BBC Video // 2008 // 687 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // January 7th, 2009
Donna: "I don't suppose you've seen a little blue box?"
Wilfred: "Is that slang for something?"
Donna: "No. I mean it. If you ever see a little blue box flying up there in the sky, you shout for me Gramps. Oh you just shout."
Entire online wars are fought over opinions likes this, but Martha Jones never worked as a Doctor Who companion for me. There was no obvious reason for an independent woman with a close family and a medical career to arbitrarily abandon everything to go time-hopping with a total stranger and the writers couldn't think of a deeper one besides making her hopelessly in love with the Doctor. Series 3 became so soppy I gave up halfway through.
And then along came Donna.
The Doctor is in! The revived series is back for a fourth round of travels through time and space including a trip on the Titanic, an encounter with flesh-eating shadows, and the return of Donna Noble, along with some classic Who villains.
BBC Video's Doctor Who: The Complete Fourth Series brings us the uncut 13 episode series, the 2007 Christmas Special, and more special features than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at.
I don't think I've laughed or cried more with a show than I have with the fourth series of Doctor Who. After an underwhelming third series, the show bounces back for a reinvigorated fourth with characters and scenarios I can't help but get swept along with.
This series sticks to the same overall formula as the past three -- trip to the future, trip to the past, two-parter on Earth, two parter in space and time, overstuffed finale-but with a renewed sense of fun and drama and a lot of that has to do with Catherine Tate.
Tate's comedy background means she's not afraid to look less than perfect and she throws herself into emotionally heavy moments with as much passion as the slapstick ones. The chemistry she has with David Tennant's cheeky, frenetic version of the Doctor makes the pair as fun to watch as Nick and Nora Charles.
Last seen in the third series Christmas special "The Runaway Bride," Donna Noble is Martha Jones' mouthy antidote. There's no element of worship in Donna's relationship with the Doctor; she doesn't tag along because he's cute and clever but because she's spent her whole life trapped in a 9-5 routine without an ounce of real adventure. She's got all the moxie of '70s era Sarah Jane but with a modern sense of dissatisfaction and a character arc that broke my heart 10 times over.
It's this attention to the human element that sets the show apart from other sci-fi. The claustrophobic "Midnight" uses the paranoia of tourists trapped in a travel shuttle to create a heavy atmosphere, and "The Stolen Earth" renders the overused Daleks (briefly) terrifying again by zooming in on former Who companions. We've already seen the interstellar Nazis exterminating people by the thousands but when you see characters clutching their friends and family, recognizing what the Daleks are and their utter helplessness at the same time. The two part Sontaran arc whips out sci-fi standbys like evil clones and a boy genius (Not to mention an unrecognizable Christopher Ryan from The Young Ones) and turns out a one of the best two-parters in years thanks to the character curveballs Helen Raynor works into the script.
Doctor Who box sets are not cheap -- more than double the cost of an American television season with half the episodes -- but the extra content always gives an interstellar bang for your buck. There isn't a single episode on The Complete Fourth Series that doesn't include a commentary, a mini documentary, and the original teasers, and most include deleted scenes or alternate takes with intros by Executive Producer Russell T. Davies. The commentaries feature a rotating roster of participants, from actors and writers, to directors, production crew, and even guest stars so there's never the same combo twice.
Even better are the bonuses you could only get in grainy YouTube clips. The major thing never to make it to American shores is the annual "Children in Need" charity short. These 10-minute Who episodes always serve as a bridge between one series and the next and this year's "Time Crash" is treat for the Classic Who fans because it features Peter Davison's fifth incarnation of the Doctor meeting up with Tennant's tenth. Housed on their own disc is the "Doctor Who Confidential" series that goes behind the scenes of each episode
The set is rounded off with an episode booklet with a foreword by Davies and a trading card, if you're into that sort of thing, plus two Video Diaries from the highly excitable Tennant. How highly excitable? When a Police escort arrives to get the tardy time lord to an event his camera whips from the motorcycles to passing motorists as he babbles gleeful commentary. Not really pertinent to the series but fun to watch. All episodes are in their original widescreen format at come with a booming 5.1 surround mix which is unfortunately carried over into the massively loud menu screen.
Sometimes series four's stories are a little too familiar, with whole episodes that send-up scriptwriters' favorite influences. "Voyage of the Damned" is a 90-minute remake of The Poseidon Adventure (it's much better than the actual remake, but still...) and part of the reason "Midnight" works so well is that it's the thematic cousin to The Twilight Zone classic "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street." With a series this short there's no time to waste on this much homage, whether they turn out brilliantly or as steaming clunkers like "The Unicorn and the Wasp."
Series four also trots out a never-ending procession of tragic, self-sacrificing blondes to use as canon fodder so the Doctor can angst, the fangirls can swoon, and everyone can get hammered with reminders of Rose as "foreshadowing." After all these hints and two episodes setting up an epic series conclusion, "Journey's End" delivers nothing but cheap twist after cheap twist and tacks on a one-two punch epilogue hoping to yank your heartstrings so hard you don't notice that nothing that just happened makes a lick of sense.
From my brief, terrifying excursions into online Who fandom, a vocal chunk of viewers lay all the blame on departing executive producer Russell T. Davies and think the incoming Steven Moffat is going to be the series' savior. I like Moffat, but he's guilty of the same stuff. The entire River Song subplot in "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead" is straight out of The Time Traveler's Wife; he even recycles one of the most resonant lines from his series one episodes for a cheap emotional shortcut in these ones.
Series Four is a return to form for Doctor Who, with all the humor, adventure, and heartbreak that implies. Sure, the formula is getting stale but the scripts are sharp, even when they are less than original. If you're looking to get into the show, some of the big twists in The Complete Fourth Series won't resonate, but the return of the fast-pace and character interaction of series one and two makes a good start at getting the show back on the newbie-friendly track.
Not Guilty. Allons-y!
Review content copyright © 2009 Kristin Munson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 687 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary
* Deleted Scenes