The more and more that I consume popular culture with the intent purpose of critiquing it, the more and more I’m forced to face that so many of the genres I loved as a child are just silly and formulaic at their core. The fact that the first book I ever read was The Hobbit (to be specific my dad read me a couple pages a night for like a year when I was 4) instilled a deep love of fantasy in my bones, but unless we’re talking Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin, 80% of fantasy is a cliched tale of swords and sorcery that counts on the reader focusing on the fantastical setting and not the cookie-cutter plotting. Science fiction is just as guilty. I love Star Wars, but it is essentially the King Arthur myth (and other classical knights and wizard legends) in a science fiction setting. Star Trek incorporates an outrageous amount of technobabble (which is the sci-fi equivalent of “a wizard did it”) to resolve plot holes, and as much as I love Doctor Who, the series never seems to run out of different functions of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. When a series has the sense to wrap its most outlandish plot elements in a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that lets the audience know the writers realize how ridiculous these situations are (ala Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it’s more acceptable because it doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence. Doctor Who straddles the line between the worlds of cliche sci-fi and intelligent/witty sci-fi, and this disc does a fantastic job of showing the series at its most genre-literate as well as at its most genre-conventional.

The disc begins with the three-episode return of Martha Jones (for a two-parter and one solo episode). Martha calls the Doctor (and by proxy Donna) back to Earth. As a key member of UNIT (Earth’s first line of defense against extra-terrestrial threats alongside Torchwood), Martha suspects that a successful air purifier/GPS (yeah, it’s as weird as it sounds) installed in half of the world’s cars is responsible for a series of murders and may be alien in origin. Her suspicions turn out to be correct as it is a ploy by an alien species known as the Sontaran ( a war like race that looks like potatoes) to destroy Earth’s population and turn it into a breeding ground for their species. With the help of a kid genius, the Sontaran nearly wipe out humanity (and clone Martha Jones) before the Doctor is able to save the day. As Martha is saying her goodbyes to the Doctor, the TARDIS locks the doors and teleports on its own to the future to a planet where humans have been waging a generations long war against a reptilian species known as the Hath. Upon arrival, the humans take some of the Doctor’s tissue and clone (though it’s more along the lines of actual reproduction) a girl that is now the Doctor’s biological daughter. Though she dies at episode’s end, because she’s a Time Lord, she regenerates and flies off to travel the universe like her father. The last episode features just Donna and the Doctor as they travel to the 1920’s and get involved in a murder mystery that also happens to have the Great Dame of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie herself. Of course, it’s Doctor Who so aliens are afoot and nothing is quite as it seems.

Unless it’s a Steven Moffat serial (or the Family of Blood stuff), I’ve never been crazy about any of this series two-parters. I might like one episode and be disappointed with the other. For example, I loved “The Impossible Planet” but thought its resolution was handled clumsily in “Satan’s Pit.” Of course, “Army of Ghosts” had the opposite problem which was a boring prelude and then the stellar conclusion of “Doomsday.” Much like the Cybermen stories and the first Slitheen serial, I wasn’t impressed by “The Sontaran Stratagem” or “The Poison Sky.” It was awesome to have Martha back, but since she was out of commission for most of the episodes (cause we were seeing her clone about 2/3 of the time), that wasn’t even that big of a deal (and her presence would be handled better for “The Doctor’s Daughter”). The Sontaren were just one note villains and because they lacked the competency and track record of annihilation of the Dalek, they weren’t scary. The episodes were just too straight-forward for me. No genre conventions were turned on their head. Everything was just played perfectly straight. “The Doctor’s Daughter” had me convinced that it was a Stephen Moffat story until I looked it up on the internet. It had existentialism, an awesome and unexpected twist (actually two twists), moments that made me cry, and it was just plain fun. I hope we see more of the Doctor’s daughter in the future. “The Unicorn and the Wasp” was okay. It was meant as a loving send-up of Christie’s novels, but at times, it played the more campy elements of murder mysteries too straight and moments that were meant to be serious just made me laugh.

Just last disc I was complaining about the lack of a specific dynamic between the Doctor and Donna, and four episodes later, I still don’t have it figured out. They kiss in the last episode (not for romance but to shock him after he’s been poisoned) and it was as exciting as watching two family members kiss each other on the cheek. 7 episodes into the season and there’s nothing distinguishing Donna and the Doctor as a unit. They are separate entities, and while David Tennant is as loveable as usual (though he’s in a much darker place this season), Catherine Tate remains remarkably shrewish and annoying. Her entire performance has become outrageously over the top, and I feel as if she’s trying to channel Eliza Doolittle with her characterization of Donna, and lord knows that the Doctor would never travel with someone as irritating as pre-‘Enry ‘Iggins Eliza Doolittle (did I really just mention musical theater in a review for Doctor Who? I need a girlfriend. sigh). Just those moments back with Martha Jones (as short as they were because she spent such little time on screen with the Doctor) made me realize how capable and interesting she was. She’s evolved into such an independent and strong woman, and Donna only complains or makes lame jokes. I keep seeing Billie Piper at random moments. I want her back.

At my core, I’m one of those people that wants to find things to like about people. While I’m trying to be a critic, I don’t intend to be a cynic, and far too often, I think critics are writing about fields they don’t even enjoy or understand. I’ve given Donna Noble lots of chances to impress me and we just aren’t there yet. Fortunately, I won’t have to spend too much time with her. Unfortunately, I’m not going to get to spend much time with the 10th Doctor either. David Tennant has become a pretty regular part of my life this summer. I’ll take a break here and there, but I’ve always come back. I’m about to move to a world where he’s no longer the Doctor and that honor goes to the boyish Matt Smith (who very few people like). Sometimes, I want to shut my brain off and just enjoy a good adventure yarn and Doctor Who provides that. However, the show damns itself when exceptionally high quality episodes like “Blink,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and “The Empty Child” exist because it makes everything else look so childish in comparison. I dream of a day when most episodes of the season can show the genius of its high points, rather than only once or twice a year. As it is, I’ll just have to make do with what I’ve been given and enjoy the “Planet of the Ood”s while I tough my way through the weak spots.

Final Score: B