Monday, April 18, 2011

Doctor Who: Series 5 as Series 6 Begins   

Series (or as we say in America, Season) 6 of Doctor Who begins in both the UK and the US on April 23.  It's the second season for the 11th Doctor and Steven Moffat as showrunner, so it's an appropriate moment for me to comment on their first, especially since I've just seen it all.

I saw bits of it online and on BBC America in past months but mostly on DVD rentals a couple of weeks ago.  I saw all the episodes at least once, and caught I think almost all the commentaries on offer as well as the docu cutdowns.  But all of that still amounts to pretty much a first impression.  So for what it's worth...

Matt Smith seemed to me a credible Doctor and Karen Gillan an interesting companion.  Moffat's episodes were well-written as usual, with some old villains (some which he invented) and some new twists, and his own sort of frenetic humor.  I thought "The Beast Below" (the future UK alone in space) was especially fine--inventive in conception and detail, and soulful.  Could turn out to be a classic. I thought "The Hungry Earth" and "Cold Blood" two-parter also excellent in these ways.

The only episode I felt fall completely flat was "Victory of the Daleks."  Revisting World War II London as if Doctor Who had never been there before ( in those brilliant first season (sorry, series) episodes "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances," written by Moffat), this episode featured an unconvincing and (for me) off-putting portrait of Winston Churchill in a pretty pedestrian war story, that chiefly sought to introduce a new line of Daleks--bigger and in assorted colors! (Collect them all!)

But the additional weakness it revealed was in trying to establish Matt Smith as the 900+ year-old Doctor, with that history of the Time War and the Daleks, etc.  In later episodes, particularly in "The Lodger" when Smith as a particularly madcap Doctor plays Brit football, it's clear what Matt Smith's youth brings to the Doctor that's new.  But facing the Daleks he just doesn't have the weight of Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant to pull off the Doctor haunted by his immense and painful past.

I felt the attempt to explore that past in terms of the Doctor's shadow self in "Amy's Choice" was more successful.  Rory, too, became a good character, though after he dies and comes back once, it seemed inevitable that the next time he died, he'd be back again again.

It was partly this flatness in the Doctor's relation to his past that makes me ambivalent about the return of Riversong, especially in what is now a prominent storyline that continues into the next season.  I'm not sure I like tarting her up so much either.  Of course, she's Moffat's invention so he can change her if he likes, but I don't like, as much as I did in her first appearance with Tennant.  Matt Smith holds his own with her better than I thought he would, but still, there's something odd about this couple.

As for the other Moffat invention he revisits, the return of the Angels didn't do much for me--I could see its scary-story value, and Moffat is very aware that this is a show to scare kids. (He talks about his son's responses, and even mentions on a commentary that he's the first heterosexual Doctor Who showrunner since the 70s.)  But it was nowhere near "Blink."

"Vincent and the Doctor" was nice--but doesn't it seem that every artistic type the Doctor goes back to visit is insecure about the status of his (or her) work in the future?  (Shakespeare seemed to be the one exception.)  Bookending the story with proof that her work lasted was originally part of the Agatha Christie story in series 4 (one of my favorite episodes to watch rather than to remember or think about) but that was dropped.  This time they did it, and it was... nice.  But that's enough.

As for the two-part finale, it was quite a stylish bit of storytelling.  The Doctor's frenetic time-travelling made for (as somebody on a commentary mentioned) a new way to do farce (instead of opening and closing doors, you just pop into existence from another time) but for all the timey-whimey logic, doesn't it do violence to the concept of not interfering in individual time-lines established in the first series episode about Rose saving her father?  The idea of memory establishes existence has a certain quantum theory appeal--Star Trek Next Generation did play around with the concept that the most basic element in the universe is thought.  It also has a fairy tale appeal.  But it does make you wonder what the rules are in this timey-whimey universe now, and even fantasy story universes must have rules.

But I guess there's more of this Whoiverse-shaking  to come, as everybody is promising lots of surprises in the coming series.  That's what they said about last season, though in the end they were careful to establish a fair amount of continuity.  So I guess about a year from now I'll know how they did.  (I do have the Christmas Carol DVD to rent sooner, though.)

Update: I did rent it, and the Christmas Carol is a winner for all concerned.  Michael Gambon, a familiar figure worldwide now (Dumbledore!) as well as in the UK, was wonderful, as was incandescent singer Katherine Jenkins, famous in the UK and Europe but unknown in the U.S. at least to me.  She was perfect in her role--and especially impressive as it was  her first acting part.  Doctor Who has a way of bringing out the best in blonde singers.  The time-travel aspect of the Dickens' fable is so right for Doctor Who that it's amazing in retrospect that it hadn't been done before, but Steven Moffat's script is just terrific on all levels.  (I did wonder however if they weren't set up for a special effects ending they ultimately couldn't afford?)  Moffat obviously can write for other Doctors but he and Matt Smith are a seamless fit, at least in this Christmas special... I also watched this year's edition of Doctor Who at the Proms, and noted the regenerations segment showing all the Doctors, with a special big cheer for David Tennant, and a shot of a woman in the crowd crying during his regeneration scene.  Not forgot, David!  Who, by the way, is reported to be engaged, to Georgia Moffet (no relation to Steven BUT she's Peter Davidson's daughter--he was the fifth Doctor Who, AND she played the 10th Doctor's daughter, that's David Tennant.)  Coincidentally, I saw the Christmas Carol special on the day that the 6th series started--with a big audience but tepid reviews in the UK.            

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