And so it’s back. From outer space. Well, the moon at any rate.
The first episode of the new series of Doctor Who introduces medical student Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) - a level-headed character who, when thrown in to unusual situations, takes a deep breath and gets on with things — but still has time to marvel at what she sees as she goes.
And there’s a lot for her to take in. Her hospital gets transported to the moon (in a comparatively poor transition with a thunderclap that sounds like it comes straight from a stock sound effects LP from the 1970s). It’s invaded by a platoon of Judoon, rhino-like policemen-for-hire looking for a vampiric plasmavore, who herself has two leather bikers to do her dirty work.
As with last year’s series opener, New Earth — also written by Russell T Davies and also set in a hospital — the science-fiction element of the story doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. An MRI scanner, capable of being tweaked to kill everything within 250,000 miles? On an NHS budget? (Seriously though, it could kill everything on Earth — even from the moon — but Anne Reid plans to escape by hiding behind a screen?)
Also in common with last year’s episode, though, the sci-fi is secondary to character development — in particular, how a new Doctor-companion team works together. And there are lods of great character moments for both. We get to see that Martha is analytical, methodical, but caring — pausing to give Roy Marsden’s dead consultant what little dignity she can. And Agyeman proves that she’s up to the job, thus far at least.
She’s certainly more than capable of acting the straight man to David Tennant’s Doctor — on top form here, serious and intense when needed, but superbly comedic when allowed. A lot of tips and winks to the series’ conceits (sonic screwdriver, two hearts, “bigger on the inside”) in ways that acknowledge the inherent lunacy, then quite rightly move on to the next excitement.
The weakest part of the episode is Martha’s family. Maybe it’s because we don’t see enough of them, but what is on view is little more than a sitcom caricature. This seems especially odd, because family relationships are one of the strongest aspects of Davies’ writing. Still, the same could have been said of Jackie Tyler and Mickey at the start of the first series — by the time they left at the end of the second, the prospect of never seeing them again was a huge blow.
Which brings me to the episode’s biggest strength. Freema may have proved herself capable to be the new companion, but she has big shoes to fill. And it’s to the series’ credit that it openly acknowledges the Rose-shaped hole and makes it a virtue. By doing that, it helps set up what should be an interesting series. Bring it on!