Every now and then, an episode leaves such an impression on me that I feel duty bound to sing its praises as loudly as possible from the rooftops. The first such story was Father's Day from series 1, and Paul Cornell's latest offering has my vocal chords at full stretch once more.
If there has ever been 90 minutes of television which has so vividly portrayed such a wide spectrum of emotion - horror, poignancy, drama, romance - then I'd be very much surprised. Once again the makers of the series have shown that there is so much more to this show than monsters and comedy, and once again the detractors of the show, many of whom bizarrely seem to spend an awful lot of their time on online Who forums and writing reviews for this website, are shown to be silly and foolish. There is simply no argument that after nearly 3 seasons, the show is still pushing boundaries and daring to approach subject matter that would never have suited, or been braved by, the classic series, let alone anything else on TV.
The First World War is of course such a special and heartrending time in the history of the world and this country in particular, and the period lends itself very easilly to drama. Even a show which on the surface was very fluffy and juvenile like Blackadder Goes Forth, spoke volumes in its final seconds, as the show's main characters went over the top to almost certain death, and here the horror of the impending cataclysm is captured at times very subtly, at times very graphically, but always with the beautiful finesse of a master scriptwriter. Whether the horrific scene with the massacre of the scarecrows - and that phrase simply can't capture the power of this scene - which so brutally and vividly portrayed the sheer horror that the young boys of this era would all soon be enduring - or the final moments at the war memorial, heartrending and touching without any schmaltz - this was as powerful a comment on the horrors of the Great War, and war in general, as there could be, and I'd like to think a few familial discussions followed on from this, with children's curiosity pricked.
Against this wider picture was a more intimate theme, that of the nature of both human and Time Lord. This is, of course, a theme which the RTD series has constantly looked at - an approach which has given the Doctor a depth and raison d'etre which was never present in the classic series. Much as a great film maker like Tim Burton would take an established character such as Batman and completely explore his psychology and certain loss of humanity, so RTD and writers have totally reinvisaged the Doctor by a) making him the last of his kind (...?) and b) completely exploring the mind of an eternal wanderer through time and space. While investigated reasonably frequently, this motif was able to be pushed to the forefront of the entire story by the idea of the Doctor losing his Gallifreyan self and becoming human, and it seems in retrospect that Paul Cornell's original book was completely destined to be adapted at some point by the current production team. And in so doing, the heartbreaking reality of the Doctor's eternal plight was painted as beautifully as it has ever been possible to do. While the basic idea of the story was almost paper-thin, and the technology to change the Doctor's entire biology a very handy plot device, these ideas are only there to set up a situation, and the beauty of the script is in the reaction of the main protagonists to this situation. With this in mind I would say that Paul Cornell has written a pretty much flawless script which probably even outshines The Empty Child - a scenario I would hardly think possible as that story was til now the absolute pinnacle of the sereis in my mind.
The BAFTA word was mentioned in the Radio Times coverage of this episode, and while it can be easy to get carried away with these things, it's hard not to feel that there is much justification here, from the beautifully flowing script to the fantastic production. Charles Palmer really has impressed me with his efforts this season, and here while the more eye-catching scenes such as the aforementioned slo-mo scarecrow massacre will probably draw most attention, the fabulous performances of the actors and gorgeous use of locations show that he is a director at the top of his game. With only a couple of exceptions, the RTD series has constantly found directors who are not only inventive and hugely capable, but who so obviously understand the whole feel of the show. James Strong, Joe Ahearne and James Hawes have been the frontrunners but Charles Palmer, with this story, can be added to the list.
The scarecrows - well, as with the Reapers in Father's Day, they are almost an irrelevent addition to the story, yet they are given some fantastic moments - the snatching of the girl with the balloon being the most nightmare-inducing i would say. As such, despite the fact they could easily not have featured, they add a horror to the story which I'm sure will make it a story that all children who watched it will remember vivdly into adulthood. Again, monster design and realisation has been of the highest order, in this series 3 perhaps more than ever.
The acting of all and sundry was of the highest order - Freema Agyeman has had tough shoes to fill, and in general I do feel there is a slightly less emotional attachment to martha's character - this is no criticism of Freema, but Rose and family were so solidly characterised over the last 2 seasons that inevitably that whole backstory is missed. However, as many fans were quick to point out, Rose's character did become irksome at times last series, although her eventual exit was one of the most touching and heartwrenching moments of British TV history. Martha has been instantly likeable, and here, as in 42, her character has started to flesh out nicely, and it perhaps adds a nice variety that her family have taken much more of a back seat this season than the Tyler clan did. Freema herself continues to impress, and I'm quite prepared to expect that she'll become the second-best companion of all-time (behind Billie's Rose of course!) Added to this was a beautiful performance from Jessica Hynes, who I have long admired but did I ever expect her to deliver such a powerful and well-judged performance as this? Her final scene with the Doctor, and scathing banishment of him, was a magical moment of TV drama.
And finally.....now, who's my favourite Doctor? No question. Tom Baker was MY Doctor, through my teenage years, he became the Doctor, a magical iconic figure, instantly recognisable, totally loved.....and yet....nostalgia is a funny old thing and hard to shake off, but with this performance, David Tennant has knocked the socks off everything that's come before. This is, quite simply, the Greatest Performance ever from a Doctor (though you could argue of course that the most powerful moments were not played as the Doctor, but as John Smith). Tennant is simply mind-boggling, especially in his final angst as he knows he must choose between sacrifice and destroying the Family. The scene where his never-to-be-lived future is played out left me with more than a tear in my eye, and his verstaility was so in evidence when changing in a second from Smith to the Doctor - it really wasn't just a matter of a different accent. David Tennant truly has now delivered the ultimate performance in the show's title role, and if he isn't at least nominated for the aforementioned BAFTA, it is purely and simply snobbery against the show. Nuff said.
So, the best Dr Who episodes ever? Hard to say when there is such a long and rich history and diversity to choose from, but very possibly, and in many ways undoubtedly. The intensity which I've felt has been slightly lacking this series - though hugely entertaining and wonderful in so many ways - has materialised with a vengeance here. Well done to absolutely everybody involved, and with all the recent press speculation, let's hope that all those involved continue to have a long and productive future in this, the absolute jewel in British TV's crown.