Russell T. Davies' writing for Doctor Who is highly inconsistent. When he does small-scale character drama, he does it beautifully. When he really swings for the fences with wild abandon, he very often pulls it off, and even when he doesn't quite hit, the sheer ambitious audacity is dazzling. Stuff in between, like plot and resolutions, on the other hand, are uneven at best.
But in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways, he gets everything right. The character stuff is superb; the big, sweeping ideas are stunning; the plot is involving and surprising; and the resolution brings everything together brilliantly. The story begins small and strage, but builds carefully and gradually to a work of tremendou emotion. The double-act finale of his first season rises among the finest Doctor Who stories, and is a great piece of science fiction and fantasy.
The opening is really bizarre as the Doctor wakes up in some sort of futuristic version of Big Brother. Apparently he was transmatted there right out of the TARDIS. This is strangely involving enough, but it's mostly gripping because of Eccleston's reaction -- his face is the perfect expression of "... the hell?"
Not that Rose's is far behind as she finds herself stuck on a version of The Weakest Link run by the Anne-Droid.
Jack's reaction to inexplicably waking up in some sort of fashion show, on the other hand, is hilarious.
|"Ladies, your viewing figures just went up."|
This is a tricky idea, setting modern-day Reality Shows in the year 200,100, but for some reason, I'm oddly forgiving of this. Partly because the explanation sort of makes sense, which I'll get to later. But more than that, it's really, really well done. The Doctor's situation works best: he's totally sarcastic about it, barely noticing everyone's horror at his laid-back reaction. But then, somebody is voted off, goes outside... and is disentigrated.
He immediately gets dead serious. One of the "roommates", Lynda (with a y), is intrigued by him, and he takes her with him once he escapes. Lynda is incredibly likable; totally sweet, full of starry-eyed wonder and joy, and when it eventually comes down to it, nervous but brave. Bravo to both Davies and to Jo Joyner.
The Weakest Link scenes take a lot of intensity from the dark lighting of the actual show. This is a superbly lit and shot story all around, but this segment is one of the best. Rose laughs at the weirdness of materializing in the middle of a futuristic version of an old show, but is silenced when the Anne-Droid suddenly turns out to be almost as evil as the real Anne Robinson when she shoots a disentigration beam out of her mouth, atomizing the Weakest Link.
Man, that show would be so much cooler if the Robinson really had a disentagration gun in her mouth. She wouldn't even have to use it often -- just once or twice a season, to keep everyone on edge.
Jack's story is more of a humorous side story, but it is pretty funny.
When they do get out, the plot starts twisting. This is actually only 100 years after the episode The Long Game, and it smacks the Doctor hard when he realizes that this happened largely because he simply abandoned Station 5 once he took out the Jagrafess, not stopping for a moment to consider rebuilding. That's how he's been from the beginning, and it's always compelling to see those rare moments when it comes back to haunt him.
|"I created this world."|
But what comes back much stronger in these two episodes is the positive influence he's had on people. RTD has created a great theme through this series, manifested beautifully here: even when the Doctor doesn't do things himself, he influences others to be heroes. Yes, there were many stories this season where he didn't solve the problem, but his example inspired others -- Rose, Jabe, Gweneth, and as we see in Parting, even Mickey and Jackie all become heroes because of him. It may have been a weakness in those episodes, but Davies turns that into the great strength of these episodes. It turns out that this Doctor is every bit the manipulator he's always been, but in an entirely different way: he's helped others reach their potential.
Davies gives us four other particularly memorable supporting characters. The first is Roderick, played by Paterson Joseph, one of Rose's Weakest Link contestants. He's a smug, self-centered character, but his motives are understandable (if not admirable), and he shows hints of sympathy and humanity; he just has himself as the highest priority. Joseph does a great job of making him unsympathetic but human.
Next is the Controller, who looks and feels like she came out of Star Trek: TNG. Not that it's a bad thing in the slightest; she's written, designed, and acted exceedingly well, overcoming the lack of originality. Martha Cope's voice is wonderfully eerie, saying untold fathoms of the sadness of her isolated life.
The other two are the Programmers played by Jo Stone-Fewings and Nisha Nayar, two minor characters given more than enough personality for us to care about their plight. The actors deserve a lot of credit for how much they bring, but so does Davies for giving them good material in their limited time.
And it's here that anyone who hasn't seen the episodes should leave, now, and watch them. The rest of this spoils a series of terrific plot twists, and you should go no further. In other words --
You have been warned.
The Doctor, Jack, and Lynda break into the Weakest Link room and rush towards Rose. Rose runs toward them, yelling to watch out for the Anne-Droid and --
Ooh. Did not see that one coming.
It's a stunning, beautifully done sequence. Lynda's presence helps us fall for it -- Rose appears to have a replacement, so for a moment, you actually believe she might be gone. By the time her true fate is revealed, the episode has already transformed from gripping weirdness to an emotional knockout, and her survival only raises the stakes.
It turns out that it's not a disentegrator, but a transmat. Which transports the victims directly onto a Dalek ship, where they are mutated into Daleks. So it turns out the Anne-Droid is equally as evil as the real Robinson.
And things suddenly get very, very real.
The Daleks are at their absolute best here. They are terrifying. Seeing not just a few, but literally thousands is a dazzling sight. And everything keeps building and getting worse. They move through Jack's makeshift defenses with even more ease than he anticipated.
Worse, they travel down to the bottom of the station, far out of their way, and massacre all the civilians down there just because.
And then they kill sweet Lynda with a y.
|You bastards! She was cute!|
It just gets worse and worse. The defendors fight bravely and sacrifice their lives with true heroism, but they accomplish little more than slowing them down briefly; only a single Dalek is even injured for all their efforts.
These scenes are directed by Joe Ahearne spectacularly and totally cinematically. It really feels like watching a big movie, not a TV show. But it's a big movie full of risks, thematic depth, and superb characterizations.
Eccleston's Doctor is amazing here. His vow to save Rose at the end of Bad Wolf is inspiring; his dialogue with the Dalek Emperor riveting. But above all, it's the moment when he tricks Rose into being sent home, safe, away from certain death, that finally makes him truly the Doctor. His torment and loneliness have permeated every episode. But by being around Rose, he's regained his ability to live, and what he believes to be his last act of compassion is saving her life.
After all this intensely powerful action and drama, it's truly astounding that the climax is not only satisfying, but really is stunning. First, the Doctor has a second chance to do what he did at the end of his last life and the beginning of this one: destroy the Daleks completely, but in doing so, destroy another species. The Dalek Emperor asks him what he is -- "Killer or coward?" The Doctor stands with his weapon, but looks up to the Emperor and says, "Coward. Every day." The Emperor orders his minions to execute him, and he responds, "Maybe it's time."
And then Rose comes back, having absorbed the heart of the TARDIS to save her Doctor. It's a Deus ex Machina, very literally, and it works magnificently because it builds out of not just an episode, but an entire season's worth of plot and character setup. The dialogue and imagery are truly beautiful, the ideas mind-boggling. The power of this sequence is almost unmatched in Who.
And then, finally, there's the regeneration. It's one of the best. The dialogue is perfect, the acting outstanding. For the first time, the Ninth Doctor looks happy and joyous without irony or sadness behind it. He is happy to have died saving Rose -- nothing could have made him happier.
And then he turns into David Tennant, and everything becomes a whole different kind of awesome...
The acting is phenomenal all around. Eccleston and Piper are wonderful throughout; Barrowman is as charismatic as ever, but seeing Jack trying to face his mortality with the same casual charm as he faces everything else is touching.
And Davies, somehow, miraculously, achieves every wild ambition he aims for, and ends up with a masterpiece. It's as good as it gets.
* * * *
- Okay, it's not totally perfect. "I think you need a Doctor." Really? Really? That would be embarassing in a Pip & Jane Baker script.
- I love that after planting all those hints about "Bad Wolf" throughout the series, and then having that awesome scene in Boom Town where the Doctor actually talks about it and then dismisses it, Davies actually calls the 12th episode "Bad Wolf"... and still doesn't explain it. When he does finally explain it halfway through "Parting of the Ways", the build-up has been phenomenal, and thankfully, he pays it off.
- Okay, so do 21st century reality shows in the 2001st century even begin to make sense? The answer is simply "Daleks." The Daleks aren't known for plans that make sense; their ideas are absolutely insane... and yet, somehow, they're intelligent enough to actually pull them off, barring only the Doctor's interferrence. All of which is to say, enslaving the human race in crazed versions of their own past makes perfect sense coming from characters whose ideas make no sense. I'll complain about the distant future looking like today from now until eternity, but this one time, I couldn't care less. This is too awesome to worry about such a little detail.
- Murray Gold's score is magnificent. For all the episodes or scenes he's done too much or unecessarily or whatever, he's got at least as many of these. This is awesome music, always used perfectly.