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STUDIO: BBC Warner
RUNNING TIME: 687 Minutes
-Children In Need – ‘Time Crash’
-Commentary for every episode
-David Tennant’s Video Diaries
-The Journey (So Far)
- Doctor Who Confidential
Join the Doctor and his third companion since the series reboot as we journey towards the end of Russell T. Davies reign as show runner and Tennant’s run as our titular Doctor.
Nobody thought to prepare him for the Tenant-as-Riddler photoshop that awaited him in his hotmail account between takes.
David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Freema Agyeman, John Barrowman, Elisabeth Sladen, Billie Piper, and many more blasts from the Who past.
Season four finds us with the Doctor alone yet again after the amicable parting with former companion Martha Jones. After a brief foray on a doomed cruise vessel during the near feature-length Christmas special, the Doctor reunites with Donna Noble (Tate), whom you will remember from last season’s Christmas special. Together they journey to the past (meeting Agatha Christie and Pompeii on the day of its destruction) and the future (visiting the Ood enslavement on their home planet and an alternate reality where the true effects of no Doctor are visited upon Donna) while we learn as the series progresses that Donna might just be more important that anyone (most of all herself) could have possibly imagined. It culminates with the return of a classic Who villain and the most epic joining of all ancillary characters in the new series run, filling up the TARDIS for an epic three part finale that threatens the very fabric of the entire universe.
“Could I interest you in a Phantasm-themed desk lamp?”
It’s taken nearly half a decade for America to catch up with the hopeful underpinnings of Russell T. Davies’ run on Doctor Who, and now that the national outlook mirrors the Doctor’s unwavering optimism in humanity the feeling one gets from watching this fourth* season could best be described as triumphal. When before the idea that a modern hero would opt for diplomacy and discourse with his enemies in lieu of threats and violence was an idea more fantastic than a flying hippo that could fart out your innermost dreams, now it feels like the culmination and reaction to a grave darkness that kept the world in a malaise. Even when I reviewed the prior season of this show, I was utterly taken with the fact that we had a hero who wouldn’t resort to violence until all hope was lost and would instead try to reason with or at the very least outsmart his adversaries instead of pummeling them, shooting them, or blowing them up.
And I hope that future show runners for Who take to heart the basic tenets of what Davies was establishing with this particular modern iteration of the series. There’s a deep sense of equality ingrained in every episode, with bigotry and hatred being the most vile characteristics a character on the show could have, and even then they’re more than capable of rising above those feelings** towards the enlightened plane of understanding. This acceptance of people at face value (even if that face has gills or tentacles or a little clear case with bubbling green liquid in it) is a great one, and I hope that the series continues to have characters that have what some would categorize as “fringe” lifestyles crop up without making any sort of comment on it. Tolerance is elegantly handled throughout Davies’ reign on the series, and I hope that carries over ad infinitum into future Who spin-offs. It’s a beautiful thought that the universe is accepting of all creeds and colors and lifestyles without any judgment passed.
Not as popular as your Cybermen and Daleks, the Wurms of Colonosta in the Analian galaxy are yet another retro Who villain given a modern update.
All this talk of the show in such highfalutin terms, with me exalting it through moral platitudes might obscure the fact that when it’s working at full energy, Doctor Who is the best pulpy science fiction series to exist in just about forever. Stephen Moffet continues to build expectations for his takeover of the series in 2010 to unreasonable levels with his midseason two-parter. His writing is just on another level of sophistication from the rest of the staff writers (many of whom create great episodes themselves, mind you), packing phenomenal ideas into his episodes at the dizzying pace of Grant Morrison at his best while never losing his firm grasp on the characters, their voices, and the emotional core of the story he’s telling. It’s not surprising that his episodes feature the best Doctor run of the series, the best Doctor bad-ass speech of the series, and the creepiest Doctor villain of the series. That he does all of this and leaves room for musings on the nature of our spoiler-laden culture that takes the fun out of viewing and the nature of film editing and how it plays with temporality while actually engaging with the time travel stories that should so often be the show’s meat and potatoes is just further proof of his mastery. Let’s just hope he saves a little magic for 2010, and if it’s half as good as his episodes have been up until this point, we’re in store for something truly remarkable in a couple of years.
“Look! In the right glint of sunlight, you should just be able to make out the last bit of Eddie Murphy’s dignity!”
And that’s not to shortchange the spectacular work being done by the directors and writers on the show in other episodes, because this season absolutely blows series three out of the water in terms of constant quality from episode to episode. There’s no midseason lag or outright stinker like the Daleks in Manhattan debacle, and almost every episode tells a satisfying story that ties in some part however minute to the whole story being told season long. Some particularly satisfying efforts are the aforementioned Moffet-penned Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead two-fer, the supremely entertaining Agatha Christie yarn The Unicorn and the Wasp, the emotional effecting Planet of the Ood, the pretty-epic-for-so-early-on-in-the-season two-fer The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky and what may be Davies’ best effort of the entire series, the incredibly tense and verbally dexterous Midnight. As you can see, that comprises the majority of the season, so you know you’re in for some quality when I can’t narrow it down from those efforts.
Yet another victim of sold out Twilight presales.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performances this season. Tennant continues to build his reputation as one of the best Doctors in the history of the franchise and makes it continually harder for whoever has to fill his shoes once his tenure is up. He captures the manic energy of the Doctor perfectly and can find his way around the techno babble with the lilt and cadence of the best screwball comedy actors of the past. That he can do this without ever sacrificing the melancholy streak that runs consistent throughout the series and can manage to come off as a monumental badass without ever resorting to fisticuffs are both a testament to his presence and ability as an actor. The verbal acumen and physical tics combine to create what may go down as the finest Doctor ever, quite honestly.
BBC’s “Fuck your homework, watch the goddamned Doctor!” campaign worked on key demographics despite public uproar.
And while I was annoyed by Catherine Tate’s presence in season three’s X-Mas special (an overbearing performance instead of feeding into the Who team concept, it felt like), she is truly wonderful as his season-long companion here. By not burdening her with a romantic attachment to the Doctor as had been the case with the two previous companions, it allows for a spectacular easygoing chemistry that I’d even dare to say surpasses the already quality work of Billie Piper and Freema Agyeman in seasons past. She makes you invest emotionally in her character arc which is pretty expertly structured throughout the series. Their banter is topnotch and the series reaches its highest peaks because of their great work together.
Despite a lack of recognition, the skeleton crew toiled mercilessly to operate Voltronpenis at all hours.
That isn’t to say that this season is all raindrops and lollipops, as there are a few problem areas. The opening Voyage of the Damned episode is epic without feeling particularly exhilarating like later episodes in the series would be, and the season-ending two-parter sort of gets away from Davies. There’s no question he’s the man to go for apocalyptic situations, as he creates situations that are the pinnacle of insurmountability, rivaling the best of serial/episodic adventure series in terms of defying you not to want to tune in to see exactly how our heroes can get out of such a dire situation. However, you should never go full reTARDIS, as the final pair of episodes feel so steeped in Who lore and are bristling with characters and callbacks to previous situations that everything becomes frenzied to the point of incoherence and a lot of storylines seem to get short thrift because of it. Especially the Rose Tyler subplot, which is finally being resolved here after the seeds have been planted since the beginning of Who, and it feels like an afterthought to the (admitted) fun of gathering all of the ancillary Who characters together for one epic battle against evil.
“Yeah, I’m just going to run to the bathroom real quick. What’s this? Oh, uh, nothing, just your everyday run-of-the-mill dehumidifier. ‘Course I know what it looks like, but that’s irrelevant isn’t it? Yeah, you should be sorry. I’ll be back in forty-five minutes.”
Even though it’s delirious to the point of being a liability, the finale still finds the human element as it ends with one of the most upsetting (and downright Whedonesque) resolutions to a character arc I’ve seen on a TV program in quite some time. In many ways this feels like the logical endpoint for Davies w/r/t Who, so we’ll see where he takes the good Doctor for the handful of specials they’ll be airing in ’09 before Tennant and Davies sign off for what may prove to be the last time. One thing is for certain, I’ll be eager to find out what they have waiting for us. They’ve earned it with their superlative work over the past few seasons.
The show looks as good as something shot digital and converted to film can look and the 5.1 captures the bombast of what is a truly epic television program. The DVD cover art is solid and follows the action-oriented posing of last season’s box and keeps up the shiny motif which is good news for those of us easily distracted in the audience.In terms of extras, you’re once again overloaded as in the previous sets. Each episode comes equipped with a commentary track, although you have to access them through the set up menu instead of the special features which may be confusing for some. Still, given the lack of commentary for the Who spin-offs, the embarrassment of riches here is appreciated. Disc one features the best extra which is the Children in Need special mini-episode Time Crash. Penned by Moffet and featuring former Doctor Peter Davison reprising his role, it’s a treat for fans of the series to see both Tennant and Moffet pay homage to the Doctor they grew up with. It’s a nice bit of slapstick and verbal goofery (featuring the cheekiest line of the series, in fact, in reference to The Master***) that manages to satisfy in its short runtime.
Spread out over the rest of the discs are deleted scenes for just about every episode (including a whopper of a deleted cliffhanger to end this season), a couple of David Tennant’s video diaries (all engaging and fun to see the behind-the-scenes camaraderie) and trailers for each episode. On the fifth disc is a featurette called “The Journey (So Far)” that is a nice half-hour retrospective on the highpoints of Davies run on the series. And the sixth disc is entirely comprised of the Doctor Who Confidential episodes which go into different behind-the-scenes minutiae that help to make Doctor Who as epic an experience as it is. A truly exhausting group of features, and a goldmine for fans of the series, which I now proudly consider myself to be. Easily one of the best sets of the year.
*And for Davies, penultimate.
**Hell, the Daleks (the most recognizable villains of the whole series) even show signs of striving to break free of their militaristic and hateful impulses. Anyone’s capable of change on this show, and it’s fucking brilliant.
*** “Does he still have that silly beard?” “No, well, he’s got a wife.” Brilliant.
9.4 out of 10