|The Doctor learns first-hand what Daft Punk mean by “get|
It’s March 31st, 2007. At last, the great leap forward. The Proclaimers with Brian Potter and Andy Pipkin are at number one with “(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles,” presumably much to David Tennant’s delight. Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani (and Akon), Fray, Sugababes vs Girls Aloud, Take That, and Fergie (with Ludacris) also chart. In news, the iPhone was announced, Jade Goody got embroiled in the racism controversy that was briefly what she was best known for, and actually not much more happened.
On television it’s Smith and Jones. On one level, this is a straightforward bit of television. It has a job to do, and it gets on with it. That job is to properly relaunch Doctor Who without Rose Tyler, and to introduce Martha Jones. This is done in the context of a story that is clever enough to provide some solid images and moments, but nevertheless firmly in the realm of what feels like traditional Doctor Who. (Though it’s worth talking briefly about those solid images and moments – Davies apparently spent a lot of effort on doing the best running through corridors sequence to date, and on portraying proper panic for the first time. I mention this because it’s such an utterly idiosyncratic pair of things to focus on, especially in an episode that already has so much heavy lifting to do, and seems to me to speak volumes about how Davies works as a creative figure.)
At the heart of all of this is the idea of Martha, which is, of course, also at the heart of one of Doctor Who’s great Problem Seasons. We talked back in The Runaway Bride about how the major split within the Davies era is Rose and Donna. Certainly this appears to be true in terms of the British public, and, for that matter, within the Davies era itself – it’s telling that Martha is the only Davies-era companion to, in The End of Time, get squared away alongside another companion, and that she’s separated from the Big Two at the end. Martha, in most regards, seems the forgotten companion – the one that didn’t quite work. That’s not to say she doesn’t have her fans and admirers, nor that those fans are wrong. But they are swimming against the tide, and the show itself contributes to that tide.
There are many reasons for Martha’s falling short. For one thing, she’s hobbled from her first appearance by virtue of the fact that the show defines her as Not-Rose. There’s not really a way back from this within the confines of what the show can do. Nor, however, was there necessarily a way to avoid it. The importance of Rose Tyler within the show’s cultural mythology is hard to overstate. Her absence was necessarily part of the story, and this was unavoidable. This is not, to be clear, some judgment about Rose as a companion – rather it’s a judgment about the cultural narrative of Doctor Who, which relaunched in 2005 in a high profile version headlined by Billie Piper as the new companion. This was different from Eccleston, who may have been more respected, but who was also considerably less famous, and, more to the point, was replaced only as an actor, not as a character. Rose Tyler was the officially sanctioned audience lens into Doctor Who as a show. Changing that lens matters.
Because Martha isn’t the lens into this story – at least, not entirely. Yes, the story starts from her perspective, but there’s not the slow prying into the nature of what Doctor Who is that characterized Rose. In many ways it’s right there in the title – this one isn’t Martha. It’s Smith and Jones, with her providing only half of the weight. Much more of the episode is spent with us watching the Doctor weigh and judge her, slowly deciding that she’s up to snuff. This is a different approach, and it leaves Martha extrinsic to Doctor Who in a way that Rose wasn’t initially set up to be (even if, in practice, she was).
Put another way, Martha has to be “the latest companion” where Rose got to be “the companion.” Which is a fundamentally different position to start from. And it explains why Martha’s debut episode is more about stressing familiarity and being standard Doctor Who that nevertheless has some things we’ve never seen before. I earlier mentioned that Davies focused idiosyncratically on running and panic in this episode; while that is idiosyncratic, it’s also telling. The overall message surrounding Martha’s arrival is “it’s OK, nothing major has changed, and we’re focused on other things.”
But implicit in all of this is the hubris that has formed the backbone of the Tennant era. From the start the era was about the fact that Doctor Who went from a show that commented on the rest of television to being the biggest thing on television. In many ways the decision to carry on as though nothing has changed is both consistent with this and emblematic of it. At this point in the show’s life the key fact is that it’s Doctor Who, not who’s in it. This, however, is a problem for the series, or, at least, it has historically not been a good thing when this is true about the series. The memory of the early 1980s, when the show came to uncritically embrace its own myth as its primary reason for existing, was still fresh in plenty of people’s minds. The series is still, in a real sense, about its cancellation. (Even today, the 50th Anniversary seems likely to be in part about that.)
And there’s an easy way to argue the season as being about that hubris. In which case things like the Doctor’s relative obliviousness to Martha (and even though the unrequited love plot doesn’t quite start here, his shutting down of Martha’s flirtation already starts in that direction) become deliberate setting up of the idea that the series is wrong to treat itself as an intrinsic moral good. Certainly this seems to be what the Tennant era ultimately resolves to being about.
But there’s a double bind here that it’s impossible to disentangle. To suggest that the show’s hubris plays into any specific idiosyncrasy or, particularly, a bit of flawed television strains credulity. Season Three is not deliberately hobbled to make a point about the hubris of Doctor Who. This is not necessarily a problem – we made an argument along these lines for Season Twenty-Two, concluding that its flaws amounted to an exorcism of Doctor Who’s accumulated problems over the preceding few years.
But with the Tennant era we have something stranger. The theme of hubris is present in the Tennant era from the start, and, more to the point, at the end. The era invites this sort of critique in a very active way. And yet there’s something difficult about deciding outright to read Martha Jones that way. There’s a blurring between the series’ internal narrative and its meta-narrative that declines to quite reconcile sharply.
This is, in many ways, the peculiar alchemy of the Davies era in particular; its popular reception and its actual contents become, after a point, impossible to disentangle. The ways in which Martha is the companion that didn’t quite work are seemingly written in her origins. This is, however, a cruel irony, particularly considering Martha herself as a character.
Because in the end, there was some real effort put into Martha. One of the most unremarked upon aspects of Smith and Jones is the ruthless efficiency with which Martha gets an entire family life sketched out. The opening sequence of her rapidly switching among phone calls from her family conveys a lot of information very quickly, and makes useful sketches of all five characters. No, Martha’s family never acquires anything like the depth of Jackie or Mickey, but it’s not for lack of trying up front.
Also notable is the way in which Martha notices fundamentally different things to what Rose would notice. Her focus on the oxygen reveals a big-picture pragmatism; Rose might have thought of the question, but the specific consequence of the force field keeping the oxygen in is something just a bit different from what she usually picks up on. Similarly, Martha working out the Doctor’s scheme and scanning the plasmavore is a different sort of cleverness from Rose. Martha follows along the Doctor’s line of thought, just a little slower than he does. Rose, on the other hand, is initially introduced as someone who thinks differently than the Doctor does, and whose value is that she’s connected to a fundamentally different sort of narrative than Doctor Who.
This is significant. Martha is not from EastPowellStreet or any comparable show; she is from Doctor Who, to the point of being a trainee doctor herself. She’s designed to be a successful Doctor Who companion, as opposed to being the audience’s lens on proceedings. For all that it doesn’t quite work out for her, this is laudable in its own way. There is a real sense in which Martha ought, in an aesthetic and even ethical sense (inasmuch as those are distinct), be our favorite companion. She is the one designed to be the best and most capable. From her first appearance, she’s good at being a companion. There’s an important narrative to why that fails, but it’s worth allowing for the narrative where it succeeds, and where the smartest and most capable of new series companions is praised for that fact.
We have all season for Martha, so let’s look at what else we have here. The second season premiere in a row to start in a hospital, and one of (at a quick count) eight new series stories to focus on hospitals or medical technology. This is quite a spate – the series averages more than one a year. Tat Wood has a lovely bit in the About Time entry on New Earth on the way in which health care has become one of the defining fears of the 21st century. While Smith and Jones doesn’t particularly focus on health care, the fact that it features a reasonably idyllic looking British hospital overrun by (literally) hard-nosed grunts. The perennial Davies issue of British/American relations is on display here in full force, in other words.
Speaking of the Judoon, we have another attempt at monsters-who-aren’t-monsters. It’s going too far to suggest that this is the norm for the new series (which has, after all, created plenty of monsters that are monsters), but it is interesting that the non-CGI monsters – i.e. the ones designed to be cheaply reused – have generally been the ones to get some level of complexity beyond “they’re evil!” The setup of people caught between a single villain and a bunch of aliens who are just being callous in trying to catch said villain is clever, and the continued focus on something more interesting than Planet of the Evil People is deeply appreciable.
And then there’s the guest cast, with the divinely good Roy Marsden (Neil Burnside in The Sandbaggers, the greatest spy show ever made) absolutely sparkling in a bit part, and Anne Reid (Nurse Crane in The Curse of Fenric, as well as roles important to non-anoraks) as a rather alarmingly delightful villain. And, of course, the panic and running, which actually are quite well-done. This is a perfectly strong season premiere, well-tailored towards being enjoyed by people who like Doctor Who. For all that there are underlying issues around the series’ embrace of its own charms, it’s also true that the series has plenty of them, and that as an episode of television, this is perfectly serviceable. Doctor Who has survived yet another reinvention, and one of the bigger ones in its history. It may be running at slightly lower than peak strength, but Doctor Who at 80-90% of what it can do is still formidable and fascinating. There is already a giddy thrill in being back.