21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Smith And Jones

Smith And Jones feels like a mini-reboot of Doctor Who.

Just like Rose did in 2005, Smith And Jones launches right into the new title sequence without a pre-credits teaser. In a sense, this is the dawning of a new era, since Rose is – for now – out of the equation. In her place comes Martha Jones, unofficially known as the Raw Deal Companion.

Martha has some big shoes to fill, since despite the rather iffy Season Two characterisation, Rose was still riding on the crest of a popularity wave. Freema Agyeman was chosen to play Martha. At the time, a lesser known actress who'd appeared in the reboot of Crossroads and as Adeola in Army Of Ghosts in what was essentially a dummy run for her full season. However, Freema got her big break with the 2007 season of Doctor Who, and since then, has become a regular face on British TV, most notably in ITV's Law And Order.

Freema gets off to a great start in Smith And Jones, providing a lot of sassy likeability as Martha. She's a lot more headstrong than Rose, she's much more confident and willing to think for herself, and she's also not quite as willing to take the mysterious patient who's friends with Ben Franklin for real. “What, people call you 'The Doctor'?” she snorts at the super-quiffed one, who shrugs “Yeah!” Martha then says: “Well, I'm not. As far as I'm concerned, you've got to earn that title!” All told, Agyeman's début performance is excellent, full of confidence and good humour.

The problem with Martha though, is that her character then morphs into a different one. I once wrote a piece for the now sadly defunct Shadowlocked website on the good Doctor's companions, and featured Martha in the 'Wasted Opportunity' category. Looking again at the 2007 season again, it's with good reason. Basically, the production team wanted a contrast to the love story between the Doctor and Rose, so instead they tried a different tack with the Unrequited Love Story.

Sadly, Martha becomes a slave to this mini story arc. She follows the Doctor around with a long face as she bats her eyelashes and drops not-very-subtle hints about how great the Time Lord is. It's a bad move for a number of reasons. One is that it doesn't really square with the independent, proactive Martha of Smith And Jones. She finds the Doctor to be a fascinating enigma rather than a potential love interest (“Stop looking at me like that!” she crows, while realising that her new friend's an alien). She's also not averse to mocking the Doctor's grand speeches and pretentious ways (“So not pompous at all then!” she retorts after learning that the man in the blue box is a Time Lord). However, as soon as she gets in the TARDIS, she starts going on about kisses, tight suits and first dates. Hard to get? What's that?

Another problem is that Martha somehow feels like second best because of this. The Doctor keeps barking stuff along the lines of “You only get one trip in the TARDIS, then back home!” or “Not that you're replacing Rose!”. The nadir of this comes in The Shakespeare Code, when he blatantly says that Rose would know how to solve the mystery, when in fact, Martha probably has more brain cells in her little finger. Not only does all this sloppy seconds stuff cheapen the character of Martha, it also makes the Doctor look like a heartless cad. Blimey, the production team aren't making it easy for David Tennant's Doctor, are they? From hyperactive toddler to Treat 'Em Mean, Keep 'Em Keen slimeball in the blinking of an eye. Neither character's coming out of this well.

Which is a big, big shame, since both Freema and David do sterling work this season. Tennant has clearly settled into the role of the Doctor, and he's working wonders with a far more restrained, controlled version than the at-times uncontrollable chimpanzee of the previous season. He makes a strong showing in Smith And Jones, and interestingly, doesn't try to hog the limelight. Instead, he allows Freema to take her well-deserved centre stage, often acting as the feed for Martha's various questions and wisecracks.

There are one or two incidents of goofy humour, notably the hopping incident, but mostly Doctor Ten's humour is far more subtle, and funnier as a result (“I've spent the past 15 years working as a postman, hence the bunions”). The scene in which he tries to act the fool with Florence is a classic bit of Doctor behaviour – playing the unassuming clown in order to catch his enemy off guard. All good stuff, and Tennant's warming up well for a season that will push his acting talents to the limit in stories such as 42 or Human Nature/The Family Of Blood.

Smith And Jones itself then. Another story that has to introduce a new companion, her dysfunctional family... and to tell an entertaining tale in its own right. Mustn't forget that. Taking the family first, I'm not quite sure that the Jones mob work quite as well as Rose's family. For one thing, characters like Jackie and Mickey were far more likeable. This time around, we're stranded with four of them, most of whom lack that good natured cheer.

About the most successful is Martha's sister Tish, well played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Tish is the lone voice of sanity in a family that's falling apart at the seams with in-house bickering and petty point scoring. Mind you, Tish has a bit of a Jessica Fletcher thing going on, since she miraculously always seems to be interlinked with the Doctor's latest madcap adventure – although, I'm sure old Mr Saxon would have had a crafty look at her CV when sizing her up for future assignments. Her brother Leo unfortunately doesn't get much chance to shine this season, cropping up with the odd wisecrack here and there and little else in between. Good performance from DJ Reggie Yates, though.

Clive and Francine are more troublesome. They're both well played by Trevor 'Frax From Mindwarp' Laird and Adjoa 'Sister Jatt' Andoh respectively, but their non-stop petty squabbling tries the patience very quickly. Basically, Clive's had some sort of mid-life crisis, and has shacked up with a cross-eyed bimbo called Annalise, who's covered in so much fake tan, she makes David Dickinson look like a ghost by comparison. Mind you, this is probably down to the fact that Francine divides her time between hectoring her family to death and moaning about every single event and/or person that crosses her path. Take Francine to a swanky health spa and she'll pick faults in how the jacuzzi isn't set at the right temperature or how the masseuse has all the pressure of a stick insect. Is it any wonder that poor old Clive's had enough? While it's a different take on the family unit, the Jones family aren't likeable or even interesting enough to match up to the Tylers.

Luckily, the story of Smith And Jones is a lot better. It works because it's refreshingly simple, a tale of a vicious old biddy who's disguised herself in order to escape the clutches of a warrior race of rhino policemen. What's nice about Smith And Jones is that it thrives on this sleight of hand. Initially, we're led to believe that Florence Finnegan, the slightly dotty old biddy with an apparent salad fetish, is about as harmful as a day-old mouse. What with a bloke called Stoker stalking the wards with a doomy expression and the thought of the Judoon making their first appearance, the viewers' expectations are turned around by showing that in fact, Florence is the villain of the piece: a shape-shifting, blood-sucking Plasmavore who thinks nothing of sucking blood from her victims with a straw, as if she's enjoying a crafty milkshake. That's clever stuff, and altogether, Anne Reid generally does well as Florence, adding a creepy menace to scenes such as her confrontation with Stoker (“Oh, I'm a survivor, Mr Stoker, at any cost”) or her lengthy chinwag with the Doctor. Mind you, I'm not so sold on her last OTT shriek and arm-waving when she's fried into oblivion by the Judoon guns.

Talking of the Judoon, they are a worthy addition to the ranks of Doctor Who aliens. They are very well realised, with some superb masks and good voiceover work from Nicholas Briggs. There's also a nice bit of humour creeping in here, whether they mark out the catalogued humans with magic marker pens or offer compensation forms to Martha. Davies is good at this, offering a good, creepy-looking alien race with a humourous streak lurking beneath the surface. Fans of The Stones Of Blood will also find a tip of the hat to that story's conclusion in which justice aliens hunt for a shape-shifting villainess.

Florence's shape-shifting prowess also precludes the season finale in which a harmless old codger actually turns out to be the stuff of nightmares. And so begins the Saxon story arc. Nope, I'm not talking about the oft-forgotten mullet metal heads (What next? An REO Speedwagon story arc?), but in fact a catch-up with the Doctor's most deadly nemesis. The cop-out ending. No, that's not fair. In fact, the set-up for the rebirth of a certain evil fiend is actually well handled, it's just that the last of the Last Of The Time Lords botches the concept badly – more on this in the future.

What I like about this season, however, is the way in which vital clues are scattered here and there. The power of words in The Shakespeare Code. The big revelation of The Face Of Boe in Gridlock. The fob watch/human alias of a Time Lord in the Human Nature two parter. There are enough clues and subtle plot developments to propel the story arc along, but the bonus is that all of these 2007 stories are allowed to act as individual adventures in their own right. You can enjoy them at their face value without trying too hard to fathom out a bigger story narrative – which is personally just the way I like it.

Smith And Jones is very enjoyable indeed. It whizzes along at a brisk old pace, with a flurry of good action pieces, excellent visual effects and some very funny lines (“Uhhh, humans. We're stuck on the moon running out of air with Judoon and a blood-sucking criminal, and you're asking personal questions!”). There are some notably good set-pieces to savour here, including the landing of the Judoon ship and the march of the Judoon, the excellent effects shot of the hospital on the moon, the fiery demise of the luckless patient who unwisely smashes a vase over a Judoon's head, and of course, the clever tiey-timey-wimey bit in which the Doctor proves to Martha that he's a time traveller (“Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden except for cheap tricks”).

Charles (Son Of Geoffrey) Palmer makes a confident directing début with Smith And Jones. Not only does he have a good feel for fast pace and action, he makes the most of limited set pieces with interesting camera tricks (the shot from inside Martha's locker, for example). His casting is also good, with notably strong turns from Anne Reid, Ben Righton as the cowardly intern, Morgenstern and Roy Marsden as the hapless Stoker. It's a shame that Marsden's wasted in what's rather a small cameo part, mind you. After marching around the wards being a pompous bore, Stoker's only other notable scene is his final doomed tussle with Florence – which is a waste of Marsden's acting skills confining him to two key scenes.

Apart from the minor niggles, this is a good start to the season. Smith And Jones successfully launches Doctor Who on a new path after the Rose-centric shenanigans of late. It's well written. It's well produced. And above all, it's great fun, a good, exciting adventure romp that has plenty of cool monsters and scares for kids, and just as many amusing lines for the adults. Plus, there's even the return of the Gravitic Anomaliser and the Helmic Regulator.

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