Saturday, January 26, 2008

Doctor Who: 1x01 - 1x05

This is indisputably the Golden Age of television, the medium’s never been better, and I’ve been catching up on the great shows of the era over the past few years. I’ve knocked off most of them, but one recent one I’ve heard talked about a lot, but haven’t seen is the new Doctor Who. I was vaguely familiar with the premise of the show when I started, but I figured any show with this much fan acclaim is worth a look. Without much foreknowledge, I dove into the show, and after five episodes, I’m pretty impressed.

Right now, the show reminds me a lot early period Buffy. There’s some mild personal drama mixed in with a slightly goofy monster of the week plot. The monsters of the week are a bit more ambitious than some of those early Buffy characters, but that’s not saying much, some of those early Buffy episodes were really awful. Right now, I don’t see the show growing into as emotionally ambitious a show as Buffy was, but it’s still early and there’s a lot of potential. What is now is a fun, energetic show that’s consistently a joy to watch.

The first episode introduces the Doctor. As a new viewer, his introduction worked. There’s some teasing over the course of the first few episodes, until we finally find out that he’s a time traveling alien with an origin that hasn’t been entirely revealed. Maybe older viewers know exactly what’s up with him, but I’m still a bit in the dark, and that actually works well. The character at present exists mainly as the catalyst for events, the energy spike that expands our perception of the ordinary world.

In light of that, the series’ center is actually Rose. I really like the character, and the way she differs from the archetypal sci-fi hero. Joss always made a big deal about how he wanted Buffy to be an ordinary girl, who liked ordinary girlish things, and also happened to be a vampire slayer. The attempts to make Buffy into a cheerleader or shopaholic never quite worked with the character who actually showed up on screen. She already had the weight of being a slayer, and her history at her previous school by the time we met her, so she couldn’t ever be the happy go lucky girl that Rose is at the start of the series.

A lot of fiction, including Buffy, centers on chosen one heroes, people who have to carry the burden of doing the right thing. Think “With great power comes great responsibility.” Be it Peter Parker, Harry Potter or Buffy Summers, I have issues emotionally responding to these kind of heroes. As someone who has neither great power, nor great responsibility, the thought of being part of some larger cosmic adventure is exciting, not a burden. It’s harder to relate to a hero who just wants to live a normal life, because to me, normal life is not that exciting. It’s a case of the grass is always greener, but it’s refreshing to see Rose genuinely love getting to go on these adventures and experience the universe. As she tells her mom at the end of “World War Three,” if you see what’s out there, you won’t be able to come back and sit in your flat.

Rose has more of a call to adventure arc. She meets up with a mystic character, The Doctor, and is called away from ‘the farm’ to go out and have adventures. It’s the same as Star Wars, it’s a classic archetype, and it works well here. The core of the series, at least so far, is about Rose exploring the new world that’s open to her, a world without the limitations of space time.

All these thematic discussion might blow the show up a bit. The episodes themselves are really entertaining, but not particularly deep. After all, the show did a two parter about aliens who are constantly farting. That kind of humor didn’t really work, but some of the goofiness is successful, keeping things fun and making the show’s sometimes limited production values work.

What gives me hope about the show’s future is the moments of real emotion sprinkled throughout. I love in “The End of the World” when Rose watches the Earth being destroyed, and reflects on just how far she’s come. The scenes with her and her mother work really well too. Jackie starts out as a comic character, but in the alien two parter, we understand what Rose’s adventures do to her. The scene at the end when Rose and the Doctor leave is particularly effective. I like how the Doctor doesn’t understand what humans need, he wants to go off on his adventure, not wait an hour and have the Shepherd’s Pie to make Jackie happy. He makes the choice that much more binding, Rose has to leave now, or not at all.

My favorite episode so far was “The End of the World,” which featured a lot of wonder and high concept wackiness throughout. That was our first trip off world, and it did a great job of putting the viewer in a totally different mindset, such that when we finally return to Earth at the end, the present day feels totally alien. The weakest was the Charles Dickens episode. That felt clichéd, notably the fact that they ran into a famous person, which seems to happen to every time traveler to the past. It didn’t do much to add to the characters or world.

On the whole, I’m really liking the show. It’s a bit goofy, but it’s fun in a Ghostbusters way. I’m curious to see how it grows, but I’m enjoying the journey, and am glad to have another series to look at.


crossoverman said...

Oh, I'm so glad you've breezed through the first five episodes so easily. That's easily the weakest stretch of the series - though there are other not-very-good episodes to come, there's no stretch quite like this one, which I found a bit hard to get through.

Yes, farting aliens are not funny or clever or interesting. The Dickens episode actually works for me and is important to the ongoing mythology of Who and its spin-off, Torchwood. Just like Buffy or B5 had bad episodes that still had important information hidden in there.

There's also a first season arc forming, although you may not have noticed it yet. That's cool. I'm glad you've enjoyed it so far, because things get much better. Beginning with episode 1x06 - which is a great story that fills in more of the Doctor's history.

Also, with you knowing little or any of Old Who history, it'll be great to read your reviews.

David Golding said...

I'm a massive fan of the show! It's so weird to me that there are (mainly American) viewers who haven't seen the original run of the show! But Australia probably has the greatest "textual awareness" of the show, it having been repeated here on our national broadcaster so many times... Anyway...

After three seasons 'The End of the World' is still one of my favourite stories---in fact, it's one of my favourite Doctor Who stories, full stop. Davies starts to set up his view of time in this one, which is somewhat similar to the ones in The Invisibles or Babylon 5, but different. Everything has already happened, yes, but it is also still happening. So you can go to the end of time, but you can't really step outside it. (The story also has the best use of pop music in the show since, ooh, 1965.)

On subsequent viewings, I've come to like 'The Unquiet Dead' more. It continues with the time stuff---Dickens is already dead, yet still very much alive. In fact, this is a bit of a rescue mission, as Morrison does with Sade. Celebrity historical figures are a bit naff, but this is undercut a bit---Dickens doesn't get to draw any realised inspiration from the adventure, and we manage to keep more distance from Twist and Scrooge than you'd expect from "Doctor Who meets Dickens". On the other hand, there is still the bad taste in my mouth from the dodgy boat people subtext...

Luckily the politics improved greatly in the two parter, with Doctor Who starting its revision of the new Battlestar Galactica. And I liked the post-South Park farting Slitheen!

Similar to Farscape, I think fans tend to overstate the "arc" and the "mythology" of the show---focussing too much on trivia and ignoring the rich thematic depth of the new series.

Patrick said...

I think the older episodes aired on PBS over here, the public broadcasting station, but it's a bit before my time, so I'm not familiar. I watched the episodes with my dad and he was saying he'd seen some of the old ones, but didn't really remember them.

But, it's good to hear these early episodes aren't the best. I did see 'Dalek' and really enjoyed. There's a bit of goofiness still, but some real darkness and depth. They manage to make that tin can pretty menacing, and that's an accomplishment.