Posted Saturday 5 January 2013 at 10:44 pm
Filed in: Television
There’s an ongoing kerfuffle in geekdom (certainly not restricted to this recently-popular post) over the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory. (If you’re not familiar with the series, you can either read up about it, or just ignore this post.) The usual objection to the series is that we (the viewers) are supposed to identify with the character of Penny, and to laugh at the four geeky friends, Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj. I know at least one person personally who feels this way.
I think this is at best a superficial understanding of the series, and perhaps an outright misunderstanding of it.
Now, I’m a fan of the series. It’s rare that I’m a fan of any sitcom, since I generally dislike situational comedy. The last sitcom I enjoyed before this was Sports Night, whose humor was based more on wordplay than on situations. BBT also has a lot of wordplay-based humor, but most of its humor is based in its characters rather than in situations. (I think the archetypal situation comedy is Three’s Company, which I loathe.)
One thing to keep in mind is that, as with any series, there are good episodes and bad episodes. One interesting thing about BBT is that even the bad episodes serve to highlight what it is that makes the show work when it does work.
I agree wholeheartedly with Akirlu that Leonard is the central character of the show. The reason for this is that Leonard both fills the role of “everygeek”, and of the geek who can relate in a fairly normal way with non-geeks. The reason all of this is true is that Leonard is highly self-aware and has a strong empathy for others. This is also what causes him to be the character who makes the funniest scenes even funnier.
Penny is in many ways the least important character in the show. She essentially serves as a foil for the four friends by being generically “normal”. But her character actually develops fairly little during the show, and we don’t know a lot about her (we don’t even know her last name!). Really, it’s a testament to actress Kaley Cuoco’s comedic acting skills that the character works. (Like Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard, she has an impressive array of funny faces.)
The core of the show, though, are the four geeky friends, who works well together because they’re not wildly different, but rather vary from each other in well-defined ways. Here’s how their characters work:
Leonard, As I stated earlier, is geeky, but he’s also very self-aware. He’s also keenly aware of the foibles of his friends. He is for the most part well-adjusted to living in society (heck, he’s at least as well-adjusted as I am!), is familiar with social conventions, and is comfortable talking to a wide variety of people. His shyness around women is not particularly unusual; lots of men are uncomfortable talking to women they are strongly attracted to (as he is to Penny from the outset).
What makes Leonard work is that he is a basically normal guy, but with strong geek interests. This is what makes some episodes poignant, such as the one where he decides to give away all of his geeky possessions after being criticized by Penny for being too attached to them: It’s two sides of his character at war with each other. But if he wasn’t well attuned to society at large then his reactions to Sheldon’s absurd behaviors – often the funniest moments in the show – wouldn’t ring true.
Leonard is the guy we’re supposed to identify with. Heck, Galecki is listed first in the credits, so that even seems to have been the creators’ intent from the outset!
The episodes of BBT that work the least tend to involve ones where Leonard’s self-awareness goes AWOL and he just goes along with someone’s cockamamie plan (or follows his own bad instincts) without realizing that what he’s doing is a bad idea. Sometimes Leonard falls prey to his own foibles and just can’t help himself from doing the wrong thing even when he knows it’s the wrong thing, but that’s just him being human. It’s a big source of the show’s dramatic (and comedic) tension – will Leonard figure it out in time to stop himself, or will he come to a bad end?
Sheldon is essentially Leonard’s opposite: He has no self-awareness and no empathy for others. He has very little shame, and only a rudimentary grasp of social norms. His brilliance has allowed him to craft a bubble in which he lives most of the time, and he ignorantly bulldozes his way through anything which isn’t part of his normal world.
Actor Jim Parsons has deservedly gotten a lot of credit for the show’s success due to his performance, and Sheldon is the character who drives many of the plots of the show. But it’s often Leonard’s reactions to Sheldon’s foibles that make the show funny: Either his expressions of amazement at Sheldon’s behavior, his attempts to keep other people from inadvertently pushing Sheldon’s buttons, his occasional triumphs over Sheldon’s own efforts, or his attempts to accomplish something by performing an end-run around Sheldon’s structures.
Howard is a sort of alternate Leonard: He’s also aware of his own foibles, but he either chooses to ignore that they make him a jerk, or he feels that he just has no hope of ever overcoming them and gives in to them. (I think it’s the latter, since his mending of his ways through his courtship with Bernadette is one of the series’ major chunks of character development.) He puts on an air of self-confidence that he doesn’t really feel. It’s easy to see that Leonard could fall into the same behavior if he didn’t have a basic understanding of and respect for other people.
(Howard has a minor axis of humor based around his being a “bad Jew” and his relationship with his mother. These are not central to his character, but often make for some good one-liners.)
Raj is Leonard taken to a different extreme: He’s very insecure in anything not related to his work or his geeky interests, he can’t talk to women, and he doesn’t feel comfortable in non-geeky social situations. Raj is in many ways the weakest character of the four, the one who might most justify a “laughing at them rather than with them” criticism of the show. On the other hand, Raj’s brightest moments come when he stands up to Sheldon (or anyone else) on subjects he does feel comfortable with (Star Trek his work, etc.).
Raj’s weakness as a character is evident in that the writers have not really developed him over the years. Sheldon and Howard have both gotten girlfriends, Leonard continues to court Penny, Sheldon has developed a better understanding of social norms, Howard has been forced to grow up, etc. Raj is largely the same (except for being able to talk to women some of the time). There’s been an implication that Raj is gay, but until the writers actually tackle the subject head-on, I don’t really believe it (we’ve seen Raj sleep with several women along the way, seemingly perfectly comfortably, too; maybe he’s bisexual).
So the show’s characters are rather complex. Even Sheldon, who often is the butt of laughter in the series, work in this way because he doesn’t really care (or even understand) that people are laughing at him, and frankly he’s so full of himself that it’s hard to tell whether he’d care. Early in the series we laugh at Howard for being a jerk (whose jerkitude gets him into some unfortunate situations), but over time we see that he is a much deeper character than that and he achieves some degree of redemption.
But it’s really Leonard who holds it all together. Indeed, Leonard often serves as the voice of reason for Penny, who has her own foibles, obsessions and blind spots. (I really wish the writers would just send Penny back to school to do something with her life, since it doesn’t seem likely she’s going to become an actress. If they’re planning to end the series with her finally getting that big acting job, then I think they’re doing a big disservice to the character.)
I wonder whether the fact that Sheldon has been the breakout character in the series caused a few of the writers to think, “geeks being ignorant of social conventions is what makes the show funny!” and bled some of Sheldon’s character traits into the other characters on occasion. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often.
I could go on (Amy Farrah Fowler and Bernadette are interesting additions to the cast, and I think comic ship owner Stuart is a good character who has been extraordinarily poorly handled), but I think that’s enough for one entry.
One last thing: I can’t help but wonder, when people who think that The Big Bang Theory is somehow disrespectful to geeks or geek culture, if that doesn’t say more about the people who feel that way than it does about the show.
“The Angels Take Manhattan” was the “mid-season finisher” of season seven of Doctor Who, and the final episode of the series for the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory. But despite having the fan-favorite villains the Weeping Angels, I don’t think the episode was successful, either internally or as a send-off for the pair. For two reasons:
The Angels have passed their expiration date as villains, and
Steven Moffat’s second season running Doctor Who shared one major characteristic with Russell T. Davies’ second season: Both were not as good as their first seasons. Moffat is overall a much stronger writer than Davies and his story arcs have been more interesting (far fewer Daleks, for one thing), but this season felt like he bit off more than he could chew, setting up a complicated set of plot threads, but the payoff has so far been rather disappointing.
Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:
The Doctor’s Wife (written by Neil Gaiman)
The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (Steven Moffat)
The Girl Who Waited (Tom MacRae)
The Wedding of River Song (Moffat)
A Good Man Goes to War (Moffat)
The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (Matthew Graham)
We discovered that Comcast On Demand features Doctor Who, so we’ve been able to watch the first couple of episodes of season six despite not getting the BBC America station. Nice! (Sadly we haven’t been able to see the Christmas episode, but it doesn’t seem like we missed much.)
The season-opening two parter was a little disappointing, though. Spoilers for these episodes if you haven’t seen them.
While no one can take away from Russell T. Davies his accomplishment of getting Doctor Who back on the air, by the end of his 5-year run I found the style of the show under his reign had worn thin; indeed, I liked each season less than the one before. Some of this was because Christopher Eccleston’s performance in the first season was so much better than David Tennant’s (nothing against Tennant, just that Eccleston was a supernova in the role), but mostly I found the stories were getting less sensical and more saccharine, and I was pretty sick of the Daleks and the over-the-top and ever-more-ludicrous season-ending two-parters.
As the new producer, Steven Moffatt, had written many of the very best episodes under Davies, I had high hopes for his first season. But the end result was… not quite what I’d hoped for. While Moffat wrote six episodes in the season, none of them were as good as the best ones he’d written during the Davies run, and while the season overall was more consistent than the last few Davies seasons, there were still several clunkers.
Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (written by Steven Moffat)
The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (Moffat)
Amy’s Choice (Simon Nye)
The Beast Below (Moffat)
The Lodger (Gareth Roberts)
The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (Chris Chibnall)
The Eleventh Hour (Moffat)
Vincent and the Doctor (Richard Curtis)
The Vampires of Venice (Toby Whithouse)
Victory of the Daleks (Mark Gatiss)
If you haven’t seen the season, be warned that there are spoilers ahead in my review.
The biggest change, of course, is that we have a new Doctor in Matt Smith, and a new companion in Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). The best feature of the new stars is their relationship, as it’s established from the first episode that Amy is fascinated by (and infatuated with) the Doctor, but she also feels betrayed by him because she feels he broke a promise to her when she was a girl to take him with her. (Of course, it was just that darned unreliable TARDIS bringing him back 12 years later, but she doesn’t really change things for her.) Amy’s sorting out of her feelings for the Doctor and for her fiancé, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), is a big part of the season’s story arc; it’s basically her coming-of-age story.
Matt Smith is fine as the Doctor, but he didn’t blow me away. Indeed, I was disappointed for the first few episodes that he seemed to just be channeling David Tennant, that his Doctor wasn’t a significant departure from his predecessor (this might be a first for the franchise, which previously has usually made an effort to make the break between Doctors clear and even extreme). At times it seemed like he was Tennant’s Doctor in Peter Davison‘s body wearing Patrick Troughton‘s clothing. Fortunately, he grew on me as time went on, but I’m still hard-pressed to say how his Doctor is materially different from Tennant’s. I think Smith brings a little more empathy to the role: His Doctor is a more sympathetic figure, and that makes those moments when he seems to betray his companions (whether inadvertently or as part of some larger plan) seem all the more emotionally wrenching. But I think Smith makes the Doctor earn the benefit of the doubt more than Tennant did (Tennant’s Doctor often seemed callous to me, putting on his “gosh that’s too bad” face in reaction to other peoples’ troubles; consequently I didn’t have much sympathy for his whining in “The End of Time” when his time was up).
Karen Gillan pulls off the nuances of Amy’s character quite well, excited about traveling with the Doctor, challenging him on some of his stranger behavior, and being stuck between him and Rory (by the way, Arthur Darvill doesn’t get a lot of different stuff to do playing Rory, but absolutely nails it when he does get a chance to show some range, such as in “The Big Bang”). She’s a strong character, though I noticed that she’s another in a line of female companions who seem at dead ends in their lives before they head off with the Doctor: Sure, Martha Jones was an exception, and Sarah Jane Smith is the most prominent professional-woman companion, but Rose was a young woman working in retail and seemingly without direction in her life, Donna was unemployed, and now Amy does “kiss-o-grams”; not really distinguished backgrounds. But to be fair, Amy has the mitigating factor that her life has been turned upside-down by the crack in time and space in her bedroom wall. One could argue that a wandering adventurer like the Doctor is more likely to attract companions at loose ends or without direction, looking for someone like him to give their lives meaning. That certainly seems to be the case for Amy.
The unifying story element of the cracks – as with the running threads in past seasons – is handled a bit awkwardly, with the cracks showing up in various episodes to no real effect other than foreshadowing of the season’s finale. (“Bad Wolf” in season one was basically the same.) The exception is in “Flesh and Stone” when the Doctor uses a crack to deal with the weeping angels, but otherwise they’re more ominous than actually relevant. Then again, the season ends with the “why” behind the cause of the cracks left unresolved, with the promise that it will be central to next season’s story, so if things get better from here, then the fact that the cracks were handled so cavalierly will happily be forgotten.
As far as the individual episodes go, the season contained several pedestrian stories: “Victory of the Daleks” is one of the weakest Dalek stories I can recall, with a ridiculous climax involving World War II airplanes in space. I wonder whether this story played better to a British audience who might feel a more visceral excitement in this sort of recreation of the Battle of Britain, but absent that it’s just a bad episode. “Vincent and the Doctor” is a worse-than-average monster story which is not quite redeemed by the coda where Vincent Van Gogh (nicely played by Tony Curran) glimpses his future. One assumes writer Richard Curtis is a huge Van Gogh fan, since the story has no reason to exist otherwise. “The Vampires of Venice” is a similarly weak monster yarn. And “The Eleventh Hour” is only notable for its nifty set-up of the Doctor/Amy relationship, but the threats (Prisoner Zero and the ridiculous-looking Atraxi) are by-the-numbers.
In the middle of the season’s quality range, there’s the two-parter “The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood”, which is a bit better than the average monster story (although not nearly as terrifying as the Fifth Doctor story “Frontios”, which also involved people being pulled into the Earth), and brings back the Silurians in (I think) the form of yet another subspecies of this prehistoric reptilian race. The most notable thing here is the absolutely gorgeous depiction of the Silurian city, which might be the single most impressive special effect and set design in the history of the show – really beautiful. “The Lodger” is a more effective horror story, with the Doctor isolated from the TARDIS, renting a room in a flat in which mysterious things are happening, and getting to the bottom of it. Matt Smith gets to play soccer and there’s an entertaining love story among the supporting cast, but the ending was a little disappointing, since the cause of the mysterious happenings felt a little too quickly examined; I’d have appreciated more depth in the history of the thing. “The Beast Below” is a very traditional trapped-in-an-enclosed-space-with-danger-all-around story, except that Moffat turns the premise on its ear by making things be not what they seem, and using it as a means for Amy to demonstrate her worth to the Doctor. It doesn’t quite hit on all cylinders, but it’s pretty good.
Then there’s the best of the season: “Amy’s Choice” and the pair of two-parters written by Moffat. “Amy’s Choice” is a fine suspense piece, cleverly taking place at two different points in our heroes’ timeline, and presenting a difficult puzzle for them to figure out, plus bringing resolution Amy’s conflicting emotions about the two men in her life. “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone” brings back River Song (Alex Kingston, who has plenty of screen presence to stand as an equal to the Doctor) and the weeping angels. While I think Moffat plays fast and loose with the nature of the angels (it seems much easier to keep them at bay here than in “Blink”), I liked some of the new characteristics that he added to them (“that which holds the image of an angel becomes an angel”, resulting in the tensest scene of the season), and there were quite a few nifty last-minute escapes. Despite this, the story seems overlong, the military crew who show up to deal with the angels don’t seem very competent or prepared, and overall the story has more style than substance. While still quite a good story, it felt disappointing given its heritage in previous great Moffat-penned episodes.
Moffat saved the best for last, in the season’s finale, “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”, in which River returns to help the Doctor solve the mystery of the Pandorica (which turns out to be a pretty neat idea), and then to help the Doctor and Amy save the universe. “The Big Bang” has one of the best opening sequences of any Doctor Who episode ever, and despite the solution relying on a time paradox, it’s a highly entertaining romp, with the denouement at Amy and Rory’s wedding being great fun. Yes, the Doctor saves the Earth and the universe again, but Moffat brings more gravitas and humanity to the event than Davies did in his season-enders. And yet… I still wish the series would veer away from having to end every season with a big bang (literally, in this case). Honestly when the stakes are this high, you just can’t keep topping yourself every season – it just doesn’t work. It only works here because Moffat is a flat-out better writer than Davies (and Davies certainly didn’t pull it off season after season in his run), and maybe Moffat can pull it off once more, but that’s probably the limit.
I want to make special mention of the season’s incidental music, composed by (I believe) Murray Gold, which is some of the most memorable of the series. I particularly enjoyed the themes he wrote for the Doctor and Amy, which key the final scene of “The Eleventh Hour” as well as the coda of “The Big Bang”. I hope the music gets released on an album, because I’d certainly buy it.
This has been a far longer review than I’d anticipated, which I guess speaks well of the season overall. Certainly I enjoyed it, even if there were a few clunkers along the way. But it did feel like it was struggling to throw off the weight of the immensely popular Tennant era, and having a hard time finding its own voice. It did set up the overall storyline for next season, which I hope will see further evolution and rise in quality.
Benedict Cumberbatch works quite well as Holmes, at times seeming to deliberately emulate the style of Jeremy Brett in the 1980s series (which was fairly faithful to the original stories), but other times carving out his own style. Much of this is because in this series Holmes is a much less sympathetic character, callous and lacking empathy: As Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) says at one point, he’s a great man and maybe someday a good one. Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson more fully shares the role of protagonist than did his predecessor, being a humanistic figure where Holmes is not.
The series features only three 90-minute stories, of which the first, “A Study in Pink”, is the best. Holmes and Watson meet and become roommates, and solve the mystery of what appear to be serial suicides. It’s the best because the relationship between the two is at its most nuanced here, with Watson showing that he has skills too, albeit very different skills from Holmes. “The Blind Banker” involves a Chinese smuggling ring and a series of murders, and is certainly atmospheric, but focuses on Holmes’ overly-developed sense of importance and capability, while showing him to not be quite as clever or skilled as he thinks he is – but not really seeming to learn from the experience. “The Great Game” presents Holmes with a series of mini-puzzles as an unknown adversary threatens to kill individuals unless Holmes solves his puzzles. This episode seemed a little too clever by half, getting too involved in the mechanics of the plot, while everyone other than Holmes seemed to be shoved to the sidelines. It also unfortunately ends on a cliffhanger.
So the series has its flaws, largely from the writing side, but it’s at its best when it turns the actors and characters loose to interact with one another. It also has some terrific cinematography and excellent music, and the verbal jousting among the characters is first-rate. Fortunately it sounds like a second season is in the works, and hopefully it will build on the first and further develop the characters.
The theme of the season is both one of the Doctor’s impending regeneration (which we know about thanks to the mass media, but he obviously doesn’t), and the Doctor’s relationship to his companions generally, i.e., why he has and needs them, since he spends these adventures without any companions.
The first episode is a big tease: “The Next Doctor” (written by Davies) has the Doctor land in London in 1951 where he becomes embroiled in a plot by the cybermen, but more importantly he encounters a man (David Morrissey) who claims to be the Doctor, and even has a companion, Rosita (Velile Tshabalala), who resembles the Doctor’s past companion Martha Jones. It quickly becomes apparent that this Doctor isn’t who he claims, and the fun is in figuring out who he really is. The explanation doesn’t aim too high, which is fine, since it provides some insight into the Doctor himself as well as making the other character interesting in his own right. The cybermen story is much less satisfying, culminating in a truly ridiculous monstrosity menacing the city. So this one was a bit of a mixed bag.
The second episode, “Planet of the Dead” (written by Davies and Gareth Roberts) is the least interesting story of the season. The Doctor gets on a London bus on which a jewel thief, Lady Christina (Michelle Ryan) is also travelling, and they end up getting sucked through a hole in space to a desert planet, from which they need to learn how to escape, since going back through the hole kills anyone who tries it. They meet aliens who have recently crashed on the planet, and learn why the world is a wasteland, but none of that is really interesting: It’s just a lackluster monster story. The emotional core of the story is the Doctor’s relationship with Lady Christina, who find the Doctor and his life of travelling alluring, but the Doctor realizes that the amoral Christina would be a poor companion and rejects her. There’s a foreshadowing here of the Doctor’s impending demise, but that’s really the high point of the episode. This one was a misfire.
By contrast, “The Waters of Mars” (Davies and Phil Ford) is the best of the specials. The Doctor lands on Mars in 2059 during the days of the first manned mission, but he knows that every person on the base is doomed to be killed in a huge explosion, although Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) inspired her granddaughter to help lead Earth outside the solar system. Things start to go wrong when several crewmembers are infected with some sort of virus, causing their bodies to be controlled by some sort of water-based alien. The Doctor tries desperately to depart, but he’s delayed just long enough to have a change of heart: As a time lord, he can change history, and he resolves to do so, to save whomever he can from the base.
This episode is in the tradition of many of the classic series’ “locked inside with a killer” stories, as the characters get gradually herded to a place where they have to make a stand or die, with the added tinge of melancholy since the Doctor knows their fates. It tie into the overall theme of the specials is to show how the Doctor can act unchecked if he doesn’t have a companion tying him to humanity. It’s a tense story with compelling acting and drama, although any long-time viewer of the series will be a little perplexed (as I was) that companions are so important to the Doctor, since he’s gone for periods without them in the past and his fundamental character hasn’t changed. I guess you can chalk it up to specifically the Tenth Doctor being a man whose hubris led him to making this frightening decision. In any event, this is probably he single best episode Davies has written.
Finally we have the two-part episode “The End of Time” (Davies), in which the Master returns (played again by John Simm, although this time as a sort of young punk rather than an insane aristocrat – quite an impressive turn, really). The Doctor arrives on Earth to prevent this, where he again meets Donna’s grandfather Wilfred (Bernard Cribbins) who has been having nightmares about the Doctor and the end of the world. The Master is captured by a billionaire who wants him to activate a piece of alien technology, which he does, except that he turns the tables by using it to take over the Earth himself. But all of this may end up being incidental, as we learn that the President of the Time Lords (Timothy Dalton) has been using the Master as a means for Gallifrey to escape the time lock it was plunged into at the end of the Time War. The Doctor has to stop all of them to save humanity and the rest of the universe besides, but at the price of his tenth incarnation.
This story is annoying for two reasons: First, it’s yet another of Davies’ over-the-top season-enders, which honestly gets very boring after a while. You can’t keep ratcheting up the suspense and excitement level all the time, it’s not “Doctor Who Saves the Universe Again and Again”. Second, even after he’s been fatally wounded, there’s a lengthy denouement where he travels around to visit or see the many friends he’s had in his tenth life, a sort of melancholy mirror to the events of “Journey’s End” at the end of the fourth season, but which really feels entirely unnecessary. A little nostalgia here and there is okay, but geez, this was too much. The scene with Captain Jack was amusing for the decor of all the aliens in the bar, and the encounter with Rose was amusing, but I think this sequence should have been scaled back considerably.
Some bits are quite good: Wilfred is an endearing character, and the fate of Donna is still rather tragic. John Simm is excellent as the Master, especially in the first half, Timothy Dalton is always a delight to see, and the final confrontation between all parties is quite good (although it perhaps goes on a bit too long, and the solution the Doctor chooses seems so simple as to undercut the length even further; Davies is not really the strongest plotter). But overall I found “The End of Time” a bit disappointing, especially after “The Waters of Mars” (whose themes were largely dropped in this story, which is also too bad; I’d been intrigued by the possibility of the Doctor heading down a path of hubristic self-destruction, which isn’t how it played out).
I’ve said several times before that I didn’t think David Tennant was as good a Doctor as Christopher Eccleston. This is selling Tennant short to some degree: I think he was let down by the writing as much as anything. Although I do feel he played the character in a way too similar to some past Doctors, whereas Eccleston’s Doctor didn’t really resemble any of his predecessors (which was, uh, fantastic). But Tennant’s earnestness and comic tinges have been entertaining.
For next season, I’m most excited that Steven Moffat will replace Davies as executive producer and head writer, as Moffat has written several of the very best episodes of the series, and I’m looking forward to the quality of the writing going up next season. Here’s hoping that’s how it works out.
(You can read my reviews of other nouveauDoctor Who seasons here.)
It took a while, but we recently finished the first season of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off about a team in Cardiff, England defending the planet against alien incursions, and featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the occasional guest-star of Who. As I’ve done with Who, I’ll list the first season episodes in order of most to least favorite, and as usual my comments below will contain spoilers.
Captain Jack Harkness (written by Catherine Tregenna)
Ghost Machine (Helen Raynor)
Out of Time (Catherine Tregenna)
They Keep Killing Suzie (Paul Tomalin & Dan McCulloch)
End of Days (Chris Chibnall)
Countrycide (Chris Chibnall)
Random Shoes (Jacquetta May)
Greeks Bearing Gifts (Toby Whithouse)
Combat (Noel Clarke)
Everything Changes (Russell T. Davies)
Small Worlds (Peter J. Hammond)
Cyberwoman (Chris Chibnall)
Day One (Chris Chibnall)
A friend of mine said on Facebook that you have to look at Torchwood as a guilty pleasure. That would be fine – since much of this season is very poorly written – except that I already tend to see Doctor Who as a guilty pleasure, and Torchwood is a big step down from it, so where does that leave it?
The most frustrating thing about the show is that the Torchwood team are mostly incompetent, which is a big change from most shows of this type where the government organization protecting us from the unknown is instead highly competent. But this isn’t really a theme of the show, it’s just a lever used for the stories: The characters are incompetent, so they do stupid things, and that results in problems.
So, for example, in “Cyberwoman”, Ianto has been hiding his half-cyberized girlfriend in the basement of Torchwood since the Battle of Canary Wharf back in Doctor Who season three. He doesn’t really have a plan to reverse her condition, and he certainly doesn’t trust that his co-workers would help him. Naturally it all goes disastrously wrong once she gets loose. Or the first episode, “Everything Changes”, when the characters are making selfish use of the alien artifacts that Torchwood has access to even though Captain Jack’s told them not to. All this would make more sense if the team were more of a research organization, but that’s not really what they do, and it’s certainly not what they’re set up to do. This pattern continues through the season finale, “End of Days”, when the whole team turns against Jack to do something remarkably stupid which puts the whole world at risk. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Maybe next time you’ll listen to Jack!” at the television during the season.
Not that Jack is a whole lot better, since he’s written very erratically. He’s certainly the most competent character in the group (although Tosh is okay; she’s a fair sight better than Gwen, Ianto and Owen), but he also swerves from being empathetic to being very callous and uncompromising. It’s like the writers couldn’t decide if they wanted him to be a tough-as-nails leader, or more of a heroic figure like the Doctor.
The season’s rocky start has one good episode, “Ghost Machine”, and a decent one, “Countrycide”. The former is an atmospheric story about a device that can show echoes of the past, while the latter is a creepy horror story whose punchline is very different from what you’d expect. But neither of these are episodes to build a season on; in a better show, they’d be meat-and-potatoes episodes rather than the standouts. And they’re amidst dumb episodes like “Cyberwoman” or the immeasurably stupid “Day One” with its sex-obsessed alien killer (gah!), or the faerie-inspired but muddily-plotted “Small Worlds”.
The series does get better as it goes on, though. “They Keep Killing Suzie” features the forgotten Torchwood member from the first episode coming back to cause trouble, a well-constructed episode that unfortunately peters out with a pointless chase sequence at the end. “Out of Time” involves some people from 1953 brought forward to the present and having to adjust to a very different era. It’s one of the more thoughtful episodes in dealing with this premise seriously. And the best episode of the season is “Captain Jack Harkness”, in which Jack and Tosh are thrown back to 1941 during the dawn of World War II and have to figure out how to get back even as Tosh is the subject of anti-Japanese sentiment. They also meet, well, Captain Jack Harkness of that era, who’s not at all what they were expecting.
That episode sets up the last episode, “End of Days”, in which the mysterious goings-on turn a promising set-up into the team turning against Jack pointlessly and resolving into another stupid monster story. It’s a bombastic story but it’s frustrating and not very satisfying. And it ends with Jack disappearing to adventure with the Doctor at the end of his third season, which makes the series feel even more like a spin-off which is subordinate to its original series.
Torchwood has all the ingredients to be a solid series, perhaps a little derivative of The X-Files, but with a flaboyant, unusual star character, an inventive visual look to the team’s headerquarters, and an unusual pedigree. But the writing just doesn’t follow through on the series’ premise, and rarely delivers stories that either make much sense on their own terms, or involve characters doing things that seem sensical. Overall, it’s mediocre, and never truly great.
It took us a little while, but this weekend we finished off the fourth season of Doctor Who. As usual, I’ll run down the episodes from best-to-worst (in my opinion, anyway), and then some comments with spoilers:
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (written by Steven Moffat)
Turn Left (Russell T. Davies)
Planet of the Ood (Keith Temple)
Midnight (Russell T. Davies)
The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (Russell T. Davies)
The Doctor’s Daughter (Stephen Greenhorn)
The Fires of Pompeii (James Moran)
The Unicorn and the Wasp (Gareth Roberts)
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (Helen Raynor)
Partners in Crime (Russell T. Davies)
Voyage of the Damned (Russell T. Davies)
Season four got off to a very shaky start indeed, with the Christmas special “Voyage of the Damned”, which was silly, dumb, nonsensical and several other adjectives. A bad episode, as the Christmas specials generally have been. But still, forgivable as it was just a special.
Unfortunately, the season proper got off to a start nearly as poor, with a ridiculous (and rather gross) villain and plot. The redeeming quality of “Partners in Crime” was the whimsical relationship between the Doctor and new companion Donna Noble, with the memorable musical theme for their pairing. But the episode itself bent over way too far to keep the two just missing each other for its first half, and the premise of creating little baby aliens from human fat was disgusting for basically no good reason. Between them, these two episodes made me put off watching the rest of the season for quite a few weeks, because they were both really weak.
Unfortunately this is a consistent problem in Russell T. Davies’ writing: His characterizations are pretty good (occasionally great), but his plotting and premises – even by the loose standards of Doctor Who – tend to be very weak.
The next few episodes are decent “bread-and-butter” episodes: “The Fires of Pompeii” is about as middle-of-the-road an episode as you could get. “Planet of the Ood” is a pretty good thriller. “The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky” is a mediocre invasion-of-Earth yarn. “The Doctor’s Daughter” is a straightforward colonization-gone-wrong yarn, made a little better through the exuberant performance of Georgia Moffett as Jenny, and titular character; however, I guessed the episode’s punchline about 15 minutes in. “The Unicorn and the Wasp” is a far-too-pretentious science fictional mystery featuring Agatha Christie as one of the characters; despite a few good moments, the episode is too ludicrous to hold together.
At this point we’re more than halfway through the season and it’s been a pretty mediocre lot so far. And as a companion Donna has been something of a mixed bag. She’s at her best when she’s acting as a mature, capable woman; as with Martha Jones in season three, at times she’s more mature than the Doctor himself. But her characterization is uneven, as she’s often overwhelmed by events she’s thrown into, which although it’s fairly reasonable that she would be, it’s also ground that feels recently trod-over in the current series. Catherine Tate seems swept away by the eddies of the writing, doing well when given good material, but seeming whiny or annoying with weaker material. Ultimately I blame the writing, as I think it would take an actress of historic talent to forge a consistently great performance out of the character of Donna as portrayed here.
Fortunately, the second half of the season is a marked improvement over the first, unsurprisingly starting with Steven Moffat’s two-part entry, “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”. It starts off as an effectively eerie horror episode – a global library which is utterly silent and deserted when the Doctor and Donna arrive – and soon become much more with the introduction of archaeologist RIver Song, who knows the Doctor but he doesn’t know her; this is the first time he’s met her, but she’s known his future self for a while. Alex Kingston is terrific as River, and makes me look forward to seeing her (hopefully) in the future, although the way television series work, I’m not holding my breath. The story has the frantic-yet-terrifying feel of some classic episodes, with the characters beating a hasty retreat from their opponents while slowing figuring out (at some cost in body count) what’s going on. If I have a gripe with the episode, it’s the fate of River Song, which although not utterly tragic, is less optimistic than I’d hoped. I like to think that she eventually is reincarnated and is able to live her life and meet the Doctor again. Nonetheless, this two-parter is – as was the case with Moffat’s last two stories – the clear standout of the season.
The season ends with four Davies-written episodes, which isn’t as bad as it might sound. “Midnight” is an effectively creepy locked-room story, more atmosphere than story, about an alien creature that takes over the body of a woman on a broken-down transport in the middle of an unlivable planet’s wilderness. The story’s main flaw is one of motivation – what’s the alien trying to accomplish, and why does it behave as it does once it’s rendered the Doctor powerless? – but as a suspense yarn it’s pretty good.
Donna barely appears in “Midnight”, so conveniently “Turn Left” is all about Donna: An alien fortune teller inflicts her with a creature which causes her to turn right rather than left back when she interviewed with the company where she ended up meeting the Doctor. As a consequence, the Doctor dies because she’s not there for him in “The Runaway Bride”, and terrible things befall the Earth because of his absence. This sets the theme for the season finale: Donna feeling like she’s just an insignificant person, when her presence has changed the world. It’s quite a good episode, although the sense of destiny imparted to Donna feels grafted-on after the way her character’s been handled so far, and again, the fortune teller’s motivations are left unexplained.
The big finish is “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”, in which the Earth is, well, stolen – by the Daleks, of course. It’s hard to understand why they keep losing when they have the technology to steal planets and keep them out of phase with mainstream time, which is just one of many flaws in the story. But as a Davies story, much of the plot is left unexplained and/or doesn’t make much sense. The theme of the story is that of the Doctor’s large extended family, all of whom (since the series reboot) appear in this episode, usually accompanied by a plot hole or a moment of sheer coincidence. Everyone pulls together to make things turn out okay, and there’s a rather nice sequence of saying farewell to everyone who’s been on the show the last few years, a sort of farewell to Russell Davies’ tenure.
Davies seems to be a sucker for both the Daleks and big, world-changing climaxes, both of which have worn thin their welcome with me over the last few years. He injects Davros, the Daleks’ creator, though other than giving a manic voice to the Daleks’ ambitions he doesn’t contribute much. The episode looks nice – the producers have learned how to apply their special effects budget quite well – and there are many touching moments (and a few clever ones, like when Jackie escapes certain death), but the whole thing feels like it’s trying too hard.
The story ends with a half-human clone of the Doctor, which gives Rose (who’s acquired a lisp since she last appeared) a happy ending with (after a fashion) the man she loves, and with Donna gaining the Doctor’s mind, which overloads her human brain, forcing the Doctor to make her forget all about him and leave her back on Earth. This latter bit seemed not only completely improbable, but largely unnecessary from a story standpoint: Either kill her off cleanly, or find some better way of having her leave the TARDIS. Wiping her memory, too, seems just like cruel writing.
Overall I think the fourth season was a little better than the third season, even though I liked Martha Jones better as a companion than I did Donna. But I’m looking forward to Steven Moffat taking over as head writer. I think he has the right sense of gravitas to give the series some meaning, but hopefully his tighter storytelling will carry over to structure for a whole season, without the kitchier extremes of Russell Davies’ writing.
Oh, and also, we’ll have a new Doctor, as David Tennant is departing along with Davies after this year’s specials. So it’ll be a fresh start. Again.