Monday, April 21, 2008

Doctor Who: 3x07 - 3x13

Before I delve into Battlestar, I’ve got to write up the end run of Doctor Who season three. I just finished the epic, brilliant season finale, an episode that hit the same core emotional place that season one’s “Parting of the Ways” did. This is the kind of psychedelic pop storytelling that Grant Morrison talks about, turning our everyday problems into galaxy spanning conflicts, and presenting us with another incarnation of the godlike problem solver, the Doctor.

The whole backhalf of the season was really strong, the best sustained run of episodes the show’s produced so far. I’ll delve into the earlier episodes a bit later, but first I’ll tackle the Master arc. The show picks up a bunch of energy starting in ‘Utopia,’ with the return of Captain Jack. I didn’t realize it until now, but he’s a big part of what made me love that closing run of season three. I think the show is strong when there’s somebody else around besides the Doctor and his companion. It opens the show up a bit, and allows for more deviation from the formula. In TV, I generally like a bigger cast, it allows for more emotional engagement and real danger. We know that the Doctor and Martha are not likely to die, but a third person hanging around with them very well may.

Plus, Jack is just a great character. I love the tension between him and the Doctor when he’s in the engine room in ‘Utopia.’ That episode may have a bit clichéd postapocalyptic future world, but that doesn’t matter since it’s all about building a feeling of dread. There’s tension all around, between our core characters and a feeling that this scientist guy must be something more than he appears.

I didn’t know who The Master was before watching the episode, but, much like with the Daleks back in season one, just the way they treat the revelation that this guy is “The Master,” you know he’s a major villain, and that shit is going down. When they open that watch and reveal him, it’s one of the best moments on the show so far.

That leads into the best episode of the season, “The Sound of Drums.” While the payoff to the arc is quite good in its own way, it’s the buildup of evil over the course of the penultimate episode that makes it really work. There’s a real sense of fear and impending doom, aided by the great musical score. The theme running through these two episodes makes everything feel sad and broken the world spiraling out of control, inexorably towards death.

The best moment of the episode is the revelation of The Master, as he kills the American president and brings down an army of orbs down onto the world. This is a perfect example of how the show can raise the stakes better than virtually any other out there. How many shows can have a guy call down six billion allies to destroy one tenth of the world’s population, all while sitting aboard his floating airship? John Simm is a huge reason the arc works, he’s a really over the top villain, he takes such joy in what he does. My favorite moment of the episode is him throwing on an 80s pop song while our characters are plunged deeper and deeper into suffering. Martha’s family is taken, The Doctor is age a hundred years and him and his wife are just having a great time, watching the orbs descend to Earth.

In a lot of ways, it’s impossible to top that moment. We know some other stuff will happen, the Doctor will somehow win, but it’s that moment when you realize just how high the stakes are, how messed up everyone is, that lingers emotionally. It’s a lot like that moment in season two when the Dalek prison ship opens and millions of them come flooding out, that’s the high point of the conflict.

But, that’s not to say the final episode wasn’t amazing in its own way. I can see people having a lot of issues with this, the deus ex machina nature of the ending kind of makes it feel that none of what we saw matters. But, there’s so many incredible moments, I don’t mind that, and I think it even kind of works.

Tracking back a little bit, that initial one year later title card was the first major “oh shit” moment of the episode, and it just kept building from there. I really liked the black ops stuff with Martha, the real feeling of desperation around her. They did a great job of building an entire doomed world in one episode, though again, I wish this had been at least a three parter, or that The Master was more integrated into the earlier parts of the season. He was such a great character, I’d have liked to see more focus on him. His crew was around, but not the man himself. The ending did a good job of integrating stuff from earlier in the year, but much like with season two, the ending is so huge, yet so compressed, it could have used another hour to develop.

The failed escape attempt was a great sequence, you get the sense they’ve tried this many times before, to no avail. The Master’s trip to Earth, to retrieve Martha, was another fantastic scene. There were a bunch of episodes in season one that hit me on a really deep emotional level, much more than almost any show out there, and I hadn’t really felt that again until this episode. What gets to me about the show is the combination of these absolutely massive scale troubles and a very tight emotional focus. Martha’s speech about the Doctor in the refugee shelter is something that could just not work. On Babylon 5, they would have people give these kind of speeches about Sheridan, and it always felt a bit like JMS being self congratulatory about his own writing.

Perhaps because Doctor Who is such an enduring icon, it’s okay to talk about him in this way. It reminds me a lot of what Morrison’s doing over at All Star Superman, where he taps into the power of an icon through his storytelling. He’s not so much creating the character as just reflecting the power he already has. The Doctor is so powerful as an idea, that speech just works and really got to me, particularly when contrasted with the pathetic nine hundred year old Doctor trapped in the cage up on the ship.

So, as you might imagine, I really loved the moment when the Doctor ascends out of the cage and is reborn thanks to the power of an idea. The moment is a bit of a dud from a strict narrative point of view, it’s a cop out and makes little sense on a literal level. But, looking at it from an emotional point of view, it’s amazing. The Master is the avatar of control, seeking to make things his way and impose old order on the populace. The Doctor is the force of chaos, of free individual thought. In that moment, everyone in the world speaks up and says that they will not be oppressed. They invoke the name of the god of freedom and he is liberated.

I love the visual of the Doctor floating on a cloud of light, fully reborn. Turning him into the old guy, and the little creature was essential to making this moment work. He had been gone so long, it felt like a huge relief to have him back. The moment reminds me a lot of Rose absorbing the time vortex, it’s this glorious burst of energy and idea triumphing over the cold logic of repression. It’s the kind of thing you rarely see in a world where most stories are frustratingly bound by the strict logic of reality. Yes, it’s easy to abuse the idea that light and wonder somehow beat any bad guy, but when done right, it’s pretty awe inspiring.

The Master’s death itself is handled less well. It felt clichéd to have the Doctor stop Martha’s mother from shooting him, so that the burden of the death could be placed on The Master’s wife. I’m curious to see if she’ll return, perhaps with the power of The Master, but I think it would have been more interesting for her to be loyal to him to the end, despite his obvious abuse of her, like she was in a haze and deluded herself into thinking he wasn’t a bad guy.

But, the Master’s death scene, and his subsequent grilling was pretty effective. Though, I felt like it was so close to Return of the Jedi that I got taken out of the film for a second. I wish they’d found a way for the Master to survive, since he was such a great character. But, if he survives, he can never do something bigger than ruin the entire world over the course of a year, so it might be for the best that he died. But, it could have been interesting to see him trying to regain his powers over the course of next year.

We close the season with The Doctor losing another companion, this one by her own choice. It’s interesting that they chose to keep Rose so prominent in her absence, to the point that she essentially forces Martha out here. I know she’s coming back in the fourth year, so it makes sense, but I hope her return is worth putting Martha out. I liked Martha, but I think her arc, even more than Rose’s, shows the human toll of what The Doctor does. He may have saved the whole world, but would it even need to be saved if he hadn’t been around in the first place?

Before all this happened, there were a bunch of really strong episodes. ‘Blink’ was a great standalone story, with the series’ best use of time travel as a philosophical and narrative device. Most of the episodes use time travel just a way to get to the story, here time travel was the story and it worked wonderfully.

The ‘John Smith’ two parter was another highlight, a historical episode that really worked. I like messing with the formula, and this episode put us in a really interesting situation, first with the mystery of what had happened, and then with the Doctor’s reluctance to return to his own identity.

I’m now all caught up with the episodes that are airing in the US. I watched “Voyage of the Damned” earlier tonight, a pretty solid episode, that ended with what I interpreted as a tease for Rose’s return. I’ll probably just watch the episodes live as they air in the US, which I believe is only a couple of weeks behind the UK.

And while that’s going on, I’m going to watch the first season of Torchwood. I’ve heard mixed things, so I’m not expecting an instant classic. But, if it captures some of the Doctor Who magic, it should be worthwhile.

On the whole, season three was the show’s best. The first half was pretty shaky at times, but the run that closed out this year was pretty much all great. I don’t think The Master arc quite matched “Parting of the Ways,” but it’s definitely my second favorite story on the series.


Anonymous said...

Well I basically agree with everything you say here, although I think the "John Smith" episodes are the strongest of the season because while I am a defender of the Master arc, that final episode is such a terrible step down from the two episodes that precede it. On its own, the "Sound of Drums" is a terrific episode, but it's not on its own and doesn't work by itself. Whereas the "John Smith" double works on so many levels.

"Blink" is a beautiful mindfuck. And scary. I love it.

Glad you are all caught up. Will be interested in what you think of the new series, because it's got a lot to live up to after the third.

Good luck with Torchwood, but don't be surprised if you hate it. It's so inconsistent that I've stopped defending it, although I will keep watching it.

Jacob said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed it! Like you, I enjoyed the last episode in spite of itself - the deus ex machina was a bit overbaked, but all the doom and gloom leading up to it, especially the stuff with Martha wandering the postapocalyptic Earth, was so well-done that the momentum carried me through.

The Master will be back, though according to Russell T Davies it will be during the next producer's tenure. Part of the character's thing is that he always manages to come back from ridiculously fatal situations like falling into lava, being sucked into a black hole, etc., and usually with little to no explanation of how it was done. What I enjoy about him, however, is that like the Doctor, his personality changes with his form - in the past he's been a cunning plotter, a madman, and sometimes even a bit sympathetic - so if the next actor has a compelling enough take on the character, he won't necessarily have to compete with Simm in your mind.

Speaking of Simm, he was in a cool little show a year or two ago called "Life on Mars", about a modern-day policeman seemingly transported to the 1970s after a car accident - or is in a coma dreaming about the 70s. It's not a perfect show, you can see the Brits recycling some US cop show cliches, but it plays with questions of reality and fiction in an entertaining way, and it's well-made and features some great performances.

Patrick said...

Simm was in Life on Mars? I've heard that was great, I should definitely check it out.

And, the fourth season definitely does have a lot to live up to. The impression I'm getting is that it's kind of the 'series finale' for the Davies years, and will bring back a lot of threads/characters from the past few years, which could be great, or could lead to a ridiculously overstuff final two episodes.

The Runaway Llama said...

The fourth season definitely lives up to what went before it. Voyage of the Damned is a bit of a mess, but then Christmas specials always are.

Patrick, if you're watching the show on Sci-Fi in the US, then be aware that they have a tendency to cut out bits and pieces so that they can fit ads in. It might be worth getting it from a torrent or just waiting for the DVDs, as opposed to watching butchered episodes.

Anonymous said...

You'll like Life On Mars, Patrick. It's right up your alley.

And go for the torrents. I only just got into doing that for Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, because I live in New Zealand, and the BSG currently screening in the States won't get here for at least a year. There is no way to avoid spoilers like that.

And if they're cutting out stuff to cram more advertisements in, then you have the might of moral authority on your side.

I am anxiously waiting for the ridiculously overstuffed final two episodes of Doctor Who. It's what I like most about the new series.