Thursday, July 19, 2007

Back in the TARDIS - More Random Who Thoughts

Still watching Doctor Who round these parts (the first Tennant season), and still getting a kick out of the program. I raved about "Tooth and Claw" last week, but frankly one of the later episodes - "Girl in the Fireplace" - is about a million times superior to that good entry. This makes it an extraordinary Dr. Who episode all around. There's a charming, whimsical and sad side to this adventure, which finds our Time Lord and companions (Rose and Mickey) landing aboard a malfunctioning spaceship in the 51st century. The ship's droids, lacking the spare parts needed to repair the ship, set about traveling through time to get organic bits and pieces from human history. Naturally (or unnaturally...) this requires the droids to open time windows to France in 1727 AD. It's a creative story idea, with a finely deployed sense of the gruesome and macabre. In one creepy moment, Mickey learns that the damaged ship runs on a beating human heart. All it lacks now is a human brain to run the master computer...

I don't know that there's been a finer, more lyrical hour of science fiction on television in the last few years (certainly not on Lost; nor on Battlestar Galactica), and this episode features a great mind-meld sequence in which the Doctor attempts to scan the brain of a beautifully and extraordinary French woman, Reinette (a potential love interest) but shockingly has his own brain scanned by her instead. This intimate scene is beautifully-written and performed, and as is increasingly typical of this new Doctor Who, ends with a personal revelation about the Time Lord's life. I'll also go out on a limb here and state that a tale about human emotion (in this case, a rather tragic love story) is always superior to a story about space politics (Battlestar Galactica) or paranoia (Battlestar Galactica) space combat (Battlestar Galactica) or red-glowing-spine-sex (Battlestar Galactica).

Watching "Girl in the Fireplace" (and "School Reunion" before it), I came to comprehend the reasons why this season of Dr. Who could easily prove a controversial one for longtime fans. The producers and writers have taken the daring and different approach of "personalizing" (or, dare I say "humanizing") our favorite Gallifreyan. Now, there will be those long-standing Whovians who blanch at this more intimate approach, because for many years, the Doctor has been "above" such probing - and human - psychoanalysis. He's been a mystery wrapped in an enigma traveling in a TARDIS. However - and this is a big "however" - there is certainly precedent for the "humanizing" story approach. Go back to the William Hartnell years, or even some Patrick Troughton episodes in the 1960s and there are indeed moments like the ones we've seen in David Tennant's first season. In some of those early Who stories (such as "The Aztecs"), the Doctor is more fallible (and Tennant's Doctor is nothing if not fallible...) and occasionally - very human-seeming. He didn't always know all the answers; he sometimes made mistakes, and at times he evidenced fear, not superiority ("The War Games" comes to mind on the fear front).

So the storytelling approach here is both valid and true to Who history. The only question that remains pertinent then, is: do you like it? Do you prefer this approach? I must admit, I feel this is indeed the right approach for our 21st century age. We don't want our superheroes (and the Doctor is, in a sense, a superhero) infallible anymore. Go back to some of the later, diffident Who years of the 1980s and you see that Sylvester McCoy's Doctor was an infallible, cosmic puppet-master. Always in control of the situation; always operating on a secret agenda within an agenda. It seemed he landed the TARDIs somewhere by accident, but instead had a very specific (and intended...) role to fill. "Silver Nemesis" and "Curse of Fenric" come to mind in terms of this story idea. Before McCoy, Colin Baker took the Doctor's arrogance and "alienness" (particularly in his fashion sense...) to such heights that some Who aficionados blanched. I'm not saying the approach of the McCoy or Colin Baker years were bad; only that they suited that time; much as this approach suits this time. It's apples and oranges, I guess. (Ask yourself: would Daniel Craig have worked as a James Bond in the 1970s and early 1980s...in Moonraker and Octopussy? Would Roger Moore have been right for Casino Royale?). It's a variation of the same dilemma.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Rose. I understand from some of the comments on this blog that she's not as popular, perhaps, as I earlier believed. I'm only half-way through the season, but she hasn't yet worn out her welcome with me. Her antics, as they've been called, do tend to make trouble, and yet I see this as the new series' method of making the companion role more three-dimensional in the past (Mel, anyone? Nyssa?). Rose's stubbornness and independent-thinking, in particular, provide the lead-in to a number of stories. She pushes and pouts when the Doctor says lay off; she probes and explores when the Doctor just wants to leave. I rather like this approach, and it makes Rose authentically an "equal," more than a sidekick. When I recall how this series started, in "Rose," I remember thinking that there had been a definite shift; that the companion had taken center stage (and again, consider whether or not this is true to Who history by recalling Hartnell and his companions, Barbara and Ian.). Again, it's a valid and interesting choice, and I rather like Rose. She's smart, sexy and in her own way, a rebel just like the Doctor. That's why they make good companions, I suppose. Unlike the Doctor - and this is where tension is generated, it seems - she has other concerns; namely family of origin. Whereas the Doctor, "the lonely little boy," makes no mention of his family, Rose is always attempting to reconnect with her father. She perpetually (or at least in two serials...) tries to reconnect with the father she lost. This is her Persian flaw...she just can't let it go, and given the opportunity to experience the Dad she lost, she's going to take it. I like the stubbornness, and think it's a good match for the Doctor's own. I also enjoy the fact that she is not of one those whiners who wants to go home, or who is constantly screaming in the face of danger. She is there for the ride, and I find her refreshing. And fetching.

The new series' two part episode "Rise of the Cybermen" and "Age of Steel" also dramatize the new, more intimate nature of this update. Here, the TARDIS lands (er, crashes...) on a parallel Earth where a paralyzed tycoon, John Lumic, is preparing for a global coup with the creation of his unemotional metallic soldiers, the Cybermen. The Cybermen have always been my favorite Who villain. They're so strong as villains, in fact, that Star Trek stole them (j'accuse!) and renamed them the Borg; but that's another story. No, the Cybermen are fascinating and perpetually terrifying because they personify the dangers of progress (particularly technological progress). They're a reminder to the ambitious that there is no free lunch; that perhaps our species can attain immortality but the price is the human soul. The all-time best Who serial, in my opinion, is the Troughton era horror classic, "Tomb of the Cybermen" (which has a hell of a lot in common with many Borg episodes of TNG...), but "Age of Steel" does an excellent job of capturing (or re-capturing, as the case may be...) the essential horror of the Cyberman. It's a very personal horror: the horror of losing one's identity to the machine. The horror of seeing one's individuality sublimated to the will of the circuit. There are many ways that a Dr. Who story might express this horror, but I can't think of a finer - or more personal - statement than what we see here.

There's a moment in the episode, and it's almost a throwaway, when the Doctor disables a Cyberman and knocks out its emotional inhibitor. The Cyberman begins talking, and reveals that it is a woman named Sally Phelan, and that this is the eve of her wedding. She says - with confusion - that her fiance shouldn't see her on the night before their wedding, that's it bad luck. This isn't merely heartwrenching, but the writers have found that perfect "human touch," that joy of our species - love - and shown how technology has wreaked havoc with it. This woman has seen her physical body sawed and chopped up and her brain 'grafted' to a mechanical juggernaut, and yet her fragile human brain is still thinking about the wedding; about her husband to be; about a future that - tragically - can never be. The moment is perfect because Sally here is talking about her appearance; about how she looks; about body image and well - how she looks now, transformed is terrifying and inhuman. She's been turned into a machine but the fragile pound of thinking flesh inside the metal casing still wants to get married. Still wants a human life. Still holds out hope for love.

I will maintain to my dying day that modern Star Trek:The Next Generation (and then Voyager) took a great concept (Cybermen/Borg) and then went in absolutely the wrong direction with it. Or more bluntly, the worst direction with it. The horror of the Borg/Cybermen is not that they kill or destroy or blast starships to ribbons, it is that they assimilate mankind and take what they want without thought, without recrimination, without remorse. Identity is sacrificed; humanity is lost; memories are stolen and co-opted. It is - indeed - a form of rape, or more accurately, soul rape. The best episodes of all versions of Star Trek concern identity (think "The Enemy Within" or even, jeez - "Datalore.") So it was a colossal mistake to humanize and individualize the Borg in TNG episodes such as "I Borg" and then - adding insult to injury - create a nonsensical individual leader villain-type with her own personality in The Borg Queen. I love how the Borg Queen looks, but I loathe what she represents. What made the Borg scary, and what makes the Cybermen scary, is that they are totally different from us. They are a hive; a group-entity. Individuality is quashed. Emotions are flattened. If you have a Borg Queen wanting to take a human (Picard) as her mate/King, all that good stuff (all that fearsome stuff...) gets lost. Which is why it is delightful that the new Doctor Who doesn't take that route. The series "humanizes" the terror of the Cybermen in an appropriate way - in the transforming of Jackie Tyler and Sally Phelan (and apparently 6,500 other Londoners...) into Cybermen, but it doesn't make the mistake of humanizing the Cybermen themselves, of granting them immortality or a leader with a unique personality (I don't think the Cyber Controller qualifies, frankly). They remain as terrifying and anonymous as before; and in some ways, more so through several fine story touches. I also love the ghoulish (and disgusting) imagery of the Cyberman factory: the plumes of smoke from the incineration chambers, and so forth.

Finally, the last Doctor Who episode I've watched thus far is called "The Idiot's Lantern," and I'll confess readily, it's the stinker of the season (at least so far). It's the worst episode since "The Christmas Invasion." It's about an alien called "The Wire" taking over London's television sets and feeding on viewers just in time for the coronation of a new Queen in 1957. That sounds like a pretty promising premise, and I was expecting a scathing critique of television, and even Empire (especially since "Tooth and Claw" boasts a cheeky attitude towards royalty and Empire), but none of that is present. This is a simply dreadful by-the-numbers episode that doesn't make sense on any sort of narrative level. After watching, ask yourself why the viewers' lose their faces when getting eaten by the Wire. And then ask how they get them back. It makes little sense (though there is an explanation briefly offered). Like "The Christmas Invasion" (which featured murderous Santa Claus androids and a killer Christmas Tree), "The Idiot's Lantern" features some great and truly memorable images: particularly the faces of the "devoured" appearing on black and white television sets, but these powerful images don't serve the narrative beyond their creative ingenuity. Why does the Wire keep the faces? How do they pop up on individual television sets? Is each television a repository for one face? If you're eating faces, why keep 'em around so they can come back and taunt you one day? This episode just doesn't make the grade.

I think this episode also crystallized for me some of the reasons why Tennant is a disappointment for some viewers. He has a terrible, terrible acting moment in the midst of "The Idiot's Lantern." Rose has lost her face to The Wire, and the Doctor demonstrates anger and warns a police inspector that he is mad, mad, mad and they will all rue the day he was roused to such momentous anger. This character moment comes off not as powerful or ominous, but laughable. The Doctor can be many things, but red-faced with hysterical, screeching anger? He's seen companions in jeopardy before (shall I count the times?) but this over-the-top expression of concern just comes off as ridiculous. And I think that's because Tennant - at least so far as I've watched in the series - clearly lacks gravitas or a dark side. Although he is undeniably cute (and my wife Kathryn marvels over his great ass...) and Tennant is good with so many facets of the Doctor's personality (unexpected delight, sarcasm, wit, etc.), the actor lacks the sense of menace that has characterized some of the best Doctors over the years. Pertwee and Eccleston had a sense of physicality - machismo even. Patrick Troughton and Sylvester McCoy had a gentleness about them but also a sense of mystery. You sensed that if you crossed them, the consequences would be dire. And they did it without yelling like schoolgirls. Tom Baker had a charming way of cracking a joke and seeming totally unrattled in the face of great odds -- he was frequently impertinent and spoke truth to power (and I am reminded of his confrontation with the God Sutekh here....). Tennant's tendency (so far) to grow shrill, loud and bug-eyed when angry is exactly the wrong choice for this incarnation of the Time Lord. It makes the character appear whiny and petulant. He says early on that he is the "kind of man" who doesn't give more than "one warning." That's supposed to be dark and ominous and foreboding, but the sentiment is undercut by his playing of many emotional moments, frankly.

Again, I hasten to add that I'm not done watching all the episodes; but I guess I feel that Tennant is often quite good and occasionally rather bad in the role. This is not entirely unexpected: the series is still trying to figure out what works and what doesn't work with this incarnation of the Time Lord. Of the episodes I've watched, I'd say that three are very, very good ("School Reunion," "Rise of the Cybermen" "The Age of Steel"), two are darn outstanding ("Tooth and Claw" and "Girl in the Fireplace"), one is mediocre ("Christmas Invasion") and one is authentically horrible ("The Idiot's Lantern"). That isn't a bad batting average, when you think about it.

And I'm still watching...

3 comments:

  1. astrid1:20 PM

    Yes, I was hoping you'd see his outburst in "Idiot Lantern" the same way I did - sometimes it's the writing, but in that moment, it was the acting. (Was he directed to scream or was it his own creative choice? the mind reels...)

    I need to go finish watching the season before you post any more spoilers. ;-)

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  2. Howard Margolin1:23 PM

    John, it might be interesting to note the nominees for the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation-Short Form, are, as they were last year, heavily Who-dominated. The list is as follows:

    Battlestar Galactica Downloaded
    Doctor Who Army of Ghosts and Doomsday
    Doctor Who Girl in the Fireplace
    Doctor Who School Reunion
    Stargate SG-1 200

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  3. Keep watching, John, keep watching ... then tell me if you still think Tennant lacks gravitas by the end of Season 3.

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