This series marks the first proper appearance of David Tennant’s incarnation of The Doctor (after his introduction in the Christmas special). For fans of a certain age, Tennant will always be the best and most recognisable actor in the role. Eccleston perhaps didn’t stick around long enough, and for many, Matt Smith just wasn’t the same. David Tennant is The Doctor.
And after watching this, his first series, you quickly see why he became the fan favourite. And why his run on the show is still considered to be the high point.
The new feel of the show is established straight away, right out of the gate in the opening episode “New Earth”. The Tenth Doctor is more youthful and energetic than the Ninth, and much more friendly. There’s also a certain flirtiness between him and Rose. Initially unsure of his new personality and appearance, Rose soon warms up to him and the love between the pair becomes much more apparent than in the first series. In that opening episode, Rose’s body is overtaken by returning villain Cassandra, and this gives the pair the perfect opportunity to demonstrate their comedy acting chops. And this a feeling that permeates the series. Whereas the Ninth Doctor clearly cared for Rose, there was often a barrier between the two, with him appearing more as a father figure in a lot of instances. Here, Tennant and Piper are just a hell of a lot of fun to spend time with, making the pair feel like old friends.
I’ll admit now that it might be nostalgia talking, but this series of the show holds such an important place in my heart because it objectively contains some of the best stories the show has ever done. And, for the most part, they’ve aged incredibly well and still pack a punch. The highlight of the series is the two-parters. The first, comprised of “The Rise of the Cybermen” and “Age of Steel”, see The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey crash land on an alternate Earth. In this reality, Rose’s father is still alive and all of his silly business ideas have made him a millionaire. In that respect, it acts as a great follow-up to “Father’s Day” from the first season, continuing and exploring Rose’s feelings around her father. But it’s also just a really great adventure. The first part is slower, as we’re introduced to this new world. It’s similar to ours, but more advanced in some key ways. It all culminates with the appearance of the Cybermen, which gave me the same chills upon rewatch as it did when I was 12. The second episode is a lot more action packed, as the gang take down the cybermen. It’s a one-two punch of very different kinds of science fiction, with plenty of really excellent quieter moments dotted in there too. For me, it’s the story where David Tennant established himself as The Doctor.
The next two-part story is “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit”, which is just incredible in both its batshit crazy premise and its surprisingly well-done execution. Finding themselves on a planet suspended above a black hole, this episode very quickly becomes Doctor Who meets Event Horizon. To this day, I don’t think we’ve seen anything as monumental as The Doctor coming face to face with the actual Devil (or a being that for all intents and purposes is the actual Devil). And the story has that great mix of action, humour, fantastic sci-fi, and a cast of really interesting side characters – all made up of “that guy” actors. It tackles such huge ideas such as faith and belief, but is also perfectly happy leaning into its b-movie trappings, like when Rose sends a Devil-infected crewmate into the black hole with the perfect quip of “Go to hell.” I love it.
And you can’t talk about series two without mentioning what is perhaps the greatest finale the show has ever done – “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday”. These episodes act as a follow-up to the parallel Earth storyline, the proper introduction of Torchwood, and the end of Rose. I remember these episodes being the television event of the year, possibly of my life so far. Rose Tyler was leaving, apparently doomed to die. And you best believe that me, my brothers, and mum and dad were all sat in the living room ready to watch. When was the last time the show managed to draw people in like that? It’s been so long since it was this kind of event, and watching these episodes takes you right back to 2006. When everyone watched the show. And Rose’s departure remains as impactful as it was then, even when you have the knowledge of her eventual (but temporary) return. The moment when she confesses her love to The Doctor, and he disappears before has chance to return the sentiment. Well the show hasn’t done anything that powerful since.
But it’s not just the excellent two-part stories, the rest of the series is just really great too. “Tooth and Claw” sees The Doctor go up against a werewolf, and includes some really inventive moments and CG that has ages surprisingly well. “School Reunion” is a story set in the present that sees The Doctor and Rose go against Anthony Head and his vampire teachers. It’s way grislier than I remember, with the opening scene seeing (or hearing) the death of an underperforming child. But it’s notable for including the return of Sarah Jane Smith, played by the amazing late Elisabeth Sladen. Elsewhere, “The Idiot’s Lantern” is a fun and effectively creepy episode that I had fond memories of, and was glad to find out it didn’t disappoint (though I’m a sucker for the silly Mark Gatiss episodes). And “The Girl in the Fireplace” established Steven Moffat as the writer to look out for, with a touching and unsurprisingly complex sci if story.
The consistency is really quite astounding. But okay. There are maybe a couple of duds. Firstly, “Fear Her” is often considered to be one of the worst NuWho stories, and this is a reputation that it sadly lives up to. It’s not bad, just dull and noticeably cheaper than other episodes, despite a good script by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes co-creator Matthew Graham. And the futuristic setting of 2012 has sadly aged it horribly. Though the council worker Kel did get a surprising amount of laughs from me.
But the episode which draws the most ire from fans is undoubtedly “Love & Monsters”. I remember this episode quite fondly, but that might be because it aired on my birthday and I would have enjoyed any episode. But watching it back, I was struck by just how great it was. It’s really charming and smartly written, and I love when the mundanity of everyday life collides with the world of The Doctor – something the show doesn’t seem able to do anymore without a massive dollop of cringe. It’s a really great and light-hearted episode for the first two acts, with Peter Kay being hilarious as Victor Kennedy. But then it hits you with a really poignant final few minutes that really speak to the strength of Russell T. Davies’ writing. The monster is a bit silly, but it’s forgivable. Don’t let its reputation put you off, because “Love & Monsters” is one of the most interesting episodes in the show’s entire run.
One final thing that makes this era of the show so memorable is the music of Murray Gold. The man never phones it in, and even the weaker episodes of the show have some phenomenal soundtracks. The standout is the track “Doomsday” – from the episode of the same name. It is possibly the best piece of music I’ve heard on a television soundtrack. It’s not subtle. In fact it’s full of electric guitars and orchestral singing. But the show is the anthesis of subtle. It’s big and fun and my god this music just matches that tone perfectly. Perhaps Murray Gold wouldn’t be right for the recent series of the show, but without him it is missing one of its most recognisable features.
Series two improves upon the first series in every way, and David Tennant establishes himself quickly, in a role that can often take a whole series to settle into. Series two is the template for the show going forward, and is the start of what many consider to be the golden age of the show. That is in no small part down to David Tennant, a man who was born to play this role.
Next up, The Doctor meets Martha Jones. There are a few episodes here that I’m a little concerned about, but I know for a fact that series three ends on a very, very high note with the return of Captain Jack, fresh from the sex aliens and Welsh accents of Torchwood. See you there.