Given that series four of BBC flagship Doctor Who has yet to reach its culmination, it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to reviewing these three opening episodes – Partners in Crime, Fires of Pompeii and Planet of the Ood – without knowing where they fit in the grander scheme of things. If nothing else, series four has been one of echoes and the closure of arcs, particularly those which began early in series one of the 2005 reboot. But the beginning seems as good a place as any.
Partners in Crime kicks things off, if not with a bang, then with a dull thud. All of the elements are there – daft monsters, dafter gadgets and groansome gags – in this earthbound adventure, but the Doctor, it would seem, is phoning it in. Running up the streets of a housing estate, brandishing some bit of Bitsa-offshoot techno-wizardry, Tennant’s gurning to camera and trademark solving of problems with frantic psychobabble just isn’t hacking it, three series in (yes, three; his tenancy has been so ubiquitous – almost obnoxious, even – that it’s easy to forget Christopher Ecclestone’s fleeting foray as the Ninth Doctor in series one).
Surprisingly enough, it’s Catherine Tate’s Donna that lifts this episode – and the series itself – out of its funk. Whilst Tate is given a chance to exercise the comedy stylings for which she’s known – most notably in a perfectly-executed mimed conversation between herself and the Doctor – it’s Donna’s characterisation which is the pleasant surprise, particularly after the resounding chorus of nay sayers (myself included) who met the announcement of her being brought onboard as this series’ companion with loud derision. Setting the episode in a call centre, we’re reminded of what ‘supertemp’ Donna’s life was like before she met the Doctor in The Runaway Bride. Later, meeting Donna’s family – nagging Mum Sylvia and Bernard Cribbins’ adorable Grandad Wilf – we’re shown how Donna’s meeting the Doctor has turned her life upside down; flag that, it’ll probably be important later.
Underneath the hokey villainary – Sarah Lancaster’s supercamp supernanny, Miss Foster, and CGI merchandising opportunity, the Adipose – and the running up and down corridors, some of the major themes of the new series run deep; life, family and an aversion to the mundane. It’s an episode of mixed meetings – with one particular missed meeting given precedence over the others in most of the media which followed – and the chorus of fans dismissing Partners in Crime for it’s unabashed silliness are probably missing the point.
Sophomore effort Fires of Pompeii follows things up by taking the show right back to the mission statement of the original series; the time-travelling phlebotinum of William Hartnell’s era was, the dustier of our readers will remember, an excuse to introduce a bit of history into the BBC’s children’s schedule. Set on ‘volcano day’, the now-obligatory second episode step back in time sees the Doctor and Donna in the Roman city of Pompeii, with the ins and outs of the Roman lifestyle – and an attractive young man in a toga – crow barred in via Peter Capaldi’s patriarch Caecilius and his family.
It’s as epic an episode as Doctor Who has ever attempted, with on-location shooting and the deliciously disturbing rubber maskery of Victoria Wicks’ Sybilline high priestess more than making up for the lacklustre Pyrovile (like CGI Bionicles knocked up on an Amstrad). Some of the II point IV children antics of Caecilius’s family is naffness of the highest order – watch out for teenage son Quintus mooching about the family home like NVTS magazine personified – but their set up is what gives the story its heart when it comes for Donna’s moment in the limelight.
Planet of the Ood is the weak link. Filling in some of the gaps left by series two’s The Impossible Planet – namely, what in the name of the caves of Androzani are the Ood, and where do they come from? – it’s a clumsy allegory which sees the oppressed alien race standing in for any number of slaves throughout history. Elsewhere, there’s dodgy pacing, an even dodgier CGI brain, set up that never quite makes good on itself – fierce-booted Solano’s untimely demise mid-way through the episode is particularly jarring – and an incomprehensible ending that uses any old excuse to have Tim McInnery turn tentacular. About as subtle as being whacked over the head with the TARDIS mallet, and never quite living up its legend.
This being the bog-standard ‘vanilla’ release, the extras are being saved for the full-series boxset later in the year. And it’s a shame, given the wealth of special features – Doctor Who Confidential, the iTunes podcasts – the show generates. But the kids who these stand-alone DVDs are presumably aimed at will get enough out of these three thoroughly entertaining episodes to justify the pocket money-friendly price tag, as will those of us looking to swot up on the earlier episodes as the series draws to a close.