Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Doctor Who: 2x01 -3x06

So, I’ve finished the second season of Doctor Who and am halfway through season three. Regarding season two, I think the season is stronger in some ways than the first year, there’s none of the embarrassing moments like the farting slitheen, but there are some clunkers that clunk worse than anything in the first season. And, while the transition between Eccleston and Tennant is smooth, I think something is lost with Eccleston’s absence from the show. But, along the way we get a lot of great episodes, and the final moments of season two are a perfect capper for Rose’s story.

The major difference between Eccleston and Tennant for me is that Eccleston’s Doctor felt a bit more conflicted about what he was doing, he had a more alien feeling that was gradually broken down over the run of the season, as he got closer to Rose. I don’t know that much of the backstage history, but I feel like there was a conscious decision to go with an edgier Doctor in the first series, to make it clear that this show was a Battlestar Galactica style reboot, a little darker, a little more intense than before. Tennant has an interesting mix of lighter comedy style and emotional distance. I suppose the point is the Doctor has come to terms with his past, and after realizing that Rose is an equal partner, not a burden, he can open up a bit.

Along with that, with the concept established, Rose moves to the background a bit. We no longer see most of the stories from her perspective, there’s not as much focus on the sheer wonder of everything. The moments that salvage even the weaker episodes are when we get an insight into how Rose perceives these different times and place she travels to, when she understands just how lucky she is to be a traveler with the Doctor. For her, this life is an escape from the boring everyday routine of working in a shop, for the Doctor, the travel is everyday life. What that means for him is one of the big questions underlying the series? Would he give it all up for a regular life?

The most emotionally powerful episode in the first chunk of the season is “School Reunion,” where we see what happens to the people the Doctor leaves behind. Sarah Jane struggles to go on living her life without the Doctor, and in her, we see Rose’s future. She will get old, the Doctor will not, and eventually he will leave her behind. I also really like the stuff with K-9 in this episode, he’s a goofy looking metal dog, but it’s still pretty sad when he dies. And, it was good to see Anthony Head getting some work.

But, most of the episodes in the past still didn’t quite work for me. “Idiot’s Lantern” was a bomb, the worst episode of the series to date. The werewolf episode wasn’t as bad, but still didn’t feel particularly original or exciting. There was an attempt to tie it into the series’ overall mythology with the origin of Torchwood, but one cool allusion does not make the episode worthwhile. The best part of that episode was definitely Rose trying to get Queen Victoria to say she was not amused. “The Girl in the Fireplace” was the best of the period episodes because it had that really interesting bouncing back and forth through time. I particularly liked the design of those clockwork robot foes.

My major issue with this season is the fact that Rose’s character arc is basically resolved at the end of “Parting of the Ways.” She chooses to stay with the Doctor and continue to go on adventures. So, there’s less emotional conflict, and the episodes live or die on their own merits, there’s less of a backing narrative arc to get us through the weaker episodes.

But, the end of the season is pretty spectacular, a fitting close for the show’s first two years. I really liked the supporting cast, so it was nice to see Jackie and Mickey get the spotlight. The battle with Daleks and Cybermen was pretty spectacular, the moment where they open the Dalek prison ship was amazing. However, I can’t help but wish that this was a three parter. I think they could have done more with the Daleks, it was cool to have them, but it felt like they were there just because people expect them to show up every year, it didn’t really add anything to the narrative.

However, regardless of any issues I’ve got with the rest of the season, the final ten minutes or so was brilliant, an incredibly sad piece of character pain that would make Joss Whedon proud. Rose has chosen the Doctor over her family, she wants to keep going on adventures, and her mother knows this. But, she’s pulled away and forced to spend the rest of her life not only cut off from the Doctor, but with her parents knowing that they were her second choice. Musically and visually, this is the show at its best. But, it’s the performances that really stick. Tennant and Piper are better than they’ve ever been, and the knowledge that he won’t even get to say he loves her, she won’t get to hear it stings. The Doctor has to face living the rest of his life, living an eternity, without ever seeing Rose again. Now, I’ve heard she appears in season four, so it won’t be forever forever, but still, it’s a great, tragic moment.

It’s a testament to what Tennant does that I was cool with entering season three without any of the people who were on the show at the beginning, Rose and the supporting cast are gone, it’s a new world. I do miss them, I think Jackie and Mickey were critical to grounding the show in real emotion. Without characters like that, you just take for granted the sci-fi reality the characters live in, because we’re watching a sci-fi show, we don’t flinch when weird stuff happens, but if you want to keep your show emotionally grounded, you need the characters to feel things on a real level. And, that’s what those characters made Rose do. One of the most emotional moments of the whole series remains the scene at the restaurant in “Parting of the Ways,” where Rose is crying, unable to face returning to ordinary life after what she’s been through.

Having watched a bunch of season three, I find the show missing something. Martha’s a good character, but I just don’t care about the characters in the way I did in season one. The conundrum is, if they develop Martha’s homelife, it feels like a retread of Rose, if they don’t, I’m not going to care about her as much. The episodes are a little more consistent than earlier, but there’s no real great ones, nothing like “Father’s Day.”

My two favorites of the season so far are “Smith and Jones,” which recaptured the wacky energy of season one, and made it easier to see the Doctor as alien again, and “Gridlocked.” The latter was a really fantastic piece of sci-fi, with a great concept and strong execution.

“Shakespeare Code” fell prey to the same jokey referencing a historical figure that annoyed me in the Charles Dickens or Queen Victoria episode, and just wasn’t that exciting. The Dalek two parter had its moments, but felt like a dilution of the original menace of the Daleks. The more times they meet the Doctor and don’t kill him, the less effective they are as villains. Plus, that story really hit some of the same beats over and over again, it felt a bit padded.

One of my central issues with both seasons two and three is that there’s a feeling of routine. Maybe it’s because I was totally new to Who with season one, but it felt really exciting to know that anything could happen next, they could go anywhere and anywhen. Now, things feel a bit routine, and I think they’re doing a less satisfactory job of linking the standalones together to keep a feeling of progress throughout the season. The Doctor/Martha relationship does evolve, but it’s stuck beneath a lot of plot of the week angst.

Ultimately, “Parting of the Ways” may have just been too good, and skewed my perception of the rest of the series. That episode was so good, full of so many things that I love, it made me overlook a lot of the flaws of the season, and it made it hard for everything after to follow up. Increasingly, the show feels like one of those bands that can make amazing singles, but can’t really put together a good album. But, the episodes that are good are good enough for me to stick around, and none of the bad ones are that bad. Except for “The Idiot’s Lantern,” that was just awful.


Anonymous said...

Well, you're through the weak half of season three - the rest is very good and I think the show hits a personal high with episodes you are yet to see.

Jacob said...

Yeah, the second half of season three has the strongest consistent run of episodes the show's managed yet, a big contrast from the rather paint-by-numbers feel of the first half (although "Gridlock" is one of my favorite single episodes of anything, it reminds me of a great old-fashioned science fiction short story).

The problem for me with Martha is that in contrast to Rose, who was desperate for an escape from a stultifying lower-middle-class existence, or Donna, who was clearly in the middle of an ongoing midlife crisis (which we'll see more of in season 4), she seems to have a pretty good lot - prospects, a wacky yet obviously loving family and so forth - and no compelling reason to be traveling with the Doctor. Her time in the TARDIS feels like a student on a semester abroad.

That said, she fares a lot better in Torchwood (although that show doesn't work for me in most other respects) and so hopefully when she returns this year they'll have more of a handle on her.

David Golding said...

Are you watching the Christmas specials? These are pretty important pieces of the bigger picture.

I found Season 2 to be very hit and miss: I liked episodes 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, and 11. I disliked episodes 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 12. 'New Earth' and 'Idiot's Lantern' were just dumb, but 'School Reunion' and the Cyberman stories had their share of stupidity and cliches. The latter also failed to deliver on their promise of updating the Cybermen. But what got to me most of all was Rose's sick fascination with her parallel father, which really went against what I feel is the spirit of the show. I was glad that the original Cyberman story at least had him reject her, but then the season ender drew both of them into atomic bliss. I also felt that Rose's more annoying traits came to the fore with the new, more tentative Doctor, and so the end, which only works if you don't want to see her gone, didn't work for me.

I really loved Season 3, the first of the new series that really worked for me on first viewing. 3.2 and 3.6 are lightweight, and 3.7 is a bit dumb, but the rest have a lot going for them. Of the ones you've seen, I particularly liked 'Gridlock' and the Dalek two parter (the first time the Daleks have sustained an entire story for me in the new series). The latter is, like, the eighteenth televised Dalek story or something, they've been around since 1964, so their villainy isn't about them killing the Doctor. It's just about them killing, and, as the Doctor says, always coming back. They've also always stood for fascism, so it was welcome to see them relocated to the American Empire for this story.

I think Martha mainly suffers from the writers loving Rose too much, and not having a clear idea about how the Doctor's companions work in the new series (beyond Rose's first season arc).

Patrick said...

In the season finale, I think it's more Jackie who's so happy to see parallel Pete. I don't think we're meant to feel that Rose is happy with her new set up, it's more that things that went bad for everyone, and now they're going to try the best they can to have some kind of home life.

But, I'll agree that Rose was a bit more annoying in season two. Watching her and the Doctor was like watching a couple who are always throwing out in jokes with each other, we're kind of separate from what they have.