DOCTOR WHO Season 4 DVD Review

     November 7, 2008

Written by Anna Kaufman

Watching the fourth season of Russell T. Davies’ 2005 Doctor Who reboot, I am reminded of that old nursery rhyme about the girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead: when it is good, it is very, very good; but when it is bad, it is horrid.

Rarely has a show had the ability to evoke such spasms of geeky joy one minute yet produce immense cringe-inducing pain the next. Take the third season’s three-episode finale, which began with the glorious return of the Master (John Simm), and ended with the Doctor (David Tennant) becoming…a glowy floating Tinkerbell? I think my internal quality sensors may still have whiplash.

The fourth season’s arrival on DVD offers an opportunity for the series to regenerate. After a brief interlude alongside Kylie Minogue in the ho-hum Christmas Special, “Voyage of the Damned,” the Doctor reunites with bubbly temp Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) from 2006’s Xmas offering, “The Runaway Bride.” I’ll admit to having been skeptical at the idea of Donna’s return, as when she played the bride, I found her rather shrill and annoying; also—full disclosure—in the Companion Wars, I’m an unabashed Martha (Freema Agyeman) fan, still depressed at her departure. Still, as the Doctor, Tennant’s manic enthusiasm can be catching. I was totally ready to let the TARDIS carry me away again.

The first episode of the season proper was not encouraging, however. “Partners in Crime” is possibly the series’ stupidest outing so far, featuring gullible fat people dissolving into little animated marshmallow creatures as part of an alien plot to…I don’t know, make that Tinkerbell thing seem way less dumb?

From there, there’s not really anywhere to go but up, and the next couple of episodes are better, if still at the horrid/curl end of the spectrum. Biased as I am, I was particularly excited to see Martha return in episode four, “The Sontaran Stratagem”; however, much as in her Torchwood guest stint, they pretty much just strap her to a table and forget about her. No wonder Agyeman opted to leave the franchise in order to star in the upcoming Law & Order: London—faced with a choice between playing the victim or fighting crime alongside Jamie Bamber, who wouldn’t choose a bit of ass-kicking with Apollo?

Things do improve in the later episodes. Steven Moffat can once again be counted on to produce one of the most interesting stories of the season; I can’t say I’m not looking forward to his takeover of the series in 2010. While not a match for Moffat’s own first season two parter, “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” this twofer, “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” plays with time travel as a concept better than any episode since last year’s “Blink” (also by Moffat, natch). The latter half also finally offers Donna her first decent storyline. Once she was given more to do besides run and scream, the character really began to grow on me. (Just in time for her to leave the show, of course.)

Then, after—finally!—a decent stand-alone (“Midnight”), the season culminates in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink finale, which I think the less said about the better. Simply put, there are several polarizing moments, ones likely not only to divide fans into rabid pro- and con- camps, but that may give even individual viewers a case of multiple personality disorder. (“Self, did they just…?” “Why yes, self, they did.” “That is SO COOL!” “Uh, yeah…if by ‘cool’ you mean stupid.”)

While the season itself is all over the place, the DVD set at least attempts to add a bit of polish. It boasts some of the better animated menus I’ve seen in a while—though again I may be biased in that I’m of the opinion that almost anything to do with the TARDIS is really frickin’ cool. (“Why self, my TARDIS tea cozy and I agree with you!”) There are also a fair amount of extras, including lots of deleted scenes, a long series retrospective, and two likewise lengthy excerpts from Tennant’s video diary. How much you actually enjoy these extras is probably a pretty good test of whether or not you’re a “true fan.” Spoiler alert: I totally failed, but let me give you an example anyway. The first video diary mostly involves Tennant getting stuck in traffic. I suppose there’s some meta-humor to be had in the idea of the Doctor, who can manipulate time and space, being stymied by a traffic jam, and of course listening to Tennant’s natural Scottish accent is always a delight, but I find that getting stuck in traffic with an actor isn’t actually terribly more exciting than being stuck in traffic with your iPod, or a box of Cheez-It, or your cousin Bob. Sometimes less is more, guys.

However, a different cliché may just work in the series’ favor, as besides five special episodes airing at the end of 2008 and throughout 2009, there won’t be a new season of Doctor Who until Moffat takes over in 2010; already, I can feel the show’s absence making my heart grow fonder. And I am genuinely excited for season five. Not only do I think Moffat’s the man, I have a theory: it’s Doctor Who’s even-numbered seasons that suffer from girl-with-a-curl horridness, while its odd efforts pretty much rock. (If you can think of a way the even-numbered duds can be blamed on bunnies, please let me know; it’s the only thing I can think of that’d make this theory even more scientifically sound.) Five’s an odd number, so start laying down bets in its favor now. The Doctor may be over 900 years old, but I still say he’s got a lot of life left.


Doctor Who Season 4: C+

Extras: Depends on your “true fan” status; with my own F in that category, I’d give ‘em a B for Boring

DVD Set: B-

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