Aired 5 April 2008
David Tennant’s third series of Doctor Who begins with ‘Partners in Crime,’ an episode that acts as another mini-reboot of sorts for the franchise by reintroducing Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble as the regular traveling companion after her guest appearance in ‘The Runaway Bride.’ The announcement that Tate would be joining the cast full-time has was met with considerable backlash, presumably due to her more comedic and over-the-top characters in her back catalogue, but even her one appearance proved that she is more than capable of delivering solid drama as well. That’s the biggest notable difference with ‘Partners in Crime’ as well since, even though it is still very much a more light-hearted affair, the bombastic tendencies of Donna have been subdued considerably, and surely continued travels with the Doctor will continue to redefine her character.
Donna also represents the return of a more pure companion much more similar to those of the classic series who simply want to travel in the TARDIS for the adventure and fun. Gone are the romantic undertones, reciprocated or not, that Rose and Martha both brought aboard the TARDIS, and the Doctor seems demonstrably relieved to again just have a friend to travel with as well. Although Donna is not nearly as abrasive as she was in her debut special, she still represents an interesting shift in dynamic, a more physically mature companion who is unafraid to stand up to and question the Doctor when needed instead of simply following his lead blindly. It’s quite touching that the two can talk about regrets and missed opportunities in their lives so openly and candidly, and it makes perfect sense that the Doctor would take to Donna so easily.
After a heart-wrenching scene in which her mother berates her incessantly, Donna sadly heads up a nearby hill to meet her grandfather Wilfred Mott, played expertly by Bernard Cribbins. Sadly, the passing of Howard Attfield precluded the inclusion of Donna’s father as seen in ‘The Runaway Bride’ without recasting, and so Russell T Davies opted to create the new character instead. This ends up being a bit of a no-brainer for casting, partly because of his legendary television status but also because of the distinct impression he gave in his fleeting moments on screen in ‘Voyage of the Damned.’ Cribbins is masterfully able to blend humour and pathos into every scene, and the discussion with Donna that begins with him reminiscing about her as a six-year-old before poignantly asking where that girl has gone is one of the early highlights of the series.
For a series opener, ‘Partners in Crime’ is curiously devoid of any significant threat. This episode is not going to win any awards for hard-hitting drama, the Doctor and Donna essentially needing to stop an alien presence from turning Adipose Industries customers into walking globs of fat, albeit obnoxiously adorable ones. Clever banter, solid visual effects, and great misdirection are common throughout, but there’s never the sense of a serious threat. Sarah Lancashire is superb as the patronising Miss Foster, but even she is just a pawn in a larger plan going on behind the scenes.
‘Partners in Crime’ certainly succeeds in offering something different from the series openers that have preceded it, and surely some will take more to the comedic approach than others. Having the Doctor and Donna both investigate the mystery independently before accidentally crossing paths is a masterstroke and leads to a superb bit of silent comedy. As ever, the direction remains stellar and James Strong has no issues with keeping up with the speedy demands of the script and action.
The biggest surprise, though, comes about very casually at the end of the story as Donna approaches a blonde woman and asks her to tell her mother that she’s left her car keys in the nearby bin. It’s genuinely shocking to discover that this is Rose when she turns around, a great unobtrusive start to what is surely going to be another story arc to explain her presence here when she is supposed to be trapped in the parallel universe. It’s a great ending to a strong and heartfelt- if lacking in true drama- series opener, an episode that gives a very solid reintroduction to Donna.