Season 30 Episode 1 – Partners In Crime, by Russell T. Davies

May 11, 2008

review by Martin Odoni.

So… seconds out, round 4!

Dr Who returns in the shape of Partners In Crime… and it’s a lukewarm start at best I’m afraid. There are some alterations to the format that I like. The modification to Murray Gold’s title track – first used in the Christmas episode – is definitely an improvement; the version that started with the Eccleston season always left me a bit cold, but the new version has more of an edge to it. Also, David Tennant has managed to go through a whole episode without needlessly pulling the crank in any real way at all, which is big kudos to him.

A welcome relief is that the incidental music was generally far subtler. That is, up until the inducer scene, when all the usual over-the-top material started up, trying to convince us that there’s something dreadfully scary about a lot of ankle-high waddling blobs of cholesterol.

To the story itself. Not awful, but the air of making up the plot as they go along remains pervasive. It really does feel like they wanted a bringing-together moment for the Doctor and Donna, and felt they should include a plot as an optional extra. There was a very similar feeling to School Reunion in retrospect, with Sarah Jane investigating alien weirdness on her own and running into the Doctor who ‘just happens’ to be investigating the same thing; there’s a strong feeling that the whole point of the episode is merely to bring them together, with the story tacked on simply to offer a backdrop.

On the subject of Sarah Jane, the plot is similar to the fizzy drinks story in The Sarah Jane Adventures, as is the guest villainess in some ways. It doesn’t really help. I quite liked the manner in which Sarah Lancashire’s character got her comeuppance at the end, mind, and the earnestness with which the Doctor tried to save her, showing that he’s finally rediscovered that he doesn’t always have to be ruthless or sanctimonious.

Catherine Tate does well in the first half of the episode, sounding more restrained and reflective than at any time in The Runaway Bride, which gave me some cause for hope at first, but from the moment she sees the Doctor she reverts to non-stop-screamer type and becomes exactly the monumental pain-in-the-neck I feared she will be. Please, Martin, be wrong!

On the subject of her meeting the Doctor, I’m afraid the scenes of them just missing each other are another of those tedious old comic routines that have been with us a long, long time, and that the series seems to love so much. I saw an almost identical routine in out-takes from Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie eleven years ago, and the joke already seemed pretty worn-out then. The bit with them sign-languaging to each other through the windows was slightly better, but it was still pretty tiresome and stupid.

The attempts at humour all the way through were lame in fact. About the only line that made me grin was, “Do yourself a favour… get out!” and even that’s not exactly Disraeli-class wit is it? But as ever when RTD is writing, the episode seems absolutely convinced it’s rib-rattlingly hilarious.

Bernard Cribbins was good as Donna’s Grandad. It’s not his first outing in Dr. Who, as he played a policemen in the 60’s movie, Dalek Invasion Of Earth 2150. And for all its twee-ness, I did rather enjoy the final scene with him seeing the tiny blue box of the TARDIS in the night sky through the telescope. I think the reason I liked it is that it draws the Doctor away from that in-story status of ‘celebdom’ and ‘messianism’ that he seems to have developed in recent times. Instead, he’s gone back to being one small, slightly obscure and bizarre figure in a vast universe again, which is what he should be really. A hero, yes, but not letting himself get dragged into the limelight.

This leads me onto a broader point about the episode, and indeed about new Who in general, and I think it has led me to realise what it is that keeps me from feeling love for the revived series.

It’s a problem most prevalent in episodes set on present-day Earth, like Rose, Aliens Of London, Love & Monsters, Army Of Ghosts, and Last Of The Time-Lords, and shows a reversal of perspective that doesn’t sit easily with me. Most of the time when setting a story in the modern world, classic Dr Who would give you the real world, and then introduce something alien and aggressive/insidious into it. There lay the terror, to see the world you know endangered by something from the very limits of imagination.

Unfortunately, at least when you-know-who is writing, the world and its population get turned into mere strange caricatures of what we know, behaving in a highly exaggerated and implausible manner, something that we don’t relate to with sympathy so much as mockery. (The worst example of this is the way the whole world just spontaneously and collectively ‘decided’ to fall in love with the apparitions in Army Of Ghosts.) It is no longer just the aliens that are unreal and dream-like. The Earth and its people are as well. When a world we see as utterly surreal is threatened by something else surreal, it just doesn’t inspire the same sense of dread.

A few observations of mild curiosity…

Parts of the episode were clearly filmed in the same place that The Runaway Bride was filmed, most obviously in the underground passage.

When DT does that toothy giggle, he doesn’t half sound like Frank Spencer.

Doesn’t Penny look like Martha Jones?! Between her and Rose’s utterly superfluous and (thankfully) wordless cameo, there seems to be a growing obsession with gratuitously nodding to the series’ own recent past. (This feeling is reinforced by recent announcements; John Barrowman and Elisabeth Sladen have revealed that they will be back, while Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri will be re-appearing as well.)

I will give a bonus point, more for the series as a whole than for this episode, for clearly ruling that there isn’t going to be another gushing love affair between the Doctor and his assistant, at least for now. It’s been a tiresome detail that’s really gotten in the way of many of the stories over the last couple of years, so I’m happy not to have to sit through a third round of it. But even here, it could’ve been handled better. The Doctor’s “I-just-want-a-mate” speech is yet another example of Russell T. Davies’ tell-don’t-show style of writing about emotions. He seems to insist on hitting the audience over the head from the word go with what he plans to do, as though he hopes it will reassure those of us who wanted the Doctor to get away from those kinds of relationships for a bit and just concentrate on exploring time and space. So now we know that there’s a change of approach in the offing, which is welcome, but it would sound a lot more natural if the stories simply progressed without any mention of that sort of thing at all.

So, all-in-all, the episode’s yet another clumsy, cack-handed bit of writing, and while it’s nowhere near as bad as Last Of The Time Lords or even Voyage Of The Damned, equally it’s not a start that brings much hope for the immediate future. However, next week’s sojourn to the Roman Empire – a la the excellent First Doctor story The Romans – looks a lot more enticing from the teaser, so I won’t judge yet.

Bottom line for this one… only 4/10, I fear. It’s not actually awful, but it’s very weak stuff.

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