Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Who's Next

Heeeeeey. Long time. Sorry about that.

I’m not a big TV watcher, really. Not nowadays. I don’t have anything against TV; just the opposite, in fact. I believe it can be a very powerful and intelligent medium with boundaries that still haven’t been defined yet, and even now I think the best TV shows are probably better than most of what hits the multiplex these days. But it’s been a long time since I spent more than a couple of hours a week watching TV, and even when I did I wasn’t really a channel-flipper. For me it’s appointment TV only, and the rise of TV-on-DVD has made that increasingly irrelevant. Mostly, for me, it’s The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, and even those are available online.

And yet, as I only just recently realized, throughout my entire life, I don’t think I’ve ever been without at least one TV show that I had to watch, day-and-date—and it always had to be a genre show. When I was really young, it was Transformers, mostly. Then Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then X-Files. Then Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fortunately, each of these overlapped the others by a year or two, so I was never without some show to obsess over, and there was a strong upward trend in quality, too. Just as I was moving into adolescence and getting completely sick of TNG’s stagey, pedantic universe, The X-Files came along with its dark, moody, and often witty idea-based stories. Then, as I was truly getting fed up with X-Files’ static characters and go-nowhere mythology, Buffy showed me what can really be done with long-form TV storytelling and characters in a genre context. Then when Buffy started to disappear up its own ass…

Well, there really wasn’t anything. (For the record, Buffy is still, on the whole, my favourite TV show.) But there were still shows to delve into; two of them, in fact, if you don’t count the tragically shortlived Firefly. Those two shows would be Lost and Battlestar Galactica.

I don’t really want to get into a huge discussion of these two shows. In fact, I find it interesting how quickly my interest in Lost evaporated after the finale had aired. (And yeah, I thought it was pretty crummy, aside from the awesome Locke vs. Jack fight on the rocks.) BSG had a better ending, but the season leading up to it was clearly wrecked by the writer’s strike, with inconsistent characterizations and stupid plot holes.

Neverthless, without those two shows, I suddenly felt a striking absence. Suddenly there wasn’t anything I felt compelled to watch. I’m looking forward to the upcoming A Game of Thrones, based on one of the few genuinely good fantasy novel series out there (and about which I plan to have more to say in a little while), but that won’t be hitting until next year. What’s a geek to do?

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

My relationship with Doctor Who is pretty simple. Caught it now and again on TV when I was a kid. Thought it was creepy and weird. Didn’t make a point to watch it—don’t know if it was too scary for my liking or if it just came on before I got home from school. (Probably the latter.) At any rate, I mostly missed the window to allow a show like that to get its hooks in me…

…Except that, when the new show launched, a lot of very smart bloggers, most of them British, turned their attention to talking about the old show, and they did it in such a way that I was intrigued. I’ve since caught a couple of episodes of the classic show and found it to be somewhat interesting, though I’d be lying if I said I felt compelled to really delve into it. I can understand and respect its status as an iconic institution, and I do plan to check it out every once in a while, but as with a lot of old comic books, I’m almost more happy to read ABOUT it than to actually experience. (And yes, I hold with the idea that Dr. Who is about as close to comic books as TV has ever come.)

The new show, though. Well. That seemed like a good jumping-on point. I was actually pretty excited when the show returned in 2005—I always like the theory of revamping old TV SF shows and movies for the modern era, even if the execution is so often lacking, and since I didn’t have any emotional connection to the old show, I wasn’t likely to get caught up in the endless fanboy debates that I knew, even then, were on their way. For me, the show could just be something fun and new with a history behind it, but one that I wouldn’t be beholden to—it could be an entry point into the old show, and nothing more. Plus, I liked the idea of a TV show starring Christopher Eccleston.

The problem, of course, was that the show sucked.

I seem to be in the minority here, but I honestly still think, looking back, that the first season was by far the worst. It had nothing to do with whether or not you enjoyed the original show (though it seems like most hardcore Who fans pretty much hate the new show), or whether you could get past the dodgy FX (I knew going in that that was part of the Dr. Who package); it was just flat-out crap, period. Plots didn’t go anywhere. The ideas were unimaginative and repetitive. There was an inexplicable focus on the boring life of Rose Tyler, on a show that had all of time and space to play in. The satire was both heavy-handed and nonsensical (they’re still going to be watching “The Weakest Link” 5,000 years in the future? They’re not even watching it NOW). And Russell T. Davies, the show’s new executive producer, was committed to some truly awful ideas, first and foremost being the race of farting alien infiltrators.

It wasn’t a complete wash; there were a handful of decent episodes, most notably “Dalek”, which reintroduced the Doctor’s classic foes, and “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, an actually creepy and satisfying story set in WWII. It was enough to keep me watching, hoping that all this “Bad Wolf” business was going somewhere (it wasn’t), that the melodramatics would subside (they didn’t), that the show would find its footing (it didn’t). At the end of season 2, I was out of there.

And yet, here we are. Partly because of my aforementioned lack of a genre show, and partly because it seems to have pervaded the geekosphere, to the point where it seemed like everyone had developed this weird blindspot as to just how lame the show is. It’s the classic case of “if you’re told something often enough you start to think it’s true, even when it actively contradicts reality.” What finally tipped me over were two factors: I learned that Steven Moffat, generally considered to be the show’s best writer (he wrote the aforementioned “Doctor Dances” two-parter, so the evidence seemed to support that) was going to be taking over as showrunner; and I found myself housesitting for a friend who had the entire modern series on DVD, and nothing to do otherwise. So I decided to catch up and start watching the new series.

I’m sorry to report my take on the Davies era hasn’t changed much, but I will say this: generally speaking, the show improved slightly with every season it was on the air. Season Two continued with a lot of the stuff I’d disliked about the earlier show (and the Christmas special that introduced David Tennant as the new Doctor was truly lousy, which sadly started a precedent of awful Christmas specials), but there were a few signs of improvement. The farting aliens were gone. The show’s budget had improved, which is a cosmetic change at best, but it leant everything a sheen of professionalism that made it go down more easily; at the very least, they could do more episodes set in the past or the far-flung future, meaning we spent less time hanging around Cardiff, Wales, disguised as London. More importantly, I started to get just a teensy glimpse of why people were so engaged with this ridiculous show. There’s a certain…spark to the proceedings, an energy, a chemistry between the leads that keeps everything highly watchable no matter how cruddy everything around them gets.

And things did get pretty cruddy. The big problem is that Davies-era Who seems to rely on certain tropes over and over again: unrequited love (including between the Doctor and his companion). Humans being possessed by or turned into aliens. The hamfisted “satire” mentioned above (i.e. diet pills that are turning people’s fat into little alien creatures, reality television run amok, a planet where people are stuck in a perpetual traffic jam). And, most annoyingly of all, a plot that sort of flails around wildly until it’s solved by a deus ex machina of increasingly ridiculous proportions. (“The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”, the most revered two-parter from season two, begins with the Doctor looking on, amazed, at a planet suspended above a black hole without falling in, and proclaiming it to be impossible; by the end, he’s blasting out of the black hole in his TARDIS like it’s nothing. Consistency!) Oh, and the Daleks returned over and over again, despite the fact that every episode ended with them supposedly being destroyed forever.

Nevertheless, I was addicted at this point; it was a bit like cramming your face with nacho-cheese-laden turkey-flavoured double-fried potato chips. You know it’s really, really bad for you, and sort of makes you gag even as you’re consuming it, but you can’t stop.

The third season, again, showed a slight improvement, partly because the utterly obnoxious non-love affair between the Doctor and Rose Tyler was over. This, unfortunately, gave Tennant’s Doctor something to mope about, something that he’d continue to do at great length throughout the series. Tennant himself is an appealing actor, but his version of the Doctor was a whiny emo trust fund kid, which was a thoroughly unappealing characterization. On a moment-to-moment basis, they did keep to the “wacky mad scientist characterization, but you’d get to some point in each episode where the Doctor’s eyes would well up, and the score would start to blast, and he’d say “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” and you’d know you were in for a rough time.

And may I just take a moment to deride the music on this show? It's the most heavy-handed tripe I've ever heard. I'm no expert on the old show, but I know it's often praised for its inventive music and sound design, and from what I've seen I agree. With the new show, it's boilerplate emotional manipulation all the way, and when the composer and Davies REALLY go both barrels it's like Spielberg and Williams with about 1/8th the talent and 1/25th the subtlety. "This is WHIMSICAL, dammit!!"

Fortunately, counterbalancing that was the lovable (and yes, very beautiful) Freema Agyeman as the new companion, and a strong run of episodes leading up to the end, leading up to “Blink”. “Blink” really threw me for a loop, because it’s possibly the best single TV genre script I’ve seen in the last few years. And here it is in the middle of this show that, at its best, still wasn’t THAT great. However, it had been preceded by a really strong two-parter, “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood”, so I allowed myself to think that maybe the show was tipping over into being legitimately good.

And then Derek Jacobi turned into John Simm and the Doctor turned into Tinkerbell. And I don’t really want to talk about that.

Anyhow. Season Four saw the return of Donna Noble, the character who’d already popped up in a previous Christmas special and been very, very annoying, so my hopes weren’t high. Imagine my surprise when Donna (played by Catharine Tate) turned out to be the best of the Davies-era Companions. Her grating nature actually turned into a huge advantage for the show, as at that point the Doctor had been saddled with two Companions in a row who thought the sun shone out of his ass, and he desperately needed a voice of dissent. Considering that the Doctor had been growing increasingly self-absorbed and immoral—a character arc that I don’t believe was intentional at first but was clearly being developed by the writers at this point—having someone act as the needling voice of the Doctor’s conscience was a smart move, helping to steer the show away from melodrama and back towards the saving-the-world business it was supposed to be about. This is also the season that introduced the interesting River Song, a character who’s story arc actually made use of the time travel that the show is supposed to be about; essentially, the Doctor and River are experiencing their relationship backwards, so that his first meeting with her was her last, chronologically.

The Season 4 finale was as stupid as ever, and the string of TV movies that followed (making a de facto Four and a Halfth Season) were plenty mediocre, but there was a definite sense that the show was on rails. It wasn’t good, but it had the ingredients to be great, with just a nudge or two in the right direction.

Enter Matt Smith.

At the end of “The End of Time”, Tennant’s Doctor (they’re usually referred to by number, so call him Ten) died the way he lived: whining about his lot and life and acting like a drama queen. (I love that his last act is to trash the TARDIS for the next guy. Prick.) Fortunately, the nature of Dr. Who is such that once you’ve got a new lead actor and a behind-the-scenes change, you have a bit of a clean slate, so it’s not surprising how quickly the new series has gone over into something compulsively watchable, occasionally even great. That X Factor—which basically seems to boil down to “coherent scripting”—has been added to the show, while keeping the spark of weirdness and fun from Davies’ run.

When Smith was cast, there was a lot of grumbling that he was too young and glamorous, but in fact, when you see him in action, Smith seems less like a Boy Band member than Tennant did. The guy’s just odd-looking—handsome enough, sure, but not in any conventional way. But what’s amusing is the way he plays the Doctor as a very old man, which of course, he is at this point. (By the way—is it just me, or is the Doctor getting younger with each regeneration something that’s been going on since the beginning? I know the respective Doctor’s ages don’t make a perfect downwards line, but the oldest Doctor, William Hartnell, is also the first, and in general each new Doctor seems younger, with a few exceptions. Casting a Doctor as young as Smith makes a certain amount of sense to me at this point—I think he’s got one regeneration left, right? If that one’s a teenager, it would be pretty funny.)

Meanwhile, Karen Gillen as Amy Pond is…um…just a little bit sexy. Just a smidge. More to the point, her character is actively sexual in a complex, interesting way. She’s introduced, as an adult, as a “Kiss-o-gram”, which is pretty clearly meant to be kid’s show code for “Stripper”, and this more or less makes sense given her backstory. The newly regenerated Doctor crashed in her backyard when she was a child, already developing some odd quirks due to dead parents and a frequently absent aunt who raised her, and he seemed like Santa had answered her prayers (she was literally praying to Santa Claus when this happened) by sending down a real-life imaginary friend. But then he abandoned her, intending only to pop out for a minute and instead returning 12 years later. The adult Amy is clearly dealing with some issues, and some of them may be sexual, but refreshingly, she hasn’t let them ruin her life; she’s mostly a stable, functioning adult with a few neuroses. (Some people actually find her a little annoying for this reason, but Gillen’s pouty face is something I could look at all day, personally…) The show’s subtext has been about Amy’s choice between childhood and adulthood, as represented by her upcoming wedding; to that end, Moffat’s version of the show has more of a fairy tale feel to it.

Anyway, this kind of careful scripting, as opposed to Davies’ sledgehammer, is what’s made the new show so much more enjoyable when it goes into sitcom/soap opera territory. Which it does fairly often. I suppose I understand; the show’s become a massive hit based on Davies’ version, and Davies’ version was a soap opera, so they don’t want to change things up too much. Actually it’s interesting how much the Moffat show has hit many of the same beats as the Davies run, but then taken them in different directions. The Doctor-Companion sexual tension is there, but it’s dealt with fairly quickly and effectively, and with the obvious implication that they won’t be getting into a relationship (which I approve of; personally I wish they hadn’t brought it up at all as a possibility, but at least it’s veered quite firmly away from Rose Tyler territory.) Likewise, we’ve had the schlubby boyfriend who has to compete with the Doctor for the girls’ affections; Amy’s encounters with the Doctor over the course of her life echo “The Girl in the Fireplace”; and the most recent episode pulled a hat trick of callbacks, with an crashed spaceship doing harm while trying to repair itself (like “Fireplace” again), the Doctor trying to blend in as an “average bloke” (like “Human Nature”) and a couple of Young Nerds In Love who are too awkward to tell each other how they feel, and whose lives are impacted by the Doctor (like “Love and Monsters”, a.k.a. THE WORST THING TO EVER AIR ON TELEVISION EVER). We’ve even had a “runaway bride”. It’s like Moffat wants to show off how much better he is at running the show, and really, he’s right. Under Moffat, the show has been tighter, more imaginative, and more idea-based.

The big difference seems to be that Davies isn’t interested in SF; Moffat is. In other words, we’ve now got a guy who likes SF running this SF show. Gosh, who would have predicted that would have made a difference?

But it has, and now I’ve got my appointment TV back—

--for a couple more weeks.


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