If you were to ask me which series of the modern Doctor Who I like the best, I’d answer “Series 4” without hesitation. The Doctor has the best companion, Donna Noble, as well as the best overall quality of episodes. The series follows the Doctor’s development when he has a companion who can stand with him on an equal footing with strong morals and perception without being subservient or love-blinded, and with the subsequent specials, shows how lost he gets when he does travel alone, exploring his struggle with his inner darkness.
However, if you change the question and ask me which series I think is the best, that award goes to Series 3. What’s the difference? Series 3 is a beautifully constructed story, from beginning to end. Almost every episode in the run contributes to a long tale of revenge and domination set up over a year and a half behind the Doctor’s back, while in the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companion are both discovering things about themselves and growing, both together and individually. Here’s a list of the episodes and how they were worked into the plot.
“The Runaway Bride”: This might seem to be a throwaway Christmas special (besides setting up the brilliant Series 4, but that was unintentional, as Donna was not intended to become a permanent companion), but it actually serves a very important purpose. At the very end of the episode, as the webstar is attacking, the tank commander says, “Mr. Saxon says fire!” This is the first mention of Mr. Saxon, the defense minister, showing that the Master was already starting his schemes during Series 2 (you don’t become defense minister overnight).
“Smith and Jones” – This episode introduces Martha, showing that she’s level-headed, perceptive, determined, and smart. Some people, me included, are upset that she falls head-over-heels in love with the Doctor within thirty minutes of meeting him, and I do wish they had postponed this character development until later, but it actually has a narrative reason; see the next episode. Mr. Saxon is also mentioned here, and demonstrates that he has a belief in aliens. This is the first episode where we see the “Vote Saxon” posters.
“The Shakespeare Code” – While this episode doesn’t have anything overt to do with Mr. Saxon, it establishes both Martha’s and the Doctor’s low points. In the bed scene, the Doctor is pining for Rose, lamenting that he doesn’t know what to do because she isn’t there, and this demonstrates what happens when the Doctor allows an obsessive, immature companion to lead him by the nose: he loses his purpose, his confidence, and his independence. Martha, meanwhile, responds with disappointment and anger, and she’s lost a lot of the traits she had in the previous episode, because she’s more concerned with developing a romance with the Doctor. From here, both of them develop positively.
“Gridlock” – This episode, of course, seeds the Doctor with the idea that there might be another Time Lord out there, with the Face of Boe’s “You are not alone.” There’s more to this episode, though, both addressing the idea of faith. Martha, trapped in a car in the fast lane, realizes that she’s put a lot of faith and love into a man she doesn’t know at all, and though she can’t act on that faith, being trapped, she continues to believe in him. The Doctor, on the other side, hears the hymn that the drivers are singing and realizes that while they sustain themselves with their faith, it’s also keeping them from trying to change things and improve their situation, and this spurs him to action, both to save the drivers and to heal himself from the loss of Rose, the one he was trying to rely on in the previous episode; his faith was also holding him back. He also realizes that he’s been stunting Martha by making her rely on faith in him, treating her more like a pet instead of actually relating to her on a personal level, and he begins to open up to her, as much as the Doctor ever can.
“Daleks in Manhattan”/”Evolution of the Daleks” – This is the only episode of the season in which I can’t find anything that contributes to the overall story arc, other than a brief discussion of Martha’s feelings for the Doctor between her and Tallulah.
“The Lazarus Experiment” – This is the episode where we really start to see that something is going on. Mr. Saxon is attempting to attract the attention of and trap the Doctor by funding Dr. Lazarus’ work, knowing it’s something that the Doctor will want to stop. Tish is hired by Dr. Lazarus as another bait for the Doctor, and his operatives use this to get close to Martha’s mother Francine and start to seed her with distrust and hatred for the Doctor.
“42” – While the Doctor and Martha are traveling in the future, it’s election day in Britain, the day that Mr. Saxon gets elected Prime Minister. Meanwhile, his operatives are now tracking Martha through her mother. At this point, Martha is now working on a more equal footing with the Doctor, taking on tasks and doing her best to keep up the morale of the crew members. She becomes the Doctor-analogue in a mini-relationship with Riley; while he has the technical skills, she is the leader and the one who gives hope.
“Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” – This episode might seem like it has nothing to do with the overall story arc, but it provides two important things. First, the concepts of the chameleon arch/fob watch and the perception filter are introduced here, so that they aren’t foreign concepts to the audience just cooked up for the season ender two episodes later. Second, Martha enters into the first of three huge sacrifices she makes for the Doctor: she spends two months doing menial work and enduring racial and social discrimination to keep him hidden and protected.
“Blink” – In this episode, Martha makes her second major sacrifice, going to work in a shop to support herself and the Doctor while they’re stuck in 1969 (because you know he certainly wouldn’t do such a thing himself). We don’t know how long they were stuck there, but it must have been long enough for her to realize she needed to get a job and then for her to complain about it in the video.
The other thing that “Blink” does is deal with time travel’s effects. In most stories, if a time traveler goes into the past and changes something, that affects the future. For example, in “The Shakespeare Code”, it’s made very clear in the discussion between the Doctor and Martha that if the Carrionites succeed, the future that Martha comes from will never happen. This is the same in the Dalek episode, and in “Human Nature.” The conflicts in all of these episodes are about preventing these changes. “Blink”, however, primes the audience with a different concept of time travel: that the Doctor’s actions in the past (or the future!) can establish the normal series of events: everything that he does sets up the things that happen to Sally Sparrow. This is the concept that is used in season ender, that someone can go back and set up a chain of events to happen now.
“Utopia”/”The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords” – And now we come to what the entire season has been building up for: the reveal that the Master has been hiding using a fob watch, and that after he returns, he’s gone back to modern-day Earth to set a big plan in motion to trap the Doctor and take over the planet to build a war machine to wage war with the universe. Even Martha’s been trapped by this plan: she’s favored Saxon due to his Archangel network of satellites. And the Master uses his manipulation of her family to force the Doctor and Martha to come to him.
Once the Doctor is rendered powerless, Martha escapes and walks the Earth for a year to save her family and gather support for him, eluding the Master’s soldiers and spies and assassins (see the novel “The Story of Martha”). And this brings Martha full circle: while she still loves the Doctor, she realizes how much of herself she’s given up for him – how much she’s allowed him to shape who she is, even if it was unintentional – and how much her family has suffered, too, and she realizes she deserves more than that and leaves the Doctor. In this way, I believe that Martha is the strongest person the Doctor has ever had as a companion, because she establishes and maintains herself separate from him.
And this is why I think Series 3 is the best series of the modern show. The story is woven expertly through the entire season, even in episodes that don’t seem to have anything to do with it: the show maintains its episodic, random-adventure feel while there is something sinister going on behind the scenes. In addition, the Doctor and Martha’s characters change and grow all the way through, and this development is incorporated into the stories of the episodes, a natural progression in response to the experiences of the characters. It’s a beautiful story and season, and a wonderful example of what Doctor Who can really be.