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The Lonely God

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | June 10, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | June 10, 2009 |

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And, he’s wonderful.” — Tim Latimer

If the first two series of “Doctor Who” tell the story of how a god came to love a shopgirl, the third series tells the story of why, whether in love or not, the gods need shopgirls.

“The Runaway Bride”, the Christmas special that bridges series two and three, picks up the cliff hanger left dangling in the last few seconds of series two. Rose is gone, the doors between universes are closed forever (or until series four, whichever comes first), the Doctor has loved but is now alone. For all of four seconds that is, before Donna Noble makes her furious entrance in a wedding dress, demanding that the Doctor take her back to her wedding before she calls the police on him. This second special differs quite a bit from the first one, standing alone as a story instead of leading directly into the subsequent series.

Amongst fans, series three is generally less well-received overall than the others, although it does contain some of the best standalone episodes. Martha in particular is seen as an underutilized companion. She is strong, talented, opinionated, a medical doctor, and almost totally relegated to the role of a teenager mooning after the unattainable Doctor. It’s the twin facets of being a doctor and love struck that make Martha a perfect mirror of the Doctor. She is a scientist in love, he is a scientist in love. The fact that their love is not mutual is what makes her the right companion for him in this particular story. As Donna points out in “The Runaway Bride,” the Doctor needs someone who can make him stop. Rose could, Martha never would. Martha walks away at the end of the series to make her own mark on the world, as does Captain Jack, leaving the Doctor alone once more.

Nested identities abound as a theme throughout the series, matryoshka characters. The evil of the Master is hidden inside a doddering old professor. The power of the Doctor is hidden in the mild mannered teacher John Smith, who carries a journal with the Latin for: “What is inside is greater than what is outside.” Horror is hidden inside the white stone weeping angels. The malignant Racnoss from the dawn of the universe are hidden inside the core of the Earth itself.

The supporting cast does its usual excellent job in the third series. Martha’s family is well-drawn in the short time they are on screen. Captain Jack comes back for the last three episodes. John Simm is absolutely fantastic in his role as the Master, a foil both in character and in mannerisms and attitude to David Tennant. He bounces off walls with that same manic glee perfected by Tennant, his every word and smirk a dark reflection of the Doctor: just close enough to be recognizable, but just twisted enough to be sinister and mad.

The series also enjoys a trio of the best standalone episodes in the show’s run: “Blink” and the two parter of “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood.” The former hardly features Martha and the Doctor at all, focusing instead upon Sally Sparrow, a normal girl caught up in extraordinary events, much like Elton in the previous series’ “Love and Monsters.” “Blink” introduces one of the most chilling and original villains ever filmed with the weeping angels, creatures who appear to be stone statues when looked at, but move ferociously quickly the moment you look away or blink. After seeing this episode you never look at stone statues the same way again.

“Human Nature” and “Family of Blood” were adapted from a 1995 “Doctor Who” novel that featured the seventh Doctor and a previous companion. The Doctor hides from the pursuing and titular Family of Blood by sacrificing his memory and identity to become human for a time. He leaves Martha with a list of things to watch out for, but “falling in love” was not on the list. As he submerges more and more into the John Smith persona, he becomes less and less willing to leave it behind and become the Doctor again. The very idea of giving up love is unimaginable to him as a human. The temptation of power is not sweet to him. It’s an exploration of what makes the Doctor who he is, the man who can be trusted with power because he does not seek it. But the episode also shows the other side of the Doctor, the dangerous and furious side that the companions help temper.

The final three episodes wrap up the season with a short and tight story arc about the Master, a Time Lord hidden in a human body, thought to have died during the Time War along with every other Time Lord except the Doctor. He conquers Earth with humans brought back in time from the very end of the universe, builds himself an armada to invade and conquer the rest of the universe, to rebuild the empire of the Time Lords. Martha comes into her own, wandering the Earth for a year, telling the story of the Doctor to everyone, so that they know there is hope, convincing them all to focus their thoughts on the Doctor at the finale of the countdown set up by the Master himself for the launching of his armada. There is technobabble of course: the Master’s own psychic mind control network used in the opposite direction, etc. But the root of what happens on a thematic level is that the Doctor is worshipped.

Religions base their philosophies on how people need gods, but rarely give serious consideration to the heresy of how gods need people. Neil Gaiman touched on it in American Gods, with his theory that gods only exist because people believe in them. Series three tells the story not just of how people need the Doctor, but of how the Doctor needs people. Shopgirls or not.

“He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing - the fury of the Time Lord - and then we discovered why. Why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden… He was being kind. He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy to be imprisoned there, forever. He still visits my sister, once a year, every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her, but there she is. Can you see? He trapped her inside a mirror. Every mirror. If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you just for a second, that’s her. That’s always her. As for me, I was suspended in time and the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector. We wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure we did.” — Baines

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.