Series 3 had quite the challenge ahead of it because it was the first series of New Who to not feature Rose as the companion. You can sit there and debate all day about how good of a companion Rose actually was, but in 2007, Rose was still a beloved companion that was fresh in the mind of the fanbase at large, so anyone that came along next was going to be heavily scrutinized.
I’ll get into detail on what I thought throughout this list, but overall I think Martha was a worthy replacement to Rose that took the characterisation of a companion in enough of a new direction to avoid feeling like “another Rose”.
However, there was a lot more to this series than just Martha, so let’s get into it and rank every episode of Doctor Who Series 3.
10 – The Lazarus Experiment
One of the things that distinguished Series 3 for me, is that even in episodes I consider bad, there’s usually a decent amount of elements that I liked. This episode is the one exception to that thought.
This entire episode really gives of “last minute” vibes. I’ve no idea what the situation was surrounding the writing of the episode, but everything just felt so rushed, and like the writer just needed to sit there for a while and think everything through and flesh it out a bit more. Even the CGI feels rushed, the visual of the Lazarus monster seems like it was supposed to be the rough render of the creature, but they just sent it out for broadcast instead.
Martha’s family are definitely the worst out of the domestic characters that we get to know throughout new who and I think that’s mostly because we never had any time to flesh them out. They’re in multiple episodes during this series, but this is the only episode where there’s any attempt at fleshing them out as people and unfortunately, it’s not a very good attempt. Martha’s mum is nagging and overprotective, her brother’s a bit too lax about life and her sister’s fairly useless but lucks herself into high-status roles. That’s pretty much all we get, not the mention her dad, who we get pretty much nothing on, other than he’s a bit of a player.
The bulk of the episode is pretty mindless running away from the monster, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I really think this episode needed more to it than that. The conclusion is pretty underwhelming too, with a chase scene that’s nothing special and The Doctor using sound waves to mess with Lazarus’ DNA, which works because…I honestly have no idea how that makes any sense.
The moment at the end of the episode where Martha puts her foot down about just “being a passenger” in the TARDIS was a nice development for the relationship between The Doctor and Martha, but other than that, it’s best to leave this one buried in the middle of the series.
9 – Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks
A little tip for you, don’t spend 3 quarters of the episode setting up a big mystery about who the big bad guys are when the word “Dalek” is literally in the title of the episode.
If you ignore the fact that the big reveal is given away in the title of the episode, the mystery is plotted out pretty well. We find out people are disappearing, we find out it’s linked to something in the sewers until we get the reveal of what’s happening to the people who go down there. The pig slaves are a bit of a weird one because they don’t really thematically make any sense if the Daleks can manipulate genetics to this level, why not create creatures far more useful?
Then there’s the main focus of the plot, which is Dalek Sec taking on a human form and evolving. This is a really interesting concept, that I wish had a bit more time to flourish. I loved the scenes were Sec was confused, but also amazed at some of these human concepts that he’d never experienced in his life and how they slowly affect him, unfortunately, this sort of stuff gets swept under the rug a bit too quickly in order to get to the Daleks murdering everything in sight.
One thing I’ve noticed looking back is that The Tenth Doctor’s attitude towards the Daleks is actually quite inconsistent. The Ninth Doctor pretty clearly wanted to wipe them all out, but it’s never really made clear how this incarnation of The Doctor feels about them. He obviously hates them, but specifically how much is made unclear. In Doomsday, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with getting rid of them all, but in this episode, he’s suddenly all emotional about not wanting to cause another genocide.
I understand that it’s largely because he just saw the human/Dalek hybrids murdered, but not enough weight was really put on that moment for me to actually get the feeling that something had changed in The Doctor’s mind; these are his greatest enemies, it should take longer than a few seconds for him to change his mind about killing them.
This is one of those episodes that I like the concept of, but don’t think the execution lived up to what I wanted from it. If the human Dalek thing had a bit more time to grow I think it could’ve been a lot better, but unfortunately, the second part didn’t spend as much time on it as I would’ve liked and it meant the whole thing just devolved into The Doctor fighting the Daleks yet again.
8 – The Shakespear Code
This episode doesn’t do anything to break the pattern of “historical figure” episodes, The Doctor spends most of it fawning over Shakespear, they mention the darker sides to the character and then they find a way to save the day. I really enjoyed all of the little jokes throughout about Shakespear stealing some of his most famous lines and it puts me in mind of that “Bootstrap Paradox” scene from Capaldi’s era.
The thing is, these episodes tend to live and die on how compelling the historical figure actually is and honestly, I wasn’t overly thrilled by Shakespear. He doesn’t really possess much of a will of its own it seems and I’m not just referring to that bit where the witches possessed him. Shakespeare himself doesn’t seem to serve to move the plot forward at all, everything just tends to happen around him and he goes along with it, he contributes very little of his own thoughts.
On top of that, I’m not really a fan of the Carrionites either. I know they’re cheesy and over the top by design to mirror Shakespear’s writings, but they don’t really fit in with the tone of the rest of the episode. Their powers are also really vaguely defined and I really don’t buy the idea that you can do magic just by saying the right words, not least because it decides to stop working when the plot finds it convenient. That’s just a step too far for me to suspend my disbelief.
Also in this episode, The Doctor and Martha’s relationship accelerates way too fast. That scene where they’re laying in bed in the hotel and Martha just stares at him like she’s already head over heels for him and lets out a sigh is way too much, way too fast. They’ve known each other for a little over a day at this point and sure, if a guy like The Doctor comes along, you’re bound to fall for him quicker than other people, but this was so heavy-handed in only their second episode together, it doesn’t sit right with me.
The climax was actually quite fun to watch though, the sense of terror ended up being delt on quite heavy as the witches emerged from the crystal ball and I love the touch of the red tint to the whirlwind it creates. Although I’ve railed on the idea of words being magic, the solution to the episode does at least work well using that logic, although I’m not the biggest fan of “expelliarmus” being the word to seal the deal. It capped the episode off with a nice fun climax that just about hit the right notes to redeem some of the problems I had with the episode up until that point.
7 – 42
This is another episode that feels pretty throwaway in the grand scheme of things, but I think it has a lot more excitement to it than The Lazarus Experiment. The concept is given to us very concisely in the cold open, broken down spaceship, vaguely defined monster aboard, 42 minutes until everyone dies. It’s simplistic but honestly, I think that’s better for the episode, as where this one falls down is when it tries to add the complexity.
I’ll start off with what I liked. I thought the tension in this episode was done pretty well, the monster tended to pop-up when you weren’t expecting it to and it made for some really good scenes as it slowly killed people. As far as secondary characters go, I thought the crew on the ship was quite good for one-offs, Kath had a decent backstory to her and for what little we got to see of her, I thought she was a pretty well-rounded person. The moment where Martha and Riley are ejected towards the sun and The Doctor shouting “I’ll save you!” but it’s silenced by the vastness of space was a beautifully shot moment and the eery calmness of the conversation Martha has with Riley as they hurtle to what they think is their death was a very touching moment.
There was also a lot of not so great stuff in this episode. The pub-quiz to override the security deadlocks seemed very contrived and all of the questions were conveniently centred around 20th & 21st Century trivia, it really felt like Chibnall desperately needed a reason for Martha to call her mother, and this was all he could come up with.
I also thought the reasoning as to why the monster was attacking the crew to be quite lacklustre. It was because they absorbed the heart of a living star as a heart, I mean…ok? It makes sense and fits in with the story, but it doesn’t explain how this star can possess people and just generally seems quite uninteresting of an explanation. It also means that all they have to do to escape is dump the fuel, which again, makes sense in context and you can see why no-one would’ve thought of that, but the episode didn’t centre around the mystery of “why?” it just centred around trying to get the ship working, which means that the solution doesn’t feel satisfying, because it ignores what the characters were trying to accomplish up until that point.
The concept for the monster is good though, and I liked the visual of the possessed men lifting their visor and evaporating people, but some of the core elements of this story don’t work for me and it really overwhelms the good.
6 – Gridlock
Gridlock is an example of an idea Doctor Who attempts every now and then that I really like to see, even if the execution wasn’t perfect, which is taking a really mundane idea (in this case, a traffic jam) and taking it to its logical extreme, and then having that be the whole episode.
The bulk of the episode spent in the traffic jam, I think has a lot of stuff to like about it. Once Martha gets kidnapped by the couple and you begin to learn about the motorway, it becomes a very tragic tale, the episode is able to change your mind very quickly on what kinds of people these are because they’re just looking out for their family. The scene where the whole motorway lights up with song is such a heartbreaking moment as well, as these people hold on to the little hope they have that someday they might be freed.
It also manages to fit in its fair share of fun and humour into the episode without compromising all of the tragedy around it, with The Doctor’s journey through endless cars on the motorway, seeing all kinds of people who are in these cars. It also gives a really good impression of exactly the situation their in, because it’s all well and good knowing these two cars very well, but seeing flashes of these people living their whole lives in these cars gives a great view of the exact scale of what’s going on.
Unfortunately, I found everything outside of what’s going on in the motorway to be a bit lacking and it suffers from a notable lack of focus when it comes to exactly why everything is going on. The Macra are a fine enough villain and really the only place they could possibly fit is in a story like this, where there’s just something at the bottom of the motorway that kills people. The problem is, it’s never explained how they got there, I understand that they feed off of pollution, so all of the exhaust smoke is the perfect living space, but how did they actually get there in the first place and breed to be able to cover the entire motorway, which as far we’re told covers the length of the whole planet?
Then there are the emotion patches, which are never explained at all. We know they can make you feel certain emotions, but they can also induce sleep and cause amnesia and that really seems like the kind of thing that needs explaining. All we ever get is the knowledge that they’re some kind of drug, so making them the main explanation as to why everything’s gone wrong seemed like an odd move. We’re told that a virus mutated in the “Bliss” drug, but that means absolutely nothing to us when we don’t understand how these patches work, how can a virus possibly mutate in something, that from the audience’s perspective, is just a magic sticker?
I did like the classic Doctor Who twist at the end though where it’s revealed that trapping people in the motorway was actually an act of heroism, not villainy, whenever Doctor Who pulls something like that it always gives me a nice feeling inside, because I always like to think Doctor Who as a show that gives the attitude that humans are flawed but ultimately good.
The core idea of Gridlock hits the mark really well, and if the episode had focused on it a little more and cut some of the pointless guff, it probably would’ve ranked a lot higher. Unfortunately, the lack of focus at either end of the episode takes away from the impact of everything a bit and leaves me feeling unsatisfied when the episode reaches a conclusion.
5 – The Runaway Bride
This is quite the rarity for Doctor Who since we actually get to meet a future companion, a season out from them actually joining the TARDIS. However, at the time, this was intended as a one-off appearance for Donna, so I’ll be treating it as such.
As with most Christmas specials, there isn’t a lot to them in the way of grand plots or introspective narratives because it’s designed to be a healthy dose of fun for the family on Christmas Day, not to mention this didn’t have any heavy lifting to do in terms of establishing a new Doctor or companion which I personally think works to its benefit. The cliffhanger from the end of Series 2 was a great way to ensure that we could get into the whimsy of this episode quite easily, as there was a risk of everything being dragged down by The Doctor being mopey about Rose, but luckily Davies was able to avoid too much of that in this episode.
While this episode isn’t afraid to take it slow at certain points, it tends to keep it’s foot on the gas as much as it can, which would usually make for something quite boring, but I think the action here ends up being varied enough to keep the fun in it. The scene where The Doctor has to fly the TARDIS along the motorway while trying to convince Donna to jump is a joy to watch back, it hits the action, the fun and the small dose of emotion it throws in in just the right way to make it a great scene to watch.
I’m not a big fan of the Racnoss though. The spaceship looked very nice and the idea of a Christmas star made out of spider webs is something I like, my problem with the Racnoss however mostly comes from the queen herself. For one thing, it’s so obvious she was struggling to talk through the mouthpiece she had in and while they did try to make it into more of a style, I can’t help but hear someone who’s struggling to talk properly.
On top of that, the fact that she’s so stationary is really jarring when her torso upwards moves about a lot. I understand why that was the decision, of course, it would’ve been very expensive indeed to make the giant base move, but it creates such a disconnect when the part that is actually the actress is sitting there swaying around on the spot and being extremely animated, while the base just sits there lifeless. Then we get to the Racnoss’ plan, which at the very least makes sense, but I’m not sure it’s all that compelling, not least because most of it happens off-screen or in flashbacks.
I think there would’ve been something to be had in starting the episode with about 5-10 minutes of Donna going about her job and meeting Lance before hitting the wedding and reaching the cliffhanger point. I think it would’ve made the whole thing be woven into the story a lot better because it sticks out pretty hard when Donna has to explain it in the middle of the episode, not least because the whole thing just stops dead in order to let her tell it.
Overall, The Runaway Bride is a good episode to watch if you’re looking for a bit of lite fun from your Doctor Who, which is ultimately what Christmas episodes are designed for after all. That said, if you’re looking for something a bit deeper, then you’re best looking elsewhere in the series.
4 – Smith and Jones
I’ll be honest, this one landed higher than I thought it would.
This episode has so many moving pieces to it, that you almost wouldn’t think it was the first episode in a series, since they normally focus almost exclusively on establishing whatever new stuff needs to be established (in this case, Martha Jones) however, instead of specifically focusing on Martha the whole way through the episode, we only focus in on her for the first 10-15 minutes, before letting the plot and The Doctor take over, which actually does a better job establishing Martha than I think focusing solely on her would do.
Instead of making the episode about her, like Rose did, or anything involving Clara would later do, the episode instead makes sure we’ve got a rough idea of who she is and then just throws her into the thick of it to see how she’ll cope. That scene between her and The Doctor as they step onto the balcony of the hospital, looking out at the moon is brilliant. The way Martha just can’t quite take it all in, but still does her best to keep her cool and instead just starts talking to The Doctor about her family instead.
Not to mention, we also have a number of other trainees at the hospital around the place to better exemplify why Martha is the one that The Doctor gravitates towards. You have the woman who Martha is with for most of the first act, who acts panicked and clearly isn’t thinking straight given what’s going on. The way she panics when Martha goes to open the window, thinking they’ll lose the air even though the windows aren’t air-tight anyway, it shows someone who can’t keep calm in a crisis, which is someone who would be awful at travelling in the TARDIS. Then we’ve got the male trainee who spends most of it toadying to the Judoon and acts like he has things under control when actually he’s got no say in the matter, only to take credit for the whole thing after the fact. It’s always important in episodes where we’re introduced to a new companion to allow us to understand exactly why The Doctor picks them over anyone else and characters like the ones I’ve mentioned are the best way to make Martha look great.
The plot itself is pretty solid. Given the actual role of the Judoon in the universe of Doctor Who I do find it odd that they’re totally fine with potentially murdering everyone in the hospital just to find one alien, not to mention, surely if they have the technology to transport a specified piece of a planet to the moon, they’d also have the technology to provide enough Oxygen. I quite like the Plasmavore as a villain though, it has a genuinely scary concept behind it and the idea of someone sucking all of the blood out of your body is quite horrific when you think about it. The solution to the episode was quite clever, even if it was rather sudden and it keeps to The Doctor’s general ethos of out-thinking the villain.
Like most introduction episodes, it’s not the strongest overall product, but it’s very good at what it needs to do, in this case establishing Martha as the next companion.
3 – Human Nature/The Family of Blood
You know, I’m starting to think it isn’t a coincidence that these late-series two-parters keep landing so high on these lists.
There’s so much to this story that I couldn’t even begin to cover all of it, so I’m just going to cover the highlights. First off, is the performance of John Smith, it’s absolutely amazing how both the writing and the performance involved int his episode genuinely makes John Smith feel like a completely different character from The Doctor. I know that’s the point but given that it’s the same actor playing the role you’d expect they’d feel somewhat similar but they really don’t.
On top of that, because John Smith feels so different to The Doctor I find myself actually getting invested in him over the course of the story as a completely separate character. I want to see his romance work out with Joan, I want to see him discover the mysteries of these strange dreams he has and honestly I think there’d be some entertainment in watching him go about his day-to-day life in the school and interacting with the boys; and it’s exactly that sort of investment that makes the climax to this episode so heartwrenching.
The thing is, as much as I’d love to see this character grow and see his stories resolved, we never can, because we need The Doctor and that scene in the cottage where John, Joan and Martha are talking with him and arguing over whether or not John wants to sacrifice himself for the greater good is so emotional. What makes it sting the most though is having Joan there as a way to frame it all, because if she wasn’t there then as the audience I think we’d all just want The Doctor to hurry up and come back to get it over with, but keeping Joan there is such a brilliant way to tear the audience’s emotions and that scene after The Doctor returns where Joan asks him “Can you change back”, he tells her “Yes”, but when she asks “Will you?” He has to say “No” and it’s truly heartbreaking.
The Doctor as a human could’ve ended up being such a rubbish gimmick for an episode, but so much care was put into getting every detail just right that it actually ended up being one of the better Doctor Who stories to come out of the modern series. It’s an episode that my appreciation for grows every time I re-watch it and I’ll not tear up at the climax.
2 – Blink
I’m sure everyone’s very annoyed that this isn’t number 1, but my list, my rules.
It’s very rare that I actually find an episode of Doctor Who legitimately scary these days (of course, when I was a kid, it was easy) and the thing is, I don’t think there’s anything inherently scary about the Weeping Angels, in fact I think many of the later Angel stories proved that it’s very easy for them not to be scary, so what makes this episode so damn terrifying?
Simply put, this episode is a master at controlling the feeling of tension. For one thing, our protagonist is someone we’ve never met before, which instantly means anything can happen. We know that The Doctor or Martha would never be in any real danger if it were them because we’re only part-way through the season, but Sally Sparrow? She could easily die at any moment which means we’ve instantly got a protagonist that can actually be in extreme danger.
On top of that, the visual and sound direction in this episode is absolutely phenomenal, every time an angel moves and the camera cuts with an audio sting it sends chills down my spine. On top of that, throughout so much of the episode it’s always framed so that the angel is never in the foreground, which is brilliant at hiding the mystery early on and then once the audience knows what’s going on, the trick becomes a fantastic method of creating tension, because you know that something’s about to go down the moment you notice one in the background.
On top of that, the episode is great at slowly revealing it’s mystery to you, as Sally’s friends slowly disappear, first getting a letter and Sally being in total denial about it, only to come to that tragic scene where she finds an old Billy in the hospital, not an hour after having a conversation with the young version of him. Then you’ve got the elements of The Doctor having the conversation already written out in front of him for the DVD that ends up fitting everything The Doctor says, it even creates that nice timey-wimey loop of Larry writing a transcript of the conversation from The Doctor on the DVD, only for Sally to give it to him so he can say it on the DVD, so who originally wrote it?
This is an episode that manages to nail making you think and throw you through a loop with the mystery, while still nailing the horror aspect of it and creating an iconic monster in the process.
1 – Utopia/The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords
This version of The Master is one that tends to divide opinion and it really depends what you want from your villains. If you prefer more serious menacing villains then this definitely won’t be for you, but if you’re more like me and prefer watching off-kilter psychopaths going around being psychopathic, then this is the best version of The Master there is.
As it stands, I think this was the right version of The Master to go with, not just because it’s the kind of villain I prefer, but because it’s the most interesting type of character to go up against Tennant’s Doctor. Tennant is a Doctor that often relies on being over the top with hyperactivity, making quips and bouncing off the walls while thinking his way out of problems, so I love the idea of a villain like this version of The Master, who forces The Doctor to act more seriously, while the villain himself is being rediculous all over the place. Not that I don’t see the appeal in a Master on the level of Anthony Head’s performance in School Reunion, but I think this one works best for the story being told.
First off, Utopia is an amazing episode all on its own. Derek Jacobi’s performance as Yana is absolutely inspired, the way he plays the confused old man that gives off the same vibes as The Doctor, only to suddenly turn into a menacing villain and nail that too is absolutely incredible to watch. The mystery builds so slowly and brilliantly, so when it finally hits the climax and everything goes bombastic it feels HUGE and the cliffhanger at the end of Utopia is my favourite cliffhanger in TV history.
Then we get into Sound of Drums and this is electric. Any time The Doctor and The Master are talking in some way it’s rivetting. The Doctor needs to stop The Master, but he still wants to hold on to the one part of Galifrey that wasn’t destroyed. More so than that, the chemistry Tennant and Simms have together is absolutely unstoppable, just listening to the two of them go back and forth weaves such a brilliant tapestry in the story that it really feels like these are two people who have known each other for centuries.
All three parts also do a great job of pushing Martha to her limits as a character, The Sounds of Drums systematically tears her life apart, taking away her family, her home and eventually even The Doctor, which is what makes The Last of the Time Lords so compelling to watch.
In The Last of the Time Lords, we’re not watching the crew attempt to stop something horrible from happening, The Master’s already won and has ruled over the Earth for a year. So we’re instead seeing a bunch of people who have nothing, try to build themselves back up take down The Master. It’s so clear that despite what Martha’s been doing for the year we didn’t see, she can’t forget the horror of what The Master did to the world and there’s also the worry that her family might not even be alive when she finally gets there.
This episode is what truly defines Martha as a character for me, because sure, The Doctor told her what to do and she undoubtedly had help from various people along the way, she travelled the war-torn world all on her own and became a totally different person because of it. No longer is she afraid to stare The Master in the eyes, or laugh in his face as he points his laser screwdriver at her. She spent so much time spreading this message around the world and it’s clear that all this time she was telling it, she started to believe in it too and became a better person because of it.
Say what you want about Tennant gaining Jesus powers as the solution to the episode, but I think it worked for the story. Setting up the archangel network as the downfall of the human race in the Sound of Drums, only for it to be the solution in The Last of the Time Lords was a very clever twist and I like the symbolism in the whole world being the ones to cause The Master’s downfall.
What’s even more compelling to watch is The Master’s breakdown once he knows he’s lost. Refusing to accept The Doctor’s forgiveness, threatening the Black Hole converters, only to realise that would be an incredibly stupid thing to do until finally beating The Doctor at his own game, be taking away the one thing he wanted more than anything else, another Time Lord. The Earth is safe and all the good guys survived, but in refusing to regenerate, The Master is causing The Doctor more pain than any death ever could and the moment where The Doctor is completely inconsolable as he holds The Master’s corpse in his arms is genuinely heartbreaking.
Everything in this finale pulls together so perfectly, all of the important characters get complete arches over the course of the three parts and by the end of it, you can clearly see the impact on each of them. Nothing is left as a loose end and there’s not a second wasted in terms of what’s shown on screen, it’s exactly what a series finale should be.