Doctor Who - The Doctor's Daughter
After a run of enjoyable but traditional stories, Series Four has decided to stretch its wings, tasking the Doctor with impressing his philosophy of life upon a newborn killing machine. Given the old-school approach that the present run of the programme has adopted, viewers might be forgiven for wondering how it would approach more controversial material, yet Jenny’s introduction is remarkably assured. However, weaknesses in the rest of the episode condemn it to be this year’s first misfire.
Since the title of the story was announced, most speculation has understandably focussed on the extent to which its guest character would live up to her billing. It’s been clearly stated in the new series that the Doctor enjoyed an intuitive connection to the rest of his species. With the surprise discovery of his previously referred-to child ruled out, some compromise is obviously called for. Stephen Greenhorn prioritises a biological connection to the Doctor over an emotional one, opting to make Jenny a test tube baby instead of a Miranda-style adoption. Her rapid introduction may feel a little contrived, but the focus of the story is on her emotional origins, rather than biological nature. What causes more harm to the piece is manner in which Jenny’s eventual separation from the Doctor is engineered. Her presence in the TARDIS would have completely overshadowed Donna’s story, but it’s rather unfortunate that for a few minutes the episode looks as if it has decided to back away from the ongoing element introduced. Jenny’s revival is welcome, albeit rather confusing; presumably she benefited from the same newly-incarnated healing effect that allowed the Doctor to regrow his hand in The Christmas Invasion. Dalek, The Age of Steel and The Lazarus Experiment all played key parts in their series’ story arcs, and it’s inconceivable that the last of the Time Ladies won’t return in time for episode thirteen.
A secondary role of the sixth episode, making explicit the theme of each series, is less often remarked on. After last year’s preoccupation with humanity and the characteristics of our species, Series Four appears to be taking a more introverted approach, exploring and challenging the Doctor’s morality. Partners In Crime showed the Time Lord utterly within his comfort zone, presenting him with a benign monster and an enemy who he could try to save from her own shortcomings. This was thrust into sharp contrast by the story that followed it, with the Doctor a prisoner of the both the laws of time and the trauma of his past. After the anti-slavery respite of Planet Of The Ood, the series centred in on the Doctor’s pacifism, by contrasting him with both General Staal and Colonel Mace. Greenhorn builds on Raynor’s work, again raising the issue of whether the Doctor is a hypocrite, being no less a warrior just because he doesn’t carry a gun, and frequently relying on those who do. This is clearly a preoccupation of the series’ writers- Paul Cornell has spoken of the difficulty of using the Doctor in a real-world setting, while Steven Moffatt has commented on the character’s need for a Brigadier or Captain Jack to keep the enemy busy while he tinkers in his lab. For all our hero’s bluster last week in UNIT’s mobile HQ, he was powerless to disperse the Sontarans’ chemical weapon until the military’s offensive had cleared his path into the ATMOS factory. The examination of the Doctor’s morality will probably continue throughout the season, but The Poison Sky left the particular issue of his attitude to warfare and weapons in urgent need of attention.
Greenhorn deserves credit for being able to partly resolve this problem, using two different aspects of his story to show what makes the Doctor a pacifist hero. The more obvious of the two devices is at the end of the episode, where the Doctor is briefly seized by the impulse to kill Cobb in revenge for Jenny’s murder. Tennant’s performance is superb here, brilliantly conveying the Time Lord’s struggle to master his rage. In the end, the Doctor stays true to his principles, and restrains himself from acting out of malice or bloodlust. Refusing to succumb to these base emotions is one of the things that distinguishes the Doctor, and Greenhorn provides a textbook illustration of this quality. His other method of exonerating the Doctor is more subtle, and embodied in the story’s setting. One of the first things we learn about Messaline is that its inhabitants are brainwashed from birth to wage war. In contrast to Jenny, the Doctor cannot understand this idea of instinctive loyalty. When the Doctor fights, he does so as the ultimate outsider, arriving on each world an innocent, before actively choosing to give help to those he feels are in need of it. He’s not unwilling to take sides, but never without being able to see both aspects of an argument- here, he works for the benefit of the Hath as well as the humans.
A silent species is an intriguing concept, but the lack of screen time available means that Greenhorn does not have room to explore the implications of this idea. The Hath’s group cuddle of Martha weakens their credibility as soldiers, and living in the same conditions as the human forces deprives their species of any interesting or memorable features. The lack of individual characterisation weakens the impact of Peck’s death, making Freema Agyeman’s reaction look rather overwrought, and it’s telling that the Hath play virtually no part in the story’s climax. Poor production values hamper the story further, with the low-cost blowtorch guns being particular unconvincing, while the bright lighting of many areas removes much of the atmosphere from the story’s underground setting. However, the design team deserves praise for the attention to detail they lavish on many aspects of the story. Jenny’s dark green top and black trousers are a very pointed reference to the battle-hardened ninth Doctor’s mode of dress, while the roundels on the interior of her shuttlecraft are another nice touch.
The story’s failure stems from its inability to find a compelling plot on which to hang its ideas. Messaline is a depressing planet, of which we learn nothing for the majority of the episode. What’s intriguing is the way the setting breaks Russell T Davies’ own rules for the programme. The showrunner has always taken pains to emphasis the importance of a human-interest angle to the worlds the Doctor visits, but the two factions presented here are dangerously close to his oft-quoted example of “the Zogs having trouble with the Zog-monster”. Cobb’s forces are human in name alone. Despite the derelict theatre in which they live, there’s not a single trace of culture or fun in their lives. Reproducing by machines and embracing eternal war, there is no noticeable difference between the human residents of Messaline and the Sontarans which the Doctor defeated last week, and his determination to end the conflict is more rooted in a desire to thwart Cobb’s dreams of conquest than any altruistic impulse towards those he’s met. The central mystery that unfolds during the course of the episode, of the numbers etched onto the walls of the complex, falls disappointingly flat, due to the rather unlikely nature of its solution.
Although a twist on such a stock sci-fi setting is to be welcomed, the logistics of the claim that the war has only been waged for a week severely challenge the audience’s suspension of disbelief. We meet humans of varying generations during the course of the episode, and the story does not provide any reason for the colonists’ aging being accelerated by the conditions they are under. Given the complete education provided by the progenitor machines, it is rather surprising that the nature of the colonists’ mission could be so quickly obscured. Even accepting the scenario as presented, it has no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the story. The Source could have been sat at the heart of the ship for years before the Doctor arrived to activate it, and the outcome would have been the same. The moment when Donna’s experience of administration leads her to the solution would have been a nice touch, had not almost exactly the same event occurred in the previous story. There’s a clumsy and forced nature to several aspects of the plot, typified by the Doctor’s pre credits acknowledgment of Jenny as his daughter, before he spends the first half of the episode denying her that very status.
The root of the problem lies in the story’s attempt to repeat the success of Utopia. Once again, a deliberately retro setting is created as a backdrop for some intense personal drama for the Doctor, with the scenario eventually regarded as a mere prompt for the character it introduces. The difficulty here is that while the re-emergence of the Master was a note-perfect exercise in building up tension, Jenny’s story actually becomes less dramatic she comes round to her father’s way of thinking. Given the startling contribution the story makes to the series’ mythos, it’s a curiously unimaginative affair.
We may as well deal with the flaws first, because God knows there are plenty to find in this bizarre slice of series four hokum. The set-up is almost entirely senseless, the final revelation highly questionable, the dialogue sometimes painfully hackneyed, and the plotting only slightly less linear than writer Stephen Greenhorn's previous straight-line episode, The Lazarus Experiment.
Instant cloning with instant figure-hugging clothing. Clunky talk of 'generations' to avoid mentioning a period of time ("I've waited all my life" is a particularly dumb expression in retrospect). A war begun because someone forgot to appoint a second in command...this whole thing is a mess.
The Doctor's Daughter is a pig of an episode when going through the motions of its supposed A story. Perfunctory things happen - Martha's capture, the death of Peck the Hath (seriously, they gave a character who can't speak plosives that name), Cobb's final shot - but they have no weight, and no style. Things 'just happen'. The journey of the episode is from point A - headquarters - to B - 'The Source'. It's a back-of-a-fag-packet outline.
It also carries a fumbled religious metaphor...the Garden of Eden arrives at the end of the seventh day, after which the child of the virgin birth is resurrected. But it's clunkily handled, and doesn't hang together if you give more than a moment's thought. (If Jenny's Christ, shouldn't SHE be bringing the two sides together in peace?)
But the point is in the title, as it usually is with Doctor Who. While some bemoaned the double-bluff of the promotion, expecting an actual long-lost daughter, it's the very bright-eyed freshness of Georgia Moffett's Jenny that makes her work. How tedious it would have been to re-run Rose's Daddy issues!
The sheer joy of accompanying the Doctor on his adventures is a key part of the Davies mission statement. The mildly-meta notion that this lifestyle is aspirational has payed dividends over the last few years, and who better to want to follow in the Time Lord's footsteps than his own offspring?
So while one can certainly argue that instant-daughter-in-a-can is essentially what the Doctor gets with every young, female companion, here Davies (most likely, it feels like rewrite work) uses the interesting conflict of an innocent warrior to ask questions of his leading man that the usual TARDIS-mates couldn't ask. Questioning how someone who parades his pacifism can also define himself as a defeater of baddies, as slayer of monsters, is a discussion as good as anything the series has done.
It's an overdue bit of business, frankly, since series four has left the Doctor to coast a little. With the Time War now feeling a long way behind he's been short on character work. Where The Doctor's Daughter begins to reclaim points is in its desire to move the focus back to the title character.
So while Martha speaking in nonsense lines like "I think I just started a war" - when a) the war never stopped, and b) she did nothing but watch as a map revealed new areas - and people continue to create rooms full of lasers rather than just putting an entire grid of them across a doorway, redemption comes from good performances of the more infrequent textured material.
Director Alice Troughton - who put in decent work on Torchwood's first year with two of the better stories, Out of Time and Small Worlds - makes the best of what she's given...though what she's given in this case is far too few extras to convincingly create an army. But the sets/locations (and, for that matter, the aliens) are awash with bright colours, which is a brave old-Who style choice. And there's some decent stuff going on with the score once we've got past the initial chaos in the TARDIS.
As much as anything else it's the conclusion that lets the side down. Jenny's return has some cheery punch, but it's hampered by the same perfunctory storytelling. Her death was guaranteed from the second she was invited onboard the TARDIS - and for a show smart enough to know that viewers would be fooled by the expectations of the episode promotion, that's unforgivable - and then Donna goes and says something to Martha about how she plans to travel with that man forever. Now, I'm enjoying Tate's role in the series, but who didn't read that as a 'something bad's coming to kick me off the show' set-up?
So, for that reason, plus the fumbling of just how, exactly, Jenny came back to life - Spock-like terraformy goodness seems to be indicated, but it's never stated clearly in an episode that, otherwise, never stops having characters state the bleeding obvious - it's a middle-of-the-road conclusion. Too many mistakes to praise highly, and too many good bits to dismiss.