Monday, April 5, 2010

In with the New Old, Out with the Old New: A Spoileriffic Doctor Who review

"It's all true. I thought... well, I started to think that you were just, like, a madman with a box."

"Rose Tyler, Amy Pond, there's something that you'd better understand about me, and it's important, because one day, your life may depend on it--I am definitely a madman with a box." Doctor Who, Season 1, 5,or 31, depending on who you ask, Episode 1: "The Eleventh Hour."

One of the signs that I'm absolutely in the right field is that I can take something I love and spend hundreds of words explaining in great detail what is wrong with it. Let the tearing begin.

For the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a British sci-fi show starring a time-traveling (who travels in a spaceship with the exterior appearance of a police box) alien who calls himself the Doctor. The series has been going continuously in Britain for the past 47 years, with a brief 16 year break starting in 1969. The series rebooted in 2005,and has been roaring away ever since. The Doctor usually runs around space-time (with a suspicious amount of time spent in England--who knew the universe revolved around Big Ben?) with a group of humans, called Companions--or, as they tend to be since the reboot, not so platonic love interests. The Companions change regularly, as does the Doctor himself--through an alien regeneration process, he can become a new person with an entirely new physical appearance, which is handy during salary negotiations.

The current season kicked off with not only a new Doctor and a new Companion, but also a new show-runner. Stephen Moffatt is now in charge, and the new Doctor is... this guy:

Because after the last guy, everyone agreed what they really needed was someone younger.
Snark aside, Moffatt has written some of the best Dr Who to date (I can only judge since the reboot, but...). And for my money, the season 3 episode "Blink" is the best 44 minutes of not just science fiction, but drama, period, that you can find on television.

But let's get to the episode. Plot: Still fresh from the regeneration chamber, the Doctor stumbles into the house of 8 year old (or so) Amelia Pond, a little girl who's afraid of the crack in her wall. The Doctor confirms that she has a right to be afraid--it's not a crack in the wall, but a crack in reality itself, and something--Prisoner Zero--has come out of it. He darts back into the TARDIS (that's the name of time machine) and promises to be back to take her with him in five minutes. But the TARDIS has just regenerated too, so instead of 5 minutes, it's fifteen years, and little Amelia Pond has grown up into Amy Pond, the young woman who's spent her life waiting for the Doctor to come rescue her. Oh, and Prisoner Zero is still on the loose; not only that, but the wardens have finally gotten around to finding him, and are threatening to destroy the world if he's not placed into their custody in the next 20 minutes. Conflict!

...and from here on, I'm dropping the "Dr Who 101" tone, so if you haven't watched the last 50 episodes, go back and do that now. I'll wait.
Right. I think the tone of the episode can be summed up in a single scene. When the Doctor starts "pressing things" in the regenerated TARDIS, we see that the interior has changed somewhat: there's cranks, hotel bells, an oscilloscope--he even stops for a few seconds to input random letters into a typewriter. In other words, it's new, but it's old. And hence the episode. It's littered with Moffat-esque themes: there's the little girl in peril ("Forest of the Dead") who spends her life fantasizing about the Doctor ("The Girl in the Fireplace"). And there's a villain whose creepiness comes out of a disynchronicity with sound ("Silence in the Library"-- "ghosts" whose final living words are repeated over and over again vs. Prisoner Zero, who can duplicate images, but can't get the voice quite right) and with vision (stone angels in "Blick" that can't move when you're looking right at them vs. Prisoner Zero, who, in addition to the duplicating thing, is never seen in its real form except out of the corner of your eye--until it reveals itself to kill you.). Even the new theme song is a return to old, remixing the reboot theme with the more classic theme. (Actually, I'm pretty fond of the new one here.)

There's one remediation of the old that I'm kind of disappointed they dropped; when the Doctor first regenerated, his sense of taste had changed drastically, so there's a Very Funny Scene that shows him trying out various foods in Amelia's kitchen and tossing them away. (A little girl has just approached you with her fear of the supernatural. Do you a)comfort her, b) tell her there's nothing to worry about, c) go upstairs and immediately confront her fear, or d) Go into her kitchen, rifle through her fridge, and throw large amounts of food because they don't suit your taste? Oh, the things we sacrifice for a Very Funny Scene.) Anyway, I thought for a moment that they may be creating a link between this concern with food and the recently concluded two parter in which the Doctor's Nemesis, the Master, is regenerated, but since it went wrong, he was afflicted with an insatiable appetite to consume. Had the regeneration here failed in some manner? But no; just a Very Funny Scene.

let's talk about the biggest repeated element, one that doesn't originate with Moffatt so much as the rebooted series as well: the new Companion as a love interest for the Doctor. Each Companion has had to go through this. First, there was Rose, who is either the Doctor's True Love, or the Girl Who Did Absolutely Nothing to Deserve Being Made a Friggin' Saint, depending on your perspective. Then there was Martha, who served as the Doctor's rebound Companion. And then there was Donna, who had a platonic relationship, which had just a hint of "But is it REALLY platonic? Yes. But... really yes?" And now there's Amy.
Here's Amy:

She's got a Scottish accent too. Imagine me leering chauvinistically.
Actress Karen Gillian's leerability aside, the Companion/love interest angle is wearing a little thin. What I hope they emphasize in future episodes is how broken Amy is. Because I'm a sadist, one of my favorite themes of the series is the notion that the Doctor, because of his immense power, changes people, often without trying, often without meaning to. And what's a single chance encounter for him can have devastating effects on the other side of the affair. From what we've seen of Amy, she definitely may qualify. She has spent her life waiting for the Doctor to come back. Her bedroom, as we see, is practically a shrine, filled with little girl drawings and stick figures of herself with the Doctor. We know she's been to multiple psychiatrists over her imaginary friend. We know she's abandoned her own wedding to go gallivanting across the universe with him. There's something a little off there, and I'd really like to see something made of it. Through Donna, we've seen a Companion end in tragedy, but we haven't seen one broken yet.

Okay, that definitely sounds sadistic, and maybe a little misogynist. All I'm saying is that we've seen the story of the girl saved from a drab life by the mysterious space man; I'd like to see something different.

Let's see... what else? I liked both Matt Smith and Karen Gillian as actors; they both handle their parts well. We haven't really got a sense, personality-wise, that this doctor is any different from the previous one--I could pretty easily imagine this being a David Tennant episode. The amount of comic stammerinig and pratfalls is, as usual, close to being annoying, but that's been an element of the series for so long now that it's practically canonical. I liked the big Doctor speech to the alien prison-guards at the end. Essentially, it's "Earth's mine, stay away from my shit."

And as much as Moffatt's done the visual stuff before, it deserves to be acknowledged that he does it really, really well. Prisoner Zero's just the tip of the iceberg--surveillance is one of the big themes of the episode. The prison-guards are essentially giant eyeballs with crystal tentacles. And the difficulty is never really fighting Prisoner Zero--the problem is identifying which image it's taken and alerting the prison-guards that it's been found. There's a scene in the park where the Doctor quickly reviews his mental snapshot of the park, and the scale of the mental image is very impressive.

And even more interesting, it's almost entirely human surveillance equipment that saves the day. The prison-guards make their presence known by commandeering every communication device on earth--the Doctor makes it known that Prisoner Zero has been located by distributing a virus through a laptop that makes screens all over the world flash "zero." (Never mind why aliens recognize the human symbol for 0. It's a good image. Move on.) And the images of all the people Prisoner Zero can imitate are stored on a handy Iphone. It's hardly a coincidence that the TARDIS was made to look retro in an episode that emphasized the power of this moment of human communication technology.

So yes, I liked the episode. It gets most of the "Who are you?" and "You're a time traveller!" junk out of the way, and established the basic dynamics of the new leads. There's some ominous foreshadowing regarding the cracks in reality, and we've got a season arc too. Let's see where we go next.

Later Days.

1 comment:

Cait said...

Well, first, I feel I must be pedantic and say a) the series went on break in 1989, not 1969, (a typo, I presume) and also b) there was a movie in 1996, so it's not *technically* a 16-year break, as Paul McGann is *technically* the longest-running Doctor of all time. Also, there have definitely been not-quite-platonic companions in the past (Romana, Jamie the Scottish boy wonder, and that chick in the TV movie, to name [or neglect to name] a few), so while RTD rode that ship out of the harbour waving a rainbow flag, I do think it was floating that way years beforehand.

Okay, now that's out of the way. I agree that Matt Smith at this point doesn't seem ALL that different from David Tennant, though that could be down to the fact that he's just regenerated. We've seen from past regenerations that the Doctor goes slightly nuts right after, especially in the reboot. I don't know if you saw the 2005 Children in Need short, but it's our first introduction to David Tennant as the Doctor (takes place between the end of the first season and the Christmas special), and in it he's kind of batshit insane. On the way to passing out, doing violent things to the TARDIS that freak the shit out of Rose, a sort of hybrid of 9 and what we would come to know as 10. As if he can't quite sort his personality out, stay conscious, and prevent the TARDIS from exploding at the same time. Which, you know, fair enough. I imagine we'll get to know 11 better as the series progresses, and it's probably not fair to make up our minds about him yet. Personally, I was hoping for a very different sort of Doctor -- 10 seemed to rely on the characters of past doctors (2 and 4, in particular -- 2 being the best one ever, btw), which is fine and it was very good, but 2 and 4 were separated by 3, who was a very different sort of fellow. We don't need ANOTHER bumbling silly doctor who's secretly an angry genius.

I was hoping for a different sort of doctor. Did you watch the pilot episode of Being Human? You know the guy who played Mitchell? Something like that. Not in a, "I'm a sexy tortured vampire" way; more a "I'm much older and tireder than I look" sort of way. Smith is SO young to be playing the Doctor, that playing him in a goofy/silly way just makes him read as child, not child-like. (though I disagree on the food scene being just a Very Funny Scene -- as noted earlier, the Doctor goes funny after he regenerates; 10 did the same and I doubt he had the presence of mind to do anything but what he did at that point. I mean, 10 was in a coma until someone gave him tea by accident)

And on the same subject, we don't need another damn *feisty* companion. And this time they've topped it by making her ginger. Like, fuck, what is this, Mills and Boon? I'm hoping Amy's boyfriend (probably fiance) plays a larger role -- the way Micky did, except in a less pointless sort of way. The boyfriend/probably fiance doesn't NEED to be that sort of counterpoint to the Doctor: bumbling but USELESS, where the Doctor is bumbling but GENIUS. Whatever happened to Martha's fiance? You know, the good one. Not Micky. Why is it that we can't have strong male characters who aren't the Doctor? (yeah, yeah, I know. Captain Jack. But still. He's pretty useless himself most of the time and I think his queerness makes him Other in a way similar to a female companion)

I also hope that Amy's hero worship doesn't descend into sexual tension, though as you note it almost inevitably it will and it will make me sad and slightly irate.