Thursday, 7 August 2008

End of Season Review - Doctor Who

Before I venture any further, let me get a few things straight. I don't think Doctor Who deserves to be dismissed as just a kid's show. I also don't think it's healthy that this is regularly the best British TV has to offer, though that's down to some sloppy habits among TV commissioning editors and writing teams in general. I don't think the show peaked with Genesis of the Daleks, and I don't think Torchwood should ever have been commissioned. I also don't think Russell T. Davies is the worst thing that ever happened to the show, don't think he's a hack, and don't hate him for bringing a sliver of LGBT content and naughtiness to mainstream teatime TV.

On the other hand, I do think Martha is the best companion since Leela, or maybe Turlough. I also think the season three finale was the best one yet, featuring some of the strongest performances and best written drama of the entire revamped show. I also think the show is much better now Billie Piper is not around, though I never went so far as to actually dislike her.

If you're one of one of those Whovians who would fit the description of "mosquito" that RTD makes here, you'll probably be disgusted by at least one of the statements above, so consider that a warning. Considering the poorly behaved fanboys on some of the talkbacks I've frequented over the last year or so, I'm keen to stay off their radar for fear of somehow being infected by their humourless and didactic worldview, especially those who whined about the non-regeneration in this episode, which ended up being a clever idea opening up some surprising story opportunities.

Right, now that's out of the way, time to wonk on about the fourth season, which was a disappointment after the highs of season three. RTD has stated he wanted to leave the show when it was on a high, but for this fanboy, he was a season too late (unless next year's specials are life-alteringly good). That's not to say I thought this season was bad, but last year we had Blink, the amazing Paul Cornell Family of Blood two-parter, and the finale (I won't apologise for loving all of it, and thinking The Master's decision not to regenerate just to spite The Doctor was the highpoint of the show so far). This year we had a less wonderful two-parter from new showrunner Moffat, and maybe RTD's Midnight, which was most notable for showing how a large budget can be unnecessary when you have a great idea to build from. Other than that, there was little to get excited about.

That said, it's still good TV, and the Beeb should be proud. Certainly the show has benefited greatly from some increased confidence from the show's directors, who, for the most part, have toned down the frenetic and garish excesses of the first couple of seasons (Euros Lyn, I'm pointing a wizened finger at you). While Who stars two actors who are not afraid to do what can only be described as ACT-ING! when given the chance, they've wisely dialled it back as much as possible this year. Most of the best moments this year were reflective, a sign that the Who team know they can do more with less.

Also great this year was Catherine Tate as Donna, who seems to have confounded expectation and won over most of the sceptics, me included. Her previous appearance in the 2006 Christmas special had not outraged me as much as I thought it would; by the end of the episode I had started to like her. Much the same thing happened this year. The thought of 13 episodes of her shtick was unappealing, and early trailers hinted that she was going to honk away ad nauseum, but it was not long before I had begun to enjoy the chemistry between her and Tennant (who has, yet again, been a marvel this year). Her lack of tolerance for The Doctor's usual dismissive line of bullshit was a breath of fresh air for the show. And by that, I don't mean, "Martha was shit because she loved The Doctor soooo much," because I don't hold to that opinion and Martha was so awesome she can even break the fourth wall. When has any other companion done that? Eh?

The casting of Tate confirmed for me the suspicion I've had for a while now, that the Who team are that rare thing in UK TV; a bunch of talented people who know what they are doing and actually give a shit about it. Whereas a lot of UK shows seem to have been made by people who consider it beneath them (this is not a provable fact, merely a hunch), Who showrunners seems to really care about the show, and care about making RTD proud. It's the jewel in BBC Drama's crown, and everyone working on it is determined to keep it that way. Though I was one of the doubters who thought that the appointment of Tate as companion was a populist move that would ruin the show, it was clear just a couple of episodes in that she was hired on the basis of the stories that could be told with her onboard, not to mention her ability (shared by Tennant) to swap between comedic and dramatic as if at the flick of a switch. Besides, if the showrunners were only interested in doing what they thought would be popular, they could just as easily have hired Amanda Burton, or Fearne Cotton, or (God help us) Lily Allen. They played it smart, and from now on I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. This does not extend to the Torchwood team, nor the actual Torchwood members, who refused to follow the example of Tosh and Owen and just die already.

And yet it was an underwhelming year despite that effort. I'm not going to attribute this to anything other than a dissipation of the energy that the team must have felt last year knowing that they had an international hit on their hands. RTD has done what I consider to be an excellent job on the show, but his control over the show, which often involves Whedon-like rewriting of episodes and total control over almost everything, has slipped a little, perhaps becoming a bit self-indulgent. The season finale packed in a lot of back-slapping references to episodes past, as well as wrapping up everything he had set in place, not to mention adding about fifteen dei ex machinis of varying credibility.

Fair enough, but the show was still going to carry on without him. Though Steven Moffat is hoping start afresh, it nevertheless felt like RTD had constructed the season more as a goodbye to himself than as his goodbye to the show. This also meant that, with lots of ground to cover, some plots were rattled through with undue haste. The much-bally-hooed return of Rozzzzze didn't work at all, with her presence insufficiently explained and her perfect arc ending (which was, shall we say, "borrowed" from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy) revisited with a semi-happy ending that needed an hour of fantastical preparation, retconning, and merry contrivance to actually work. I don't really mind it that much, but I liked the way the Rose/Doctor relationship was left at the end of season two, so this felt a little like pandering, even though it did give Tennant a chance to emote brilliantly. Plus, returning to the same locale and acting things out differently was a nice touch.

Mind you, that downer season two ending couldn't really stand anymore, what with the fates of the other companions being even more tragic. If Rose remained Doctor-less and alone, being a companion would be the most awful thing that could happen to a person. One of the other highlights of the season (if you could call it that) was the horrible fate of Donna, every memory of her exploits removed prior to being returned to her miserable existence as a gobby temp with a narrow worldview and the worst mother ever. Though her fate had been signposted throughout the season (the daft alternate history episode hinted at it, as did the "We're not a couple" running joke that foresigned the DoctorDonna twinning and separation), it was still a wrench to see it happen. And if you think that's the worst thing that could happen, Martha is doomed to an even worse fate; working with Torchwood full-time, now with hapless Mickey around as well. I know, Martha, I feel like crying too!

As for the rest of the season, not much of it stood out, sadly. Though Masticator maintains that the Adipose were a grave error of judgement, I thought the first episode was a strong and entertaining start, lengthy and not very interesting scenes of window-washing peril notwithstanding. After that, though, the show got into a rather dreary groove. The Pompeii episode was notable for some impressive production values, plus Peter Capaldi and Phil Davis giving it some proper thespianic effort, but then we were stuck with the silly Ood and their detachable brains, the hopelessly overlong Sontaran two-parter that squandered Martha's return (a cardinal sin!), and then something about Agatha Christie being terrorised by a giant alien wasp, which is the sort of idea that must have been scratched onto the writer's bedside notepad in the middle of the night.

There was also the one where The Doctor got cloned, creating a young female version of himself who liked fighting. At the time I thought the not-that-great idea of a "daughter" flying around was done as well as it could be done, and that the twist at the end was nifty, but you know you're in trouble when the episode was ultimately so forgettable that I just had to look up which episode came after the Sontaran one.

None of them were bad, per se, but they were a bit dull, though enlivened by the committed performances of the leads. As I'm sure was the same with many fans, we had high hopes for the Steven Moffat two-parter, but the first part, though filled with clever detail, was sadly familiar. Screened after the announcement that Moffat was to become the showrunner in 2010, it was unfortunate that the first episode was littered with ideas cribbed from his previous episodes. The shuffling antagonist repeating a phrase (The Empty Child), the alien menace carefully adopted from a creepy and ubiquitous real-world thing for maximum scare-the-kids impact (shadows are piranhas, statues are Quantum Assassins), glitchy technological deus ex machina introduced early on in a way that makes it seem like a threat (nanobots in The Doctor Dances, the hard drive containing the survivors in The Forest of the Dead), the introduction of a significant supporting character who becomes attracted or drawn to the Doctor while never becoming a full companion (Captain Jack in The Empty Child, Madame de Pompadour in The Girl In The Fireplace, Sally Sparrow in Blink), etc. etc.

Though the first part showed more flair than any of the previous season four episodes, and though the Vashta Nerada were a great enemy, it still felt like a rehash of better episodes. Luckily, the conclusion was as strong as any Who episode yet, with Donna's incarceration in a virtual world leading to another unhappy ending for her, and The Doctor racing to store the memory of his future wife/companion/something inside the world computer in a bravura sequence that had me bawling. Thematically it was more confident than most, dealing as it did with memory and fate, though perhaps it could have tied theme and plot together a bit tighter, but who am I to carp (seriously, blogger vs. Moffat = FAIL on my part). Forest of the Dead was easily one of the highlights of this TV year, as will be reflected in our forthcoming Shades of Caruso Awards (basically, the Emmys, but good).

The following episode, Midnight, featured a monumentally creepy performance from Leslie Sharp, as well as a bleak message that felt like The Mist but with more parroted dialogue. It was a terrific, economical conceit, and well-played, but the thing I liked most about it is that it not only did it show The Doctor's estrangement from humanity (nicely foreshadowing the final moment of the season), it also upended his obnoxious belief in the wonderfulness of we hairless apes. In another internet venue, Masticator once explained his problem with RTD, which I will quote here, if he doesn't mind:

RTD-penned episodes, while perfectly well written, almost always include some kind of moralising bollocks about duty or family or how BRILLIANT humans are or something. It's not that it's a bad choice necessarily, but it smacks of trying too hard to make the show Important and Memorable and For The Ages and suchlike, whereas what it often makes it is No Fun.

I'd like to think my co-blogger will have been happy seeing RTD taking a torch to that concept. Oh, and in case you're wondering, he then said:

And fucking Voyage Of The Damned was very nearly inexcusable, especially as it had seemingly been written as a vehicle for Kylie. Kylie!

Amen, brother.

That was the start of a four-episode run by RTD, the last three comprising that homage to himself mentioned earlier. The follow-up to Midnight, featuring a alternate history revolving around Donna, was almost another highpoint, though undone by the time-altering space beetle effect. As much of Who looks very professional this practical effect stood out as glaringly as the papier-mâché monsters of olden days, and though I'd like to think I can look beyond surface flaws and appreciate the show for its ideas, I have to draw the line at a big plastic beetle, especially when the episode ended up being as drab (and illogical) as it was. Or maybe I just wasn't that excited to see Rose back. For her legions of adoring fans, I'm sure she made up for the deadly alien/novelty rucksack Donna was wearing.

The return of Rose and her surplus teefs was part of RTD's effort to bring back pretty much every supporting character who had spent a lot of time with The Doctor, and it was fun to see them all (he even managed to make Ianto funny, which bodes well, considering he will be scripting some Torchwood in the future), but no one really got to do much. I gather viewers outside the UK were not bothered about the return of Davros, but it's a big deal for Whovians. The blind, paraplegic, alien Hitler was good value for money, though, with a nutzoid plan (destroy everything ever), rampant monologing delivered at a decibel level dangerous to human ears, and the temerity to accuse The Doctor (or rather his peeved human clone) of genocide. Dude, you were just going to obliterate reality itself! I think that, on a scale of naughtiness, Davros and his clone-cronies are a mite worse. Still, even though he is now supposedly dead, he was around long enough to treat us to this fantastic moment.

Unfortunately, he has been betrayed by Dalek (James) Caan, a Dalek even more berzonkers than that spats-wearing freak Dalek (Triple) Sec. Though I was sick to death of the sight of Daleks by the time Dalek Caan delivered his treacherous smackdown of his former boss, I did appreciate that RTD was willing to portray his favourite villains as occasionally self-loathing individuals instead of just hive-mind space Nazis. That said, they're gone, right? Does this final fate of them really count as a really really proper real final fate for realsies? Steven Moffat says so, so fingers crossed. Because seriously, when you've been given a final judgement on your superevil philosophy by a Dalek wearing his balls on his head, you have been definitively served.

Concerns about the treatment of the Daleks and the companions all fade when considering the best scene in the episode, and possibly the season full-stop/period. After saving Donna's life by wiping her mind clean and returning her to her miserable suburban drudgery, The Doctor explained the situation to her odious mother Sylvia and adorable grandfather Wilfrid (Jacqueline King and Bernard Cribbins), and the mess of emotions coming at the end of an already grueling finale finally got to me. The flash of anger that The Doctor aimed at Sylvia and her oblivious and arrogant hostility was so perfectly judged I wanted to write a letter to David Tennant with love hearts all over it.

This was followed by a scene I watched through a veil of tears, as The Doctor and Wilfrid eulogised the Donna that could never be again, and Wilfrid promised to keep an eye out for the Tardis. It was just a teensy bit moving. ::choke::

So what next? Christmas specials, a new showrunner, possibly a new Doctor (please God not The Nesbitt). All I know is that right now I'll just have to cherish the tenure of Tennant in the lead role. It's considered so gauche to seriously praise someone who is beloved by the masses without making some kind of mealy-mouthed justification, but screw that. He is a marvel. The final shot, with The Doctor alone and pondering the seemingly endless fallout from The Time War, was perfect.

You'd better believe I'm going to get tickets to see his Hamlet.


Jaredan said...

Have to agree on Tennant's ability to switch from comedy to tragedy. It reminds me of James Marsters in his prime.

Masticator said...

I absolutely don't mind that you've quoted me and am more than flattered. However, I can't decided if I'm pleased or annoyed that you've extrapolated "maintains that the Adipose were a grave error of judgement" from my words, when I actually said that they "licked balls".

I have similarly mixed feelings about the season. I agree with your general view that it was something of a comedown (I won't say "letdown") after the highs of the previous season. But I also agree that it still had plenty to recommend it, not least some delightful guest turns – Alex Kingston, Lesley Sharp, Malcolm Fucking Tucker, the entire cast of "The Unicorn And The Wasp" (which was the height of silliness, and I don't mean that in a bad way) and of course Cribbins.

Although I am as committed to Team MARTHA JONES as you are, I was heartily glad that Donna didn't spend the whole season mooning over the Doctor, and thoroughly enjoyed their sparky, bantering, siblingish relationship. Conversely, though, I thought two of the season's strongest episodes came when they were separated: the tense, Doctor-undermining "Midnight" and the ruminative "Turn Left".

So yes; I'm conflicted. I certainly don't think the break from having a full season in 2009 will do the show any harm. It's not like it needs refreshing exactly, but it could use some breathing space.

Admiral Neck said...

Indeed, the show will benefit from less exposure, and a bit of a break. Or more Adipose. They were so cute!

As for TEAM MARTHA, perhaps she will escape her terrible fate, if the reports in The Scum are to be believed, which they surely are, representing the Gold Standard of Journalistic Integrity. Apparently her role in the sure to be awful Law and Order: Chibnall has clashed so badly with her Torchwood schedule that she has been written out at great expense and is pretty much persona non grata at the Beeb. Means there's one less reason to watch Torchwood, I guess.

Or Murdoch has decreed to his puppet slaves that they should have yet another dig at the success of his great rival the British Broadcasting Corporation, for daring to show up his tawdry empire as the ideologically corrupt propaganda-happy soul-mincing machine that it is. [None of this criticism is aimed at my lovely Sky+ box, btw]

The Judge said...

If you get tickets to see Hamlet I will hunt you down and steal them from you.
Don't suppose that you would EVER write about Gossip Girl on this, would you? *sigh* Thought not.
We need to talk about Batman too. Oh Admiral Neck, no no no.

Admiral Neck said...

Your apparent dislike of the best movie of the year has delighted me so much that I shall immediately write a capsule review of Gossip Girl just for you.

Watched three episodes. Was not sucked in. Matthew Settle is no Peter Gallagher, which sucks for him because Sandy Cohen is the best TV dad EVER except for O.C. season three when he turned to the Dark Side for no reason other than that the writers had no idea what they were doing. For an entire year of TV. Ouch.

Didn't like any of the featureless, dreary, blandly pretty kids on GG (though Ed Westwick gets a pass for being pleasingly evil in Son of Rambow), thought Leighton Meister's smarmy persona was too unpleasant to endure for any longer (I hated Summer and her first season bitchiness as well, but she was at least funny with it), and felt the class conflict in it was not nearly as sharply developed or charming as that of The O.C., and thus it was dropped in favour of better shows.

That said, it is infinitely, INFINITELY, better than Chuck or Dirty Sexy Money, two shows as bad as a really nasty tropical disease, but if it makes us hate Kristin Bell, whose voiceover was instantly grating and poorly written to boot, then it is forever on our shitlist.

Now go watch Lost, you naughty, controversial lady. XOXO!!!