Saturday, 1 February 2014

Over The Moon

Doctor Who
Smith And Jones
Series Three, Episode One

Whoomf!  New year, new companion, new start.  What a difference it makes.

The last two series openers had a certain apologetic fluffiness.  Nothing too weird or taxing, plus lots of campy humour, as if to say: Don't panic!  I know it's Doctor Who, but trust me, it's fun!  By Series Three they presumably don't feel so defensive about it (being a smash hit and everything), so Smith And Jones just gets on with telling a cracking story.  It doesn't need to use humour as a crutch.  It's just good.

On an unrelated note:
Freema Agyemmmmm.
The main objective is to introduce the new companion, and Russell T Davies does this as expediently as ever.  We meet Martha Jones while she's taking calls from her family on her way to work.  It's a bit tedious having to deal with another companion-family, especially after spending two years dealing with the Tylers, but this sequence is still very well done.  With all the different calls, we learn that Martha is the organised one in her family.  They're a modern bunch, so her dad's got a girlfriend and Martha's okay with that.  Now, I could absolutely do without the soap opera of Martha's dad, but it tells us (in seconds) that Martha has more emotional maturity than Rose.  That's very nice work.

There's an intriguing bit where she bumps into the Doctor, who seems to know her already, and then she finds him in the hospital (where she's training to be a doctor herself).  What's he doing there?  One of the benefits of following a new companion is that we find the Doctor in the middle of an adventure.  I love when they do that.  The beginning, where he arrives, notices something amiss and inevitably investigates, is often the boring bit.  No room for that here!  Within minutes, the Doctor is sizing up Martha Jones (who doesn't point out that, on examination, he has two heartbeats), and before you know it, the hospital's on the moon.

Did I mention it's a good start?  It's got intrigue, clever stuff, gobs of character information, a cool plot, and a fabulous guest cast on the sidelines.  Anne Reid is great as the doddery Mrs Finnegan, but my favourite's probably Roy Marsden as Doctor Stoker.  One of those bit parts that jumps to life for just a few minutes, as he grumbles about his clueless students, he adds real colour to the story.

The good ideas don't run out once we're on the moon.  Russell's not done developing Martha, for a start.  She's calm when everyone else is screaming, and immediately asks all the right questions like why haven't they run out of air which catches the Doctor's attention.  But she's not immediately impressed with him, which keeps things interesting.  "What, people call you the Doctor?"  "Yeah."  "Well, I'm not.  As far as I'm concerned you've got to earn that title."  "I'd better make a start, then!"  With the arrival of the Judoon, militaristic aliens who brought the hospital to the moon, the Doctor and Martha are soon running down corridors and whatnot.  But they manage to keep it amusing.  ("And again!")

Let's pause to consider the Judoon, and how brilliant they are.  Do I mean the design?  Yes and no.  The prosthetic head is amazing.  But it's a bit boring having them look like rhinos.  Not rhino-like in appearance, not rhino-esque in behaviour, just... rhinos in spacesuits.  Russell's imagination often gets stuck to certain animals (cat nurses in New Earth, a giant spider in The Runaway Bride), and it seems a shame, given the whole of time and space to play with, that we instantly recognise some of the aliens.

And apparently, rhinos have two horns.
Who knew?
Oh well: it's how the Judoon act that really sets them apart.  They're non-partisan.  Not evil, just on a mission, hunting a shape-shifting Plasmavore.  They're grouchy, easily provoked (executing a man for attacking one of them), but basically neutral.  And you almost never see things like that in Doctor Who.  They're reminiscent of the Vogons in Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, which are not evil, just bureaucratic.  They're a damn good idea, and their language is pretty colourful as well.  "Bo!  Sco!  Fo!  Do!  No!"  Makes a change from "Exterminate", doesn't it?

So, they're not the bad guys.  Surprise!  It's Mrs Finnegan!  Anne Reid clearly enjoys herself as the devious shape-shifting old dear, and she's incredibly creepy as well as funny.  She needs human blood to disguise herself (bye bye, Doctor Stoker), and drinks it out of a little straw that she keeps in her handbag.  This is simple, and horribly effective.  The same goes for her two assistants, burly leather "Slabs" that look like bike messengers.  They don't outstay their welcome.

Annoyingly, Mrs Finnegan takes a turn for the worse before the episode ends.  She does some seriously random psycho-analysis on the Doctor (who at this point she believes to be human, so... huh?), coming out with "You're quite the funny man.  And yet, I think, laughing on purpose, at the darkness."  Where did that come from?  Then there's her barmy plan to use an MRI scanner to "fry the brain-stems" of half the Earth's population, all to get control of a Judoon spaceship and escape.  But why would an MRI scanner be able to do that, and come to think of it, how is there still electricity?  Then, when she's caught red-handed, and we find out why she committed the murder she's charged with: "She deserved it!  With those pink cheeks and those blonde curls and that simpering voice!"  So, for no reason at all, then.  How very dull.

Still, Anne Reid's very good.  It's not her fault.  And the same goes for Martha's family: they serve a real purpose in setting up Martha, and they're quite convincing, but they're still a bit trite and their reprise at the end is a slice of pure, Eastenders-lite garbage.  "This is me, putting my foot down!", said the obviously fictional character.  Russell T Davies does some fantastic work in this episode, and some that's not-so-fantastic.

Really, though, it's mostly very good.  And I've not even mentioned the Doctor.  Half the battle in introducing a companion is how they interact with him, and vice versa.  Good news on that front: it's a pretty great episode for David Tennant as well.

I feel I must comment on David Tennant's hair in this.
So... what happened there, then?
The Doctor has clearly had a bit of time to himself.  He's not grieving for Rose any more – at least, not directly – and, taking Donna's advice, he's in the market for a new friend.  Martha makes an immediate impression, but unlike Rose, she's not desperately in need of a man in her life.  For once, the Doctor has to make an impression as well.  (Hence that nifty "you've got to earn that title" exchange.)  It's not entirely the right one, for example when he kisses her to slow down the Judoon's search.  (A neat idea to confuse their scanners, but he's very lucky they didn't take her for an alien and promptly vaporise her.  Also, she inevitably gets the wrong idea.)  But he's keen to impress her, as per his trip back in time to bump into her outside the hospital.  (Yay, they're being creative with time travel!)  It's a gently different dynamic, and different is good.

Wanting to get things in the open, he lays his cards on the table about Rose before the end, which sends him into a bit of tizz and creates an awkward moment just before they fly off into the sunset.  I'm not 100% happy with that, and it's a shame he has to bring Rose up at all, but that's just the kind of Doctor he is.  He says he prefers to be on his own now, and that's ultimately not just about sulking: if there's no companion, there's no one else to get hurt.  That's an understandable development.

Elsewhere there's some fabulously creative Doctoring, such as sending radiation out of his body via his shoe, and pretending to be a human to trick Mrs Finnegan into getting caught.  (He is a bit too convincing as a human, but then that's just the kind of Doctor he is, too.)   There are some delightful little moments, like his knowing look to Martha when she asks if he's an alien, and his heartbreak over losing the sonic screwdriver.  (Although it won't stay dead, so what was the point?)  Tennant is reinvigorated throughout, and is a pleasure to watch.

Smith And Jones isn't absolutely perfect, but it does what it needs to do plus a whole lot more, and it does it all with sheer confidence.  It's smart, fast and fun without trying too hard, and it shows that Doctor Who clearly still has a lot up its sleeve.  Years later, it still packs a deserving wallop.


  1. Despite the handful of real stinkers in Series 3, there are some absolute corkers, and this is one of them. I think it's by far the strongest of the RTD season-openers - 'Rose' is brilliant for the first twenty minutes it begins to get a bit muddled toward the end, 'New Earth' had some real fun stuff in it but is ultimately pretty inconsequential, and 'Partners in Crime' has three or four moments of dramatic and comedic brilliance - and one hell of an ending - but is otherwise a bit off the mark. But 'Smith and Jones' is just solidly entertaining throughout, well-paced, clever and confident. Martha impresses right from the get-go, and she's a huge step-up from the peril-magnet companions of the past. The Earth and Moon vistas are beautiful, the guest actors do a great job, David Tennant is on fire here and yes, the Judoon are a stroke of brilliance - at once one of the most bonkers and memorable things RTD ever did. It's no wonder they've been brought back for repeated cameos in DW-proper and made the cross-over to one of the spin-off shows - they're just so instantly recognizable and so easily evoke that sense of daft fun that made the RTD era so insanely popular - they're basically a distillation of that entire era. I'm pretty sure they and the Ood will be fondly remembered with the likes of past favourites like the Sontarans, Zygons, Silurians, Cybermen, Yeti and Daleks in years to come (of course, it helps that the animatronic masks are so spectacularly goo).

    So yes, 'Smith and Jones' is a classic - not perfect, but well above average. And as I said above, it encapsulates RTD's Doctor Who in a way that few other episodes do - no wonder Steven Moffat chose this story to riff off for 'The Eleventh Hour'. This is one of the ones I come back to most readily, and I always thoroughly enjoy it. Shame the rest of the season was so hit and miss...

  2. Series Three takes "hit and miss" to impressive extremes: it has some of the best episodes of Doctor Who ever made, and a few of the worst. You wonder why they couldn't tell the difference making them.

    I love the Judoon. Much like the Ood, and the Weeping Angels, I think their popularity comes from the sheer brilliance of the idea. (The Ood are slaves who don't actually mind. The Judoon are space-police just doing a job. The Weeping Angels can't move if you're looking at them.) Not to take away from the design, which is pretty great for all these things (although I've got mixed feeling about the rhinos!), but it always comes down to the ideas, I think.