My thoughts on the second season of Doctor Who.
We finished watching the second season of the new Doctor Who series. As I did for the first season, here’s my ranking of the episodes, from best to worst:
- School Reunion
- The Girl in the Fireplace
- Army of Ghosts/Doomsday
- Tooth and Claw
- Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel
- The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
- New Earth
- The Christmas Invasion (technially part of season one, but I saw it as part of season two)
- The Idiot’s Lantern
- Fear Her
- Love & Monsters
Overall I was disappointed with this season, especially in comparison with the first season. There were several episodes which I thought were really quite poor (the last three in the list), and most that were either pretty shaky (“The Christmas Invasion” had some cute moments, but didn’t make a lot of sense) or seemed just rather routine (“Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel”). Fundamentally, I think the problem is that the stories strive to be creepy or suspenseful without having a solid plot. It’s situation-based plotting: “How can we get to the point that our heroes are about to be killed by a Christmas tree?”, or “How can we have people actually be sucked into a television set?”
David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor: I think he’s fine, although I don’t think he’s nearly as good as Christopher Eccleston was as the Ninth Doctor. Eccleston really grabbed the role and made it his own: Different from his predecessors, with his own visual look, and convincingly coping with PTSD following the Time War. I don’t think Tennant comes out looking as good, and his manias and eccentricities remind me of both the Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy Doctors. Of course, it could just be that the writing wasn’t as good, and so the lead character didn’t feel as strong. Then again, Eccleston did have a really hard act to follow.
Okay, on to the episodes. Spoilers ahead:
As with “Dalek” in season one, “School Reunion” is the clear winner of the second season, and not just because it has Sarah Jane Smith in it (although she is my favorite companion of the original series). Although the emotional tension between the Doctor and Rose has never been a big seller of the series to me, retconning in Sarah’s crush on the Doctor, and her devastation when he abandoned her and never came back was just marvelous, and using her as a cautionary tale for Rose was equally clever. It’s an emotionally powerful story with a happy ending, as well as a treat for fans of the first series, to see Sarah Jane and K-9 again.
“The Girl in the Fireplace” is one of those stories whose plot doesn’t make a lot of sense (everything seems to work out just conveniently enough to hang a plot on), but it gets A’s for atmosphere and central tension: A woman in 18th century France has occasional visitations from the Doctor throughout her life, even as she is menaced by frightening-looking androids. Her attachment to the Doctor from these brief visits is very well drawn, and the episode as a whole has a wonderful sense of pyrrhic victory.
I was looking forward to the return of the Cybermen, but was kind of disappointed in it. The first two-parter (“Rise/Age”) was a decent adventure, but I was baffled by why the whole parallel-world angle needed to be introduced, since the Cybermen were a part of established continuity for the Doctor. The season-ender (“Army/Doomsday”) explained it: It was a convenient way to write out the whole supporting cast, and, I admit, a rather clever way. Plus it gave us the added bonus of answering the old question of what would happen if the Cybermen ever faced the Daleks (answer: The Daleks are seriously badass). And I admit that the appearance of thousands of Cybermen at the end of “Army” was very chilling.
(But: Raise your hands if you thought that the Genesis Ark would open and the Master would step out. I did!)
The other two-parter (“Planet/Satan Pit”) started off really strong (“What the heck is going on here?”), then kind of petered out (“Oh, it’s a Really Big Monster story and an excuse for the Doctor to pontificate to himself”). While I appreciate the effort to recapture some of the Tom Baker-era horror sensibilities (this one reminded me of “Planet of Evil”), I think bringing the devil into it and having the plot hinge on the Doctor making not one but two leaps of faith really undercuts the story. (And you know when I’m comparing you unfavorably to “Planet of Evil” that you’ve got some problems.)
In-between all these big productions, “Tooth and Claw” was a pretty good monster episode in Victorian England, with some terrific dialogue and an interesting teaser for the season’s running theme of the Torchwood Institute.
Speaking of Torchwood, I was troubled by how it was presented: Given that it was set up in answer to the Doctor, is ostensibly opposed to alien activity on Earth, and is over a hundred years old, it seems to clash rather badly with the presence of the Doctor-friendly organization UNIT in Doctor Who continuity.
The rest of the stories I thought were either unremarkable, or poor. I would like to say that I appreciated the spirit of what they were trying to do in “Love & Monsters” – not entirely unlike the Doctor Who novel Who Killed Kennedy in its portrayal of how the Doctor is perceived from outside his own adventures. I found the sitcom-like set-up of the story to be extremely bland, and the narrator, Elton, to be too goofy to be likeable. And the kicker at the end to be downright nauseating. A promising idea, but the story really went wrong at every turn, and it was the sort of story which was going to be a delicate balancing act from the get-go. Yick.
I was pleased with the handling of writing out Rose, although it’s sad that her Mum gets to have a happy ending and she doesn’t. (Although, if there is another Doctor in that parallel world…) I didn’t think the series really relied on the romantic tension between the Doctor and Rose, and I was glad it rarely became more than a vague undercurrent.
So all in all, the season felt like a step backwards. Ultimately, I think the problem was with the writing: Some uninspired or ridiculous stories, and not enough attention to premises that made sense. I also admit I’m eager to see the Doctor spend a little time away from Earth (only two stories in the season fit that bill). Here’s hoping season three will be better!