“Death of the Doctor” Review

What if the Doctor were dead? How would his former companions, many of whom seem to be concentrated on Earth at around the turn of the millennium, know if he passed in the farthest outer reaches of time and space?

This being an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures rather than Doctor Who, the focus is on the titular former companion who travelled first with the third and fourth Doctors, and met the tenth Doctor on four occasions.  Though in fact, the whole story feels much more like an Classic/NuWho hybrid than a regular entry in this series, with heavy (and highly effective) usage of nostalgia inducing clips from both.  Most of all, though, this story is a sequel to The Green Death, the story in which Jo Grant bid farewell to the third Doctor to marry the eco-activist Dr Clifford Jones.

The script for this one is by former Doctor Who show-runner Russell T. Davies, who left at the same time as David Tennant, and authored some of my least favourite – and also some of my most favourite – ninth and tenth Doctor episodes.  This is RTD at his very best – imaginative, funny, emotional, human – and his love for the show shines through in the way he writes for Jo Jones.  Jo Grant was never my favourite companion – after Liz Shaw the dizzy airhead seemed a step backwards, but Katy Manning is sensationally good in this, and this is her story in the same way School Reunion was Sarah Jane’s.  She plays the character exactly as you imagine Jo might be 37 years after we last saw her – chirpy, excitable, perhaps a tiny bit less naive and and a fraction more self-aware, and above all generous and outgoing.

Her performance is perfectly suited to Davies’ writing, and he writes beautiful scenes for her.  Her reaction, having left the Doctor to get married, to hearing that the Doctor is now travelling with a married couple, is heartbreaking.  Her relationship with the Doctor makes you feel like she’s looking at him and seeing third Doctor, which is all the more affecting if you know how fond Manning was of the late Jon Pertwee.  And Matt Smith himself, having reminded me of the youthfulness and boisterousness of McGann, Davison and Troughton in the last series of Doctor Who, seems suddenly, in the company of these two ladies who both went to Peladon with Pertwee to become him, with his crankiness, inner amusement and grandfatherly affection for them.  Is this the first time we’ve seen the Doctor played by an actor who’s half the age of his companions?  In this case, it certainly works.

With Matt Smith as the Doctor, written by Russell T. Davies, and featuring Jo Grant, it promised to be a beautiful funeral; and this story doesn’t disappoint.  If I had a criticism it would be that some of the magic of the first episode was lost in the routine running around, but even then we were compensated by a quick update on Ian, Barbara, Ben, Polly, Harry, Teagan and Ace.  And so perfectly timed to tide us over from The Big Bang to the Christmas Special.

About Simon Wood

E-learning officer, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

14 thoughts on ““Death of the Doctor” Review

        1. So… What did you think?Yes, I did, and if I hadn’t I heard the fan uproar, before and after!My favourite take on this was by @theolismith, who, as you will no doubt be able to infer 😉 is writing as though he’s watching The Deadly Assassin ‘THIRTEEN?! What happened to “forever barring accidents”? Doctor Who is dead to me, Bob Holmes must go… ooh #SJA is on.’The 507 line was, IMO, clearly a joke, but it’s insignificant anyway.

          1. I agree: definitely a joke.

            Anyway, I loved it! Jo Grant was with the Doctor when I first started watching. I do think she should have remembered her promise to save him a piece of wedding cake.

          2. Glad you liked it. I’m neither a huge fan of Jo Grant or the Green Death, but (and I think this may be the one thing that actually unites all Who fans) I do love that final scene where the Doctor sneaks away.

            And I did think Katy Manning was superb in this one, better than ever.

          3. did you know that if you added 5+0+7 it equals 12 meaning RTD was being clever about the regeneration limit.

  1. I wish I’d been able to watch this without knowing that RTD had penned it. Perhaps it was because I was expecting it, but it had all the earmarks of an RTD story – that is, unfortunately, not a compliment.

    Sparkling dialogue, over-used and massively over-complicated story setup, under-resolved. It was a textbook example of his writing, although it does seem better suited for SJA than DW.

    Am I really supposed to believe that UNIT resources can build that massive great funereal rocket in just a handful of days but they can’t get Liz Shaw back from the moon or the Brigadier back from South America in the same length of time? Classic RTD putting stuff on the screen you’re expected to swallow because of the sugar-coating.

    Still, points given for RTD having the courage to write that Jo looked “baked.”

    Shocking plot nonsense aside, Matt Smith was in fine form, but I’m not sure I would have known Katy Manning was supposed to be playing Jo Grant. The characterization didn’t seem consistent at all.

    A pleasant diversion and largely inoffensive but a good example of why I’m glad RTD is gone from DW.

    1. It’s entirely subjective whether having the hallmarks of an RTD story is a compliment. As you say, there’s the sparkling dialogue and his writing is witty, emotional, funny and refreshingly unconcerned with burdensome aspects of continuity (I know many fans might have preferred elaborate account of why Jo didn’t remember The Five Doctors but thankfully RTD is more concerned with the story). If knowing this was an RTD story affected the way you watched this, that is a shame. I find him incredibly variable as a writer, not necessarily in terms of the things he does well, and the things he does badly, but in how the measures of these impact on the final script. For example, I’m often disappointed by the second part of his two-parters, and here again I enjoyed the first part more but in this case only by a tiny margin (compared with, say, the huge difference between The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End).

      I’ve no idea how UNIT acquired/built the rocket (it wasn’t a great concern for me, so I don’t recall whether it was a custom built especially for this occasion), but would that really be comparable with the (far more human) question of the whether or how to attend a funeral where the logistical questions are often complicated by many other factors, including personal circumstances, and indeed emotional reaction… I’m not sure it should be, and it certainly didn’t occur to me while I was watching it.

      And as I said in the review, I thought Katy Manning’s characterisation convinced me entirely that this was the Jo we knew plus 37; I’ve heard her play the character a couple of times in recent years and not nearly so well as this.

      1. It’s a funny old thing about spoilers and the like. Some people jealously fight against them, others don’t care at all. I admit, I fall somewhere in the middle – sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t.

        Knowing who the writer of a story is can be a massive spoiler to me. Even without giving away any specific plot points, a writer’s style, vision and their agenda/biases often dictate where the story will inevitably go and, when I know a writer has a strong pattern, I begin to see it – even, perhaps, when it isn’t really there.

        It alters the way I process the story in my mind while watching it and that can either enhance or detract from my viewing experience.

        While watching this, I was expecting the things I don’t like about RTD (most notably that he never lets something as insignificant as a logical plot get in the way of a character scene) and I got them, that’s why I wish I’d seen it without that knowledge. Would it have changed my perception of the story overall? I wonder. I really wonder.

        1. I’ll avoid plot spoilers like the plague. I’m not quite as extreme as Tarquin (I don’t mind knowing if people think somethings good or bad) but I prefer not to know. Having said that, things I like get a repeat watch, so I suppose even knowing the plot isn’t that big a deal, and certainly knowing who’s doing the writing (as opposed to what they will do with it) doesn’t bother me a bit.

          The thing is, if the same episode with the same minor flaws (for the sake of argument – as I’m not convinced this story really has actual flaws) were written by a new writer, and you liked it better… well that means that after those first few episodes where you picked up RTD’s pattern you’re predisposed not to like RTD episodes. There’s now way you’d like his stuff unless he surprised you by completely changing his style. And that being the case I can see it’s be good for you if RTD were gone from Doctor Who.

          Davies has written some of my favourite Doctor Who. He’s written a lot of Doctor Who lately, so by the law of averages some of it should be good, but even so some of his work has been outstanding… I’m glad that after only 10 months he’s writing for the Doctor again, and since we didn’t expect that to happen, I’m wondering whether (and hoping that) we might get an RTD script in “series 7” or “series 7B”…

          1. I have this hypothesis that most writers need at least a second pair of eyes.

            For example, consider authors like JK Rowling or Stephen King. When they were starting out, the wrote nice, reasonably concise and manageable books, but as their fame and popularity grew, they began writing large, bloated, rambling books.

            Why?

            The answer, I think, is all about power. New writer gets a contract for a book, he gets assigned an editor. The editor’s job is to help the author tighten up and make a marketable book. Editors can be ruthless.

            But as an author gets more famous, does the editor continue to wield their red pen as actively, do then fall into a trap of saying, “well, so and so sold 400 million bazillion books. Who am I to second guess them?”

            But the fact is the DO need someone to reign them in.

            RTD strikes me that way. If he just had somebody to look over his scripts and say, “Russ, this doesn’t make sense” or “Russ baby, a little less talkin’ and a little more plotting” he’d produce significantly better material.

            Few render characters through dialogue as well as he does.

            I wonder if, writing for Moffat, he might not produce his best work ever – assuming he ever does write for the main series.

          2. I agree with this.

            There are two elements to it: firstly, the quality of the work produced by writers when they were hungry is often higher, for all sorts of reasons, I’m sure, but which include the sway they hold (or lack thereof) to control the whole enterprise. They’re forced to listen to the “second pair of eye”, and, in essence to collaborate.

            The second, which for me is far more relevant to the way RTD works, has to do with an unevenness. He’s publicly spoken about how he avoids over-writing stuff; his character scenes and dialogue are his strength and he doesn’t want to lose the spontaneity, and the upshot is that he sometimes under-plots. I think it’s valuable for an artist to know when to stop (and since no-one tends to claim writing is easy, I’m not going to doubt that he knows himself well enough to decide that when he stops he’s produced the best work he can). However, the best thing I’ve seen of his (and which was really, really outstanding) was Children of Earth which, of course, was written as a team.

            So I’m inclined to think that if he were to start writing for Doctor Who again, it might be the best Who he’s done, but it might be much more consistent in getting close to it.

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