Sunday, April 4, 2010


Continuing our discussion of all things Doctor Who from last time . . .

Or rather we will, but first, I gotta say, Matt Smith's debut was one of the strongest debuts of a new Doctor ever. While the episode's plot wasn't amazing (well, the parts that didn't focus on the Doctor's rather peculiar relationship with and effect on Amy) Number Eleven seems like such a natural as the Doctor I'm really looking forward to his tenure and seeing where he goes with it. Oh yes, and the roll call moment was a real "punch your fist into the air" moment, wasn't it?

Now, on to the main attraction--when last we talked, the First Doctor was on the way out and the Second Doctor was on the way in. The show had become popular enough to continue, but the actor who played the main part, William Hartnell couldn't really continue the role due to health reasons. Ordinarily, replacing the title character's actor is suicide for the show, but there was no way forward, so metaphorical dice were rolled, and it was decided that since the Doctor was an alien, why couldn't he change completely when necessary?

And thus, the concept of Regeneration was born. And the Doctor changed into that guy from The Omen who gets killed with the falling steeple.

Again, as with the First Doctor, not many of the early Second Doctor stories really exist anymore, so it's hard to tell just how much fidelity the Second Doctor had to the original's remit in the early days, but whatever the notion, he soon became his own character, who was quite different from the First's.

The most obvious difference was he predilection for comedy. Whereas the First Doctor was cranky and unctuous, the Second was more personable and prone to slapstick in moments. But at the same time, he was willing to be devious, when he has to be--the cliche of the Doctor playing dumb only for it to be revealed in the final episode that he's been playing a long game all the time really starts here, and that dynamic of "what exactly is he up to" is one of the driving forces of the show.

Another, of course, is relationship with his companions, or rather, the companions which stuck with him the longest. Jamie is a well-meaning dunderhead picked up from the Highlands who basically is there to do some of the action bits, play off the Doctor, and (as the actor once said) "Give the girls a reason to put down their knitting." Zoe is there to handle the technobabble, be a charming naif, wear sparkly jumpsuits and be something for the dads watching. It's a very sturdy chemistry, and the three of them play off each other so well, that this is another element that moves the show forward.

The last, and the most characteristic of this era, are the monsters. The Daleks seemed to be the thing that really made people tune in, so for awhile there, every writer of the show seemed determined to create the new marketable monster. The Cybermen were an early success (and appeared fairly frequently in the course of the Second Doctor's tenure) but there were others that may not have endured but are fondly remembered, like the Ice Warriors and the not-quite-as-threatening-as-advertised Yeti. Some, like the Krotons and the Quarks, never made the grade. The change towards monster-centric stories is helped immensely in places by the black and white photography, which creates some very evocative moments, like the Cybermen's march on London in "The Invasion."

In addition, there are a few threads that go through his tenure, specifically the advent of one Lethbridge-Stewart, who recurs through several stories and plays a major role in the next era and in the Second Doctor's last series, he fights an evil Time Lord (yes again--but not played for comedy this time)

One more major thing to mention is the Second Doctor's last serial, "The War Games" is the last of the "epic" Doctor Who serials, clocking in at 10 episodes. From now on, when the show takes on "epic" stories, they'll usually be broken down into arcs of related serials, more than one long story. Oh, and it also introduces and names for real and proper the Time Lords, but really, who remembers them?

It's not all good for the show, of course. For one, the effects budget is still laughable and sometimes, things fall short of the mark. The aforementioned Yeti (who look like a shaggier version of Grimace from McDonaldland and whose roar is the sound of a toilet flushing) are one example. The (sadly) mostly-lost story "The Underwater Menace" is another:

. . .really looks wet, doesn't it?

There's also (also lost) "The Evil Of The Daleks," which takes mighty and determined leaps to show and let us no in uncertain terms that the Daleks have reached their end, their final end, and any Dalek serials you may have seen after that are merely the products of a deranged imagination.

Also, dear God are there a lot of bases under siege in this era. And heaven help you if the serial you're watching runs six episodes, because you are doomed to some very obvious padding. The one that springs most readily to mind is "Tomb of the Cybermen," wherein the Doctor and the baddie fight over a damn switch for an entire episode and the Cybermen pop out of the tomb . . .and back in . . .and back out . . .

But sometimes, it works out in spite of things. Perhaps it's because the principals are so good at creating a lighter touch and acting like they're in on the joke. Most wonderfully (for me, anyways) is (also mostly lost--dammit) is "The Enemy of the World," wherein Patrick Troughton does double duty as the Doctor and Salamander, ruler of the world and in possession of an accent that starts as Spanish, meanders around the globe a bit, and settles on "generic foreign." It's an utterly silly episode full of Salamander chewing scenery so bloody hard it's a wonder Troughton didn't get polystyrene poisoning. Even intact, it would never be a good episode, but it sure as hell was a fun one.

It's definitely an intriguing era, as the balance between the more childlike (in moments) Doctor and the harder-edged monster-heavy stories shouldn't work, but sure enough it works, and while Doctor Who is no longer an educational show (well, it might be, but heaven knows what lessons you'd learn from it--how to shove Daleks around?) and has changed into something else in an effort to stay relevant and survive.

Which, to no one's surprise, is what happens at the end of the Second Doctor's tenure. In the wake of "The War Games," the Doctor is forced to regenerate and stranded on Earth. While this is a rather big risk (as it trips up one of the main strengths of the concept--that one can hop in the TARDIS and go somewhere else just in time for next week) and, as mentioned by the newer folks coming in, it limits one to stories involving alien invasions or mad scientists pretty exclusively.

However, believe it or not, it's going to work, as we'll see next time, when the Third Doctor stumbles out of the TARDIS and the show changes yet again. Karate chops for everyone!

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