very TVM-esque interpretation of The Master as some sort of irrepressible form of energy, rather than mere flesh and blood. I’m not quite on board with this – he’s more scary if he’s just an evil version of The Doctor, not if he’s shooting lightning bolts from his hands and flying about like a comic book villain. I’m not sure why the trauma has made him blonde either.

* Today’s “oh, it’s them!” watch: David Harewood! In a surprisingly small role for someone of his pedigree. June Whitfield! Her and Cribbins are totally at it. The woman werewolf from Being Human! I had to look her up, because I knew I recognised her from something but couldn’t place what. In my defence, she spent most of the episode disguised as a cactus.

* “President Obama has promised to end the recession”. This was less than eight years ago, but wow, the world truly was a different place, back when we had: a) a President who people around the world respected; and b) so few problems that one single action could make a tangible difference.

* It’s not very festive, is it? Other than the odd bit of tinsel, the only major concession to Christmas is The Master devouring a giant turkey. That’s about it until Part One ends with the words: “And so it came to pass, on Christmas Day, that the human race did cease to exist”. Well, Merry fucking Christmas to you too, James Bond.

* The Master making everyone into copies of himself is basically what happens in The Empty Child, but with an evil genius instead of an innocent boy. Honestly, it’s Simm City out there. With nearly seven billion clones milling about, it’s a good job the original Master seems to be in control of them – I’d have thought they’d all want to be in charge, bickering over who got to show off in front of The Doctor and who had to do the minor admin. It’d be like the Red Dwarf episode Me2, except they’d have to call it Me6.8billion.

* Considering all the epic stuff that’s going on, with The Master victorious and bloody Rassilon turning up with his special glove, the first time I felt moved was when Wilfred tearfully told The Doctor he didn’t want him to die. He’s so sweet, and his presence raises the stakes even further – we know that Doctors die all the time, so can be blasé about it, but I don’t want Wilf to lose his Doctor.

* Although let’s face it, how the fuck does he survive jumping from a spaceship and falling face first through a glass ceiling? That should have been it – Tennant dead and buried before the Time Lords even arrive.

* There’s certainly a hell of a lot going on here, but it’s hard to see what the point of anything of it is, other than it all being a prelude to The Doctor’s death. The Master being back was a big threat, but Rasillon undoes everything he’d done within seconds, so that’s all sorted. So therefore the Time Lords are now the big epic thing, but they turn up far too late in the day to really make their presence felt – we were told how dangerous they were without ever experiencing it ourselves. And then they’re dealt with in five minutes. Those five minutes are good, and it’s nice to see The Master getting some element of redemption, but it’s all very hasty.

* And so it comes to pass that what finally fells the Tenth Doctor is none of these things. He emerges unscathed, and the ultimate irony is that it’s poor old Wilf that inadvertently brings him down. That’s a lovely twist, but don’t be angry at Wilf about it, you prick. He was only in danger because he saved someone else, plus you can regenerate and he can’t. This attitude left a bitter aftertaste to the Tenth Doctor’s era – I hadn’t remembered until now, but my dislike for him towards the end has clouded my view of this incarnation.

* Then of course, there’s the famous farewell tour. First up, Martha, who’s left UNIT, dumped her fiance and married Mickey. That’s quite strange; I wouldn’t have pictured them as a couple, and I hope they weren’t put together just because they have one thing in common. I like how The Doctor saves their lives, then does the same for Luke, but that his gift for Jack is to get him laid. He knows him so well.

* I’ve always wondered why he tracks down Joan’s great-granddaughter, rather than going back and just visiting her himself. But I guess it would be a bit traumatic for her if he suddenly rocked up again, plus “Verity Newman” is a lovely touch. It’s sweet that he wants to make sure Joan was happy, and I found it quite touching this time round. Although obviously not as touching as when Cribbins cries again, and therefore I cry again.

* The bit with Rose is really nice, but it would have been infinitely better had she not reappeared in Series 4, so that a distant glimpse at a woman who doesn’t know him was the closest The Doctor got to seeing her again. In fact, that’s true of the whole sequence – it would have had so much impact if Journey’s End hadn’t have happened, and it still baffles me that the big multi-companion reunion wasn’t Tennant’s swansong.

* God, he doesn’t half make a fuss about regenerating this time, doesn’t he? The Universe itself sings him on his way, which seems a bit excessive when past regenerations have been about as ceremonious as getting a bump on the head whilst wearing a blonde fuzzy wig. It doesn’t really seem to be in the spirit of the show by making such a big fuss about one particular Doctor and one particular showrunner leaving – the console room being destroyed and “I don’t want to go” make everything seem so final, which could have really undermined the incoming regime.

* Mind you, we did see much more of the new Doctor than we normally do. I remember being distinctly unsure about Matt Smith at the time, but now with the power of hindsight, it feels like a baton being passed from a good Doctor to an even better one. But that’s another story…

RATING: 8

So it’s the end of an era – my era, in fact, considering I only became a fan thanks to Russell bringing the show back. It wasn’t without its flaws – looking back, I think the constant desire to make everything exponentially bigger and better began to harm the show towards the end – but I’ll always be incredibly fond of Russell’s work on the show, and indeed incredibly grateful. It was the first version of Doctor Who that I fell in love with, and twelve years later, I can barely remember what it was like to not love Doctor Who.

Technically speaking, this isn’t the end of a series, but I feel like I should do one of these anyway:

SPECIALS AVERAGE RATING: 7.5

  • Seasons/Series watched: Still 30 of 36
  • Stories watched: 202 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 756 of 839

It’s taken ages to get through these specials, what with all the spin-offs in between, so I’m really looking forward to having a nice regular series coming up next. I’m about to start the show’s current era, and I hope I can squeeze it all in before it’s no longer the current era…

The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End

Well, there is certainly a lot to process here, having experienced this rather epic tale for the first time since broadcast. And I haven’t had to tag this many returning characters since The Five Doctors (or possibly Dimensions In Time). There are more notes to make than I have time; brace yourself for a fuckload of small to medium sized bullet points.

* This is essentially the entire four years of the revival thus far in one go. It’s a pleasantly nostalgic greatest hits package, celebrating a truly brilliant period in the show’s history, but the joy is slightly tempered by the knowledge that they’re going to do all this again in five episodes’ time.

* Well, Torchwood are less sweary and sex-obsessed than usual. They seem to be over Owen and Tosh already, which should save some time come Series 3. Over on the other spin-off, poor old Maria and Clyde weren’t invited to the party, but at least Mr Smith is better now. The last time we saw him, he was intent on killing Sarah Jane and destroying the world, but this was probably not the occasion to dwell on that.

* The obligatory RTD Episode 12 celebrity cameos: Richard Dawkins! Why is he there doing spacey sciencey stuff? He’s a biologist; it should have been Brian Cox or suchlike, but then Brian Cox isn’t married to an ex-companion. Also, Paul O’Grady! And his dog! Ianto’s a big fan, even if the rest of us aren’t.

* Usually when the human race is threatened by aliens, they all band together and look after each other. This time, they react by setting fire to shit and looting, to the extent that nobody notices Rose running round with a big space gun, at least not until she starts threatening people with it.

* Sarah Jane’s reaction to the Daleks nearly got me going. All four former companions were scared, but it was especially emotional when it was Sarah Jane, hearing those voices again after so many years. The sheer terror they inspire in these characters really sells them as a threat. It’s interesting that these days, the villains are shown to react like that upon realising they’re up against The Doctor.

* It’s a shame that The Doctor spends so long poncing around with the Shadow Proclamation while the exciting Dalek stuff happens without him. While he’s there, he says “someone tried to move the Earth before” – I assume he’s talking about Dalek Invasion of Earth, but does the fact that he said “someone” mean that they’ve retroactively decided that Davros was behind that? If so, excellent.

* Speaking of whom, Davros is utterly excellent. He’s got a metal hand! Within moments, he’s shown admonishing a Dalek for sounding proud, keeping their emotions in check. Considering how much they veered from their fundamental principles in their last appearance, it’s a good statement of intent now that their dad’s back.

* The spooky woman in the Shadow Proclamation who tells Donna that she’s “sorry for the loss that’s yet to come” – that’s a dickish thing to do. If you’re a soothsayer and you can see that something terrible is about to happen to someone, either come out with it so that they can prepare, or just say nothing. Don’t vaguely allude to it and then fuck off.

* So, bees are aliens, and they abandoned the planet when they sensed its impending destruction? The last ever bee message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to ingest nectar, process it and store the resultant substance in a honeycomb, but in fact the message was this: “So long and thanks for all the pollen”.

* I have SO MUCH TO SAY on the big Harriet Jones conference call. Highlights include:

  • Cribbins saying that webcams are “naughty”.
  • Sarah Jane telling Torchwood off for using guns, as it’s not suitable for Luke.
  • Martha’s mum getting a cameo for not particular reason, although it’s nice for her to get some closure on her abandonment issues from the fact that Martha subconsciously chose to teleport home.
  • The Mr Copper Foundation? Not sure he quite warranted a mention, but then everyone else from the last four years seems to be getting one.
  • Rose being jealous of Martha, in a neat role reversal.
  • While everyone’s firing up their supercomputers and their secret alien technology, Martha’s big contribution to the effort is forwarding on a phone number.

Wasn’t as keen on Harriet attempting to justify her Belgrano move on the basis that this latest alien invasion proves that you need to kill all aliens. However, her ultimate sacrifice does provide redemption her character deserved.

* When The Doctor joins the party, he says that “everybody except Rose” is there. Everybody? Has he forgotten the dozens of companions he had when his adventures were 4:3? Justice for Dodo.

* Then Jack fucks off to find the Doctor, abandoning Torchwood and leaving Gwen and Ianto to the Daleks, and then comes the big reunion. Despite not having been on board with the returned Rose thus far, it put a big grin on my face and nearly a tear to my eye. How perfectly tragic would have been if the Doctor actually regenerated at this point, so that she got so close but still never touched her Doctor again. The giant fuck-off “TO BE CONTINUED” that followed is a bit stupid, but kind of justified – it really is one of the greatest cliffhangers of all time.

* Sadly, the resolution to said cliffhanger is all very convenient, with each individual threat neutralised by a hitherto unmentioned safety net: Mickey and Jackie turning up (sans Pete, sadly), Torchwood’s magic bubble and The Doctor’s sneaky hand job. It’s not deus ex machina – very few people who use that term as criticism seem to know what it means – it’s just a bit of a shame. They got away with quick and easy cliffhanger resolutions loads in the old days, but that’s because there were at least three of them per story – with this one, the resolution would ideally have matched the epic nature of the set-up.

* A few random notes from the opening stages of Journey’s End: DALEKS SPEAKING GERMAN! It seems so right, for reasons obvious to anyone who’s watched Genesis. / The Doctor is not often this scared. This is good. / When Jack’s body got incinerated, how come his clothes didn’t?

* All these years later, I’m still not sure what I think about the Meta-Crisis Doctor. I mean, it’s a complete waste of a regeneration, considering he thinks it’s his penultimate one, but it’s kind of cool to have a double dose of TV’s greatest hero. That is until he starts talking like Donna. The only thing more annoying than Catherine Tate doing comedy is David Tennant impersonating Catherine Tate doing comedy.

* Davros wants to destroy reality itself. This is certainly in keeping with the core principle that every non-Dalek life-form must be destroyed, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory. Destroying all matter as well as all life would make them supreme masters of absolutely nothing.

* Other than that, absolutely everything Davros-related is amazing. The moment where he recognises Sarah Jane is even better than when she recognised him. On an intellectual level, I think Davros betters The Doctor for the first time; the argument that his companions turn into weapons is not something I would have necessarily agreed with, but Davros convinced me. His final victory indeed. The montage of all the people who have died in The Doctor’s name was RTD going all JNT on our ass.

* It’s the perfect build up to a big climax, with all the ex-companions’ individual plans failing one by one, and the TARDIS rising from the ashes. But then the day is saved by Donna suddenly becoming magic. I know I didn’t complain when it was a magic version of Rose fixing everything, but this is why this blog is a document of an experience, rather than a series of objective reviews – it may not be fair, but it’s how I reacted. I just don’t like Donna very much. And the only thing more annoying that David Tennant doing smug is Catherine Tate impersonating David Tennant doing smug.

* Which is a bugger, because everything else is very good indeed: Sarah and Rose exchanging pleasantries while shoving a malfunctioning Dalek around; Captain Jack’s cheery suggestion of a multi-Doctor orgy; Dalek Caan turning out to be a traitor. I actually shouted “YES!” when K-9 popped up to say hello.

*The Meta-Crisis Doctor is faced with the old do-I-have-the-right dilemma, but he presses the button without thinking twice. That’s not The Doctor. The proper Doctor offers to save Davros, and he’s right to later chastise Pretend Doctor for committing genocide. In his defence, he was forged in battle, like The War Doctor before him. Perhaps the process extrapolated and personified all the worst, most dangerous aspects of The Doctor, like the triplicator in Red Dwarf, or Richard Herring playing himself at snooker.

* Can you imagine the ecological damage that’s done by dragging the Earth from one end of the universe to the other? Nevertheless, it’s a joyous scene to end the episode… except that there’s still ten or fifteen minutes to go. We then get a long sequence of long goodbyes. Why exactly does he drop off Sarah Jane, Jack and Martha all in the same park? Ealing is nowhere near Cardiff.

* I’ve been trying to figure out whether Rose’s return diminishes the impact of her initial departure. I don’t think it does – I still cried like a baby when I rewatched it recently. It’s like how people complain that a cover version “ruins” a song, or a remake “destroys” a movie – no it doesn’t, because the original still exists. However, the beautiful tragedy of these two soulmates being forever separated is certainly altered by Rose being given a Doctor-shaped sex doll. It’s just all a little grubby – he’s not The Doctor, not the same man she fell in love with, but she’s happy to make do with a lookalike, even though he’s out there continuing his life without her? Nah. At the very least, we should have got to finally hear him – either of him – say “I love you” to Rose. That would have at least provided some level of genuine closure for the audience, if not the characters.

* Sadly, if predictably, the “a companion will die” prophecy turns out to be bullshit, as it was before and has been since. The memory wipe isn’t even a particularly stable metaphor for death – it’s actually saving her life. I found the sight of The Doctor enacting the procedure without her consent, while she’s pleading with him not to, a little disturbing. I mean, he’s doing the right thing, but Moff dealt with this issue a lot better with Clara.

* But at least this deed is a promise that Donna will never come back. Wilfred is damn right when he says “she was better with you” – he must be gutted to have to live with the old Runaway Bride Donna again. The permanently miserable Sylvia can do one and all, but Cribbins is just the best. Despite the high levels of emotion throughout, his goodbye to The Doctor was the only moment that made me shed a tear. Seriously, he’s one of the best actors the show’s ever had. Ever.

* Favourite Dalek lines: “The abomination is insane.” / “The males, the females, the descendants.” / “My vision is NOT impaired.” / “Exterminate Torchwood.”

So, what to make of all this, after comfortably the longest post in the history of this blog? Well, The Stolen Earth is one of the best episodes ever, but Journey’s End not so much. As has been the case for much of Series 4, I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to look past the faults now that so much time has passed – it’s not the “current” show any more, it’s just one brief chapter in a long history. Rather than having to worry about what state the show is in, or which direction it’s heading, I can just judge it on its sheer entertainment value. On that level: massive, massive win.

RATING: 9

And so I come to the end of a series that I thought I hated, but then when you look at the scores…

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.5

  • Seasons/Series watched: 30 of 35.58
  • Stories watched: 198 of 269.67
  • Individual episodes watched: 751 of 834

…the average rating is actually higher than Series 2 (although admittedly, Fear Her is a massive statistical anomaly). I dunno. I still dislike Donna, and I’m definitely starting to go off Tennant by this point, but again, with so much water under bridge, I can now look past those annoyances and see what else each episode has to offer. I guess the conclusion is that there’s very little Doctor Who that’s without a significant amount of merit, but sometimes it’s just a case of taking a few steps back before you can see it.

And now, a short break for a wedding, to coincide with the first of revived Doctor Who‘s short breaks. Join me again in a few days to begin another voyage through a whole bunch of spin-offs and specials.

Turn Left

* It’s hard to reconcile my residual dislike of Donna with the acknowledgement of her importance to The Doctor. My first reaction to the idea that he’d be dead without her is to scoff, but when I think back to The Runaway Bride, I have to concede that her function in that episode, when she was intended to be a one-off, is to snap the Doctor out of his post-Rose funk. It makes the question of whether it’s Donna that’s important, or if it’s just the Time Beetle, an interesting one, as you could interpret her original appearance as a case of being in the right place at the right time.

* In an episode all about the consequences of Donna never meeting The Doctor, one of the worst side-effects is her reverting to her pre-Series 4 personality for half an episode. And in an episode that revisits the recent past, it’s amusing that Donna’s beetle backpack evokes memories of Sarah Jane’s spider backpack. There’s also the return of Chantho, this time as a psychotic fortune teller, and the circle of mirrors being kinda like Kinda.

* I do like a big continuity-based romp, and it was easier to do back when there were only four series’ worth of things to remember. It’s always worth reiterating just how many times, and in how many ways, The Doctor has saved everyone’s arse. This episode tells us that also saves the lives of his former companions just by being around – he shows up to deal with the really dangerous stuff, so that they don’t have to put themselves at risk. Without him, they have to deputise, and they really don’t last very long.

* The depiction of a post-apocalyptic dystopia is stunning, adding an extra layer to prevent the episode from being just a continuity-based filler. Rather than just leaving it at bad things happening to characters that we know, it was great that they took the time to explore what happens in the aftermath of these disasters. It was grim stuff – people had to move to Leeds. It’s kind of how I picture the real UK will be after Brexit and five more years of Tories, and that was before they started rounding up immigrants. That was the darkest and most affecting part of the show, and it was neat how they didn’t need to explicitly state what happened at the labour camps, but you totally got it. Cribbins was amazing – his reaction should be shown to far right groups, as a warning of where their nonsense leads. Do you really want to make Cribbins cry? Do you?

* Lovely to see Rose, but why can’t she talk properly? She seems so different after just two years away, and it’s a bit sad – I can’t tell whether she’s supposed to have changed and developed off-screen since we saw her last, or whether it’s Billie not quite remembering how to play her. Rose has existed as an unattainable ideal for the last couple of series, so it’s hard to live up to the legend on her first reappearance. I tell you what though, that Bad Wolf stuff at the end was amazing – it was on the Pull To Open sign and everything!

RATING: 8

Midnight

* This rewatch is challenging my previously-held opinions of Series 4 all over the shop. I’d remembered this one as being exceptional, but now I find it’s merely very good, yet not quite up there. It builds up brilliantly, and it’s enthralling throughout, but it feels like it’s missing a twist or revelation towards the end, to make sense of what we’ve just seen. I don’t demand that absolutely everything is tied up neatly – often, leaving room for personal interpretation is an advantage – but the complete lack of any answers left me cold. Without that bit of closure, the events of this episode exist in a bubble, and it almost feels like it didn’t really happen. The action all taking place in one tiny, cost-effective set contributes to this too – it’s so different to most episodes that the smaller scale makes it feel like a disposable skit.

* But anyway, all of this is merely to explain why I don’t think it’s an all time classic, because it’s still a very good episode indeed. Despite all of the above, the unique setting is a good thing overall, providing ample opportunity to do scary things in an unexpected way. David Tennant and Lesley Sharp are brilliant together, pulling off an extraordinary amount of synchronised talking. It’s an incredible feat of acting, and those bits are the stand-out moments by some distance. Maybe this is part of my issue – those moments were so jaw-dropping the first time around that it’s hard to recapture the magic on a second viewing, when you know what’s coming next. The joy was in the escalation, and it’s not quite the same if you’re skipping ahead in your brain.

* There seems to be a higher proportion lately of episodes featuring big ensemble casts, made up of lots of recognisable faces. It’s like the old days where you’d get a whole new bunch of reasonably developed characters in every new story, except they were previously required to sustain 4-6 episodes, and now everything’s packed into 45 minutes. Lovely to see a Troughton amongst the cast this time – it just seems right – and yet another Humans alumni in Colin Morgan. Also, I worked with the guy who played the mechanic about two years before this episode aired, which was nice.

* Fascinating to see what happens when these characters are pushed to their limits; normally in Doctor Who, adversity brings out the best in most people, with the exception of one or two selfish bastards. Here, they’re all bastards, relentlessly exhibiting all the very worst aspects of humanity. It’s like watching Torchwood. Although, as with most things, it wasn’t made completely clear, I’m assuming that the monster, whatever it was, was messing with their minds and causing them all to act like that. Otherwise, they’re just all pricks.

* And yes, it was nice to not have Donna around. I like how The Doctor goes all super serious at the end, as soon as they’re reunited. He does not have time for her shit.

RATING: 8

Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

* Hello, sweetie. River Song comes crashing into Doctor Who, dressed as an ambassador of death. Looking back, what a wonderful thing it was to have such a complex and unconventional love story unfold so slowly, in occasional installments over a period of seven years. Revisiting the first chapter now that the tale is complete gives it a completely different complexion. I remember it initially took me a few appearances to warm to River, but now that I have it means I’m on her side from the start, and I found myself getting frustrated with The Doctor’s attitude towards her.

I’m not sure how much of this would have been intentional in 2008, but the consequence of this is an episode that can be interpreted and enjoyed in two completely different ways, depending on which of the protagonists’ perspectives you take. It’s either the start of a new relationship or the end of an old one; neither is the definitive experience on its own, rather they complement each other and your second viewing is truly rewarded. Now that all the gaps have been filled and all the questions answered, it feels like an already brilliant episode now has extra layers of brilliance on top.

* Was people saying “spoilers!” already a thing when this episode was aired, or did it originate here and has since disseminated into the public consciousness? The release of said spoilers about The Doctor’s future started off small with little hints like her having her own Sonic, and the fact that she’d never met Donna implying that she won’t be around for much longer, thankfully.

Then by the end, River’s numerous speeches about “her” Doctor were effectively a big advert for how brilliant the forthcoming Moffat era was going to be. By this point in Tennant’s tenure, some of the attention-grabbing magic of his early appearances was wearing off, and I do remember thinking it was about time to mix things up. But by the end of this episode, this one encounter with River had given The Doctor his swagger back, to the extent that he’s confident enough to try opening the TARDIS doors by clicking his fingers, and it works. You can almost see him starting to become the next Doctor, and we’ve just been told how amazing he’s going to be. Thankfully, he was.

(The order of events in this blog post is becoming terribly jumbled, but that seems apt. Go with it.)

* Moffat just loves to make kids scared of everyday things, doesn’t he? This time: the dark. The Doctor literally says at one point that fear of the dark is “not irrational”. The notion of shadows and the dust in sunbeams actually being tiny flesh-eating monsters is quite a memorable one, and the Vashta Nerada are an absolutely perfect foe for this episode – they do exactly what’s required to play their small part in a much bigger story.

* Mind you, they’re not safe from the mandatory repetitive catchphrase trend. The concept of ghosting is amazing and truly creepy – one of the best moments in the whole thing is the realisation that Other Dave is repeating the same phrases over and over again in the background. But the cliffhanger kind of exploited the concept to provide a more playground-oriented kind of monster. Between “who turned out the lights?” and “Donna Noble has been saved”, it become more of a cacophony than a climax, but meanwhile you had all the stuff with Dr Moon and the little girl, and that was just brilliant.

* Speaking of those segments: Mark Dexter! Now there’s an actor who I definitely wouldn’t have known at the time, but in the intervening years, thanks to his role as Rimmer’s brother in an episode of Red Dwarf, he’s someone who I’ve become a fan of, been to the pub with, and directed to pull stupid faces as part of the opening ceremony for a convention. Elsewhere in the guest cast, Steve Pemberton easily wins the competition for which member of The League of Gentlemen got to appear in the best episode of Doctor Who.

* It’s in the second half, when the focus switches more to the alternative world, that this story leaps from great to one of the greats. There are so many ideas here, each more twisted than the last – Donna is basically trapped in a little girl’s TV, experiencing her life as a series of hard cuts between scenes, gaining a husband and two kids in around four blinks of an eye, and then Miss Evangelista turns up dressed as the Grim Reaper, then Donna finds out that her kids aren’t real, then there’s that face, then the apocalypse happens around her, then her kids disappear from right under her nose – layers upon layers of really weird shit. It’s incredible.

* And then the kicker – the genuine heartbreak of Donna’s VR husband seeing her as she walks away, unable to call her name. It’s gut-wrenching, and along with River dying and then being saved, it’s a really emotional last few minutes. I don’t remember being particularly affected the first time round, but then wibbley wobbley timey wimey, River means more to me now. I’m mourning her death, even though she gets sort of resurrected, and even though I’ve got loads more of her stuff still to watch. That’s how good River Song is.

* At one point, The Doctor persuades the Vashta Nerada to back off him by telling them to look him up. Capaldi’s Doctor did exactly this on the telly last week, in Extremis. Moffat steals from the best – himself. Which reminds me, I’d forgotten what happened to River’s diary in The Library, so I now understand why people were so annoyed about Nardole having it, and yet I still don’t give a shit myself.

RATING: 10

The Unicorn and the Wasp

* With the unpleasantness of the previous episode firmly behind us, I find myself once again discovering that a Series 4 episode is much better than I’d remembered. I’m pretty sure this is only my second time of watching most of these, and it was nine years ago, so I’ve only really remembered the vaguest of details. This is an episode that’s all about the more intricate details, and so it was fun to watch a live action game of Cluedo unfold. It works as a murder mystery too – the whodunnit element is deliberately laden with tropes and archetypes, but the sci-fi bits cover for it.

* What a guest cast. I probably wouldn’t have known Tom Goodman-Hill at the time, but now he’s forever the dad out of Humans. I’m glad that he ended up having such a crucial role in the conclusion, having been on the outskirts for much of the story. Then there’s Felicity Kendall, and her bottom, and of course Jago from off of Jago & Litefoot! A very welcome return.

* Leading the pack was of course Fenella Woolgar, who was brilliant. I’m afraid that most of the intricate references and in-jokes relating to Agatha Christie went over my head, unlike when it was Dickens or Shakespeare. I’m just not as familiar with her work, or indeed her life – I had to look it up afterwards to see if she’d actually gone missing in real life. She had, and I recommend the story.

* I enjoyed the light and generally comedic tone, but found the big set-pieces a little hit and miss. I liked the interrogation/flashback montage, deftly handled by Graeme Harper. I thought for a while, after The Doctor joined in the reminiscipackage, that there’d be some sort of twist whereby that particular chair was somehow causing people to relive their memories, but in the end the necklace covered that sort of area.

* The kitchen charades was less so my cup of tea, especially coming so soon after the similarly silly sight of the giant wasp. Tennant and Tate could have played it a little straighter, as the tone was veering towards the daft at this stage in proceedings. By the end, the overall balance of serious and silly was just about right, but I did find myself losing investment around the middle.

* In the climax, Donna deliberately kills the Vespiform by drowning it, just as The Doctor is establishing that it’s misguided and vulnerable, rather than evil. Its dying act was to save Agatha’s life, which makes it a better companion than Donna.

RATING: 7

The Doctor’s Daughter

* Oh gawd. I remember the controversy beforehand about the deliberately provocative title, although it all seems a bit of an over-reaction in retrospect. Even if she had turned out to be his actual daughter, it wouldn’t have been a big deal – we could have got to meet Susan’s mum. Instead she’s a generated anomaly, who is given the name “Jenny” in much the same way as Frances Barber’s character in Red Dwarf‘s Polymorph. And she’s played by an actual Doctor’s daughter, who has since become an actual Doctor’s wife, and had the actual Doctor’s children and grandchildren.

* The whole thing about the descendants of colonists fighting a war across so many generations that the history has become mythologised, to the extent that technology is being mistaken for ancient symbols and relics = The Face of Evil, isn’t it? This time, there was the twist that this had all taken place across seven days; on second viewing, the clues were there right from the start with the soldiers using the term “generations” as their only unit of time. It stands out a mile.

* This episode hinges on the juxtaposition of The Doctor’s pacifism and Jenny being a soldier, but the central argument that the Time War makes them not so different after all is flawed. The Time War was an anomaly in The Doctor’s life, and he’s haunted by what (he thinks) he’s done, whereas Jenny was literally bred for war. After the revelation that the last action of the Time War was one of peace, the comparison is even wider of the mark.

* Meanwhile, Martha becomes the God of the Hath, and then lures one of the poor sods to his death. Generally speaking, I found Martha’s segments with the Hath much more interesting than the Doctor battling some generic shouty humans and his family issues, but what’s the point of bringing her back if she’s going hardly going to appear with the Doctor? Torchwood put her in the background during her stay there too – what a waste.

* It’s all very sad when Jenny dies, as it is whenever some potential new companion gets hit with the “you can come with me” curse and dies. But the thing is… she’s not his daughter, is she? A parent/child relationship is about more than just genetics; Donna’s earlier analogy about her friend and the turkey baster proves the opposite point to the one she’s trying to make. It’s tricky, because The Doctor should obviously be upset, but given that both he and the audience have only known this woman for forty minutes, the sight of him responding by pointing a gun at someone’s head doesn’t seem justified. The subsequent grandstanding is slightly undermined by the inherent silliness of the instruction to base your society around “a man who never would”.

* You can tell that the resurrection scene is tacked on, and it’s yet another detraction from the episode’s big emotional climax, but we can at least be grateful that they never got round to following up on it. Yet.

RATING: 5

The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

* Selling an episode around the concept of “sat-nav gone bad” feels deeply rooted to the time when the technology was relatively new, and therefore still being greeted with suspicion. It was less than ten years ago, but it was still before we all started carrying around Google Maps in our pockets. However, the sat-nav thing is just window dressing in this story; the main selling point of Atmos is as a means of reducing carbon emissions, which seems more relevant today, with hybrid and electric vehicles becoming more and more mainstream. It wouldn’t require a huge rewrite if this episode was being made today – just replace the contemporary sat-nav fear with stuff about driverless cars, and you can still have people being driven into rivers.

* You can’t help but grin as Martha is reintroduced, despite the fact that it was only a week or so ago that I last saw her. I like the idea of having roving ex-companions in the field; people who are doing The Doctor’s work in his absence, and who are there if he needs them when he’s in the area. I also like the decision to make Martha and Donna get along, thus avoiding a retread of School Reunion but with a more annoying incumbent. It ties in with the conscious effort to make current companion relationship more platonic and grown-up than the last one, which I applaud, but then again I didn’t dislike the old way of doing things. It’s good to do something different just to keep it varied, it’s not that the the previous dynamic was a problem that needed fixing.

* I’m still not entirely comfortable with UNIT being repositioned as the bad guys that Torchwood used to be, but I guess that even in the Pertwee days, there was always the suggestion that they were too eager to resort to combat. The idea of Martha working from within to improve the organisation ties in with this – I suppose UNIT can be a force for either good or bad, and their moral stance changes depending on the personnel. They need someone like the Brigadier, or Martha, or later Kate Stewart, to keep them on the straight and narrow. The Doctor has been away for so long that they’ve forgotten the principles he taught them in the 70s (or was it the 80s, etc). But at least they’re still using “greyhound” and “trap” as their call signs.

* Around half way through the first episode, I wrote in my notes: “Donna wants to go home again, wah wah wah. Goodbye speech and everything.” And then seconds later: “Ah, it was a gag.” Does the fact that I took it at face value say more about me, or about how Donna has been written so far as being so self-centered and flighty? It’s me, isn’t it? But still, I don’t care about her having sad flashbacks to things that happened a maximum of three episodes ago. Literally the only good thing about Donna in this episode is getting to see Cribbins again. Sylvia’s shtick of being the nagging, Doctor-hating mother has been done to death by now, but Wilf being so excited for Donna, urging her to continue adventuring despite his fears and worries, is something new, and it’s lovely.

* I do like me a Sontaran, and Mike Thecoolperson makes a great commander. It was fun to see massed ranks of them in battle, and amusing that they still have the same old problem that you can only have one or two of them without their helmets on at once. The one that wasn’t Christopher Ryan was Dan Starkey, and it was a little bit odd so see him playing a Sontaran who wasn’t Strax, but then again, clones obvs. It was mostly a faithful and successful revival of an old villain, with the exception of the added “Sontar-ha!” chant, which was just annoying. It seemed mandatory at this stage that every monster needed a repetitive catchphrase for the kids to copy in the playground, but after four series, it’s starting to feel contrived.

* I have no particularly strong opinions on the episode as a whole – it’s one of those that just kind of exists. I’d remembered Rattigan as being absolutely awful, but he’s mostly fine until near the end when he starts throwing a strop about how clever he is. He’s a villain with no particular motivation other than entitlement and attention-seeking, and is probably the worst thing about the story, which is otherwise a perfectly serviceable mid-weight two-parter.

RATING: 7

Planet of the Ood

Ah, now there’s the Series 4 I remember. My memory was that this one was a bit mediocre, but I think I’m leaning towards it being actually bad. It’s a shame, because I do like the Ood, and the new elements to their story work well. Obviously I’m also on board with the notion of using a family-friendly Saturday evening show to talk about the evils of slavery, but there was one main problem with the story. Go on, guess.

I won’t continue to go on about how I hate Catherine Tate’s delivery whenever there’s a moment that’s even slightly light-hearted, partly because to do so would be boring, and also because there were too many irritating instances in this episode to list. This time round, I also had big problems with the way the character was written – all the additional subtlety from the last two episodes has disappeared, and she’s back to the Donna from The Runaway Bride.

And if you don’t like that particular character then tough luck, because she makes everything all about her. When they discover the natural Ood, The Doctor grants her the gift to be able to perceive the universe like he does, but she rejects it because what she perceives is inconvenient to her. In the climax, her first reaction upon discovering that full extent of the Ood’s plight is to say she wants to go home, because the universe has things in it that she doesn’t like. She’s self-centered, entitled and generally not a very nice person. It makes sense that, as revealed in this episode, they made her a West Ham fan.

By far the best thing about the episode was Tim McInnerney, bringing all the sniveling, snidey, rubber-desk-johnny unpleasantness of Captain Darling to create a good old-fashioned Doctor Who bastard. I also quite liked the PR woman who you thought was going to join the good guys, but quickly turned it around and betrayed them – a pleasant and surprising twist on the tried and trusted formula.

I was less keen on the sadistic security guard, and his attempts to kill the Doctor using a giant fairground grabby claw. Nor did I like Captain Darling turning into an Ood. The idea of his personal Ood turning against him is good, and I did enjoy the surprisingly gruesome sight of his scalp peeling back, but it was far too much of a stretch to take considering it didn’t actually have any impact on the plot whatsoever. These various distractions made the ending fall flat – I no longer care about their stupid song, and I’m not going to get emotional about it no matter how many times you show me Donna crying.

And what’s a West Ham fan doing in Chiswick anyway?

RATING: 5

The Fires of Pompeii

This is not the entry I was expecting to write today. I detested this episode when it first aired, and I’ve barely given it a second thought since, let alone a second viewing. I just filed it alongside the likes of Fear Her and reacted with bafflement every time I saw someone saying it belonged in the upper echelons. I was wrong, they were right. It’s fantastic. This is the first time in the rewatch phase that my opinion has changed quite so dramatically.

I think that my hatred of Donna back then was so all-consuming that I petulantly failed to notice anything else. In my defence, she is annoying. Catherine Tate is still over-egging every joke – and “TX Maxximus” is a particularly egregious joke – and at times this spills over into her non-comedy dialogue during the more frenetic scenes. Some of her arguments with The Doctor were unreasonable – of course he doesn’t “think it’s alright” that 20,000 people are going to die, he’s clearly torturing himself over it, so cut him some slack.

Those sort of things were my predominant memory of the episode, but I find that in reality they’re just a tiny, tiny proportion. Maybe a fortnight of Torchwood has given me more of an in-built tolerance to nonsense, but each instance of Donna being a tit merely annoyed me for a second or two, and then something brilliant came along to distract me. This is not, as I originally concluded, a shit episode with a few good bits, it’s a great episode with a handful of less good bits.

Specifically, one of the big things I’ve changed my mind about is Donna’s role in the moral dilemma. I remember thinking at the time that The Doctor was behaving out of character by coldly refusing to save the family, and that he was only doing so to make Donna look good, and to add credence to the suggestion that he needs someone to help him do the right thing. I didn’t like The Doctor’s character being criticised and held up to such scrutiny, and I certainly didn’t appreciate the fact that it came from Donna.

This is obviously nonsense. Of course Doctor Who should question Doctor Who; he is, by definition, a mystery to us. It’s a theme that Moffat has expanded with great success, and perhaps my expanded knowledge of his older adventures have helped me come to terms with this too – The Doctor is a much more flawed and nuanced character than I used to give him credit for. A perfect hero is boring, he’s way more than that.

And maybe, having seen the complete adventures of, say, Dodo, Adric and Mel, I’m now aware that Donna isn’t actually the worst companion of all time. She’s certainly my least favourite companion of the revived era, but she’s not terrible, just less good than the others. As well as the aforementioned dodgy bits, this episode also contained her best work on the series to date. If the highs stay as high, and the ratio of high to low points remains at this level, then I think I’ll just about be able to tolerate her this time.

Like I say, I didn’t expect to be writing this, and I certainly didn’t expect to go on for so long, plus it’s late and I’m tired, so here are some bullet points that are more along the lines of what I was expecting to write:

* I assumed at the time that The Doctor’s protest that the Great Fire of Rome was “nothing to do with me… well, a little bit” was a throwaway gag, one of countless jokey references to unseen adventures. Nope, it’s a whacking great back-reference. Excellent.

* Phil Cornwell! Phil Davis! And of course, Amy Pond! She’s covered in make-up and putting on an English accent, so it’s not as jarring to revisit as the early appearances of Colin Baker, Freema Agyeman… or Peter Capaldi. He was, of course, excellent in this, which is not a surprise. Caecilius is obviously a great character, given that The Doctor later decided to model his new face on him.

* Capaldi and his family running around to protect their valuables every time Vesuvius rumbled = the staff in Mary Poppins running around to protect the Banks’s valuables every time Admiral Boom fired his cannon.

* All the soothsaying stuff, where Phil Davis and Capaldi’s daughter were correctly reciting details of The Doctor and Donna’s lives, was utterly spooky – it’s another element that I’d completely forgotten about. Then there’s “she is returning” and “there’s something on your back”, and later another instance of a missing planet. They really laid the foreshadowing on thickly during this series, and it’s perhaps a little too on-the-nose at times – the moments are often given an incongruous amount of significance in the context of the scenes that contain them.

* Fave lines that I’d previously forgotten: “Oh, you’re Celtic? There’s lovely.” / “Please excuse my friend, she’s from… Barcelona.”

* Donna asking the Pyroviles why they don’t just go home was a bit UKIP.

RATING: 9