Doctor Who – Season 4 Report Card

So it’s time for the inevitable Doctor Who Season Report Card. Previous, equally arguable, season reviews are here for S2 and here for S3 and S1.

BEST
Silence in the Library (Part 1) [5/5]

Forest of the Dead (Part 2) [4/5]
Midnight [4/5]
The Fires of Pompeii [4/5]
Planet of the Ood [4/5]

The Sontaran Strategem (Part 1) [3/5]
Turn Left (Part 1) [3/5]
The Stolen Earth (Part 2) [3/5]
The Poison Sky (Part 2) [3/5]
Journey’s End (Part 3) [3/5]

The Unicorn and the Wasp [2/5]
The Doctor’s Daughter [2/5]

Partners in Crime [1/5]
WORST

‘Silence in the Library’ was by head and shoulders the best of the season: atmospheric, scary, inventive and complex. It was definitely better than part two, ‘Forest of the Dead’, but I think high expectations for Steven Moffat and a certain sense of over-familiarity have magnified the flaws of the concluding part. I’ve given ‘Forest of the Dead’ a 4 simply because it doesn’t quite rank up there with last year’s five star episodes ‘Blink’, ‘Human Nature’ and ‘The Family of Blood’. I remain optimistic for Moffat’s reign on the show, even though I fully expect that the series will retain a lot of RTD’s trademark influences.

On the plus side, nothing this year plumbed the depths of ‘Aliens of London’, ‘New Earth’ or ’42’ , but ‘Partners in Crime’ was still a diffuse, patchy episode. For all their flaws, ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ and ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ have strong redeeming features– so much so that I was tempted to give then an extra point. The worst I can say about the Sontaran two-parter is that it’s unadventurous and has a silly cliffhanger, but it still delivered slick, nostalgic action and character and memorable aliens. Plus UNIT. You can’t go far wrong with UNIT, even if a little of them goes a long way.

Although I’ve rated the season finale relatively low I still feel it was significantly more successful and consistent that last year’s botched conclusion (which I only gave 1/5, apparently. Ouch.) It was a romp, but not an entirely hollow one, and I could mostly get on board and enjoy the ride. The lack of a reset at the end was very welcome (even though most characters were effectively put back in their boxes).

Overall this leaves me with a season which a lot of people have criticised but which for me has felt very strong. The bulk of the episodes were good to very good, and although there were fewer true greats than last year, I think the series is continuing to improve its baseline quality year on year. Leaving aside the fact that it made little literal sense, the ‘arc’ of Rose’s return and Donna’s fate at least felt like it struck a good balance between foreshadowing and pay-off. Although I still feel that ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ was a mis-step I appreciate the thematic material through the season about the Doctor’s tendency to militarise those around him. He continues to be a more psychologically interesting and complex lead than was mostly true of Classic Who, while retaining the things that made the character appealing in the first place.

I must give a nod to Donna who was something of a revelation. Catherine Tate never entirely cast off the annoying mannerisms that made me dread her arrival, but the explicit rehabilitation of Donna worked wonders. This new Donna, cast from the same empathetic mould as Rose and Martha but older and more self-assured, was generally a pleasure to watch. I eat my hat. In fact I enjoyed her far more than I did Rose or Martha’s appearances this year. Martha was largely irrelevant, filling up screen time but adding almost nothing of any emotional value to the show. Rose was surprisingly ineffective once the novelty of her return wore off, and she got a damp squib of a resolution that felt emotionally very confused. Only Sarah Jane was any match for Donna. It’s a shame that Donna’s fate proved so downbeat, but the finale worked hard to eulogise her in ways that give her experiences with the Doctor meaning.

I suspect I’m in a minority in liking this season better on average than the previous ones. I was also in a minority last year in thinking S3 was better and more consistent on average than season 2, with a lot of mediocrity but less moments of clunking silliness. I still have a soft spot for S1 when all was fresh, Rose was likeable and we still had Christopher Eccleston, but I’ve come to really appreciate David Tennant since then, and S1 doesn’t half have some stinkers. I think, significant annoyances with S2 aside, that the show is generally improving each year. There were fewer moments of brilliance in S4, but fewer mis-steps too.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want change. I’d like a little more weight to the show, a little more drama and and a little less running around shouting the plot breathlessly. More maturity in the relationships, more variety and inventiveness in the plotting, wilder and less linear storytelling. Episodes like ‘Midnight’ show that the series is still capable of embracing unusual genre-blending dramatic material, and even though ‘Turn Left’ was a spin on an SF staple it was still a fresh direction for a Who episode. I’d like fewer Daleks and more of… some other kind of megalomaniac alien. That’s why the Sontarans were a breath of fresh air this year,even though ironically it’s just the show plundering its own past as usual. Hell if we’re going to plunder the past how about some Ice Warriors? The odd Zygon. RTD mentioned Silurians the other day, and anything that can erase the memory of ‘Warriors of the Deep’ would be more than welcome. I’d also like some good, new alien designs that don’t look like Space Rhinos. The prosthetics technology and the craftsmanship evident in things like the Ood or Davros’s mask show that there are a lot of talented people working behind the scenes who surely have more imagination than putting the heads of earth animals on a humanoid body.

I’d also like another companion like Donna (who ever dreamed I’d be saying that?) who can be a match for the Doctor without the romantic complications. I know we’ll be sticking with the pattern of a single female companion (or maybe solo adventures or rotating companions during next year’s semi-hiatus) but there are lots of good options.

I still love this show more than it objectively deserves. I’m a little sad that the only thing we’ll be getting for the next year are RTD specials, because we all know those don’t tend to showcase the series at its best. They’re more like season finales, where the need to be BIG and have high-concept hook is that much more over-riding. However if it means we keep David Tennant’s services for a little longer then I’m all for it. Right now it’s difficult to imagine who could replace him.

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