Jenny-Sue comes to town

I have a strange love-hate relationship with Doctor Who. When it is good, it is very very good, and when it is bad it is torchwood. The Doctor’s Daughter doesn’t leave much doubt as to which category it falls into, and works as an example of the traps new Who falls into and why it so alternates so easily between excellent character-driven SF and utter bobbins.

Much internet speculation abounded before the episode as to why and how the Doctor had a daughter. Are we harking bad to the Hartnell era when the Doctor travelled with his granddaughter, or has that been retconned out of existence forever? It takes about half a minute for the answer to become clear – the Doctor, upon arrival at a mysterious planet, sticks his hand into a machine and faster than you can say “rearranging of haploid DNA to form a new diploid offspring” out springs his clone, already an adult. Bonus points for not using scientific words in a completely nonsensical way, minus several points for growing an entire human in less than ten second.

On this mysterious planet, the human colonists are at war with the Hath. The Hath are one of those ideas which sound really cool on paper, but when you put them onscreen on a TV budget they are comedy fish-people with bongs attached to their faces. Martha is trapped with the Hath, while the Doctor and Donna stay with the humans, and all sides end up following a hidden map to The Source, supposedly the breath of their creator and a potential superweapon. There is running around, the Doctor bonds with his clone daughter Jenny who is perky and does backflips, Donna works out the war has only lasted for seven days and the Doctor saves everything by terraforming the planet. Except Jenny, who gets shot. Except she comes back to life again at the end and flies off into the sunset to save the universe just like her old dad.

The first problem I have with the episode is that it’s so impressed it’s got a proper science fictional idea going on, it doesn’t stop to sit down for a minute and think it all through properly. A war that seems to last forever where the duration is really much shorter and myths propagate faster is a cool idea, but the timescales and logistics don’t quite work for me. What happened to the original colonists? Supposedly the mission commander died and they were plunged into war, but did they all die? Surely one of them must still be alive to put their hand in the magic person-making machine, or does it start running by itself and churning out new soldiers? How many generations and battles and complete annihilations do you need to forget everything about the original mission? Why do they need the Doctor to stick his hand in the machine? Is Time Lord DNA similar enough to human that the machine will work? And for that matter, the Hath and human colonists can’t understand each other, nor do we see any means of translation even at the end where they’re working together, so how did a joint mission work? How can you terraform a whole planet with a fishbowl full of amino acids and gases?

Sometimes, the lack of thought put into the cool idea of the week is not enough of a problem to derail the episode. Setting fire to the atmosphere in The Poison Sky I can live with, but the ridiculous motorway setup in Gridlock , or the crazy DNA-transmitting gamma radiation in Evolution of the Daleks stretch it too far. You can argue that if I want proper SF, I shouldn’t be looking at Doctor Who which has never cared that much about the plausibility of its setup. I might buy that if it were consistently terrible, but it gets it right on so many occasions that I can’t forgive it when they muck it up. I find myself hoping they’re not going to try doing anything too exciting, because I’d rather have them aim for mediocrity and hit it than go for ambition and end up with a mess.

The second problem is that they want to do a really moving, emotional, heartfelt episode about the Doctor coming to terms with fatherhood, and by crushing it all into 42 minutes with the rest of the plot. (Including a seemingly pointless subplot for Freema Agyeman in which she befriends a fish-man who dies to save her in a quarry, which my cold-hearted self found to be really badly acted and hence very funny indeed.) The Doctor starts off hostile to Jenny, as well he might when his DNA has been stolen to make a super-soldier after he’s spent several episodes complaining about the military, but half an hour later he’s discovered she has two hearts and can do some backflips and has a complete change of heart, and it never feel earned. Tennant has rarely been better than when he’s talking to Donna about the family he had in the past, but his relationship with Jenny feels like half a dozen episodes worth of plot sped up to fit the episode. Was it really necessary that it be his daughter? Wouldn’t he have felt the same for any of the soldiers, born as adults with no knowledge but how to fight and no experience but war? Apparently only if we have Murray Gold’s overbearing soundtrack telling us how important it is she has two hearts.

And the frustrating part is again I know they can do this right. Just see everything written by Steven Moffatt, for starters, but Family of Blood last year gave us a similar theme with John Smith realising everything he must give up to become the Doctor again, the life he cannot have, and did it much much better. Even the Russell T Davies-penned three-parter at the end of last year brought more emotional wallop even if they both go on to a cop-out ending where the dead aren’t or might not be dead after all. I’m hoping the tail-end of the season will follow the pattern of last year and prove what the show can do, but right now I’ll be happy if we don’t have anything as bad as The Doctor’s Daughter for the rest of the year.

10 thoughts on “Jenny-Sue comes to town

  1. Surely though, this was just a set up for the Jenny character?

    Introduce her, have the Doctor be hostile towards her and then slowly realise that not only is she his daughter, she’s another Timelord. therefore priming the pumps for her return (possibly at a critical moment in the final episode of the series OR as the basis for one of those ‘the Doctor’s not in this one’ episodes).

    If judged by the yardstick of Moffat then this was pablum, but then so is most TV SF and pretty much all of Doctor Who as a series. But by the standards of your average SF TV show it wasn’t bad… there were some nice ideas, the Haths were well designed and there was a set up for a later plot arc. Even Donna managed to not be irritating.

    To the extent that Dr. Who has a win and a lose column, I think this is one that could fit quite nicely with the wins. I actually preferred it to Family of Blood, which I think is horrifically over-rated.

  2. Surely though, this was just a set up for the Jenny character?

    Transparently so, yes, to the point where I’m expecting them to announce spinoff number three (BUFFY IN SPAAAACE) any day now. But that doesn’t make the episode any better, unfortunately. I’m roughly with Liz on this; I think Tennant’s performance was good, and managed to lift the episode at some points, but on the whole it was just bobbins.

    Even Donna managed to not be irritating.

    I can’t remember who pointed this out or where, but it’s quite true: the writers have basically rewritten Donna’s character entirely at this point. Her defining traits in “The Runaway Bride” were boorishness, ignorance, and a lack of empathy — all of which are now gone.

  3. Liz: when (if) I get around to writing about this episode myself, I may well just copy-and-paste most of what you’ve said, for it is rightheaded.

    Jonathan: Yes, it was set-up, either for the finale or for a spin-off (or both?), but the emotional arc of the story was so rushed it undercut the fine acting from alll involved.

    I’d also have to say that saying “It’s not bad by the standards of your average SF TV show” shouldn’t be an excuse for calling it good. Bad SF TV is still bad SF TV even if the average is much worse.

    New comment from me: sad to see the character of Martha plummet so far. I liked her when she was introduced, I still like Freema Unspellable, but the writers seem determined to make her look rubbish. At the very least, between Torchwood and this episode, she appears to be the worst medical doctor ever, declaring Jenny dead after poking her in the side of the neck for all of a matter of seconds. Nngh.

  4. I read somewhere that Jenny coming back to life was Steven Moffatt’s idea, so my theory is that her return isn’t planned for this season. Much like the watch being set up last season to reappear in Utopia, I think the the Procreation Machine might return at season end to set up the return of the Timelords. I could even handwave it that the Tardis took them there to get the machine.

    Although she’s not quite a Timelord, is she? The Doctor seemed to think so, as she couldn’t recover from being shot in one heart, but it’s not clear at the end as to whether she survived because she was a Timelord, or because of the Genesis Machine.

    I would agree that there’s a lot of average SF TV out there, just like there’s a lot of average TV of all kinds, but CSI: New York doesn’t get any better just because CSI: Miami is even worse. If I knew I could tune in every week and get something of consistent mediocrity, like a UK version of Stargate: Atlantis, then that would be OK. It’s the way it comes up with occasional greatness that causes me to rant about it. :)

  5. I’m not sure the set-up was rushed though.

    Doctor meets Jenny.

    Doctor dislikes Jenny as Jenny’s a soldier.

    Jenny proves that she’s more than that.

    Doctor starts to like Jenny.

    Jenny is apparently snatched away.

    That’s a nice self-contained little arc.

    As for Martha – I wonder if there isn’t a systematic campaign to make her a boring twat. When she was replaced by Donna, most people went “Ugh… Tate?! NO! We liked Martha” but now they’ve completely changed Donna’s character (replacing boorish, ignorant and lacking in empathy with a kind of Rose turned up to 11 serving both to ground the human elements of the stories AND stand up to the Doctor when he loses sight of this) and turned Martha into an annoying two-dimensional waste of space.

    Result? Donna doesn’t look that bad anymore.

  6. Miz Liz – Agreed about CSI New York not being improved by CSI Miami (*takes off sunglasses, wanders out of shot*) but I think that judging every TV cop show by a few episodes in the Wire and every SF TV show by Moffat’s Who episodes are a recipe for not watching very much TV at all.

    By the standards of the medium (which includes Stargate Atlantis, whose continued existence is surely proof that we are in fact the damned, left to rot on an Earth controlled by the Devil) that Who episode was perfectly fine.

    Whether or not the medium or the show as a whole are worthy of our attention is another question… speaking just for myself, if this hadn’t been watchable online I wouldn’t have bothered downloading it, let alone staying in on saturday to watch it (which is really saying something as last saturday I went to an organ recital *shudder*).

  7. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on Jenny’s arc – for me it felt it was rushed through all those stages very quickly, and that the Doctor’s reaction to her death was out of proportion with how much time he’d actually spent, but it clearly worked for some people.

    I actually don’t watch that much TV, and quite a lot of it is catching up on older shows I missed when they were on first time round. There are some shows I watch because they are excellent, and some I watch because I want half an hour where I can switch my brain off entirely. Once I’ve put a show into the latter category I’m less critical of it, because I’m no longer expecting it to be good. Who (and Heroes to some extent, especially season 2) keep finding its way into the former group, where I care enough about the show to complain when it fails to meet my high standards. :)

    I thought Martha was OK in the Sontaran episodes up until she got kidnapped and cloned, but I have no idea why she was even in this episode.

  8. “Once I’ve put a show into the latter category I’m less critical of it”

    So, Firefly is in the latter category for you, then? :)

    “I thought Martha was OK in the Sontaran episodes up until she got kidnapped and cloned, but I have no idea why she was even in this episode.”

    I would imagine it was purely as a narrative device to have a viewpoint character the audience could identify with placed with the Hath. In normal circumstances they could’ve done without Martha and show the Hath doing things on their own, but given that they don’t speak English….

    “I’m not sure the set-up was rushed though.


    The stages outlined are fine in themselves as story beats. The problem is that was rushed through at a breakneck pace, thus leaving barely any time for it to register.

  9. I’m assuming that Spooks Code 9 is the new (and much better) name for the putative Rogue Spooks?

    I agree with Nick that while the actual process of the Doctor coming to terms with Jenny was fine on a beat by beat basis, it was very rushed. However I’m slightly torn on the subject, because Tennant was as good as he’s ever been this week and a large part of that excellence was directly attributable to scenes that relate to (but don’t always feature) Jenny.

    Jenny herself was entirely disposable. (But seemingly harder to dispose of than you’d think…)

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