Doctor Who, Season Three

It took a while, but we finished watching the third season of Doctor Who last night, which means it’s time for the review of the whole shebang. (If you missed them, you can go back and read my wrap-ups for Season One and Season Two.)

Please be warned that there are some spoilers in the discussion below, so if you haven’t seen the whole season, you might want to come back after you have to read this.

Here’s how I thought the episodes stacked up, from best to worst:

  • Blink (written by Steven Moffatt)
  • Utopia (Russell T. Davies)
  • Human Nature/The Family of Blood (Paul Cornell)
  • Smith and Jones (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Shakespeare Code (Gareth Roberts)
  • Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (Helen Raynor)
  • Gridlock (Russell T. Davies)
  • 42 (Chris Chibnall)
  • The Lazarus Experiment (Stephen Greenhorn)

(We haven’t seen the two post-Martha Jones episodes listed as part of the season, due to the peculiar way in which we watch the episodes. No, it doesn’t involve BitTorrent downloads, because if it did then we’d certainly have seen them!)

In the large, I thought this season was considerably weaker than the second season, and you’ll recall that I thought the second season was a disappointment compared to the first. As is usual with such things, I think the fault lies in the writing, as even several episodes in the first division were badly flawed, and several episodes during the season were downright cringeworthy. I think many stories strive to be too cute or too clever and end up just being ridiculous. Granted it can take a truly outstanding writer to take a silly idea and make good drama out of it, but I’d hope that any decent writer would at least be shy away from the silly ideas that they can’t make work. On the other hand, obviously I have a different idea of what “works” for Doctor Who than the show’s creators.

On the casting side, I enjoyed Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones quite a bit. I appreciated that she came from a less-nebulous background than Rose Tyler, as Martha was a medical student. It was sometimes frustrating that Martha would have moments of whining about the Doctor not noticing her, mainly because I thought the show didn’t spend enough time on her unrequited feelings until the very end and so it always felt a little out-of-place. (Not to mention that it felt like a reprise of the main running theme throughout Season Two.)

I still haven’t fully warmed to David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and still pine for Christopher Eccleston’s more nuanced character. I think I’ve decided it’s not really Tennant’s fault, it’s just that the character is written as a one-dimensional figure: A hopeless do-gooder who’s sort of a brilliant oaf. This leads to some very unsatisfying plot developments, often involving the Doctor seeming completely baffled until he pulls a rabbit out of his hat at the very end. This exacerbates some of the silly stories that the episodes are based around. The Ninth Doctor’s air of self-superiority tended to give his stories a firmer ground on which to stand; when he seemed baffled it was usually because he genuinely had no idea how to proceed, while you never know where you stand with the Tenth Doctor: It he really baffled, or is it just bad writing?

Okay, to be fair we may be pushing the limits of the various elements which go into the Doctor’s personality: Haughty, noble, self-aggrandizing, super-competent, bumbling, clownish. These are the elements which largely define each of the Doctor’s incarnations. The really good Doctors tend to expand and deepen their core aspects (think Tom Baker and Chris Eccleston as prime examples) while the lesser ones seem to flog the same horse over and over (with the Colin Baker character being the worst such figure). The ones in the middle all have their various flaws, by Tennant’s Doctor still feels a lot like the Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy characters: The bumbling do-gooders who are largely undercut by inconsistent writing and oft-incompehensible plotting.

As for the episodes themselves, “Blink” was the clear winner here. Yes, the foundation is a bit weak, as thinking about the ecology of the Weeping Angels makes you realize that they don’t really make any sense except as a one-off plot device. But man, what a plot device! Sending characters into the past to kill them through the sheer passage of time, and telling the story through the character of Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan, who arguably out-acts almost everyone else in the season), with nifty little time dependencies and paradoxes, it’s creepy and moving and dramatic and it just hangs together better than anything else in the season.

“Utopia” is the other excellent episode of the season, and is the lead-in to the two-part finale. Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana is terrific, as one expects from Jacobi, and seeing Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) again and bringing closure to his disappearance after the end of Season One is a lot of fun. I still haven’t seen any of Torchwood, so I don’t know how his character has worked out there, but his presence here is entirely explained in the context of this series, and he’s a nice addition to the end of the series. Anyway, “Utopia” takes place near the end of the universe, and it’s built around a relatively modest concept – trying to help the last band of humans escape a hostile planet for a purported promised land – while being used as a vehicle to introduce the season’s climactic villain. And it does this very well, using bits set up in earlier episodes to build the suspense gradually. I think Russell Davies’ writing works better when his story’s venue is constrained like this; given a much larger canvas on which to work, his stories seem to get away from him.

Paul Cornell’s “Human Nature” two-parter is one of the stories which is basically a house of cards (the Doctor’s motivations for becoming human seem spurious in the extreme – he did all this to be merciful? What the–?), but it’s a pretty effective story nonetheless. The Doctor’s turn as a human results in a character with more depth and range than the Doctor himself has, which serves to underscore that the Tenth Doctor is one of the weaker Doctors, but it does give Tennant more to do than usual, and he does a good job with it. (This is one reason why I think the fault in the character lies in the writing and not the acting.) The story is perhaps overlong, but still pretty good. Special mention to Harry Lloyd as Baines, the prefect who’s taken over by the Family, who makes Baines into one of the creepiest human-looking antagonists I can recall in the show.

From here the season declines from “noteworthy” to “merely adequate” or worse. “Smith and Jones” was kind of a mess of an episode, although it gets extra points for the “Judoon on the Moon” line. The Judoon feel too much like unusually-silly Sontarans and the premise of transporting a hospital to the moon is even more ludicrous than the usual Doctor Who plot device. “The Shakespeare Code” was so pedestrian I have basically nothing to say about it.

Of the really bad episodes, “Gridlock” had a completely ridiculous premise which I just couldn’t get past to enjoy the rest of the episode. I haven’t really warmed to all the “New Earth” stuff which pops up in the series from time to time; I’d be happy if they just jettisoned the venue entirely. “42” felt like a poor redux of Season Two’s “The Impossible Planet”, which itself was not a great episode. And “The Lazarus Experiment” started out as a science fiction cliche, and ended up as an unusually implausible Big Monster Story. Really bad stuff. This made the first half of the season hard going indeed.

That leaves the other two two-parters. “Evolution of the Daleks” lands as a slightly-below-average story, largely squandering the promise in setting a Doctor Who story in Depression-era New York, overshadowing it with the rather silly idea of evolving the Daleks into human-Dalek hybrids. This story certainly had the feel of the Daleks being well past their sell-by date; unlike the Jon Pertwee-era Dalek stories, which felt all to mechanical and predictable, the Tennant Dalek stories have turned the Daleks into some sort of bogeyman, seeming slightly pathetic and overused, and only frightening because they happen to be armored machines carrying guns. All of the emotional resonance of the excellent Eccleston episode “Dalek” (arguably the best episode of the new series overall) feels very much a thing of the distant past. “Evolution” has too much of the feel of two over-the-top Colin Baker episodes, “Attack of the Cybermen” and “Revelation of the Daleks”, seemingly thrashing around to figure out in what new direction the monsters should be taken, while simultaneously undercutting their essential menace.

Lastly, there’s the climactic two-parter of the season, in which the Master (William Hughes) returns to the 21st century (apparently a few decades in advance of our own era, as they have flying aircraft carriers here) and arranges to take over the world and use humanity to launch a war to conquer the cosmos. The Master here is portrayed as both calculating and flamboyantly insane, which is certainly quite different from his past personas, who were dark, manipulative villains. It’s a weird effect; it certainly makes him a surprising antagonist as he often acts in ways that I found surprising compared to his past behavior, but then, that’s sort of the point of regeneration, isn’t it? Arguably it was just a coincidence that the Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley Masters had basically the same personalities.

The downfall of the story is that it relies far too much on cheap tricks to work. Aging the Doctor to an old man, and then a ridiculously old man, was certainly creepy, but seemed gratuitous. And the story’s climax was nothing more than a deus-ex-machina, essentially allowing the Doctor to save the day by having all of humanity “think good thoughts” about him at the same time. Any time your heroes win because of a figure bathed in a glowing light, your story has gone badly wrong. (I’d been expecting that Martha had been telling humanity about the Doctor’s good works on their behalf in order to have them passed down the years to their descendants to short-circuit the Master’s plan from the other end.) This sort of magic solution was just as unsatisfying in “The Parting of the Ways” – the Davies script which concluded the first season – and I hope it doesn’t become a habit in what should be nail-biting season-enders.

The episode has a moment seemingly drawn directly from the film Flash Gordon when the Master’s ring is picked up from his funeral pyre by an unknown hand. I guess he’ll be back…

The new Doctor Who series is still fun, but it feels like it’s going steadily downhill. I hope they can turn things around in the fourth season, but I’m losing my optimism. Guys, a little madcap hilarity is okay once in a while (after all, how else could you really spin an episode called “The Christmas Invasion” than to have killer Christmas trees in it?), but I’d like more serious stories with believable premises and sensible resolutions, please.

Doctor Who, Season Two

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!

Doctor Who: One Versus Two

I’ve seen the first four episodes of the second season of Doctor Who, and I’ve noticed that they each resemble an early episode from the first season:

  1. The first episode of each season involves an invasion of Earth by some improbable aliens (“Rose” vs. “The Christmas Invasion”).
  2. The second episode of each season takes place in humanity’s far future and features a number of unusual aliens (“The End of the World” vs. “New Earth”).
  3. The third episode of each season takes place in the 19th century and involves a classic horror element (“The Unquiet Dead” vs. “Tooth and Claw”).
  4. The sixth episode of the first season and the fourth episode of the second season features the return of well-known figures from the original Doctor Who series (“Dalek” vs. “School Reunion”).

On top of this, both series feature a recurring background element (“Bad Wolf” vs. Torchwood, the latter I guess laying the groundwork for the spin-off series). Hopefully Torchwood will have a more rewarding climax than Bad Wolf did.

Is this correlation just coincidence, I wonder?