The striking thing about Doctor Who's thirtieth season is that it's really worth a second view.
After the series ended, I was somehow left with the impression that it had rather gone off the boil somewhere; distant memory said there was a terrific opening that just trailed away.
Watching it again, all in a row, I discovered not just that that terrific opening really was amazingly terrific, but that the concluding stories build towards a (potentially) amazing climax.
The only possible conclusion from this is that "Journey's End" wasn't as bad as I thought it was… it was worse: the crushing get-out-of-jail-free non-regeneration was such a huge let down, betrayal even, that it completely distorted my recollection of the preceding episodes.
It can't be understated just how good are "Partners in Crime" followed by "The Fires of Pompeii". Catherine Tate completely sells us Donna as both the larger than life figure of "The Runaway Bride" and still a complete three-dimensional person, at the same time commenting on the "kind of kids" the Doctor has been knocking around with and how she intends to have her own say.
It's also a delight to relearn just how funny "The Fires of Pompeii" is. We all know that "Partners in Crime" is funny, but we expect "The Fires of Pompeii" to be tragic: we all remember that grand tragedy of the end, but it's really underscored by the fact that we've come to love these people, mostly though Peter Capaldi's wry but never cruel Caecilius. "Modern Art!" "Positions!" When the Doctor witters some Latin – mistranslated into Gaelic by the TARDIS's running-joke circuits – he tries to respond kindly with a gentle: "Look, you". It's genuinely amusing to be in the company of this man and yet it never undermines your sense of his reality so that by the end you are appalled at the idea that the Doctor might just leave him and his family to die, and equally you can completely believe that he is overwhelmed by the reality of the Volcano.
Meanwhile, there's some really clever foreshadowing in "Partners in Crime", easily overlooked by the more blatant "f… that's Rose!" moment, just seconds later. Donna is chattering on about her luggage and plans and the Doctor just stands staring at her slightly sadly. Suddenly she notices him and thinks that he's like that because he didn't really want her to come along, and – just as she did with traitorous fiancé Lance – she's pushed herself on him.
Except he really, genuinely does want her to come with him. It's glossed over with a (slightly overextended – it works better as just a two-liner in the trailer) gag about her being the Doctor's "mate". What isn't explored then is why he was looking at her in that sad and wistful way.
And surely it's because he doesn't want to destroy her life the way that he's destroyed Martha's and Rose's. More than that, it's possible that – as a Time Lord – he can see her life, he can see that she will be brilliant if she come with him, and he can see that it will kill her.
The "mate" gag, incidentally, also prefigures anther of the season's themes: that of the Doctor's "family".
It would be very hard to follow those, and the Ood story that does certainly doesn't reach the same heights, but then how could it? The Giant Ood Brain is still every bit as silly as the Rani's Giant Red Brain in "Time and the Rani", and Mr Halpen's transformation is still totally gross, but the Ood remain a really good creation (which no one knows how to use properly). And that's not to say that the episode is bad, just average and for this series that's a very high average.
You wouldn't even notice it, if it weren't for the (false) impression of hindsight that says the series is going downhill, and that this is the first step down.
Season four may have a wee bit of a dip in the middle, but that's clearly the time to put on the potatoes (baked Rattigan-style). But there's still something to enjoy in those middle-order stories: I find "The Doctor's Daughter" a blast, a clever sci-fi idea (the war of generations lasting only seven days) wrapped up in a bundle of hilarious hokum. Only the Doctor's "I never would" at the end really grates. On the other hand, I quickly weary of the too too-cleverness of inserting Agatha Christie titles into the dialogue of "The Unicorn and the Wasp", a story that already explicitly comments on the fourth-wall worrying nature of an Agatha Christie-type mystery with Agatha Christie actually in it. Russell freely admits to doing it late one night "for a laugh". So not all of those inspired 2am sessions are a success, then. The tone is markedly different to much of the rest of the season, and – since it was one of the first to be completed – this may be because it dates to the time when Russell was promising us that his fourth season wouldn't be anywhere near as dark as his third. But Alex really loved the charm of the piece; it's a mini oasis of amusement, a little light campery between three rather macho episodes and another two rather macho episodes. So horses for courses really. And there was even one person willing to say they enjoyed the Sontaran thing, although also agreeing about UNIT's "set physics to 'off'" moment when the Valiant comes down to hover over the factory.
(Just think about what Newton's third law means for the downdraft from a hovering airport, if nothing else.)
Having said that, one plot hole we thought we'd spotted – why don't they just shoot the Sontarans with that super-laser cannon that Torchwood have built into London – was perhaps answered by seeing it attached to the underside of UNIT's "aircraft carrier" the Valiant. And since the Valiant was designed by the Master, you can believe him saying "yes, I'll have that, please" (especially since the alternative is to have it pointing at the underside of his prospective throne room.)
There was much appreciation for "Silence in the Library", if only because that was when we brought out the Wispa bars. But the consensus was that the series is in good hands, and you can't deny that Steve has courage, to present several rather challenging ideas to the Doctor Who target audience. To anyone weaned on "The New Adventures", and their attachment to no-longer-quite-cutting-edge Cyberpunk the "they're in cyberspace" answer may seem beyond blindingly obvious and into cliché, but that's to forget that the idea hasn't been done on screen since "The Deadly Assassin" in 1976. Nor is doing "The Time Traveller's Wife" for ten-year-olds unchallenging, particularly since he's given himself the headache of deciding whether to show any more of the Doctor/River Song relationship.
One thing cleared up by re-watching was the question of regeneration: much attention has focused on River Song's remark "you look younger than I've ever seen you", which people have taken to mean she's comparing to a later version of the tenth Doctor, which may well be the case (we'll assume until otherwise shown that there will be "gaps" for more meetings in between the 2010 specials), but before that she casual throws out the line "judging by your face it's early days," which surely means that later days could mean a different face.
It's hard, though, to avoid the sense that Moffat is in danger of eating himself, as anyone who has read Lawrence Miles cuttingly incisive Moffat-times-table will know. "Everybody lives!" was special in "The Doctor Dances", not least because it was clearly a small victory that the ninth Doctor desperately needed, one he needed in a way that the all-conquering tenth Doctor doesn't. Here it rather undermines the tragedy, particularly since quite clearly everyone doesn't live; they're all dressed up in white and off to Randall-and-Hopkirk heaven!
And, of course, Mr Copper in "Voyage of the Damned" warned the Doctor that this insistence that he can choose who lives and who dies would make him a monster.
Also… why, exactly: “And don’t even think you can regenerate?”
There is an interesting philosophical debate to be had about what constitutes "everybody lives". Contrast this electronic afterlife with what is going to happen to Donna at the end of the season. Does persistence of thought in an artificial medium count more as being alive that persistence of the body even if the thoughts are gone?
To an extent, it may depend on whether you believe that a soul will carry on after the death of your body. Is Donna's soul preserved, even if she has no memories of her time with the Doctor? Or is that unique individual destroyed, her soul going to wherever souls go, and what inhabits her body is essentially a revenant? Does River Song's soul survive as a ghost in the machine, or it is no more than a trick of technology, a slightly more sophisticated illusion of continuance like the "ghosting" of the neural links in the suits communicators?
There is a debate to be had… but no one has it. The season presents both solutions as a kind of win, when surely it has to be one or the other.
With "Silence in the Library" being in all part the (long promised) "The Doctor's Wife", and following up "The Doctor's Daughter" the season is looking at family, but not just the conventional definitions of family. In fact it's going as far towards the most liberal and unconventional definitions of family that it can manage. It even pushes the Doctor's definitions; Donna repeated has to tell the Doctor that his daughter is his daughter but mainly because he dislikes her (built-in) philosophy. He is prejudiced. This is a flaw that we've seen in him before (blatantly, with Captain Jack). And it's one of the interesting features of the Doctor's character: he renounced the company of Time Lords but he still can't help thinking he's special because he is one. It's the same character trait that gets him into a lot of trouble on Midnight.
This, of course, is headed towards the Doctor's real family: his companions, as we see them in "Journey's End", all gathered around the TARDIS console, flying the Earth home, which, for all the flaws of the rest of the episode, is magnificent.
Before then, though, we have the episodes that really reward returning to watch again. There is a palpable sense of gathering darkness, coupled with a growing emphasis on mortality that builds powerfully towards the season close. After the solid Moffaty-ness of "Silence in the Library" has presented us with a Doctor who is invincible, indeed on the verge of becoming omnipotent, "Midnight" ripostes by showing us the Doctor at his most vulnerable and then "Turn Left" shows us a Doctor who is dead. On top of these, and the "Bad Wolf Warning" at the end of "Turn Left", "The Stolen Earth" feels like the stakes have never been higher.
And "The Stolen Earth" itself is a truly great episode that does not disappoint. In particular, the scene of the Doctor's companions combining their talents to call out to him through space and time is not just a brilliantly cheeky nod to Gerry Anderson's Century 21 but also a candidate for best moment of the year.
The competition is strong for that honour, though, with the "duelling soothsayers" scene from "The Fires of Pompeii", Sylvia Noble's depths of despair from "Turn Left" and about fifty-percent of "Midnight" all vying for the same title.
Unfortunately, the highest-rated episode of the year (both in viewing numbers and audience appreciation) goes more than a bit wrong. Yes, I suspect that I may be in a minority here.
Where last year "The Last of the Time Lords" skated across thin ice, teetering on the edge of ludicrous with the arch-angel-Doctor, it still managed to pull off a brilliant resolution, mainly through the talents of David Tennant and John Simm. This year, "Journey's End" belly flops over the edge into full on… such a bad word I can’t say it on Millennium’s diary!
There are really only two things wrong with "Journey's End": the beginning and the end. Which is a shame, because those are the important bits.
The Doctor starts to regenerate… and then decides he doesn't need to bother.
Donna evolves to her true potential… and then the Doctor erases everything that made her special and leaves essentially a different person living in her body.
In both cases, the episode promises to kill a major character and then chickens out of it, but does so in a way that leaves you feeling you rather wish they hadn't.
The regeneration-that-isn't just seems to make a mockery of all those time when the Doctor has "given up a life" because of mortal injury.
The worse point, and I made it at the time, is that it is simply not necessary. Cast anyone you like, anyone at all – David Morrissey, Nick Briggs even – and have a genuine eleventh Doctor who can then leave with Rose at the end of the story, thus completely fulfilling Rose's story with no uncertainties about her getting some kind of (excuse the pun) second-hand Doctor, while Tennant can continue as the lead with the added concern that may his Doctor can't regenerate, with the fan-pleasing flipside that maybe he can and has a whole new cycle of regenerations thus getting over that unfortunate thirteen bodies limit. (You might also argue that that sorts out the problem of Rose Tyler being the love of his life and River Song being the love of his life, without tedious recourse to real-life emotions being fickle and changeable especially over a life of centuries.)
But… but, but, but… could you have that radical a departure for the series? Would the fans not be screaming that they want to see the adventures of the "real" Doctor, not this fake? Well, having the lead character stay the same while replacing the lead actor seems to have become accepted practice; are we so ossified that we cannot consider changing the lead character but keeping the actor who plays him the same?
If all else fails, you've set yourself up for a story "The Doctor Returns" in a couple of years, when the original Time Lord, a hundred years older and after Rose has grown old and died, comes back.
The essence of drama is change. The reason, I suspect, that I forgive "The Last of the Time Lords" for its Doctor-as-Jesus architecture and its massive reset button is that the events still happen for all the people that matter. Martha and her family; the Doctor and the Master: they are all changed by the story and because they pay a price for the journey, the journey matters.
In contrast, for Donna it is not "Journey's End" but "Journey's Negation". All of those wonderful things she's seen and done, erased. So why should we even bother? To argue that those things have still happened, that the rest of the Earth knows about them is to miss the point: none of it is actually real; the "reality", the "truth" of the story has to lie in the journey of the person we are asked to follow, to invest our belief in. If that journey goes literally nowhere, then that leaves us feeling as though we have been subtly cheated, our investment was wasted.
Perversely, it's a reflection of the treatment of the Daleks. Once again, a huge Dalek army gets whipped up out of nowhere; once again they get completely annihilated. Whether it's Rose with the glowey eyes or the Doctor with the inter-dimensional vacuum-cleaner, or the second-hand Doctor with Davros's magic pinball machine, any sense of threat that the Daleks might have is wasted if you can wish up another "unstoppable" army with one wave of a hand, and then totally defeat them with another. We know that they'll be back sooner or later, so why sacrifice credibility with yet another Dalek Armageddon?
Somewhere, in some parallel world perhaps, there is a better version of "Journey's End": one that fulfils the expectations that have been built up by those incredible episodes that precede it and by that brilliant, unexpected cliff-hanger ending to "The Stolen Earth"; one that makes good on the dire promise of Dalek Caan's prophecy and costs the life of the "most faithful companion", whether that be Donna or Rose or the TARDIS; one that doesn't just revisit the endings of "Parting of the Ways" (all the Daleks die, but this thing in my head is killing me) and "Doomsday" (I wuv you but I have to leave you forever, does this Welsh beach look like Sweden?).
Without it, the 2008 season remains a work of flawed genius. Certainly a case of better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
One Time: "The Next Doctor"… or do I have that backwards?
*Regrettably, Millennium cannot write you an introduction as he has fallen into the power of an alien menace…