Monday, June 27, 2011

Doctor Who — Series 5

Doctor Who's fifth series takes the strengths of Russell T. Davies' revival and smooths out nearly all the issues that routinely gave me pause. WIth the exception of an unnecessary two-parter and a useless Dalek return (now with Freeze-Pop colors!), the start of Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner elevates the series from a whimsical but dodgy program to one of the best shows currently on television.

Admittedly, I think just about everyone expected an uptick in quality when Davies handed off the series to its best writer, but Moffat completely overhauls Doctor Who without sacrificing its innate charms. It still feels like the classic space serial it is, but Moffat trades Davies' only fitfully earned "golly gee whiz" mood for a more grounded wonder, one that is a payoff to the adventure rather than the default tone of voice. I'm told the original run of Dr. Who had its moments of darker energy, and Moffat very much targets that side of Who, to the point that the series, while still feeling appropriate for a family, might actually challenge, even alienate, viewers.

But first, let's talk about the casting, because it's as important to the success of Series Five as the tightened writing. David Tennant was spellbinding as the Tenth Doctor, his incessant grin and goofy frame perfectly suited to Davies' vision of the series. Matt Smith had a great deal to live up to when he took on the role, suffering reams of preemptive criticism as if he'd been the one to push out Tennant, but damned if he doesn't shut everyone up from the start.

As I said in my review of the first episode, Tennant played the Doctor as if he wanted nothing more than to be human; Smith's Doctor, on the other hand, is quite content to be a higher being. But he does still admire our potential: in the series finale, he responds to a show of immense compassion from one of his companions by sighing, "Why do you have to be so human?" his voice mixing exasperation with affection in an almost paternal sense. Smith makes for a slier, wittier, more scabrous (if still amiable) version of the Doctor, and while I figured I'd prefer Moffat's time as Who head over Davies', I was most surprised to see how quickly I not only accepted Smith but came to favor him over Tennant.

Backing up Smith's revelatory performance is an equally powerful one from Karen Gillan as the new companion Amy Pond. At once a continuation of Donna's feisty presence and a whole new breed of Companion, Amy is such a fantastic, compelling character in her own right that she's the first Companion I wouldn't mind following around even without the Doctor.

Amy is a bit unbalanced, her own complexes arising from the Doctor himself, who appeared to her as a child and then inadvertently disappeared for years, leaving her to endure ridicule and therapy. This gives her an intriguingly spiky edge with the Doctor, burying some friction between their happy adventures. Davies' Companions always fit into some easy categorization with the Doctor: Rose had an outright romance with him, Martha unrequited love and Donna an almost sibling-like interplay. Moffat gives more depth to Amy: her relationship with the Doctor is Platonic, occasionally suggestive, deeply committed but also occasionally contentious. This is reflected in the Doctor's treatment of her, which isn't always so friendly and supportive.

Moffat uses Smith's and Gillan's total chemistry and rich characterizations to great effect. Neither the Doctor nor Amy ever seems to know where they stand, an ambiguity that weighs even heavier on poor Rory (Arthur Darvill), Amy's fiancé. From the moment we see the sweet but defensive lad, it's clear that he's dealt with Amy's issues (it can't be easy hearing tales about the "raggedy Doctor") but that he loves her dearly, and the zeal with which she joins the Doctor unsettles him. The Doctor invites Rory along too about halfway into the series, but it's amusing that he seems to do so both willingly as a means of preventing Amy from getting to close to him yet reluctantly because part of him maybe likes this gorgeous, loopy lady.

Because Moffat and his writing team create such richer characters, they also have a responsibility to write better, deeper stories. Boy, do they deliver: from the mournful, disturbing first episode to the glee of the Venetian episode, Doctor Who's fifth series connects more fully to both the creepy genre horror and the idealistic elation of the show. In-between, Amy's muddled feelings for the Doctor are drawn out through an adventure that forces her to choose between him and her fiancé, an adventure that also happens to be one of the creepiest bits of TV I've ever seen. Elsewhere, we get a particularly heartbreaking portrait of the kind but troubled Vincent Van Gogh, who might only be driven more mad for the kindness he receives from his new but transitory friends. Also, the series-long arc is woven into each episode with far greater subtlety than the haphazard "Bad Wolf" reminders of yesteryear.

Best of all is the two-parter that brings back the Weeping Angels from Moffat's mini-masterpiece "Blink," somehow making the damn things even more terrifying while simultaneously moving deeper into the overarching mystery of the cracks in space-time. "Time of the Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" work as a two-part episode should, the first establishing the story, defining the characters' roles within it and culminating in a narrative shift so seismic it necessitates a follow-up to address the upheaval. These two episodes were so brilliant, so scary, so well-acted and so unexpectedly poignant that I didn't watch another episode for two weeks afterward so I could mull them over more, and when I resumed the series, I rewatched these first.

Part of what drew me to Moffat when he was simply one of the show's writers was his interest in the actual time element of the Time Lord. Nearly the whole of the series plays on Moffat's fascination with the possibilities of time jumps, and he even makes the fits and jerks emotional. Amy was clearly traumatized by the Doctor disappearing for years, while River Song returns with an even greater air of tragedy to her as the person who lives the reverse of the Doctor's timeline. Moffat likes to bewilder, but he always makes his episodes easy to follow provided one doesn't seek to iron out the very fabric of space-time to understand everything, and part of the reason he never loses sight of the endpoint is that he always gives the audience a reason to care about what's happening.

As I said, not everything in the series is a triumph. I'm somewhat biased against the Dalek episode because I'm frankly tired of them, but "Victory of the Daleks" also irritates for its assumption that the audience will love the WWII throwback despite how uninvolving it is. Worse is the Silurian two-parter, an utterly dull narrative that lacks the plot to even fill a single episode stretched to infuriating lengths. And the fact that it ends with one of the series' most poignant, devastating moments actually made me angrier; after such wonderfully incorporated arc material, the writers just drop in a key moment of the series without any real connection to the uselessness of the two-parter's plot.

But these are hiccups in an otherwise incredibly consistent series. Because the writing and acting is so strong throughout, the finale can go further than I've ever seen the show travel, ripping apart space-time in a way that feels both epic and terribly isolating and small-scale. In response to his critics, Smith, so ruthlessly mocked for being so young, looks older and wearier than any Doctor I've ever seen in his wrenching goodbye speeches to the adult and child versions of Amy, his tone brotherly and fatherly in equal measure and communicating a love that goes far, far beyond "will-they-won't-they" TV tension.

If Davies' Who had the power to occasionally grip me with moving moments of danger and loss, Moffat's show has me so completely wrapped up in these characters that the thought of any of them slipping through one of those cracks in space-time, not only killing them but erasing all memory of their existences from the universe, truly terrified me. I care about these people. I feel their fright when a monster actually scares, their fear of losing each other and their joy when the show's irrepressible optimism peeks through even in the darkest hour. After all is said and done with the series and the Doctor invites his pals to stay on with him, the sense of delight that bursts out of Amy and Rory has been so battle-tested by despair that their undiluted enthusiasm hit me harder than just about any moment of the "Allons-y!"sunniness of the show as it existed. The strong end-run of Davies' tenure warmed my occasionally tepid response to the series, but it was Moffat who made me a true fan.

1 comment:

  1. I'm an old-school Who fan, to be honest, but I must say the Moffat/Smith era is winning me over (much more that the Davies era did). The particular combination of Smith/Gillan/Darvill is a total winner, and it stuns me that the BBC aren't giving Smith a proper third series, just a batch of episodes to be spread over maybe two years. When the show is at some sort of peak again, it doesn't seem to make any sense to do that...