Saturday, 5 April 2008

Doctor Who 4.1 Partners In Crime

Fans today, they just don't know they're born. Twenty years ago we had to put up with Doctor Who being treated as schedule filler, an underbudgeted anachronism shoved in the Timeslot of Death against what was then the invincible ratings juggernaut that annihilated anything in its path, Coronation Street. A show that shared that slot with high concept low brain US sitcoms like Doogie Howser M.D. In the days when recordings weren't factored into ratings that's kiss of death scheduling. Now a show that achieves the Holy TV Grail of high ratings and high audience appreciation, that changed the mindset of what you can do with Saturday evening viewing, that kills whatever ITV puts up against it for fun, from Celebrity Wrestling to ITV's golden boys Ant and Dec, gets moved forward by forty minutes against probably the tiredest show on television, You've Been Framed, and the end of the world is nigh. Moreso when comedy marmite Catherine Tate's been cast as the companion. If DWB were around today it'd probably have done an RTD Must Die! front cover by now.

And of course it gets 8.4 million viewers and the usual astounding appreciation index rating and all is right with the world. There'll be moans that it's lost five million or so since Voyage of the Damned next...

And what we get with Partners in Crime is an indication that the series is still reassuringly at the top of its game going into its fourth year. Like previous season openers this is Big Dumb Fun that won't require you to think too hard, what Old Skool Fans used to call a romp, but Big Dumb Fun with agreeably dark undertones.

Let's get the most controversial element out of the way first. After three years of young lasses going moon eyed over a Time Lord, Donna is a refreshing change. After three years of apparently answering When Harry Met Sally's question of whether mean and women can be friends without sex getting in the way with a firm 'no', RTD seems to have changed his mind. The Doctor-Donna dynamic looks to be going for more for Steed-Mrs Peel than Steed-Tara King, a slight but necessary reformatting. Another year of a girl going moon eyed over a centuries old and it'd start to look like RTD could only write a companion generic to his vision of Who, but he's far too smart to fall into that trap. He does still appear to believe that viewers can only relate to London companions though. Tate also has the chemistry with Tennant that neither Rose (since, by design of her character, she works better with the Ninth Doctor) nor Martha (arguably because Freema Agyeman's not a great actress) did, right from the comedy masterpiece silent conversation, through the plot resolution scene where she provides the MacGuffin that foils the Evil Plot, to the last 'mates' conversation. The last half of The Runaway Bride proved there was more to Donna than just the shouting, particularly in her realisation that Lance betrayed her, and her final scene in the snow so for the moment, I'll just go along with my usual assumption that RTD knows how to run a TV show better than any of us and look forward to seeing how their relationship develops over the remaining 12 episodes.

The other casting masterstroke in the new recurring cast is, of course, Bernard Cribbins. There's a real understated pathos to the stargazing scene, paying off with a lovely coda. Another refreshing change - the female companion has a strong male family figure who's always been there for her, which compensates for the usual disapproving mother figure.

As for the Adipose - well, I don't mind a cute monster, they can be far more effective than the monster designed to scare. What's more scary - teeth and tentacles or the innocent grin that conceals fangs? They're largely played for their comedy potential here, not being directly harmful to anyone aside from how they're formed. After this, I expect Who to have conquered one more frontier, either the cuddly or stress toy market. It's a stroke of genius to use the miracle diet phenomenon as the basis of a Who story (even if it seems indirectly inspired by Andy Lane's Torchwood novel Slow Decay). Sarah Lancashire's chilly turn as their 'mistress', the supernanny Miss Foster gives the Doctor some suitably strong opposition for the episode too, until she's literally brought down to Earth.

And then there's that last scene. I twigged about two seconds before the turn to camera who it was, but then that's how the scene seems to have been designed. Absolutely gobsmacking, well done to Cardiff for keeping that one under wraps. It's a bold move but, given the pre-publicity told us she'd be back, it's the only way her return has shock value. Again, I'm looking forward to finding out just what's going on.

There's flaws of course, Donna's sudden pursual of anything unusual isn't convincing (surely she'd have moved to Cardiff?) and the Doctor and Donna narrowly missing each other goes on a scene or two too long. Given past form it's unlikely to win any season polls or be remembered for anything bar setting up the season. What it provides is the laughs, chills and spectacle that have come to be de rigeur for a Who season opener, and a promise that after four years, RTD's Who still isn't close to jumping any sharks.

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