I don’t think it’s a wholly unfair thing to say that series 4 has, at times, been a disappointment to me. However, as the series draws to a close we’ve certainly seen some marked improvements; but, save for Fires of Pompeii and Planet of the Ood, I see the first half of series 4 as pretty much a disaster. As it happens, the epicentre of that disaster can be pretty much sourced to the four episodes included on this here Volume 2 DVD. A perfect opportunity, then, to re-evaluate these most maligned of episodes and see if I will warm to these poor, unloved souls on second viewing. Clue: I don’t.
First up we have this series’ ‘blockbuster’ two-parter, traditionally the home of a brightly coloured, high action and large-scale story. Unfortunately, it’s not a slot that’s really, truly been effectively filled (they usually seem to come out as feeling half arsed and clumsy.) This time the blockbuster is home to the return of the Sontarans, which is a great idea. If you want a big, blustery two-part story then sourcing a popular old monster from the classic series is a great way of going about things. Unfortunately, Helen Raynor once again takes the reigns as writer, as she’s…not good.
I wouldn’t say that these episodes were at any point actively awful, but there’s a complete lack of ambition. It’s just another Earth invasion with a wholly unsurprising progression of events. Despite some excellent early promise with the Sontarans’ dialogue (General Staal is superb throughout and the perfect embodiment of the Sontarans’ attitude to war and its glory) it all goes to pot with Commander Skorr’s ham-fisted lines as he leads the ground invasion of Earth. I like UNIT and how they’re portrayed, though, and I enjoy seeing Martha’s progression onto their payroll. Unfortunately though, Martha has been pretty much ruined. All the life and interest in the character has just been sucked clean out. I can’t say if this is because of the writing, acting or both, but it’s sad to see Freema compare unfavourably to Catherine Bloody Tate.
Next we have The Doctor’s Daughter. Oh dear. As a premise, this had so much potential to be great. Anything that plays with the Doctor having another Gallifrean to interact with and taps into his feelings about the Time War has the potential to be special, but this episode completely wastes the chance, while at the same time delivering one of the most ham fisted, illogical and unsatisfying stories new Who has ever produced.
Let me be more specific; the main driving premise of the episode is the creation of the Doctor’s daughter, Jenny, from his own Time-Lordy DNA. This highly significant event rushes past in a blur of shouting and confusion, and feels completely unsatisfying and cheap. What’s more, the cynical placement of the pre credits cliff-hanger line “Hello Dad!” beats even the awfulness of Martha Jones’ previous “And I’m bringing you BACK to Earth!” from The Sontaran Stratagem hands down.
It makes no sense that this newly created soldier would know the Doctor is her father, let alone acknowledge it. From that point on the episode arrogantly throws sentimentality it hasn’t earned right in your face. Forty-five minutes isn’t enough time (especially for writing of this low quality) for this character to be created out of the blue, The Doctor to reject her and then accept her just in time for her to die and have any real emotional impact. You have to be Stephen Moffat to do that.
To cap it all off, the final twist of the war lasting seven days makes no real sense, and the Doctor’s final speech about founding a society based on “a man that never would” is an example of the writer having a vague idea behind the Doctor’s character but reducing all down into “blah blah, guns bad blah blah, shouting shouting, moralising blah” without taking into account any of the Doctor’s conflicted past and feelings about weapons and wars. Come to think of it, this is something the Sontaran two-parter is guilty of as well. The Doctor is the ultimate ‘shades of grey’ character, so it’s just no good patronising us by forcing such a black and white attitude on him.
The Unicorn and the Wasp is the final episode on this disc and is probably, dare I say, the best one. That’s not to say I liked it, though. Because I didn’t. Once again we have Gareth Roberts writing a celebrity historical about a writer, like the literary NERD he is. Last year’s The Shakespeare Code would have been much better if it wasn’t for the insufferable, smug, Shakespeare fan-boy (“Ooh, that’s good, I might use that!” says Robbie William(s) Shakespeare for the millionth time as the audience lose the will to breath) nonsense included by Roberts; and, infuriatingly, he’s just as smug and insufferable about Agatha Christie. “See how many Agatha Christie titles you can spot in the dialogue” gushed RTDOBE in the Radio Times earlier this year, plainly unaware just how horribly clunky and pointless such a stunt would be.
There were about 12 of the buggers littered in the script, which even someone completely ignorant of Christie could spot due to their ham-fisted inclusion. Something that the episode does do slightly right, however, is the attempt to create a classic Christie-type murder mystery, complete with a country manor, a murder, a number of suspects and a big scene at the end to reveal the killer. It may not have been wholly successful at times, but it was enough to create a fresh and fun atmosphere that made the episode distinctly interesting.
However, it’s ever so slightly maddening to see historicals like this (and, to a lesser extent the excellent Fires of Pompeii) insist on always having an alien or monster as the heart. I know it’s something that even old Who didn’t do much, but a purely, alien-free historical would be wonderful and would have certainly made for a more interesting story, as the explanation behind the murders inevitability dissolve into unsatisfying babble when the explanation has anything at all to do with aliens.
So, to be perfectly honest with you, I’m not a big fan of these episodes at all. Make no mistake, I could go on and on about what I loved about Fires of Pompeii, Planet of the Ood and the magnificent Silence in the Library two-parters or RTD’s Midnight, but this disc just so happens to have four of the worst episodes new Who has ever produced. For the pickier consumer out there, I almost think it’s a good thing to have all these episodes together so they can be easily avoided. Wait for volume 3, at least, as that’ll have three of the best episodes of anything you’re likely to see ever.
In fact, it would be remiss of me to finish off this review without talking a little about the nature of these vanilla releases. To be perfectly honest with you, I disapprove of them. Double dipping is a well known technique, and it’s one we’ve learnt to live with, so long as we’re fully aware of the full release schedule. The Red Dwarf DVDs did it the right way by actually releasing vanilla additions after the double disc-ers, but I do kind of understand the need for 2|entertain to get these episodes of Who out at soon as possible, to allow people to get their hands on them.
The problem is this: they’re not released fast enough to be of any use and they’re too expensive (add up all the costs and you’ve almost got the price of the full box set complete with extras and commentaries!) I wonder just how useful these discs are to consumers in an age where a great deal of people own PVRs, DVD Recorders or even just their old VHS to archive their favourite shows until the big box set is released. The only real market I can see for these releases (apart from completist lunatics and children wanting new Who things “RIGHT NOW MUMMY, WAH”) are people who just fancy picking up the odd set of episodes that take their fancy (for example, the volume last year containing the Human Nature two-parter and Blink is one hell of a disc).
But that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it’s essentially pot luck as to whether your favourite episode is lumped in with a load of dross or not. However, those are the only sort of people I could, with any good conscience, recommend this release to. Everyone else, just watch your off-airs, wait for the box set and forget that these dubious releases exist.