Doctor Who 4.18 – The End of Time (part two)

There’s so much that I like about this story, and so much that’s just so self-indulgent that it aggravates me more than it should. But that’s Doctor Who all over, isn’t it?

Surprisingly, our son’s favorite moment was the special effects padding scene, where Wilf gets to use one of those gun turrets that spaceships often have and shoot down a bunch of missiles. He was completely loving it, and it reminded me of his favorite moment in another Doctor’s final story, “Planet of the Spiders,” which reminded me that the show is for families after all. It needs some comedy and some padding and some unnecessary special effects for the younger viewers to hoot and holler.

The rest of the story is fun to watch, from the silly heights of “Worst! Rescue! Ever!” to the amazing and heartbreaking reveal of the “knocking four times” prophecy. Incidentally, if you haven’t read Russell T. Davies’s The Writer’s Tale, the way this scene was created will blow your mind. As for Tennant’s final act and its endless epilogue, well, you’d have to be a huge stick in the mud to complain about one last celebratory roundup, but there’s a larger-than-sensible part of me that wishes that the episode did not end with the regeneration. I’ve always thought that there should have been another way.

The TARDIS-destroying special effects regeneration blowing everything up could go for starters. It was idiotic then and it was idiotic when the TARDIS dumped Jodie Whittaker out the doors as well. I also detest the music. Imagine it if the Ood song abruptly ends when the doors close. Just give the man a little silence, and let the music pick up as the yellow sparklies start, but not so loudly that it drowns out the dialogue. I think everybody’s with me so far, right?

Now let’s say that the Tenth Doctor did not say goodbye to Wilf and Sylvia at Donna’s wedding. Let’s say instead that we skipped that scene, we let the Doctor regenerate without the explosions, just enough to rip up his clothes and make him a raggedy man, and we fade to black. And then we pick up at the wedding, and it’s the Eleventh Doctor, during the two-year gap at the end of “The Eleventh Hour”, who says his goodbyes, to let Wilf know that he made it okay and he has a whole universe to see with his new eyes. That ties in to their conversation in the cafe in part one and wraps it up very nicely, providing what I believe would have been perfect closure. And then let Wilf ask “Are you still by yourself? Still alone?” and let the Doctor hint about what’s to come. And end on Donna waving at the photographers on her big day.

I like Doctor Who so much that I can’t resist thinking about the what ifs and doing things a different way. Why should a regeneration episode just end with the regeneration? Just because they always do it that way unless circumstances are against them doesn’t mean they can’t change things up.

We’ll take a little breather from Doctor Who for a couple of weeks, but we’ll resume with Matt Smith and Steven Moffat in mid-September. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 4.17 – The End of Time (part one)

So now we come to a big end, and let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. The Master stuff is appalling. That was my first takeaway then and I feel that way today. John Simm, as I’ve said before, is a brilliant actor but I don’t like his Master at all, yet. And Russell T. Davies goes for the bigger-than-last-time finale again, resulting in worse, sillier, stupider Master stuff than the last time. Now he’s a skeleton man who can jump a hundred feet and shoot lightning bolts.

Bizarrely, the writer even botches the cliffhanger. The Master Race business goes on forever, and then it ends with what’s supposed to be a wild revelation. Timothy Dalton, who’s been narrating, is revealed. It’s Time Lords! Read that like John Lydon rolling his eyes when Bill Grundy asks him about Beethoven. The real cliffhanger is neglected under the fireworks. Donna’s mind-barrier has broken down, she’s remembered series four, and she’s about to die. Nobody cares about the Master, and we certainly don’t care about the Time Lords. We are worried about Donna, nothing else.

However, when the show isn’t detouring into bombast, it’s genuinely wonderful. There’s a perfect little moment with two vagrants talking about President Obama making a worldwide stimulus to end the recession. We also see David Harewood, an actor so talented that he would later take DC Comics’ most boring character, J’onn J’onzz, and make him watchable for the first time in sixty years in Supergirl, mysteriously up to no good as a billionaire working on alien tech stolen from Torchwood. But most importantly, we return to the Nobles after an eighteen-month break. Bernard Cribbins is back, along with Jacqueline King – “You’re not leaving me with her!” – and Catherine Tate. One of Wilf’s friends is revealed to be the delightful June Whitfield, who quietly steals her scenes without anybody minding. She made a career out of doing that.

Russell T. Davies is so good with the small stuff. He’s one of television’s best. The scene in the cafe, with the Doctor and Wilf talking about their fears and what’s going to happen next, both men almost in tears, is completely amazing. It’s one of those scenes I’ve sat down to rewatch almost a dozen times, just to marvel at the pacing and the way that Tennant and Cribbins play it.

Davies has a power with words and names in Doctor Who that is almost unrivaled. Maybe Robert Holmes was about as good. Davies makes it seem so easy, so casual. His Doctor talks of the Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magellan Gestalt and the Red Carnivorous Morg and the Shadow Proclamation and the Lost Moon of Poosh and Clom and the words are magical. Davies won’t be quite finished with the world of Who after this – there are still nine Sarah Jane Adventures to come – but even with so many great and wonderful adventures in the eight series that have followed this one, there is a Russell T. Davies-shaped hole in Doctor Who. It’s impossible to watch this story and not feel a little sad. It’s the end of a great era.

Doctor Who 4.13 – Journey’s End

As I’ve said before, Donna is my all-time favorite Who companion. And as I mentioned last time, I have always avoided spoilers, but of course I knew that Catherine Tate would only be in the show for just one series. They were heavy with the hints that Donna would die, and I never believed them, and what Russell T. Davies came up with was a lot worse. I’ve watched this scene in the TARDIS more times than any other scene in the modern version of the show. It’s a flawless, heartbreaking masterpiece. It’s the saddest thing ever. There are times, late at night, that I just want to listen to sad songs. Once in a while I pull out this episode for the same effect.

Not many people seem to know this, but Donna gets a completely brilliant little epilogue in a one-off comic called “The Time of My Life.” It’s collected in Panini’s The Widow’s Curse book. Every page of that edition’s a treat, and “The Time of My Life” is a delightful and sweet little surprise.

Anyway, the bigger picture is that “Journey’s End” is triumphantly over the top and ridiculous and I don’t think it stands up to very much scrutiny, but this two-parter is one of the most fun rollercoasters the show has ever come up with. Everybody comes back for a team-up – if you don’t know, you can look them up – it moves at a thousand miles an hour, and billions of Daleks explode. Every new plot revelation hit our son like a truck and he could hardly contain himself either last night or tonight. He loved it all tremendously. It’s a great payoff for audiences, full of smiles and hugs and triumphs for everybody, with an ending that just plain destroys me. Who could ask for anything more?

We’ll return to Doctor Who in late July. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 4.12 – The Stolen Earth

Back in 2008, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, we were watching Doctor Who five days after its UK transmission. I was vaguely aware, from online friends, in the five days between “The Stolen Earth” airing and us watching it, that something wild happened.

Then, that Thursday night, we saw that cliffhanger, with the Doctor starting to regenerate. I went into complete lockdown, terrified of being spoiled. I didn’t go online for anything. This was probably easier in 2008 than it would be today, but it was still maddening. The only online place I went to for any reason at all was my email. I even closed every one of my million open tabs in Chrome.

Days crept by. I wanted to see part two so badly. Were they really going to do it? Were they going to sock us with a surprise regeneration? I had no idea and I loved it that way. I was working then for an insurance company in Dunwoody that didn’t want me playing online anyway. The day of the episode came. It had already aired in the UK five days previously. I had lunch in the building cafeteria and went back to my desk. I came back to an email from the girlchild, who was staying with my mother since school was out.

It read “Dad, I know who the new Doctor is!” And nothing else.

I almost cried. I was so miserable. I’d got so close to seeing the episode without a single frame being spoiled for me and my own damn daughter blew it. Work crawled. There didn’t seem to be a lot of point to anything anymore.

I drove to Smyrna to pick them up. I opened the door and said to the girlchild, who was, of course, on my mom’s computer playing Club Penguin, to go to my old room. I didn’t say another word. I closed the door and she immediately babbled that she knew nothing about any sort of new Doctor or what was going to happen, that her brother put her up to it.

It was, I quickly realized, a breathtaking clever and evil prank. My son knew that I’d know it was a stunt if it came from him, because he knew that I trusted him to have a brain about these things. But he also knew that his motormouth sister, who has no filter at all, would, if she were to read a story about a new Doctor, go straight to me at maximum speed and maximum volume without remembering that I wanted it a secret.

So I stayed quiet, thanked my folks for watching the kids, and drove home in the silence of the graveyard. I ignored their questions. The girl whispered “I told him it was just a joke.”

I sent those blasted kids to my room and, quietly but firmly, read them the damn riot act. I spoke softly about how I’d really been looking forward to this evening and tried so hard to keep it a secret, but I spoke with the biggest stick of all, my eyes cruel and full of fire. I kept it up for almost two minutes, as the blood drained from their faces. Finally, and I’ve no idea how I kept the quiet rant going for so long, I raised my voice.

I said, loud enough for the neighbors to hear, “I’ve only got ONE THING to say to you!!” I paused. They looked like they knew this was the end.

And I said, “Well done, children. You got me good, fair and square.” They cheered and we hugged and part two, which is much better than part one, was worth every second of it.

Doctor Who 4.11 – Turn Left

I think “Turn Left” is one of Russell T. Davies’s best scripts for the series and one of the very best hours that Graeme Harper directed. It’s an amazing story with lots of layers and things you pick up on repeated viewings and I love it to pieces. It gives us callbacks to five recent adventures and shows just how badly things would have gone down without the Doctor there to fix them, descending, inevitably, to a totalitarian Britain unable to cope with its own refugee crisis. It’s an ugly and frightening and breathtaking hour, with a brilliant performance by Bernard Cribbins.

I wasn’t sure how the kid would feel about it, and while I’m sure some of it – like the horrifying labor camps moment – went over his head, he otherwise enjoyed it a lot and was incredibly excited. Interestingly, the idea of the Trickster’s Time Beetle climbing on peoples’ backs was inspired by the 1974 serial “Planet of the Spiders”. We only watched that story once but our son must remember it vividly. As soon as the creature starts scuttling across the floor at Donna, the camera showing us its POV, before it even climbs on Donna’s back, he jumped a little and said “It’s one of those giant spiders!”

Also of note: UNIT gets its first repeat character in the revival. Capt. Magambo is not in the next story like she should be, but she does return in “Planet of the Dead” a bit later on. Billie Piper seems to have had a mouth full of cotton in some of her scenes, but it’s nice to see her again anyway, and our son patted himself on the back for spotting her “Easter egg” appearance in the previous episode.

Doctor Who 4.10 – Midnight

Happily, our kid seemed to really enjoy Russell T. Davies’s “Midnight.” I was a little worried it would be creepier than he prefers, but it hit a good, sweet spot with him and kept him riveted instead.

I adore this one not only for the great acting and claustrophobia, but also because it gives us lots to chew on and no answers. I think the lifeform that enters the broken down bus is not necessarily malicious at first, but once it identifies that these scared and paranoid humans are a threat, it exploits the situation in defense. The Doctor is making things worse, because his bluster and his ego are not what this situation needs, and as soon as it understands that, it knows what it needs to do to survive, and our “clever” hero walks right into it.

We saw George Pastell in an episode of Department S the other night, and that reminded me of his scene opposite Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, where the Doctor explains that he knows his way around situations by keeping his eyes open and his mouth shut. You should listen to your younger self sometimes, Doctor. Speaking of Troughton, that’s his son David as the initially congenial Professor Hobbes in this one.

Our son told us that during the amazing scene where something is banging on the hull of the bus, he had thought it was Daleks out there. Nothing’s supposed to be able to live on the surface of this planet, but they’ve got those armored shells, just like the bus. We persuaded him that Daleks really don’t need to hang around 500 clicks from the only habitation on a planet where nothing organic can live just in case somebody’s tour bus breaks down. But since Daleks are on his mind, he only has five days to wait…

Doctor Who 4.9 – Forest of the Dead

To my considerable surprise, our son did not come around as he often does. “I still hated that, although I did finally understand it,” he judged. This two-parter occupies the same very rare rung as “Pyramids of Mars” and “The Trial of a Time Lord,” two of the very few other Who adventures that he has loathed. He’s currently yammering at the baffled kid next door about the Vashta Nerada, but he swears he hated it.

Needless to say I don’t agree at all – especially him badmouthin’ the mighty “Pyramids” – but honesty does force me to say that looking at this again tonight, I do see the unwelcome seeds of what I’m going to start disliking intensely in series six and seven. It’s certainly nothing that Alex Kingston does wrong at this juncture, because the River Song of this story is flirty, sharp, and fun. She’s not all catchphrases yet. I love the mystery and the promise that she has here. Some of what happened down the line isn’t anything that anybody could fix, though. Tennant and Kingston should have had the chance for another episode or two together before she got all the screen time with Matt Smith. It’s a shame they couldn’t have done just a single one-off together, between “Planet of the Dead” and “Waters of Mars.”

(Incidentally, I remember one rumor particularly well because the supposed inside line was adamant that Tennant would return for series five in 2010 specifically because there was going to be a Zygon story and the actor really wanted his Doctor to battle the Zygons, who were, then, a one-off monster from a favorite serial from his childhood. I was among the people who thought that was a really unlikely and oddball rumor, but when Tennant did return in 2013, those villains were indeed front and center in the story. So perhaps Moffat was planning for River’s major appearances in series five to be opposite the Tenth Doctor?)

But it’s not just my dislike of where River goes that I mean. Steven Moffat nails a brilliant moment where the Doctor lets his reputation back up his threats. He’ll come back to that well several times with diminishing returns. River tells her friends that the Doctor’s so amazing that he just yawns and snaps his fingers and enemy armies wet themselves. We’ll hear a whole lot more of that in days to come. So I cringe a little, knowing the future, but the missteps of those days shouldn’t spoil the creativity of this adventure. It’s a great story, told well, full of hiding-in-plain-sight surprises and very neat imagery. I completely love the perfect and devilishly creepy scene between Donna and the veiled Miss Evangelista at the playground. Tennant and Kingston have brilliant chemistry; he not trusting her but understanding that he needs to. Cruelly, I find myself wondering how long the Doctor sat on the floor handcuffed to that rail with nothing to look at but his two screwdrivers and her dead body. You’d be pretty moody too.

You know, I included Colin Salmon in the tags so I should probably mention him in the text. He’s a great actor, probably best known to American audiences from the Pierce Brosnan Bond films. I first saw him in Prime Suspect 2 and once again was excited that a good actor I recognized was going to be in Who, and, just like what happened with Roy Marsden in the previous series, he gets a good role and no interaction with the Doctor. Drat!

Doctor Who 4.8 – Silence in the Library

So: River Song. In time, in virtually no time at all in fact, she’ll become insufferable, but she starts and ends brilliantly. Her first and – I hope – final appearances are both masterpieces.

But that’s just me talking. The kid absolutely hates this one. Really, it’s the first creepy Who story since… well, since Steven Moffat’s previous story, “Blink”. He doesn’t like the creepy ones, at least until they’re finished, and this just ramps it up. It’s not just the bits everybody remembers – the skeleton in the pressure suit, the shadows, the cliffhanger – the world of the 51st Century is a body horror nightmare. People can’t even die properly in this world; their pressure suits keep talking until the last light goes out.

Anyway, more about River Song next time, assuming our son can be talked into watching it. Even on a nice summer day when the moon never seems to rise, this was “a horror film” and he hated it. He’s said that about the first half of several Who adventures before and always come around, though…

Doctor Who 4.7 – The Unicorn and the Wasp

Another year, another celebrity historical, although this one amuses me more than most. I’m really not a big fan of Agatha Christie, although I appreciate her, and I did genuinely enjoy the Miss Marple adaptations with Joan Hickson from the 1980s. We told our son who Christie was a couple of weeks ago; he was really more able to see the similarities with the board game Clue than anything else. When one of the characters reveals she has a revolver, after we’ve already seen a professor get killed in the library with a lead pipe, he figured he was on to something.

So anyway, it’s written by Gareth Roberts, who did the celebrity historical the previous season, and directed by the great Graeme Harper. Guest stars include Christopher Benjamin, Felicity Kendal, and Fenella Woolgar as Christie. It’s silly, ridiculous, full of in-jokes, and I think it’s wonderfully huggable. I also choose to believe that the Doctor picked up his facsimile edition paperback of Death in the Clouds from the little shop in the hospital in New New York in series two’s “New Earth.” You know it makes sense.

Doctor Who 4.6 – The Doctor’s Daughter

Yes, that staircase was built seven days ago. That explains the peeling paint and the cobwebs.

“The Doctor’s Daughter” is the weak link of this season for me. The designer, as is obvious from the photo above, wasn’t paying attention to the script, casting Nigel Terry to play an old guy who doesn’t remember the beginning of the seven-day war doesn’t make any sense, and the music is the overwrought even for Murray Gold, but I think there’s still a lot to like in the performances, because everyone’s really involved, having fun, and selling this weird scenario. The only performance I don’t like is David Tennant getting snippy about how Jenny, the Doctor’s genetic daughter grown from a sci-fi “progenation machine,” is emphatically not a Time Lord, like he’s offended by the suggestion. Dude, just chill and tell her she’s a Gallifreyan. That much is true!

Naturally, I told our son afterward that Georgia Moffett really is the Doctor’s daughter, and a few years later, she’d become the Doctor’s wife. Then I told him that we’ll be seeing David Troughton in four episodes’ time, and he really is the Doctor’s son and the Doctor’s roommate. He said that blew his circuits and so he deliberately bumped into a wall.

Doctor Who 4.4 – The Sontaran Stratagem / 4.5 – The Poison Sky

There are several tiny little things about this story, cosmetic ones really, which for some reason aggravate me beyond reason. I can’t stand any of these UNIT officers saluting the Doctor. I don’t like the “flame-nami,” as our son coined it, traveling around the world at what must be thousands of miles a second. I’m irrationally annoyed by the death of Private Ross Jenkins, and that Colonel Mace is only in this one adventure. It’s not that I care about Mace, but UNIT works better as recurring characters, not an ever-changing bunch in either fatigues or British army uniforms. Jenkins should have survived, though. He should have been the Sergeant Benton of this iteration of the series.

Other than that, I enjoy this two-parter a lot, but not half as much as our son did. He was flipped out by this one; it was far too much excitement for one evening. He’s going to be a puddle when we get to the end of the season. The Sontarans have never been better. As far as I’m concerned, one of the show’s big omissions in the years to come is sidelining these newly-redefined and reinvigorated baddies in favor of the single comedy Sontaran played by Dan Starkey. He debuts here as a character called Skorr. Christopher Ryan, who had been a space alien twenty-two years previously as the Lord Kiv in “The Trial of a Time Lord”, is awesome as General Staal.

I also love the strange revelation that the Sontarans were somehow not allowed to participate in the Time War. There is so much about this that simultaneously doesn’t make any sense whatever and yet leaves me desperate to know more. The show has already told us that countless worlds were collateral damage in the war, so how’d they keep the Sontarans out? One side or the other didn’t object to obliterating the Nestene Consciousness’s planet, but they’ve got, what, time barriers in place to keep these guys from making things worse?

I also really like that Freema Agyeman comes back for a three-week run as Martha. It feels like one of those ideas that wouldn’t have made as much sense in the original run, because they did so few stories a year, but when you’re doing ten stories across thirteen episodes, why not check in on an old friend instead of making the only returning faces the enemies? And I love that Martha and Donna immediately click, and that our dingbat hero is surprised by this.

But yes, our son was blown away. This was one of his all-time favorite stories, although two episodes at the end of a very long day – we started with three hours hiking this morning and didn’t even have to social distance because we didn’t see another soul until we got back to the trailhead – was too much for him. He tends to be a hoppity kid even in the quietest times, but he simply could not keep still tonight and proved to be a real headache of a distraction. I was thinking about buying him a couple more Doctor Who action figures a couple of months from now as a back-to-school gift. Maybe I should see whether any Sontarans are available.