Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Who 2 Overview

As of this past weekend, Season/Series Two of Doctor Who came to both an end and a beginning. Attempting a non-spoilerific overview of an entire season shouldn't be difficult, however if you want to go into the second season without knowing one person's vaguely constructed opinions, it might be wise to turn away now. On the other hand, it'll be at least 6 months or more before it shows on Sci Fi, and you'll likely have forgotten everything I say by that time anyway. (Links to JPEGS within this piece also contain no spoilers - just some cool, teaser imagery.)

I shall begin with the obvious: How does it stack up against Season One? Using the complex formula below, a calculator and my fingers & toes, I discovered that it’s about equal. (From here on out I'll refer to the seasons as S1 & S2 for brevity's sake.) Now if my ratings below for S1 wildly diverge from your own, there's a good chance you won't see S2 the way I did either.

DW S1 Rankings

Rose: 8/10
The End of the World: 8/10
The Unquiet Dead: 7/10
Aliens of London: 6/10
World War III: 4/10
Dalek: 8/10
The Long Game: 7/10
Father’s Day: 9/10
The Empty Child: 10/10
The Doctor Dances: 10/10
Boom Town: 8/10
Bad Wolf: 8/10
The Parting of the Ways: 10/10

103/130 = 7.9/10

As you can see, S1 came up with an average of 7.9/10. S2, using the same formula, managed to snag 8/10 – clearly a negligible difference. These results rather surprised me. Why then was I so much more critical of S2 as I viewed it over 13 weeks? Last year I was so freakin’ ecstatic over the prospect of having an entire new season of Doctor Who, that I cut it slack right and left. I still cut S1 slack, as it’s not an easy task to relaunch a classic series of this ilk, especially without starting from scratch. What if Battlestar Galactica was not a reimagining but rather a continuation? It must be somewhat easier to begin with a clean slate and only a set of ideas to build on and change for dramatic purposes – this wasn’t so much the case with the new Who. The new series picks up where the old left off and there are certain continuities being adhered to. (You know what? Sometimes it's just fucking easier to end a sentence with a preposition.)

Adding to that, most sci-fi series are designed for niche audiences, which isn’t the case with Who. This is prime time BBC1 television fare, produced to nab big ratings and a huge chunk of the viewing audience (both of which it does). This may not be the best analogy, but Doctor Who is like the current Brit equivalent of Lost. What sort of ratings might new Who nab here in America were it on one of the major networks and given the same sort of publicity and respect as something like Lost?

Mildly irksome was the fact that S2 is structured almost identically to S1 - its peaks and valleys unfold in much the same manner as what came before it. Unlike S1 however, S2 does offer some outstanding fare early on; it isn’t necessarily a case of the latter half being better than the first half - the cream is spread out more evenly. Yet I couldn’t get past a niggling feeling that perhaps S1’s success had gone to Doctor Who’s head and that maybe it wasn’t reaching for greatness, but instead was content to dish out more of the same.

If S2 disappointed me on certain levels, it was because I didn’t want the same – I wanted better. Even though the season often dished up some truly inspired storytelling, S1’s “The Empty Child” two-parter remains the standard by which I measure. Maybe it’s unfair to judge everything against perfection? They didn’t top that story, I’m afraid to report. They came close though – very close – on a handful of occasions.

One great example - unsurprisingly written by “Child’s” Steven Moffat – was “The Girl in the Fireplace” (Ep. 4), a story that’s a sterling example of Doctor Who for a new TV audience. It's not only an emotionally but also a dramatically complex tale. I can honestly admit that it took two viewings for me to begin to "get" it. Perhaps the only real reason it doesn’t rank as high as Moffat’s previous effort is because it’s half as long.

Probably the most comparable story from a dramatic standpoint to “The Empty Child” is “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” (Eps. 8 & 9), which was likely my favorite story of the season. It comes up just a hair shy of being as great as its predecessor and yet it's mesmerizing in its vision, ideas, visuals and also its background score, which is one of the best composer Murray Gold has created.

Russell T Davies wrote the most controversial story of the season, “Love & Monsters” (Ep. 10). Fan opinion all across the internets was divided nearly straight down the line on the story that pushed the limits of what Doctor Who can be; I gave it a solid 10 for having the balls to attempt something so unexpected and succeeding at the same time.

“The Idiot’s Lantern” (Ep. 7) & “Fear Her” (Ep. 11) both disappointed due to the fact that they were basically the exact same story told exactly the same way only with different window dressing – this may not have been so bad if either story had been particularly good in the first place. Both feature pretty cool buildups that are ultimately undone by insanely weak resolutions. These two stories were the low points of the season. All the more inexplicable is that the former is written by Mark Gatiss, who penned last year’s far superior “The Unquiet Dead”, while the latter is by first-time Who writer Matthew Graham, who wrote and created the fabulous series Life on Mars (which will be hitting BBC America later this month).

S2 can’t be talked about without mentioning the return of ex-companion Sarah Jane Smith (once again portrayed by the lovely Elisabeth Sladen) in “School Reunion” (Ep. 3), an episode as fanwanky and beautiful as anyone could imagine. (A story that makes K-9 look good must be a triumph.) Most any boy who watched Who at a young age was in love with Sarah Jane the same way many boys are likely in love with Rose today. For better or worse, S2 frequently (although not obtrusively) references the old series; “School Reunion” is only the most obvious example.

S2 reintroduces the Doctor’s #2 enemies, the Cybermen in Eps. 5 & 6. While the Daleks were only mildly tinkered with in S1, the Cybermen are given a full-blown overhaul. This is understandable, however, as they continually changed over the course of the original series as well. For the most part they are done justice and as a race they’ve not been this menacing since the late '60s.

The major difference between the two seasons is a noteworthy one, and that’s the relationship between the Doctor and Rose, which is due mostly to two factors. First off, there’s the new Doctor, David Tennant. Secondly, there’s Billie Piper’s decision to leave the series, which clearly was taken into account early on in scripting the season. Both of these form the way the pair deal with one another.

It took me a while to warm to Tennant – longer than I expected, in fact. While there were moments he “had” me, he also managed to lose me now and again. It wasn’t until “The Satan Pit” that he became the Doctor; this is noteworthy as I felt similarly about Eccleston’s Doctor until “The Doctor Dances” and both episodes dramatically occupy the same spots in each season. I’ve yet to figure out what exactly makes Tennant’s Doctor work, which isn’t intrinsically a bad thing for an alien who’s over 900 years old. I shouldn’t always be able to figure him out, right? It’ll be fascinating to see where he takes the Doctor next year.

Billie Piper’s Rose is about as far from the Rose of S1 as you can get; for about the first half of the season it felt as if I’d fallen out of love with her - or maybe even moreso, that she'd fallen out of love with me. She’s not the same person as last year, but then again, she shouldn’t be. S1 seemed to be more about Rose working to please the Doctor and cementing the relationship; it could be argued S2 is the opposite. The Doctor seems mostly intent on showing Rose a good time, which, when they’re not busy getting in trouble, is what they mostly do. There was a certain amount of the duo taking the situation for granted in the first half, and logically this makes sense after S1's finale. (I mean, when all hope is lost and yet you still manage to slide through like whale shit in an ice flow - yeah, you might start thinking everything will always work out fine.) Midway through the season I began to fall for her again, and by the finale I think I understood why Rose had been written and played as such earlier in the season.

It’s something of a shame that the series keeps getting thrown these curveballs: First Christopher Eccleston’s departure and now Billie Piper’s. Rumors have as of late been surfacing that indicate Russell Davies himself is keen to move on (presumably, if this is true, it won’t be until after Season Three). To be fair, it must be difficult to keep the show innovative when it’s constantly in states of flux - you’re working with a limited number of stories each year and you’ve got to worry about this big change and that development and so forth. Looking back at S2, it seems numerous decisions were made solely because of Rose's impending exit. If Davies has had enough, I wouldn't blame him. I've said before and I'll say it again: This show must be exhausting to make.

If I had to lodge one major complaint against Doctor Who, it would be the all-too-frequently used Deus ex machina solutions. S1 used them somewhat, S2 relied on them far too often. It's the sort of thing that mass audiences don't think too much about and therefore will likely never be considered a negative by most. In fact, it's the sort of stuff mass audiences don't have to think too hard about at all. This may be why the show continues to succeed. If every episode was a "Girl in the Fireplace", I'm not sure the masses would keep tuning in.

The season's biggest transgressor in this department was the finale, "Doomsday". I wrote of how last year's finale, "The Parting of the Ways", did the same, only the logic seemed to come from somewhere - as if it were part of the season all along. This really isn't the case this time around, though I hope subsequent viewings prove me wrong. Make no mistake, there are moments in the episode that made the tears roll, but there were just as many that made my eyes roll.

If Davies does intend to leave after S3, and assuming there's a S4 (something that at the time of writing is unknown), please add my name to the list of people who think Steven Moffat should be hired to take his place. This is not to say I think ill of Davies or even that I think he should go. For all my criticism, hopefully my adoration of this show comes through. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone besides Davies could've envisioned and rejiggered this concept so successfully (even given its faults). He's shown the way and pointed the spotlight. I only hope someone with an equally strong sense of vision (like Moffat) will be hired to oversee things once he decides, "My work here is done".