Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 778: The Poison Sky
Throughout Series Three I felt like a bit of a yo-yo when it came to the subject of Martha’s family. I remembered them as being a bit poorly conceived when compared to the likes of the Tylers or the Nobles. But then, there were hidden dimensions to them that I’d forgotten about since broadcast, and nice moments which - while not quite elevating them to the same level as those other families - certainly put them on a more even playing field. Then, come the finale, I felt that they didn’t quite work again, and the threat wasn’t sold to me via them in the way I might have expected. Ultimately, I just didn’t care about them. Thankfully, in the end, Martha did, and it’s been used to great effect in this story. I love that she makes a point of telling Donna that travelling with the Doctor caused her family so much pain, and actively urges her to speak to her own family (it also leads to that great exchange between the Doctor and Donna about going home! Hah!). It’s also a nice touch that one of the things to tip the Doctor off that Martha’s been replaced is the fact that she hasn’t thought to phone her family yet - when he knows that’s the first thing she’d do after the events of the last series.
It also shows up just how much better Donna’s family are done, though - I’ve just clicked with them instantly. There’s a moment in yesterday’s episode where Donna walks down her street - taking in the fact that she’s just gone back to normal life once more - and then she sees Wilf standing in the driveway. He waves! he dances a little! He tears up… and so did I! Watching the 21st century series thing time around is making me well up a lot more than it ever did the first time, but there’s just something about the sight of Wilf there, so pleased to see his granddaughter back safe and sound that really struck a chord with me.
And then they go inside, and discuss the life that Donna’s been leading these last few weeks, and everything about the scene absolutely rings true. The way that Wilf tells her not to tell Sylvia, and the way Sylvia reacts when she thinks something is being kept from her. If anything, this is the most real family that the Russell T Davies era gives us, and it’s really the backbone of these episodes for me. You can keep your Sontarans, your intergalactic wars, and your poison skies, I’ll settle for just these family scenes, thanks.
But the beauty of the programme at this point is that we can have all these beautiful family moments, and have all those other things, too! So; the Sontarans. I spent a fair bit of time musing yesterday about the fact that I’d not really consider them to be particularly big or important monsters in Doctor Who, but I think - after the family stuff - they’re the thing I’ve enjoyed the most about this two-parter. Not necessarily their plan, or the story involving them, but just the way that they’re portrayed as a little bit comical, but also totally warlike.
Take the battle sequence, for example, in which they go to war against UNIT; there’s something in the sheer delight they take at the situation that makes them stand out from the other Doctor Who monsters. We’ve seen Daleks taking out people en masse, but when they do it, it’s simply functional. In The Parting of the Ways, for example, I praised the fact that we got to see them going down to Level Zero to kill all the humans stranded there. It was great, but it was calculated, and there wasn’t any emotion behind it from the point-of-view of the baddies. Watching as Dan Starkey stomps into battle, though, and likens it to sport makes me almost root for the Sontarans! Bless them, they’re only playing!
As for the story… well, as I say, I can take or leave that. I’m a little saddened that we’ve yet to see Sontarans in a proper all-out war, so spending two episodes with the Doctor musing that this is so unlike the Sontaran’s usual tactics means that I’m left longing for the story I want to see. It’s also just a bit ‘been there, done that’ in places, with moments like Luke’s students deserting him and his later being betrayed by the Sontarans falling flat because they’re more than a little clichéd, and because the students have only really been seen in the background so far - which means I don’t really feel anything for them when confronted with a gun.
On the whole, I think there’s a lot of great ideas in these tow episodes - and when it latches onto something real like the depictions of Donna’s homecoming, it really sings - but it’s a draft or two away from being as tight as it could be.