Smith and Jones is a better start to a series than New Earth. Although there is a lot in the mix the plotting is much tighter and more accessible to new viewers. The Judoon continue the trend for making aliens out of animals, a trick that can only be used so many times before it becomes repetitive, but the Judoon are memorable enough to warrant a return appearance. They are brilliantly voiced by Nicholas Briggs, who risked his vocal chords by creating such a gravely voice without the aid of any electronic equipment. Their staccato voice patterns before they translate their voices into English are very funny. But what is so good about them, leaving aside their appearance or voices, is that they fulfil a role that has been largely missing from Doctor Who: the idea of some kind of universal police. Just as society advances, it makes sense that eventually this would be mirrored on a larger scale, and there would be these kinds of systems in place on a galactic level. They therefore fill the monsters-of-the-week remit without actually being monstrous or indeed villainous.
This episode gives us a horror story, more so than any other Doctor Who story probably since The Brain of Morbius. At times it goes too far for its family audience: the Plasmavore with her straw is a gruesome idea which surely crosses the line of what is acceptable at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night. The sight of the blood being sucked through the straw could have easily been cut out without losing any of the plotting.
Other aspects of the episode are much better. The upwards rain and the transportation of the hospital to the moon are great ideas and look amazing on screen. The Slabs are the ultimate in budget cutting, actors with crash helmets on, but are actually very effective because they play on the uncanny valley response, with facial features invisible. A funny name for them, isn’t it: “Slabs”. Where might that come from? Well, this is a story about vampirism that shifts location partway through from Earth into space, and features an alien criminal hiding on Earth from an intergalactic justice system. So just like Vivien Fay has her stones in The Stones of Blood, Florence Finnegan has her slabs. Coincidence? Unlikely, I think.
Freema Agyeman makes her debut as Martha and there is instant chemistry with the Doctor. Her family is very entertaining, although Reggie Yates is a little redundant as Leo (not just here but throughout the series). He is one character more than is necessary for plotting and background. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Tish would have also made a good companion. Clive and Annalise are hideous stereotypes of a divorced man going though a mid-life crisis and his young girlfriend. Martha’s relationship with them at this early stage is lacking the closeness of Rose and Jackie, and the establishing phone conversations put the puzzle pieces of her life on the board while keeping Martha’s family somewhat tangential.
Every so often it seemed like Russell T. Davies was trying to wind up a certain section of Doctor Who’s fan-base who don’t like the prosaic idea of the Doctor having a family. When Martha asks the Doctor if he has a brother, he replies ‘no, not any more, just me.’ Although the Doctor has mentioned his family before, very occasionally, and we have seen his granddaughter Susan, he has never been any more specific than that, so this is the first evidence that he had a brother. There has been much speculation over the years as to a possible sibling connection with the Master, which was originally to have been the plot of the final Jon Pertwee story, before Roger Delgado’s untimely death caused that story idea to be abandoned. And then Davies plays a trick on the fans who think the sonic is too much of a magic wand, by destroying it, only to reveal a new one later in the episode.
But the brother thing is quite interesting if we are looking for parallels between the Doctor and Martha. It is surely no accident that his enforced distance from his family is mentioned in a story that shows Martha as far more independent from her family than Rose. Her family are established by the incredibly narratively efficient phone conversations, sketching them in as characters but keeping them at a distance. Both Martha and the Doctor have (or had) family, but both are independent from them. This is one of two aspects of Martha that make her seem like a ready-made companion, the other being her immediate Doctorish intelligence. It’s not just that she is a doctor herself, although that has a metaphorical as well as a practical bearing on her character development, but she functions immediately as someone who works things out in a pseudo-Doctor way, albeit not so brilliantly or quickly. Rose tended to come at things from a different angle to the Doctor, and also followed that wonderful arc we get sometimes with companions of learning to be magnificent from a starting point of “ordinary Earth girl”. Martha on the other hand is companion-in-waiting. But there is a problem here: the series is haunted by Rose. She was the ultimate companion in many ways, and the one whom the Doctor fell in love with (or almost fell in love with – this was never quite made explicit). For all her brilliance, Martha is being defined in opposition to Rose, and no amount of being immediately amazing is going to fix that problem straight away. The series has to acknowledge the loss, and it does so here. But Martha is fabulous right from the first time we see her, so the problem is not with her but the Doctor. She will earn her place in the TARDIS, but first of all the Doctor has to accept her as Martha, rather than viewing her through a lens of not being Rose. RP
p.s. a prediction: when the Doctor is trying to retrieve patient records from a computer he says ‘maybe there’s a backup’ and then starts fiddling with the back of the monitor, which of course wouldn’t contain any data. This will annoy Mike. Let’s find out… 😉
The view from across the pond:
The Doctor is missing Rose Tyler and is on his own for the start of Season 3. The year is 2007 and we are about to meet Freema Agyeman as Martha. And our first interaction will be totally out of context, until the end of the episode, where Russell T. Davies channels a bit of his inner Moffat.
Smith and Jones offers us a chance to get to know our first new companion since the return of Doctor Who in 2005. While we might think she’s fantastic, the Doctor treats her like a charity case offering to take her for a ride because she was clever. This, after his stolen kiss that “means nothing”, is not a very good characterization of our favorite hero. I can’t wait to try that out on someone, “oh, pardon me, this means nothing but it’s to save all of our lives!” I’m sure there won’t be a smack following that attempt. But then the entire episode is fairly weak. I realize that it’s the nature of introductory episodes because so much time has to be spent on who we are getting to know; it’s inevitable that we would lose out on some of the action that would otherwise make a stronger story. Getting to know Martha means we meet her family, too, creating a far more dimensional relationship than the classic series could ever accomplish. Her mom is scary, her dad is dysfunctional, her brother is largely absent and her sister is beautiful and not featured nearly enough. But Martha is the standout in the family. She’s the one studying to be a doctor and the Doctor likes a brainy woman as he flirtatiously acknowledges. Unfortunately, he’s downright rude to those he finds less adroit. And even if he is willing to flirt, he’s equally willing to allow his pining for Rose to blind him to the lovely woman he wants to travel with (and occasionally kiss, when the mood strikes him!)
Meanwhile the weekly smorgasbord of monsters includes “slabs” which are men wearing motorcycle attire, complete with helmets suffering from a “hell of a fetish”. They offer little in the line of exciting monsters and serve as pushy bikers for most of the story. Luckily that gets countered with the Judoon; rhinos in space suits who are intergalactic police persons. Now these guys are impressive looking. The animatronics beneath the surface of those faces is impressive. The production crew was working on some seriously good technology to move New Who away from the image of the classic series. Or was it… the last in the line of monsters for the week: an older woman who ends up being a vampire. And she carries a straw. (For those of you who have seen Avengers: Infinity War, you know the feeling of being let down when Tony Stark realizes he’s working with a bunch of nitwits. That look sums up how I feel about the vampire with the straw. For those who have not seen the movie…) This was sort of like watching a stunt man pull off an amazing jump on a motorcycle, then land on a banana peel and go sprawling along the floor. It didn’t make the stunt less impressive, but you cringe that the ending couldn’t be equal to the rest of the act. And that’s our Plasmavore; an old woman who wants to drink Mr. Stoker’s blood possibly as an odd homage to Bram Stoker, the writer of Dracula. If this Stoker were written as a more sympathetic character instead of a snotty oaf, one might have been more inclined to care. Alas, I did not.
For all that, Smith and Jones gives us a fun adventure where David Tennant can prove his manic acting talents, channeling all the best of Tom Baker, including some of the mystery. When asked if he has a brother, the Doctor replies “No, not any more”, dropping another major hint about his hidden past. Unfortunately, he also channels some of the negative side when he’s rude (and not ginger) to other people around him. Martha’s comment “you’re completely mad” is perfectly delivered and so joyfully accurate. It was not the strongest opener, but it’s far from the weakest. And really, when else are we going to get the chance to say the marvelous phrase: “a Judoon platoon upon the moon”? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Shakespeare Code