Okay, I realise that this isn’t much of a flashback, but thanks to the recent repeats and the joys of BBC iPlayer, I was able to catch up with most of the recent repeat of New Who S1 (I missed a couple of episodes, and deliberately didn’t put myself through the Slitheen two-parter). Rather bizarrely, they seemed to sail past season two (a fact I wasn’t too sad about – despite the fabulousness of Girl in the Fireplace, I think on the whole it’s the least interesting and succesful of all four New Who seasons) and go straight for Season 3, and while there was the temptation to only watch the episodes I’d really enjoyed, I eventually decided to bite the bullet and give the whole thing a second try, managing an episode a day over the next three weeks (the repeats were only on weekdays).
And the result? I’m still largely impressed by what I saw, although it is also a case of that effect you get when there’s an album that you really enjoy, and then you go back and listen to it again and realise that it’s actually those three classic tracks that make it as exceptional as you remember. S3 is impossible to talk about without taking into account the frankly amazing one-two-three punches of Human Nature, The Family of Blood and Blink – outside of that famed trio, however, there’s still enough that I liked to make S3 the point where I could actually allow myself to genuinely enjoy New Who, rather than throw my hands up in horror at what I was seeing.
A quick run-down of my reactions to the episodes:
Smith and Jones – livelier and slightly better sci-fi than I remember, even if the killer MRI machine is a definite case of Total Bollocks Overdrive. It’s typical New Who, and yet is energetic and ambitious enough to get away with a lot – it’s also got certain signs of RTD’s occasionally lazy humour, and I saw the straw gag coming a mile off. And thank god that Martha’s family didn’t turn out to be quite as major as this episode hinted they’d be…
The Shakespeare Code – still as messy and disappointing as before, it’s New Who as historical blockbuster, and never mind the story, feel the production design! The Doctor/Martha chemistry does work here (it only gets a little overplayed later on), and there are some good moments, but the story’s weak, and the prosthetics on the Witches are still rather terrible.
Gridlock – If you ignore the fact that the setup really doesn’t work without plenty of the drivers having gone insane or starting inter-car wars, this is surprisingly good fun, and finally feels like New Who is living up to its ambition. There’s a certain 2000AD-like tone to this, and it even manages to have a climax that’s actually emotionally affecting. I was surprised by this first time around, and it’s still an enjoyable episode.
Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks – still a mess, and yet one I can at least raise my hat to for having ambition. S4’s Sontaran two-parter simply felt rote and by-the-numbers – here, there’s a genuine attempt to make the setting work, and to do something interesting and different with the Daleks, but it’s sunk by bad execution, poor storytelling, accents straight from a Guys and Dolls performance, and a man with a rubbery prosthetic squid on his head.
The Lazarus Experiment – An odd story this, if only because it’s asking us to believe that Martha’s little sister wouldn’t mind being snogged by a too-sleazy-for-school Mark Gatiss. The slick direction almost manages to conceal how sketchy and empty the story is – almost – while the Martha’s Mum plotline is rather clumsily set up and despite some later promise it still turned out to be a major disappointment. Nice Quatermass homage, but not the most memorable episode – and is it just me, or have the mid-season blues affected every New Who season since Dalek blew everyone away in S1?
42 – Chris Chibnall has been responsible for some serious crimes against storytelling and dialogue in Torchwood, and there are a few clangers in this episode – but it’s also tight, exciting and thrillingly directed, with the escape pod sequence being one of New Who’s greatest moments. Yes, it’s derivative and a near-replay of The Satan Pit two-parter, but it actually benefits from being shorter and more to-the-point, and also puts the Doctor through far more. One note, though – I wish they’d find some different spaceship interiors, as it’s getting very difficult to ignore the fact that the TARDIS keeps landing on spacecraft with concrete floors…
Human Nature / The Family of Blood – Still brilliant, and Tennant makes up for all of his S2 excesses with an absolute tour-de-force here. Paul Cornell also does a very good job of streamlining his original novel – making it far more about the idea of sacrifice, and tying that into the oncoming horror of the First World War (The only thing I miss is the way Tim starts to acquire Doctor-ish characteristics and comes incredibly close to actually becoming the Doctor himself (via the ‘pod’ in the book, rather than the watch), and the delicious sense that, for a moment, you suspect that Smith might actually get to live on after all. But, I can see why there wouldn’t be room, and it’s conceptual rather than emotional). Even if the story’s more satisfying before the action begins, it’s still a brilliant piece of work that’s fun without hitting the “Self-Conscious Jollity” button, and incredibly moving. About the only thing that still bothers me is the much-discussed ‘punishment’ ending – mainly because it feels like cheating the audience, setting up an enemy that terrifies the Doctor so much that he has to become human, and then saying “Oh, he wasn’t actually scared at all, because he’s mysterious and like ice and fire, and he was being KIND!!!” It’s the only part of the story that I don’t buy, and I wish I did because the rest of it is incredibly good.
Blink – Still brilliant, but for different reasons. Blink doesn’t have the emotional depth of the previous episodes, but it is brilliantly intricate and wonderfully directed, with the sense of reality that I always wanted New Who to have. In certain ways, it’s the scale of it that makes it brilliant – that it’s not (strictly speaking) a save-the-world tale, that it’s oddly believable that this kind of thing could be happening in that big old creepy house just down the road. It’s the best standalone Who has done – and, frankly, one of the best standalone episodes of a series that I’ve ever seen – and while part of me would be excited if the Grand Moff announced that Sally Sparrow would be turning up again at some point in his reign (if only because Carey Mulligan is really, really cute and engaging), I really hope he doesn’t. Sometimes, it really is better to be left wanting more than to have your wish granted… (just ask any Star Wars fan…)
Utopia – We’re back in comic-strip mode, and yet Utopia still stands up, shonky SF plotting and all. John Barrowman is still great fun away from the horror that is Torchwood, there’s heaps of continuity and character stuff, and the sequence between the Doctor and Jack while he’s priming the rocket (silence those guffaws…) is still really impressive, and one of Tennant’s best scenes – you almost get the impression that you’re seeing a different side of the Doctor, that he’s letting his ‘performance’ face slip and being closer to his genuine self. And then, there’s the re-introduction of the Master, which is still spine-tinglingly effective, and Derek Jacobi frankly kicks arse in his brief tenure as the villain. It all leads up to a great cliffhanger…
The Sound of Drums / Last of the Timelords – …and then everything goes wrong. Sorry, but The Sound of Drums is still 60% bloody awful, and much of it is the simple fact that John Simm is miscast. It’s an “I don’t usually get to let my hair down and have this much FUN!” performance, and while he’s great in the quiet scenes, every single time I kept thinking “Please don’t let him get over-the-top again”, he suddenly would. The weird thing is, not only is Russell T. Davies essentially writing the Master as Stuart Jones from Queer as Folk, I could actually see Aiden Gillen pulling the role off, where as Simm’s take just ends up deeply, deeply embarrasing to watch. It’s not quite Aliens of London / World War 3 bad, but it’s pretty close. Admittedly, Last of the Timelords has grown on me – it’s still crammed full of terrible moments, but again it’s the ambition of it that’s admirable, and the fact that behind all the crass humour, RTD is dealing with some really dark concepts. The ‘Doctor as Tinkerbell’ climax is just as dreadful as I remember it (It’s mainly down to the execution, and the painfully silly panto-style kirby-wire hovering) and the less said about the CGI House Elf Doctor, or the Master singing Scissor Sisters, the better. The S3 climax isn’t much worse than the one to S2 (which is equally overblown)- but it did leave me bloody disappointed, mainly because it doesn’t even feel like the same programme as Blink or Human Nature. But, among the rubbish, there’s some impressive stuff, and Martha gets a good wrap-up scene as a companion – even if they haven’t really had the faintest idea what to do with her since.
So, S3 – not perfect, but the series that did at least make me feel like I could enjoy Who once again, and almost as much fun second time around…