...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Day 2387: DOCTOR WHO: The Complete 2007 Series: You Are Not Alone


Daddy and Daddy had their annual Doctor Who marathon party today (following their annual marathon tidy up yesterday) and lots of my friends came.

We had yummy food, including fishy-shaped "Shakespeare Cod", New New York Bagels with crab paste, and Future-kinder Surprise Eggs. Not to mention three kinds of cake!

I spent most of the day on the back of my sofa, reading Mr Simon's notes for his Doctor Who book over his shoulder – though I have promised him that I will not tell my daddies ANYTHING except the joke about the pirates' names!

So, for the last time for THIS season, here are Daddy Richard's thoughts:
The buzzword for Russell T Davies' third season, and with a strong consensus, was "consistent": the quality of scripts, design, performances and direction was high and was maintained throughout the series' run, and this was seen as a marked improvement on the roller-coaster second year. If anything was surprising it was just how very, very long ago the early episodes seemed to be: several people remarking how "The Shakespeare Code" seemed not just from an earlier year, but an earlier decade. And the series built over its run, growing in depth and darkness and meaning, hitting a high gear six episodes from the end. Only "The Lazarus Experiment" was in any way unloved, generally seen as a bit of B-movie filler, but even that was redeemed by the use of key development points for the series arc.

The Saxon strand was also enjoyed greatly over last year's Torchwood arc, coming in much more naturally. Where some of the Torchwood references, particularly "The Impossible Planet" and "Fear Her", were shoehorned in just to have them there, it was felt that here Mr Saxon was mentioned more sparingly and only when it was appropriate. And he was mostly used not for just a name-check, but as part of the plot: when he was mentioned, someone tended to be taking some sort of action, revealing more about his position and power, giving a sense of the Doctor’s enemy closing in that was entirely missing from Torchwood. This added a sense of gathering menace, which was ultimately paid off when Mr Saxon turned out to be just as powerful and dangerous as the hints had suggested.

The way that the year's story arc also wove in "Gridlock" and Paul Cornell's sublime two-part "Human Nature" – both referenced in "Utopia" – was elegant and inspired. By holding back actually showing us the opened watch restoring a Time Lord from "The Family of Blood" until "Utopia" served both stories well, adding to the suspense of the former and allowing Sir Derek Jacobi brilliantly to show us the transformation with no more than shadow on his eyes and a rearrangement of facial muscles. And it's a process essentially like "possessing" an innocent human's body – something that is right for us to see the Master doing, and would be uncomfortable to see coming from the Doctor.

But also, much more than earlier years, there was a sense of repeated ideas, themes built up over the course of the season, which paid off in the climax. "Human Nature" is not just the centrepiece of the third year; it is also the defining motif of many of the surrounding episodes. Unlike the first season, which seemed to look more at humans' place in history, this is a more biological idea. DNA, and the idea of altering human DNA appears in "Evolution of the Daleks", "The Lazarus Experiment" and "Human Nature" itself. More subtly, there is the idea of using humans as a place to hide. Again, "Human Nature" but also Florence the Plasmavore in "Smith and Jones" and the Racnoss hiding in the centre of the Earth in "The Runaway Bride". Even the Macra are hiding away inside the apple of the humans' New Earth.

Add to this the idea of ancient fallen empires, and their survivors looking to rebuild, starting with the Earth. The Racnoss again – awakened by Torchwood, a throwaway line revealed – then also the Carrionites in "The Shakespeare Code", the Daleks again and we can maybe even count the Family of Blood, whose potential empire of terror is alluded to, Matron Redfern tells us, in the closing pages of John Smith's "Journal of Impossible Things".

And, as is often the case in any Russell T Davies story, religion – or at least its iconic images – is used several times. Particularly this year the idea is of Heaven and Hell and contrasting worlds above and below, whether it's the sterile dead "heaven" of the New New York Senate contrasted with the fecund if fetid lives of the motorway folk in their Macra-infested "hell" in "Gridlock", or the more blatant contrasts between the Daleks' Empire State penthouse and the people who have fallen into Hooverville.

Even "42", trivial and throwaway as it may seem, has a little time to dwell on humans' capacity for greed and thoughtlessness and our redeeming qualities of comradeship and sacrifice.

All of these ideas are present to a degree in "Last of the Time Lords". All of the memes of this season are pointing at the climactic three-parter, telling us that the Master is able to shape events around him. I've often suspected that, as a Time Lord, the Doctor has the power to… nudge the way events fall out, essentially generating happy coincidences when he needs them. Logically then the Master would have the same power and thus would be, almost uniquely, a match for the Doctor. And that does seem to be the way things work out here. The Master is, of course, the ultimate Doctor Who Mephisto – driven mad by the sound of drums, banished from Gallifrey, wherever he goes is it not hell, nor he out of it? Like the devil, he gathers lost souls – his Toclafane here are rescued from the most final Abyss. He aspires to become god; while the Doctor, though the power of human belief and a satellite network, becomes an Archangel, in order to redeem him.

And this year, everyone loved the Doctor. Almost every episode has seen David Tennant turning in a performance that is not just dazzling to watch but markedly improved over last year's. It seems clear that in the second season he was being asked to differentiate himself from Christopher Eccleston's iconic performance as the troubled ninth Doctor who was suffering from survivor guilt and a death wish. This year, with the role most securely his own, he's been able to go to that darker territory himself and tone down the more hysterical and sentimental aspects that dogged him, especially in the Doctor's relationship with Billie Piper's Rose.

Watched in sequence, it's interesting to see the way the Doctor's relationship with Martha – her "just one trip" – starts so promisingly, as her sharpness of mind and wits first attracts his attention in "Smith and Jones" and then draws him towards her in "The Shakespeare Code" and "Gridlock". And then the Daleks turn up and shatter it. He seems to decide, rightly or wrongly, that he's been kidding himself and he is at his most self-destructive again in these episodes, actually inviting death at his lowest point, and even at the end choosing to return Martha home because his hearts are broken again. It's interesting, too, that he almost seems more desperate to forge a relationship with Dalek Sec, or even Dalek Caan, than with Martha – like the Doctor, Sec is alone in the Universe; like the Doctor, Caan is the last of his kind. As participants in the Time War they are each kind-of the Doctor's equals, if opposites. And he loses them both, to his obvious despair. The prefiguring of "Last of the Time Lords" could hardly be more obvious.

And of course the series was also Martha's story. In the first year, Rose had a brilliantly strong character arc, taking her from bored teenager to goddess. The second year then seemed to struggle with what to do with her. Billie Piper leaving seems to have done the writers a real unexpected favour by letting them restart with a new companion and draw her story over the thirteen weeks, starting with her crush on the Doctor, turning to full-on unrequited love and then self-sacrificing reliable best friend in need, before finally pulling herself out of Rose's shadow by saving the world from the Master and realising that she can walk away from the Doctor. With a story that, like Rose's in the first year, is now complete it feels right, if really sad, for her to leave at the end. Freema Agyeman has been brilliant throughout the year, funny and gorgeous and just perfect for the person who holds the Doctor's hand while he puts himself back together. Goodness knows how Catherine Tate is going to follow that!

(Actually, my only regret about Donna returning next year was that I liked that she had said "no", I liked that she chose not to be a companion and that special one-off-ness that it gave her. Still, I'm looking forwards to a change of pace – my hope is that the Doctor accidentally kidnaps her in the first episode and then spends most of the year in a Tegan-like attempt to get her back home. If nothing else, it would keep them away from Wales masquerading as contemporary England for a while!)

It's something I'd said myself, but was also picked up on by our friend Nick: Russell has been bringing back the great icons of the original series, the things that everyone remembers, and bringing them back in order. So, the first Doctor faced off against the Daleks, and the first season sees the return of the Daleks. The second Doctor fought against the Cybermen (and the Daleks) and the second season saw the return of the Cybermen (and the Daleks, again). The third Doctor faced off against his new arch-rival, the Master, and so the third season sees the return of the Master.

What would that leave as the logical progression for the fourth season? The fourth Doctor was, strangely for being the one with the longest reign, far more the one for one-off enemies and monsters-of-the-week. People have talked about Silurians, or Sontarans or Ice Warriors (and let's be fair, the Martians have had a couple of Christmas references so far – in fact, an iceberg might suit them this Christmas just as much as the Sea Devils) or even Zygons, but these are really second-rung monsters, the fan favourites but without the same resonance with the public that Daleks and Cybermen achieved. Nick wants vampires, which are differently iconic, but their "War against the Time Lords" back-story has largely been borrowed to add to the Daleks (despite a mention in "The Infinite Quest")…

Davros, is probably the last big "name" left, and – alongside the Master – the fourth Doctor's only recurring villain. The other possibility, in terms of cosmic scale, would have to be the Guardians, but does a Manichean double-act really fit with Russell T Davies' new Who?

In fact, the biggest icon of the fourth Doctor's reign is… the fourth Doctor himself.

Even today, Tom Baker comes second only to the incumbent in the polls of "best Doctor", which is a huge testament to his charismatic impact on the series. The one thing that Russell hasn't done yet is a multi-Doctor story and, although McGann is probably the most obvious and much wanted choice, a Dark Dimension-esque haunting of the tenth Doctor by his fourth self couldn't fail to be "event television".

Of course, it would be nice to see the new series actually do something really new.

In spite of the quality, there's an underlying feeling that this year the series was treading water – doing the second series again, but this time getting it right. A visit to the year five-billion; a celebrity historical; a two part art-deco revival for an old foe; a grungy working-class future; and an off-beat Doctor-lite episode; it's all running the risk of becoming a bit familiar. Only the extraordinary three-parter at the end, "Last of the Time Lords", seeks to do anything new, pitching the Doctor against a proper villain who can go toe-to-toe with him, even beat him.

The echoes don't just end there.

"Evolution of the Daleks" is strongly reminiscent of "The Evil of the Daleks"; "The Lazarus Experiment" is, obviously, "The Quatermass Experiment"; "42" draws heavily on "Planet of Evil"; and "Last of the Time Lords" has more than a passing resemblance to the "Keeper of Traken" / "Logopolis" / "Castrovalva" trilogy. Goodness, even "Smith and Jones" is just "Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans" with the serial numbers filed off. This, surely, is the reason that there are Macra in "Gridlock" – this season, far more than its predecessors, is nostalgic.

Here the series runs the risk of following "The X Files" into disappearing up its own mythology.

Nick it was again who suggested that whenever there is a big clearing out of the old Who legacy, it soon comes around to being obsessed about in a fannish way. It happened in the Eighties, first when John Nathan-Turner took over and revolutionised the series, and then again when the Cartmel Masterplan kicked in to try and "bring the mystery back". The eighth Doctor novels infamously hit the reboot button (more than once, says Alex), the biggest being when they too blew up Gallifrey, and then spent years obsessing about what this actually meant for the continuum. This year, Gallifrey has ceased to be the briefly mentioned back-story and moved strongly into the foreground, with fan-pleasing moments in "The Runaway Bride", "Gridlock" and of course "Last of the Time Lords" (particularly part two, "The Sound of Drums").

That is a strong part of the season's theme, the Doctor's lost past returning to him and being lost again, but it's also a worrying sign that the series might, might, be starting to trade too much on its own history again.

One thing that is interesting is the sense of scale that the new series has, pushing back the horizon of the future to ever greater depths.

In the 1960s, "the future" meant an adventure in the twenty-first century, usually being menaced by Cybermen. Zoƫ is born in the twenty-first century; Salamander is the "enemy of the world" then.

When we get to the 1970s, "the future" has expanded to include mostly the third millennium, for the Pertwee era "Earth Empire" stories ("Colony in Space", "Frontier in Space" and "The Mutants in Space"), and probably the fourth for the Peladon stories. Under Tom Baker, particularly once Graham Williams has taken the helm, the series almost ceases to be about time travel altogether. The Doctor barely visits Earth's past at all (aside from a couple of trips in "City of Death") between "Horror of Fang Rock" and, well, "The Visitation" in his next incarnation. Alex often points out that he instead visits a variety of pseudo-histories on various Ruritanian and fairy-tale planets ranging from Ribos to Tara to Traken.

Of the 31 stories (counting "The Infinite Quest" but not the books) since the series returned, they've visited the future 12 times (not counting the 12 stories in Rose's or Martha's "present day" displaced a year in the future ever since "Aliens of London"). Two of those ("Dalek" and "Fear Her") are so close that they may as well be the present day too. Only "The Girl in the Fireplace" set in the fiftieth century and "The Infinite Quest" set in the fortieth could be said to fall into the span of future-history where the classic series spent most of its time.

Instead, the new series has looked to the four-hundredth, two-thousandth or fifty-millionth centuries, each of which get at least two visits. (Yes, they do – "The Satan Pit" and "42" are both set in the same time zone.) Now, we have pushed that even further, impossibly further, to the end of the Universe itself, and an enormous one-hundred trillion years in the future.

Not bad going for a Universe that in 1980 had "long since passed the point of collapse"; when those Logopolitans fixed it, they sure made it to stay fixed.

The downside to this timespan is that, whether it is the year two-hundred thousand, five billion or one-hundred trillion, the future all looks rather the same. I'm not so fussed about the appearance of "Big Brother" or "The Old Rugged Cross" in the future – that's just a kind of translation convention, those recognisable things standing for the actual future versions. What is more disappointing is that "The End of the World" set out to astound us, indeed it succeeded, but that ambition seems to have been slightly lost somewhere. When "The Long Game" brought us a future full of Kronk burgers and TV news then it was the flip side of the high society we'd seen in "The End of the World", but it's been all Kronk burgers ever since.

Couldn't we have something epic or at least just vast again?

And laudable as it is to keep reminding us that red people and white people and blue people and cat people are all just people, couldn't we have a story about why they are special, rather than one about why they're all just like the rest of us?

Having said all that, this series continues to do an astonishing amount of things right. It ranges in style from the allegorical to the didactic to the farcical (in a good way) seemingly able to slip from genre to genre without putting a foot wrong. Its use of colour and pace (vivid and fast) puts it leagues ahead of any other programme on British television, while its stories are more varied and engaging than a good dozen other series – and you can see them on ITV. Soap operas aside, it's virtually the strongest card in the BBC's hand (okay, inexplicably that geriatric police cardigan drama "New Tricks" often gets even better ratings), attracting critical praise and a tabloid cult following. And it draws in big name guest actors, not "stunt casting" but stars who are genuinely worth the star billing.

Russell T Davies and David Tennant are both committed to at least one more year. If it's true that Russell is going to go after year four, I hope that David will stay on another year to smooth the transition. But Doctor Who thrives on change, as Chris to David and Billie to Freema have shown. By trading on icons and archetypes, Russell has plugged the series into the nation's collective psyche in a slot next to Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur, giving it an appeal to children and grown-ups and never-grown-ups and parents and grand-parents and fluffy baby elephants all.

There are more than eight million Doctor Who fans out there; you… we are not alone.

Daddy's Doctor Who reviews will return...

Meanwhile, good luck to everyone at the by-election today!

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