Ah, Series 4. I’m nowhere near as familiar with this series as I am with the previous three. For one reason or another, Who became a slightly smaller part of my life around this time – since the last series, I’d left uni, moved in with my partner and started full-time work, plus my Who-loving friends had moved out of the flat we watched most of Series 3 in, and scattered across the country. Also, I was less than enthusiastic about the announcement of the new companion, having hated Donna in The Runaway Bride and developed a strong aversion to Catherine Tate, whose piss poor sketch show was ubiquitous at this point.
When the series arrived, I found myself disliking the majority of the episodes – my memory is that it didn’t pick up until really close to the end – and as such I didn’t rewatch it on DVD nearly as much as the first three series. As always, I’ll be doing my best to approach these viewings with an open mind, and re-evaluate as I go, which should be aided by the fact that most of the details are long forgotten.
Turns out I quite like how Donna is written in this episode. I’m always intrigued as to how one-off encounters with The Doctor change people, and having Donna turn into a freelance alien investigator – like a pound shop Sarah Jane Smith – is a neat idea. I assumed at first that she was doing this because she’d been inspired by The Doctor to improve herself and live the best life she could, but the reveal that she was just doing it to try and hunt him down works just as well.
So yeah, I like how she’s written, just not necessarily how she’s performed. It’s been dialled down a notch or two since the previous Christmas, and it’s clear that Catherine Tate is a fine actress, but I just don’t get on with her as a comedy performer, with her exaggerated mannerisms and the all-pervasive am-I-bovvered tone of voice. She’s actually great in the smaller, more dramatic moments, but every time there’s a joke, no matter the quality of the writing, her delivery is always the same – shrill, over the top and way too big. It’s like nails down a blackboard for me.
The miming reunion scene isn’t as bad as I’d remembered – I don’t think the wah-wah comedy music helps, but the moment when they realise Sarah Lancashire is watching them is very good. On the other hand, “you want to mate?!” is absolutely piss-poor. It’s a rubbish joke and I’m not sure it even needed to be said – just show us that the new Doctor-companion dynamic is different over the course of the first few episodes, you don’t need to treat it like a mission statement.
Comedy was at the heart of this episode – it’s present in every episode, but the balance was definitely tipped here. It’s a bold choice for a series opener, and obviously good to mix it up after four years, but I’m not sure it paid off. The Adipose are a great visual effect, but ultimately forgettable as a Who alien, were it not for the subsequent raft of merchandise. The lack of a scary enemy made it hard to feel like much was at stake, and I found the digs about Britain being a nation of fatties a bit distasteful. And I’m not on board with Sarah Lancashire pausing mid-air to make a face, like she’s Wile E Coyote.
On the plus side, and it’s a very big plus, Cribbins continues to be utterly adorable. It’s almost worth having Donna in every episode just so we get to see Wilfred every now and then. He’s the perfect grandfather figure, and his reaction to seeing Donna in the TARDIS was a moment of pure joy.
Lastly, there is soooo much foreshadowing in this episode. You’ve got the Adipose planet being lost, an “Atmos” sticker in the window of a taxi, and a reference to the bees going missing. And then, of course, BLOODY ROSE. Despite the knowledge of what’s to come, hearing that music again sent shivers down my spine, even now. It’s a great moment.