Tuesday, April 18, 2006

DOCTOR WHO BLOGGING: "Rose" & "Dalek"

I had intended and hoped to blog about the new Doctor Who series from the very beginning. But don't you know, the day the series first premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel was also the day a loved one underwent life-threatening surgery? It's been that kind of year for me, but that's beside the point. I missed the first several episodes of Doctor Who and am only now catching up on the series. Overall, I like what I see.

My first thought is about the look and design of the program. It's absolutely state-of-the-art...for 1995. The CGI effects are quite terrible in the two episodes I watched, "Rose" and "Dalek," and the series appears to have been shot on not-very-high-definition video. Also, the acting is almost universally hysterical. By that I don't mean funny...I mean literally hysterical. Characters run around screaming insanely in a constant state of crisis and angst, snapping silly lines at one another in staccato, machine gun fashion.

But - let's be blunt - Doctor Who was never really about special effects or about acting, either (anyone remember Colin Baker? Peter Davison? Sylvester McCoy?) Although this new series is set after a mysterious "Time War" it actually plays as a full-throated continuation of the low-budget BBC show that lasted for twenty-six years and was cancelled in 1989 (when Sylvester McCoy played the Time Lord). The TARDIS exterior is the same, as are the dematerialization effects, and the Daleks also look very similar to their BBC ancestors.

Some changes have been made for the better, of course. The new TARDIS control room doesn't look as though it's constructed of cardboard and Styrofoam, and furthermore boasts a genuinely alien feel. And the menacing Daleks can now hover up and down staircases, though they still screech "EX-TER-MI-NAAAAAATE!" in annoying electronic voice. Also, the Dalek toilet-plunger arms are now capable of literally "sucking face" and the metal suits open to reveal the yucky little beasties inside. And that's all fun. Also, I can't deny that shivers of pure joy and nostalgia careened through me as I first heard the modified (but faithful) series theme music.

Until I heard that theme music, I hadn't realized how much I'd missed Doctor Who. It was always one of my favorite shows (at least the Hartnell, Troughton, Tom Baker eras...) and I soon realized watching "Rose" and "Dalek" that the producers and writers have taken special care to give us the same Doctor Who...only cheekier and giddier than before. These episodes seem to run on pure adrenaline and momentum, and have a low-budget energy and zeal that I find appealing in the buttoned-down age of CG and green screen. The humor is tongue-in-cheek, and even if the stories I saw were pretty damn weak (another Earth invasion story...jeez!), this new incarnation has already provided the franchise with a classic character: Billie Piper's: Rose. Quite simply, how can you not fall in love with her? She's adorable and sweet and very, human.

I admired how "Rose" began, with several views of modern human life (in London) moving at fast-motion, as Rose endures her hectic but repetitive life (signified by the close-up shots of the alarm clock clicking over to 7:30 pm). Then, once Rose is on the job, time seems to slow down and can't move fast enough. I think this is how many of us feel about our existence: that we're always rushing to and fro, but once we get where we're going, life feels as slow as molasses. We're especially susceptible to this feeling, I'd say, in our late teens and early twenties, and that's precisely where Rose is as this episode commences.

Since Doctor Who plays with the concept of time, it's only appropriate that the series begin thusly, by gazing at time as relative: sometimes slow, sometimes fast. No wonder that the Doctor calls us "blundering apes." Unlike humans, he can stand still - and, in "Rose's" best scene - feel the gravity of the Earth spinning around the sun. He's not so susceptible to vicissitudes and deceptions of time and space, I guess, and this was a bold and interesting interpretation of the long-lived character.

In the two episodes I saw, I found Christopher Eccleston's Doctor to be a little busy, a little silly, but again that's par for the course, I guess. People could have said the same thing of Tom Baker thirty years ago. There are scenes in each episode that could go either way, into horror or comedy. For instance, the scene in "Rose" in which the Doctor was forced to wrestle with an Auton's severed arm played like comedic homage to Evil Dead 2. But was it supposed to be comedy, or anxiety-provoking, or both? Later, a scene with Rose's boyfriend and an ambulatory garbage bin played only as comedy...and pretty stupid comedy at that.

The new Doctor Who views its titular character as an immortal legend whose "constant companion" is "death" and it establishes Eccleston's incarnation at the Kennedy Assassination, near the Titanic in dock, and at Krakatoa before the massive volcanic eruption. I liked all this historical material, especially because Rose tracked it down by using the Internet...an instrument that wasn't really around back in 1989. But, I would have enjoyed seeing references to the Doctor in his other previous incarnations. But maybe that would have been too much for "new" fans to absorb.

After two episodes, I began to get into the helter-skelter vibe and over-the-top rhythm of this shamelessly exuberant Doctor Who and found the experience was pleasant. Although the material has been updated and rendered more humorous, I don't feel that every change in the format was designed as a poke in the eye (see: Battlestar Galactica) to established fandom. On the contrary, this show - down to its tacky special effects - feels like a love letter to all the Whovians who miss their favorite time travel. Watching the new show, one senses not that creator Russell T. Davies dislikes and is embarrassed by the original material (like Ron Moore?) but rather that he is amused by it for all the same reasons we are.

I look forward to future episodes.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:20 PM

    Hey John,

    I think it’s unfortunate that you chose (assuming you had a choice) to watch the first episode and then jump ahead to episode six. The new show is not made up of (more or less) stand alone serials as the old show usually was. There are plot and character arcs that run throughout the season in an intentionally Whedon-esque manner. By the time we get to Dalek, we’ve had several tantalizing hints about the Time War and the fate of the Doctor’s people. We’ve seen brief glimpses of the grief and the guilt that the Doctor carries, and we’ve begun to notice the words "Bad Wolf" mysteriously popping up everywhere. Dalek presents us with new and important information about the war (Daleks vs. Time Lords, “I made it happen!”) and shows us a side of the Doctor that, based on what we’ve seen of him in the past five episodes, is quite jarring. This is what gives Dalek much of its emotional weight, and Eccleston’s performance in this episode is outstanding.

    While I’ll concede that Rose is probably the weakest episode of the season, Dalek has been a big hit with the folks I’ve introduced to the show, both those that enjoy the classic series and those that don’t. Chris screened the episode for some coworkers who’d never seen or heard of a Dalek before, and I’m told it went over very well. I bring this up only because I want to point out that, as far as I know, there hasn’t been a single complaint about the special effects.

    As you said, Doctor Who has never been about special effects. Anyone familiar with the classic series will understand that. Still, I find the effects in the new series to be perfectly adequate. I admit that there are some dodgy moments in Rose and the Aliens of London two-parter, but it’s a shame you didn’t get a look at episode two, The End of the World, which I found quite impressive. On the whole I find the show to be visually engaging and well produced. New Earth, the debut episode of the second season, is absolutely gorgeous to my eyes; colorful and imaginative with some outstanding prosthetics.

    Of course the effects aren’t always going to be Hollywood quality. Did you expect them to be? I watch and enjoy science fiction, fantasy and horror films and television shows from around the world, and no matter how great many of them are, the vast majority aren’t going to have the super slick CGI effects of an American production. The BBC, like Japan’s Toei studios and many others, don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in some hot shot director’s vanity project (see: Jackson’s King Kong). Nor do they have the sort of cash that Paramount can afford to spend on Star Trek, yet I still prefer the aliens we see in new Who to that ropey looking CGI Gorn that the Enterprise effects team came up with for In a Mirror Darkly.

    You also said that Doctor Who was never about acting. You point to the troublesome 1980’s (the Davison, C. Baker, McCoy years) as proof of this. That’s fine. But what about the almost two decades worth of Doctor Who before that? Can you so readily dismiss the performances of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker? What about William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Peter Purvis, Elisabeth Sladen etc., etc.? I would argue that Doctor Who at it's best was always about acting, which is why it was able to thrive in spite of it's low budgets and poor special effects. In my opinion, Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper are great in their roles. The show wouldn't work if they weren't.

    I don’t quite know how to respond to your assertion that the new Doctor Who looks like it was shot “on not-very-high-definition video”. All I can say is that I don’t see where you’re coming from here. I’m not saying that it doesn’t look like digital video, which it is, but I certainly don’t think it looks bad.

    Honestly though, to my mind special effects and video resolution are not the real issue here. What’s important to me is that Russell T. Davies has done what Hollywood, with all their inferior remakes and shallow, cynical re-imaginings would have us believe is impossible. He’s created a new version of an old favorite that is at once deeply respectful to the original and immediately accessible to a new audience. It’s instantly recognizable to old-schoolers like me and totally contemporary for a whole new generation of fans. It’s also an enormous popular and critical success in its native Britain. At a time when much of the science fiction audience seems to be mistaking darkness for maturity, Davies has given us a show full of joy and wonder. It seems like a miracle, and the only way I could be any happier is if some bright visionary could do the same for Star Trek.

    John, you know I have an enormous amount of respect for you, for what you do and for how well you do it. So please don’t be offended when I say that I was expecting a little more from this review. It’s mostly positive, but it’s positive in a slightly backhanded way, and that surprises me. It’s not that I’m offended by the fact that you don’t seem to like the show quite as much as I do. On the contrary, I usually find that even when I disagree with your opinions I still enjoy reading about them, because you make a good case for them and I can understand where you’re coming from. I’m looking for that here. Why were the stories so weak? I’ve stated that Rose is probably the weakest story of the season overall, but do you think it did a good job introducing the core concepts of the show? If you were really unmoved by Dalek, where do you think it failed? I’d really like to know.

    -Tony Mercer

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  2. Hey Tony,

    Thanks for the very serious, very honest comment. I know I'm in serious trouble if I lost as thoughtful a reader as Tony Mercer with my review today. That certainly saddens me, since it wasn't my intent to belittle the show or offend anybody. (Although I seem to be a champion at offending people this week, given my post about the new Battlestar Galactica...)

    For the record, I rather liked the two episodes of Doctor Who that I saw and do consider myself officially "hooked." I hope the review make that plain. I think I ended it with the idea that I look forward to future episodes, right? I will continue watching with interest and appreciation.

    Regarding the episodes I missed, I can't really speak to their quality because I haven't seen them. I'll catch 'em on reruns when I can and look for the plot-threads you mentioned. I certainly don't deny that they're present or valuable.

    I liked "Dalek" better than "Rose" by a long shot. I did think, though, that "Dalek" was undercut by bad, overly-theatrical performances in virtually all the guest roles. And "Rose" was the umpteenth invasion story in Doctor Who history and a not very original one at that. I didn't feel it handled the Auton/Nestene material in a manner superior to the January 1971 serial "Terror of the Autons."

    Again, I stick by my remarks about the Auton garbage bin and the severed arm attack in "Rose"...I wasn't really sure if they were designed to play as comedy or horror.

    What I think "Rose" did particularly well was introduce us to Rose herself. For that reason alone, I enjoyed the episode. As I wrote, I especially liked her conversation with the Doctor wherein he took her hand and told her how he could feel the Earth spinning and all that. Very poetic, very nice. This was good stuff.

    I think I did acknowledge in my post that the series set up the concept well from the very beginning, and noted how it used fast motion photography and the like to meditate on the relativity of time. Yes?

    Glad you enjoy Christopher Eccleston so much. I admired his work in "Shallow Grave" and "28 Days Later" but I haven't totally warmed to him yet in this role. He too strikes me as a little over-the-top, a little theatrical. No complaints or reservations at all about Billie Piper. Think she's brilliant.

    You wrote so eloquently and so well about the special effects that I don't really have anything to quibble about. I wasn't expecting movie-caliber effects, Tony, just ones on a par with your average Sci-Fi Channel movie. In the two episodes I saw, I'd say that modest threshold wasn't achieved. Not that I mind. Some of my favorite shows include Sapphire & Steel and Blake's 7...and they have virtually no (good) special effects to speak of. But, as an objective critic, I'm tasked to comment on such things. And I did write that Doctor Who isn't really about special effects (nor is Blake's 7 or Sapphire and Steel). See, I thought I was giving it a pass on that element...not deriding it.

    I couldn't agree with your more about Russell Davies and what he's accomplished here. As I wrote, the series is shamelessly exuberant (which I would equate with your descriptor of it having "joy and wonder") and highly amusing. I don't mean that in a backhanded way at all.

    For instance, much of what occurs in "Dalek" works on a purely self-reflexive level. The writer has characters in the play make jokes about the Dalek's toilet plunger arm and the Metaltron's inability to climb stairs, and then the episode plays wicked jokes based on those "assumptions" about the character from the old series. Is this not genuinely amusing? Indeed, I enjoyed the fact that this new Doctor Who is willing to have fun with the material (and again, I think this equates to your comment about a show not needing to be dark to be mature).

    I couldn't agree with you more. However, I also don't think a show needs to be "serious" to be mature. Good comedy is hard to do, and I found it here in spades, as I noted. I was entertained and amused in both episodes as old Doctor Who conventions were turned on their head.

    What I detect as the major strengths of the series based on these two episodes are its self-reflexive humor and its lunatic pacing. I will no doubt see more to love as I watch more, but those are the elements that struck me on this viewing.

    Again, I don't really see how that's backhanded. I don't see comedy or pacing as small things, but as legitimate accomplishments.

    About the acting -- yes, I was glib. I should be careful about overgeneralizing (though I did provide specific examples in a parenthetical aside about the performers I had in mind).

    I don't know if I've answered your comment adequately or not. I'm sorry you were disappointed with the review.

    All I can say is that I get a chance to redeem myself next week, right?

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  3. Anonymous11:01 PM

    I’ve reread your review, my comments and your response and I must admit that I can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m too close to this. I can usually analyze and debate the merits and flaws of any of the popular entertainments that interest me, but I’m clearly too emotionally invested in this show to be objective. For me Doctor Who has always been an affair of the heart, more so than any of my other objects of geek-i-tude.

    I clearly missed or glossed over some of the more important points in your review, so blinded was I by the red haze that fell over my eyes after reading some of the earlier paragraphs. I do think I made a couple of solid points, but my comments about special effects and expectations seem self-righteous and a bit condescending in retrospect. For that I apologize. I did not mean to offend, and I tried to be watchful for such things while proof reading, but I missed it. I’m given to self-righteous diatribes, you see.

    Funny thing is, I don’t usually get bent out of shape when people criticize or poke fun at Doctor Who. Let’s face it, the show is one of those “you get it or you don’t” kinds of things, and if you’re going to be a Doctor Who fan, it’s best to have a thick skin and a sense of humor. Most people here in the States don’t even know what it is, and for those that know of it but aren’t among the faithful, it’s an easy target. I usually just smile and shrug and say “yeah, well, it’s not for everybody”.

    But there was a time when it was for everybody, at least in the UK. And now here we are in 2006, and RTD has made Doctor Who for everybody once again… at least in the UK. Between the awards and accolades, big UK ratings, endless mainstream press coverage, renewed international interest, the fact that I love it, my friends and family like it and so on, I’ve been really enjoying the idea that my favorite show is en vogue for a damn change.

    It really doesn’t matter to me if it’s successful in the States, because it doesn’t have to be. The Brits love it, and it will go on. I’ve been watching the reactions with interest, but also a certain detachment. I’m not going to cry about it if more Americans would rather angst along with Ron Moore’s West Wing in Space than groove along in the TARDiS with my hero from across the pond.

    Some opinions do carry great weight with me, though. I’ve been awaiting your reaction with interest. I was fully aware that you might not be as easily convinced as I, but I was unprepared for the tone of the review, which I admit upset me. But that’s my problem. You’re a professional, and you must follow your own best judgment, regardless of whether a few fanboys get their feathers ruffled. Even super cool fanboys like me :)

    -Tony

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  4. well, this is a detailed, emotional exchange, so i'm going to contribute some self promotion and a knock knock joke.

    eugene mirman is a very funny comic and you can find a ton of videos and other brik a brak on www.eugenemirman.com. anybody around norfolk, va should come to see me open up for him at relative theory records on may 15. also to feature michael showalter from the state, stella, the baxter and wet hot american summer, and leo allen of the comedy team slovin and allen.

    why does this shameless plug belong on this thread? well i'll tell you. relative theory gave me an advance copy of eugene mirman's upcoming album on sub pop, "en garde, society!" it has a very good knock knock joke in it.

    knock knock
    who's there?
    doctor
    doctor who?
    that's right

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  5. Well, right after George has gone and lightened the mood here, I'm going to return right to the subject at hand and say this: I like the new Doctor Who and plan to continue watching it!!!

    Tony, I think your second comment nailed what you disliked about my review: the tone. I've re-read my review and I can see where you're coming from. Maybe I should have left my review of the new "Who" to a day I could devote more time and precision, instead of shooting from the hip.

    Anyway, I really hate letting down a loyal friend and reader.

    I don't always get things right; not by a long shot. But if I don't, I usually acknowledge it and try to make amends (consider my review of Phantom Menace...). I don't know what I'm going to finally feel about Doctor Who since I've only seen two episodes, but I can swear that I'll watch carefully and measure my words.

    And for the record -- I already like the new WHO a lot better than the new BSG, if that means anything...

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  6. I'm holding off judgment until I get a chance to see an episode or two myself (this blog helped me remember that the show was starting to air in the first place), but I eagerly await it - Christopher Eccleston's work on REVENGER'S TRAGEDY in particular make me excited about any big role he lands.

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  7. Hey John,

    I agree that “Rose” was the weakest episode.

    I personally have greatly enjoyed the new Doctor Who and am thrilled to see how it will develop over the next few seasons.

    About special effects and acting…remember that this is the first season (and it is British). I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the first season had some very corny special effects and the jokes didn’t always work. I actually can name very few SF series that didn’t start a little weak. I mention British because the BBC just doesn’t have the financial resources of a major American television network (and that isn’t always a guarantee, like with Surface). Plus, British humor doesn’t always translate well to Americans.

    Please check out episode #2 - “The End of the World.” I felt that this was a very strong episode (and reminded me a bit of Farscape).

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