Thursday, January 21, 2010

Doctor Without Borders


I know the rest of the world took a break from writing about Doctor Who a couple of weeks ago, but what can I say? I’m slow. I will say that even though we saw the end of David Tennant’s reign as the Tenth Doctor back in early January with the broadcast of “The End of Time, Part 2,” Brooke and I haven’t stopped thinking about Doctor Who since. If anything, it’s gotten more intense.

I’m a Johnny-come-lately to the world of the Doctor, but for Brooke it’s part of her earliest memories. She can remember the show being on around her, if not her actually watching it, from very early childhood, and the haunting theme song and the blue box feel like they’ve always been a part of her life. So back in 2006 when I got my hands on an early set of the DVDs for the first season of the Who reboot, even before it aired on SciFi Channel here in the U.S., I knew it was a chance to get in on the ground floor with Brooke on a show that could potentially mean a lot to her.

It ended up meaning a lot to both of us. Fans certainly have their complaints about Russell T. Davies’ recently completed run on the show (I could have done with fewer farting aliens myself), but he certainly made the show come alive for a new generation of fans. If nothing else (and there’s plenty else—his method of slowly weaving hints to the final conflict for each season throughout every episode has had a big impact on how I’m approaching long-form storytelling), his casting instincts were impeccable.

I’ve since learned that, from our vantage point in the States, it’s hard to understand how big an institution Who is over in England, or how crazy some of his ideas must have seemed at the time. We first met Billy Piper as Rose, but in England she was a washed up teen pop star, and Catherine Tate (Donna Noble) was a well-known comedienne. Imagine if someone over here were to make a sequel to the Star Wars trilogy, then cast Joey Fatone as Luke Skywalker and Kathy Griffin as Princess Leia and you’ll get the idea.

But both Rose and Donna (and Martha, and Mickey and even Donna’s grandfather) were excellent companions. And as for the Doctors…I know Brooke and I thought that Chris Eccleston would be irreplaceable by the time they did replace him at the end of the first season. It’s to Davies’ credit as much as David Tennant’s that, now that he’s left, the fact that he’s being replaced seems not just unthinkable, but heartbreaking.

Brooke and I rewatched the Christmas Invasion recently, which is Tennant’s first full episode, and Davies uses a really amazing device to get us past our initial reticence about Tennant—he spends nearly the entire episode comatose. By that point we’ve gotten to know and care about Rose, and she’s feeling just as cagey about this new guy as we are. But when she and her family our placed in danger, she comes to want the Doctor to save them, no matter what he looks like. By the time Tennant finally wakes up and swashbucklingly saves the day, we’re so thrilled we don’t care what he looks like, either.

Over at his blog United Monkee, I recently got into a comment discussion with my friend TJ Dietsch about the Series 3 two-parter Human Nature/The Family of Blood. TJ had high hopes for it because it was written by Paul Cornell (writer of fantastic comic books like Captain Britain and the MI-13—if you’re a Who fan reading this, go pick up the trade paperbacks!), but he found himself let down by it, because (again, much like Christmas Invasion) the Doctor is absent for much of the two hours, even though this time Tennant is onscreen the whole time. For me, this is one of my favorite storylines in the whole series, and when Brooke and I recently went back and started rewatching episodes after End of Time aired, it was the first one I chose. (And Brooke went along with it, bless her, even though she finds the end truly heartbreaking and upsetting.)

If nothing else (and, again, it’s plenty else), it’s certainly an acting showcase for Tennant, who reminds us he can do much more than just play brilliant and scattered and on top of things. Here we see the Doctor as a mere man, not very brilliant and definitely not on top of things. And though, once again, we need him to come back by the end of the second episode and fix things, we’re not quite so thrilled to see him come back this time. Because this human persona, John Smith, has developed a life and a love of his own, and he’s not so thrilled with the idea of forfeiting it all just so some wacky alien can take over.

TJ’s main complaint about the two-parter was that it’s one of those things, like Christmas Invasion, where they keep the main character away from it to make you realize how cool he really is, but by this point the audience is well, well aware of how cool the Doctor is. I feel it’s the opposite—the audience is SO used to the Doctor being cool, that it takes an episode like this, showing you what the Doctor ISN’T, to remind you that his coolness and brilliance and zaniness and everything we love about him sometimes disguise one important fact. He’s alien, more alien than he seems sometimes, and though he admires humans he can’t really understand us on an emotional level, and in some way that makes him even more frightening than his Time Lord powers and near-immortality. He claims that humans look like giants to him, but here he’s given a chance to lead an amazing but normal life as a man, and he can’t bring himself to take it. Like I said, heartbreaking.

Now Tennant’s all done, and it’s up to the new kid (and I do mean kid—he’s younger than me!) to carry on however he can. I (and much of the rest of the world) would be a lot more nervous if the man taking over for Davies weren’t Steven Moffat, who’s been responsible for a lot of the best episodes of the recent run (not to mention the BBC mini-series Jekkyl, which I believe is available on Netflix Instant Watch and you should really go instant-watch it right now). (Speaking of Moffat and Instant Watch, is anyone else having trouble getting his episode Blink to load on their Xbox? We wanted to rewatch it, but for some reason it’s the only episode we can’t get to work).

Part of the reason I’ve spent so much time thinking (and now writing) about the older episodes in the past couple weeks is that I found Tennant’s last two-parter, the End of Time, so disappointing. (BEGIN SPOILERS NOW FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T CAUGHT UP) I could go on and on about it, but suffice to say: the villains were anti-climactic, the scene with the face-off and the gun made absolutely no storytelling sense because either of the people the Doctor was pointing a gun at could have blasted him at any time at no harm to themselves, and the long, drawn-out death scene, although obviously intended as a victory lap and acting showcase for Tennant, did him no favors. Eccleston’s regeneration was brief, memorable and dignified. Tennant raged against the dying of the light and ended up coming off as petulant, nearly souring some of his tenure in retrospect. Which is why I choose to ignore The End of Time and pretend it didn’t happen, starting…now. Boy, wasn’t it great when Davies wrapped up all his storylines at the end of Series 4’s The Stolen Earth/The Parting of the Ways (he did), and then Tennant regenerated? SO dramatic. (END OF SPOILERS)

That’s the great thing about time travel (and DVDs)—you can always go back and revisit your favorite periods. And that’s just what we’ll do.

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