Tuesday 27 February 2007
I’ve been paying a good deal of attention to the revival of Doctor Who and its various spinoffs. It hasn’t all been brilliant - some has been downright terrible, in fact - but I keep on watching just to see how it develops. I guess I look at it as kind of a controlled study: seeing what happens to the show under different production teams (it’s been through lots, over its almost thirty seasons), what happens when they go for a completely different tone and audience (as with Torchwood, its supposedly more “adult” spinoff), and how they face other challenges along their way. So here are some of my impressions so far, drawn from the big jumbled stack in my brain.
Part one: the TV series proper. Spoilers ahoy!
Christopher Eccleston had wonderful grit and depth, and showed us the Doctor in a new light: haunted, defensive, wounded. So many things set him apart from his predecessors, in fact, that it’s sometimes hard to see him as the same character. Of course, a lot has happened to him prior to his first appearance in Rose. And we only have one other incarnation in the new series to compare him to, so perhaps when we see the Eleventh Doctor, the Ninth will suddenly fit in that much better…
Because the Tenth Doctor seems in a lot of ways to be a return to the spirit of the Doctors of old. David Tennant’s been a fan since he was a kid, so perhaps that’s no surprise. He doesn’t have quite the same power that Eccleston had, but I do like him. Best entrance ever, too. (New teeth!) And Billie Piper’s proven a good choice as companion. However, I didn’t much like the direction their characters took in the 2006 series - too much the Ugly Time Tourists - to the point that I didn’t mind seeing the last of Rose. That’s pretty much all down to the writers, of course, and hardly the fault of the actors.
Triumphs of the first two series:
Dalek managed to make the old “space dustbin” scary again - making it clever, manipulative, and a match for an entire secret base full of gun-totin’ guards. Of course, that potency was watered down a bit when eight gazillion of them showed up in Bad Wolf...
Father’s Day took the show’s time-travel premise and wrung some great drama out of it (even if it did require both the Doctor and Rose to do something almost impossibly dumb to kick it all off), aided by some fine performances. Of course, the poignancy was watered down a bit when Alternative-Universe Dad showed up in Rise Of The Cybermen...
The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances scared our household better than any other episodes, and had the best repartee in the show, bar none. “You say you’ve got the moves… show me your moves!” “Rose, I’m trying to resonate concrete…”
School Reunion: the decision to bring back Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 was by all accounts a tricky one, and well handled.
Hit and miss:
The majority of episodes by head honcho Russell T. Davies, whom I’ve made fun of on a previous occasion. I think he’s made some smart choices in the direction of the series, and he comes up with plenty of wonderful little details too. But too often he goes for big wankety spectacle with little regard for sense: One Dalek is scary, so let’s have millions of them descending on the earth! And what do you do for an encore? Well, Daleks are wonderful and Cybermen are wonderful, so obviously having both will be twice as exciting!
The pop-culture shock of Bad Wolf was just too tacky for me. So the already-crummy media monopoly from The Long Game slides further into ruin, fine - but why does today’s reality TV have to survive in perfectly recognizable form a hundred thousand years from now?
On the other hand, I loved the National Trust holding back the sun and continental drift to preserve the “classic” Earth in The End Of The World. A planet with unrecognizable continents evaporating over millions of years wouldn’t have the same impact as the Earth we know exploding in a huge fireball, so this was a cute way of hanging a lampshade on it. (And okay, if you want to get picky about that anachronism, who’s to say the Doctor isn’t just using “National Trust” metaphorically?)
The Aliens Of London two-parter had its pluses, like showing the consequences of Rose’s sudden departure - something that had rarely been addressed in the original run of the show. They were the first episodes filmed in a wildly ambitious series, and the production team was still finding its feet, so I’ll cut them some slack for wobbly aliens and awkward pacing, but oh dear, Russell, the farting. Really.
New Earth had its funny moments but was a big mess plotwise. Like Aliens of London, it fell victim to tight schedules in the wake of the all-out Christmas special, and too many script changes late in the game (Davies decided, justifiably, that having all the human guinea-pigs die was too grim). Still, it’s hard to excuse Cassandra’s sudden change of heart at the end. And the Face of Boe buzzing off before passing along his message? That’s not “textbook enigmatic”, that’s the writer going “on second thoughts, I don’t want to reveal that secret just yet, but darn it, I can’t write him out without rewriting the setup for the episode”.
A special mention must go to Love and Monsters... which might have been my favorite episode of the whole damn season if it weren’t for that frankly ghoulish ending. Davies and company excuse it with some dribble about wanting a “dark fairy tale feel”, but I don’t buy it. In large part I object because it’s the Doctor himself that “rescues” Ursula - I know the theme of the episode is that he’s a dangerous creature to be around, but what the hell are we to make of him when he leaves a likeable character as a talking slab of concrete? If only they’d ended it on that old home movie, with Elton’s mother walking off into the distance… but no.
The Cybermen looked awfully good (unlike the Daleks, they’ve changed a lot over the years, having started as guys in balaclavas with pipes stuck on), but I didn’t get much out of them. All those decades ago, they were inspired by the invention of artificial human organs, and lurking fears about humans turning into machines, and I think a more imaginative take on them might have made them less of the stompy robots and more of the creepy medical machines - something a little more subtle than Gigantic Robot Arms With Saws. So they stomp around like noisy Daleks, basically - they even have their own battle cry now too, and a ranty creator in a wheelchair!
The starting point for the episodes was apparently an audio play called Spare Parts. It explored the origins of the Cybermen, as a last-ditch survival effort by the inhabitants of a dying planet, and it was downright harrowing. But after the long, bloody conversion process, so little remained of the original personality or purpose that…
Oh dear. This is turning into a mashup of Doctor Who and Adaptation. I’d better call it a night.
Next: the spinoffs.
You’ve definitely nailed the ups and downs of the new series. There are so many episodes where I think “aha, I could hook some new viewers if I showed them this,” and then some outrageously dumb thing will happen, and I’ll think I’d better not show it to anybody.
I really don’t like Tenant’s “manic episodes,” though some fans love them and view them as Troughton-esque (I disagree, Troughton apparently let loose during his first few episodes, but he was sensibly “toned down” almost immediately). I like Tenant’s look, and I also like the sense that he’s flippant until it counts, then he gets mean. Unfortunately, so far, he’s been too flippant and not mean enough.
Rose I did like and I’m sad to see her go, but you’re right, the “Ugly Time Tourist” thing was a turn-off.
I also think you’re spot-on about Russell T. Davis. He’s like a kid who wants to eat all his candy right away, and Julie Gardner certainly isn’t going to tell him not to spoil his dinner. Instead she’ll say “Oh Russell, a four-way battle with Cybermen, Daleks, Slitheen, and the Master, what a SUPERB idea, hurray!”
But sometimes, of course, a dinner of candy is just what you’re looking for. Or rather, a dinner of ched-a-corn.
Posted by Muffy St. Bernard on 1 March 2007 at 9:49 AM
Yeah. I haven’t seen much of Troughton, but it does bring to mind momentl like Tom Baker, making like a conversational steamroller in “City Of Death” (“That’s Romana, that’s Duggan, and this is obviously a wonderful Louis XV chair, may I sit down, I say, haven’t they worn well?”) Except that had a bit more class.
Lowbrow Doctor just doesn’t do it for me. He doesn’t have to be a snob or anything… just less of the Ghostbusters references.
Pretend-drunk Tennant in “The Girl In The Fireplace” was kinda dumb (maybe Moffat had been watching too much Blackadder when he wrote that “Mister Thickety Thickface” part).
On the other hand, I got a good laugh from his post-regeneration babbling in “The Christmas Invasion”.
Posted by Eli McIlveen on 1 March 2007 at 6:08 PM
I’m reading “About Time Volume 2” by Tat Wood & Lawrence Miles, and they talk a bit about Troughton’s early excesses—getting stuck in chairs and things like that—but that sort of thing only happened during his first few stories (now lost). I love the combination of Troughton, Jamie, and Zoe…I don’t think it ever got better than that (but, again, most of the episodes are gone).
The “Ghostbusters” is second only to “Thickety Thickface” in terms of moments that make me physically cringe. When Tom Baker babbled, he did it in a sort of lofty and patronizing way, whereas Tenant’s manias sound the rantings a the self-obsessed nerd with no friends.
Here’s what Wood & Miles say about the new series: “...one huge, exciting thing at the heart of the story, one great big blast of pop-culture noise, with jokes, japes, daring deeds and a touch of humanism as the ‘lyrics.’”
Posted by Muffy St. Bernard on 2 March 2007 at 3:31 PM