Extremely lightweight but extremely enjoyable.
Something that blighted the second season of Doctor Who (le nouveau édition) was the way that the scripts, and more specifically David Tennant’s performance, lurched between drama, insouciance and comedy. Admittedly we’ve only had two episodes so far, but based on the start of this season and the Christmas Special I’m going to tentatively state that Tennant’s performance has settled down markedly. No longer does it feel as if he’s been suddenly switched from ‘Irreverent’ to ‘Maudlin’ like the Alan Alda-bot on Futurama; instead it all feels part of a single–albeit eccentric–performance.
The episode itself is distinctly lacking in substance, but in general it hits all the right notes, and key parts of the denouement actually make some sort of sense which is a step up from last week. The historical setting centred around famous figures feels reminiscent of both ‘The Unquiet Dead’ and ‘Tooth and Claw’ (we even get a repeat of the Doctor’s “Don’t do that” to his companion’s attempts at local lingo.) I’d place this episode somewhere between the two, with ‘Tooth and Claw’ the best of the bunch. I enjoyed the Queen Elizabeth cameo, which is a nice running gag given that he earned the enmity of Queen Victoria, and I hope this is followed up. (I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s some throwaway line in the show’s history about the Doctor having already met her, but if so it’s only one of the series’s many internal contradictions.)
I wasn’t at all looking forward to the witches based on the preview, but the story roots them in science enough to stay within the bounds of science-based magic we tend to see in Doctor Who. Shakespeare himself is another element that the previews left me feeling tentative about. Given the arguable decision to make him an egomaniac he’s likeable and well-characterised here; neither too silly nor too serious. Clearly most of what we see is a complete invention, but an enjoyable one. (Oddly, at times Dean Lennox Kelly seems to be channelling Kenneth Branagh). As with Dickens the Doctor is reduced to a literary fanboy, but in a far more nonchalant way and with a lightness of touch. In particular the constant to-and-fro of pithy quoting could easily have become tiresome, but remains winningly affectionate throughout. Although the man himself is portrayed as a genius capable, uniquely, of seeing through telepathic paper, in general his remarkable qualities are specifically tied to his keen observational skills and knack for language, which seems fairly reasonable.
If anything doesn’t quite work for me, other than the entirely disposable nature of the episode, it’s Martha. She’s pretty strong but not quite as likeable as last week. Her reactions to time travel are enjoyable, as is her canter through the usual time travel cliches (and the Doctor’s blasé responses), but she feels slightly too puppy-eyed at times. It’s nothing major, and nothing that can’t settle down through context when we see more of her. One interesting facet of her relationship with the Doctor is that even now, three episodes into the post-Rose period of the series, he’s still mooning about Rose. I understand the reason for this–it’s a way of nodding at the viewers who were very attached to Rose as a p.o.v. character–but this is bound to affect his relationship with Martha. Fortunately it’s being done in a way which is sufficiently low key and it does feel like a psychologically real reaction, as long as he moves forward at some point in the near future.
Overall I think this is a fun entertaining romp with some laugh-out-loud dialogue and a generally affectionate tone. On a good day I’d hope for a bit more from the series, but on most days this does just fine.