Very much more of the same, but in the good sense of continuing the same themes and deepening them.
In the second-half of the story the Doctor is much more of a central focus; ironically we learn more about him through his effective absence than we often do through his presence. As “John Smith” begins to question who he really is, who he has to be, and who he wants to be, we see that being the Doctor is not necessarily the most desirable of things. To John Smith the Doctor is a romantic character but also a terrible one: lonely, fearsome, strange, bereft of all the intimate human things that make his life worth living. It’s a fascinating approach: to take the Doctor’s false identity and imbue him with a complete personality such that his passing is seen as a death–both by Mr John Smith himself and those he loves.
David Tennant is once again very good this week, giving a distinctly different performance as John Smith. It’s with quite mixed feelings that we get “our” Doctor back. His return is engineered in a suitably cheer-inducing fashion, but by that time we’ve begun to see that John Smith is a far more compassionate and–yes–human figure than the Doctor. The Doctor, as he demonstrates in the very awkward scene in which he invites Nurse Redfern to join him on his travels (and in his continued relationship with Martha), may be compassionate towards humanity in general but really doesn’t understand interpersonal relationships.
The pre-World War setting also comes into its own this week. Last week we saw slightly disturbing imagery of school children being blithely prepared for war. Here we see them actually engaged in violence, and the mental scars that they will be left with. It would have been very easy to get this wrong but the brief shot of one of the children wiping away tears adds understated layers of depth. Cumulatively the references to the horror of the First World War do have an impact, and are paid off admirably (and respectfully) at the episode’s end. In some ways this two parter does for World War One what ‘The Empty Child’/’The Doctor Dances’ did for World War 2: make an abstract historical event into a real and relevant thing for a young generation of viewers. What’s particularly impressive is how unflinchingly the episode dwells on the more disturbing parts of the story without feeling the need to balance them with out-of-place silliness. It lends a feeling of maturity to the episode that often eludes the series.
As for the actual storytelling, a lot of the episode is surprisingly quiet and introspective with an emphasis on the character and thematic elements, which does result in the “action” being reduced to a lot of aimless running around conveniently escaping from scarecrows/aliens. Nonetheless this is hardly a departure for the series, and the tension remains high with the Doctor’s emotional turmoil being well-integrated into the episode’s denouement.
Harry Lloyd as Baines is still incredibly creepy, although in comparison with last week we see so much of his eccentric performance that he does threaten to veer into caricature. The alien family are the weakest element of the story, although they don’t actually spoil it.
It’s in its final scenes that the story really betrays its literary origins, with the highly unusual departure into different characters’ points of view. On the whole these are slightly too rushed, but also extremely effective. Baines’s description of the Doctor’s lack of mercy is really quite disturbing. It’s a depiction of the Doctor which is arguably at odds with his behaviour during the rest of the series (despite occasional references to his lack of mercy) but the characterisation of him as a near-mythological force of nature fits well with John Smith’s ambivalence about the life he must return to. Our glimpses of Latimer’s life are also poignant, and while the final scene may be sentimental it’s not cheap emotion.
Overall this is an excellent two-parter with an indefinable sense of importance that we haven’t felt so far this year. It lends a much-needed weight to a season that’s been consistent without excelling.