Thursday, October 05, 2006
Why You Should Be Watching the New Doctor Who, Pt. 2
The second season of the new DOCTOR WHO (or the twenty-eighth season of DOCTOR WHO as a whole) began airing in the US on the Sci-Fi Channel last Friday. It's not being promoted as heavily as, say, the phenomenon that is the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and I haven't seen as much chatter about it as I'd like. So time to do some pimping again. It's different this time because I haven't actually seen this series yet- I held off buying the R2 DVDs specifically because I knew proper airings were on the way. So I'm posting reactions solely on the basis of "The Christmas Invasion" and "New Earth." But still, the indications are good.
First things first- we've got a new Doctor, now played by David Tennant, having taken over from Christopher Eccleston at the end of last season's finale. The Doctor does this whenever they need to change actors, and "The Christmas Invasion" is set soon after his regeneration, which still hasn't stabilized. He arrives on Earth in time for Christmas, and in time for a UK-launched Mars probe to slam into an alien spaceship which then descends over London, where its scary-looking inhabitants demand that Earth surrender. The sort of thing the Doctor can usually handle in a day, but unfortunately he's unconscious. So it's up to Rose (Billie Piper), Prime Minister Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton), and her crack staff to defeat the alien menace. It's an odd tack to take for a DOCTOR WHO adventure- "regeneration" stories do often focus on a period where the Doctor isn't sure of his new self, but never has he been this fully incapacitated for two thirds of the story. Of course, this wasn't the season premiere proper, but a Christmas Day special slotted between seasons (something also planned for this holiday season), so it only had to provide a taste of the new Doctor. And so it did- in the final third, a blazingly intense David Tennant comes to and shows off his distinct brand of Doctorishness, which pretty much makes the entire story worthwhile. It's intense and dramatic and quite bold, really.
That said, I'm not keen on Harriet Jones seemingly being ousted by the Doc himself at the end of it. Her decision to destroy the retreating spaceship is perhaps unethical, but you can see her line of reasoning, and the Doctor's in objecting to it, and that works in itself. But his insistence on bringing her down by remarking "Don't you think she looks tired?" to an aide and sparking a health scare seems vaguely less-than-ethical in itself, especially since Jones is, according to a previous episode, supposed to go on to do great things for Britain. (The quote is a reference to what brought down Thatcher, though less convincing in this context- of course Jones looks tired, she's just been through an alien invasion, and any PR flack worth 50p could spin that into nothingness.) Most importantly, these two became great friends in Jones' first appearance, and it just hurts to see them turn against each other so quickly. It's like watching your parents fight. It's not confirmed that she is ousted, though the reason this whole confrontation took place was that showrunner Russell T. Davies needed an out for Wilton, who has a crowded schedule. So while things aren't looking good for Jones' political career, something about the execution makes me think a redemptive coda might be in the cards.
What minor concerns I had about the new season based on the special's odd structure and whatnot were swept away by the proper premiere, "New Earth". While apparently a polarizing episode within the fandom, it's also a classic dose of the imagination and inventiveness that characterizes both the old and new series. It's set on an alien world, which is actually quite important; the first new season stayed entirely on Earth, due to concerns about cost and the ability to convincingly render new planets when most of the rock quarries employed by the old show had been turned into council estates. So, finally, the series sets its foot on new ground, and the results are beautiful. The new planet, made into a New Earth out of nostalgia for the old one, is represented by a grassy shoreline, a distant city, and a gigantic hospital which actually is the setting for most of the action, but somehow all that is enough. Visually the episode is dazzling, brightly lit with lots of white and green and translucent panels. Storywise it's freaking INSANE. Rose gets possessed by Cassandra, "the last human", who is obsessed with living forever, while the Doctor visits the seemingly-dying Face of Boe and notices that the patients are recovering from incurable diseases at a surprising rate. The two end up discovering the grim secret behind the medical experiments which the catlike Sisters use to discover cures, and plague zombies break out and threaten to infect the entire planet. Billie Piper does a terrific job portraying the posh, snobby, alarmingly sexy Cassandra, who enjoys being in a young and firm new body with a good "rear bumper." A couple of plot points stretch credibility, but at the same time we get emotional development for Cassandra and the new Doctor, some great thematic stuff about death and renewal, and an enchanting, almost dreamlike atmosphere. And the goofiness of the story can itself be said to be a virtue; at its best and most manic, DOCTOR WHO makes even good science fiction shows look stultifyingly formulaic.
I'm liking the new Doctor, so far. The argument with Harriet Jones doesn't seem to be an anomaly; he has very little patience for ethical grey areas and "ends justify the means" arguments. This is both a virtue and a flaw, as he judges in haste, but does recognize evil when he sees it. But there's also a very loose and fresh quality to the Tenth Doctor. At times he comes across as someone who grew up reading too many "Boys Own" adventure stories and is out to have ripping adventures and be extremely clever. He manages to make Eccleston's Doctor look brooding and subdued. As I've said before, one thing that makes DOCTOR WHO rare in the modern pop culture landscape is its sense of fun and lightheartedness. Not every drama series has to knock you down, raise the stakes, and drag characters through the mud every week; there's nothing WRONG with doing so, but it's become commonplace, and a reminder that there are other ways of doing the job is welcome.
This, incidentally, is Billie Piper's last season as Rose; she's already left in the UK, and the new series will have Tennant adventuring alongside a new companion. Piper's done a great job, and finding out what happens to Rose in the end will be interesting. It's kind of nice to be completely behind the curve for once, as opposed to just slightly last time.
So, I'm confident I'll continue to enjoy the series. I hope it continues to do well in the ratings; as I said, there's a danger of it being overshadowed by SciFi's homegrown success, so everyone keep watching and keep discussing. Right now it's a very, VERY good time to be a DOCTOR WHO fan, and I don't want that to end.