Another new Face on the TARDIS
Doctor Who (2005): Series 3
Rose looms large over the whole Russel T. Davies era of Doctor Who. Bear in mind that the character left at the end of second season, getting herself trapped in an alternate reality (sealed off from the main reality), never to come back again, and yet even without being in this world her character is always lingering over so much of the season. The Doctor can't get over her, no matter what he does, and it hampers the friendship he has with new companion Martha (Freema Agyeman), in effect making her story all about Rose.
I recognize I heap a lot of shade towards Rose who, on her own, really isn't all that bad a character. It's just the way the series handled her that left a weird taste in my mouth. I get the appeal of having Rose fall for the Doctor (and having him, in either his Eccleston and Tennant incarnations) fall for her in his own way (shades of the "my otherworldly boyfriend" trope), but it would have been nice to see the show, after a little bit of time, move on from Rose. Martha is right here, and she's great, but everything Martha does is inevitably compared to Rose (even if it's Martha doing the comparing) and that really weakens the storytelling this season.
Which sucks because, overall, this is a pretty decent season of the show. It has some killer episodes, like "Blink", along with good arcs -- the "Family of Blood" arc for one, and the three-part Master storyline that caps the season (which, admittedly, veers a little too far into camp in the last episode) -- such that I really wish the show could have found its voice better and let the era move on from its Doctor and Rose shipping. Martha doesn't get to find her own friendship with the Doctor (it would take Donna, the last regular companion of the Tennant era for that kind of friendly relationship to build between Doctor and companion); she has to always be viewed as "not Rose", a subject that comes up time and again during the season.
What Martha brings is her own energy, powered in large part by Freema Agyeman. The actress has a different attitude than Rose, a little less world-weary in some respects, but also less along just for the thrill ride. You get the vibe that, as a med student, Martha really likes that she gets to help people, that it's not just one fantastic trip after another but that she buys into the Doctor's actual mission. it's an angle I really liked and I wish her character stayed on for more than one season as this was a dynamic I felt really could have been explored more, and deeper, than this series did.
There's a fun energy between the Doctor and Martha (any time she's not just pining after him). You get the vibe, in part because the Doctor wants to keep a little more distance from this companion than the really close relationship he built with Rose, that they could be really solid friends, traveling the universe doing good together. There's an easy, honestly chemistry between the two (outside of the longing glances Martha casts his way once in a while) and it's a friendship that powers a lot of their adventures. Frankly I can see why they had Donna, in the next season, put her foot down and say she's not attracted to the Doctor as that sets a clear boundary and lets a natural friendship develop on the show.
Of course, Tennant is still great this season. His performance deepens from the first season, allowing Tennant to channel more of the manic energy he was so good at. The man has solid comedic timing that he can turn on for amusing interactions with his companions. But he's also able to switch on a dime to dramatic (even somewhat villainous), and it's always a shock (but never jarring). Where Eccleston had that darkness behind the eyes, Tennant's Doctor hides it better but also unleashes it with more fury. He's a force of nature here, the "Oncoming Storm" and Tennant this season really lets that grow and evolve.
This all comes together for a season that, I feel, really hits is stride with fewer bumps that derail the show. Unlike with the first two seasons, where there are select episodes I prefer but don't often go back to watch the whole run of stories anymore, this is a season I can easily sit down and, for the most part, chew through over a binge weekend. The stories are, generally quite strong and enjoyable, with all the adventure, thrills, and laughs you expect from proper modern Doctor Who.
That isn't to say the season is without its flaws. As note, the third episode of the Master's big, season-capping arc, "Last of the Time Lords", is just a big, silly, weirdo adventure that shows the worst excesses of the Russel T. Davies era. I also think that the episode that started the season, the 2006 Christmas special "The Runaway Bride", is probably the weakest of the run. This was the episode that introduced Donna Noble (who will show up again next season) but her performance here is grating beyond all measure. I don't like the use the word "shrill" normally, especially not when describing female characters, but it's about the best adjective to describe what the show does with her character here. In her first introduction Donna is just awful.
There are also some other throwaway episodes -- "The Shakespeare Code", "The Lazarus Experiment" -- that just don't hold up to the high standards many other episodes (like "Blink" and "Utopia") set for the season. They aren't bad, per se, but these few episodes also aren't memorable. Any season of TV will have low points and these certainly feel lower than the lofty highs that Doctor Who
But, really, the thing that hurts this season the most (and it's a minor quibble at that) is that Martha doesn't stick around. Aside from a couple of appearances next season she has a shot, one-season tenure on the show, which is just enough to get attached to her but not long enough that it feels right finally saying goodbye. Each companion brings their own energy to the show, letting the Doctor evolve and change and find new dynamics with his travelers, and Martha had really good energy and a fun personality. She needed more time so that when she finally left it felt like she'd done all she needed to do. Clearly she didn't as she had to come back for a couple of extra episodes just to get a better conclusion. Her time was too brief and she deserved better.
That does speak to the better quality of this season, though, because if I wanted to spend more time with Martha and the Doctor together then the show was doing something right. This is a much improved season that really showed just where the revived Doctor Who could go with the right hands at the wheel.
The Best Episode of Series 3
I actually had a hard choice here trying to choose between "Blink" or "Utopia". "Blink" is another unconventional episode, a story where the Doctor and Martha only make a few small appearances while we focus on another character, Sally Sparrow, dealing with her own timey-wimey adventure. "Utopia" is the stronger Doctor-centric episode with some great twists and an absolutely killer ending, but it's only the first part of a three-episode arc which absolutely drops the ball in its last episode. I think for that reason I have to give the edge to "Blink" and all its strange shenanigans.
The Worst Episode of Series 3
This one is a much easier choice. Although I'm not a fan of the last part of that three-episode arc, "Last of the Time Lords", I hate Donna's introduction so much more. "The Runaway Bride" is such a misbegotten episode capped with an absolutely terrible performance from Catherine Tate (although I think it was bad direction and not Tate's fault as she made the character so much better when she returned). Not only is Donna awful here but her adventure is absolutely forgettable making it a totally skippable episode after a single watching (so you know where Donna came from when she returns later).