A few weeks back, when I posted a poll for Masterminds to decide what piece of entertainment I would dive into I was expecting a pretty close competition. What I was absolutely not expecting was a complete bloodbath, with Doctor Who standing victorious over a pile of shows smoten like oh so many Daleks (Reference I get now! Reference I get now!). So I was to watch the revived Doctor Who (starting with the David Tennant seasons).
And… I liked it. Quite a bit actually.
The format of the show is brilliantly attuned to the needs of a genre show. Each episode sees the Doctor travel to a new world, time, and in a few vital episodes dimensions—allowing for a wide array of genres and tones to be explored without ever making the show feel schizophrenic. Other recent television programs, LOST in particular, have used the leeway of science fiction convention to explore different subgenres and tones within universe (hey, remember Nikki and Paulo’s diamond heist adventure? Neither did the writers!)—but shows like that still often feel bound to specific location, time, and supporting casts in a way that Doctor Who by the very nature of it isn’t. When it’s at its best Doctor Who feels like it’s the married markers of traditional narrative television to the freewheeling style of anthology programs like The Twilight Zone.
That’s not to say the show is without its problems. Before this column I was a bit skeptical of Doctor Who: at first glance it seemed, and please do bear with me on this, a bit too calculated with its suspiciously high number of geek button pushers. Aliens! Shippable characters! The British! IAnd, unfortunately, the first three episodes of Doctor Who’s second season more than obliged my fears. Now I’m more than willing to accept touch and go story logic when the heart of a piece is strong (wassup Looper) but this is not the case with the first third of the season. The second episode, “New Earth,” is the most egregious example of the show pairing logical inconsistency with thin themes. I was ready to write Doctor Who off entirely before something magical happened: I watched episode 4, “The Girl In The Fireplace” by Stephen Moffat.
“The Girl In The Fireplace” is a gorgeous piece of television, easily my favorite episode of a series whose quality ticked upwards immediately and significantly following its airing. The tone of this episode is so complicated yet communicated so effectively: its looming melancholy ever present but never overbearing, allowing moments of pure joy and paralyzing terror to surface somehow unmitigated. The episode starts with the Doctor, Rose, and Rose’s boyfriend/the series’ punching bag Mickey (Noel Clarke) arriving on a ship with no crew. As the Doctor discovers that the ship serves as a portal to the life of eighteenth century French socialite Madame du Pompadour (Sophia Myles), his companions discover that human organs have been fused with the ship’s parts. It soon becomes clear that the automatons that run the ship are tracking the young Madame to harvest as the last working component of their critically injured vessel. It’s horrifying, and all the more squirm inducing by its downright creepy looking antagonists (easily the best designed villains on the show).
Here’s the thing about the Doctor: as played by David Tennant he’s the show’s greatest asset, a bastion of warmth, wisdom, humor, and sadness who elevates the show in its lowest moments and makes it transcendent in its best, but there are times when his presence hurts the storytelling. He’s so powerful and so smart and so competent that many of the antagonists just aren’t credible threats, and as most of the episodes are told largely through the Doctor;s perpective the stories’ stakes and sense of urgency are sometimes less than what they should be. This isn’t always the case, notably in the fantastic season two-parter “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” which, if counted as one program, is easily season’s second best episode. But that episode’s sense of scale and theo-existential angst really couldn’t be replicated on an episode-to-episode basis without limiting the show’s potential to tell different kinds of stories, its greatest asset. What makes “Girl in the Fireplace” so special is the way its antagonists not so much physically threaten the Doctor as imperil what he holds dear as a person of conscience. That mode of conflict is replicated in the show’s best moments and, true to form, Tennant always nails the reaction like a champ. I hope it proves the blueprint for Doctor Who going forward.
So that’s season 2 of Doctor Who. I look forward to watching season 3 with all of you (and I promise I’ll be much faster watching and writing about the seasons from here on out).
- I’m torn on the way the season ends. On the one hand, the “this is how Rose Tyler” dies framing device ends in a spectacular copout, but on the other those last moments between Rose and the Doctor are just heartbreaking. The Tenth Doctor is such a mass of contradictions, and every one comes to the fore beautifully in those moments. Tennant’s a phenomenal actor.
- “The Satan Pit” has absolutely my favorite interaction in the series. “I don’t want to die alone.” “I know.” Haunting
- I’m curious what you all think of the episode with Elton and the other Doctor obsessives (“Love And Monsters”. I think it’s the most frustrating episode of the season: it starts out so phenomenally; it’s funny, sad, and human. You enjoy the characters but fear for them in equal measure, and then the episode nearly ruins it by turning its villain into a comic character instead of a menacing one. That villain needed to shake the characters, and by proxy the audience, to its core – not be a knock off of the Austin Powers character Fat B*****d Ugh.
- This review didn’t really touch on the show’s sense of humor, which is fantastic. The hardest I laughed was probably at the Benny Hill chase between the Doctor, Rose, and the monster in the beginning of “Love And Monsters.”
- Worst Episode: New Earth
- Best Episode: The Girl In The Fireplace
- I thought you guys might like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkcHgI_TIYQ