|A crack in the universe...|
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Doctor Who: Series Five
To say that I've been remiss in my Science Fiction viewing after so many years of not watching Doctor Who would be fair enough. It is, after all, the longest running Science Fiction show in the world and one that's supposed to be damn good as well as rather lengthy. Of course, jumping in at the fifth season of a reboot is rarely my style. Faced with the immensity of existing Who material, however, I asked a close friend and fan of the show, and they pointed to here as the beginning of the period with the most awesome. As a fan of awesome, I followed their advice. What I found in this fifth series, means I'll certainly be back for more.
Showrunner Steven Moffat said he aimed at a "fairy tale" feel for the show and that he wanted it to be more "fantastical" and "bonkers" than anything else on TV. He rather succeeds at all three of those descriptors, leading to a program characterized less by any one setting or feel than it is by fast-marching exuberance, lendless possibility, and a beautifully excessive number of ideas. There is an overall plot to the season, but it doesn't become dominant until the last two episodes. Until then, the writers generate entirely new plots, characters, and settings episode after episode. Keep in mind, this is Science Fiction of the most –as Moffat would attest – bonkers variety. We're not simply slotting in a new villain. No, when moving from week to week, we're dealing with entirely new vistas and rules of reality.
This season of Who (and, for all I know, all others) is packed to the bursting and beyond with Science Fiction ideas. Lone episodes often hold enough for an entire series to thrive. The sheer number of rules and bends of reality does occasionally mean that the show ends up contradicting itself, such as when the Doctor sets up a meeting between the subterranean Silurians and humanity in one thousand years' time… long after, we viewers and the Doctor might have noticed, the earth is said to end in The Beast Below. Such slip ups, though, are impressively uncommon, and the writers do manage to just as often rope together odds and ends into satisfying and timely knots.
Still, the avalanche of personality that is the Doctor can grow overwhelming, and that may be why some of the series' strongest episodes have him interacting with, or butting heads against, an equally forceful character. The Eleventh Hour, Vincent and the Doctor, and the Lodger all have this in spades. Perhaps because of their focus on character, they all also have rather weak villains and Science Fiction elements. Still, the relationships are enough to carry the show. The Lodger seems wholly inspired by a single gag – the Doctor forced to live as an ordinary bloke for a time – but his interactions with James Corden's Craig and the charm of every actor involved serve to bring the whole thing off.
Vincent and the Doctor. meanwhile, is daring enough to focus on Van Gogh and his internal (and external) demons. The episode's end – in which, for all his skill, the Doctor could not save Van Gogh from himself – is a strange cross of sentimental ( The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things) and futile. No matter its conclusions and other elements, the whole thing would be worth if it its only moment of grace was how beautifully overwhelmed Tony Curran's Van Gogh becomes when brought to the modern day Louvre to see his own exhibit.
In future episodes, such as the Beast Below, where Amy travels with the Doctor and in which her relationship with him develops, all is more than well – but the crux of her character is her relationship not with the Doctor but with her fiancé, Arthur Darvill's Rory, and things don't go nearly so well there. Rory isn't unlikable, but her interactions with him have none of the chemistry that her interactions with the doctor do, and her time with him feels like dull restraint just waiting to burst forth into another adventure. At the end of Flesh and Stone, she tries to seduce the Doctor, and, though he rebuffs her, it doesn't seem that her feelings for him and the endless adventure he provides end there. The episode Amy's Choice seems supposed to settle her conflict and ends up leaving the opposite feeling in the viewer. Contrasting an adventure with the Doctor and comfortable boredom with her fiancé, Amy seems all set to pick the former until the thought of losing the latter makes her supposedly realize how she feels. Yet, besides how much it might hurt to lose him, there's not much of a sign of he and her having much there to lose in the first place.
Alas, the writers are not quite as brilliant as their preternaturally brilliant hero, and so an uncomfortable number of the season's climaxes are not so much composed of trickery as they are of the silliest pseudo-logic that falls apart at the most cursory of examinations. In the finale, the Doctor brings himself back from being erased from all existence by having Amy remember him. But, had he been erased from all existence, she wouldn't have been able to remember him. Nobody else did, after all. Other plot arcs and twists aren't quite as out and out nonsensical but are still nonetheless silly. The Victory of the Daleks in particular doesn't so much have a plot as a series of faux-logical leaps that are a mixture of unsurprising and cloyingly unsatisfying, the pinnacle of which is when the Doctor defeats the Daleks' plan by convincing an android that he is more man than machine by reminiscing about love.
Furthermore, since the Doctor does not fight, and since his enemies are often so threatening because they do nothing but, we are left with honestly rather awkward set ups in which the fearsome villain is reduced to nothing more than growling impotently as the Doctor runs away time and time again. When the Doctor holds the Daleks back by swearing a Jammie Dodger is a self destruct device, one has to admire his daring, if not his prudence. But when he escapes Prisoner Zero, Saturnyne, Eknodine, and innumerable others in episode after episode by simply legging it, some of the show's fiercest villains start to look like they have rather more bark than bite.
Really, the entire series functions much like the climax in that regard. Looking back, I can think of only one or two episodes that didn't strike me as flawed in some way or other, whether that flaw was a gap in logic or a failing in some element of the plot or character. Despite that, almost none of those flaws bothered me at the time of viewing. I see the issues that critics like Abigail Nussbaum have raised, but the show proceeds with too much sheer force be derailed. Or, more accurately, it's shot off the rails long ago and is just going along with far too much style for anyone to notice or care. The experience of watching Doctor Who can perhaps be best summed up as a befuddled ecstasy, and I'll be coming back to view the series I missed and find out what happens next.