Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Doctor Who — Series 3

I must admit that the degree to which I enjoy Britain's campiest export, the legendary Doctor Who, completely surprises me. After all, even this rebooted version has a Star Trek sort-of feel to it, right down to showrunner Russell T. Davies' utter lack of subtlety when it comes to getting across any sort of message. But it also shares some traits with its clear inspiration Buffy the Vampire Slayer, particularly its ability to turn on a dime between comedy and tragedy. The previous series' finale, "Doomsday," was one of the most moving non-Whedon fantasy episodes I've ever seen, even if it suffered from some serious bloating. Losing Rose deeply upset the Doctor, setting up a potentially great emotional fallout for the third series.

Sadly, Davies seems to have come to the conclusion that the proper way to advance from "Doomsday" was to fall back into pure camp, which he does with vigor. Supposedly, the ballyhoo over the selection of comedienne Catherine Tate as the guest Companion in the series-bridging Christmas Special "The Runaway Bride" rivalled the uproar over Billy Piper's casting as Rose, because the internet, despite being the ultimate repository of human knowledge, never truly learns. Funnily enough, she's the only good aspect of an otherwise forgettable 45 minutes. I'm not kidding: I had to look up the wiki page for the episode to remind me of some of the plot points. Nevertheless, the final moments uncover some of the Doctor's lingering anguish over Rose, leading Tate's Donna to rightly prompt him to find another person to keep him company.

That person turns out to be Martha Jones, played by Freema Agyeman, a medical student who finds herself partnered with the Doctor when an interstellar police force illegally warps the hospital where she works to the Moon in order to search for a murderous alien. Even though she winds up on the TARDIS at the end, a moody Doctor quickly informs her that he's just taking her on one trip because he has no intention of replacing his last Companion. Of course, she sticks around, as, whether he can admit it or not, he needs someone to help him out, not just with his missions but with his grief.

These moments of interplay are, unfortunately, the only consistently rewarding aspect of the early part of the series. "The Shakespeare Code" gets points for introducing the idea of the Bard tackling a sequel -- I must admit I laughed pretty hard when he proudly announces his intention to produce "Love's Labour's Won" (apparently a genuine unfinished transcript bears this title, though whether or not Shakespeare meant it to be a sequel remains a mystery) -- but as a whole it just gets off some half-hearted references to the man's work and just sort of expects us to believe that Martha, a black woman, is treated with the same level of respect as the Doctor, despite the time period. "Gridlock" is even worse, with Davies' wretched script not so much trying to teach us about increasingly clogged motorways as bashing us about the heads like Paul Haggis with a bad case of 'roid rage.

Things pick up slightly with the first of three multi-part episode arcs, this one concerning the re-emergence of the Daleks, who just don't seem to understand the term "extinction." Their appearance offers a much-needed boost, and their plan to combine human DNA and Dalek machinery is sufficiently nefarious after the opening episodes failed to give us a standout villain. Sadly, it falls apart in the end when, as with so many of these arcs, the reach exceeds the grasp and all the fun seems to fizzle out just as you're about to reach it: the hybrid, Sec, obviously must reconcile human emotion with his Dalek coldness, but the conclusion he reaches made me wonder why I just sat through these two episodes. I suppose its airing position (in the middle of the season as opposed to the end) should have clued me in to the fact that such a seemingly grand development would actually have little impact, but it's still odd that the writers would so casually throw away such a promising story.

The jumbled end of the mini-arc sends the show right back to into its early-season morass, tossing out a horribly paced take on the Fountain of Youth and parody of the American series 24 that is so wrapped up in "satirizing" the style and tone of that show that they neither advance an interesting plot nor even send up 24 that viciously. Both "The Lazarus Experiment" and "42" (see if you can spot that reference) represent everything that grates in the series' weaker moments: laughable villains failing to personify even the obvious messages they're meant to teach us. Not even Tennant can salvage these, as both episodes box in his manic energy and his ability to turn on a dime, forcing him to simply lead the plot home.

Ergo, it should come as little surprise that, when they let Tennant have an entire mini-arc to play more or less an entirely different character, Doctor Who leaps back up to the level it enjoyed with its previous series. In the opening moments of "Human Nature," Martha and the Doctor escape an attack by the incorporeal, telepathic Family of Blood, who require the Doctor's Time Lord life force to save themselves. To protect himself, he places his force inside a watch he entrusts to Martha and must live as a human for three months. The TARDIS lands in 1913 England, and the Doctor lives as John Smith, a teacher for a military school while Martha works as his maid. Completely unaware of his true identity, Smith has a spark of the Doctor's affability, but as filtered through the mindset of old England: he gives his consent to several prefects to beat a young boy -- who has ESP and sees his future involvement in World War I when he touches a gun -- for freezing up in a shooting exercise, and his interactions with Martha have more than a little tinge of the casual racism permitted by society.

Smith falls for the school's nurse, Joan, played by Spaced's very own nerd goddess Jessica Hynes. Hynes plays Joan as a proper matron, but she brings a warmth to the role that makes you care about her despite the fact that she only just appeared. When the Family of Blood tracks the Doctor down, Martha must convince Smith that he must give up Joan and even life as he knows it to become the Doctor again. Tennant's acting in these moments is downright incredible, turning what could easily have been a mere plot point into an agonizing decision: when he asks Martha "Why can't I just be John Smith? Isn't he a good man?," it's heartbreaking, and the moment when Tennant switches back into the Doctor's mannerisms ranks as one of the more impressive 180s this side of Jossverse personality shifts. Collectively, the Family of Blood two-parter represents some of the strongest writing and acting to grace the series, with the kind of emotion that previously only graced finales.

And it's not even the strongest part of the third series. If Russell T. Davies serves as Joss Whedon's British counterpart -- I'm speaking in terms of aspiration, certainly not skill -- then Steven Moffat is his Tim Minear. But where the Davies-Whedon connection falls down when the issue of quality and skill arises, Moffat might just live up to the comparison. Outside of Who, he penned the "British Friends" hit Coupling (I can only pray that, when I get around to that series, it really isn't like that ghastly program) and the acclaimed miniseries Jekyll. But it's his work on Doctor Who that'll win him a special place in the heart of the internet for generations to come. His previous offerings, the astounding two-parter "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" and the bittersweet "The Girl in the Fireplace," each won Hugo awards and remain high points of the series.

This season's offering, "Blink," might just be his best yet, despite the fact that the Doctor barely features at all. Instead, we follow Sally Sparrow, a young woman who receives strange warnings about some creatures known as the Weeping Angels in the form of pre-recorded messages from the Doctor hidden away as DVD Easter eggs. Whenever Sally attempts to solicit help from someone, they disappear only to write her a letter from the past talking about the Doctor and their new life. One police officer even meets her again, albeit as an old man with a fulfilled life. It's a masterpiece of disorientation that is nevertheless not quite as impressive as the fact that Moffat makes the villains of the episode, which are statues that can only move when nothing can see them, truly terrifying. The strange messages work in the early bits, but when we see just how the Doctor's message came to be recorded, the explanation only makes the previous stuff even better. "Blink" won Moffat his third Hugo for the episode, but honestly, I just feel sorry for the people who were in his category.

The third series ends with a three-part episode that brings back the Doctor's arch-foe, The Master. The first two episodes of the arc, "Utopia" and "The Sound of Drums," continue the momentum of the previous episodes; the former features Derek Jacobi as a Professor in the far future attempting to save mankind, only to reveal himself as the Master when the Doctor's presence reawakens his true self, hidden in a watch of his own. The Master, now played by John Simm, steals the TARDIS and, by the time the Doctor and Martha make it back to the present via a returned Captain Jack Harkness' Vortex Generator, he's Prime Minister of England -- something hinted at in brief moments throughout the series.

He's even got a better laser tool.

Sadly, it all falls apart at then end, despite a climactic and revealing showdown between the Doctor and the Master. A battle of wits over brute strength, it manages to be funny, insightful and gripping, culminating in wonderful moment of clemency that, in its own way, is harsher than the bloodiest revenge. Then the writers, by sheer necessity of the hole they placed themselves into, must literally hit a 'reset' button at the end. An unfortunate way to cap off a strong second half.

Despite its late-series upswing, the third installment of New Who lacks, especially when compared to the previous two series. Agyeman pulls off the agony of Martha's unrequited love for the Doctor with aplomb, but she never has the independent strength of Rose, and her family certainly never grows as Rose's did. I know that she's meant to be filler as the Doctor never considered her more than a replacement for the Companion he came close to loving, but the role still confines an actress who seemed aching to bring something more to the table.

Because Martha is so under-written, Tennant must pick up the slack, which he of course deftly manages. Strange then, that the best episodes are the ones where the Doctor plays little role. Tennant may be on the screen in 1913, but he's John Smith, through and through. And he's at his most interesting (this season, at least) with his pre-recorded dialogue in "Blink," set to a drab background that made me think of the trigger video from Videodrome. If the first series of the reboot focused on the big heroes, and the second on those who accompany them, I don't quite know what the focus of this set of episodes is. Perhaps it's the villains; despite the weakness of most of the enemies in terms of being memorable, but the villains call the shots throughout the series. The Family of Blood forces the Doctor into hiding, the Weeping Angels strand the Doctor in 1969 after stealing the TARDIS and The Master leaves him in the distant future.

Yet, even if the villains form the nucleus of this series, it lacks the focus to flesh out this core. It's still an enjoyable season, but no longer one that flirts with greatness, as the last two series did. I've heard good things about the subsequent series -- at the very least, Moffat scored yet another Hugo nomination, though the competition looks pretty fierce this time around so his streak may end come August -- so hopefully it rebounds back to previous heights.

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