Sunday, 26 August 2007

Busybody's Doctor Who Review

I was going to avoid coming back to Doctor Who again so soon, but Loren Rosson's excellent review of all three seasons of new Doctor Who, Doctor Who: The Complete First, Second, and Third Seasons on his Busybody blog compels me to comment. It's a fine, detailed review from someone with a good knowledge of classic Doctor Who, but who has only recently come to all three seasons of new Doctor Who. I agree with a lot of what Loren says, the celebration of just how good all three seasons are, the admiration for David Tennant, the underlining of the strength of the stories and more. We also agree about several individual episodes, notably anything written by Steven Moffatt and Paul Cornell. More of that below. We also disagree on a huge amount, though; in fact some of the things I most liked about the resurrection of the series are the things Loren dislikes, so reviewing his review is a lot of fun. If his is "an exercise in self-indulgence", it is a worthwhile and enjoyable one, all the more so because it provides the invitation for similar self-indulgence for me.

I should contextualize my own comments by noting that Loren is probably much more to be trusted than I am. John Peel used to say about his favourite band The Fall that "their very presence on stage" was such a thrill to him that he was unable to make critical comments about given performances, or to compare one gig with another. I am a bit like that with the new Doctor Who. I spent the whole of the first series (2005), which we watched in our home in South Birmingham every Saturday night, thinking that I must have died and gone to TV heaven; I just couldn't believe how good it was. A more intense emotional reaction came with Series 2 (2006); we were now in the USA, and watching it week by week on Saturday nights was a strong link with England, which we were missing. By the time Series 3 came round this year, it was already an institution in our house, and then we had the additional thrill of watching Episodes 12 and 13 back in England. So I have watched the three seasons spread out over three years, with waits between each episode, which changes one's appreciation of it. Loren has watched them back to back, without the context or the waits, and I think that leads to a different kind of perspective.

Let's begin with where I agree with Loren. Several of his highest rated episodes are definitely some of the best. Paul Cornell has written three episodes, all brilliant -- "Father's Day" in Season 1, and a two-parter, "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood", in Season 3 (see previous comments on). All of those are five star episodes. Likewise Steven Moffatt's episodes -- these are all superb, with "Blink" in Season 3 one of my favourite episodes ever. I will be delighted if the rumours about Steven Moffatt taking over Doctor Who after Russell T. Davies leaves turn out to be correct.

I disagree with Loren on the Christopher Eccleston, the ninth doctor. I thought he was brilliant -- tragic, lonely, funny, quirky and yet a very twenty-first century doctor. We were very disappointed when it emerged early in his season that he was going to go at the end of that season, even if it gave one the thrill of looking forward to a regeneration, something we did not get at the beginning of that season, from Paul McGann to Christopher Eccleston. One of the things I liked about the Eccleston Doctor was the humour, born from an unlikely optimism that helped him to cope with the tragedy of his lost planet and people. So one is fascinated by his struggle to cope in episodes like "Dalek", but one loves his one-liners throughout the series. "Lots of planets have a north" is a fantastic joke. I suspect that Loren does not enjoy the humour of the first season very much. I loved "Boom Town", for example, a light-hearted episode with lots of jokes, but Loren gives it only 1 Tardis groan, and suggests that it is "an uneventful melodrama that serves no purpose other than to push an anti-capital punishment agenda". I don't agree, and there may be a cultural difference here. In the UK, there is consensus on capital punishment -- it was ended years ago and will never come back (I hope!); as a political issue it is simply not on the agenda in the way that it is in the US; I doubt that Russell T. Davies was trying to push any agenda here, and it certainly did not read that way to me. I thought "Boom Town" was a delightful episode, not the best but funny and clever and poignant. If there is anything wrong with it, it is the typical Russell T. Davies deus ex machina ending, though by now we have got used to that.

A related issue is that Loren does not like Rose's back story, and the more involvement he sees from Mickey and Jacky, the less he seems to like the episode. I don't feel the same way at all. One of the things I like about the resurrection of Doctor Who since 2005 is that it asks all those questions that we were asking ourselves in classic Doctor Who like "What happened to the people who were left behind?" So the Doctor does not simply find Rose in the first episode, and drop her off back on earth two years later, at the end of the second season. Rather, there are agonizing questions about the boyfriend and the Mum who get left behind, and the viewers' interaction with them helps us to understand Rose better too. And I think that adds greatly to the quality of the new Doctor Who. It's more than just science fiction. It's life in all its complexity. That's why we laugh and cry much more with Russell T. Davies in charge than we have ever done in the past.

In fact, the thing that emerges from Loren's review is that he does not actually Russell T. Davies's writing very much. He gives "Love and Monsters", the season 2 "doctor lite" episode, one Tardis groan, which surprises me. I loved that episode, especially first time round. There was something delightfully endearing about a story surrounding a group of geeks meeting together in London on a regular basis, forming friendships and somehow getting involved in a Doctor Who adventure without realizing it. It was the second time that there was some homage to Doctor Who fandom in new Doctor Who (the first being the character in "Rose"), and I think it's played beautifully. I also liked the ongoing relationship in this episode between Doctor Who and Blue Peter -- the monster played by Peter Kay was the winner of a Blue Peter competition. And Peter Kay wasn't wasted in this episode.

Similarly, I think "The Runaway Bride" rates much better than a 1. I wonder whether there are a couple of necessary components for full enjoyment here. First, you need the Christmas Day, 7pm context. This episode is loud, with dramatic special effects (the Tardis on the motorway one of the most enjoyable effects-scenes ever), an orchestral score and lots of brash dialogue. It is clearly trying to shout across the room at the viewers as they eat their turkey sandwiches and worry about whether or not they should be helping out their mum in the kitchen (or is that just me?). And I think one enjoys this episode much more if one knows and loves Catherine Tate, almost as big a comedy figure in England as the previously mentioned Peter Kay. There were little allusions to some of her comedy characters in the episode and I'd recommend a crash course in Catherine Tate for all before they watch this episode, all the more so now given the excellent news that she is coming on board for the whole of the fourth season.

Just time for a couple more disagreements before I finish. I loved "Idiot's Lantern" in Season 2, which Loren also dislikes, commenting that "there's no feeling of period at all, and it could have easily taken place in the present". Nonsense! The evocation of early 1950s Britain was brilliant, and Maureen Lipman's increasingly menacing BBCTV presenter was spot on. This was a fine episode. And a couple of episodes that Loren liked much more than me were The Impossible Planet / Satan Pit. These reminded me too much of classic Who, with lots of tramping around space stations and quarries. Better than virtually all of those, to be sure, but not better than other stories in new Doctor Who.

And it looks like Doug Chaplin, over on Metacatholic shares some of the same views as me. Perhaps it's a British thing?


Doug said...

Preach it, brother! (And I've updated my post with a link back here)

Loren Rosson III said...

Very nice, Mark, even if you aren't entirely to be trusted. :) I may be wrong about the anti-capital punishment agenda in Boom Town, but then again... maybe not. I don't know if Davies spent anytime in the U.S., and/or if he's consciously marketing Dr. Who for Americans as much as Brits. I definitely felt I was being preached to in that story.

Also, you refer to the wrong story here:

I loved "Fear Her" in Season 2, which Loren also dislikes, commenting that "there's no feeling of period at all, and it could have easily taken place in the present". Nonsense! The evocation of early 1950s Britain was brilliant, and Maureen Lipman's increasingly menacing BBCTV presenter was spot on. This was a fine episode.

You mean The Idiot's Lantern instead of Fear Her (though both receive a mediocre two-star rating from me). And I'm afraid I have to maintain it was a rather dull story, even after two viewings.

I do hope that Love and Monsters will grow on me, because I love the concept of the Doctor Lite stories, and the innovative approach of showing the Time Lord through the eyes of someone who only has brief contact with him. It obviously worked well in Blink -- the best story of the three seasons -- but I think it just fell flat in L&M. And I certainly have numbers on my side here. The Outpost Gallifrey website rated all the stories based on fan averages, and this one came in right at the bottom! Likewise, my second favorite The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (after Blink) came in at the top. (Not that I really care what "the masses" think, mind you.)

Nice to get your perspective! Now you need to revisit some classic Who, especially the Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy years.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Loren. Yes, I meant Idiot's Lantern, and have corrected the reference above, with thanks.

With respect to the Outpost Gallifrey folks, yes, they are wrong too on Love and Monsters. I think a lot of the Doctor Who fans tend not to enjoy the humour and the light-hearted side of the new Doctor Who. Compare the way a lot of them complain about Catherine Tate, another comedy icon.