21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Partners In Crime

Reboot number three.

No, I'm not talking about yet another update to my computer, which is near causing me the death of a thousand head bangs against the desk. I am of course talking about the third reboot of the 21st century incarnation of everybody's favourite Time Lord.

This can normally be categorised by the way in which the BBC1 window goes straight into the title sequence. I forgot to mention this last time, but the title music's been slightly tweaked so that it now sounds like Big Country have teamed up with the National Orchestra Of Wales to provide their own interpretation. It's OK – I like the bah bah bah baaaahhh nod to the Peter Howell arrangement, although I kind of wish that they'd just stuck with the original Delia Derbyshire theme sometimes.

But enough of the musical chairs. It's time to welcome back the Runaway Bride, none other than Donna Noble, who begins her regular run of adventures in a story called Partners In Crime.

The announcement in July 2007 of Donna's return wasn't exactly enthusiastic. The general consensus of Tategate II: The Revenge was that comedy actress Catherine Tate had no right to become a regular time travelling companion, bovvered etc... I suppose the fans who hadn't been impressed with Tate's one-off showing in The Runaway Bride had cause for concern, given that she spent most of the time shouting at the top of her voice.

Compare that reaction with her departure a year later in July 2008. By that point, the general tide had turned where an equally sizeable number of fans were lamenting her exit in Journey's End. What a difference a year makes. Today, she's rightly lauded as one of the all-time great companions.

So what happened to bring on this change of heart? For starters, Donna's character has been notably toned down. There's still the odd loud-mouth remonstration whenever Donna gets a bee in her bonnet (so maybe that's where the bees go) about any given subject – but overall, this is a much more mellow, likeable take on Donna. She's much less abrasive, but as a bonus, it's a welcome return to the companions of yesteryear. You know, the ones who just wanted to travel in the TARDIS for a bit of fun. Remember those? There's none of the lovey dovey baggage that weighed down Rose and Martha, and it's a highly refreshing change. Even the Doctor has had enough of all this sexual tension, to the point where he just wants a mate (cue comedy hollering from Tate about how he ain't mating with her, sunshine). With that in mind, there's none of the unwelcome soapiness that sometimes dogged the previous few seasons.

Donna's also breaking the mould in other ways. For one thing, Catherine Tate's nearly three years older than David Tennant, so it's an unusual tack to take in that the Doctor's not travelling with a youthful teenybop sidekick. That also means that this Doctor-Companion relationship isn't based on “What does it all mean” questions. It's more of a grown-up friendship based on mutual trust and occasional friction. If the Doctor makes some random announcement or assertion, Donna doesn't take it as gospel. Take the frosty exchanges in Planet Of The Ood or The Fires Of Pompeii, in which Rose or Martha would have probably blithely gone along with what the Doctor said. Donna, on the other hand, gives as good as she gets, and puts her opinion across – at times with more venom than she ought to – but it's a brave and ultimately successful move to make in creating a Doctor-Companion team that's much more mature and reasoned than of late.

There's still that wistful sense of regret surrounding Donna. Perhaps that's why the Doctor takes to her so easily. At this point in his life, he's already had quite a few setbacks. Donna notes that he looks older, and when he talks to his friend about Martha, he realises how badly he's treated her: “She was brilliant and I destroyed half her life.” Donna, likewise, muses on how her good intentions have been soured, just out of a sense of that same old routine. “It's like I had that one day with you and I was gonna change,” she says. “I was gonna do so much. Then I woke up the next morning, same old life.” It's all very well saying how things are going to change, but sometimes the magnitude of it all is too difficult to overcome.

As a result, Donna's still stuck with her unlovely harridan of a mother. There's that beautifully filmed shot in which Donna is stuck in the same position while Sylvia bounds around in the background hectoring and yelling at her on a non-stop basis about how little she's achieved in life (“It's not like the 1980s, no one's unemployed these days, except you!”). Little wonder that she chooses to join her granddad up on the hill.

Who of course, turns out to be... Cribbins! It's a rather sad case of serendipity, this. Originally, Howard Attfield was supposed to rejoin the cast as Donna's father. Some scenes were shot, but unfortunately, Attfield passed away before filming was completed. Instead of opting for a recast, Davies instead created a new character, Wilfred Mott, who would become Donna's gramps. Having made such a mark in Voyage Of The Damned, it made sense to introduce Bernard Cribbins as a semi-regular.

This is a real masterstroke. Cribbins absolutely nails the part of Wilf, adding that unique blend of good humour and great pathos all in one. Half the time you're laughing along with Wilf, the other half, you've got a lump in your throat whenever he's delivering one of those highly charged emotional speeches that he does so well. Cribbins has perfect chemistry with all the other actors, particularly Catherine Tate and David Tennant.

Take the hilltop chinwag in Partners In Crime – all that quirky humour and poignancy mixed together to deliver one of the most magical scenes of the season. That one little speech for example – one minute Wilf's telling the amusing story of a six-year-old Donna getting on a bus to Strathclyde before sadly asking “Where's she gone then, where's that girl, hey?” It's lovely little scenes like this that make this season the most successful out of Tennant's three. The writing from Davies showcases his none-too-shabby skills for multi-faceted dialogue, but top it off with fine acting from Tate and Cribbins, and you have the perfect recipe.

Maybe that's why I don't mind the lightweight nature of Partners In Crime so much. For a season opener, it's curiously lacking in meat – as Miss Foster herself says, “The fat just walks away”. Basically all that happens in this story is that the Doctor and Donna attempt to stop an outer-space Jo Frost from turning Adipose Industries customers into cutesy marshmallow babies.

If you're a fan of serious drama, for the love of Omega, hide your eyes. The Adipose themselves are rather cute, the sort of thing you could give a toddler for Christmas after they've spotted it on Cbeebies or something. These cutesy aliens are certainly well realised by the visual effects team, especially when waddling around the streets of London en masse. But for those who want their monsters to be on the scary side, the Adipose probably won't satisfy.

Much like the whole story, which takes a relatively cartoony tack. Basically, it's a Pertwee-Letts idea made in the style of a late 1970s Graham Williams-Tom Baker caper. Lots of running around. Lots of witty lines and sight gags. Even the main baddie, Miss Foster (AKA Matron Cofelia) is an updated Vivien Fay or Adrasta-style villainess, played with relish by Sarah Lancashire, all haughty, patronising smiles and terrible, clunky-looking glasses. Despite her considerable technology, such as the sonic pen, Foster's still a bit of a small fry baddie, a little fish in a big pond of nasty employers who think nothing of dispensing with her services in the most brutal fashion possible. However, even her umpteen-feet fall from high in the air is done with Wile E Coyote style double takes, so much so, you kind of expect to see an anvil drop from the sky to finish the job after Foster's crashed to the ground.

None of the other supporting characters amount to much more than comic relief – the main victim, Stacy, is about to dump her bloke in a less-than-subtle fashion, although her death scene's played more for laughs than shock tactics (good effects, though). Same goes for Sylvia's eye-rolling, gurning buddy in the bar and the comedy waa-waa-waaaahhh journalist, who's forced to leave the building while still being tied to a chair. Hmmm, bit of wish fulfilment on Davies' part, given some of the more over-zealous members of the gutter press?

All in all, it's an audacious move to make your season opener more of a screwball comedy rather than a big blockbusting slab of drama. Admittedly, some of the attempts at humour don't come off as well as they should (the rather broad characters of Suzette or Penny Carter, for example), but by and large, there are some great nuggets of comedy gold to be discovered here, such as Wilf missing the giant spaceship while listening to his stereo. It's amusing to see Donna and the Doctor investigate the mystery, unawares of each other's presence – even when they pop up and down in the Adipose office. There's also that great bit of silent comedy homage in which Donna spots the Doctor for the first time, and proceeds to mime her disbelief and her story of how she came to be here. It's a classic bit of comedy slapstick and very well acted by Catherine Tate – I especially like her frozen horrified expression as she spots an unimpressed Foster.

The direction is still as impressive as ever. James Strong pitches in with another well-judged realisation, and manages to deftly achieve the balance between comedy and action. There's a lot of movement in this story, whether it's the Doctor and Donna dashing about the Adipose offices, rushing around in the streets, or enjoying high-up escapades in a window cradle. It's a fast-paced sprint of a story, and Strong succeeds in propelling the action along without so much as a pause for breath. Apart from the Adipose, the visual effect of their spaceship is a triumph, well on a par with your average high-budget feature film – although it's accompanied by what sounds like an unused demo riff from Van Halen's 1984 LP.

One of the most unobtrusive but surprising bits of direction comes near the end. Donna casually asks a blonde woman to tell her mother that her car keys are to be found in a bin. As she rushes off to join the Doctor in her travels, the blonde woman turns around and is none other than...

Ta-da! Rose!

It's a classic case of 'Never saw that one coming' and even if Rose's return is a bit questionable, this sequence is still one of those great Doctor Who moments that catch the viewer off guard. At this point, it's an intriguing part of the mystery as to what Rose is doing here, especially since she's supposed to be trapped in the parallel world.

A memorable finish to what's actually a very enjoyable season opener. Not enough drama perhaps, but this is a story that's waved together with skill and many great one-liners from Russell T Davies. And most importantly, it's done with genuine heart. Sometimes, Davies is guilty of over-egging the emotive side of Doctor Who, but when he gets the balance right, it's perfect. That final shot of a delighted Wilf waving to Donna in the TARDIS is exactly what I'm talking about, and one of many moments in this story that's both hilarious and poignant in equal measures. A great 'proper' introductory story for Donna, and one that deserves reappraisal too. Small scale, but still perfectly formed.

Oh, and to bookend this review – having mentioned the slightly amended opening music, it's worth pointing out that the closing titles are rolled at such a fast pace, that it's impossible to keep up. By this time, the BBC saw fit to shrink the credits to the size of a postage stamp while advertising the next programme – a move that presumes that the viewer's an astronomically thick idiot with the attention span of a bored school-kid in morning assembly. Whichever imbecile came up with this very very bad idea should be taken to the nearest horde of Daleks for a series of multiple exterminations.

Here endeth the rant. Transmission resumed as normal.

* Forget about your Adipose pills, spend the dosh on my eBooks instead!


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