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Sunday, 27 May 2007 - Reviewed by Tony Leith

The best of the season so far easily in my view. Not that the rest have been bad -- even the episodes I would count as outright failures, namely the Dalek two parter, have been honourable ones, failing through an excess of ambition rather than a lack of it. I didn't read Paul Cornell's source novel, so the material was new to me. It's the first story this season which has had anything like the impact of 'The Girl in the Fireplace', say, which while managing to stay true to the spirit of the show took genuine risks with its storytelling and pushed the format envelope. My general observation of this season is that while it has generally been more consistent than Tennant's first, in that none of the episodes have been actually boring (sorry, but wasn't anybody else stifling yawns through fillers like 'The Idiot's Lantern' and -- worse even than that -- 'Fear her'), it's lacked the standouts like 'Dalek', Steven Moffat's two stories, or 'The Impossible Planet' two parter from the first two series. Here's hoping the second part doesn't degenerate into much shrieking, running, and blasting with ray guns. The Russell T Davies template for upping the ante in terms of dramatic tension does seem to rely heavily on subjecting the actors to bursts of aerobic exercise, and Russell, it isn't actually intrinsically much more interesting if they're being required to scamper up and down ladders as opposed to running along corridors. I am hopeful that the story won't fall into that particular pit.

I personally don't mind that we're suddenly introduced to a previously unmentioned and entirely unexplained piece of Gallifreyan kit as the central 'McGuffin' of the story. The later iterations of 'Star Trek' got more insufferable the more pains they took to detail the pseudoscience behind their plot contortions; I for one am willing to grant that if you can swallow the time travelling police box and regenerating protagonist, cavilling at the 'Cameleon Arch' is bit pointless. It serves to put the story, and the Doctor, into a very interesting place dramatically, experiencing the 'one adventure I can never have -- living an ordinary life, day after day'. Of course, John Smith isn't really the Doctor, and this episode has really allowed David Tennant to show off (but not in any ostentatious showboating sense) what a fine actor he really is. John Smith does come across as a distinct personality from the Doctor, with his own charm as well as more diffidence and reticence, and odd patches of abstraction where it is evident he's aware that there's something crucial missing. Tennant looks like he's enjoying himself ( 'Permission to beat him, sir?', pause and then an indifferent and somewhat distracted 'Yes'), not least in the beautifully underplayed and very English romantic scenes with Jessica Hynes.

Freema Ageyman also does some sterling and unselfish work in terms of carrying the narrative burden of the story -- she's the audience's eyes and ears, she's the lynchpin from the familiar (early 21st century Earth, the Tardis, gambolling merrily through time and space) to the truly alien (Edwardian England). If some 'source' at the BBC has been shooting their mouth off about Ms. Ageyman's future -- 'lovely girl, but not quite right for Doctor Who' (why? Too 'urban'?) -- I hope a) this is bollocks and b) a hefty boot is applied firmly to his/her arse at the earliest opportunity. Martha has the potential to be a much more interesting companion than Rose, as long as the writing doesn't shove her in the direction of 'unrequited lurve'. For god's sake, she's hanging out with a 900 year old alien who can take her anywhere in time and space, don't trivialize her or the situation by turning it into an adolescent crush. The X files has a lot to answer for, if you ask me?unresolved sexual tension has its place, but not all powerful attractions are sexual.

Other strengths of the episode -- the aforementioned Jessica Hynes, who in quite limited screen time managed to create a very well realised portrayal of a woman of that era, but knowing what she wants and the terms on which she wants to get it (Mr. Smith never stood a chance..). The evocation of time and place was also very well judged, the schoolboy machine gun crew a chilling reminder of what was about to befall that generation. It would be interesting to see this production team tackle a genuine historical piece i.e sans disembodied gibbering beasties, werewolves, time travelling andriods etc. etc. They've been able to smuggle a surprising amount of actual historical information in via period detail, but having the drama turning on engagement with a given historical situation or character would be something new for this generation of viewers. Granted this would be a risk, but risk taking should be what this show is all about. Our antagonists were also satisfyingly creepy, and refreshingly ready to shoot first and ask questions afterward without offering a preliminary explanation of their dastardly plot. Scarecrows seemed a bit redundant, but I can see the playground potential of imitating their ungainly lollop.

All in all, the episode was quintessentially what Doctor Who should be about -- demanding a bit more of its audience than the general run of mass enterainment television, but offering a bit more in return. What I just said about risk is central to the appeal of the show for me. Your average episode of something like 'Casualty' for example, well made though it might be, operates within pretty well defined parameters. By and large, I think that's probably how the viewing public like it -- you know what you can expect. Dr Who isn't -- or shouldn't -- be like that. The original producers of the show initially took viewers from the comforting familiarity of a fog bound London to a Paleolithic moorland, and from there to a petrified forest on an alien planet. It's not likely that this would elicit a shrug, a lunge for the off button maybe, but not a shrug. I hope the production team continue to be willing to take chances of the same order. Sometimes they won't pay off, but when they do, they'll create stories that will live in the imagination of a generation. More important, they'll enlarge the imagination of a generation. Now, that's public service broadcasting.