Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Doctor Who: Series Five

So... all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will - where do you want to start? 

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.

In order to get across and get through so many plots and worlds, the show needs to employ pacing as quick as lightening. The writers need to get across great swathes of info on their settings without dwelling on any one aspect of it, and they do this through a shorthanded method of worldbuilding and through implication. First, Doctor Who is not above establishing clumps of backstory or whatever else with clichés. In episodes dominated by a few strong personalities, the background is often sketched in by stock characters that are mostly there to show us what we need to know and to give the real movers something to play off of and work with. The Silurian warrior Restac, for instance, is a decently used foe that doesn't burden the pacing. These clichés are sometimes mishandled, however. In the same two parter that we meet Restac in, we meet the regrettable character of Malokeh, who, a byproduct of scripting efficiency gone mad, goes from one extreme cliché to another without a thought between them, from Mengele to the benevolent scientist.

But Who's writers thankfully have more in their quiver than clichés. In order to make their creations fascinating and atmospheric as well as easily graspable, the writers and creators of Who have packed their episodes with striking and intriguing details, hints, and images, characterizing their settings with iconic and intriguing setpieces. Wisely, the writers do not set out to explain away every cool glimmer and mystery they strew about, leaving such things as the carnivalesque aspects of Starship UK in The Beast Below primarily up to the viewer's imagination.

Driving all this weirdness and all these plots forward is, of course, the Doctor, the center of it all. Matt Smith is the eleventh actor to hold the role, and, though I can't yet compare him to any of his predecessors, he is simply brilliant to watch. Like the times and worlds he traverses, the Doctor can't be so much pinned down to a single quality as he can to an endless ability to flit between them. At all times he is convincingly off from humanity and in some ways more than it. Often, he speaks and thinks in thick and flowing streams of free-association deduction, spouting wisdom and nonsense and endlessly quotable lines in the same verbal onslaught. He is, at once, involved with those around them and trying to do his best by them and also hopelessly distant from them, connecting to them on a few levels and utterly unrelated to them on every other. Above all, at least in his own words, he is a madman with a box. Uniting the manifold oddities of the character into a coherent whole should have been a near impossible task, but Smith manages to pull it off and look like he's having the time of his life while doing it.

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.

The Eleventh Hour is the season opener, was my first introduction to Who, and shows the first interactions between the Doctor and his main companion for the season, Karen Gillian's Amy Pond. When we begin, however, the Doctor doesn't meet the fully grown Amy but the child she once was, Caitlin Blackwood's Amelia. Having just been  regenerated, and after a hilarious scene coming to terms with his new taste buds, the Doctor tells her that he'll be back in five minutes and doesn't return for years, not until she's grown and Amy. That abandonment and other abandonments forge her character, and her life is shaped by her longing for the return of this one-time visitor from her childhood that no one believes in. The episode's overall plot is rather weak, but the Doctor's relationship with both actresses, and the way that the two work together to form a complete and powerful character, all works quite well.

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.

But enough of those around the star; it's time to turn back to the Doctor himself. Unlike so many TV heroes, he is a pacifist who eschews the use of weapons and violence both, relying instead on his quick wit and interpersonal skills. This leads to many of the season's strongest parts, where the Doctor establishes his true superiority over his foes not by his bigger gun or their laughable accuracy but by his intelligence. In the two part The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, he's a wrathful trickster against impossible odds but brimming with incredible schemes. When he gives his defiant speech at the first episode's end (Didn't anyone ever tell you? There's one thing you never put in a trap. If you're smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there is one thing you never, ever put in a trap. […] Me!), it's a moment hard to describe as anything but awesome.

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.

A crack in the universe...
The series' main plot comes to the fore in the final two episodes, The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. The snappiest description I can give of the climax therein is that it is a glorious mess. The Pandorica Opens functions much like the latter episode's namesake, a perpetually expanding and almost impossible to keep up with storm of information and events that twists and turns in innumerable ways. The Big Bang functions in a similar fashion but almost in reverse, covering little territory overall but looping back madly in upon itself to see it from every angle and try to save all of everything. Most of the twists and turns throughout this whole thing are totally brilliant. The rest are utterly nonsensical and hopelessly silly. The emotional burdens range from powerfully hard hitting to just odd. And, of course, the silliness is still delightfully everywhere (fezzes are cool!). Ultimately, the climax is littered with holes, but it's shooting out at you so fast and with so much force that you don't notice them all until well, well after you've been struck and swept along with your jaw on the floor of some other time and some other space.

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.


  1. Heavy Sigh.

    I have hated, and watched, every single episode of Doctor Who since the re-boot.

    I watch a lot of bad television, which I nurse along with nods and prompts. I actively hate Doctor Who. And I speak as a fan of the show.

    I can short-cut most of this with. Well, with this: "Doctor Who is Jesus".

    Sorry, I meant to say. "Doctor Who is Jesus, now."

    I'm not saying you're wrong to like it. Though you obviously are. I'm saying that, given a choice, would you rather have this claptrap or logic.

    Doctor Who only exists in a universe in which distant mothers are considerably hotter than their kids, Daleks are now world-consuming monsters instead of previously inconvenient second storey visitors. And the sole surviving example of a race is, curiously Messiah-like. Despite his aversion to the idea.

    He is Jesus.

    That's fine.

    But, much like American politics, I care about this way more than I should.

    Does it matter that Doctor Who is Jesus? In fact is Doctor Who Jesus?

    Just because somebody goes through all the same trials and tribulations that Jesus did, doesn't make them Jesus.

    To be fair, Jesus never disappointed me as much as Doctor Who.

    On his plus side, Doctor Who never claimed to be Jesus.

    Disclaimer: Jesus means no more to me than the Ice Age rat. Except, I love the rat.

  2. Nathaniel, I do hope you decide to start from 2005.. Although it's ripe with cheesiness.. Chris & David's portrayals of the Doctor are not ones to be missed. I definitely recommend going back and watching those 4 seasons first before you jump into season 6 & 7. =)