Sunday, June 29, 2008

Doctor Who: 'Crossing Midnight' & 'Left Turn' (4x10/4x11)

After watching the brilliant “Forest of the Dead,” I decided the time was right for a binge watch of the other Who episodes that have aired. The show keeps going strong with one well done standalone and a flawed, but emotionally potent sprawling alternate universe. If nothing else, I’m totally psyched for a finale that looks like the definition of everything plus the kitchen sink. Russell Davis is bringing back basically everything that’s been in the show the past four years and tying it all into this one huge story. As such, ‘Turn Left’ functions largely as prelude, but there’s still moments in it that are totally heartbreaking.

I don’t have too much to say about ‘Crossing Midnight.’ After the epic brilliance of ‘Forest,’ I wasn’t too keen on what looked like a pretty formulaic standalone. But, as the episode went on, the light touch turned dark and we get some generally unnerving moments with the repeating demon. More than usual for a standalone episode, the Doctor got into real trouble. First, he was turned on by the other passengers, then he almost got spaced by the demon. The episode showed how necessary his companion is, without her, he just looks like a crazy guy. He needs that other person there to vouch for him.

But, sandwiched between two huge episodes, ‘Midnight’ can’t help but feel like a minor piece. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, it’s an effective story, and I’m sure the budget saved on the episode will be well spent on the season finale.

‘Turn Left’ is a different matter all together. It’s a huge episode, that has at least some kind of tie back to virtually every episode since Donna’s first appearance, as well as our first shout outs to the other shows in the Whoniverse, all in the service of showing how central Donna has been to the Doctor’s life. I’m not sure if this arc was entirely mapped out when the season began, but if you told me before the season began that the big setup for the climax would hinge on the idea that Donna Noble was the most important person in the universe, I would have not been particularly enthused. But, as the season has gone on, Catherine Tate and Tennant have worked so well together, I really do feel like Donna is the most significant person in the Doctor’s life, and can buy her as the hinge of the entire universe.

It’s interesting that even though this is the episode we’ve been waiting for for two years, the return of Rose, she’s decidedly a supporting character, and I don’t mind that. In a lot of respects, her whole appearance here is a tease for her return to the regular universe next episode, making us speculate about her inevitable reunion with the Doctor, all the while depriving us of any interaction between them. The focus remains on Donna.

The episode is largely about setting up this idea that Donna has an important destiny, and it is through her relationship with the Doctor that they both can save the world. For a while there, I was thinking that Donna could possibly be another time lord. That’s why they’re drawn together at different times, why their destinies are intertwined. But, the episode doesn’t quite go in that direction. The implication at the end is that Donna is the nexus of travel between parallel universes. That’s why Rose always appears to her, and it’s why she was caught up in both the Mainframe alternate universe and this one. And, if the threat they’re now facing is one that crosses all universes, she would be essential to the fight against it.

The entire awful world we see here is likely a setup for what could happen to the real world should Donna and the Doctor fail in their mission. I did feel it was a bit repetitive to have Donna experience another alternate reality so soon after her trip to the library world. But, I think this one works because it functions primarily as a character building exercise. Donna has to experience what the world would be like if she wasn’t involved with the Doctor to understand how important she really is. Rose seems in awe of her when they first meet, she is working to support Donna and help her reach her destiny.

When I was talking about the first season of the show, I said how there two kind of heroes, ‘chosen ones’ and ones who choose adventure. The ‘chosen one’ narrative is the backbone of so many popular films, from Star Wars to Buffy to Harry Potter, it’s all about this one person who may not want to save the world, but is going to. But, the first season of Doctor Who offered an alternate narrative in Rose’s arc, she’s a girl who chose to become a hero, to abandon her ordinary life by choice and go out to the stars. I find that kind of narrative more relatable. I don’t have any kind of special destiny, I don’t have to run away from being a hero, I’m just going along, and I don’t know what I would do if I was put in a situation where I had to save the world. That’s why I find both Rose’s first season arc, and this year’s Donna arc very relatable.

Donna was living an ordinary, boring life, she wanted more and she went out and got it. But, now that she’s so wrapped up in this life, she’s faced with the burden of having to be the one to save the world. Yet, at the same time, she can’t believe that this is really happening to her. She’s so used to having people tell her she’s incompetent and useless, she can’t believe that her life would have any kind of cosmic significance. I think the episode works best not just as a “Days of Future Past” style awful what if, but also as a journey through Donna’s psyche, as she struggles to come to terms with her own importance, as well as her seemingly inevitable death. The bug on her back, goofy looking though it may be, gave things a weird Cronenbergy vibe. She knows something’s not right, there’s this ickiness under the surface that just shouldn’t be there. You could read the bug as her own self doubt, gnawing at her, always pulling her back. Most people cannot overcome this self doubt, but she does, and her overwhelming of the bug scares the fortune teller. What power does Donna really have, and what is her role in the grand scheme of things? That question still remains.

On the shallowest fan level, I loved the continuity porn of this episode, particularly the references to the spinoff characters. Davies is bringing it all together for the close of his run on the series, and it looks like next episode will be the grand universe spanning crossover we all secretly wanted to see. I always wished that Joss Whedon would do a storyline that really united the Angel and Buffy characters, and had them fighting together against a huge foe. We never saw it, but this three show crossover looks to be everything I could have dreamed of. From a pure story point of view, I’m not clear how they’ll manage to fit everyone into the episode, but from a fan point of view, it’s awesome. I’m guessing they’ll have the big crossover next episode, and then focus primarily on The Doctor, Donna and Rose for the last episode.

The episode reminded me of ‘Last of the Time Lords,’ with its absolutely oppressive feel throughout. Things just keep getting worse, and even though Gramps and Donna try to hold it together, you can see that the Earth is headed in a bad direction. I really like the dynamic in Donna’s family, and I’m dreading her inevitable final good bye to her grandfather. I hope he at least gets one trip up into space before it’s all over. Bernard Cribbins has made him into a fully realized character, who’s just this perfect font of wackiness and love, not unlike the other man in her life.

Two other things really stood out in the episode, one is the score. There were throwbacks to a lot of previous musical themes, and the building music gave everything an even bigger, more apocalyptic feel than usual.

The other standout element was Catherine Tate’s performance. It was pretty much already confirmed, but this episode cemented her as my favorite Who companion. I think she’s stretched the show in really interesting directions, and provided a totally new dynamic for the series’ core. Much as I love many of the individual stories in season three, I think it was retreading the same ground as Rose with the primary dynamic. Martha had her moments, but she never quite distinguished herself, Donna has owned the series from the moment she appeared. Her and the Doctor are equals.

The entire sequence from Donna’s trip to the army base on was amazing. This whole season, we’ve been teased with the idea that she’s going to die. She wants to know why River Song doesn’t remember her, why Rose says she’ll have to die. She may be a hero, but nobody’s ready to die, not after she’s started really living for the first time. When the truck hits her, she wants to believe that this is the death they were talking about, but I don’t think it is. Still, she is willing to make that sacrifice, and I fear she will be called on to sacrifice herself entirely before the series ends.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. No show hits me emotionally like this one does. It’s about our purposes in life, and the wonder in the universe. It’s about trying to be something more than the safe, ordinary path that society gives and adventuring like the Doctor. I think it’s great that this show is such a huge family hit in Britain. I love that a generation of kids is growing up watching this show, I can only imagine the kind of films they’ll go off and make after growing up on this.


crossoverman said...

I wasn't that thrilled with this season until the "The Unicorn and the Wasp" (because I've read lots of Agatha Christie) and everything since then has been superb.

But 4x12 - oh my - has broken me. It's just... EPIC. And I really won't have anything coherent to say about it until after 4x13 airs because... I just don't know what to say. The multiverse crossover stuff is handled brilliantly - even though Torchwood isn't always well written, the characters are very well defined by now and even small moments with them resonate. Same with Sarah Jane.

I can't wait to read your thoughts on 4x12. Meanwhile I need it to be next week already - because ARGH cliffhanger!


Oooooooh, some of 'em will make flicks as this

Patrick said...

Yeah, this week layover is a killer. As 'Stolen Earth' was ending, I was like please just show the face as the cliffhanger, but alas, we're left with the mystery of who he is.

As for the season as a whole, I really liked pretty much every episode except for the Sontaran two parter. It's been the Doctor and Donna together who've made even weaker stories a lot of fun to watch. She's easily the best companion since Rose season one, and possibly even better.