Sunday, January 4, 2009

Doctor Who — Series 2

Russel T. Davies' reboot of "Doctor Who" hooked me from the start when I finally sat down and watched the first series of the revival. I've never seen any of the old series but it always looked rather camp to me, a feeling that didn't exactly go away when I saw Davies' version. Yet I was bowled over by Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, two people I'd never heard of before and one of whom, Piper, was evidently cursed to Hell and back when she was announced. Nevertheless, she played the Doctor's companion Rose perfectly, moving from a borderline-annoying, hapless twit into the Doctor's intellectual- well, certainly not equal, but she could at least go toe-to-toe with him in a conversation. After a series of killer episodes, Eccleston's time was up and thus a new Doctor was born in a bloated yet still incredible finale. After Eccleston's portrayal, David Tennant had a lot to live up to and I wondered if he could grab me as much as his predecessor.

The answer was a resounding 'yes.' Tennant establishes himself, as Eccleston did, before the end of his first episode as a quirky, hilarious, contemplative, and endlessly fascinating character. He debuts in the superb Christmas special "The Christmas Invasion," in which once again aliens arrive over London. Harriet Jones returns, now the Prime Minister, just as the Doctor predicted. But the real intrigue of the episode, even above Tennant picking up the ball with utmost confidence, is how Jones has changed. The Doctor manages to make defeat the aliens and send them heading back into the cosmos, only for Jones to order a laser strike on their ship with the help of the mysterious Torchwood Institute.

Meet the new Doctor, not quite same as the old Doctor.

When we met her, Harriet Jones quickly proved a capable, intelligent, and intensely strong character; you knew she was destined for greatness before the Doctor told us. But here she has become an ordinary politician; she says that destroying the fleeing ship sends a message to any other aliens out there that Earth won't stand for invasion, but really you can tell it's so she can win support amongst the people. It's one of the few moments of subtlety in a Russell Davies script, and an auspicious start to Tennant's tenure.

However, like the last series, the episodes veer wildly in quality. "New Earth" brings back Cassandra, the insufferable "Last Human" from "The End of the World" and simply rehashes what she brought to that episode. The only difference is that this time she somehow manages to possess Rose and the Doctor, which makes just about no sense since she's pure human kept alive solely through horrific plastic surgeries. She worked then as a multi-layered metaphor, not only for actors' destructive desire to stay young forever but as a classist and perhaps racist who views any evolved human as inferior. Here, she's a caricature of that person, and Davies' attempt to make her exit at the end poignant rings false.

The return of Sarah Jane, an old Companion, is a big highlight of the early episodes.

Another weak episode, "The Idiot's Lantern" is a blatant attack on the "idiot box," even though "Doctor Who" is inoffensive family entertainment. Also, there's a sub-theme about parents needing to accept the homosexuality of their children which is just forced. Some people say that Davies tried to insert a "gay agenda" into the show during his run, which is a terribly stupid thing to say; however, cramming in a message into an episode and letting it just stick out far away from anything relevant is a problem.

But the worst is hands down "Fear Her," an Olympics episode which acts like the Olympics is the one thing holding this planet together (hint: it's actually gravity). In it, an alien child draws people out of existence...because she's lonely. I don't know either. And I thought I was going to die laughing at the moronic Olympian commentator who acted like a dropped torch meant the end of civilization. It's easily the worst of the first two series.

O.K., there's the bad out of the way, now let's focus on why this show rises above these crap episodes and into the stratosphere. First, there's Steven Moffat's absolutely outstanding entry, "The Girl in the Fireplace." The concept? The Doctor discovers a direct portal through time that leads into the bedroom of Reinette, who grows up to become Madame de Pompadour. The catch? Time passes much faster in Reinette's world, to the point that years go by when the Doctor spends merely a minute or two on the other side. Yes, there are monsters to deal with, but the real focus of the episode is the Doctor's loneliness and his relationship with the companions; for those who travel with the Doctor, they devote their entire lives to their adventures. But for a 900 year old Time Lord, the few years they spend with him pass all too quickly.

Other highlights include "Love & Monsters," a wonderful look at obsessive fandom and how it ruins it for people who just want to have fun, and that people who focus on continuity tend to miss out on that which actually matters: plot and character development. Funnily enough, it was written by Davies, the most continuity-obsessed writer on the show. Maybe he knows he cares too much but can't do anything about it. Additionally, the two-parter "The Impossible Planet"/"Satan's Pit" is dark and intelligent, until it gets to the last third and just ends up focusing on the cool-looking Beast.

O.K. I admit it: it killed the depth of the episode, but this thing is awesome.

But the best episode of the season, and of the show I've seen thus far, is Davies' "Doomsday." Picking up on one hell of a cliffhanger (both Daleks and Cybermen show up on Earth), it proves to be both a killer action climax and a emotionally devastating hour. I cannot go into why the episode is so good without mentioning spoilers, so if you haven't seen the series, you should really stop reading now because you'll rob yourself of something big.

The showdown between the Daleks and the Cybermen is brilliant; both should focus on the Doctor, but they have such superiority complexes that they turn on each other at the very mention of cooperation. But the battle isn't why the episode is transcendent. No, it's the lauded end of Rose's time as the Doctor's companion. When the Doctor seals the portal that allows the Cybermen and Daleks to invade Earth, Rose winds up sealed off in the parallel universe visited in "Rise of the Cybermen"/"The Age of Steel." The short, tearful goodbye on the beach between Rose and the Doctor is simple and heartbreaking. Rose gets to be with her family and Mickey (who really grew this series into a person and not just a one-note ponce), but her adventures are over, and it crushes her.

Probably the most poignant scene in sci-fi outside of a Whedon production.

The first series was all about heroism, about the Doctor, Rose, and the people they meet standing up to beat the bad guys, whomever they may be. In contrast, the second series focused on the companions themselves; if the first series showed people rallying behind the Doctor, this series showed why. An old companion, Sarah Jane Smith returns in "School Reunion," and you can see the pure, unadulterated elation on her face when she realizes she's reunited with the Doctor. Davies and Tennant move away from the asexual Doctor by showing just how much he cares for his Companions. His joy at seeing Sarah is almost as boundless as Sarah's.

Even the more minor players grow because of their experiences with the Doctor. Mickey started out a whiny, self-centered fool with an IQ just above grapefruit, yet by the end of this series he's capable and strong, as is Jackie, who becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character. Even Reinette serves the overall theme of the series; she is so completely taken by this mysterious man who came out of her fireplace that she waits for years in her world waiting for him to come.

Of course, it all comes down to the Doctor and Rose. Rose proved to be a hero in her own right the start, and certainly by the finale of the first series. The second series expands upon their relationship, creating a level of sexual tension that remains ever-present but never beats us over the head with it. Watching her grow even more this season was an absolute delight, and it made her departure all the more poignant.

Ultimately, most of the flaws of the season relate to the individual episode plots, particularly Davies'. He has a tendency to throw in much too much to make sure everyone's been paying attention, and it chokes the actual story. His scripts overflow with humor and emotion, but he can't seem to put them into a coherent story, and he often highlights the message of his episodes in neon lighting and spends the episode pointing at it frantically. But he has a gift for serialized character development a la Joss Whedon; while individual episodes often fail because of its increasingly formulaic setup (Doctor and Rose go somewhere, lose TARDIS, get into trouble, nearly die, then find TARDIS in last five minutes), many overcome these problems with telling looks into the Doctor's loneliness or the lives of those who come into contact with him. It's certainly not perfect, but it's compelling character drama that is funnily enough limited by its science fiction constraints.

Perhaps it's cheating to look beyond the actual episodes and rate this so highly based on the overall impact; indeed, working through the episodes I found myself wondering more than once what all the fuss was about. Yet it all clicked in retrospect; a truly perfect show would work on a surface level and a deeper one, but "Doctor Who" is only truly rewarding when you pay attention.

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