Friday, May 20, 2011

Doctor Who — Series Four

Russell T. Davies' final series as showrunner of his triumphant revival of Doctor Who encapsulates the full range of his highs and lows. Its optimism is infectious, but at times its on-the-nose moralizing and weak plotting border on the insufferable, even if it is a family program. Davies looked to Joss Whedon for guidance, but he could never find a way to incorporate Whedon's thematic richness or attention to character in a children's show primarily built upon standalone episodes, partly because of his own love of preaching over subtlety.

After a rocky start, however, Davies accomplished something with his last batch of episodes for the series: he maintained an emotional arc that worked in tandem with the show's usual style. Armed with a foreknowledge of both David Tennant's and his own departure, a desire to leave one lasting imprint on the show and the Doctor's finest Companion yet, Davies overcomes his own limitations bring out the full potential of Doctor Who, using his final episodes to wistfully look back on the show he loved so much and worked so hard to bring back.

But man are the opening episodes rocky. The pre-series special, "Voyage of the Damned," seems to blow most of the series' budget in one go on a basic action plot that feels far too stretched for its bloated length. Nevertheless, it's a fun episode with a disposable but touching performance by Kylie Minogue as a cigarette girl on-board an intergalactic recreation of the Titanic, and had it been a normal length program it might have might for a much tighter romp. Davies can plan big, but sometimes he does so in all the wrong ways, and "Voyage of the Damned," for all its size, can barely contain the vast mood swings between action-packed romp and an unearned sense of pathos in Minogue's tragic character.

Those oscillations between light and maudlin have always been part and parcel of Dr. Who—the previous series, which revolved around Martha's awkward, chemistry-less obsession with The Doctor exemplified this—but the start of this series swing so wide this resembles a first series more than a fourth. "Partners in Crime" is one of the worst episodes of New Who, a disjointed, treacly affair with a weak villain, a poor moral (you can't just wish the fat away, obese Westerners!) and a waste of great actors being introduced (a returning Tate, Bernard Cribbins as a kooky grandpa). The episode contains so many of the worst aspects of Davies' writing it almost seems a purge before he can get down to the good stuff.

Catherine Tate's return as Donna in the series proper offers an initial boost in charm for the show's initial rut, even if she must first overcome the caricature she played in "The Runaway Bride." Indeed, her first moments of reunion with The Doctor are downright panto, yet Tate begins working on the character in no time. After Rose's reciprocated affection for The Doctor and Martha's useless prop infatuation, Tate brings a refreshing Platonic relationship to the Doctor-Companion dynamic in the new show, replacing longing with capable sass and a humanity that peeks through Tate's sarcasm.

In the otherwise forgettable episode in Pompeii, Donna's horror at watching a holocaust consume an entire city makes for compelling human drama, and she elevates the next episode, "Planet of the Ood," into near-greatness for her devastation at seeing an alien race she has no reason to care for lobotomized and turned into slaves. I worried Tate would "Am I bovvered?" her way through this season, but her appearance is by far the highlight of the series' first half, and she is a major reason why the massive upswing in quality in the second half works so well and even happens in the first place.

The first indication that Series 4 might make up for the weakness of the preceding season is in the pre-midseason two-parter by Helen Raynor, who made a right balls of her Dalek diptych in the last season. Where her previous two-part episode bringing back a major Who villain fell flat, her resurrection of an old, old species called the Sontarans is everything her previous work wasn't: taut, witty, fun, suspenseful and well-paced. It even brought back Martha to demonstrate how great Freema Agyeman might have been if not caged by the reductive, wooden character she was given in the previous season. Freed from having to pine for The Doctor, Martha displays all the capability that only peeked around corners in her more prominent role on the show. When Martha gets cloned, Agyeman gets the chance to show off her range, effortlessly jumping between the two version of Martha to prove just what the show lost by limiting the actress so severely. In some ways, this two-parter works best as a mea culpa for Agyeman, though the actual episodes are great fun as well.

From that moment, the series maintains a high, if lightweight, level of quality that explodes into full-on greatness once Steven Moffat enters with his own two-part episode. Moffat's singular gift with his role as a supporting writer in RTD years was to reveal just how deep this series could go. Where Davies trades in fables and heart-on-sleeve melodrama, Moffat crafts dark, sinister, mournful pieces that can deepen one-shot characters as much as the leads.*

"Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" displays all of Moffat's talents: a nail-biting level of suspense generated almost instantly and maintained throughout, a bending timeline that makes full use of the show's emphasis on time, and a collection of characters who enrich and complicate our heroes while serving as three-dimensional figures with their own pathos. Taking place on an enormous, planetary library haunted by shadow creatures, the two-parter oozes with an atmosphere the earlier episodes did not contain, and Moffat sinks into the most interesting Doctor/Companion pairing yet to add layers to The Doctor's and Donna's friendship even as he avoids tackling the issue head-on.

Instead, he introduces the character of River Song, an archaeologist who arrives at the library, investigating the same creatures, only to reveal she knows The Doctor. Thing is, he doesn't know her, at least not yet. The Doctor routinely comes across people in time and time again, but here is a case of someone else reuniting with a confused Time Lord. Alex Kingston gives a phenomenal performance, her joy and sorrow at meeting an old friend who doesn't know her saying more about the doomed nature of all relationships with The Doctor than any Companion's finale. For once, The Doctor is the one who feels uncomfortable and small, and he practically begs River for some clue as to what she knows about his fiture, only for her to gently refuse with the repeated refrain: "Spoilers."

Davies' Who put emphasis on character relation and personal reaction to each story over simple plots, yet so much of the dialogue in New Who episodes exists either to forward plot or tell the audience how these characters feel instead of fully trusting actors. Moffat, however, weaves atmosphere and emotion into vague, troubling lines, allowing Kingston's wistful looks, Tennant's horrified panic over Donna and Donna's own perverse temptation back into a "normal" life take prominence. Not as scary as Moffat's other episodes, "Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead" may nevertheless be his finest hour of the first four series, even above the mini-masterpiece "Blink."

Even Davies seems inspired, as his last run of episodes, while not stellar, keep things floating enough to send him and Tennant out on a bang. The last three episodes show Davies throwing everything he's got at the screen, bringing back long-lost characters, sending off others and having one last dive through his fan journal of continuity, all while unleashing all the sci-fi elements he never really mastered. But all is forgiven: for all the unwieldy bombast, the mounting action and inevitability forming an appropriately grandiose goodbye for an unsubtle but earnest showrunner. It's a testament to the acting and the underlying mood of the series that Rose's return instantly feels heartwarming and right; as much of a stretch as The Doctor's returned love for her was, you can feel Tennant's heart leap to his throat when he sees her, and it stays in his larynx for the rest of the finale.

Davies even gets to have one last bit of fun with "Turn Left," a "what if?" story that makes for a sci-fi It's a Wonderful Life, showing the catastrophic results that would come if Donna had never met The Doctor. Tate's performance is so upfront and perfectly contrapuntal to The Doctor's goofiness that it's easy to see her as just a fantastically real companion after a great but too sentimentalized Rose and an underwritten, two-dimensional Martha. By pulling back, however, Davies gets to show just how instrumental she's been for someone who feels she's contributed next to nothing to The Doctor's missions.

For my money, however, Davies' finest moment of the series, and of his entire run on New Who, is "Midnight." Flawlessly maintaining the tension and pain of Moffat's two-part episode, "Midnight" feels more like a Moffat episode than a traditional, monster-and-moral-driven Davies piece, but it's so good that it single-handedly gives me hope that his work on Torchwood is of a higher standard than his uneven Who writing. It's a delight, notable for its unsettling edge, the initially comic synchronized speech that becomes more and more disturbing as it continues, even the charming early moment of The Doctor shutting down the dull, magic-ruining programmed narration of a guided tour to just chat and relax with other passengers. But that light feel soon dissipates, and the cabin fever feel of the episode shows just how lonely and vulnerable The Doctor can be when he's in a situation where people look for the odd man out to target. We only truly see The Doctor emotionally compromised when a friend falls into dire straits, but "Midnight" divorces the Time Lord from both his Companion and his TARDIS, tearing him down in the process by using his singularity and quirkiness against him.

Overall, Davies' final series as showrunner is like his others, often infuriatingly simplistic, disjunctive swings between the aloof and emptily plotted and brazen sentimentality. But Davies always had a gift for making something plucky and endearing out of these flaws, and Series 4 boasts such good writing in its second half that the dispensable first episodes and the major flaws of other ones ("The Doctor's Daughter" and "The Unicorn and the Wasp" feature top-rate supporting performances but weak plotting and wheel-spinning characterization) scarcely matter. Davies even manages to outdo the pain of his season two finale by ending his latest Companion's run with a cruel fate that goes beyond mere death or separation. It hits you right in the heart and makes for a fitting final blow.

It's been forever since I sat down with Doctor Who, and the intervening time has let me see the show's flaws but also the charm in its weaknesses. Tennant hit the show with such force it was hard to imagine him leaving, but I believe he belongs to the Davies era: broad, clumsy but entrancing. I look forward to seeing what Moffat does as showrunner, but I might actually miss RTD's contributions. Well, a bit.

*(I find it interesting that Moffat stayed on to direct Doctor Who while Davies went to the more adult-themed Torchwood. Having not seen the spinoff, I can only say that it looks to me to be the Angel to Who's Buffy, a darker, more adult and, potentially, more thematically rich work. Therefore, it's intriguing that a writer who fits a bit too snugly in the in a show built upon a deliberate immaturity to appeal to a wide market would be the one to depart for the more adult-themed program. Let it be said that I am in no way complaining about this turn of events.)

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