“THE STOLEN EARTH” (DOCTOR WHO, SERIES 4, EPISODE 12)
Reviewed: 29th June, 2008
Director: Graeme Harper
Writer: Russell T. Davies
Starring: David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Freema Agyeman, John Barrowman, Elizabeth Sladen, Billie Piper, Julian Bleach, and Nicholas Briggs
My Rating: 7 out of 10
WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD. I’LL TRY TO KEEP ‘EM TO A MINIMUM, BUT IF YOU DON’T WANNA KNOW WHO/WHAT THE VILLAIN IS, STOP READING NOW.
As both the penultimate episode of Series 4 and as the first of a two-parter, “The Stolen Earth” has the unenviable burden of having to dump a tonne of setup and information on the audience to get us ready for the big finale, and most Part 1 episodes – not just of Doctor Who, but of TV shows in general – tend to suck for just that reason. Russell T Davies managed to dodge that bullet last year with “The Sound of Drums”, a fantastic villain-centric piece that trumped the following episode in my opinion, and I was hoping like hell that Davies could pull it off again. To that end the episode follows a similar tactic of putting the Doctor and Donna in the backseat and letting not just the villains but the allies drive the episode.
The episode opens with the Earth joining the ever-growing list of missing planets, so the Doctor and Donna seek the help of the Shadow Proclamation, an intergalactic law enforcement body. Meanwhile, the Earth is being invaded by armies of Daleks. With the Doctor unavailable, we see Rose, Martha, Captain Jack, Sarah Jane, UNIT and Torchwood banding together to save the Earth.
Anyone who thinks Doctor Who isn’t a truly epic television series deserves a sharp slap over the back of the head. Davies’ plot moves along with a ferocious pace, with each plot point taking the episode to further and further extremes. Vast armies, death and destruction, some surprises that were spoiled a while back and even a few that really did take me by surprise. I had fears that with so many mysteries set up across Series 4 – disappearing planets, the Medusa Cascade, the Shadow Proclamation and the bees – we’d be short-shifted with the explanations but each mystery, each solution forms an intrinsic part of the overall plot. My only complaint is that the plot moves so fast that 45 minutes had passed in what seemed like no time at all.
Everyone’s acting was fantastic too. Though Davies did throw some clunky dialogue into the script, particularly in Martha’s scenes (but Davies always fumbles at least one element of these big episodes), the episodes huge cast gave it their all and did great. Catherine Tate has been outstanding through her entire run with the show, and she’s just as great here, but I’m throwing the big kudos to John Barrowman and Elizabeth Sladen as Captain Jack and Sarah Jane, respectively. The scene where the Daleks broadcast their catchphrase to the entire world could’ve been extremely cheesy but Barrowman and Sladen’s performances really sold it as they gave us glimpses of extreme terror that we’ve rarely seen on the program. Heck, I’d go so far as to say they single-handedly made me scared of the Daleks in a way I haven’t been since first watching “Bad Wolf”.
And on that subject, more kudos to Davies for giving us some brilliant Dalek villains. The trio of Davros, Caan and the Dalek Supreme is fantastic, with each bringing something different and yet still Dalek-y to the story. Hearing the Dalek Supreme gloat was unsettling, especially since, as Davros says, it’s not supposed to have any emotions with which to gloat. Davros himself is creepier than ever: the costuming department has done a fantastic job of updating this classic villain for the 21st century, and actor Julian Bleach really captures what made Davros a fantastic foil for the Doctor. But the out-and-out scariest Dalek moment was, for me, Caan cackling like a maniac in his broken shell, rattling off predictions of the future. Having a Dalek go so far off the reservation was a great move on Davies part.
Graeme Harper is the show’s best director, full stop. He has the two most important qualities of any television director: he’s able to get such brilliant performances from his actors, and he knows how to take a small amount of set or location space and make the most of it. The three-dimensional space of the Torchwood Hub is put to good use as Harper moves about a lot, never getting too jittery but always maintaining a visual sense of things happening and tension rising. The UNIT headquarters and Sarah Jane’s house are a bit too 2D to look as impressive, but Harper’s use of unusual angles, hero shots and visual shorthand make those scenes just as compelling. And the TARDIS scenes… well, I think you could shoot the TARDIS scenes with a camera phone and a flashlight and it’d still look fantastic, but having such a top-notch crew and director didn’t hurt one bit.
The reason this episode let me down is because, as with all Part 1’s, it’s all setup. All through the episode Davies is dumping information on the audience and on his protagonists, and never once in the 45 minutes did I feel like I had been given something substantial. A lot did happen in this episode, but to be completely accurate, a lot began to happen in this episode before we were left hanging on that damned cliff, waiting for next week’s episode. And while I love a good cliffhanger, I think Davies has pushed us a little far.
All in all I enjoyed this episode. There was certainly a lot to like, between the breakneck speed of the plot, to the awesome use of Daleks and Dalek villains, to the great ensemble of heroes that Davies has pulled together (good Lord, they flirt a lot), but they’re tempered by the massive cliffhanger and the insane amount of exposition dumped on the audience. But that’s a Part 1 for you. Bring on the series finale! Or alternatively, if anyone reading has a TARDIS of their own, get the episode from next week and bring it back for the rest of us to watch.
So long, and thanks for all the pollen. 😉
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Tags: barrowman, billie, bleach, briggs, captain, catherine, dalek, david, doctor, donna, earth, elizabeth, harkness, jack, john, judoon, julian, nicholas, noble, piper, rose, sarah jane, series 4, sladen, smith, stolen, tate, tennant, tyler, who