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Friday, July 18, 2008

DOCTOR WHO: SERIES FOUR (OF THE NEW STUFF)-Part 1

WARNING: this article on DOCTOR WHO assumes the reader has at least a pretty good working knowledge of the series because it has a long and very detailed history and continuity that reaches back to 1963, and while I could explain it in detail it would take up waaaaaay too much preamble space before getting to the meat of what I want to discuss. Thus alerted, I suggest that all non-WHO-geek readers find something else to do until my next post.

-Yer Bunche

I've been a fan of DOCTOR WHO since it was first seen on these shores in syndication back in the late 1970's (the Tom Baker years), and I was enthralled by how its intelligent scripts overcame budgetary limitations that were, to say the very least, unkind to a sci-fi series with imaginative concepts as lofty as it had. Some American viewers were unable to see past the show's flagrant cheapjack look and also found the deliberate, serialized pacing tough to put up with, but those of us who dug it have stuck with it to this day. And that's nothing when compared to how DOCTOR WHO is a seriously-ingrained part of British pop culture — hell, I'd even say just straight up culture — , and how Brits my age and older can commonly discuss the childhood experience of viewing the Doctor's adventures from a safe position behind the couch. (One of these days I'll have to get My Man in Eastbourne to comment on this at length.) He's their Captain Kirk (at the very least), so that'll give you a clue as to what he means to our Limey geek brethren.

The show ran on the BBC for twenty-six years, getting canceled in 1989, but interest in the property remained and the show was successfully relaunched in 2005. The new series boasted decent production values — the monsters no longer looked liked they'd been crafted by ambitious ten-year-olds, thanks to the advent of CGI —, largely ditched the multi-episode serials, and had a solid star in Christopher (28 DAYS LATER) Eccleston, plus a character who is arguably the best companion for the Doctor since the days of Sarah-Jane Smith and Leela, Rose Tyler (played by chipmunk-faced Chav pop star Billie Piper), so with those elements in place the new DOCTOR WHO proved a critical and commercial hit. There have been three series (British for "seasons") of the new stuff since and a new Doctor (David Tennant) once Eccleston left after one year to avoid becoming typecast, and while I have mostly enjoyed what's been on hand, the series is rather hit or miss in what it achieves, at times dumbing down the material and not remembering its own tightly-adhered-to continuity (do not get me started on the Doctor encountering an embryonic Dalek beneath 1930's Manhattan and not recognizing what it was). I still watch it and am occasionally rewarded with moments of excellence — last year's "Blink" was an instant classic for the series, and is one of the best horror outings I've ever seen produced for television — but I am aware of the show's flaws, sometimes painfully, so my ongoing overview of the show will be tempered with the ability to detach from my WHO-love and give what I feel to be an honest critical assessment. Thanks to Hellkitty I have gotten started on the just-concluded series four of the new run, and over the next few days I will watch the episodes and get back to you with Yer Bunche's humble opinion. So without further ado, let's get down to it!

"Time Crash" (Children In Need Christmas Special, 2007)

Thanks to the Doctor's ability to regenerate as well as travel through time in the ever-trusty TARDIS, one of the recurring features of the series is the perceived novelty of having actors who previously portrayed the Doctor turn up as the earlier incarnation that they played, a move designed to delight the fans and potentially boost ratings. I've found this ploy annoying since the first time they used it back in the seventies (1972/73's "The Three Doctors") because it really doesn't do anything to advance or enrich the given story, so when they dusted it off again for this special mini-episode my eyes rolled back into my skull and I began to gibber like a watcher of ACCORDING TO JIM.

The TARDIS suffers one of its periodic technical/temporal glitches and causes a rift in time that allows the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) to interact with the tenth Doctor (Tennant), and while it was bad enough that they hauled out the Doctor-meets-the Doctor gimmick for the umpteenth time, it was extra-painful for me because the old Doctor they trotted out was Peter Davison, that cricket-gear-wearing bore who is the Doctor I tolerate the least. I loathed his preppie biliousness since the second he replaced the beloved Tom Baker and after a few serials that featured him I gave up on DOCTOR WHO for years, eventually catching up on some of the adventures of his successors, much of which I also didn't care for. Anyway, the two bicker and banter for about nine minutes that serve absolutely no purpose, other than to allow the tenth Doctor to kiss the fifth's ass. Once that celery-adorned douchebag fades out, the fourth series gets a proper prologue when the TARDIS crashes into what appears to be the Titanic. That's par for the course for the time traveling Doctor, but in how did the Titanic end up in outer space?

2007 Christmas Special-"Voyage of the Damned"

Back when the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA ran, some of that already-derivative series' episodes involved stories cribbed from the movies and given a sci-fi re-fitting, a condition I refer to as "Galactica Syndrome." THE TOWERING INFERNO became the imaginatively-titled "Fire In Space," THE GUNS OF NAVARONE morphed into "Gun On Ice Planet Zero," SHANE was disguised as "The Lone Warrior," you get the idea. Sadly DOCTOR WHO has now become a victim of Galactica Syndrome, as is plainly evident from this limp and uninteresting redressing of TITANIC and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE into space opera territory.

In 2008 an intergalactic pleasure liner modeled and named after the Titanic orbits the Earth with a shipload of alien passengers. Once the Doctor moves the TARDIS inside the ship, he mingles with the passengers and encounters an number of stock characters common to seventies-era disaster movies, as well as a cute and put-upon waitress played by UK pop icon Kylie Minogue. The ship's captain mysteriously lowers the vessel's shields and allows three meteors to slam into the ship, killing many of the passengers and knocking the ship out of orbit and into a slow approach toward the Earth's atmosphere, so it's up to the Doctor to save as many people as possible while figuring out exactly why all of this is happening in the first place and defending himself and others from the murderous intent of the Heavenly Host, a pack of (pretty much) Autons in angel drag.

Strictly by-the-numbers Irwin Allen disaster movie junk, some thirty-odd years removed from the heyday of that genre, "Voyage of the Damned" is so lacking in any kind of imagination that I rate it among the very worst DOCTOR WHO stories from any point in the entire series, new or old. There's nothing to be had here other than Kylie Minogue's reciprocated flirtations with the Doctor, but those romantic overtures go nowhere since she sacrifices herself to defeat the utterly lackluster villain. Meant to be a spectacular holiday treat, "Voyage of the Damned" is indeed spectacular, but a spectacular failure that the regular viewer can skip and miss nothing. Total crap and a waste of time to sit through.

Episode 1-"Partners In Crime"

Having been given the brush-off by Dr. Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) at the end of the previous series, it's time for the Doctor to scrape up a new companion, and he finds one in the form of the re-introduced Donna Noble (UK standup comic Catherine Tate), a character previously seen in series three's "The Runaway Bride" and "Doomsday." The two reunite while independently investigating a series of mysteries surrounding Adipose Industries, manufacturers of a "miraculous" weight loss pill. The pill does indeed cause the user to lose weight, but the fat separates from the body and forms into pleasant little "children" that have been seeded by an alien race — the "Adipose" (look it up) — who seek to use the Earth as an illegal breeding ground for their species using humans as raw material. The Doctor and Donna seek to stop the creation of these lard-babies once it becomes apparent that they can use more than just fat to compose themselves, a process that can consume every part of an unwitting victim, and they must also contend with "outer space super-nanny" Matron Cofelia of the Five-Straighten Classabindi Nursery Fleet-Intergalactic Class, or "Miss Foster" as she's known on Earth; she's a classic ice-queen type who wields a sonic pen not dissimilar to the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, but it's made very clear that she is not a fellow Time Lord.

Aka "Miss Foster."

This story isn't bad but the Adipose are way too cute to be in any way frightening, so the operative agent of fear and dread here is the process by which they come into being and not the creatures themselves. That flaw aside, "Partners In Crime" is a decent series-opener and Donna is a welcome addition to the long list of companions. After her initial encounters with the Doctor, Donna was determined to find him once again and travel with him, so she figured the best way to find him was to keep an eye on any weird goings-on and count on him inevitably showing up to set things right, a strategy that proved to be correct. Anyway, a fully-packed and utterly ready Donna leaves behind her miserable life of a nagging mother and dead-end temp jobs to join the Doctor and flit about time and space.

And exactly what the hell is Rose Tyler, who's supposed to be permanently stuck in an alternate universe, doing in London?

Episode 2-"The Fires of Pompeii"

Donna's inaugural voyage as a companion begins with a bang as she and the Doctor find themselves in ancient Pompeii...on the day before Mount Vesuvius covers the place with molten lava. Donna learns the hard way the responsibility of the time traveler and the code against interfering in "fixed" historical events when she meets opposition from the Doctor over her intent to warn the citizens of the doomed city in regard to what's coming, as well as her plan to get him to safely house the citizens within the TARDIS' infinite interior and relocate them. Donna loudly rails against the Doctor's perceived indifference to the soon-to-be dead, a point driven home as they meet and befriend a Pompeiian family whose daughter possesses psychic gifts that reveal the baleful behind-the-scenes presence of hideous, flaming stone-men whose agenda could spell the end for the entire world. How to proceed from there is a textbook example of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" and with that in mind the Doctor makes a terrible realization...

This is a taut and grim tale of how to handle the truly horrific inevitable and while there were times when I wanted to strangle Donna, I could understand where she was coming from. Very good stuff, and I loved the eerie Sybillene Sisterhood, a group of creepy oracle-types who nearly kill Donna.

The Sybillene Sisterhood.

That's all for now, but I'll watch as many more episodes as I can squeeze in over the weekend and resume the reviews asap.

2 comments:

Mzilla said...

I just finished watching this season, and I truly, truly enjoyed it. The arc at the end of the series gives very geeky nods to just about everything in the new Whoniverse, a real nice treat for fans. Blink was a fantastic episode-the writer of that one,Steven Moffat is taking over the writing reins for the show, so I'm looking forward to more new Who.

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