Saturday, October 07, 2006

WhoView: Christmas New Earth Werewolf Invasion

We’ve had the first three of the David Tennant Doctor Who episodes on the Sci-Fi Channel here in the U.S.-- the second season of the revived series, the first with Tennant as the tenth Doctor.

Tennant appeared for about 10 seconds at the end of the final first season episode, as the Doctor regenerated from Christopher Eccleston’s ninth doctor. It was immediately clear they were going to be different, and they are.

In his first episode, the 90 minute “Christmas Invasion,” somehow the only partly regenerated Doctor gets the TARDIS to Rose’s neighborhood for Christmas. This is the first time we’ve seen a regeneration in the new Who, and some of the traditional effects of regeneration, especially the Doctor’s disorientation and loss of identity, are not only repeated but extended and made into a suspenseful part of the narrative.

In the classic Whos, the new Doctor would act a little weird, but after selecting a new wardrobe, would settle down soon enough to begin the adventure. This time, the Doctor’s weakness (he’s unconscious for a lot of the story) and Rose’s uncertainty about whether he is going to come out of it, and if he is the real (or “proper”) Doctor at all, is the B story. It leads to a couple of neat scenes where the Doctor becomes the instant hero.

Tennant’s Doctor is more clearly heroic, as well as more the madcap Tom Baker-style, though he retains the 9th Doctor’s northern or working class accent rather than adopting the stage English that Tom Baker made famous in the role. But Tennant does have Baker’s background in Shakespeare (or more), which shows, and he is more fluid and mercurial than Eccelston. (We’re getting another major Tennant performance in the U.S. just now, when PBS begins broadcasting the acclaimed BBC “Casanova,” with Tennant and Peter O’Toole sharing the title role.)

Eccleston really grounded the new Doctor Who, and gave the character depth and mystery and melancholy as well as quirkiness and heroism. Tennant's first episodes have the Doctor flying again, but there are also echoes of the ninth Doctor in this tenth one. This is not to say one actor or one Doctor is better than the other. Eccelston's Doctor worked. So far, Tennant is off to a good start, and I look forward to more.

This first story involves an interstellar invasion of England at Christmas by some blustering space pirates in a very impressive space ship--Independence Day size, though looking more like enormous clumps of rock. The episode brings back Harriet Jones from the first season, now Prime Minister. In the climactic scene, the Doctor makes a dramatic entrance from the TARDIS, and champions the planet in a sword duel. The episode is full of wit, with a running joke (Jones showing her ID card and brightly announcing, “Harriet Jones, Prime Minister” after which everyone, including the space monster, replies, “Yes, I know.”) I didn’t catch a Trek reference but the Doctor—who does his derring-do in pjs and a bathrobe—mentions the similarly attired Arthur Dent, from Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” (True Whovians will recall that Adams was writing a Tom Baker Doctor Who story at the same time he was writing the original Hitchhiker script for radio.)

The story is a romp with thrills and wit, and then just as it seems to end happily, it takes a strange dark turn when Jones decides to use the secret weapon she’d had activated to destroy the defeated and retreating spaceship. This act turns the Doctor on a dime, from champion of the human race to accuser—it’s aliens that should fear humans, he says, they are the monsters. Despite the PMs sensible reasons, the Doctor uses a power unseen before in quite this way: he whispers a few words to Jones’ aide that soon results in a rumor that apparently forces her from office. It's a fairly stunning and potentially troubling display of power--arguably arbitrary, as it places the Doctor's judgment above the people who presumably should elect their leaders.

This odd mixture of stagey adventure and dark drama is physicalized when Rose, her family and the Doctor leaves a happy Christmas dinner to go outside in the falling snow, with a skyrocket-like meteor show above. But it isn’t that innocent: the meteors are pieces of the spaceship Jones destroyed, falling back to Earth, and the snow is the ash of the spaceship, and presumably of the bodies of the invaders. They were played as grotesques and somewhat comical and primitive. The Prime Minister saw them as a danger to Earth, especially if they returned to the stars to spread the word of the Earth’s riches. But the Doctor saw them as persons, as life, and his response was quick, uncompromising, and in the role of the reigning authority.

The echoes of recent geopolitics were there. At first in Jones’ refusal to cede power to the President of the U.S. (“Tell him he’s not my boss and he’s not going to start a war”) when the aliens are overhead. But then in her own behavior, versus the aliens—strange-looking, uncompromising, somewhat comical but also deadly. Not like us. Like terrorists perhaps.

The episode ends with Rose’s doubts resolved and ready to resume her journey with the Doctor. The joy of the journey is more powerful than anything else, it seems, which is its attraction and its danger.

In this final scene, the Doctor keeps referring to being a new man, wanting to see the universe with his new eyes. He had told Harriet Jones that the Earth was in a new time—they knew that aliens exist, and aliens know that earth exists. It’s a new world, he said, and then said it again with scorn after Jones destroyed the spaceship. The "new" theme will carry over to the next story.

(continued after photo)

No comments: