Russell T. Davies' detractors should really be forced to watch the first half of "The Death of the Doctor," his new Doctor Who/Sarah Jane Adventures crossover. His full genius for character development and his love of the program shone through.
We'll have another recap tomorrow, after part two airs in the U.K., but for now suffice to say that "Death of the Doctor" was way better than we were expecting. Gutsy move, really, killing off the Doctor once and for all, not in an episode of his own show, but in a midseason episode of his spin-off series. Of course, nobody will be shocked to learn that he's not really dead, but the thought counts.
Doctor Who has a sort of rocky track record when it comes to nostalgia episodes — the show took a serious nose dive, quality-wise, in the 80s, when it started featuring tons of obscure references to episodes from the 1960s and 1970s. But what RTD has always done really well is to play up the fact that Who was always a bit of a soap opera, and there were always layers of subtext in the Doctor-companion relationship (just watch the bit in "Tomb of the Cybermen" where the Doctor tells Victoria that their lives are different than anyone else's, or the TARDIS scene from "Pyramids of Mars" that this episode helpfully included a glimpse of. Not to mention the famous tear at the end of "The Green Death.") Pulling out the emotional core from that subtext is something that really, really good fanfic has done in the past, but it's also something that a really good modern-day television show can do, similar to what Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles did for the second Terminator movie.
So there are three segments in this episode, and they're each wonderful in their own way:
1) Sarah hears the Doctor's dead, and refuses to believe it. This is especially lovely if you remember that Sarah believes that the Doctor is dead in almost every one of her stories. It's the running gag of her character, back in the day, that she's always soaking the Doctor's velvet jacket or scarf with tears, when he's not really dead. But now that she's hearing from the people (and creatures) who ought to know best that he really is dead this time, she won't believe it. And yet, just confronting the idea that the Doctor might be dead brings out all sorts of fascinating stuff as all the characters confront the spectre of mortality. I'd never have predicted my favorite bits of the episode would be those scenes between Rani and her dad, where he comforts her, and then they talk about her mum washing the walls. RTD's the master of weird little observations. (I also loved Luke yanking Clyde's chain with his fictional new best friend.)
2) Jo turns out to be the perfect foil for Sarah Jane. In many ways, Jo is the opposite of Sarah Jane — she left the Doctor, rather than the other way around. Jo found another man, a sort of Doctor-ish figure, and they rushed around the world being mad together. And yet, the Doctor never returned to visit Jo — whereas Sarah Jane received her own robot dog, got kidnapped in "The Five Doctors" and was practically having weekly get-togethers with David Tennant's Doctor. Talking to Jo, Sarah Jane is so obviously the Doctor's favorite that it's a bit embarrassing. And just as Sarah Jane was designed to be the more independent, more "feminist" companion in contrast to Jo's miniskirted silliness back in the day, Sarah Jane is still the more independent. Ever since RTD brought Sarah Jane back in "School Reunion," the mythology about her has been that she pined for the Doctor for years, instead of getting on with her life — but now, more than ever, we see that maybe she had a harder time than Jo because she had a harder task. Jo wanted to find herself a Doctor-substitute that she could marry (not unlike a certain other companion who shall remain nameless). Sarah Jane's destiny was to become a kind of Doctor-substitute herself. But the look of hurt in Jo's eyes when she realizes the Doctor has been coming back to Sarah Jane speaks volumes.
3) The plot cranks into high gear, and it turns out the Shansheeth's plan depends on Sarah Jane and Jo getting lost in memory lane. I was sort of hoping it would turn out that Sarah Jane (and maybe Jo) were immune to this trap, because they've moved on with their lives and they don't obsess about the Doctor any longer. But no luck — they fall into the trap anyway, because they decide to brainstorm about which of the Doctor's enemies would be most likely to have faked his death. And then, to nobody's surprise, the Doctor himself turns up, via an unexpected route — and RTD writes a good eleventh Doctor. (Poor Jo — the "somebody baked you" line is a bit of a low blow.) And
given that it seems like the lion's share of great Eleventh Doctor moments will be coming in tomorrow's episode, it's fair to say we absolutely can't wait for part two.
What did you think?