Russell T. Davies has dragged Doctor Who, the BBC's veteran time-travel show, into the 1990s. His confessed influences include early Buffy, but the revamped Who has always reminded me of some other 90s shows, including X-Files and, more and more, of Lois and Clark, with its focus on a male-female couple and their romantic/sexual tension or lack thereof. It's too bad Doctor Who remains about a decade behind the times, even as it keeps mining its own past. Spoilers for the season opener below the fold.
The comparison between this weekend's season premieres of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who does the latter no favors, unfortunately. BSG was all fresh, dark and conspiracy-minded, with lots of throat-cutting and screaming action. Who was at its absolute campiest, schlocky and backward-looking. It honestly felt kind of old-school compared with BSG.
As with the old Lois and Clark Superman series, the new Doctor Who tries to invert the traditional Doctor-companion relationship, putting the companion in the starring role. And as with Lois and Clark, the device feels a bit hollow, because the Doctor is still the one we're invested in, the person who saves the day.
The shocking twist this time around is that the companion, Donna, isn't in love with the Doctor. She pursues him and desperately needs him to fill an emptiness in her life — but it's a need for adventure, not love. It's not as much of a difference as I'd hoped, because her life is still totally worthless without the Doctor, as we're shown at great length. The only reason she's even investigating the evildoings of Adipose is because she hopes the Doctor will show up there too.
Whether you think this new spin on the Doctor-companion dynamic is enough to sustain a whole season may depend largely on how much you like the clip above, where the Doctor and Donna have a mimed reunion while they're both spying on the same barely-a-supervillain. My sympathies are entirely with Miss Foster, who wants to know if her evil scheme is interrupting their long ASL processing conversation. But to be fair, the plot of "Partners In Crime" is so thin, there's not that much for the Doctor and Donna to interrupt.
Speaking of being fair, I made a resolution last year, after I watched the end of season three — the bit where the Doctor suddenly returns to youth after being aged 900 years — and levitates — because everyone on Earth believes in him. That moment was simultaneously so amazing, and yet so awful, that it totally destroyed my critical faculties. I decided that you can't really judge Russell T.'s work based on any normal standards of good or bad. You just have to take it on its own terms.
But even if you judge "Partners In Crime" on its own terms, as a "jolly romp," it's just barely okay. It doesn't quite ever muster enough verve to be a real romp. And the jollity is a bit forced. A lot of the clever bits feel a bit rehashed, as if Russell T. is running through his greatest hits. Especially the relationship between Donna and her mom, who feels entirely like a stock character made up of pieces of Jackie and Martha's mother. And the main plot, with the fat people who make farting noises and then have babies burst out of them, is literally a rehash of the Slitheen. Except that this time it's not evil aliens pretending to be fat people, it's innocent fat people who give birth to evil aliens. And the alien babies are actually babies this time, instead of just looking baby-like.
I take comfort in the fact that the previous two season openers were also paper-thin: the one in the hospital with the cat-nuns, where the hospital gets sealed off and there's an evil secret. And the one in the hospital with the Judoon, where the hospital gets sealed off and there's an evil secret. Russell T. has a record of tossing out his fluffiest episode first, and then getting into the heavier stuff later. And indeed, everyone who's seen next week's Pompeii episode says it's miles better than the army-of-babies one, with Donna actually showing more emotional range.
Meanwhile, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the episode sets up some mysteries for the season's overall arc. The main one, of course, is the Rose-ghost whom Donna tells about the car keys in the rubbish bin. (Which, if I was Donna's mom, would be grounds for disowning her, by the way.) Then there's also the question of where Miss Foster got her own version of the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, but there's a good chance we'll never find out. And then it's possible there's some significance to the fact that Donna and her grandfather Wilf both met the Doctor separately, a year apart. But it's probably just a coincidence. (And why wasn't Wilf at the wedding anyway?)
But, yes, it was a jolly romp, and it was nice to see David Tennant jutting his chin and shouting, "Oh, yes!" again. And a still-impressive 8.4 million Brits tuned in. So even if you hope (like me) that we're reaching the tail end of the RTD era of Who, the phenomenon still seems to be going strong. And I'm pretty sure there are better episodes ahead. What did you think?