There’s an argument for the fourth series of Doctor Who being the revival’s strongest. The show had more than found its footing by this point and this series is full of interesting episodes and ideas. On top of that, it has the biggest finale the show has ever done and possibly the best companion in Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble. 2008 was a very good year to be a Doctor Who fan.
After the highs of the past few series, there was one element that people were starting to get a little tired of. The companions just keep falling in love with the Doctor! Rose was fully in love with both incarnations she travelled with, and poor Martha was infatuated but rarely got a second look from the man himself. It was a great bit of drama, but we didn’t need to see it all again. Enter, Donna Noble. Possibly the best companion in NuWho history. Full of sass, she could put the Doctor in his place. But she is also perhaps the most tragic companion so far (but more on that later). Donna is very interesting, in that this is not her first appearance travelling with the Timelord. She made a very memorable appearance in the Christmas episode The Runaway Bride (one of the best of the hit-and-miss Christmas episodes) and her rapport with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor was a really refreshing change of pace.
We catch up with Donna, a few years after declining the Doctor’s offer to travel the stars. She’s regretting it and is trying desperately to find the man. That sounds like a difficult task, and for anyone else it would be. But Donna is linked to the Doctor in a mysterious way, something that slowly unravels as the series continues. Actually, the continuing series’ arc and easter eggs are really fantastic in series four. Back in the day, I used to spend a considerable portion of my free time talking about these hidden moments, and searching the fake websites the BBC set up each year. In season one we had “Bad Wolf”, then references to “Torchwood” and “Mr Saxon” in the second and third series, respectively. In this series, there are repeated mentions to planets disappearing, something I’ll admit I missed, and hidden shots of Rose screaming for the Doctor. I don’t know how I lasted, waiting each week for a crumb of explanation on these eerie moments, but they’re still cool now, when I can go straight to the Wiki afterwards.
And for the first time in these rewatches, I think I can safely say that there isn’t a weak episode throughout the fourth series. Other series have had more forgettable or filler episodes, but here they’re all strong, often for different reasons. I went in with an idea of the episodes that would be weaker, mainly the ones that I hadn’t had the urge to rewatch since airing, but was pleasantly surprised for each. The second episode, ‘Fires of Pompeii’, I had written off as a forgettable historical episode, only notable for the appearance of Peter Capaldi. But I found upon watching it that it was surprisingly emotional episode, possibly one of the most in all of the revived series. Perhaps it went over my head the first time around, and I hadn’t really grasped the severity of the choice the Doctor had to make, or his reservations about saving anyone, but this time around I was blown away by the final ten minutes of the story.
Another example is ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’, an episode I have dismissed in the past as just that one with Agatha Christie and the giant wasp. And yep, it has a giant alien wasp attacking Agatha Christie, but it’s more than that. It’s a really neat take on the murder mystery genre, with the Doctor playing the role of Poirot. And there are some standout comedic scenes of David Tennant, see the scene where he’s poisoned – has any actor since had the sheer physicality that he brought to the role? And this episode it written by noted human garbage Gareth Roberts, so I was extra surprised.
My biggest surprise was the third episode, ‘Planet of the Ood’, an episode I was certain didn’t even exist. Honestly, it was like a reverse version of Shazam starring Sinbad. I saw it on iPlayer and could honestly not even remember it existing. Was there a chance I missed it all those years ago? Unlikely, because some elements came back to me upon my rewatch, but it was still weird. Ultimately, it might have been for the best, because I was able to experience the episode without any prior thoughts or feelings on it. And like ‘Fires of Pompeii’ it’s a surprisingly heavy one. The Ood are a tragic race, one that go on to have an important role in the Tenth Doctor’s final adventure, so it was nice seeing that be set up. On top of that, it was an interesting concept on its own, with a surprisingly gruesome transformation near the end. Seriously, check this out.
And the ending of the series, as I mentioned earlier, is perhaps the biggest the show has ever done. At times, it threatens to collapse under the weight of everything that Russell T. Davies had put in place, but for a plot that revolves around Davros trying to destroy reality itself, I think that’s forgivable. ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’ see the return of almost every companion from the new era. Jack’s back of course, with Torchwood in tow (something I was very, very happy about). Sarah Jane is there, with an appearance from her son Luke, and Rose is back, with most of her dimension-hopping family. Yes, even Jackie. By the end of the episode, there’s also two Doctor’s, as a result of a human-Timelord meta-crisis. Don’t ask.
It’s big and it’s flashy. And it’s impossible not to watch with a big grin on your face, even as half of Earth is seemingly pummelled by Davros and the Daleks. But it wouldn’t mean anything without the enormous emotional weight that RTD throws behind it. On one hand, you’ve got the return of Rose and her reconciliation with the Doctor. That’s emotional enough, as she wishes him farewell on Bad Wolf Bay once more. But it’s hopeful now. She’s got a carbon copy of the Doctor to care for, one who ages normally and can live out his life with her. A man who is damaged by war, just as he was when he first met her. I didn’t appreciate that at the time, seeing this more as a cop out so the Doctor could live happily with her and leave her. But I appreciate it now.
But for Donna, things are less hopeful. The human part of the aforementioned meta-crisis involved her. In the process, she absorbed the mind of the Doctor. And by the end of the final episode, that knowledge is killing her. The Doctor has no choice but to wipe her memory and return her to her family. This moment is so devastating, so heart-breaking for everyone involved, that it completely balances out the fun and adventure of the previous two episodes. The joy of seeing these friends reunited, contrasted with Donna saying bye to the Doctor and just looking right through him. It really ends the series on a sombre note. Possibly the loneliest note the series has ever ended on, without even a teaser of things to come. Just the Doctor, alone in the TARDIS. Donna had the most exciting adventures with the Doctor, but she is doomed to never remember it.
There are other elements that make this series so great too. The supporting cast is excellent, especially Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s grandfather Wilf – who will go on to have a bigger role down the line. He adds so much emotion to every scene, both humour and tragedy. And if salutes one more time, I will actually cry. And let’s not forget Murray Gold! A composer who is on such excellent form throughout this entire series. He gives this era of the show such a defined identity and its not the same without his bombastic scores.
Overall, this really is the best and most emotional series of the show, which is saying something because the previous three series were so very good. Catherine Tate was an inspired choice for a fulltime companion, and her departure is really as sad as it gets. But I know, with the specials coming up next, and David Tennant’s departure, the sadness will only continue. But hey, at least this time they’ll be in high definition. (Seriously, why did no one force RTD to film the show in HD?!) Join me again soon, for my review of those specials, which marked an odd time in the life of the show.