Thursday, July 28, 2011

Season 28 Review

I tend to remember Season 28 (or New Series 2) very well, partly because Tennant is awesome from the moment he begins and has terrific chemistry with Billie Piper, and partly because it contains four of my favorite stories (Christmas Invasion, School Reunion, Girl In the Fireplace, and Doomsday), but really looking it over, man, the second half of the season is a slog until that knockout finish.

Still, all in all, and with thanks in particular to Doomsday, it does a brilliant job of continuing RTD's threads from Season 27/Series 1.  The Doctor has rediscovered, even increased his joy and zest for life, the Universe, and everything, and even losing Rose was something he could at least weather.  Rose by the end stands eye-to-eye with the Daleks with the same bravado as her Doctor.  The series gave her a lot to do, and while she had her failings, she was, on the whole, a hugely successful companion.  Doomsday was the perfect exit for her; there really wasn't anywhere else to go with her arc, but a lot had been done.  It couldn't have been better timed.  Mickey, who started pretty poorly in Rose, had managed to make "fairly sympathetic" by the end of the previous series; but here, he gets ever stronger, ultimately becoming quite the action hero.

Best of all, it's now comfortable enough in its usual zones - modern-day invasion, semi-historic fantasy, and fururistic satire - that it's willing to go out of the box.

Which, after all, is the entire point of Doctor Who.  So we got Girl In the Fireplace, which brilliantly went in directions no Doctor Who had gone before to a stunning emotional effect, The Impossible Planet, an old-fashioned base-under-siege carried out on a spectacularly imagined and executed other world, and Love and Monsters, a romantic comic-tragedy from the point of view of an ordinary guy whose path happens to cross the Doctor's a couple of times.  And while the latter two definitely had problems, it was refreshingly not samey.

Unfortunately, we also got The Idiot's Lantern, which was painfully ordinary and uninteresting.  And then Fear Her, which had all the boring cliches, flat characters, and unimaginative ideas as Idiot's Lantern, and then added several layers of pure awful.  And the thing is, even bad Doctor Who stories, even the worst of the worst, even the Celestial Toymakers and Nightmares of Eden and Terminuses and all manner of Timelashes are at least, on some level, interesting.  For all their flaws, I'm glad Impossible Planet and Love and Monsters exist, because they did some intriguing things and added to the ongoing story of Doctor WhoIdiot's Lantern and Fear Her are rare Doctor Who stories I wish never existed.

And that, combined with the flaws of those other late stories, makes the time between the Cybermen and the finale feel so, so long, and so dead.

But the first half and closing episodes are brilliant.

And, to be honest, Doctor Who is pretty uneven by its nature.  You can do absolutely anything with the show, but that means that you're probably going to fall short quite a lot.  But this is now a show that's confident and in full swing.  And it has a leading actor who's funny, energetic, incredibly  charismatic, and call sell the living Hell out of any emotion.  So, despite a couple of black marks, Season 28 is, overall, a rousing success, and leads very hopefully into the third...


1. Girl In the Fireplace
2. Army of Ghost / Doomsday
3. School Reunion


2. The Idiot's Lantern
1. Fear Her

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Army of Ghosts / Doomsday

Army of Ghosts and Doomsday are essentially three different stories spliced together.  The first, Army of Ghosts, is a well-structured yarn of escalating suspense and intriguing mysteries.  It's not just the ghosts themselves, although that's certainly a fascinating idea, but also a sphere that, according to all technical instruments, doesn't actually exist.

Finally, we learn what became of the Torchwood institute Queen Victoria created in response to the Doctor and Rose being smug jerks amongst death and tragedy.  These scenes are carried by the brilliant character of Yvonne Hartman, head of Torchwood; she hits that perfect sweet spot of complex, intriguing, and larger-than-life, thanks to both multi-layered writing by Davies and a charismatic, impassioned, cheeky, and often very funny performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman.  She's the rarest of Doctor Who villains: a human antagonist worthy of the Doctor.

Also, the Doctor passing off Jackie as Rose is a wonderful spark of whimsy.

Then, inevitably, the Cybermen show up, increasing the steadily-built intensity.  Now the situation is really grim: not only is Torchwood helping a mysterious entity punch holes in the continuum between Universes, but the Cybermen are coming through and invading earth (again).

And this is where opinions usually split on Army of Ghosts and Doomsday.  While a lot of people are perfectly happy with what follows, what happens next essentially negates everything so carefully built about the Cyber-invasion and Torchwood-evilishness.

Because all of a sudden, the Daleks show up and hijack the story.  The semi-evil Cybermen and Torchwood are reduced to distant silver and copper to the Daleks' shimmering gold.  For some, this is a disappointment.

Those "some" are wrong.  It may be opinion, it may be how they honestly feel, but they're wrong.  The Daleks showing up and upstaging the main plot only increases the fun of the story.  After all, for all its flashes of darkness, Doomsday is fundamentally a fun romp, full of humor and action.  Just because it's dramatic doesn't mean it can't be fun.

The Daleks face off with the Cybermen, which results first in a series of insults, for which Davies deserves tremendous credit -- the insults are not just hilarious, but perfectly toned for both races.

DALEK:  This is not war - this is pest control!
CYBERMAN: We have five million Cybermen.  How many are you?
DALEK: Four.
CYBERMAN: You would defeat the Cybermen with four Daleks?
DALEK: We would destroy the Cybermen with one Dalek!  You are superior in only one respect.
CYBERMAN: What is that?
DALEK: You are better at dying!

And then the shooting starts and it plays out exactly as it should: the Daleks, despite being insanely outnumbered, mop the surface of the Earth with the Cybermen's faces.  The tone of the Dalek/Cybermen fight isn't one of horror or suspense: it's pure pop spectacle and breezy fun.

As this goes on, though, yet another thread slowly intrudes: Davies' conclusion to the various threads of the last two seasons.  As time goes on, it becomes clear that even the Daleks' superiority to every other villain ever invented by humans, or even the stunning sequences of millions of Daleks invading London, aren't the true centerpiece of Doomsday.  It's the emotional journey - for many, the last - of a gallery of wonderful characters.

Yvonne is taken by the Cybermen and gets a fantastic final scene as she's brought away to be cyberized.  Even brought to a fate she fully understands and fears, and even as she faces the consequences of her own actions, she's dignified and defiant.  Her cyberizing scene is genuinely moving.  And then, later, she gets an even better scene as a Cyber.  A great villain meets not one but two brilliant ends.

Pete, the alternate universe version of Rose's father, returns for a last hurrah.  I had very mixed feelings about his return in Rise of the Cybermen, but they ultimately went in an interesting direction with him, so his return is welcome.  Shaun Dingwall is as perfect as ever, and Pete's character arc is ultimately satisfying.  Camille Coduri also makes her final regular appearance as Jackie, and Davies gives her some of the funniest material she has had.  The scene where Pete and Jackie meet is just wonderful, equally hilarious and moving.

Mickey returns, but transformed by his time in Pete's World into Awesome Action Hero Mickey, and it's terrific.  It's really remarkable how far he's come - he was basically a failure of a character in Rose, but was carefully developed over time, becoming more and more likable, before being thrust into heroism in the early second season.  Here, when he shows up and starts going Bruce Willis all over the place, it somehow feels natural, as those it's actually the ideal ending to his character.  And really, it is; it's just totally unexpected, and a delight to watch.  Noel Clarke has been good as Mickey with a great variety of material, but he's just a blast to watch here.

Much more importantly, however, it's Rose's last (regular) appearance, and she's given a tremendous send-off.  Piper has all the appeal and humor she's always shown, she also shows a remarkable presence.  Doomsday opens with her stealing the Daleks' spotlight by facing them down with the sort of fearless power ordinarily only the Doctor shows.  Of course, Rose can't quite keep it up - she's not the Doctor, after all -- but it's a terrific character moment that, further, feels absolutely natural.  The Rose of End of the World could never have stood up like this, but the Rose of Doomsday has grown so believably that it isn't just cool; it's the culmination of the Doctor's influence on her.  She started as a normal, average person; now, she's become a mythical heroine, and deserved it.  Davies and the other writers may have occasionally stumbled with her in parts of the second season, but on the whole, her arc has been brilliant.

At the climax of the story, she saves the world, probably the entire universe with a genuinely selfless, sacrificial act.  As she falls into the Void, she is saved by the other universe's version of her long-dead Father, and rescued to safety in the other universe.  There, she can live her life with everything she ever wanted - her father alive, her parents together and in love, Mickey - except the one thing she wanted most.

Her Doctor is gone from her forever.

Davies can't help but give her a final farewell, but he takes tremendous care in the writing; it's melodramatic, but still underplayed just enough.  Tennant and Piper play their final scene perfectly.  But it's Murray Gold's music, particularly the entirely unexpected "Doomsday", that raises it to such a high level.  It's a devastating and extraordinary ending.

It's a complex, beautiful closing for a very strong companion.

But, really, Doomsday isn't even about saying goodbye to Rose.  It's about the Doctor - about the close to this part of his journey, and his moving on to a new one.

He's faced the Daleks just a season before.  Then, however, he was a different man.  Then, even having recovered much of his mojo thanks to Rose, he's still a traumatized war veteran, always on the edge of fury and destruction.  He faced them grimly and half-crazed.  But now, in Doomsday, he's not the Ninth Doctor, born of the tragedy of war and genocide, but the Tenth, who came from the Doctor's sacrifice of his own life to keep Rose from being utterly destroyed by the Time Vortex.  From the very first, he was cheerful and goofy.  Villainies could draw out his darkest side, yes, but it hasn't been constantly lingering under the surface, ready to explode.  This is the Doctor who, for the first time in more than a lifetime, is truly happy.

And so, when he faces his greatest adversaries, while he certainly respects their abilities, he's much more ready to fight them.  None of the full-on horror and desperation the Ninth Doctor felt, or the near-crazed edge to his threats and mocking.  No, he has his swagger back, the swagger than first put such fear into his enemies when he was a young man in an old man's body, telling off the psychotic creatures who have utterly conquered the entire Earth.  He can beat these guys, and he knows it, and he gleefully makes sure they know it.

And he does - literally sending the Daleks to Hell.  But it comes at a staggering cost.  Rose is alive, but locked away from him forever.  Just as before, he's alone.

But there's something more.  There's a magnificent moment where Rose and the Doctor lean their faces against the corresponding walls of their own universes, imagining and even, in some way, feeling each other's presence.  Rose sheds tears, of course, but the Doctor has no tears.  Every depth of the tragedy is buried in his eyes.  The look of utter devastation in Tennant's eyes is stunning.  Every day of his millenial life is etched across his face.  It's a man defeated and alone, more alone than any can imagine.  Again.  More so than anything else in the scene, even Gold's fantastic music, it's Tennant's face that hits the hardest.

And yet, there's something else in that face.  There's strength, and calm, and resolution.  Even after sending all the Daleks to Hell, the Doctor has lost Rose, and in a way, this was the ultimate loss for him.  But he hasn't just survived.  He's still the Doctor.  And in his farewell to Rose on Bad Wolf Bay, he's sad, but also warm and funny.  Now, he has the strength to go on to other adventures and feel the joy and fun and wonder, as he did before the War.  Even his own personal Doomsday can't take that from him.  Not any more.


* * * *


  • Okay, so, is there a reason we got Fear Her, but didn't get this episode?  I know RTD has said that he's more interested in stories about humans that about aliens on planet Zog.  But if that's what planet Zog looks like, why would anyone want a story about boring old humans?
  • Come to think of it, the only other purely human adversary worthy of the Doctor I can think of is Salamander from Enemy of the World.
  • Graeme Harper's direction is truly brilliant.  Harper's directing is always great, but this is among his finest work for Who.  He can't have had more than a few million bucks, but makes a spectacular, action-packed epic that weaves adventure, action, and a wondrous sense of breezy fun with quiet drama and melodramatic tragedy.  It's a stunning achievement to make all those work so smoothly and so powerfully.  There's a reason he's considered the greatest director Who ever had.