Welcome to the first edition of “I Don’t Hate the Russell T. Davies Era, But…Or Thoughts on the ‘New’ Series.”
I’ve had a couple of people actually ask me, based on my write-ups of the classic series, what my thoughts on the “new” series are. In sum, I think the show’s been consistently putting out A+ work, taking the best of the “classic” series and combining it with new elements and approaches. Now there are episodes I didn’t like and some seasons I prefer over others, but that’s natural and I would still say that even when the show is “off” it’s still one of the better programs out there. I decided to give some of my thoughts on the “new” series and, inspired by the lovely Diamanda Hagan’s Twatty Who Reviews, I’m focusing on the Russell T. Davies/David Tennant era, particularly how it wrapped up. I don’t have any plans to start writing about all or even most “new” Who episodes, and definitely not with the level of detail I’ve been writing up the classic series, so this won’t be an open-ended feature.
Now I should probably make clear that, as much as fandoms like to draw lines in the sand, I’m not here to bash Russell T. Davies and exalt Steven Moffat. I will admit that I have come to generally prefer the episodes produced under Steven Moffat’s regime for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever write off the entire Christopher Eccleston/David Tenant era. For one thing, there very likely wouldn’t even be a new Doctor Who series if not for Davies, or at the very least we would have ended up with something like the ill-advised reboot FOX and the BBC had in mind during the late ’90s. For another, variety is one of the things that has kept Doctor Who going after all these years, and even if I just happen to really like Steven Moffat’s take on the Doctor Who mythos doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that Davies had some very different interpretations – and likely enough whoever follows Moffat will as well. Third, Russell T. Davies is actually a very good writer – a great one, even. As evidence, I present “Midnight,” an extremely effective and downright brilliant story that managed to use minimal effects and setting to breathtaking effect. I’d go as far as to say that it should be included in any top 10 Doctor Who episode list and taught in screenwriting classes. And even when I’ve been unhappy with the episodes he penned, I’ve always found something to like – well, except with “The End of Time”, but we’ll get there.
The problem is that Davies kept underestimating his audience. If you keep in mind the fact that he did keep the excellent “Midnight” on the back burner for years because he thought the audience would completely reject it, it’s a fair assessment, and really I always thought Davies’ vision of the Doctor was more akin to American superheroes than to what the Doctor was in the classic series. Now it should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with a fresh take and certainly I’m sure there are lit grad students who can show how the Doctor and, say, the Green Lantern really do come out of the same giant cultural well, but I genuinely do believe there was a disconnect between Davies and the show itself, which really came out in his grand season closers and especially in the sagas that finished his run.
I was just going to write on “The End of Time”, but I figured I should instead start with “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End.” Honestly, I could always use the excuse to push out more content. However, I also don’t think it’s fair to write on “The End of Time” until I tackle the rest of the huge “End of the Tenth Doctor” mega-epic, especially since the last time I watched most of it was when they first became available to Americans. Let me also point out that I think the season with Donna Noble was the best of the David Tennant seasons. Not only did Catherine Tate just seem to have better chemistry with David Tennant than, yes, even Billie Piper, but there was just something about the Tenth Doctor’s character that made him traveling across space and time with a cynical, embittered office temp so natural. I’ll say more about it later, but that’s why it irks me so much that Davies turned the last season and the final specials with Tennant into a nostalgia fest for his own run. There are only six episodes where Donna and the Doctor are together for most of the story and where Donna doesn’t have to share the spotlight with past companions of the Tenth Doctor. Yes, she does get her own adventure with “Turn Left,” but she still gets pushed aside in her own finale (and really she gets pushed aside hard, but we’ll get to that). So, anyway, with this long, rambling preamble out of the way, let’s get cracking with “The Stolen Earth.”
I’ll give this to Davies: he knows how to lay out one hell of a hook. Right after the events of “Turn Left” (or, well, really the largely non-events…wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff), the Doctor and Donna arrive on Earth looking for the catastrophe they were warned about. Seeing nothing, they return to the TARDIS, but as is usually the case the Doctor has lousy timing. As soon as they step back on the TARDIS, they discover that the Earth has instantly disappeared without a trace. The Doctor does the unthinkable: seek help from intergalactic authorities, in this case the Shadow Proclamation. Meanwhile, his allies on Earth, including Rose who has returned from the parallel universe, find themselves facing a familiar threat of apocalyptic proportions.
I admit, though, the first time I watched it I was less impressed with the premise and more annoyed that we were getting yet another big event storyline about an alien invasion in present-day London. When Donna’s granddad, Wilfred, shouted, “It’s the aliens again!”, I was all like, “Oh my God, you said it.” As the saying goes, if your own characters are complaining about the plot… And if it wasn’t contemporary London, then it would have been Victorian London or a distant future so like contemporary London it might as well have been contemporary London. I know despite its success Doctor Who doesn’t have the biggest budgets, but did Davies believe viewers’ brains would melt if they didn’t have stories that took place in their own day and time? You’d almost think they weren’t watching a show about a man who can travel anywhere and anywhen.
Okay, okay, there were things I liked, then and now. I always love throwaway weirdness in my genre fiction, like bees being an alien race (“Not all of them!” the Doctor obnoxiously corrects) and the Daleks’ hiding the Earth and their base “one second” out of sync with the rest of the universe. Also, being a huge pedantic nerd, I also appreciated that they actually filled in a plot hole of sorts with the old ’60s serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” That serial never really gave us a good explanation for why the Daleks invaded the Earth; we get a reference to it here from the Tenth Doctor: “Someone tried to move the Earth once, a long time ago…” So hooray for filling decades-old plot holes. Plus, as usual, the Tenth Doctor is a lot of fun, when he’s not apparently pining after Rose (er, but more about that later). Also the solution that the Doctor’s ex-companions use to help the Doctor find Earth, basically getting every phone in Britain and Ireland to call the TARDIS, is a rather fun way of working the Doctor’s special relationship with the UK (and Ireland, maybe?) into the show, and a hell of a lot less cheesy than the “Doctor defeats The Master with the power of hope and faith!” resolution in “The Last of the Time Lords.” Speaking of which, I also liked the denouement the character of Harriet Jones got. She was always treated as more of a joke than I would have liked, but I appreciated that she was presented as heroic and silly up until the end, and that she could have great respect for the Doctor while still claiming that his strong ethical objection to her past actions is, well, completely wrong. On a similar note, how awesome was it to see Wilfred take on a Dalek with a paint gun? It doesn’t work, but still! And finally…Davros is back!
While I was sick of the Daleks by this point, it was good to have back another villain from the classic series and see once again everyone’s favorite cold yet short-tempered sociopathic scientist.
So looking at the big picture I should have loved this episode, and there was really a lot I liked about it. But for all that, though, the same old flaws we always see with Davies’ epics crop up again, and having watched the series from the beginning it was all getting much too tiresome. For starters, Rose is shoehorned into this story with a jackhammer. To be brutally honest, there’s just no logical place for her here, at least no place that isn’t already occupied by Donna. It’s Donna who’s shown fearing for the safety of her family and it’s Donna who should be having the reaction of shock and horror when she thinks the Doctor has been killed near the end. In fact, I would have preferred it if Donna was the only companion in this story, but at least Martha and Jack are given things to do. Besides a couple of bad-ass movements involving Rose running around with a really big gun, she really doesn’t do anything, a fact that the character herself complains about when she finds herself literally excluded from an Internet conference with the Doctor and the other ex-companions (seriously) and whines, “I was here first!” I’m sure many people, including myself, shouted “Oh, nobody cares!” at their screens.
Now I was going to put this off until next time but let me assure you…I don’t dislike Rose and I find the fan-rage directed at her extremely silly. Billie Piper did more than a fine job with the character and even the idea of giving her a crush on the Doctor wasn’t a bad one, at least at first. The mistake wasn’t so much keeping it ambiguous, but implying that the Doctor returned her feelings. Yes, yes, the Third Doctor had feelings for Jo, but still at worst the Doctor should have seen her like a human would see the romantic potential of a chimp; at the very best their relationship would have been as likely and productive as that of a 30th century person and someone from the Bronze Age. It’s the reason why I liked the way Steven Moffat handled a companion crush through the Eleventh Doctor and Amy. The Doctor is confused and more than a little horrified, which would be a human’s ideal reaction if a dolphin tried to seduce them. Also, guess what, Amy’s feelings and relationship with the Doctor actually changed and evolved. Just saying.
Anyway, I’m sure more words have been spent on Rose and the Doctor than have been used to talk about Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the past century, and I’m starting to get into things better left for later, so let’s stop at the end of the episode, with the Doctor regenerating as a result of a Dalek attack; Jack, Rose, and Donna cowering in a corner of the TARDIS; and Martha off to activate a mysterious device designed by UNIT. Those of us familiar with Davies’ series closers already knew to brace ourselves for another round of “Oops, I’ve written myself into a corner,” but hey, at least we’d get more Davros!