Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who: The Highlanders (1967)

After the TARDIS appears in the Scottish Highlands, the Doctor stumbles across a decapitated corpse. On the body is a note carrying a cryptic message, “There can be only one.”

Sorry.

Actually, the TARDIS lands in the middle of the the Battle of Culloden, where the Jacobites supporting the Stuart claimant to the British throne, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” have been decisively defeated by Loyalist troops defending the reigning king, George II. When a cannonball lands nearby, the Doctor immediately wants to leave, but Polly and Ben, thinking (for some reason) they might be in present-day England, insist on exploring. Unfortunately, when the Doctor tries on and then throws down a Jacobean cap, he attracts the attention of fleeing Scottish rebels who think they’re Loyalists and kidnap them. The Doctor is taken to a deserted college, where he’s enlisted in tending to the severely wounded Laird Colin McLaren alongside the laird’s daughter Kristy and piper Jamie McCrimmon. While Polly and Kristy are away getting water, a contingent of British troops investigate the cottage and arrest its inhabitants. Even though the Doctor claims to be a traveling German doctor, “Doktor von Wer,” he is condemned to be hung as traitors along with the laird and Jamie. Polly tries to distract the soldiers, and she and Kristy are chased by the group’s commander, Lt. Ffinch, who has heard a rumor that Prince Charles was disguised as a woman. After a few adventures, Polly and Kristy are able to elude Ffinch and his men.

The Doctor and the others are “saved” by a government official, Grey, who is heading an illegal scheme to round up any surviving Jacobites and sell them as slaves in the Americas. Although most of the prisoners believe Grey’s claims that they will be sold to be indentured servants, the Doctor, Jamie, Ben, and the laird work out the truth. Disguised alternatively as Doktor von Wer and as a scullery maid, the Doctor slips away and manages to set up a plan with Polly and Kristy. While the Doctor distracts Grey and his men with a story about Jamie being a disguised Bonnie Prince Charlie, Kirsty and Polly manage to sneak weapons in to the Jacobites, who revolt and commandeer the ship Grey planned to use to deport them to America. The laird, Kirsty, and the other Jacobeans decide to set out for France. Only Jamie, who out of gratitude promises to help the Doctor, Ben, and Polly find the TARDIS no matter what, is left behind.

The Doctor and his companions take Grey hostage to insure their safety while they look for the TARDIS. Grey escapes, though, and tries to have them arrested by Ffinch and his men at the cottage where they ran into Jamie and the others in the first place. However, Ffinch, who has actually befriended Polly, believes the Doctor’s accusation that Grey has been selling prisoners of war into slavery. The deal is clinched when Grey is unable to produce the contracts of indentured servitude he tricked the Jacobites into signing, because the Doctor stole them. Ffinch has Grey arrested and leaves the Doctor, Ben, and Polly in peace. Later they find the TARDIS and invite Jamie to join them. Once Jamie sees the TARDIS, he very reluctantly goes in.

Choice Quotes

Polly: Doctor, you don’t want us to think you’re afraid, do you?
Doctor: Why not?

Continuity Notes

This is the last of the “pure” historicals for the classic series – with  the exception of the somewhat oddball Fifth Doctor story, “Black Orchid” – and, so far, for the 2005 series as well.

Also it’s the first appearance of new companion Jamie McCrimmon, who, after so many short-term companions, will stick around for three years.

Comments

While I’m sad that this will be the last “pure” historical, it was at least something of a high point of the tradition to end on. It’s still not as strong a serial as the classics “Marco Polo” or “The Aztecs,” but it has the sort of attention on character detail that’s been largely lacking for the past few historicals. Also it does a good job of further fleshing out the character of the second Doctor, whose obsession with hats actually ends up becoming a major plot point.

The problem is that, unlike the best historicals, it still doesn’t really do anything with the time travel angle, lacking the kind of theme or playing with the implications of time travel that defined the best of the First Doctor historicals. Nor does it really exploit the specific setting and period. Despite the unique backdrop, it is pretty much interchangeable apart from the introduction of Jamie. You could have done more or less the same plot with the Roman invasion of Gaul, a civil war in China, or, well, any story involving a war and a disenfranchised population. That’s not to say there aren’t any good details thrown in, but it does feel like a lot more could have been done here.  Still, it’s good that, despite the bad experience the showrunners had with Katrina, they were willing to experiment with having another person from (according to the audience’s perspective) the past, something else the 2005 series needs to be more open to attempt.  It’s telling that, despite not in TV producer’s logic being a character a modern audience “could relate to”, Jamie still is one of the more memorable and long-lasting companions from the classic series.

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Smugglers (1967)

The Doctor is furious when Polly and Ben show up in the TARDIS and tries to explain to them that they’re now stuck with him indefinitely because he still can’t control where the TARDIS lands. They end up somewhere on the shore of Cornwall. Although they’re shocked to be so far out of London, they still don’t believe the Doctor when he tells them that they still don’t know when they are. They go to a church where a man threatens them with a blunderbuss. From the man’s clothes, the Doctor deduces that they are in the seventeenth century. They learn that he’s a churchwarden named Joseph and he’s afraid of a pirate crew that served under a man named Avery. Unfortunately, they also learn that the TARDIS will be submerged in the tide. In gratitude to the Doctor for fixing his dislocated finger, Joseph gives him a strange clue, telling him that the “Deadman’s secret key” is “Smallwood, Ringword, Gurney.” After they leave for the local inn to wait out the tide, Joseph, who was a pirate himself under Avery, is killed by men sent by Samuel Pike, Avery’s successor as captain and who is after Avery’s hidden treasure. Pike’s goons had seen the Doctor and the others and suspect that Joseph sold the secret of Avery’s treasure to them. The pirates abduct the Doctor and wound Ben. Worse, the local squire ends up arresting Polly and Ben on suspicion of Joseph’s murder.

The Doctor manages to charm Pike out of some charitable treatment, as Polly and Ben use twentieth-century technology to convince their jailer that they serve a warlock and escape. After doing their own investigation at the scene of Joseph’s murder, Polly tries to present evidence they found to the squire, only to stumble across Pike and the squire, who has been running a smuggling ring, making a business deal. Meanwhile in the church Ben comes across Josiah Blake, a government revenue agent, but before they can leave the squire shows up with Polly. When the squire accuses Ben and Polly of working for Pike, Blake, who came to investigate reports that the squire was corrupt to begin with, pretends to believe him and takes the Doctor’s companions into his custody. After escaping from the ship, the Doctor comes across Ben, Polly, and Blake, who leaves to get a militia for help. The Doctor figures out that Joseph’s clue referred to names in the local graveyard, but one of Pike’s men, who wants the treasure for himself, arrives and forces the Doctor to tell him the clue. Pike shows up and dispatches the traitor, and tells the Doctor that if he doesn’t help him find the treasure he’ll start massacring the locals. Just as the treasure is found, Blake’s militia appears and successfully fights the pirate crew. Blake and the squire, who was of course betrayed by Pike, defeat and kill Pike. As the battle wraps up, the Doctor, Polly, and Ben slip away back to the TARDIS. After the TARDIS teleports again, the Doctor announces that they’ve arrived at the “coldest place in the world.”

Continuity Notes

Actually a production note, but regardless it’s worth pointing out that this is the first “Doctor Who” episode to be filmed on location. The interior shots were still done at the London studio, but the exterior shots were actually filmed in Cornwall.

This is also, as the penultimate serial in Hartnell’s run, the last regular serial to star the First Doctor from beginning to the very end.

Comments

When I started off with the recaps, the historicals quickly became the episodes I looked forward to watching the most. Now I anticipate them with a little dread. I think I’ve said before that I do wish the 2005 series would bring back the “pure” historicals, but seeing their decline during the First Doctor era I can understand why the production crew did away with them in the first place and why there hasn’t been a revival in all the decades the show has been on. To be fair, if you’ve been following along with me, you’d probably agree that the problems aren’t entirely inherent to the historicals; since the original production team and supporting cast left, there have been other wider drops in quality as well. Overall the rich and surprisingly complex writing in the early episodes has largely vanished. The hints at backstory, attempts at world-building, and in-depth characterizations of even secondary characters that made the early First Doctor era such a pleasure are mostly if not entirely gone, and that has especially damaged the historicals, which once exhibited the sturdiest scripts.

However, while “The Smugglers” doesn’t live up to the strong, early historicals like “The Aztecs”, it does represent a small leap in the right direction. Even though the story is built on broad cliches, it doesn’t aim for mostly comedy like “The Romans” and isn’t as egregious as “The Gunslingers.” There’s even a couple of nice nods to the historical backdrop, like Polly having to pretend she’s a man all throughout the story and Ben constantly getting in trouble for lacking reverence toward authority. Also the story is nicely paced, even though it does get obvious that the showrunners didn’t quite know how to make the story entertaining without some action scenes. Since like so many of the later First Doctor episodes the episodes only exist on tape, stills, and seconds of footage recorded for Australian censors, it is hard to tell how effective the action was, though.

The one thing the better or at least the more entertaining historicals had in common was that they always had a broader plot or theme that worked in the premise of the show. “The Aztecs” brought up the question of changing history, “Marco Polo” had the Doctor and crew have to maneuver to get the TARDIS away from actual historical figures, and “The Reign of Terror” was built around the idea of time travelers stuck in a volatile period of time. Unlike those, by the final scene, “The Smugglers” is just a paint-by-numbers pirate story with the Doctor and his companions filling the role of the usual protagonists. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Doctor popping up in a completely different genre, and in fact some brilliant episodes come out of that sort of thing, but – and maybe this is just personal taste – I think the writers had a tough assignment in making a pirate story interesting.

Speaking of the Doctor, these episodes are known in “Who” lore as the episodes that convinced the showrunners that Hartnell’s health was bad enough that he could not be relied on to carry the role of the Doctor much further. Despite that, Hartnell, as is usual with the historicals, puts in a good performance that hits its heights when the Doctor plays up the role of a seventeenth century gentleman and tries to get on the good side of Pike. There are still a few hints, however, like Hartnell looking exhausted in the last scenes of the episodes (which was covered with a bit of dialogue from Polly) and the fact that the scene where the Doctor is dragged out of the inn by the pirates doesn’t feature Hartnell at all but a dummy poorly disguised as Hartnell.

“The Smugglers” is by no means a must-see, but, like with “The War Machines,” there are small signs that the production crew is finally hitting the mark once again. While it’s good that the First Doctor era is ending with an uptick, it’s a shame that we’re not wrapping up with the same level of quality we saw in the days of Barbara, Ian, and Susan – or will we?

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Ark (1966)

Dodo frustrates Stephen by being clueless to an almost surreal degree, hopping out of the TARDIS without hesitation into a jungle and thinking she can just hop on a bus back to London. The Doctor actually agrees with Dodo – at least insofar as he thinks they actually are still on Earth somewhere. Dodo, who is at least knowledgeable about animals, notes that the jungle is filled with different species from across the world while the Doctor discovers that there is no sky but a metal roof. The mystery unravels when the Doctor and the others are taken to a group of humans by alien beings, the Monoids. They are told that the ship is a futuristic Ark, taking the human race and samples of all its species away from an Earth that’s slowly being destroyed by an expanding sun to a new world much like Earth, a journey that will take 700 years. The Monoids are an alien race that migrated to Earth long ago from their own dying world and “offered” to become servants in exchange for their new home. Most of the human population has been reduced to a microscopic state and placed in stasis until the ship finally arrives at the new planet, while the humans left active are Guardians, who, along with their descendants, are expected to protect the ship. After figuring out the Guardians’ understanding of time, the Doctor deduces that they’ve wound up 10,000,000 years past the twentieth century.

While most of the Guardians are willing to trust the Doctor and the others, things quickly become tense when a cold Dodo has spreads to the Guardians and the Monoids, who have no resistance because the common cold had been wiped out for millennia. When the chief Guardian is struck down by the illness, the deputy chief, Zentos, has the Doctor and the others arrested and puts them on trial. Zentos accuses them of being sent from the planet they are traveling toward, Rathusis, to sabotage the mission. His paranoid arguments win the day and the Doctor and the others are sentenced to be ejected into space. However, the chief Guardian intervenes and, seeing that Steven is also sick, orders that the Doctor be given a chance to cure the illness but only if he uses Steven as his test subject. The Doctor essentially reinvents the flu vaccine, which stops the plague and of course allows the TARDIS crew to leave as heroes.

However, next they end up landing again in the Ark’s jungle. Dodo finds that a statue the Guardians had started when they left, which was intended to portray a human being, instead depicts a Monoid. They determine that they’ve ended up about 700 years from where they left and that the Guardians are now serving the Monoids. Soon enough, they are captured by the Monoids, who explain that there was a revolution. The Monoid leader, believing that the Doctor was the same one who came centuries ago, goes further and tells them that the flu virus mutated and weakened the Guardians enough for the Monoids to take over. The Monoids force the Doctor and Dodo to go as an advance scout to Rathusis, to see if the Rathusians are hostile. Meanwhile a Guardian discovers that the Monoids are planning to destroy the Ark, with the entire human race inside, once they have a chance to leave the ship with their own people. On Rathusis, the Doctor figures out that the Rathusians are incorporeal beings who welcomed human settlement to the point they actually built cities for them. The Monoid keeping the Doctor and Dodo at gun’s length is killed by the Rathusians, who are needless to say unimpressed by the Monoid’s attitude. Although the Rathusians are concerned, the Doctor convinces them to wait a day for a Guardian uprising against the Monoids before they take “defensive measures.”

Back on the Arc, Steven helps head a Guardian effort to find and defuse the bomb. Luckily, a civil war between the Monoids – those who want to stay on Rathusis despite the danger versus those who want to take the Ark and move on – gives the Guardians a chance to discover that the bomb was hidden in the Monoid statue. The Rathusians are able to remove the statue without causing any harm to the Ark itself. Even after all the trouble, the Rathusians still allow the human race and the Monoids to settle the planet, on condition that they make peace. The Doctor agrees, concluding that the Monoid revolt was driven by resentment at how they were treated like servants by the original Guardians. Later, as the TARDIS flies off, the Doctor disappears, even though Steven and Dodo can still hear his voice, and warns, “This is some form of attack!”

Our Future History

According to this serial, the Earth will be destroyed by the expansion of the sun into a red giant sometime around 10,002,000 AD. Current scientific theory instead posits that this will happen 5 billion years from now (I have no idea if the show’s estimation reflected the state of astronomical theory at the time or if it was a misunderstanding by the writers). The 2005 series episode, “The End of the World,” which likewise takes place at the time the Earth is to be consumed by an expanding sun, reconciles itself with contemporary research into stellar life-cycles by having the year stated to be circa 5 billion AD. The inconsistency between not only the years but the two serial’s similar but largely incompatible premises was actually addressed and explained by Paul Cornell, who basically said, “It was the Time War!”

The Guardians hint that there are other times when at least significant numbers of the human race had to evacuate the Earth. Interestingly enough, this can be taken as a “reference” to the plot of “The Ark in Space”, where humanity in the far future has been driven off Earth by massive solar flare activity, as well as the 2005 series episode “The Beast Below,” which is centered around a similar (and possibly the very same) event as “The Ark in Space.”

They also refer to something called the “Primal War”, during which a great deal of past scientific history was lost.

Continuity Notes

The idea that the Doctor and the others can transmit foreign diseases to other planets and times is brought up, but dismissed fairly quickly without explaining why it shouldn’t have been a concern in the past – or much of a concern in the future.

I’d also argue that this is the first serial that hints that the TARDIS isn’t teleporting at random at all, but is deliberately leading the Doctor to times and places in need of intervention, which has always been my pet theory (and finally spelled out in the 2005 series’ episode “The Doctor’s Wife”!).

Comments

Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me, but unlike seemingly every other Whovian familiar with the First Doctor era, I kind of like Dodo, especially the fact that she spends most of this serial wearing a medieval tunic absconded from the Doctor’s wardrobe. I have to admit I have a soft spot for ridiculously absent-minded characters, being a ridiculously absent-minded character myself, and I would argue in a court of law that the scenes of her reacting to the TARDIS and what it does with a perfect lack of comprehension are actually amusing. Still, even I have to admit that the problem with her is clear, that she’s basically a comic relief character shoved into a starring role. Also it’s a little too obvious that she’s an attempt to make the show appeal to the mod generation, which I can only guess would make her much more grating if I was even halfway familiar with the slang she constantly uses (incidentally, would this make her the Poochie of “Doctor Who”?). On that note, maybe this is me being much too fannish again, but I can’t be the only one who thinks it was out of character for the Doctor to constantly complain about and be so prudish about Dodo’s slang. This is the Doctor who freely admitted to being a Beatles fan, after all…

As for the serial itself, it has a good, fresh premise, both in the Doctor and the companions facing some very nasty consequences from unlimited space-time travel (even if the long-term implications are brushed aside in basically a three-sentence conversation) and in the TARDIS’ crew getting to see how events they helped trigger unfold. The problem is that it actually might have been a better, or at least more unique, serial if we had only the first plot and it had been stretched out to the length of the serial. The second half is basically a recycled version of the plot of “Galaxy 4”: the Doctor encounters tyrannical aliens and gains help from another set of aliens who are at first thought to be hostile but are actually endlessly benevolent (it’s really surprising to see the Doctor happily leave the last survivors of the human and Monoid races in the hands of powerful, bodiless beings who just give him their word that their interests are entirely selfless apart from just seeing bodied creatures running around again; would this have been considered a bit of a plot hole even then or have we become so jaded since 1966?). It all just feels so rote, and while the Doctor gives a speech in the end, pointing out that the Monoids were seeking revenge for the servile status humans had inflicted on them before, it’s too little and too late to inject some complexity and ambiguity into the story.

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"New" Who, Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Thoughts on the ‘New’ Who Series: Journey’s End

Let me start by reminding everyone that I am not out to bash Russell T. Davies. It’s taken as a truism, even among his fans, that the second parts of his two-part season closers tend to be let-downs, but I’ll admit from the start that “Journey’s End” is not that bad. It’s not that good either, but as far as Davies’ finales go it’s no “The Last of the Time Lords,” which infamously gave us an ending cribbed from Care Bears 2: A New Generation. And how can you have such a cheesy, bubbly ending with Doctor-Christ like that after you had this story about most of humanity getting wiped out and the survivors left to a post-apocalyptic environment so hellish you would wish you were living in a standard-issue Romero zombie apocalypse and where it’s revealed that the final fate of humanity is facing suffering and insanity in a void at the end of the universe with no life and no hope? The answer is you can’t, Russell T. Davies, you just can’t!

Where was I? Oh yeah, “Journey’s End”!

As I think I was writing before the pills kicked in, Russell’s epic closers were infamous even among his fans for never living up to the potential his hooks promised. What people don’t discuss so much is Davies’ love for the bullshit teaser. Example: the Doctor starts the episode regenerating, but instead his regeneration energy goes into the hand he lost in “The Christmas Invasion” because…uh, I don’t know, some Time Lord vitamin supplement the Doctor has been taking. And thus we get a bullshit teaser, showing a regeneration that most of the audience knew wasn’t going to happen yet. And does this mean that the Doctor used up one of his thirteen allotted regenerations on a silly, pointless little fake-out to the fans? Oh well, as long as the sooner-to-come “thirteenth regeneration” means we’ll get a story that will bring the Time Lords back, I’ll be happy. (Oh yeah, I’m one of those fans. What of it? And, by the way, anyone want to see my fan script for how to bring back The Rani?). Actually, what gets me isn’t so much that one bullshit teaser, because at least it was kind of a natural one given that the media had been reporting that David Tennant would be leaving, even if it did potentially create continuity problems for future writing teams. It’s really that this episode gets more than one, which really strains the camel’s back, with the Doctor-Donna, the fake “clues” that Donna is a bona fide Time Lord, and with Dalek Caan prophesying, “one of the Doctor’s companions will die!”, which doesn’t quite happen, at least not in the literal sense.

But I’m skipping ahead. Let me try to sum up where all the various subplots (I don’t think there is a “main” plot to speak) are going. Davros, who seems to be barely in control of the Daleks, has invented something called a “reality bomb” that he plans to use to destroy everything in all creation except the Daleks themselves. He and the Daleks are guided in their bizarre scheme by Dalek Caan, the sole survivor of the Cult of Skaro, who became an insane prophet after retrieving Davros from the time-locked Time War. Torchwood is saved from a Dalek attack by a “time lock” device made by a deceased colleague, trapping them in their home base and miraculously making their appearance in this storyline even more pointless than it already was. The TARDIS is transported to the Daleks’ space station, the Crucible, and the Doctor, fearing that these Daleks are advanced enough to even penetrate the TARDIS, surrenders with Captain Jack and Rose, but before she can leave the TARDIS the doors suddenly slam shut on Donna. Suspecting the Doctor is planning some type of ruse, the Daleks drop the TARDIS into their station’s plasma core. Sarah Jane teams up with Rose’s ex-boyfriend Mickey and mother Jackie, and convinces them to surrender to the Daleks in order to find the Doctor, but instead they witness first-hand the horrifying ambition of the Daleks’ plan. And Martha, under the orders of UNIT, is sent to stand by with other UNIT agents from across the world to potentially activate the Osterhagen Key, a device designed to trigger planetary suicide in the event of an alien invasion and occupation so brutal humanity itself would be condemned to a fate worse than death.

As you can hopefully tell, there’s a bit too much going on in this one episode. I can understand Russell T. Davies wanting a true capstone to his run (which doesn’t explain at all why he did it again with “The End of Time”, but…well, we’ll get there when we get there), but there really was no need to include characters from Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures for longer than brief cameos, especially since Sarah Jane and Captain Jack are already integrated into the story. There’s an even bigger problem with Martha’s role. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the Osterhagen Key was the strongest and freshest idea to come out of this storyline – it’s nice to see Russell T. Davies actually considering the implications of having the Earth invaded every two months, for one – and it really deserved to have an episode or two centered around it. Instead it’s just another subplot out of many that ultimately, besides giving Martha an excuse to run around and adding a couple of dramatic scenes, does nothing. Now you can say I’m being unfair, that it did more than including the Torchwood gang who almost literally get locked out of the plot, and that’s true to a point. It’s just that, in the end, the dramatic weight of Earth’s governments consenting to the most desperate option imaginable is handwaved away by both the Daleks and the Doctor, in a way. All we really get out of it is a tense scene between Martha and a minor character, a German woman, who we’ll never see again.

But the Osterhagen Key isn’t what you want me to talk about…no, it’s Donna. Well, dear readers, let me take a moment remind you of the clusterfuck…I mean, questionable creative choices Russell T. Davies made with her. Trapped in the TARDIS and sent to a fiery grave, the regenerative energies in the Doctor’s hand merge with Donna, causing a second, half-human Doctor to grow out of the hand and making Donna half-Time Lord (but we’re not supposed to know that yet). Human-Doctor pilots the TARDIS out of the engine core without the Daleks noticing while the Doctor’s various companions threaten to disrupt the Daleks’ plans through various kamikaze tactics. This prompts Davros to brag, “The man abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth Doctor, you take ordinary people and fashion them into weapons.” The Daleks easily take the wind of the companions’ sales by teleporting them into Davros’ lair with Davros, Rose, and the Doctor. Human-Doctor appears and tries to stop the Daleks, but fails. However, Donna, her Time Lord knowledge activated in the chaos, manages to use the Daleks’ own equipment against them and stop the reality bomb just as it’s on the verge of being detonated. Meanwhile the Doctor deduces that Dalek Caan, who was horrified by what he saw across time and space about the Daleks and their actions, had been manipulating time itself, allowing Donna to be in the position to ruin Davros’ plans. Afraid that the Daleks would still have the power to wreak havoc on the universe, Human-Doctor destroys the Crucible and kills all the Daleks in a stroke, horrifying the Doctor so much he practically banishes Human-Doctor to Rose’s parallel universe. Everyone flees, with the Doctor offering to save Davros, but he refuses to be saved, screaming that the Doctor is the true “destroyer of worlds.”

I mean, I can forgive Davros, because he’s a few mad scientists short of a supervillain team, but why does the Doctor look pained by Davros’ accusation? How the Doctor should have responded was with, “Um, whoever just tried to annihilate almost all reality, raise their hands!” What’s with the “reality bomb” anyway, besides being a bit too much like the Solaranite from Plan 9 from Outer Space? Again, I can get Davros thinking it’s a good idea, but you would think even the Daleks would balk at the thought of existing in an infinite void on a space station without any planets with resources around.

Well, this really gets at the weird and frankly confused ethics of this episode. I do understand what the viewer is supposed to get out of all this. We’re meant to see the Doctor fully finding himself after the hellish traumas of the Time War and turning his back on the occasional ruthlessness he had been exhibiting. Honestly, though, his treatment of Human-Doctor’s actions comes across as more than slightly dickish. In the early Ninth Doctor episode “The Dalek”, the Doctor, driven by vengeance, tortures a helpless, imprisoned Dalek and barely hesitates to sacrifice a companion to prevent the Dalek from even having a chance to escape. Here the Daleks, far from being at anyone’s mercy, have the technological capability to go anywhere in time and space, abduct entire planets and civilizations, and wipe out the multiverse. There’s about a galaxy’s worth of distance between the two scenarios. Really, the episode would have worked so much better without the whole “reality bomb” premise. Giving Davros and the Daleks the power to destroy everything only eliminates any chance that the viewers will actually see any type of moral dilemma for the Doctor here. Just having Davros single-handedly build a new and potentially even more dangerous Dalek Empire would have been enough and made for a more convincing ethical split between the Doctor and his half-human doppleganger, but I suppose such a premise just wouldn’t have been epic enough.

Now with all that aside, we come to what really made this episode controversial: the final fates of Donna and Rose. The Doctor leaves Rose, Jackie, and Human-Doctor in the parallel universe, and practically fixes Rose and Human-Doctor together (Rose, being Rose, still pouts about everything). The only way Rose’s ending could have been more double-plus good was if it spelled out that Rose and Human-Doctor would parent a new race of Time Lords (although a cut scene does have the Doctor giving Human-Doctor the means to “grow” a new TARDIS…). Donna, however, is dying from being unable to house the mind of a Time Lord, forcing the Doctor to telepathically erase all her memories of her time with the Doctor. He leaves Donna with her family, as shallow and self-loathing as she was before she met him. To be honest, when I first watched it I defended the ending to a couple of irate fans, because I thought that it was a genuinely tragic fate for one of the Doctor’s companions. Having watched it again, I’ve changed my opinion more than slightly. It’s still a good ending…but for Rose, not Donna.

See, Rose was confident and assertive even before she met the Doctor. True, she did learn and gain a lot in her travels, but her time with the Doctor was mostly defined by the fact that she bridged the impossible gulf between their two species by falling in love with him and making him at least consider the fact that he was in love with her too, something that hadn’t happened since Jo. This makes her losing those memories as much a tragedy for the Doctor as for her. For Donna, on the other hand, it wasn’t even really about the Doctor, but their travels. She learned empathy, confidence, and that the significance of her existence wasn’t defined by her job but by what she herself made of things. This ending just renders her entire character arc and her intense growth as a character (portrayed beautifully by Catherine Tate)  null and void. It’s unfair enough that Rose gets the Good+ ending and Donna has the Bad+ ending, but the fact that Donna was underused throughout the entire season and the huge discrepancy between what Rose and Donna get in the end makes it even harder to swallow. So, needless to say, I’ve changed my opinion quite a lot.

And yet…I really enjoyed this episode the first time I saw it. Now it hasn’t held up well to repeated viewings for me, but like I wrote I think it’s still one of Davies’ own better season closers. There are more than a few good ideas here and seeing Tennant’s Doctor go up against Davros is a rare treat, but Davies ends up juggling too many characters and too many subplots for the episode’s own good. Worse, Davies is showing signs of being too self-indulgent, but as we’ll see it’s only the beginning…

Oh, yeah, and just in case I haven’t made my opinion clear:  screw you, Russell T. Davies, Donna was the Tenth Doctor’s best companion.   

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"New" Who, Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Thoughts on the ‘New’ Who Series: The Stolen Earth

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!

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