Sunday, February 17, 2008

Doctor Who: 'Parting of the Ways' (1x13)

After “Father’s Day,” I was really feeling Doctor Who, the show had hit the right mixture of sci-fi concepts and emotion. But, the series finale kicks everything up to an amazing level, the episode is a chaotic, frenetic rush of ideas and emotions. There’s some works that just hit me so strongly, like they were made just for me, and at the moment Rose walked out of the TARDIS with the power of the timestream in her, I was like, this was made for me.

The episode is fantastic on so many levels, one of the most impressive is the way it fuses together so many of the ideas we’d seen over the course of the series. In these last three episodes, we see pieces of everything coming back, and that gives a feeling of unity to the series. Rather than just being a bunch of standalone episodes, the Satellite Five episode did matter, the Slitheen did matter, it’s all laying the groundwork for what we reach here.

The previous episode, “Bad Wolf,” is actually one of the weaker ones in the series. The reality show parody isn’t that fresh, and seems particularly derivative coming shortly after I watched the Extras series finale. However, it’s really all about getting us to that moment where Rose is on the Dalek ship, and we find out that the entire universe is in jeopardy from this new Dalek threat. I love the stakes of things here, the entire universe in imminent danger,

I love the craziness of the Daleks as villains. In the first Dalek episode, I knew that this guy was important to the series’ mythology, but I didn’t totally feel the menace of him. There was a slight goofiness to the guy, I loved the voice effect, and the end was emotional, but I wasn’t scared of them. However, this finale does a good job of making them menacing. The Emperor Dalek is great, with his delusions of godhood. Visually, I’m totally on board for them now, they’re menacing, relentless.

One of the things I love most in fiction is to really back the characters against a wall, go Empire Strikes Back on them. Here, we reach that point about midway through the episode. The Doctor is confronted with the impossible choice of either eliminating humanity or letting them fall to the Daleks. The various human characters are all dying, Jack is backed up against a wall, literally, and killed. Things are looking dire.

But, it’s not just the war that’s going poorly, down on Earth, Rose has plunged into deep despair. I really like the fact that we did return to Mickey and Jackie Tyler for this last episode. To me, they are integral parts of the series, giving complexity to Rose’s choices. She wants to run away with the Doctor, but doing so really hurts those she’s left behind. There’s a reason Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen get killed in Star Wars, it makes things more complex when the hero leaves something behind.

The restaurant scene is one of the most effective in the episode because it shows how much Rose has changed, and also how much her perspective hurts those she’s left behind. She tells Mickey that she can’t live a boring routine, which really wounds him, that she’s too good for the rest of them now. The thing is, once you see a larger world, it is hard to go back to once was. There’s something missing you weren’t even aware of before. Rose’s total despair hit me really hard, and I think that’s because the show has so much to say about what we all go through in the real world. Good sci-fi makes us look at our own lives from a different perspective, and for Rose, this episode is all about the desire we all have for something more in our lives. Most of us aren’t going to die fighting for something we believe, we’re more likely to miss out on the chance to fight for it at all.

Pretty much any scene in the episode is fantastic, but one of my particular favorites is Rose and Jackie’s discussion about Rose’s father. At this point, they’ve pushed the characters to a point where the emotion is totally on the surface. I’m right there with them, so it doesn’t feel melodramatic at all, it’s very real. Watching the show, I was wondering, why is it that this hits me so much emotionally? This episode got to me as much as the last couple of season four episodes of The Wire, or the heights of Buffy. A lot of it actually has to do with the sci-fi content. In Babylon 5, the bombing of Narn really got to me, I think it’s because sci-fi is so huge, it turns one person’s conflict into an entire worlds. It represents the emotions in a way that better captures their enormity than anything in the real world.

Jackie finally helping out Rose and bringing her the truck is another great moment. We’ve watched Jackie evolve a lot over the course of the series, she understands what this means to Rose, and even though it hurts her to do it, she’s willing to send her off back to save the Doctor. It’s hard for Mickey, but he goes along with it too. He’s so sad, he loves Rose so much, but he just can’t compete with the Doctor. She appreciates him, but also feels bad for him in a lot of ways. There’s a slight arrogance to her attitude, but she’s earned it through her adventures. She’s not an ordinary person any more, she’s become more like the Doctor than she can know.

This all builds up to the absolutely fucking amazing moment of Rose’s return to the future. She walked out of the Tardis, light buzzing around her, possessed by the time vortex. I don’t know that Chris Claremont invented it, but with the Phoenix Saga, he created an archetypal character who’s recurred throughout science fiction ever since. Willow in Buffy, Lyta in Babylon 5, and now Rose here, they’re all powerful women in touch with some cosmic light essence, empowered and sharing their consciousness with something beyond humanity. I love the idea, the communion with something beyond humanity.

Here, Rose gets in touch with the essence of space-time and is able to rewrite reality to fulfill a time loop and ensure that she reaches this point. I just love this stuff, it’s similar to what appeared in my own film Universal Traveler, and I think the fact that it’s so close to the kind of stories I like to tell is part of what makes me love it so much. These are the concepts that have a hold on my imagination, and seeing them dramatized so wonderfully here is awe inspiring. I love the visual of Rose with the energy flowing through her, and the moment where she scatters the atoms of the Dalek across the universe. I love that there’s a show dealing with these kinds of concepts.

It’s amazing how they manage to anchor the show in very real emotion, even as things go crazier and crazier. A scene like Lynda watching the Daleks progress, then getting blown away when they float up and shoot out the spaceship’s window is something that’s full of genre conceits, but is at its core terrifying. The production values on this episode are astounding, if this can be done on TV, what’s left for blockbuster movies to do? The past five years have seen a series of sci-fi shows that are stronger than virtually everything in sci-fi film history. Other than Blade Runner, Star Wars and 2001, I can’t think of any sci-fi movies that top what this show and Battlestar Galactica have been doing.

One of the things I like that this show does is ditch the heavy seriousness of Battlestar. That has its place, it works for the story they’re telling, but it’s refreshing to find something that is about the joy of space travel and exploring the universe. Obviously things go wrong sometimes, but at their core, both the Doctor and Rose are all about discovering new things and experiencing what life has to offer. There’s virtually no cynicism in the show, and that makes it easier to engage with the characters. You are right there with them, no artificial distancing devices in the narrative.

So, Rose channels the TARDIS and saves the universe, then the Doctor gets to save her. A kiss transferring cosmic energy is another motif that popped up in Universal Traveler, I swear I didn’t see this episode before making it. This leads us to the end of the Ninth Doctor. I had heard this was coming, but it was still a great moment. I love the visual of his head seemingly being blown off and reshaped in the fire. It’s hard to lose Eccleston at this point, I think his energy was a lot of what drove the show and made it great.

But, it’s really about Rose. She’s the central character, the audience surrogate and now the one with access to cosmic power. I do hope that returns, I know the Doctor took it out of her, but if she was the one who made Bad Wolf, surely it’s all part of some larger plan. I’m not really sure how the transformation process works, but it would be interesting to flip the dynamic and present Rose as the more confident one, showing the Doctor the universe. Either way, I’m guessing this will make them more like equals than they were before.

So, that episode really nailed it for me. Maybe it’s just the high coming off an episode that was so fucking good, but right now, I’m feeling like that’s one of the all time best TV episodes. It did so much I loved, emotionally and intellectually. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

But, let me take a quick backtrack to some earlier stuff. “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” seems to be a huge fan favorite, and knowing that going in may have affected my opinion a bit. I thought it was really strong, certainly the Rose dangling off blimp and subsequent Captain Jack scene was fantastic, but it didn’t quite hit me in the same way as “Father’s Day” or “Parting of the Ways.” What it did do was make me think about what it must have been like to have lived through the war. As an American, I think of it as a foreign war, where soldiers went over there and died, and people died in the Holocaust, but you don’t really think about how much it affected every single person in Europe at the time. Looking at that kind of bombing makes it clear just how lucky we are.

“Boomtown” is a pretty strong episode, most notable for the way it segues from really happy times at the beginning to a total dissolution by the end. It has some great stuff with Mickey, who’s in a darker and darker place as the series goes on. The switch of perspective on the Slitheen is nice too, particularly the idea that a person can have some redeemable characteristics, but still be evil. We’re made to think that her sparing the pregnant reporter could redeem her, but it takes a lot more than not killing someone to redeem you.

As I mentioned before, the reality show parodies on “Bad Wolf” felt a bit derivative, but that episode was all about getting the Daleks anyway. And the payoff was absolutely fantastic.

I was totally impressed by this first season. The end is spectacular, and does a great job of uniting all the plot threads from the entire series. Eccleston will be missed, but I’m eager to see what year two brings us. I just love the idea of a show where literally anything could happen, but within those huge possibilities, the show manages to keep a unified feeling from week to week.


Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, Parting of the Ways is excellent television. I'm still not sold on the Daleks, but they are used well enough here. The resolution of the Bad Wolf arc was good - it's not overpowering, but at least it ties things together. And yeah, the Satellite Five episode being important was a good pay off for that episode.

The ending is incredible, even if you know it's coming. I can't wait for your impression of David Tennant and your reaction to The Christmas Invasion.

Season Two has its own surprises.

Patrick said...

I'd agree the actual narrative resolution of the Bad Wolf stuff felt kind of stuffed in there, but the whole moment with Rose and the timestream was so amazing, I don't really care about its purpose in the overall narrative. If the in the moment experience of the episode is so strong, it's purpose in the overall narrative is less significant.

Season two is on order and on the way now, hopefully I'll be able to check it out in the next couple of days.

Jacob said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this! I've been a big Doctor Who fan since grade school in the 80s, when our PBS station showed it at midnight Friday nights; my dad and I used to go to the drugstore for popcorn and Dr. Pepper beforehand, then come home to sit on the bare floor and watch it on our little 9-inch TV. The old show had really terrible production values, sometimes barely better than a high school play (though this being the BBC, they did okay when going back to costume-drama times), but they (usually) made up for it with clever, subversive scripts.

Anyway, I don't want to go on about the old one too much - in good conscience I can't really recommend most of them to someone without nostalgia blinkers, as they're all shot on horrible glare-ridden video and are glacially paced - but the important thing is that the spirit lives on in the new show, and with a larger budget, to boot.

The interesting thing about what the new series has done is to recreate, in microcosm, the progress of the original show: in the early years, the young companions were the heroes/audience surrogates, and the Doctor was the aloof, sometimes even a bit sinister figure whose main function was to passively get them from place to place and occasionally build a raygun for the dashing young men to use. But as time wore on he became more and more active until he was the point-of-view and the action hero, and the companions were his foils or his straight-men.

And that's the process that I think you'll see going on in year 2 and afterwards; Rose will never be merely a damsel in distress, but now that the (mainstream, all-ages) audience is accustomed to an eccentric alien as a main character, the writers become more comfortable occasionally relegating her to the background and delving more into his take on things, his backstory, and more of the long-established lore.

I'm also happy to say that with each year of the show the overall quality noticeably improves, although it's still a much more episodic, almost anthology-like program than most modern TV, which means that great episodes can (and will) be abruptly followed by terrible ones (although nothing as noxious as the farting aliens 2-parter).

Patrick said...

Are any of the older episodes particularly worthwhile? I'd like to get an idea of what they're like, even though I'm sure there's some pacing and production value changes to get used to. What's the best of classic Who?

David Golding said...

I'll pick from stories that I've actually re-watched in the last five years and that I still think are very good: rich with theme and atmosphere.

I think Ghost Light is a good place to start for a modern viewer. It's from 1989, the show's 26th (and final original) season, so it's not from an outrageously different era. It's got a period setting, so the production quality is mostly high. The seventh Doctor and his companion Ace are templates for the current Doctors and Rose. And because its script was greatly condensed to fit three (25 minute) episodes, after almost twenty years it still has a shorter average scene length than most shows.

Caves of Androzani (1984, four episodes) is directed by Graeme Harper (who becomes a regular director in the new Season 2 and 3) and features the fifth Doctor (who is beloved by the current production team). The story is generally well regarded in fandom, and has a nice doom-laden atmosphere. It'll also give a gentle introduction to the gap between what the show wanted to portray (in this case, fairly gritty SF) and what it could manage (poor lighting, no dirt, and a dodgy man-in-a-suit monster).

Warriors' Gate (1981, four episodes) is a surreal meditation on time and probability, with some very memorable imagery. It features the fourth Doctor, who was the most popular.

You might also want to check out the very first episode, 'An Unearthly Child' (23 November 1963), which is black and white, but holds up well as a weird introduction to the Doctor and his ship.

Jacob said...

David's recommendations are all solid; to them I'd add -

Pyramids of Mars (1975) - in many ways I consider this the quintessential Dr. Who story: it has the Doctor's most popular incarnation (the Fourth), one of the most beloved companions (Sarah Jane), a period setting (pre-WWI England), and was written by the original series' best writer, Robert Holmes. One of the hallmarks of this era was the use of a moody, gothic atmosphere to mask the shortfalls in production, which I think was much more successful than the show's 1980s efforts at creating Star Wars-type spectacle.

Genesis of the Daleks - generally regarded as the single most important story of the original run, it features the Fourth Doctor going up against Davros, the mad scientist who invented the Daleks, against the backdrop of a planet locked in an endless nuclear war. This episode really pushed the boundaries of what could be gotten away with in "children's" TV, with a relentlessly grim atmosphere and really blatant references to the SS, concentration camps, and ethnic cleansing.

Patrick said...

Cool, I'm going to see what I can hunt down from the library, I saw bunch of old Doctor Who over there, so I should be able to find at least one of these episodes.