Doctor Who Classics – The Modern Era

In 1989, Doctor Who screened its last adventure with Survival. The story continued in a series of novels taking up the mantle of Andrew Cartmell’s master plan. In 1996 a new Doctor was introduced in a TV movie with less than favorable results. Even though Paul McGann was a fantastic modernization of the character, the film was poorly put together and ultimately failed at achieving a new lease on life for the program. Again, a series of books continued the 8th Doctor’s journey and audio adventures followed as well. When Doctor Who returned to TV screens in 2005 it was with Russell T Davies at the helm. A writer recognized for his success with the drama Queer as Folk and contributer to the Doctor Who novel canon, it seemed a dream come true for Whovians the world over.

A very public figure, Davies was often his worst enemy in the press. At first he declared himself to be a fan of Doctor Who and applauding the efforts of the classic series creators, Virgin Publishing and Big Finish for keeping the torch burning. When he came under fire from fans (mainly on online message boards) during his first two years he changed his tune saying that the detractors by calling them ‘moaning old minnies’ and claiming that they were not in touch with their emotions at all. This created an unnecessary  divide between fans of the old and the new, often making the two groups bitter enemies. It’s important to note that while online forums are a new thing, the kickback from fandom is not. Back in the day viewers wrote in either supporting or denouncing the direction of Doctor Who in very florid epithets. My favorite is the TV program which interviewed members of a Doctor Who Appreciation Society after the airing of the new series opener.  Fans denouncing a new Doctor as terrible or a story as poorly conceived is nothing new.

To add to the confusion, Davies reneged on his stance of fans by including references that only fans would understand and bringing back no less than four monsters/enemies (Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, the Master, Davros) during his five years as producer/head writer. He also took liberties by writing his own spin-off into Doctor Who lore and attempted to pull the viewers’ collective leg one time too many with a regeneration that wasn’t a regeneration at all. By the time he left and Moffat took over,  the formerly supportive group of Davies fans was showing signs of frustration. It was time for a change.

The modern era of Doctor Who is full  of problems but it is also immensely successful and still in production, making it a living creation rather than a legacy of programs that can be reviewed and investigated in a TV-style archeological manner. I make no effort to hide the fact that I prefer the classic to the new Doctor Who which is part of the reason why I am reviewing the classics in separate clusters to give each period what I hope is a fair shake. Doctor Who is constantly changing and mutating into something else which may not be one’s cup of tea, but it is never boring. It is its own creature and it is charting a history for a new generation of viewers.

The Modern Era Part One: Christopher Eccleston

The new updated version of Doctor Who would be built around human interactions rather than monsters, an emphasis on quirky humor and romance between the Doctor and his new companion Rose Tyler played by former pop idol Billie Piper. The first series was actually two series filmed back to back at breakneck pace, causing friction with the lead actor Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston had no real love for Doctor Who, but openly spoke of great respect for Davies as a gifted creator. In early interviews he made it plain that he planned to play the role as a more street level character rather than an upper class personality as he had seen in the classic series. He viewed the program as essential to children and had bold ambitions at crafting quality programming. In the end, he and Davies had disagreements in how they approached the material and Eccleston decided to leave. Eccleston was perhaps too fine an actor for the part in retrospect and lacked an ability to convey the oddball humor that Davies had infused into the character. However, Eccleston excelled at drama and portrayed one of the more brooding and intense incarnations on the screen.

The first series of the BBC Wales Doctor Who has very few references to the classic program and in many ways functions better as its own thing. This would change in its second year but for the opening series the Doctor was a distraught traveler trying to come to grips with a great catastrophe called the Time War. Dressed entirely in dark colors, the latest incarnation was a neurotic personality who seemed to charge headlong into danger as a means to escape his past. He also encouraged others to chart their own path rather than take an active part in their worlds. It was a very different approach which only changed in the final adventure when he took an active role against a vast army of Daleks, an unforgettable moment that cemented his place in Doctor Who history as one of the finest incarnations.

Dalek
The first time viewers got to see a Dalek on screen since 1988 (unless you count the Curse of Fatal Death), Dalek is a bit too post-modern for its own good, but it is also amazing. Depicting the sole surviving Dalek from the Time War as a pitiful creature chained in a top security facility was a brilliant move. When it comes to life after absorbing Rose’s time-traveling DNA (whatever that is), it charges onto action just as we had always wanted them to in the classic program. The new ‘golden’ design is brilliant and Nicholas Briggs brings great manic energy to the monsters with his distinctive voice work. The only script to date from Robert Shearman, it does have some flaws such as the deliberate humanizing of the Dalek in the concluding scene where it opens up and feels sunlight on its face. Up until that moment, it seemed that the entire affair was a ruse to escape, but in fact we are meant to pity the Dalek and feel sympathy for it… which felt forced in the end. Or maybe I’m just a cranky fan. In any case, I am very appreciative of this episode as it is the best of the new Dalek stories.

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
Steven Moffat’s first script for Doctor Who is the perfect example of how the series can be done well. The characters are rich, their interactions move the plot and the action as well as the horror perfectly quantified. The script is also very witty and full of brilliant inspirations. There are some weird moments such as the modern Doctor Who’s obsession with the Doctor’s sex life, but it’s easily forgiven as this is a great action story tempered with the creepiest visuals and stunning special effects. To round it all off, it’s a periods piece which I have a soft spot for. This story introduced the character of Captain Jack Harkness who has appeared as drastically different characters throughout this series and Torchwood. Here he is a lovable rogue whereas later he appears as a tough heroic type and later still a campy caricature. In his first appearance I loved him, but when he returned in Torchwood it felt very forced.

Honorable mentions: The Unquiet Dead, Father’s Day

The opening 13 stories has a mix of victories and failures with a few middling tales as well. The insistence of an over-arching story was a poor ideas in the end as it made absolutely no sense. The Unquiet Dead has been called far too formulaic but I love it. A Victorian historical adventure with supernatural and alien themes intertwined is wonderful. Father’s Day is another example of the program hitting the right notes with its emphasis on characters and their interactions rather than monsters. However, the monsters are very silly and make very little sense. That said, it’s a well written and emotional tale that uses Rose’s family well… unfortunately this is the only time the concept was used well but we had many more brushes with the Tylers.

I’d like to include the series finale that produced an impressive visual of a Dalek battle fleet, but the two-parter is riddled with horrible ideas such as Daleks using reality TV to take over humanity and Bad Wolf. The regeneration sequence was very odd as the Doctor died on his feet blazing magical energy through his head and arms. The 9th Doctor, still very new to us, was gone but his tale had been told. I do miss this incarnation but feel that his story was complete. As Eccleston refuses to even talk about his time on Doctor Who, I doubt we’ll ever see him return.
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The Modern Era Part Two: David Tennant

The 10th Doctor proved to be the most popular since Tom Baker… or even moreso depending on who you talk to. Tennant had a love for humor and slapstick and a very strong appeal to fans as a sex symbol. Dressed in pinstripes and trainers, this Doctor was quick-footed and a fast talker as well. The Doctor/Companion romance angle again took center stage as Rose and the Doctor were presented as the most perfect couple ever and then separated in an overly emotional sequence. I remember thinking that after Rose had gone we would be rid of the Doctor-in-love idea but Davies was like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go (in fact he had planned to introduce the Doctor’s TRUE love in series 4 before the idea was vetoed and Catherine Tate returned as spinster Donna Noble). The Doctor pined after Rose and nearly every woman he met became smitten with him. It was absurd and dragged the program down.

More classic monsters and companions returned and the connection between the new and classic Who was cemented a few times. The 10th Doctor had some superb adventures, but they were often booby trapped by Davies insistence that there be a human angle, usually involving supporting characters in love or a companion’s family that rarely had any impact on the main story. If these elements had been reduced or removed entirely, this era would have been truly great. In the end, over four years’ worth of programming I can only cite a few classics.

The Girl in the Fireplace
Another Steven Moffat story, Girl in the Fireplace utilized fantasy elements such as magic mirrors, imaginary friends from childhood and monsters hiding in a dark bedroom (there are seeds that would later bear fruit when Matt Smith took over with Moffat as head writer). Tennant plays the dashing hero, buffoon and tragic loner all at once in this one which is a bit much for only 45 minutes but Tennant pulls it off. I remember when I first saw this story I was over the moon at a more active and dynamic Doctor who actively took part in the adventures. Rose and ‘new’ companion Mickey are lots of fun here and roam around the spooky space craft arguing about the Doctor’s intentions. It’s a wonderful episode, features an impressive new monster (of sorts) in the Clockwork Men and even operates on an emotional level.

The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
Russell T Davies was quoted as saying that he despised alien planets in TV science fiction and was determined to avoid them. Much of his era is set on contemporary London and involved alien invasions of one kind or another along with numerous TV reports conveying the events. His first foray into an alien planet was this two-parter which proved to be a real standout adventure. Arriving on a base perched precariously on the rim of a black hole, the Doctor and Rose appear to have a case of the giggles. After losing the TARDIS to the planetoid’s unstable nature, they become more somber, however, and become linked to the crew of the base who are determined to solve the mystery of the impossible planet. The slave race known as the Ood are seen for the first time here and they are beautifully crafted by the special effects team. When the Ood become taken over by the evil entity inside the planet (voiced by Pyramids of Mars’ Gabriel Woolf), they become the standard lumbering Doctor Who monster chasing kiddies under their beds.

It’s all great stuff that sadly comes apart in the second portion when it becomes clear the story has nowhere to go. Even Davies admitted that he had no idea what would be at the bottom of the pit and the monster that we do see only exists thanks to some CG animators who agreed to do the work out of love for Doctor Who. Even so, this is a memorable story that had amazingly impressive sequences, an astounding guest cast, some real scary material and a diversity of action that kept it fresh.

Human Nature/Family of Blood
Initially a vehicle for the 7th Doctor as part of the New Adventures line of novels, Human Nature had very different origins than what we ended up with. In the book, the Doctor has just lost the trust of his companion Ace who had grown sick of his head games. Disgusted with himself and questioning his himself, he decides to take human form to better understand the race. As a human, the Doctor teaches young boys at a school, confronts the horrors of war, falls in love and feels all of the things humans are heir to. Meanwhile his companion Bernice Summerfield is watching over him, but neither she nor the Doctor planned on the Family of Blood who arrive desperate for the Doctor’s blood in order to spawn a race of blood-thirsty warriors.

Paul Cornell does a fine job of adapting his novel to TV creating one of the more memorable and enjoyable of the Tennant era adventures (in fact it was voted #1 overall by fans recently) but taken out of context the impetus is lost entirely. In the TV version the Family is hot on the Doctor’s heels and he decides to masquerade as a human being as a way of the perfect hiding spot. Additionally, when he regains his Time Lord persona, he insists that he is the same man which misses the point of the story entirely. Nevertheless, the story is very creepy, has some wonderful characters and excellent action sequences. The second part is surprisingly slim on plot and mainly consists of people running around… but nothing’s perfect.

Honorable mentions: Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, 42, Blink, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, Midnight

There are many also-rans of the Tennant era that are undermined by the same problems again and again. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday should be one of the best Doctor Who stories ever as it features Cybermen versus Daleks, but that part of the story plays second fiddle to Torchwood, Rose’s parents and the Doctor/Rose romance. Much like Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel this is so close to being a classic but it falls flat in the end. That said, the Daleks are magnificent in this one and their arrival is one of the high points of the second series. 42 has some awesome ideas and offers up some juicy opportunities for Tennant acting wise as he struggles to maintain his sanity as the intelligent star matter tears away at him. It also has Martha Jones who is a great companion sadly forgotten and underused. It’s rather strange to me to note Blink as a Tennant classic as it featured so little of the Doctor. A cleverly written plot playing with not only narrative styles but also time travel concepts that Moffat would later explore in series 5. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a stunner and has lots of cool ideas and a knock-out monster as well as super plot ideas but there are poor ideas a-plenty as well such as the cliffhanger resolution and Tennant seems out of control acting-wise. Midnight is a clever idea and very atmospheric, but full of ridiculously boring characters and a vague alien threat that just disappears at the end. I want to like this one, really, but it just has too many flaws for me.

David Tennant had brought Doctor Who to new heights of popularity. A CGi animated feature, TARDISODES that could be downloaded to cellular phones and more were introduced in his time. Many fans of the series grew devoted to him and were angered that anyone could take his place, but in the end Tennant left the program and young Matt Smith arrived.
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The Modern Era Part Three: Matt Smith

Matt Smith and Steven Moffat arrived in 2010 to take Doctor Who into its new era. With Tennant gone, many feared for the future of the program that had become a major ratings star and cash earner for the BBC. Doctor Who became a fairy tale under Moffat’s guidance and the Doctor a Peter Pan-like character of magical ability and impish charm. When I had heard of Moffat’s intentions, my heart sank. I had my hopes of Patterson Joseph being cast as a kind of Pertwee-like gentleman Doctor. Instead, the frenzied and dizzy-headed 11th Doctor won me over and I became assured that Doctor Who was in good hands.

The program has only had a single series and a holiday special to date and while I have enjoyed the material, there’s not much that stands out so far as a candidate classic. The new Daleks were introduced (and the golden Daleks destroyed), the Silurians were given another face-lift and a new race of aquatic vampires made their debut. The overarching story of a crack in time, the pandorica and the new companion Amy Pond was a major success and the several ideas converged into the best finale Doctor Who has had since it has returned in 2005.

The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone
Smith’s first two-parter adventure is remarkable for using the multi-part format well for the first time in ages. Whereas the previous two-parters were often uneven in material or filled with superfluous scenes, but in this case the story perfectly fits the format. The return of the Weeping Angels from Blink and River Song from Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead makes this one a bit continuity heavy but Moffat uses the concepts to build both up and enhance the plot thread of the Pandorica/Crack in Time. The dynamic between the Doctor and Amy is deepened and additional layers are added as they work together to solve the mystery of the Weeping Angels. The special effects budget was cut down significantly in 2010, causing the crew to come up with new imaginative ways to convey ideas and monsters which is is interesting. I have to admit that I am cheating a bit by including this one as it is not entirely a classic, but it is the closes that I think Smith’s era has come to date.

Honorable mentions: The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, Amy’s Choice, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang

The new series has a tradition of bringing back a classic monster or villain each year. In 2010, the returning monster was the Silurians who look very impressive but character-wise are a far cry from their former selves. In an effort to give the monsters more complexity, the Silurians come off as more of a Star Trek villain. The special effects and scenery are both breathtaking and the plot unusual, but the execution is lacking. Amy’s Choice is a fun tale that has the characters placed into a fantasy reality, something that is entirely absurd considering the ‘reality’ that the Doctor and his companions exist in. The series finale is quite divisive as it is very silly and contains a vast amount pf plot coincidences and contrivances. Faced with an impossible situation, the Doctor finds an incredibly unlikely solution that borders on the ridiculous. The saving grace of the adventure is that Moffat cuts down the power and near-indestructibility that the Doctor’s ability to flit back and forth in time quite well. Too often the year-long story lines are tired ideas that barely hold together but in the 5th series, it really worked well and came together in the final two-parter.

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Thanks to readers to sticking with me on this long exploration of Doctor Who. It has been enlightening to me as the writer and I hope that it has been fun and interesting to read. Please remember to chime in below on your own opinions!

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Doctor Who – A Christmas Carol trailer

A holiday tradition, the Doctor Who Christmas Specials actually started back in 1965 when Doctor Who took a week off from its epic Dalek Master Plan for a keystone cops caper and some light comedy. The Doctor even wished the audience a happy holiday! However, producer Russell T Davies hit upon a magical idea when he instated the yearly holiday special starting with 2005’s Christmas Invasion which also introduced viewers to the tenth incarnation of the Doctor played by David Tennant.

Six years later, fan now look forward to the special episode as a kind of Christmas gift in itself.

Guest-starring Michael Gambon, the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas Special looks to be something very special indeed. Written by Steven Moffat, there are very few facts known about this episode aside from it being the most ‘Christmasssy of Christmas Specials ever.’ There are rumors that it may feature the return of a classic monster called the Yeti, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Finally, a trailer has surfaced.

The new Doctor Who has been confirmed for two more series (essentially one series of 13 episodes split in half) but I have yet to hear any news of a 2012 series. There has been rumblings of Matt Smith being keen to play the Doctor for a third year, so hopefully one will lead to the other.

More as it comes…

What’s with the new Daleks?

Series 5 of Doctor Who brought back the Silurians and made the Cybermen scary again, but the biggest development was the absolute destruction of the RTD-era Daleks and introduction of an entirely new design. Mark Gatiss’ story was interesting, but full of missed opportunities (the WWII setting and revelation of the new Daleks got side-stepped for the android in love), but it made a bold statement that the Daleks were back and bigger than ever.

(click here for my article on the New Dalek Paradigm)

While they had a massively successful story in the new Doctor Who’s first series of 2005, even the most devoted fans were getting bored seeing the pepper pots come back time after time. The new Daleks are not a hit with everyone, but they definitely make an impact! Aside from the color variations introduced (a reference to the multi-colored Daleks from the 1960’s film versions), many fans were confused about the addition of a large back panel.

In the Doctor Who confidential for Victory of the Daleks, artist Peter McKinstry explained what the rear panel is for and it’s actually very exciting:

“…The idea for the back section came from being asked to give the Dalek something new and completely their own, to set them apart… So the idea was to give them something that would provide new surprising Dalek weapons or apparatus for the future. there were a few suggestions like this, inverting the bumps was one, or making the bumps transparent and having them lit from inside to show peeks of the Dalek inner workings and blob guts, but they went with the back idea, so I hope they use it in a future script otherwise its a pointless addition….”- via Dalektricity

This is the first new variation of the Dalek design by Ray Cusick since 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks when the Special Weapons Dalek was revealed. I was under the impressions that the back panel hid an extra weapon, but McKinstry seems to imply that the panel could reveal any new appendage or tool from a claw to a cutting device, making these Daleks much more versatile than their predecessors.

New Dalek 2010
Bonus: Below is a video with Karen Gillan and Victory of the Daleks author Mark Gatiss on the new versions of the Daleks.

Doctor Who series 6.1 and 6.2?

The budget cuts at the BBC are having an impact on all TV programs, including Doctor Who which will be split into two segments separated by a few months. Rather than simply split the series in half, Moffat sees the break as an opportunity that is incredibly cryptic.

Steven Moffat with Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in NYC

“Looking at the next [season], I thought what this show needs is a big event in the middle,” showrunner Steven Moffat recently told attendees of the Edinburgh International Television Festival, according to The Guardian. “I kept referring to a mid-season finale. So we are going to make it two [seasons] — seven episodes at Easter building to an Earth-shattering climax, a cliffhanger we could never normally do because it would be too long before it came back. An enormous game-changing cliffhanger that will change everything.”

“The wrong expression would be to say we are splitting it in two,” he said. “We are making it two separate” seasons.

This is to my knowledge the second time that a 13 episode run has been stated as double what would usually be allotted for a year’s run. I recall reading back when Eccleston took over back in 2005 the actor stated that he had signed on for two series of Doctor Who and the production staff decided to combine them into one long series of double the intended length. Since then a 13 part series has been regarded as the norm. Apparently, those days are over.

With Matt Smith being courted to stay a full three years and the 50th anniversary series looming in the distance, this news regarding a shorter series ending in a game-changing finale after episode 7 could mean anything.

What do you think?

Doctor Who – The Big Bang

Doctor Who –
The Big Bang

Series 05
Story 13
19 June 2010


The Doctor and Amy have been followed throughout their journeys by a crack in time, caused by an unknown event in space/time. River Song, a time traveler from the Doctor’s future, has hinted that the next time they meet the Pandorica will open, but the Doctor insists that is only a fairy tale. Having encountered the Pandorica, the Doctor discovers that he has been fooled into a trap by the combined might of every alien race he has ever fought. This strange unified force has noticed the crack in time and determined that the destruction of the Doctor’s TARDIS is the cause. To keep this event from ever happening, they have trapped their nemesis in an inescapable prison despite the Doctor’s warnings that their plan will not stop the disaster from occurring. As the Doctor is confined, the Auton army, formerly believed to be ancient Roman soldiers, activates. One of the Autons believing itself to be Amy’s one-time sweetheart Rory, kills her as the universe is uncreated around him and the stars extinguished.

Things look, well… bad.

Spoilers for anyone who has not watched this episode yet… all one of you. I apologize for the incredibly long delay in this review.

When Steven Moffat took over as head writer and producer of Doctor Who, his take on the series was that it is a children’s program. He also saw it as a modern fairy tale more than a science fiction program. While I don’t really agree with Moffat’s view, I have cited a few examples in his run that support this approach as a worthwhile take. Since its return in 2005, the new Doctor Who series has had a year-long theme or recurring idea and a bombastic finale. For his first year on the show, Moffat tasked his new Doctor with the task of escaping an inescapable trap and the destruction of the universe from an event that hasn’t happened yet.

Matt Smith’s Doctor has been a frazzled dizzy explorer/scientist who seems to be running in one direction before he is sure exactly where he is going and why. Nevertheless, this has been his strength, a kind of frenzied brilliance that even he cannot understand. He is possessed by an electric personality that seems to take over while Smith dangles about like a marionette. It’s an unusual approach to the character and embraces the odd alien manner of the Doctor’s mental process. It also makes the resolution to last week’s cliffhanger a real nail-biter.

The opening of the Big Bang is a great example of the fairy tale aspect that I brought up earlier. The Doctor has met Amy Pond as a child who referred to him as her imaginary friend and grew to think of the time traveling stranger who visited her home that night as a magical being (and why not?). Meeting Amy Pond again, this time later in her life as a woman on the eve of her wedding, the Doctor awakens in her the child that he met that night who still believes in the impossible. This is a solid use of the fairy tale idiom and gives the entire series an air of fantasy and adventure that it never had before (despite what Moffat thinks).

Young Amy Pond is a concern for her Aunt. She daydreams of impossible things and draws pictures of stars, even though there aren’t any. She is invited to the museum by a postcard dropped in her letter box by a shadowy figure with a circle scrawled around the newest item of interest, the Pandorica and a message ‘Come Along, Pond!’ Following the direction of another strange note, she remains in the museum after closing, braving the petrified specimen of a Dalek to get close enough to actually touch the Pandorica which promptly opens… revealing an adult Amy Pond.

Things get… complicated.

The plot of the Big Bang is a massive run-around full to the gills with whimsical action and ideas that fly by so fast that you may find yourself re-watching this one to get all the details. The Doctor’s escape from the Pandorica is wrapped in a temporal trick that curves back upon itself, something that may be familiar to fans of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The Doctor escapes because he helps himself in the future after he has escaped. It’s complete nonsense but Smith plays it very well. There are plenty of magical concepts such as the light from the Pandorica solving any problem and Rory the Auton being in undying love with Amy so that he remains by her side for hundreds of years until the Doctor can help her escape. It’s a fairy tale love.

Petrified Dalek

The petrified Dalek is amazing and brings the metallic meanies back to their former ranking of the deadliest and most terrifying of the Doctor’s enemies, the same treatment the Cybermen got last week. Moffat seems to understand that the strength of these creatures isn’t so much an army of them swarming across the screen attacking an abstract concept but in creating a lone monster stalking its victim in the dark. He has created two near-iconic moments in a row that make this jaded viewer excited about Daleks and Cybermen again.

The Doctor zips back and forth through time laying hints for himself and trying to get his messages straight for the past so that he can get to the next thing in the present. It’s all very silly until they bump into a Doctor from the future who has been fried by Dalek fire. Then young Amy Pond is gone from the time-line as well and things start to get scary again. In the end, the Doctor of course has to sacrifice himself by piloting the Pandorica (it flies??) into the heart of the TARDIS which is exploding just above the Earth like a sun going supernova. He shares some incredibly moving dialog with Amy, recognizing just how special she is and how she has a unique curse that can be turned into a gift. The crack in time has been stealing her life from her, but as reality rebuilds around her, she can get it all back if she wants, including her parents who mysteriously disappeared from her life.

The deadly Dalek gets to kill the Doctor (sorta) before being shot in the eye by River Song and destroyed.

It makes so little sense that River quickly explains how it is possible right before it happens. The character of River Song is still a bit too Han Solo with a fringe haircut for me, but what can you do? She’s sassy and indestructible, a Captain Jack-type, which we already have more than enough of. She exits the series fairly well and I am hoping that next year when we see her again it will finally close that character’s story. Since it has been three year’s running now, I’m getting a little bored of the River Song mystery.

After a cataclysmic explosion, the Doctor is surprised to find that he has apparently survived the ordeal and is back in the TARDIS. It is soon made apparent, however, that time is running backwards as the universe rebuilds itself. This allows the Doctor a few key opportunities as a cunning plan begins to formulate in his mind. The speech in Flesh and Stone when the Doctor tells Amy to remember what he told her when she was a child is finally made apparent as the Doctor travels far back to young Amy’s bedside where he tells her his final tale, the story of how his adventure began back on Gallifrey.

There have been more than 11 actors to date who have played the Doctor on screen, stage, audio, etc. Connecting the thread of the character back to his origins has always been a challenge that few of the actors have lived up to. Seeing 26 year-old Smith tell the story of how he stole the TARDIS as an old man from his home planet somehow works and ties the threads tight around this incarnation. The ageless wanderer in time and space is personified in Smith who is old beyond his years and equally strange and wonderful. His ‘magical touch’ is so powerful that he manages to being Amy’s parents back into existence and make it to her wedding in a full formal tuxedo.

I can’t think of anything I haven’t already said about the magnificent Karen Gillan (Amy) and the animated Arthur Darvil (Rory). Doctor Who has been trying to find the ideal companion setup for decades with mixed results. For myself, I quite liked Martha Jones, but the writers seldom knew what to do with her. The combination of Rory and Amy is ideal and gives the program new legs, presenting the first married couple on board the TARDIS as well!

Even though he has eluded death and halted the entropy of the universe, the Doctor is still puzzled about what could destroy the TARDIS in the future, causing the cracks in time to occur. The only clue that the viewers at home have is the phrase, ‘Silence Will Fall’ spoken from the TARDIS speakers in a voice that sounds exactly like Julian Bleach’s Davros to me. But that’s a story for another time apparently.

I am not sure what is next (rumors of the return of the Yeti, possibly the Ice Warriors and more) but the concluding moments of this series have me on hook ends for Christmas Day when the Doctor will return for another hour-long adventure in time and space.

Doctor Who – The Pandorica Opens

Doctor Who –
The Pandorica Opens

Series 05
Story 12
19 June 2010

Warning – Even though everyone on the planet has seen this by now, this review contains spoilers

A crack in time, threatening all of reality, has been following the newly regenerated Doctor throughout his adventures with Amy Pond. Somehow it is tied into the destruction of the TARDIS and a gap in Amy’s memories, but what can it all mean? When the Doctor receives a strange message from River Song, he discovers that the great mystery surrounding the crack in time, Amy Pond and the mythical Pandorica may all somehow be connected in a sinister and deadly fashion. He has faced his eleventh hour, but what can anyone do to halt the big bang?

After having braved 4 series of Doctor Who under Russell T Davies, it has become clear that the writer viewed finales as a gigantic crescendo of ideas and explosions. I can understand this approach, but it got old fast and seldom worked. The success of the grand finale has always been hampered by RTD’s inability to write a solution to a problem that he had built as insurmountable and was therefore overcome with nonsense logic that involved un-writing time, pushing monsters through magic doors, harnessing the belief of the planet Earth to become a space Jesus and jumping from a space ship a’la Wile E. Coyote. Nevertheless, there is an expectation from viewers that the final two episodes of Doctor Who will be phenomenal and un-missably HUGE.

For me, new series head writer Steven Moffat is charged with delivering a blockbuster ending, but a cohesive and intelligent one that overcomes the damage done by RTD’s previous outings. The 5th series has seen an ongoing drama unfolding regarding something that Moffat adores, the fluidity and frailty of time. We have witnessed Amy’s lack of knowledge of the Daleks, the Doctor realizing that no one recalls a giant Cyber King stalking over London and Rory’s total removal from time itself after getting swallowed up by the crack in time. As such, Moffat has signposted his get out of jail card in advance by introducing absolutely absurd sci-fi ideas and countering them with the phrase ‘fairy tale’ several times.

Moffat is an award-winning TV writer who not only has to deliver a number of massive and flashy moments for the fans but also a clever tale worthy of the same nearly universal acceptance that his other outings in Doctor Who (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances; Girl in the Fireplace; Blink; and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead). It’s a tall but necessary order to be filled. Luckily, he is more than up for the challenge.

(Note- I had intended to review parts one and two of the series 5 finale in one article but this has proven unwieldy both for me as a writer and anyone who would dare to read such a long entry)

Vincent van Goh's painting spells certain doom for the Doctor

The first part of the finale is all set up. It begins with River Song playing her ‘badass’ Han Solo character in jail. She cons her way out of prison, steals a painting and acquires a time manipulator watch in short order (depicting several stop overs that connect characters and situations throughout the series). Meanwhile the Doctor, desperate to distract Amy from remembering the loss of her fiancée, decides to unravel an age old mystery by reading the first words ever spoken. The message turns out to be a scrawl left by River Song… punch line.

The Doctor and Amy travel to Ancient Rome to discover the mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s painting that clearly shows the TARDIS exploding (something the Doctor has been worrying about ever since he pulled a piece of Police Box shrapnel from the crack in time). This leads them to the Pandorica, a strange prison mythically containing the most feared villain of all time, hidden just under Stonehenge. Unfortunately, the largest swarm of space craft ever insinuated is converging on the Pandorica and it consists of every alien menace the Doctor has ever fought. The fairy tale nature of the Pandorica was first mentioned in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone when River Song puckishly referred to it as the setting for her next meeting with the Doctor. A giant Chinese puzzle box containing every lock imaginable built to hold the most dangerous being ever may over-egg the pudding here, but the name-dropping of every single alien and monster in Doctor Who’s 40+ years’ worth of stories just adds to the gravity of the situation.

I like to think of Moffat grinning at the expectation of as kitchen sink finale and deciding to work within that unreasonable set of parameters to develop his adventure. It’s the tallest of tall tales I have ever seen on Doctor Who!

The Doctor (Smith) inspects the Pandorica

At his wit’s end, the Doctor manages to buy himself some time by convincing the alien hordes that he can easily defeat them since he has the Pandorica that they obviously fear (he thinks). As the Doctor attempts to plot a strategy against impossible odds, River Song (somehow piloting the TARDIS) travels back to Amy’s home and uncovers several strange coincidences about the mysterious Amy Pond. What River finds suggests that everything the Doctor has encountered over the past year’s worth of stories can be connected to a nick-nack or bauble in Amy’s bedroom. In this episode, it is still unclear what that could mean, but it freaks River out.

There is a thrilling moment involving a nearly destroyed Cyberman that almost vindicates the silly state that the new series has reduced the once proud and deadly monsters to. A bodiless arm fires at the Doctor and Amy, a headless Cyberman tries to attack her and a head propelled by creepy tendrils tries to harness Pond for raw material before Rory dispatches it with a sword. Somehow (get used to that) Rory has not only escaped being unwritten by the crack in time but he has been reborn as a Roman Centurion. The Cyberman sequence ranks as one of the scariest moments in the new program, honestly. To offset the horror, there is some lovely comedy here as Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill play off of each other wonderfully.

Despite the reunion of Amy and Rory and the apparently crafty ploy of courage from the Doctor to drive off all of his enemies with bluster, it all goes wrong… fast.

The Doctor is finally captured by his enemies

The entire affair is revealed to be a massive convoluted trap and the Doctor is imprisoned inside the Pandorica, a prison that has been painstakingly defined as inescapable. The Roman army is revealed to be Autons, including Rory who kills Amy as all the stars die out, and the Doctor is imprisoned to, get this, save the universe from destruction. This has to be the biggest triple take fans have ever endured as the Doctor is prophesied to cause the crack in time that is u-writing the strands of reality. The only solution that his monsters can come up with is to lock him away. It’s an absolutely amazingly brilliant maneuver on Moffat’s part and results in what is likely the most nail-biting finale in the program’s long history. Even the seemingly unflappable River Song is unable to save her Doctor as she opens the doors of the TARDIS only to find that she is imprisoned in stone.

The Doctor (No. 11)

The 11th Doctor is without a doubt the most alien version of the character in some time. He also combines several character traits that I have previously identified as essential to the Doctor. A frazzled genius, he seems to pull out solutions to problems that bewilder even himself. A gadgeteer, the new Doctor is able to build almost anything from found objects to serve his purposes. While still reliant on his magic wand (the sonic screw driver), he also admits when it useless to him. A passionate character, he has been frustrated by the crack in time following him that everyone he meets seems to know more about than he does. A pacifist and a strategist, he has shown not only bravery but ingenuity in dealing with critical situations and a willingness to put himself in danger for the sake of others. He firmly believes in the sanctity of life and refuses to see anyone come to harm if he can help it. The only exception seems to be the Daleks who anger him so much that he is reduced to fits of rage.

In dealing with members of alien races, the Doctor has exuded an air of nobility and importance, reinforcing the concept that he is not only an ancient alien, but an important one as well. Not what he appears to be, he clearly has an ulterior motive in traveling with Amy Pond that he cannot share with her and it is obviously tied to her connection to the temporal anomaly on their trail. A bit of a trickster and schemer, the 11th Doctor owes much of his characterization of Doctors 2 and 7, both of whom played games with beings far more powerful than the Doctor appeared to be. This Doctor, the youngest yet, comes off as both innocent and ancient all at once, embodying the timelessness of the character. Despite all of his strengths, however, we see him nearly driven to tears as he is placed within the Pandorica, helpless.

It is a gripping scene that makes a big impact on the viewer.

I have had great reservations on watching the new series of Doctor Who. As anyone who has read my reviews of series 2-4 can state, I have been disappointed by the quality of the new program to say the least. While Doctor Who remains a program written down to its audience, the performances have been top notch. When I first read the early interviews with Matt Smith I rolled my eyes at what appeared to be pretension but in reality was genuine eccentricity. Alongside Karen Gillan, Smith has held aloft some dubious scripts throughout this year’s offerings (the Silurian two-parter being the worst of the lot). The visual design has also been stellar and filled in gaps left by the scripts.

I have been so happy with this year’s stories that I kept worrying that the rug was going to be pulled out from under me when all of the pieces of the year-long mystery were connected. Color me surprised. In 2005, Russell T Davies’ Bad Wolf ended with a close of a determined Chris Eccleston who had played a rather defeated and uncomfortable Doctor throughout the series finally rise to the role of hero, declaring his intentions to the Daleks. In 2010, Moffat reverses the situation by presenting viewers with the brutal defeat of the Doctor, the death of the companion and a shroud of silent blackness that envelopes the final frames of the episode.

In short, Moffat, Smith and Gillan have renewed my faith in the new Doctor Who as enjoyable television. After building up such a magnificent cliffhanger, they just had to finish it…

Next time: The Big Bang

Doctor Who and the Lodger

Doctor Who – The Lodger
Series 05
Story 11
12 June 2010

Warning – this review contains spoilers

Craig Owens’ life is at a standstill. He is deeply in love with his best friend but unable to say or do anything about it. In the flat above him, something strange is happening. An alluring voice is attracting passers like a spider drawing flies and no one knows why. When an odd man with a bag full of money decides to move in, Craig cannot predict how much his life will change… despite his best efforts to resist.

In the 2005 debut series of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who (I have to view it that way so I can sleep better at night), there were some issues with the script for the penultimate story. The work around was for RTD to draft up ‘Boom Town’ at the last minute. In the following 2006 series, the episode ‘Love & Monsters’ gave the main cast a breather by filling in the slot with a ‘Doctor-lite’ adventure. I always felt that the two events were linked somehow, but I’m not sure that they are. Someone wiser than I is welcome ti chime in on that one. In any case, this resulted in a traditional episode each series in which the Doctor was featured less… until now. ‘The Lodger’ is in comparison an ‘Amy-lite’ episode and focusing moreso than usual on the Doctor. This was perhaps a conscious decision to strengthen the portrayal of the character by Matt Smith and not lose a chance to impress viewers with his depiction of the Doctor (there’s a lot of theory in this paragraph). If that is the case, it was a worthwhile decision.

As anyone who has been reading my reviews of the 2010 series can see, I have adored Matt Smith as the Doctor. A genuine eccentric, he brings a colorful personality to the role that has been lacking for nearly a generation and hearkens back to the glory days of Tom Baker when the actor lived the part. A script that is essentially a sitcom with minimal science fiction elements would spell disaster in any other instance, but Smith bubbles with potential in each scene. Co-starring with Gavin and Stacey co-creator James Corden and Man Stroke Woman’s Daisy Haggard, Smith has good company for a comedic episode. All three play off of each other spectacularly, making what is admittedly a comedic story a damned funny one.

Crowden and Smith have a moment

That said… there are problems.

Roberts’ previous offerings (2007’s The Shakespeare Code; The Unicorn and the Wasp in 2008; and the diabolically co-written offering Planet of the Dead in 2009 ) have been dubious at best. The Lodger is the best story that I’ve seen from him to date (I’m not familiar with Being Human or his Sarah Jane Smith material) and in comparison it is a marked improvement that may stem from Moffat’s role as head writer as compared to RTD getting his hands into Roberts’ previous scripts. In any case, while it is a much better script than the others, it also stars two accomplished comedic actors and the new talent Smith as the central cast to smooth over anything lacking.

My short-form negative criticism of the story is that anything that does not involve science fiction elements is top notch. The rest… needs work.

Smith’s Doctor arrives in a flurry of confusion as he falls from the TARDIS, leaving Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) alone in a malfunctioning time machine, tossed in and out of the time vortex under some unknown influence. Following a clue left by Amy, the Doctor rents a flat owned by the homebody Craig Owens, whose comfort zone has become definitively comfy. There is something going on in the flat upstairs that holds the answers to the TARDIS’ predicament, but the Doctor feels the need to tread lightly to discover what it could be rather than go charging in. Constructing a strange devise made from found objects, he tries to analyze the upstairs flat from below and coordinates matters with Amy via a kind of souped up Blue Tooth.

The current incarnation of the Doctor is by far the most alien personality we have seen in some time. Fans have been split on what to make of this and as there is bound to be some backlash from the previous incarnation played by David Tennant, that is understandable. Whereas the 10th Doctor was an emotional character prone to pining over lost loves like a schoolgirl, the 11th looks at the possibility as absurd. That being the case, placing the 11th Doctor in a domestic situation is ideal as it shows just how out of place he is. He cannot understand anything from the concept of money to interpersonal relationships. This makes the unrequited love between Craig and his best mate Sophie a bit of a quandary for the Doctor.

The Doctor is so out of touch with human behavior that he has no idea that he appears attractive to others (another major difference from the previous incarnation) As such, a handsome and charming young man suddenly popping into the picture gains Sophie the opportunity to draw Craig out by making him jealous… with disastrous results. Craig is far too comfortable in the ways things are, even though they must change. He sees the Doctor not so much as a challenge to his pursuit of Sophie but a potential cause for drastic change.

The magical solution to all storylines

All of these pieces of puzzle are put in their place when it is at last discovered that atop Craig’s flat is a malfunctioning alien time/space machine. It has been drawing passers by into its workings to find a suitable pilot so that it can go on its way, but there have been no suitable candidates. The Doctor is an obviously ideal pilot, but for some reason that would result in complete destruction for the planet. The only way that the ship can move on is for Craig to move on as well. It’s an incredibly ham-fisted solution that unusually solves both the science fiction and sitcom plot in one fell swoop. It’s an extraordinarily silly conceit and an unfortunate one as well as the domestic plot was so well portrayed by the actors.

Despite its misgivings. The Lodger is intended as a bit of fluff before the two-part finale. That being said, it serves the purpose wonderfully. As a fill-in, it is by far the best one to date but the concept still needs work. I hope that next year’s filler episode proves better, however, and learns from this year’s mistakes.

Next time: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang

Doctor Who – Vincent and the Doctor

Doctor Who – Vincent and the Doctor
Series 05
Story 10
5 June 2010

Warning – this review contains spoilers

Trying to help Amy get over a loss that she doesn’t even remember, the Doctor exposes his companion to the world of art. What follows is an exploration of pain and madness as well as a revelation of the beauty that is all around us, seen through the eyes of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh does his best to concentrate on the painting

The Doctor and Amy arrive in contemporary Paris at the Musée d’Orsay to bask in the wonder of art and hopefully forget the painful loss of Rory in the previous adventure. Unfortunately, Amy has no memory of Rory’s life or death or of their relationship, making the Doctor all the more uncomfortable. A helpful art critic played by Bill Nighy (the man who could have been Doctor No. 9) lays out the situation as he describes van Gogh’s life as miserable and full of failure. Soon, the pair of travelers are off on another adventure away from the awkward art lesson, after discovering that one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings contains something it shouldn’t, a gruesome looking monster lurking through the windows of a church. Arriving in 1890 shortly before van Gogh’s most productive painting period and eventual suicide, the Doctor finds that the monster is far more difficult to deal with and it is also not the worst of his worries.

Arriving in the past to follow Vincent until he paints the church and sees the monster proves troublesome as the artist is shunned by the locals and a hopeless drunk who can neither pay for his drinks nor will he allow anyone else to pay for them. I have to say, given that this leaves no logical method by which to obtain alcohol… I am impressed that van Gogh was a ‘hopeless drunk.’ We are back in the realm of ‘television for the intelligence impaired’ as a stream of characters refer to van Gogh as mad and dangerous as well as a terrible painter. Van Gogh himself allows the Doctor and Amy to go home with him (no doubt hoping to bed Amy) and apologizes for s the poor quality of his paintings and declares himself mad… in case we missed all of the dialog earlier or the art critic’s speech that both said the exact same thing.

Van Gogh’s madness is depicted as mad fits against an invisible assailant, something only he can see (because he’s an artist, I guess). The Doctor’s empathy toward Vincent is very well played by the actors and it is a testament to both Tony Curran and Matt Smith as it is so hamfistedly conveyed. The Doctor tries to use a magic mirror device to see the monster (which strangely results in the third appearance of William Hartnell on screen this year) but eventually realizes that they’ll have to force Vincent to go to the church with them and wait for the creature to turn up.

That is the drama… going places and waiting for things to happen. It’s such a bad idea that even the Doctor gets bored and rambles about his experiences with other famous painters.

In due course the monster shows up and the Doctor gets chased by it all ’round the inside of the church until Vincent kills it by accident. Van Gogh laments over the alien’s death, for some bizarre reason seeing a bit of his own relationship with the locals who despise his ‘madness.’ All three lay in the field and stare at the stars, urged on by Vincent to see the colors and shapes that seem hidden in the black sky… which are then digitally drawn on the screen in case the viewer has no imagination at all.

Seeking to lighten the mood, the Doctor shows Vincent the TARDIS and takes him to the same exhibit the story started in to show him that he ends up being appreciated as a major success. Despite the newfound inspiration the experience gives him, the Doctor and Amy travel back to contemporary Paris to discover that the artist still committed suicide… well, duh.

To say that the long-awaited Richard Curtis (Blackadder) script leaves a lot to be desired is understating the situation a great deal. I remember reading that the script went through several rewrites (no doubt a major strike against Curtis’ ego) as it did not capture the Doctor’s voice and was far too slow. Given the final product, I think that the problem is not in the pacing but in the entire concept. The basic idea is that the Doctor meets van Gogh, fights a monster, tries to show Vincent that he is a major success in the future and the leaves the artist to commit suicide. It makes very little sense and in the end serves no real purpose. The script is strained and full of so many plot contrivances I’m not sure how I am meant to take it seriously, and presumably I am since the overlong long obnoxious montage at the end signals a torrent of tears.

Granted, it’s not a total loss as the actor playing van Gogh, Tony Curran, is rather brilliant. Smith and Gillan are, as always, incredible and have so much chemistry and exuberance on screen that I’d watch them in a telethon. The ending sequence where van Gough encourages the Doctor to look at the world with new eyes is also very moving and wonderfully portrayed… it’s just a shame that the plot is so dreadful and the subject matter is so clumsily handled that you’d think van Gogh were a fictional character.

The Doctor (Matt Smith) attempts to get a view of the monster

The lost monster, like many other creatures in the new Doctor Who series, serves no real purpose. The Doctor is able to find out what it is via a kind of time-travel wikipedia, yet he has no way of dealing with it. Apparently he had hoped o wave his magic wand around until the problem took care of itself, but no such luck. The Doctor realizes early on that he cannot help van Gogh, yet he whisks the artist to the future and tampers with the timelines… knowing it cannot save him. I suppose we are meant to think that the trip inspired Vincent through his productive period, yet it is insulting to the very same idea that he utilized his emotional anguish to create breathtaking art. I’m also gob-smacked at how the program depicted depression and anxiety yet chose to avoid addressing it at all aside from a brief exchange of dialog when Vincent tells the Doctor to shut up.

My point is that while it has some charming moments, looks stunning, and contains some noteworthy performances, Vincent and the Doctor is flawed on a very basic level. If the Doctor and Vincent van Gogh fighting a lost and lonely kill crazy alien isn’t a bad enough idea, having the episode skirt around his madness was even worse. It is a script that should have been rejected outright.

Next time, The Lodger:

Matt Smith is not leaving Doctor Who

Via the Telegraph.co.uk:

Karen Gillan (Amy Pond)

Karen Gillan, who plays Amy Pond, the assistant to Matt Smith’s Doctor Who, has reassuring news for his fans. The actor isn’t about to decamp to Los Angeles.

“Matt will be sticking around,” she told me at the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup Final at Cowdray Park Polo Club yesterday. “I think those rumours were made up.”

Karen, left, added that she and Smith have started filming the Doctor Who Christmas special, and adds that the atmosphere on the set is “great.”

It looks like the recent rumor surrounding Smith’s departure from the leading role of Doctor Who can be safely put to bed. Gillan and Smith have been seen interviewing each other in promotional videos and seem to get along quite well, in much the way that Piper and Tennant were intended to gel. I’m happy to hear that we have not seen the end of the most genuinely eccentric actor to have taken the part in over decades.

Doctor Who as a series has also been digging itself out of Russell T Davies’ shadow in the past year, starting with a couple of what seemed to be self-conscious outings. The season opener, Eleventh Hour, for instance, could have easily been mounted with Tennant and Davies. I look forward to next year’s new scripts and a steady increase in risk taking as Moffat has proven his value to the program during his first outing a ‘ship captain’ on the BBC’s top program.

In related news, attendees of this year’s San Diego International Comic-Con will get a chance to see the series 5 finale. A special US premiere screening will be given on Thursday July 22nd at 8 PM.