Thursday, October 30, 2014

Eleventh Doctor Retrospective

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bowties

I started watching Doctor Who in April 2011.

Not the Eleventh Doctor, oddly enough. No, I started with An Unearthly Child. I started loving the show somewhere around Edge of Destruction, and it was my favorite show ever after Genesis. It took me a couple of months to work my way through a nice chunk of highlights from the various classic Doctors before turning to the new series in early June. Unlike the Classic series, which I worked through chronologically but not completely (returning over the next several months to fill in the gaps), I went through every episode of New Who in a row.

Which means that by an odd coincidence, I caught up to The Pandorica Opens on June 26th, the same day The Big Bang premiered. So Eleven was the first Doctor I experienced as his stories aired; as long as I've been a Whovian, he's been the Doctor. And he was marvelous. I went through most of why he was wonderful in my Time review, and there's not much left that needs saying. Suffice to say, he not only made the line "Bowties are cool" simultaneously sincere and funny, he made it both iconic and true. (Also Fezzes, except they were always cool. Right?)

As for his three seasons themselves, they were bold, beautiful, and often brilliant. Series5 started by appearing to do the same sort of formula Russell T. Davies' seasons did, then completely outdid the formula by doing it better and twisting it ingeniously. (And it was a pretty good formula to begin with ) It opened with a terrific post-regeneration episode, pulled off some odd experiments like Vincent and the Doctor (doing the fantasy-historical as a sentimental character drama instead of an adventure) and The Lodger (a sit-com with the Doctor as the crazy guest star!), and ended with a season finale that managed to be just about the biggest, craziest story Doctor Who has ever done, and yet climax essentially with the Doctor saying a quiet, tearful goodbye to a sleeping Amelia. After a magnificent Christmas special, Season 6 opened with two stories every bit the equal of The Big Bang (with Curse sandwiched between them). That run of episodes might just be the best run of seven episodes the show has ever done, even with Curse in there.

The quality was a bit more uneven after that, thanks to a decision Steven Moffat made: try to make all the stories single episodes. On the one hand, it made for an intense experiment that yielded some exciting results. On the other hand, it wasn't really until Capaldi's first season that it consistently worked, and too many of the episodes in the second half of Smith's era felt rushed and jammed together. The result was often brilliant but just as often frustrating. And, sadly, it culminated in Time of the Doctor, which gave far too few of its ideas even a moment to breath, leaving it a very mixed bag. (I ended up liking a lot more when I rewatched it for the blog this week than I did last Christmas, but it's still a mess.)

Meanwhile, the three-season arc about the Silence blowing up the TARDIS completely fizzled in Time. There was the core of a good idea for how to wrap it up, but it got buried in the overload. Which is particularly frustrating because that plotline was incredible. Sure, the Doctor's Name arc came off nicely, River Song's arc more or less came together, and the character arcs were terrific, but the big plot? Total belly flop on the home stretch.

And so when I started planning out these last four posts, I thought I would get here and talk about what a waste of a great Doctor the era was - that it wasn't bad, but shot down its promise early and never fully recovered.

But no era is perfect, or could be. And between re-assessing Time and working to rank the episodes, I realized that it was a phenomenal era that just happened to have rough edges, which you'd expect from a work created by humans.

There were a couple of outright duds, although, really, for a 44-episode / 38-story run (plus some fun shorts here and there), it's a pretty low number. And of those, well, The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe doesn't have much to recommend it, but it does close with a lovely scene involving Amy and Rory. My problems with Cold War were in its failure to do anything interesting or innovative with the Ice Warriors, not that it wasn't competent. Certainly no one else seems to be particularly down on it. Victory of the Daleks had Daleks serving tea and inspired a sensational poster.
Actually, I think this was my first piece
of non-DVD Who merchandise.
And anyway, there are just too many good episodes here to dismiss even with the flaws. Any era with episodes as good as The Girl Who Waited, The Power of Three, Hide, The Crimson Horror, Name of the Doctor, and Day of the Doctor should be beloved.

Even most of the more flawed episodes are attempting great things: A Good Man Goes To War swings for the fences with one of the darkest and most adult stories Who has ever told. Let's Kill Hitler and Wedding of River Song went for broke with the character melodrama. The God Complex pushed the characters to their breaking point and showcased some of the wildest camerawork on television. Asylum of the Daleks told a tremendous yarn that actually explored what it would mean to be an insane Dalek.

And the companions were contenders for the best ever.

Amy rocks. Even Davies didn't come up with such an engaging and complex companion with such a compelling character arc. And Karen Gillan's playful yet intense performance breathed even more life into a character who would have stood among the best even with an average performer.

Rory started out looking like Mickey part 2, a blah character who eventually became a pretty cool one. Instead, by his second appearance it was clear that even those apparently blah elements revealed a rich, strong character, who turned out to be a brilliant adventurer despite his reluctance early on; he was flawed and complex, but beneath a quiet, slightly nerdy exterior, he was intelligent, compassionate, a devoted husband, and, when necessary, an unstoppable action hero. And it was cemented by Arthur Darvill's ability to not just switch between all these, but bring them all smoothly out of the same character. The only criticism you can lodge against his character is that there wasn't enough of him; too often, he got shuffled in the background, wasted. But basically every time he got to say or do something, he was great.

And River Song. What other TV show would play a 50ish woman as the sexiest, most badass adventurer ever, still give her a staggering emotional depth, and then actually pull that off?

Finally, Clara didn't reach her full potential until Series 8, but all the pieces that make her brilliant were in place from the beginning. She started off seeming like the generic companion, became within the story the ultimate companion, and has by now pretty much lived up to that description.

Honestly, all four of them belong on any list of the 10 best Who companions, and wouldn't look out of place right on top.

We also got a wonderful bunch of supporting characters popping in and out - Vastra, Jenny, and Strax in Victorian England, and Kate Stewart and Osgood in UNIT.

Finally, Moffat delivered everything we could have hoped for: all the horror, the sentiment, the wit, the dramatic complexity, the inventive solutions and the level of thematic depth he showed in his RTD-era episodes. And he's pushed his other writers to keep doing new and different things, and his directors make the show as visually stylish and original as they possibly can. It's sweeping, funny, intelligent, scary, and, above all, fun. Moffat's Doctor Who is a fairy tale of the best sort, and Matt Smith was the perfect center of that universe.

So, yeah. Eleven is cool.


Because who doesn't love an arbitrary list from best to worst? It's tricky putting together this sort of list. I mean, until I actually set it down like this, I probably would have put The Doctor's Wife in the number one slot. I actually chose The Big Bang because when I was feeling nostalgic after rewatching Time, that's the one I wanted to rewatch. But it's just as easy to argue for Doctor's Wife.

And opinions change over time. For example, back when I reviewed them, Rebel Flesh and Night Terrors both got three stars, but my feelings on them have fallen over the years, while The God Complex has risen a bit. I still don't think it quite works, but it's closer than I gave it credit for. And I suspect rewatching A Good Man Goes To War will improve it, since an entire season and a half of "too short" will keep it from getting the brunt of the impact of that flaw.

My final thought, looking at the list, is what an impressive era it is. I think of it as uneven, but about 75% of the episodes were good to great, and about half of the remainder were near-misses. And the stuff at the top of the list? That's some of the best stuff Doctor Who has ever put out, and, in the top three, simply several of the greatest hours of television ever created.

The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang
The Doctor's Wife
The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon
The Day of the Doctor
The Name of the Doctor

The Girl Who Waited
The Eleventh Hour
Asylum of the Daleks
Amy's Choice 

The Wedding of River Song
The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone 
Let's Kill Hitler
A Christmas Carol
The Crimson Horror

The Beast Below
The Angels Take Manhattan
The Power of Three
The Rings of Akhaten
The Time of the Doctor  

Closing Time
The Lodger
Vincent and the Doctor
Vampires of Venice
Nightmare In Silver

The Bells of St. John
A Town Called Mercy
A Good Man Goes To War
The Snowmen
The God Complex

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People
The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood
Curse of the Black Spot
Night Terrors  
Dinosaurs On a Spaceship

Victory of the Daleks
Cold War
The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe

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