As various Doctor Who forums go into a paranoid meltdown as the ratings for this weekend’s episode fell to 5.9 million, the rest of us get on with enjoying what was another fast and fun episode. So what if the ratings have slipped a little - it was still the second most watched TV programme of the day with an audience share of well over 30 per cent. Most dramas would kill for figures like that, and let’s face it, Doctor Who is not going to pull 14 million viewers every week - and it was a Bank Holiday, so let’s not count the Doctor out just yet, shall we?
Last week, we left the Doctor in a painfully atmospheric wide shot as the Sontarans got down to business with their plan to gas the planet - for reasons that we don’t yet know. Granddad Wilf was trapped in his car, choking to death, with the Doctor unable to free him because it was “deadlocked”, the cure all solution to the sonic screwdriver. As one, the audience screamed “Smash the window!”, and obligingly, Donna’s mum did. I can’t tell if this was genius or just silly. It was the obvious thing to do, but Doctor Who rarely stoops to the obvious.
As last week, The Poison Sky carries on in speedy and furious style. The Sontarans stomp around a lot talking about the honour of battle, the Doctor shouts at anybody who raises a gun or a salute to him, Martha tries to be evil and Donna sits in the TARDIS. It’s hard to add anything further to last week’s review, being as it is the second part of the same story.
The Poison Sky is big on action and wit, and that’s all to the good. Doctor Who can, throughout the course of a season, be all things to all people. If anything, there’s so much going on that every now and then, it threatens to overbalance the entire enterprise. Thankfully, Helen Raynor’s script manages to keep everything together, and it’s no mean feat to juggle everything the story requires.
If anything, the Sontarans don’t come off all that well - Christopher Ryan, brilliant as General Staal, is reduced to stomping around the bridge of his spaceship. He’s very arch, fantastically so, but he could do with something a bit meatier to get his teeth into. Things improve when he receives visits from uber-nerd Rattigan, and the Doctor phones him for a screen-to-screen face off, but I wanted more of Tennant and Ryan going toe to toe in person a bit more. And as for the Sontarans’ supposed military might - well, as soon as UNIT got the ability to fire their guns again, the bad guys went down a little too easily. A disappointing fate for an entertaining monster.
While the script is strong, the most disappointing aspect of the The Poison Sky is the direction. Douglas Mackinnon handles interplay between the actors well, bringing out the wit of Raynor’s script, but things turn decidedly limp when we get to marching Sontarans and gun battles. The Sontarans are supposed to be a military force to be reckoned with, but they stomp around a bit half-heartedly when the battle for the factory kicks off. One thing that Doctor Who has done well is monster choreography, but in these sequences it doesn’t come off as well as in previous episodes. Shame, as they look fantastic, but the camera just can’t seem to keep with them.
But with both episodes, any quibbles have to be minor as they are just so enjoyable. I’ve become quite fond of the modern UNIT, the military organisation that appeared to great effect in 1970s Doctor Who. Their use here is perhaps the most successful element of The Poison Sky. There’s something that hits the fan gene when the Doctor is working with the military - there’s something so brilliantly Doctor Whoey about these scenes. I’m not quite sure about elements like the Valiant, the improbable UNIT heli-platform seen at the climax of last season. Still, there’s something quite exciting about seeing this Gerry Anderson-esque piece of hardware dropping out of the sky and opening a can of whup ass on the Sontarans. UNIT certainly has come away from being four soldiers crammed into the back of an Edwardian roadster called Bessie.
The biggest question about The Poison Sky is: how do the companions fare? On the one hand we’ve got relative new girl Catherine Tate as Donna, still getting to grips with this new world she has found herself in. On the other, old hand Freema Agyeman guest-starring as Martha Jones. It’s difficult to judge as Agyeman is playing an evil clone of Martha for much of the run time, while Donna is stuck in the TARDIS waiting for the Doctor to phone and tell her what to do.
I love Martha whole heartedly, always have, but there’s something about Tate’s performance that shows up the weaknesses in Freema Agyeman’s acting style. She is still cracking, but Tate has layered Donna with great skill that makes you consider Martha in a different light. Donna feels much more solid and real than any companion we’ve previously had, with the possible exception of Sarah back in her prime. And I include Rose in that list, who I always thought was a touch overrated. Aside from the odd bit of gurning, Donna is just brilliant, never more so in her reaction to the Doctor’s near death. When did we ever see a companion hitting him because she’s so angry he nearly left her? It saddens me to see Martha coming off as second among equals, but that’s progress for you.
The Poison Sky, like its predecessor, is never going to win any awards for depth, but it’s big on ideas and spectacle. It gives a respectful nod to the lengthy history of Doctor Who, successfully (more or less) updates a classic series monster, develops Donna further and has a cracking two-fingered salute climax to the Sontarans’ military posturing. I certainly liked it, even with reservations about some directorial choices, and with the season now up to speed, I’m looking forward to next week’s controversially titled The Doctor’s Daughter.
Oh, and was that Rose I spied peering out of that monitor screen…?