Series 4 of Doctor Who is David Tennant’s last full season as the Tenth Doctor, as well as Russell T. Davies’ last full season as the series’ showrunner. After some trial and error in the first two seasons, which occasionally led to some really rough episodes, Russell has refined his formula for crafting a successful Doctor Who season, and the show is coasting quite comfortably at this point. Series 4 is a bit of a victory lap for the RTD era, bringing back plenty of familiar faces throughout the season like Rose, Martha, Donna and Captain Jack to wrap up their character arcs before Russell bows out and passes the reins to Steven Moffat. The victory lap finally comes to a head in the season finale, “The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End“, in which all of the major side characters in the RTD era team up to call the Doctor and fight the Daleks. So Series 4 is probably the RTD era season that holds the most nostalgia value if you’re really attached to this period of the show.
As the season premiere, “Partners In Crime” isn’t the most substantial episode we’ve seen so far, but it is a lot of fun. The now traditional world-ending threat, and the absurd plot about overweight people being threatened by living fat aliens is basically an excuse for comedic hijinks with Ten and Donna, and most of this episode is a total farce in the vein of “Boom Town” and “The Runaway Bride“. There’s a lot of cheeky, playful humor involving Russell misdirecting the audience and subverting their expectations, or letting them be one step ahead of the characters for a change. Ten and Donna spend the entire first half of this episode missing each other by inches; Wilfred, the big alien fanatic, misses a great big spaceship in the sky while he’s drinking cocoa; and the Doctor claims he and Donna ought to be safe so long as Mrs. Foster doesn’t have a sonic screwdriver on her, right before she whips one out to screw them both over with.
After the Series 3 finale, the Tenth Doctor is still getting by and doing his usual thing, wandering from place to place and solving alien conspiracies, but the loneliness of traveling on his own is clearly starting to set in – at one point, Ten catches himself talking to no one in particular while he’s brainstorming in the TARDIS, since there’s no one else around. Ten is making do like he’s always done, but he’s clearly not happy with where his life is at the moment, a clear parallel to Donna which Russell draws. Ten could clearly use a friend when he bumps into Donna again, and unlike in “The Runaway Bride”, both the Doctor and Donna are in the right place emotionally to start traveling together now, spending most of the second half of this episode catching up.
While David Tennant has mostly landed dramatic roles over the years, he can have some pretty good comic timing when he wants to, and Catherine Tate is a professional comedian, so Ten and Donna were often written as a comedic double act in Series 4: with one good example being the scene where they interrupt Mrs. Foster’s traditional evil villain rant, trying to wordlessly chat across a room (you can read Ten’s lips pretty easily, but good luck trying to figure out whatever the hell Donna is miming). People often single Ten and Donna out as their favorite Doctor / companion dynamic from the Tenth Doctor’s tenure, and I can easily see why. They’re not as codependent as Ten and Rose, and they’re not as dysfunctional as Ten and Martha could get either. After the last few seasons have put a heavy emphasis on romance in the TARDIS, it’s also pretty refreshing that Ten and Donna’s relationship is purely platonic – the two of them are friends and nothing more – especially if you’re aware of how Ten’s companion for Series 4 could have been written.
Ten and Donna compliment each other well as partners – keeping each other’s blind spots in check with blunt, well-intentioned honesty – and during the eleventh hour, Russell demonstrates exactly why the Doctor sometimes needs a companion, a human element in the TARDIS to back him up, when Donna winds up helping Ten save the day from her own investigative work. While Ten and Donna get along well, the latter is still such a wacky and unpredictable personality that poor Ten still doesn’t quite know what to make of her sometimes. He’s also somewhat hesitant to make good on his offer and take her onboard the TARDIS. After Rose and Martha, he knows the chances of this ending badly or ending in heartbreak are fairly high (a fear that’s tragically proven to be correct down the line in “Journey’s End”), and he doesn’t want to risk making the same mistakes he made with Martha and screw up what could be a perfectly good friendship.
Throughout Series 4, Ten is shown to be much more attentive, accommodating and considerate with Donna, as he eases her into the lifestyle of a companion, than he was with Martha throughout the first half of Series 3, signifying that he did learn his lesson from that season about not taking his friends for granted in favor of pining over Rose’s ghost. Another bit of personal growth that Ten is given is that he shows a lot more restraint and mercy towards Mrs. Foster and the Adipose than he showed towards the Racnoss queen and her offspring during his first meeting with Donna – even trying in vain to save Mrs. Foster’s from being backstabbed by her employers. While Ten still has many of his faults, he’s healed a lot more over the course of Series 3 and grown a bit wiser, something he fully credits to Martha’s influence with gratitude.
After serving as a zany one-off companion for the Tenth Doctor in “The Runaway Bride”, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) is brought back as a full-time regular for Series 4 (something that rarely ever happens for guest characters), and as a result, “Partners In Crime” is in a pretty unique position for the show. Since Donna’s character has already been introduced the year before, and the audience is already familiar with her, there’s definitely less pressure on “Partners In Crime” to be a heavy-duty script when it comes to fleshing out Donna’s backstory, or selling the audience on the new companion than there was in “Rose” or “Smith And Jones“; and as a result, “Partners In Crime” is much more of a slow-paced episode than either of those season premieres.
In “Partners In Crime”, we’re quickly reintroduced to Ms. Donna Noble, the super temp from Chisick, who has now taken up solving mysteries and investigating conspiracies, in hopes that she might run into a familiar face. This episode primarily demonstrates that Donna’s character development from “The Runaway Bride” has stayed with her. She’s still loud and boisterous, and still quick to anger, but she’s a changed woman now who’s gained humility. She’s more patient, thoughtful and considerate when it comes to empathizing with others or dealing with people in need, she’s more willing to take risks and brave danger for a good cause, and she’s learned to keep an open mind when it comes to things she doesn’t understand or things she’s never experienced, now that she knows what’s out there in the great, wide universe. Beyond Donna’s wacky, overly talkative personality, there’s always been underlying sadness to her character that’s emphasized several times in Series 4.
Like where we last left her in “The Runaway Bride”, Donna still feels pretty unsatisfied with her life – like she hasn’t done anything noteworthy or fulfilling with her time on Earth as she gets into her late thirties – and now that she’s gotten a taste of discovery and a whole new way to live, she’s grown restless. After having a year to think about it, Donna has reconsidered the Doctor’s offer. Where before, she tried to fill the void in her life with a rushed, loveless relationship, now she wants to fill it with adventure and discovery – she wants to see all the wonderful, amazing things the universe has to offer, if the Doctor will have her onboard the TARDIS.
Donna’s day-to-day life and her London background are fleshed out more in “Partners In Crime”, allowing us to see where she comes from. Namely, that she has no career prospects and she’s living with her nagging, condescending and overly critical mother, Sylvia. After over thirty years, Donna knows what to expect from Sylvia and has basically gone numb to her verbal tirades, but she’s still internalized the woman’s cutting words nonetheless – so her own mother has destroyed her self-esteem over the years with her narcissistic attitude, and that is messed up. Donna is shown to be much closer with her warm, supportive grandfather, Wilfred, who spends his nights stargazing – especially as of late, now that they’re both fantasists, dreaming of impossible things beyond the stars. Wilfred’s encouragement to follow her dreams and take charge of her life is clearly good for her, and I can hardly imagine how Donna would have turned out if he wasn’t a part of her life. The heartwarming scenes Donna and Wilf share are given an equally sweet capper at the end, when Ten and Donna fly by his field with the TARDIS to see him off.
Before it was decided Donna would return and become the companion for Series 4, Russell considered introducing a character called Penny Carter, who would have been a love interest for Ten and helped the Doctor move on from Rose. I’m really glad those plans never panned out, because oh my God, how boring would that have been? We just covered both of those territories extensively with Rose and Martha. If Russell had given us the third companion in a row who’s character arc revolved around romance (combined with another year of Ten longing for Rose), I know plenty of people would have accused him of being a one-trick pony. Penny, the companion who could have been, is still given a nod in the final version of the episode, since Penny the nosy, foolhardy reporter with terrible planning skills is named after her, who finds herself getting in over her head.
The villain for the episode is Mrs. Foster, an alien nanny assigned to cultivate and look after the Adipose, little babies made of living fat who are some of the most adorably cute aliens you’ll find in this show. Mrs. Foster is an icy, amoral businesswoman who takes great pride in her work – both in the business world and when it comes to rearing children – to the point where she can’t fathom being unimportant, and her overconfidence eventually proves to be her downfall, Russell T. Davies once again incorporates a real world problem into his sci-fi story, in this case obesity, since Mrs. Foster’s plan hinges on a large number of overweight people in Britain looking for an easy fix to their problems, practically lining up to become guinea pigs. The public invasion of the week is your typical Doctor Who fare for the RTD era, but it does set up the main story arc for Series 4: mysteriously vanishing planets displacing alien races.
James Strong once again steps up to helm “Partners In Crime”, though unlike his work on “The Satan Pit“, “Daleks In Manhattan” and especially “Voyage Of The Damned“, his direction in “Partners In Crime” is more standard level and workmanlike. It’s an episode that plays it safe when it comes to visual storytelling, immersing the audience in the plot that’s steadily being unfurled – though considering how lightweight and comfy this season premiere is compared to “Smith And Jones”, it doesn’t need to be visually extraordinary. James Strong’s direction is still pretty vibrant and energetic during the chase sequences, and there are some beautifully warm exterior shots of London at night scattered throughout the episode, like Ten racing around through the suburbs, tracking a signal; Donna and Wilf chatting in Wilf’s field while they stargaze; or Ten and Donna trying to make their rooftoop escape with a window-washer’s rig.
The special effects from the Mill continue to show improvement with each passing season: while the character designs for the Adipose are roughly rendered, they’re nonetheless convincingly realized and adorable creatures. Plus, the CGI for the Adipose family’s spaceship in the last act is gorgeously rendered and an impressive step-up in terms of detail. A new season with a new companion means another soft reset for Murray Gold’s score, while also building off the themes and leitmotifs he’s crafted over the last three seasons. Donna’s quirky, boisterous theme is given a more fun, sleek and confident revamp in “A Noble Girl About Town“; Gold composes a short but sweet bit of chase music in “Corridors and Fire Escapes“; and he pens a beautifully sentimental and contemplative track in “Life Among The Distant Stars“. “Partners In Crime” is also has the first appearance “A Pressing Need To Save The World“, a sweeping, electronic variation of “All the Strange, Strange Creatures” that’s used throughout Series 4.
As a frothy, comedy romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously, “Partners In Crime” is probably one of the most lightweight episodes from Series 4, but it does get the season off to a promising fresh starts with a Doctor / companion team that has plenty of chemistry, and a final ten minutes that hints at bigger things to come down the line.
* “Oh, Penny, if cynicism burnt up calories, we’d all be as thin as rakes”.
* “On average, you’re each selling forty Adipose packs per day. It’s not enough. I want one hundred sales per person per day. And if not, you’ll be replaced. Because if anyone’s good at trimming the fat, it’s me” Bad puns are bad, Mrs. Foster.
* “Well, thing about cat flaps is, they don’t just let things in, they let things out as well” “Like what?” “The fat just walks away”.
* “Stacy Campbell?” “No, she’s gone” “Gone where?” “She’s just gone” “Oh, great. Thanks for nothing!” A bit of late night London salt, there.
* Wilfred is Donna’s grandfather, but the bond they share is more like a father-daughter relationship, and there is a reason for that. Wilfred’s scenes were originally meant to be go to Donna’s father, Geoffrey Noble, but after his actor passed away unexpectedly, Wilfred became a late addition to Series 4, filling his role.
* And on that note, his role as Wilfred Mott isn’t the first time Bernard Cribbins has made an appearance in this franchise. During the 1960’s, two Dalek serials were adapted into non-canon, theatrical films, and a young Bernard Cribbins had a starring role in the second one (“The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, 21 A.D.), as a policeman named Tom who helped Dr. Who fight the Daleks.
* “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a little blue box?” “…Is that slang for something?”
* “I’m not drifting. I’m waiting, for the right man” “Ohoho, same old story. A man!” “Heh, no, I don’t mean like that!”
* Is it just me, or is Ten causing even more property damage than usual in this episode?
* “Donna, hold on!” “I am! This is all your fault! I should have stayed at home!”
* “Do you know what happens if you hold two identical sonic devices against each other?” “…No” “Nor me. Let’s find out!”
* “Well, that’s one solution. Hiding in a cupboard. I like it!”
* We get another sudden example of the Doctor being casually ruthless when Ten electrocutes Mrs. Foster’s henchmen that she sent to kill them. Ten claims he only stunned them, but seeing as how we never actually see those two again, I fully believe that those guys are dead.
* “What you going to do then? Blow them up?” “They’re just children. They can’t help where they come from” “Oh, well that makes a change from last time” Damn, Donna.
* “I’m waving at fat” “Actually, as a diet plan, it sort of works”.
* Can we talk about how Donna looks away so she won’t see Mrs. Foster drop to her death, but Ten keeps watching until she hits the street? What the hell, Doctor, why would you want to see that?
* “You see, some people just cannot take it” “No” “And some people can”.
* “You just want to mate?” “I just want a mate!” “You’re not mating with me, sunshine!” You’ve got to love how positively scandalized Donna looked at that notion.
* The final few scenes of this episode reveal that Rose Tyler is finally back in town, setting up her new storyline for Series 4. I feel like this game-changing cameo probably had more of an impact when there was a gap of nearly two years between “Doomsday” and “Partners In Crime”, because when you binge-watch this show nowadays, you notice that Rose has actually only been gone for one season since the Series 2 finale.