Doctor Who: Season 4 (2007-08)

Russell T. Davies and David Tennant may not be done with “Doctor Who” just yet – the producer and star still have a handful of special episodes lined up to carry us through until the new cast and crew take over in 2010 – but the fourth season (or “series,” if you prefer) of the Time Lord’s new adventures feels every bit the swan song for both. It’s the best season yet, and it ends so spectacularly that the final episode is, in its own fabulous way, an enormous “thank you” to everyone who helped not only revive the franchise, but expand it beyond fans’ wildest dreams.

Before kicking off the season proper, executive producer/head writer Davies and his team first had to contend with a couple of important holiday specials. Produced for the Children in Need telethon, the mini-episode “Time Crash” teamed up current Doctor Tennant with fifth Doctor Peter Davison. While we’ve met friends and villains from the old series, this is the first time since the show’s revival that the Doctor would meet one of his former selves.

With only eight minutes to spare, writer Steven Moffat goes light on the plot (two TARDISes collide, everything must be fixed before the universe tears itself a hole the size of Belgium) and instead turns the story into a celebration of Davison’s era in the role, first through winking in-jokes and lighthearted jabs (the brainy specs! the boyish frown! the celery!), then through unabashed tribute. Moffat and Tennant have both said they were raised on Davison’s Doctor, and as a fellow Fifth Doctor fanatic (“Castrovalva” was my introduction to the show, so long, long ago), I must admit to getting misty when Tennant’s Doctor explains his nostalgic affection in a monologue bursting with pride: “You were my Doctor.” He was my Doctor, too, and hats off to giving him proper due.

December 2007 brought us the show’s third consecutive Christmas special – and the second to be unconnected from the following season. Written by Davies, “Voyage of the Damned” puts the Doctor aboard the Titanic – a space cruiser designed, inside and out, as an exact replica of the doomed vessel. (Its builders apparently didn’t do much research as to why the ship’s name was so well-known on Earth.) The passengers are intergalactic travelers out to enjoy the foreign holiday of “Christmas” on this small, out-of-the-way planet.

This being the Titanic, of course, things go very wrong, the ship’s robot servants have mutinied and are killing off everyone in sight, and the ship is soon on a collision course with London, where the impact will wipe out all life on Earth. What follows is a playful, thrilling reworking of “The Poseidon Adventure,” as the Doctor leads a group of survivors to safety across a myriad of disaster movie-style dangers.

As an introduction to “Doctor Who,” “Voyage” works perfectly: the surroundings are alien yet familiar, and a (somewhat) lack of references to past episodes won’t confuse newcomers. Davies’ script is funny and sad, packed with memorable characters, bursting with action and colorful sci-fi flourishes but not at the expense of an actual story. And it’s loaded with those bold flourishes Davies loves so much, like the cheap but effectual killing off of unexpected secondary characters, or the unnecessary but completely wonderful dialogue embellishments. Consider this bit, where the Doctor stops everything to remind us to stay tuned, he’ll be saving the day before dinnertime:

“I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the Constellation of Kasterborous. I’m 903 years old, and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?”

Who writes stuff like that? And who’s able to pull it off? These guys, apparently. And how.

The whole thing moves like gangbusters, thanks in part to James Strong’s crisp direction and a script that plows from one ripping action sequence to the next. It ends up being one of the most bombastic of all the new “Who” stories, and yet there’s a quiet sorrow underneath. Davies has tinkered with the idea of the Doctor as a lonely god for some time now, and the fourth season will see the notion expand further; here, the Doctor finds himself emotionally lost, in desperate need of companionship and adventure yet determined to remain alone lest he risk the lives of those he loves.

Also lost, in her own way, is Astrid, played with verve by guest star Kylie Minogue. A waitress who dreams of seeing the stars, Astrid is set up as something of a love interest for the Doctor, something Davies enjoys more than he probably should, considering the series’ previous no-romances rule. Having first lost Rose and then spurned Martha, the Doctor seems ready for lovin’, with Astrid, keenly taken in by the Time Lord’s charms, eager to accept. It’s not to be, of course – Minogue has no plans of returning to the series – and Astrid’s send-off is a bittersweet ending to this chaotic adventure.

It wouldn’t be until April 2008 that the fourth season would officially launch, with “Partners in Crime.” Here, Catherine Tate, who guest starred in the 2006 Christmas special, returns in full force as Donna Noble. Her casting caused a bit of a stir among fans; would a comic actress be a drag on the sci-fi show? Not at all. Tate proved herself to be the new series’ best companion yet, capable of high comedy and big drama, holding her own, and then some, with Tennant’s geek-hero Doctor.

Perhaps it was Davies’ decision to avoid romantic entanglements for this season. There’s no need for unrequited anything when it comes to Donna and the Doctor, who instead work as time-traveling best mates, equals if not in intellect, then in excitement for the unknown and compassion for all life. Over the course of the season, Donna would grow into powerhouse player in the Doctor’s universe, her bossy, sassy ways ultimately hiding a deeper question, to which every one of us can relate. In late episodes, Donna dismisses accounts of her importance: “But I’m just a temp!” She has no faith in her own abilities, yet ultimately will help save our universe, and many more beyond. All of us, the show exclaims, has the capacity for much more than we would believe. None of us are “just” anything. Davies (who penned the season’s final four episodes, when this theme would truly take hold) gets a bit excessive in driving the point home, but he makes it work, and so does Tate, who brings a much needed compassion to the character.

Every episode in this season is a highlight, from the opener “Partners in Crime” (which makes the most of Tennant and Tate’s comic rapport), through visits to Pompeii (“The Fires of Pompeii”), run-ins with the alien warrior race the Sontarans (“The Sontaran Stratagem,” “The Poison Sky”) and even Agatha Christie (“The Unicorn and the Wasp”), to a nifty experiment in “Twilight Zone”-inspired paranoia (“Midnight”). The Ood – those mysterious aliens from “The Impossible Planet” – return in Keith Temple’s “Planet of the Ood,” which uses a sort of future slave farm to create one of the season’s most emotionally devastating tales. Stephen Greenhorn’s “The Doctor’s Daughter” takes a sly approach at ratings bait (the Doctor has a daughter! An artificially created daughter, yes but still!) while musing on the Time Lord’s long, secret life as well as the nature of war itself, all with a few nifty twists. Davies’ own “Turn Left” is a doozy of alternate history/parallel universe pondering, taking old “what if?” standbys and building great drama on top of them, an entire new world, elegantly detailed and utterly heartbreaking, blossoming from a single choice. (Bernard Cribbins, playing Donna’s spry granddad throughout the season, gets some remarkable moments here, revealing his worth an invaluable addition to the series.)

The season’s most notable stories are two of its two-parters. In his scripts for “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” Steven Moffat finally breaks through an idea that surprisingly has never been raised in the franchise’s lengthy history: could the Doctor ever meet someone from his future? Here, he does. Professor River Song (played beautifully by Alex Kingston) knows the Doctor from her past, his future. She has his diary – should he take a peek at things to come? Ah, but those would be spoilers.

For a show about a time traveler, “Doctor Who” has too often ignored time travel as an actual theme – for the most part, his TARDIS is instead merely a way to get from place to place, story to story. To the production staff, time travel is just a nifty way of putting its hero in caveman times, or the distant future, or another planet; the scripts would then set the TARDIS off to the side and deal with the adventures at hand. The actual complications of all that with all that crisscrossing the space-time whatnots only popped up in a handful of scripts.

Moffat has now rectified this three times, first in “The Girl in the Fireplace,” in which, thanks to some oddball wormhole goings on, a few minutes to the Doctor equaled a few decades to Madame de Pompadour, to fascinating effect. The next season’s “Blink” involved messages left waiting through the years and innocents hijacked backwards in time, resulting in that year’s best episode. Now, in “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” Moffat looks to where the current Doctor cannot and decides it’s high time for the Time Lord to meet an old friend for the first time. And it’s no gimmick, but the foundation for remarkable character drama. (Just watch the untold agony in Kingston’s eyes as River realizes her Doctor doesn’t know her.)

The rest of the story, featuring a planet-sized library, the dream world of a mysterious girl, and another alternate universe for Donna, is outstanding – and scary as hell, using flesh-eating shadows as the main villains. Shadows! If this two-parter doesn’t prove the brilliance of this series to you, there’s no hope for you at all.

The other top-of-the-heap story is the season-ending two-parter, “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End.” This is where Davies pulls out all the stops, bringing together all the key characters in the producer’s newly minted “Whoniverse,” including Martha Jones, Sarah Jane Smith and her son Luke, Captain Jack and his Torchwood team, Former Prime Minister Harriet Jones, and yes, even Rose Tyler. The Daleks are back, too, along with some bigger surprises, and the whole dang thing turns into an avalanche of fannish delight. Davies himself has long shown fangirl tendencies in his writing; his wistful romantic gestures between the Doctor and Rose have always been questionable, unless, that is, you’re a diehard Doctor-Rose fanatic, in which case he’s teased and tormented you long enough, and the resolution of this long-standing romance is as glorious and well earned as the logic required to get there is bumpy and borderline fanfic-ish.

Davies composes the perfect cliffhanger at the end of “The Stolen Earth,” with every one of its characters in dire straits (especially the Time Lord himself, whose final words left millions of jaws dropped across the viewing world) and no possible way of rescue. Naturally, the opening scenes of “Journey’s End” would require some cheats, some sneakiness, and some impossible last-minute escapes, but it’s all worth it. This is Davies going out in a blaze of glory, giving all of his characters one last hurrah while taking the adventure so far over the top it requires the entire planet to zip across the universe.

There’s much more to champion about “Journey’s End,” but that would require spoilers, something the Doctor himself wishes to avoid. So let’s just call it a high note for all involved, with even Davies’ goofiest ideas (come on, two of them?) coming across splendidly. It’s the sort of episode you watch from start to finish with an enormous grin on your face, hoping it’ll never end.

The finale presented the “Who” crew with a fabulous parting gift: for the first time in franchise history, “Doctor Who” topped the UK ratings charts. Better still, both “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End” received a whopping 91% as its Audience Appreciation Index, one of the highest ratings ever given to a television program. A high note, indeed.

As the season progressed, Davies, executive producer/Head of Drama for BBC Wales Julie Gardner, and producer Phil Collinson all announced they were leaving the show, and in October, David Tennant revealed he, too, will be retiring as the Doctor. Davies and Tennant will stay on through the various specials set for 2009; Steven Moffat, who received praise for his excellent work on “Who” (as well as “Coupling” and “Jekyll”) will take over for Davies; a new Doctor has yet to be cast. In a way, this collective changing of the guard is a good thing for the series, allowing Moffat to start fresh with a new cast and new direction. And while we still have a few more episodes from the Tenth Doctor to come, we’ll always remember this fourth season as the year Davies and Tennant went out on top.

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