Monday, July 07, 2008

Second Verse, Same as the First: Doctor Who Thoughts

And thus, the Russell T. Davies era ends. Well, there are three more Davies-penned specials (the teaser for the 2008 Christmas special is already circulating) in the tube, but both the evidence of years past and the fact that in the fourth season finale Davies obviously worked hard to give Steven Moffat the closest thing possible, on a show with four decades of continuity, to a fresh start suggest that these will be largely self-contained regurgitations of past stories, and also not very good. So, really, the Davies era wraps up with Saturday's episode, "Journey's End," and like him or hate him, esteem his abilities as a writer and producer or despise them, there is no denying that this was an era, with its own tone and character, its own themes and focal points, its own recurring settings and characters, now brought to a resounding and definite close.

So really, there are three endings we could talk about: the episode, the season, and the four seasons that make up Davies's oeuvre. It presumably comes as no surprise to anyone that it's on the first count that the result is weakest, with Davies, as ever, substituting bombast, shouting, dark foreshadowing and impossible-to-live-up-to buildup, as well as, yes, some nice character moments, for anything resembling a decent plot. On the plus side, no giant reset button, which is almost impossible to credit given how inevitable it seemed last week (though admittedly the method by which the need for a reset button is avoided--the gobbledygook-driven proclamation that the Doctor can regenerate into himself--is unworthy), and though the plot device which has come to be known, lovingly and otherwise, as Total Bollocks Overdrive is used repeatedly, for once the excesses of the plot feel organic to it rather than something slammed into our heads in the hopes that we'll be too stunned to notice just how stupid the whole exercise is. Which is to say: nothing on the level of Floating Tinkerbell Jesus Doctor. The balance between ridiculousness, melodrama, and genuinely good writing (or genuinely good acting masking the flaws in indifferent writing) has, for once, been struck, making for a satisfying episode--at least while it's being watched.

On the season level, I'm still trying to decide where I'd rank the fourth season within Davies's offerings. Near the top, certainly, but I'm not sure whether I like it better or worse than the first season (the last two slots go: three, two). As with most of new Who, the season operates on two levels which seem almost incidental to one another: the plot, and specifically the overarching, season-long plot which begins with faint hints, advances into blatant foreshadowing, and finally explodes all over the screen in the season-ending three-parter; and the character interaction, mainly the relationship between the Doctor and his companion but also her relationship with her family and the world she's left behind. On the former count, season four is very much of a piece with season three--weak, forgettable standalone episodes (and a horrible two-parter) in its first half, and strong, inventive standalones (plus a much better two-parter) in its second half, culminating in a no holds barred three-part season finale. Though nothing in the fourth season had the power of the one-two-three punch that was "Human Nature," "The Family of Blood," and "Blink," I still found the latter half of the season impressive, and as a result the fourth season as a whole feels much stronger and more worthwhile than I would said just a few weeks ago, when all that was keeping me coming back to the show was the interaction between the Doctor and Donna.

It's on the character level that the fourth season shines. Donna is by far my favorite companion, but more importantly, her relationship with the Doctor--teasing, bickering, uncompromising, and deeply affectionate--is the most satisfying of any of the four (Rose/Nine and Rose/Ten being two different relationships) long-term Doctor-companion relationships we've seen. It avoids all the pitfalls previous seasons fell into. The Doctor and Donna aren't caught up in an all-consuming romance, thus leaving both of them open to other people while still grounding one another. Neither one of them is pining for the other in a way that can never be satisfied, and which becomes self-destructive. Perhaps most importantly, Donna clearly gets something out of the relationship. Of all of the new Who companions, she's the one who most noticeably grows and evolves under the Doctor's tutelage, the one who gets the most out of the experience of traveling with him--which of course makes it all the more gutting when she loses everything he's given her in "Journey's End." Rose could go on, having forgotten the Doctor, and live a perfectly happy, albeit ordinary, life. Martha would live a fabulous, exciting life even in his absence. Donna, in losing the Doctor, loses a part of herself, perhaps the best part.

What's missing from the fourth season is the integration between plot and character development that the first season managed handily (if not always subtly, in general resorting to foregrounding the Doctor's grief and damage). As in the second and third seasons, the season's big bad exists primarily as convenient prop, a catalyst for the show's soapier elements, and is rather forgettable in his own right. Even more importantly, the season is missing the sense of newness, of an approach to SFnal TV and TV in general that was, to me at least, entirely different to anything I'd seen before, which permeated Who in its early episodes. It was perhaps inevitable for later seasons to lose that freshness, as the show's trademark combination of absurdity and melodrama began to seem familiar, but Davies seems to have had a deliberate policy of recycling plot elements, character types, and emotional notes, which to my mind is his greatest failing during his tenure at Who's helm. "Smith and Jones," for example, and for all its superficial differences from "Rose," is so clearly trying to ape that episode, and specifically to highlight the same qualities in Martha that made Rose an ideal companion, that it comes to seem hectoring. "The Unicorn and the Wasp" is a retread of "The Shakespeare Code" which is a retread of "Tooth and Claw" which is a retread of "The Unquiet Dead." "The Voyage of the Damned" is a patchwork of bits of better episodes with no personality of its own.

Nowhere is this tendency towards repetition more apparent than as the fourth season approaches its ending and the climax of its central theme, which is actually the central theme of the entire new show, the one quality of the Doctor that Davies keeps returning to--his capacity to inspire and influence others, and make them, for better or worse, more like himself. There is arguably no episode in the new series's run that doesn't touch on this theme in one form or another, but it is especially prominent in the fourth season. "Partners in Crime" breaks with the format of both "Rose" and "Smith and Jones" by having a former companion seek the Doctor out. Donna has clearly been changed by her encounter with the Doctor in "The Runaway Bride," but she needs him around to keep effecting that change and inject wonder into her life--which he does, and as I've noted Donna's growth over the course of the season far outstrips Rose's or Martha's during their time with the Doctor. The Sontaran two-parter draws deliberate parallels between the Doctor and the twisted teenage genius Luke Rattigan, who is inspired by the Doctor to self-sacrifice. In that same story, the Doctor and Donna marvel and are somewhat put off by the effect he's had on Martha, turning her into a soldier. Both his genetic heritage and his parental influence help turn the Doctor's daughter Jenny into someone who rejects mindless soldiering and joyfully embraces a Doctor-ish lifestyle. "Midnight" explores a rare instance in which the Doctor fails to influence those around him. And then, of course, there are the three episodes which conclude the season, a veritable orgy of companions past and present joining forces with each other and the Doctor to save the universe.

Which is all very well and good, but long before the fourth season ends this all begins to seem rather samey and repetitive. Yes, it's affecting when Luke Rattigan sacrifices himself, but not as much as it would have been if Astrid hadn't done it before him in "Voyage of the Damned," and Jabe before her in "The End of the World," and probably others that I'm not remembering right now. And though I enjoyed the three-part finale, there is no denying that it keeps saying the same thing over and over again. "Turn Left" shows us the Doctor's former companions stepping up in his absence to save the world as he would have done. And then in "The Stolen Earth," the Doctor's former companions step up in his absence to save the world as he would have done. And then in "Journey's End," they... step up in his absence to save the world as he would have done.

Admittedly, there are nuances that distinguish the three stories. In "Turn Left" the companions work separately, and their victories are partial and often come at a high price. In "The Stolen Earth" the companions band together and work to contact the Doctor and bring him to Earth. In "Journey's End," a darker tone permeates the story as the companions threaten to take genocidal action, emulating the Doctor but also raising his ire and despair at the thought that he has created murderers. All of these variations, however, have shown up on the show before, and their louder and more insistent repetition here only cements my conviction that the season-ending three-parter has enough story in it for maybe two episodes. Though I like it the best of all three episodes (possibly because I like Donna much better than the Doctor) "Turn Left" contributes nothing to the season's overarching plot, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the storyline of "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End" was spread out over two episodes mainly because Davies wanted to break on a regeneration (which is a particular shame as, had he resisted the impulse to yank the viewers' chains, and introduced the botched regeneration and its consequences in the middle of an episode, the cop-out resolution he used might have been a great deal more palatable).

All of which is to say that the handover from Davies to Moffat comes not a moment too soon, not because Davies is a bad writer who has produced a bad show (he isn't and he hasn't, and I remain deeply impressed with some of his first season episodes, as well as "Midnight" and large parts of the fourth season three-part finale) or because Moffat is a flawless one (though I don't entirely agree with this article at io9--most particularly its claim that Sally Sparrow and River Song are bad characters--its core claim that Moffat has some definite and worrying issues, particularly when it comes to gender, is sound), but because Davies has clearly said what he wanted to say. Steven Moffat will take the Doctor in his own direction, good or bad--from his episodes it already seems clear that he is less interested in the Doctor as a buddy, as someone with whom companions have a deep, long-term relationship, and prefers to tell stories about people who see the Doctor from afar, for a moment, and who view him with awe, though this may very well change when he has to plot and people an entire season--and he will bring his own strengths and weaknesses to the show. But however the Moffat era turns out, it is plain that the show is ready for it. It's time for a new tune.


ad said...

To be honest, I felt that the linked article gave me more insight into its writer than into Moffat. To describe Madam Pompadour in such terms, in an article accusing someone else of misogyny, was memorable. It certainly gave an interesting view of the human mind at work.

Personally I think that the most obvious link between his episodes (the ones that I have seen) is that they are horror stories for children. But that is what Dr Who is meant to be.

Greg G said...

I'm afraid that Andrew Rilstone hits the nail again for me -

Abigail Nussbaum said...


You'll note that though I objected to that article's characterization of Sally Sparrow and River Song, I said nothing about Reinette... I do think the article's point is vastly overstated, but I've never been entirely comfortable with "The Girl in the Fireplace," which is in many ways a male wish-fulfillment fantasy, and there is a compelling argument to be made that, as female role models go, a professional mistress in pre-revolutionary Versailles should be pretty far down the list.


Heh, yes, I saw that yesterday. As ever, I find Andrew too harsh, but I'm particularly puzzled by this reaction because, as I've just finished saying, whatever one thinks of Davies's reign it is over. If anything, Doctor Who has been released of its long illness, not succumbed to it.

Greg G said...

Speaking only for me, Doctor Who as it currently stands really does seem like a poisoned chalice. The character has been turned into such a biggerlouderfastermore Mark Millar superhero (even a Dalek's gun can't stop him!)that there's no longer an iota of dramatic tension.

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