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May 17, 2008

Special Source

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Daughter


I was rather enjoying The Doctor's Daughter.  Honest.  For about half-an-hour.

It wasn't perfect, of course.  Even early in the episode there were myriad things I could pick away at like itchy scabs.  Cackhanded exposition ("Instant mental download of all strategic and military protocols!").  "Creature effects" of a quality befitting athletic mascots.  A plot that consisted largely of running down corridors. A prison guard falling for a ploy so stupid even a prison guard wouldn't fall for it.  A hall full of arbitrary lasers.  Programmed supersoldiers who couldn't hold their own in a brawl with the cast of West Side Story.  Even the otherwise magnificent Catherine Tate gets to bellowing about collateral damage and G.I. Jane.

The worst thing about the episode, however, was pretty much any part of it that involved Freema Agyeman.  Now, I realize that Martha actually appeared several times in the first half hour of the program.  If, however, we can somehow harness that "power of imagination" that school librarians have been telling us about for decades, we can pretend that the parts of the episode with Martha in them didn't happen.  If we can maintain this "suspension-of-belief", just for the first half-hour or so, The Doctor's Daughter is crackin' good entertainment.

Georgia Moffet turns in a disturbingly endearing performace as the titular (no pun intended) character of Jenny.  Not only is she physically quite riveting, but she also oozes an infectious charisma from the moment she steps out of the icebox.  She manages to infuse the role with both some adult gravitas and a childlike curiosity and naiveté, especially in her later father-daughter scenes with David Tennant.  (This is probably the part of the review where I'm supposed to compare and contrast Moffet's character with other young blonde undead-fighting heroines strewn across our cultural landscape.  However, as I've never actually felt the need to watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I'll have to give it a pass.)

I think I'm in love.

Through much of the episode Catherine Tate was simply stellar.  No, really...I think I'm in love.  Tate effortlessly balances the serious issues with the lighter material ("Oh, come off it.  You're the most anomalous bloke I've ever met.")  While the previous companions' relationship with the Doctor was one of slack-jawed adulation, Donna tempers her respect for him by accepting him as an equal, and continues to grow further from her lackluster origins in The Runaway Bride.  She once again shows herself to be a very capable and valuable member of the team. ("Always thinking!  Who are you people?")

Tate and Moffet's performances and some fine dialogue by Stephen Greenhorn even give David Tennant a chance to shine.  While I thought the Doctor's petulant "you're not one of us!" reaction to Jenny in the early parts of the episode was a bit out-of-character, and his reversal on the matter somewhat sudden, by the end of the episode (well, by the end of the good part of the episode), the two have managed to generate some genuine chemistry, with a high point being Jenny's enthusiastic "Time to run again.  Love the running!"  (The whole running gag, incidentally, is one of the best, well, running gags they've given us in the last four years.)

The episode is also resplendent with wonderful Doctor-Donna moments.  Probably Tennant's best moment is his conversation with Donna about having been a father before.  He demonstrates some serious emotional gravity without the melancholy tripe we get in the episode's final minutes.

I thought the big plot twist, when Donna realizes that the war has only been going on for a week, was near genius, although it is somewhat let down by clumsy execution.  While poor Nigel Terry does his best to portray the cliché of the grizzled war veteran (and succeeds somewhat admirably during the earlier expositiony moments), I think perhaps "I've been waiting my whole life for this moment!" was a bit much for someone whose entire life had lasted less than a week.

...an unsurprising harbinger of crap.

A little before the 34 minute mark, however, the Doctor and Donna and Jenny are reunited with Martha (as well as some of Murray Gold's more bludgeoning work, which seems to follow her around like a lost puppy).  This is, given Freema Agyeman's recent record, an unsurprising harbinger of crap.

Hath_2 It's not unheard of for an otherwise enjoyable episode of Doctor Who to be spoiled by a crap ending (I'm looking at you, Love and Monsters!)  What sets The Doctor's Daughter apart, however, is the sheer volume of crap endings they manage to cram into the last eight or so minutes of the program.  It's like an expedited version of the last hour of The Return of the King.  Greenhorn and Davies (and Moffat!?) layer miserable scenes on the end of the episode one after another, like mattresses protecting some goddamned princess from a pea.  (Princesses are all delicate and shit, you know.)

The Sauce turns out to be a magical glowing ball that contains vapors that instantly turn any planet into Star Trek's Raisa.  It's operated by shouting and throwing it on the ground, at which point a cloud of Harry Potter glowy stuff floats into the air.  Side effects include unrealistic disarmament, free love and frustration of grizzled old veterans who really wanted more war.  (If it only takes the Sauce a couple of hours to transmute Messaline from Mordor into a sunny paradise and it can remove several meters of topsoil in the process...what exactly was the point of building your entire city underground?  Why didn't someone just start the terraforming when they landed, before they went all Sharks and Jets?  And why was it only accessible the whole time through secret tunnels protected by death rays?)

Jenny inevitably sacrifices herself to save the Doctor from the inevitable bullet fired by Cobb.  The Doctor inevitably demonstrates his deep and sudden emotional attachment to Jenny (though not enough attachment to hang around a couple of hours after she died).  Then Weepy David Tennant undergoes a rapid metamorphosis into Angry David Tennant (there's some rubbish with a gun and poundy music and asthma) and finally emerges from his chrysalis as our beloved Shouty David Tennant, screaming a speech about A Man Who Wouldn't.

An endless rubbish paradox.

Why were they there in the first place?  Paradox.  An endless Paradox.  An endless rubbish paradox.  Speaking of endless, there's still another couple of endings before the trailer for the far more promising The Unicorn and the Wasp

Of course, all of what little emotional pulp you could extract from the Doctor's hackneyed reaction to Jenny's death is promptly pissed on by the final scene where she magically comes back to life, which may be the only thing more inevitable than her death.

Wedged in just before Easter Sunday is the epilogue, wherein Martha gets dropped off at home, which no one really needed to see.  Martha is saddled with more terrible lines, such as the sullenly condescending "I can't do this anymore.  You'll be the same one day."  No moment in the episode hammers home the contrast between the two characters like Donna's brilliantly delivered refutation ("Not me.  Never.  How could I go back to normal life after seeing all this?  I'm gonna travel with that man forever!")  I fear this may be some ironic sort of foreshadowing, which would be unfortunate because one series is far too short a time to have Donna as the Doctor's companion.  And, just when you think it's safe to go back in the water, this pretentious drivel drops leadenly out of Agyeman's mouth: "All those things you've been ready to die for...I thought for a moment there you'd finally found something worth living for."  Then they say their goodbyes and the music swells oppressively.

Nowhere is her role as dead weight better exemplified than her slide down the hill into a puddle she can't seem to lift herself out of.

Which, finally, brings us back 'round to Martha's role in the episode.  Almost all of Martha's lines are poorly delivered oratory, backed by a full orchestra.  Her abduction by aliens at the beginning of The Doctor's Daughter seemed a promising development.  If it was necessary to remove Martha from the episode for narrative reasons, couldn't they at least have, you know, removed Martha from the episode?  Nowhere is her role as dead weight better exemplified than her slide down the hill into a puddle she can't seem to lift herself out of.  Agyeman and Greenhorn come together in a perfect storm of shoddy acting and miserable script ("Help me!  I'm sinking!  I'm sinking!  Help me Peck!  Help me!  Squeal!  Gurgle!  Squeal!")  The more I think about it the more convinced I am that Greenhorn had the entire Martha/Hath subplot thrust upon him and was forced to include her as an afterthought.

And anyone who's been whinging on about Donna having a weekly cry should be counting their lucky stars that it hasn't been Martha shedding tears every week.  Her unconvincing bawling after her fish friend drowns is downright painful.


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