By Ross Ruediger
After more or less trashing "Voyage of the Damned" last week, it'd be all too easy to start a trend by picking apart Season Four's first proper episode, "Partners in Crime." The series has followed a predictable pattern with its season openers. They're romps that acquaint (or reacquaint) the lead characters. The antagonist threat seems mild in comparison to typical Doctor dilemmas. There's always an emphasis on humor, some mild social commentary, loads of running around and an easily resolved finale. "Partners in Crime" does adhere to the formula, but last week I stated "...Who should, at the very least, recycle the old into something vaguely new." Where "Partners" succeeds is in its mild tweaking of the norm. If the season continues playing with established formula (which I'll try to address in the coming weeks), then it could end up the best batch of episodes yet.
Donna Noble (Catherine Tate)—last seen in "The Runaway Bride"—noses around Adipose Industries. Cosmically coincidentally, so does the Doctor (David Tennant). Both seem aware that something is not right: Adipose offers a miraculous weight loss solution in the form of a nightly pill. Their slogan "the fat just walks away" is a sign of things to come... as is the icy personality of Miss Foster (Sarah Lancashire), Adipose's head. The first ten or so minutes involves the two leads comically missing each other on several occasions. Armed with clues and Adipose-issued doohickey necklaces, both separately leave the building, setting off on identical missions to meet Adipose customers. The Doctor encounters a man who swears the pill works—but oddly at the same time every night; the man's cat flap may be a key. The customer Donna meets also preaches success, but when the woman trots off to the loo, Donna fiddles with the charm on the necklace. In the bathroom, the woman begins bubbling, and from within her skin starts popping tiny, marshmallowy creatures. The Adipose slogan is coming together! At first it seems harmless... but it becomes sinister when the woman dissolves completely into dozens of the critters. Donna breaks through the door only to see clothing and the last little creature waving and then disappearing through the window.
It's been bizarre fun and games up to this point, but the action settles as both Donna and the Doctor return to their respective abodes for the night, and it's here where the episode begins to work a little magic. Donna's pushing 40 with zero prospects of success—professional or personal. Her grating mother, Sylvia (Jacqueline King), seems to live only to remind her daughter of her shortcomings. In a moving scene dominated by effective dissolves, we understand what Donna's life has failed to become. The sequence is countered by Donna's subsequent visit to her grandfather, Wilfred (Bernard Cribbins), who was slyly introduced last week as a nameless newspaper vendor. Wilf's the opposite of Sylvia—an impractical dreamer who only sees the best in Donna, and spends his nights searching the skies for signs of something bigger. When she tells him she's searching for a man—a certain man in a blue box—her mission at Adipose is clear. We realize they've both met this extraordinary man, but are failing to figure it out. It's a beautiful moment that's hooked into the dual simplicity & complexity of the Doctor Who universe. Meanwhile in the TARDIS, the Doctor examines the Adipose necklace. He speaks aloud... to Martha or Rose or Sarah Jane—but he is alone, and the visuals emphasize the loneliness.
Donna and the Doctor return to Adipose the next day, each armed with knowledge. Via a series of scenes too perfect to setup in a recap, they finally see each other through opposing windows on either side of a room occupied by Miss Foster. Donna is ecstatic and the Doctor bewildered. What follows is an incredibly amusing game of Read My Lips coupled with Charades, as they try to communicate with each other. The scene's tailor-made for Tate's talents. Of course we do not want a season dominated by comedy and farce, but it's important for a new companion to bring a little something different to the table. This bit weighs so heavy in Tate's favor that eventually Tennant just hands it over to her. But Foster finally sees them and a chase ensues. They end up on the roof and after the obligatory catch-up, Donna finds herself dangling from a window-washer's rig, with the Doctor trying to save them both from Foster's sonic pen.
It's revealed that Foster is nothing more than an alien nanny whose job it is to help give birth to countless Adipose babies (the little marshmallow dudes) via the fat from humans; the Adipose race has somehow lost their breeding planet. (It's best at this point to just go with it.) The Doctor says no and Foster's plan shifts gears until the entire London Adipose clientele is in danger of dissolving. Much action ensues. The Deus Ex Necklaces end up being the key to righting wrongs and saving lives. (Indeed, the biggest criticism to launch at "Partners" would be at the necklaces, which probably filled in every plot hole of the script's first draft.) Foster seems unphased. The Adipose mothership arrives—a dead ringer for the ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and beams up all the babies, while the disposable nanny hits the pavement. Near as I can tell, the death toll is only two—Foster and the woman Donna dealt with early on.
Donna's impressed by how smoothly things went compared to the mayhem of their last meeting. She's been hanging on his invitation to go TARDISing ever since—an invite the Doctor barely recalls. She's packed, ready to go and he's the man of her dreams. He's reluctant and explains that with the last girl, Martha, he let things get complicated... which leads to a priceless exchange:
The Doctor: "I just want a mate."
Donna: "You just want to mate?"
The Doctor: "I just want a mate!"
Donna: "You're not matin' with me sunshine!"
The Doctor: "A mate! I want a mate!!"
Donna: "Well just as well, because I'm not having any of that nonsense! I mean you're just a long streak of...nothing. Ya' know, alien nothing!"
And so the parameters are laid down and the Doctor/companion relationship is forged. I've hoped since Tate's return was announced that the Doctor/Donna dynamic wouldn't have any romantic entanglements. It's been done twice, from two different angles. The Doctor's life is romantic enough—and that joy, wonder and possibility Donna's searching for can carry the season.
Before Donna boards the TARDIS, she insists on returning the car keys to her mother. A cell phone conversation ensues, and she tells Sylvia to look in a particular street bin. She approaches a stranger and explains a tall, blond woman will come along, etc., etc. Donna excitedly heads toward the past, future and everything in between. The stranger turns around and it's Rose (Billie Piper). She looks disturbed and hurt—that's my take; you read it your own way. She turns back around, walks away, and disappears like a ghost. (Impossible to recap it as effectively as it played.) I'm going with the assumption that she's somehow found a way to cross back into our universe for brief periods (much like the Doctor did at the close of "Doomsday") and is searching for the Time Lord. Dunno why and don't wanna guess. Could be for love. Could be her universe is in peril and he's the only one who can save it. Maybe both or neither. I've read numerous theories and the only one I staunchly reject is that there's something malicious about her attitude.
Anyone who's followed my recaps knows I've sworn that Rose would return since the moment she left. It's been no secret since early in the filming of Season Four that Rose/Billie would be returning. But I don't think anybody (including me) expected that moment in the first episode of the season. Suddenly the story became something more than just "4.1." Coming out of the gate, it gives the season depth. I love Rose and I love Billie Piper and it's difficult to understand how anyone could've followed the new series from the beginning without feeling the same. The end of "Doomsday" was perfect, but it clearly wasn't the end of Rose's story. Not in Doctor Who, and certainly not in Davies' version.
Beyond Rose's chilling cameo, "Partners in Crime" succeeds by "recycling the old into something vaguely new." The antagonists not only aren't threatening, but the two deaths that do occur are on the Doctor and Donna's watches. Miss Foster's plan would likely have come off without a hitch had the Doctor and Donna not gotten involved (though both seem oblivious to this). London would've been thinner and the Adiposians would've had millions of chillun'. Perhaps the nosey journalist, Penny (Verona Joseph), would've been a casualty, but here she survived and hated the Doctor and Donna (wonder if we'll see her again?). The Adipose themselves were "mostly harmless"—Doctor Who's Tribbles. Mostly though, "Partners" trumps last year's "Smith and Jones" because the new companion has been written with a stronger sense of self. Martha stumbled into the TARDIS; Donna found her way there on purpose. For the first time it feels the companion is the Doctor's equal from the word go. Donna is someone who can genuinely take care of herself. It'll be interesting to see how the character is played over the season, as there's something frail beneath her abrasive surface.
The story ends (against the usual grain) with the companion thinking of someone else. When the Doctor asks Donna where she wants to go, she says, "Two and a half miles that way." Wilfred sees the blue box in the night sky. The doors are open. Donna is visible... and so is the Doctor. He "gets it," presumably long before she does.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based writer. In addition to contributing to The House Next Door, he also publishes The Rued Morgue and writes for Bullz-Eye.
NEXT WEEK: A trip into Earth's past turns explosive in "The Fires of Pompeii."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: If Season Four has yet to work its magic on you, I urge you to check out "Time-Flight." Even the worst fare the new series has presented will look fantastic by comparison.