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Doctor Who 4.5: The Poison Sky

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…?

3 Comments

The differences between Donna and Martha are nothing to do with "Freema's acting style" but everything to do with the writing as is shown by the example you gave of Donna hitting the Doctor. The writers did a massive disservice to Martha (and Freema) in S3. As for Donna, if you like stupidity being turned into a virtue, then so be it. Give me the beauty, class and intelligence of Martha over the gurning and oh, yes, I have got three fingers any day!

Re: HD- I agree- the characterisation and dialogue for Martha (and especially the Martha clone) were at their worst in this 2-parter. I think the writers are becoming confused as to where Martha stands. Is she an independent and authoritative member of UNIT or (suddenly) a Damsel in Distress, always waiting for the Doctor to untie her from the railroad tracks? While she needed rescuing very few times in S3 (and did more than her fair share of saving others) she has been helpless in almost every episode of Torchwood and DW S4. So much for having matured since leaving the Doctor if she keeps recklessly getting captured.
The script also seems eager to push the fact that she is engaged to a character the audience are unlikely to have any emotional attachment to (he made an appearance in one episode of S3, which was too busy with the Master's antics to reveal much about minor characters).
I think Freema can be a most wonderfully moving actress- among the best Who has to offer- but also inexperienced and probably unable to cover up writing flaws as I SUPPOSE some actors can. Anyway, I love Martha which is why I do hope she'll have a greater role to play in events from now on- or at least better lines.
(although unlike you, it seems, I enjoy the beautiful Donna too- she brings something new and interesting to the role- unfettered violence and all.)

I remember the Soltarans first time round...having watched every single episode of Dr Who as they were transmitted on BBC1. (plus repeats and videos..) I used to love UNIT and Jon Pertwee but I have to admit that I am now a complete DT convert - he is just brilliant. The sonic screwdriver is a wonderful invention put to fantastic effect thanks to digital magic. The series has always been great and it's fun to imagine how the previous Doctors would compare if they had had the benefits of modern special effects.

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