Series 3 of Doctor Who had a tough act to follow. Series 2 was on another level in terms of what we’d seen on television at the time, and this series had to step up its game. With a new companion in the fantastic Freema Agyeman, and plenty of new places to explore, the series definitely succeeds.
Well, for the most part. Series 3 is a series of two halves. The first half contains some great episodes in ‘Gridlock’, ‘Smith and Jones’, and the unfairly maligned ’42’. But it also has some more forgettable episodes, like ‘The Shakespeare Code’ (tarnished retroactively by noted transphobe and scumbag writer Gareth Roberts), the two-part Dalek storyline, and ‘The Lazarus Experiment’. These aren’t bad, per se, they’re just middle of the road. I mean, even average Doctor Who is enjoyable, but these aren’t classics by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s a shame, because Martha Jones is a really interesting companion and she perhaps deserves better than these more forgettable episodes.
But the second half of the series is a different story. For my money, the run of episodes that begins with ‘Human Nature’/’The Family of Blood’ and ends with the exceptional three-part finale (with all-time classic episode ‘Blink’ slapbang in the middle) is a high point the show has yet to top. And that’s completely fine, because these episodes are all easily perfect, and are some of the very best stories the show has ever delivered.
The above-mentioned two-part story, ‘Human Nature’/’The Family of Blood’, sees The Doctor on the run and forced to change into a human to hide in 1900s England. With only Martha that knows the truth, and who is ready and waiting to snap him out of it when the time calls, these episodes are stunning. As a showcase for David Tennant’s acting range, they are brilliant. The scene when he, John Smith, is being asked to die and let The Doctor back in is still his best performance. It’s heartbreaking and is really juxtaposed against his performance as The Doctor. Speaking of which, the finale of this story sees The Doctor at his most cruel, as he dishes out revenge on The Family of Blood. It was chilling at the time and it still is. There’s a lot of talk around morality with the more recent incarnations, and it’s nice to see a Doctor that took no prisoners. As Son of Mine says, in an eerie scene, “We wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure we did.”.
I won’t spend too long on ‘Blink’, because this idea has been done to death and there’s not really anything else I can offer. But, I will say, that despite all of the reappearances of these foes, and all the upping of the odds in subsequent episodes, this simple, introductory story is still the very best. It deserves all the praise it has received over the years and is truly Steven Moffatt at his peak. It’s a really clever science fiction idea, done well and in an original way. And despite the show’s reputation for being scary, this one actually was pants-shittingly frightening when you’re 11 and watching it in the dark. And on a rewatch 14 years later, that magic is still there.
And the finale. After the previous two seasons ended on such very high notes, this third series manages to top them both. It may not have the emotional heft of ‘Doomsday’ but for sheer spectacle and thrill, it’s a no-brainer. John Simm is The Master, and he is perhaps one of the best things to happen to the show’s reincarnation. Every second he is on screen, he’s an absolute joy to watch, shifting from funny to childlike to preposterously evil. And he’s the perfect foil to Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. The show takes the time to build him up, effectively having the finale play out over three episodes. We first meet him as Professor Yana, played by Derek Jacobi, a genius at the end of the universe trying to save the very last remnants of humanity. That, in itself, is a perfect set up, but here it’s just the start.
Despite watching these episodes countless times, and even fairly recently as a watched through Torchwood, the twist around Professor Yana/The Master is so perfectly executed, the tension is so well heightened, that I get completely swept up in it. It’s truly perfect and there’s yet to be a moment like it – though the similar Master reveal in the recent Spyfall did come surprisingly close. It’s the show at it’s height, knowing exactly what it wants to be and trusting the audience to get invested and take it absolutely seriously.
One of the most surprising parts of the show was Martha herself. I’d forgot just how great she is. It’s a tricky role to pull off, a woman who is in love with The Doctor, while he still is obsessing over Rose. But she delivers and gives the role nuance and emotion, and makes you feel for her difficult relationship with this strange, wonderful man. And I still think having her leave on her own terms is one of the best decisions the showrunners made. She knows that The Doctor isn’t going to see her as she sees him, and she knows that he’s still hung up on Rose, so she goes. It’s not with malice, it’s kind and she goes to be with her family (who, to be fair, had a rough 12 months). I also love how useful she is. I can’t think of a companion that has ever been quite as clever as Martha, or one who goes through as much shit as she does. She literally saves the world, single-handedly. I think she deserves to go out on her own terms after that.
Overall, despite a few missteps, the third season is a very highpoint for the show – if just for the second half. The run of five episodes hasn’t been topped and might be the strongest series of episodes I’ve ever seen. Imagine it in 2007, watching those episodes over five weeks, with each episode being so great. It explains why the show was so popular during this period. And why there was so much hype for series four. And the return of Donna Noble.
I can’t wait.