Monday, July 26, 2010


The Ninth Doctor lasted all of one season, and then we were on to the Tenth. David Tennant turned out to be an ideal candidate for the role, as he was a fan way back (specifically the Fifth Doctor, who he would later team up with in a short episode that was as much fanservice as it was a story of a complicated time paradox) and perhaps it was that affinity that made Russell T. Davies steer the direction of the show more in a classic Who direction, or at least a classic who direction as he saw it.

This naturally led to a change in the show, as Davies tended to take things in more adventurous directions than he had done previously, as Who was a big enough hit that they had the money and clout to do a bit more. Ultimately, the Tenth Doctor's tenure runs four series plus an entire year of specials, which is quite an impressive run, and may very well be the longest run a Doctor will have in the new-model show.

Tonally what we ended up with in his tenure (the longest serving Doctor in the revived series so far) was a little from column A and a little from column B. When it worked, it worked well, whether due to Davies bringing his "A"-game and Tennant the same or one holding up the other or letting them down.

While there are very effective episodes in Tenth's tenure ("School Reunion," "The Girl In The Fireplace," "Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel," "Blink," "Midnight," and a few others) more than a few are marred by elements that Davies can't quite ever manage to sell, or if he does, he undoes any goodwill done by never leaving it alone.

Consider, if you will, the case of Rose Tyler. In the Ninth Doctor's run, the romantic tension between the Doctor and Rose had been a bit more on the platonic side of things--the Doctor functioned more as a symbol of escaping from your surroundings, wanting and getting more out of life, that sort of thing. A Nine gives way to Ten, the implicit becomes explicit and Rose and the Doctor all but become a couple. Except for the fact that this makes Rose a bit bratty in spots, it's not a problem, and it pays off splendidly at the end of "Doomsday"--at the end of it Rose has everything she wanted ideally: her boyfriend, her family intact again, but at the same time she's cut off from what she really wanted, and she can never go back.

Had Davies just left it there, things would have been grand--it's a rather dark and poignant ending. But lacking the presence of mind to leave a tender moment alone, Rose returns in "The Stolen Earth/Journey's End," (despite the plot of "Doomsday" making it clear that was impossible) Rose ends up with a happy ending and a life spent a clone made from the Doctor's severed hand.

Yeah, it's best not to dwell on that too much.

This "OK, that's it, no more--oh wait, just kidding!" thing ends up defining Davies, most especially when the time comes to ending a series. The Daleks are probably the worst offenders--they get completely and utterly destroyed at least three times, no possible way they could escape (bar I think two instances where a logical trapdoor was put in place) and then they're back in force over and over again.

What's worse, the constant inflation of these end of season threats (and Davies' resolve not to plan ahead all that much or gleefully chuck things if he gets a better idea) means the deus ex machina endings come fast and furious because there's no way out of the corner he's written himself into. It turns out that Davies best work (the aforementioned "Midnight") comes off so well primarily because the stakes aren't ridiculously high.

And then there's The Master. Ideally, the Master is the Doctor's opposite number (though at the shows worst, he's earned the label of "the camp one" as mentioned in The Curse of the Fatal Death) but when you have a manic, overcaffinated Doctor in Davin Tennant and you have pit him against a Master in John Simm who plays it like he thought Jim Carrey as the Riddler was a model of restraint, and the resultant signal to noise ratio is enough to make one's brain haemorrhage. That this is not even the most annoying part of the multi-part episode featuring the Master's return (never mind that I will happily watch any Who episodes in reruns except for those) should tell you a lot right there.

Anyways, with Rose out of the way, Martha Jones is wheeled out as the latest Companion, but with all the goodwill in the world and frequent returns after her tenure as companion, she was basically treated like shit--she silently pines for the Doctor the whole time she travels with him, yet he's still hung up on Rose and yet she behaves really passive-aggressive the whole time. That this is one of the shortest paragraph in this whole write-up should tell you something.

Thankfully, third time round, they get things right, although you'd never know it from first impressions. Donna Noble initially comes off as shrill and obnoxious (not that the show really needed one more screechy, obnoxious, character) in her initial appearance, but when the time comes in Series 4 for her to become a full-fledged companion, she's a much more evolved character in that she doesn't moon over the Doctor constantly, she will challenge him and deflate his ego from time to time (and oh lord was that ever needed) and one that actually brings us back to Davies' initial paradigm for the Ninth Doctor/Rose relationship--the Doctor inspires people to be better people, to find strength of character they don't necessarily know they have.

The arc of Donna's story, wherein someone who always thought she was completely worthless becomes the most important person in the universe, saves said universe, but has to pay an awful price--she has to become the rather sorry person she was again because the alternative is that she'll die. It's . . .well, one the one hand, it's bullshit, but on the other hand, tragic memory wiping of companions does have a precedent in Doctor Who, and for all that there are bits of it that don't work very well, that is sold with honesty and a very powerful punch (which is then betrayed by Davies in Tennant's final episode, but we're getting ahead of ourselves)

This seems like as good a time as any to mention another cliche that grew to bug me over Tennant's run. Every series, it seemed like the following happened: The Doctor, alone and looking very glum, fires up the TARDIS and slowly flies off, only for something inexplicable to happen to set up the Christmas Special which is forthcoming. Lord, that got old after what felt like the first 9 million times.

Now, I've done a lot of bitching about this tenure and I don't want you to think I hated it, because frankly, I loved it. There were enough high points to balance out the bits that don't work: the Cybermen are re-imagined as terrifying and powerful (threads not continued, but they are very effective in that first go-round) the Dalek arc comes up with a rather clever throughline which ultimately brings back Davros, who is realised better than he has been since his initial story, The Tenth and Fifth Doctors meet in eight wonderful minutes which balance perfectly appreciating the show's past and looking ahead to the future, the Weeping Angels are introduced and become an iconic monster off the bat because they're imaginative and utterly sinister, and the Doctor overstepping himself and declaring that he'll make the rules of time bend to him and the consequences of his hubris, and three little bits at the very end that I think are just fantastic .

"The End Of Time" is a big hot tranny mess of a finale, but it contains several bits of utter gold, I think. They don't redeem the two-parter at all, but stand out because they're incredibly well-written and excellent use of plot bits and bobs that were lying around. The first is a conversation with Donna's grandfather, wherein the Doctor confesses his fear about his upcoming death. He'll still live, of course, but as someone different, and he fears and frankly resents it. It's an excellent moment (helped immeasurably by the two actors, who sell it so well) that actually works to explain why whenever multiple Doctors team up, there always sniping at one another--each of them in turn feels his successor stole his life.

The next moment involves the big hook of the episode--the Time Lords return, and it's squeaky bum time for the universe. Because the Time War (and the subsequent Time Lock put on it to keep people from going back to it) was meant to equally lock the Daleks and the Time Lords inside, because in fighting the Daleks, the Time Lords, driven to survive, had become just as dangerous, and schemed to evolve to the next level of consciousness by destroying the universe entirely.

It's a great twist, and really the ultimate extent of the Time Lords' arc. Getting rid of them was one of the smartest things Davies ever did--as there was really only two Time Lord stories to be done--they're corrupt or meddlers, or both. But giving an apt explanation for it makes it all the more satisfying.

The final bit that works so well is the moment when everything's done, more or less. The Time Lords and the Master have been dealt with, and Earth has been saved once again, and he's crowing because, according to him, he's beaten the prophecy--he's still here.

And then he has to give it up to save one man, and loses his shit. He rails against it, curses the man, curses fate, and comes so dangerously close to that arrogance that caused him to proclaim himself the Time Lord Victorious.

Then he stops. He realises how close he is to being the Master and the Time Lords at that moment, gathers himself, and makes the sacrifice. While I could have done without the extended epilogue wherein he visited every Companion and whined about how "He didn't want to go" before he regenerated (which sounded so much like Howard Moon's "I've got so much to give!" lament) that scene was played perfectly, and it's so good in fact you wish it was in a better goddamned episode.

But things change. They always do, and things sure do change starting now. Exit Ten, Enter the Eleventh. Join us next time for a little fairytale about an actor who everyone doubted and assumed was going to tank the show all over again comes in and becomes one of the best Doctors of all time. Join us next time for Villain Rehabilitation, bowties, fezzes, sexy Scottish gingers, cracks in the universe, love, marriage, memory, and a madman with a box in the concluding (for now) chapter of our retrospective on a certain madman with a box.


Vofly said...

The extended Return of the King epilogue certainly went on too long, but his sacrifice for Wilf was so good that I can forgive it. The way he just sighs and mutters to himself "Lived too long." I agree that he realized he was becoming just as bad as the rest of the Time Lords, and that was it was time to change again.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, it was a bit much, but by that time, I've come to expect RTD to be pretty self-indulgent and for as much as Tennant's done for the show, it's allowable. But yeah, I found that moment of realisation really powerful, especially in light of what happened in "Waters of Mars"--you could really feel the pull-back from the edge.