The concept of the "Doctor-Lite" episodes (which included "Love & Monsters" from Series 2 and "Blink" in Series 3), in which the Doctor plays a minimal part in the action of the story, was taken further in this series with the addition of a "Companion-Lite" episode; "Midnight" is a story primarily featuring the Doctor, with Donna only in scenes at the beginning and end of the episode, while "Turn Left" equally has the Doctor playing a minimal role, instead focusing on Donna.
The fourth series marked David Tennant's third and final full series as the Doctor (although he continued in the role for the 2008–2010 Specials) and also featured a total of seven companions. In the Christmas special, Australian actress and singer Kylie Minogue starred as one-time companion Astrid Peth, who perished before the end of the episode. The companions in the regular series had all been in the lead companion role previously: the primary role of Donna Noble, who was introduced in "The Runaway Bride", was played by Catherine Tate for all thirteen episodes. Her return was announced by the BBC on 3 July 2007. Freema Agyeman, who portrayed the Doctor's companion Martha Jones in series three, returned for "The Sontaran Stratagem", "The Poison Sky", "The Doctor's Daughter", "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End". Billie Piper, who played Rose Tyler from the first episode of the new series to the finale of the second series appeared in the three final episodes of the series. She made brief appearances in the episodes "Partners in Crime", "The Poison Sky" and "Midnight". Her return had been planned by Davies since her departure in 2006. Her return to the show was announced on 27 November 2007. John Barrowman, Elisabeth Sladen, Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri, who portrayed previous companions Jack Harkness, Sarah Jane Smith, Mickey Smith and Jackie Tyler respectively, also reappeared in the finale.
Recurring guest stars for the series included Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King as Donna's grandfather Wilfred Mott and mother Sylvia Noble. Penelope Wilton returned as shamed former Prime Minister Harriet Jones in "The Stolen Earth", her first appearance since "The Christmas Invasion". Noel Clarke and Camille Coduri reprised their roles as Mickey Smith and Jackie Tyler in "Journey's End". Adjoa Andoh returned as Martha Jones' mother Francine in the finale. Eve Myles, Gareth David-Lloyd and Tommy Knight also starred in the finale in their respective roles of Gwen Cooper, Ianto Jones and Luke Smith from spin-off series Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. This marked their first appearances in Doctor Who itself, although Eve Myles had previously featured in "The Unquiet Dead" as a direct ancestor of Gwen called Gwyneth.
The fourth series featured a large number of high-profile stars such as Kylie Minogue (Astrid Peth in "Voyage of the Damned"), Alex Kingston and Steve Pemberton (River Song and Strackman Lux respectively in "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead"), Sarah Lancashire (Miss Foster in "Partners in Crime"), and Phil Davis and Peter Capaldi (Lucius and Caecillus respectively in "The Fires of Pompeii"). Other guest stars included Sasha Behar, Tim McInnerny, Colin Morgan, Christopher Ryan, Georgia Moffett (daughter of Fifth Doctor actor Peter Davison and current wife of David Tennant), Nigel Terry, Felicity Kendal, Fenella Woolgar, Colin Salmon, Lesley Sharp, Lindsey Coulson, David Troughton (son of Second Doctor actor Patrick Troughton), and Chipo Chung (who had previously portrayed Chantho in "Utopia"). Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Paul O'Grady made cameo appearances as themselves in "The Stolen Earth".
Doctor Who had been recommissioned for a fourth series in March 2007, shortly before the broadcast of the third series. The production schedule called for 15 full episodes to be produced, rather than the usual 14, due to the announcement that the next full series of Doctor Who would not air until 2010. This schedule meant that the programme would be unable to enter production during the second half of 2008. The 15 episodes consisted of 13 regular episodes and two Christmas specials. Recording for the 2007 Christmas special began on 9 July 2007, with production on the series itself beginning on 8 August 2007 and concluding on 29 March 2008. The tenth production block — consisting of 2008 Christmas special "The Next Doctor" and the BBC Proms "cutaway" scene "Music of the Spheres" — completed recording on 3 May.
Doctor Who Magazine gradually revealed writers for the series alongside episode announcements. First-time writers for the show included James Moran, co-writer of the 2006 horror film Severance, and Keith Temple, who had written episodes of Byker Grove and Casualty. Previous writers Gareth Roberts, Stephen Greenhorn, Helen Raynor, Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies all contributed to the series, with Davies continuing to act as head writer and executive producer. Tom MacRae had written an episode for this series, entitled "Century House", but this was replaced after Russell T Davies decided that it was too close in tone to Gareth Roberts' "The Unicorn and the Wasp". This was Phil Collinson's last series as producer, as well as Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner's last full series as executive producers, all having worked on the programme since its return. Davies and Gardner continued their roles for the 2009/10 Specials. Susie Liggat produced five episodes (blocks 2, 5 and 7), as she did in series 3 with "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood". Collinson received an executive producer credit for these episodes.
All of the episode titles were revealed in the 5 April 2008 issue of the Radio Times, except the title of the twelfth, which was "being kept secret as it gives away too much." The article also identified the title of episode 9 as "River's Run", as did the press release for the subsequent issue of Doctor Who Magazine, but this was changed a few days afterwards to "Forest of the Dead". The title of episode 12 was eventually revealed in a press release as "The Stolen Earth".
A Children in Need special, entitled "Time Crash", was produced alongside the series and was broadcast on 16 November 2007. In addition, a mini-episode entitled "Music of the Spheres" was shot on 3 May 2008 for series 4 and was premiered at the Doctor Who Prom on 27 July 2008, with the audio being broadcast simultaneously on BBC Radio 3. It was then broadcast on BBC One on New Year's Day 2009.
On 1 February 2008, the BBC announced that, in a partnership with Carlton Screen Advertising, a 90-second film trailer of the fourth series would be shown in cinemas across Britain "before the most anticipated new releases". The trailer was aired on British television on 22 March 2008. Three teaser trailers and one full length trailer consisting of unique footage were subsequently produced and aired on television and in cinemas promoting the fourth series. As with the third series and every series subsequently, the stars of the show and production crew attended a premiere in central London where the first two episodes of the series were screened.
Like the previous three series, all of the episodes are bound together in a loose story arc. In previous series, the story arcs were in the form of an arc word, such as Bad Wolf, Torchwood, or Mr Saxon, but the arc for the fourth series is cumulative: Doctor Who Magazine's preview of "Partners in Crime" described the arc as "an element from every episode–whether it's a person, a phrase, a question, a planet, or a mystery –builds up to the grand finale". Multiple mentions were made about the bees disappearing from planet Earth and stories driven by a missing or lost planet. Executive producer Russell T Davies stated in the same feature that the series' finale had been planned for three years previous to its airdate. The regular series focuses heavily on Donna: David Tennant stated that the "whole thirteen weeks is Donna's story ... why she's with the Doctor again is the subtext", and producer Phil Collinson cited Donna as a "fresh dynamic" for the fourth series.
Production blocks were arranged as follows:
The forty-second trailer features Donna Noble, portrayed by comedian Catherine Tate, sitting over a camp fire, talking about "creatures of metal, fire, and blood" threatening the universe as shots of the Daleks, Sontarans, and the Ood come into view. She talks about a man called the Doctor (David Tennant), who is portrayed in fleeting glimpses until his name is mentioned, who constantly saves the universe from these threats. Donna ends her narration by saying the Doctor will be back to save them and she will be ready to join him. The trailer ends with the Doctor and Donna simultaneously saying "and just like that, we'll be gone."
Series 4 received positive reviews from critics. It is considered one of the greatest series of the revived show and is the series that saw the revived era at its peak in popularity, with the term "Doctor Who fever" being coined alongside this season. Ben Rawson-Jones of Digital Spy gave the series 4 stars out of 5 and said, "a winning mixture of elation and poignancy ensured that the season achieved a great tonal balance where neither light nor dark was allowed to fully overwhelm the other". He praised Tate's performance, "At the core was Catherine Tate's excellent performance as Donna Noble, a refreshing contrast to the effervescent spirits of Rose and Martha". However he was critical of certain monsters lacking "menace", he names the Sontarans as an example and said the execution of UNIT "was a genuine letdown". He did however praise the tone of the series, "Russell T. Davies deserves great praise for assembling such a diverse range of stories". Den of Geek gave an overwhelmingly positive review of the series giving it four stars out of five saying, "It is the most consistent of the new series so far (in fact, of the show’s 45 year history)". They praised the special effects as never being better citing The Fires of Pompeii, Planet of the Ood and the finale as "the epitome of what The Mill can do". They praised the acting talents of David Tennant and Catherine Tate saying, "never have we had it so good...she [Tate] displayed such a fine grasp of character that even David Tennant was left slightly in the shade by her energetic, thoughtful, hopeful and achingly sorrowful (not to mention damn funny to boot) performance". However they criticised the familiarity of the Sontaran two-parter and the hollowness of Voyage of the Damned. Overall they said, "series four was never anything less than stunning, there were no ‘lows’ it was all ‘highs’," and praised Russell T. Davies. They summed up the series as "astonishing".
David Cornelius of DVD Talk said "It's the best season yet...every episode in this season is a highlight". He too praised Tate's performance calling her, "the new series' best companion yet." Davies' and Tennant's final series "we'll always remember as the year Davies and Tennant went out on top" he said. He praised the cast and crew, "The excellent guest stars, the impressive set designs, the sharp direction and the detailed creature makeup". Overall he said, "the fourth season of "Doctor Who" is outstanding television...and a monumental work of storytelling". Travis Fickett of IGN gave the series 7.5 out of 10. He said, "Overall, this season is a mixed bag. I enjoyed Donna more than Martha and less than Rose. It was a let down to see the Daleks as the villains yet again, especially after the terrific appearance by The Master. The Sontarans were original and fun, but nothing to write home about. He said the Moffat two-parter and Davies episodes "Midnight" and "Turn Left" were the highlights of the series. The series finale The Stolen Earth/Journey's End received the highest ever Appreciation Index score for an episode of Doctor Who and one of the highest ever given to a television programme: 91. A poll conducted by Radio Times in 2015 found that readers voted the series four finale as the greatest finale of the show.
The series was nominated in the "Best Drama Series" category for the British Academy Television Awards At the British Academy Television Craft Awards Russell T. Davies was nominated for Best Writer for "Midnight", Philip Kloss won the award for Best Editing Fiction/Entertainment. At the BAFTA Cymru Awards in 2009 the show was nominated for 8 awards; Best Drama Series/Serial, Best Director – Drama, Best Screenwriter, Best Original Music Soundtrack, Best Sound, Best Director of Photography – Drama, Best Make-Up and Best Editor. 3 awards were won, Euros Lyn for Best Director for his work on "Silence in the Library", Russell T. Davies for Best Screenwriter for "Midnight" and Julian Howarth, Tim Ricketts, Paul McFadden and Paul Jefferies for Best Sound for their work on Midnight.
David Tennant was nominated for Best Actor at the 2009 Broadcasting Press Guild Awards. At the 2009 Constellation Awards the series won Best Science Fiction Television Series of 2008, David Tennant was nominated for Best Male Performance in a 2008 Science Fiction Television Episode for his performance in Midnight. Catherine Tate won Best Female Performance in a 2008 Science Fiction Television Episode for the episode "Turn Left" and Steven Moffat won Best Overall 2008 Science Fiction Film or Television Script or Silence in the Library. Doctor Who won the Edinburgh International Television Festival Award for Best Programme of the Year in 2008. In 2009 the episodes "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" and "Turn Left" were nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. At the 2008 National Television Awards ceremony David Tennant won the award for Outstanding Drama Performance. Catherine Tate was also nominated for the award. At the 2008 RTS Television Awards the show was nominated for Best Drama Series and Tennant was nominated for Best Actor-Male. Julian Howarth, Tim Ricketts, Paul McFadden and Paul Jefferies won for Best Sound-Drama for the episode "Midnight". At the 13th Satellite Awards David Tennant was nominated for Best Actor – Television Series Drama. At the 2008 Scream Awards David Tennant was nominated for Best Science Fiction Actor.
At the 2008 SFX Awards the show won all four awards it was nominated for; Best TV Show, Graeme Harper and Russell T. Davies for Best TV Episode for "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End", David Tennant and Catherine Tate won Best TV Actor and Actress. At the 2008 TV Quick Awards the series won Best Loved Drama and Tennant and Tate won Best Actor and Actress. At the Visual Effects Society Awards 2008 Simon Wicker, Charlie Bennett, Tim Barter, Arianna Lagowon the award for Outstanding Matte Paintings in a Broadcast Program or Commercial for the episode "Silence in the Library".
Selected pieces of score from this series (from "Voyage of the Damned" to "Journey's End"), as composed by Murray Gold, were released on 17 November 2008 by Silva Screen Records