Saturday, 24 May 2014

Smith and Jones written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Charles Palmer

This story in a nutshell: Martha Jones finds herself on the Moon...

Mockney Dude: David Tennant has enjoyed an inconsistent but sporadically very good first year in the role, survived the loss of Billie Piper and a tongue lashing from Catherine Tate and is now ready to start a season solo. He just feels more confident in the role and seasons three and four would go on to see him at his magnetic best. Turning up in a hospital bed as a mad patient who dribbles on charismatically and winks at Martha when she detects his double heartbeat, he makes an instant impression this year. You can see precisely why Martha is so seduced by him in his spanking new blue suit and with his answers for everything, leaping around kicking radiation out of his shoe and pressing lips to pass on a genetic signature. There really isn’t a great difference between his squeaky voiced prattling postman performance and the Doctor we travelled with in the entire previous season which makes this con all the more delicious to watch. He’s a clever bastard in allowing Florence to drink his blood to contaminate her and prove to the Judoon that she is an alien and arrest her. The trick with the tie and the TARDIS really made me smile. The Doctor can barely bring himself to talk about Rose because the events of Doomsday clearly still haunt him. Watch how the final scene plays out with the Doctor sweeping in and taking Martha away from all of her troubles, I can't determine whether it is played like a best friend seducing a troubled soul away from her life for a while or that of a man who is actively seducing a woman with his lifestyle. Martha clearly thought it was the latter. 

Daring Doctor: If people thought that Donna had a hard job to perform coming after the unbelievably popular Tyler clan than Martha’s role was even more vital. To be the first long term companion to travel with the Doctor after Rose means that she had some big shoes to fill. It’s the oddest thing with Freema Agyeman because I know people who think she is the best thing since sliced bread and others who condemn her to companion hell. My friend Emma can barely bring herself to mention Martha’s name she dislikes the character so much. I have to say (as is often the case I hope) that I fall very much in the favourable category. Whilst I wouldn’t declare Agyeman the finest actress that walked the Earth (both Piper and certainly Tate were stronger dramatic actresses) there is a charisma and energy that she brings to the role that is extremely watchable and given the path she goes down across season three I find it impossible not to like this girl. Because the Doctor spends the entire year mooning over his last companion there are times that he barely notices that he has paired up with somebody even more resourceful and fun. That is the tragedy of this relationship, he doesn’t realise it until it is too late and she has fallen too much for him to stay. Its one of the very few Doctor/companion relationships that never falls into a steady groove (unlike Rose who enjoys an entire second season and Donna who hits her comfort stride by the third episode of season four) and constantly wrong foots the audience. For her initial run Martha is treated as a child who is allowed ‘just one more treat’ trips in the TARDIS. Then once that is put to rest (and come The Lazarus Experiment it is more than time for her to stand up to him) there are three episodes where they are either torn apart by circumstances (Human Nature) or barely feature (Blink). Then it is time to wrap up this relationship in a three-part epic that sees Martha grow up and realise that her unrequited feelings for the Doctor aren’t healthy and she needs to move on to somebody who can reciprocate them. Which leaves 42 as the only story this season where Martha can claim to be a willing and able companion of the Doctor with no fear of being dumped at any minute. People say that there is no chemistry between Tennant and Agyeman but clearly that is nonsense. I rather think they might be confusing the strained and nuanced relationship between the Doctor and Martha for a lack of sparkle but with so much going on beyond the usual adventuring with these two it is one of the most interesting Doctor/companion pair ups we have ever seen. By having the Doctor moon over Rose and barely acknowledge Martha at times it is an easy way to draw us to her character and she proves that she keeps on evolving with consistent development once she leaves and turns up in season four (for five episodes) and Torchwood. Martha surprised me by being characterised as not-Rose for so long but come the seasons end she is ten times the character her predecessor is and has completely stepped from her shadows. To her credit, Martha evolves into a worthy character whereas Rose seemed to devolve out of one. 

Rather wonderfully Davies skips over the whole Martha/Adolah identity issue with one throwaway line. Yes she looks a character from Army of Ghosts, he says, lets move on. Martha loves basking in the moonlight (literally in this case) because they might die at any moment but what an experience all the same. She keeps the Doctor on his toes by telling him that (like her) he has to earn his title. I really like how despite being portrayed as smart and resourceful Martha also has moments where she whimpers like a little girl and panics. You wouldn’t want her to be too sassy (ala Rose in much of her second season) because it’s the flaws that make these people feel human. Rather than give up like everybody else Martha chooses to save the Doctor’s life with CPR and then in turn he can save her life by carrying her out of danger. It’s a clear example of the two of them working together as a team. Martha’s first scene stepping into the TARDIS is one of the most understated of its kind but actually its one of my favourites because if it. It's gloriously shot in a rain soaked alley (Davies is right, filling the screen with beautiful images does make a difference) and has some wonderfully observed moments like Martha declaring the TARDIS is wood and the Doctor mimicking her ‘it's bigger on the inside.’ It's not a great revelatory scene but an expression of understated wonder and pretty much matches what my reaction would be if I were in the same situation. Much like her entrance to the show Murray Gold’s theme for Martha is understated and rather lovely.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re on the bloody moon!’
‘I was only salt deficient because I’m so very good at absorbing it but now I need fire in my veins. And who better than a consultant with blood full of salty fats and vintage wines and all those Michelin star sauces. Look, I’ve even brought a straw…’
‘Its raining on the moon!’
‘Your spaceship’s made of wood…’

The Good:
*   With Moffat he deliberately created a character in Amy Pond as a person without a past because that was tied in with his season long arc of the crack in time having gobbled her family up. Whilst that was a creative decision it made the character extremely difficult to understand or warm to (at lease for me) and heading back into the Davies era reminds me of his astonishing talent at introducing new characters and their families so effectively in only a handful of seasons. The opening montage of phone calls in Smith and Jones is a skilful shorthand for the dynamics of the Jones family with Francine the matriarch trying to get her way, her ex husband and his floozy objecting and the kids trying desperately to please their parents. It’s a fast paced, contemporary way to start the season but it also says everything you need to know about Martha’s family in a couple of minutes and makes them a fascinating, if fractured, backdrop for this new character. It also helps that they are all really well cast and pretty too.
*   Doctor Who continues to attract the finest talent that television has to offer and Anne Reid’s second appearance in the show (after her small but memorable part in The Curse of Fenric) is an unforgettable one and she really enjoys playing the villain and sinking her straw into the part. Every time I see her she makes me smile and oddly it has nothing at all to do with her performance (as good as it is). It makes me remember the year this episode went out and Simon and I were extremely screwed financially and on my birthday he went out and bought something (no matter how small) that was connected with this season of Doctor Who (there was a little stone angel, a feather boa and flying car). But what really made me chuckle was the cheapest item of the lot…a little straw! And he even did the line as he gave it to me to drink with! Awww…that’s love! I have just finished watching The Talons of Weng-Chiang (an episode per cross train session works a treat!) and there was more than little touch of that masterpieces set up to Smith & Jones – taking a story that belongs elsewhere and placing it in an unusual setting. In Holmes’ masterpiece you have a time traveller from the 51st Century menacing Victorian London and here you have an alien vampire being pursued on a 21st Century hospital transported to the moon. In both cases the backstory being locked into such an abnormal location really helps to increase the enjoyment of the tale.
*   Smith and Jones is an episode of simple but bold images that really show how assured the show has become in its core audience. Doctor Who wouldn’t have dared to feature rain travelling upwards or a hospital on the moon let alone giant space rhinos walking across the lunar surface to lay siege to the medical facility. What a brilliant way for Doctor Who to have its cake and eat it by plonking a hospital on the moon because it makes the entire episode studio bound for the most part (who can’t knock up a hospital?) but doesn’t sacrifice any of the wonder of exploring the wider universe. Scenes such the hysterical patients staring out at the nights sky or the Doctor and Martha walking onto the veranda have a real sense of fairytale magic about them. The typical establishing shot of London is given a delicious makeover since there is a massive crater where the Royal Hospital should be. Florence sucking blood from the Doctor’s neck by a straw is absolutely disgusting and very funny at the same time, another of those tricky balances to pull off. I love the shot of the moon in the puddle that gets stepped in, so simple and yet so effective to make the point of the storm out scene at the end.
* After the success of the Ood last year it was clear that there was room in the show for other insane looking alien creatures and Davies scores another winner with the Judoon. They are one of those rare Doctor Who alien races that comes along every now again that aren’t evil and don’t want to take over the world/universe but are simply amoral and scary looking. They will only kill you if you commit a crime and get in their way (‘Justice is swift!’) but if you co-operate then you will be fine. That’s a lovely new take on an alien threat. The prosthetics work is superb and with animatronics taken to this level we are approaching Farscape levels of skill with the craft. They sure know how to make an entrance too with their sturdy cigar shaped ships blasting down on the moon and entire columns of soldiers marching across the surface in jackboots! Doctor Who is taking no prisoners this year. I love it when they fill the hospital reception area because if you took the space rhinos out this could literally be an episode of Casualty but by contrasting the mundane and the ridiculous you have another bold example of why Doctor Who has lasted as long as it has. You can’t argue with success and the Judoon were popular enough to be brought back in The Stolen Earth, The End of Time, a Sarah Jane Adventure and two Doctor Who novels as well. 
*   As much as we (and Peri) complain about it ad nauseum I rather think Doctor Who fans like a bit of corridor wandering. Its like our comfy blanket when a story needs padding out (plus shows like Greatest Show in the Galaxy show how it can be done really vividly). Smith & Jones has more than its fair share of dashing up and down hospital corridors and stairs but fortunately we have Charles Palmer on hand to make these scenes as dynamic as possible. I wanted to leap into the screen and get running with the Doctor and Martha and that has to be a good sign.
*   A nice mention of Mr Saxon. Davies is setting up his arcs early this year and all the better for it.

The Bad: Would there be such agonised panic at finding yourself on the moon? Dramatically speaking yes but it does bother me that Martha seems to be the only person not overreacting to their situation. Why not just stamp the word companion on her forehead. Morganstein was really irritating but I guess that is supposed to be the point of him.

The Shallow Bit: Reggie Yates is just about the hottest bloke ever to appear in Doctor Who. Bestill my beating heart. Freema Agyeman is smoking hot all of the time but she looks positive combustible in the closing scenes.

Result: I remember when this episode first aired and an old friend was visiting with her irritating son who didn’t shut up all night except for the 50 minutes when Smith & Jones was on where we didn’t hear a peep out of him. I honestly didn’t think I could love Doctor Who more and if I ever needed a demonstration of its magic there it was right before me. Putting to one side the glorious introduction of Martha and the charismatic return of David Tennant just the very idea of the intergalactic police catching up with an elderly vampire in such an innocuous setting transported onto the moon is enticing enough to earn this a winning score from me. Charles Palmer and NuWho are a perfect fit and he directs this episode with real class and fills the screen with memorable images which is perfect for a season opener. Freema Agyeman and David Tennant enjoy an instant rapport and have a great madcap mystery to solve in their first story together and the episode is also given a lot of credence with the presence of Anne Reid and Roy Marsden. Even the Judoon who under any other circumstances might have felt out of place make a memorable and insane debut. Smith & Jones is basically one long run-around but one that is stuffed with great scene after great scene, fun characters, pace, wit and style. A really strong start to the season: 8/10


David Pirtle said...

I think Martha's constantly being ignored by the Doctor forced her to grow into a far stronger character than Rose ended up being after the previous series. I never understood the hate (except from the Doctor/Rose Shipping Forever crowd).

David Pirtle said...

I also love the Judoon. They are like the Vogons of the Who universe.