Saturday, August 30, 2014

Doctor Who Weekend: First Impressions

So it’s been six days since I saw Deep Breath, the debut episode of Doctor Who Series 8 and Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  So that prompted me to think about other first episodes for new Doctors. So if you don’t mind (and even if you do), I’m going to take a look at the debut of other Doctors. 

This review will not cover William Hartnell (as the one who started it all in the first place) or Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor (who didn’t get a post-regenerative episode.)  Oh, also John Hurt’s War Doctor will not be covered here (for the same reason).

Patrick Troughton in Power of the Daleks 
This is one is hard to assess for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is I haven't seen it. I did see an animated re-creation of the opening episode (sadly, Power of the Daleks remains so far lost to time) demonstrates a 2nd Doctor who is a bit amused by this turn of events, alternating between familiarity and puzzlement over his surroundings. 

But another factor to consider this is the first time this has ever been tried. Actors had been replaced in roles before but usually there was at least some semblance at maintaining the physicality of the actors. But here the producers had the job of convincing viewers that the tall white haired man from before and the short dark haired man on screen now were in fact both the same man, the Doctor. 

Bringing in the Daleks was a good move on the part of the producers to sustain a sense of continuity between the two Doctors and entice viewers to stay with the program despite the change in lead actors.  Patrick Troughton has quite the task of being new but immediately accepted as an old friend. There was no guide book for how to do this; Patrick Troughton had to make his own rules.

Jon Pertwee in Spearhead From Space
Here we see regeneration actually doing a number on the Doctor. Pertwee’s first scene was falling out of the TARDIS, still shaky from his change. Eventually the Doctor finds himself in a hospital where he stays for the whole first half hour. The second part finds the Doctor a bit more aware of himself but it’s not until the 3rd half hour of the 4 part story that the Doctor takes charge. The menace of the Autons is an effective start with lots of suspense being built with supporting and guest actors while the Doctor recovers his bearings. 

The Doctor does act a bit more humorously in this story than he does later in Jon Pertwee’s five year run. Pertwee’s background was mostly in comedy and it makes sense that he would play the part a bit more broadly until he could settle into a comfortable rhythm.  This would not be the last time we would see this phenomenon play out.

Tom Baker in Robot
Other than being unconscious in the first minutes of part one, Tom Baker is quickly in action, acting manic and talking fast. This would turn out to be not just post-regenerative mania; the Doctor was just being his new self. The story is a bit pedestrian, a standard UNIT story unused from the Pertwee era and dusted off for Tom Baker’s debut. But like the Daleks in Patrick Troughton’s first episode, the Doctor joining UNIT to combat a super menace provided an effective transition and gave the 4th Doctor lots of opportunities to show off.

Peter Davison in Castrovalva
Like Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, the 5th Doctor is not coping well with regeneration. On the plus side, we get to see wonderful scenes of Davison channeling his successors from Hartnell to Baker as he brain tries to settle down. 

On the negative side, it takes too long for the Doctor to find his groove. While in costume fairly early on in part one, Peter Davison’s Doctor is not fully in character until part four. There are too many scenes of the Doctor being fretful, distressed and not being particularly effective. A lot of that probably owes to the story having to cover the actions of three (yes, THREE!) companions, something that would hamper the 5th Doctor’s development through much of Peter Davison’s three years on Doctor Who.

Colin Baker in The Twin Dilemma
A recent poll conducted by Doctor Who Magazine ranks this story as the worst of ALL Doctor Who episodes. (Yes, even below Love and Monsters.) And for good reason: the story is trite and not at all engaging. The acting of the titular twins was beyond wooden. And then there’s the Doctor who decides to dress in the ugliest outfit he has and tries to strangle Peri. 

Twin Dilemma.jpg

Yeah, it’s not good. 

The only good point here is that Colin Baker’s Doctor is quickly put to action even if part of that action was trying to strangle Peri.

Sylvester McCoy in Time and the Rani
Like most of the 24th season, this story is not very good. Similar to Jon Pertwee, Sylvester McCoy was from a comedy background and brought that to the fore in this outing. There is an inspired bit where the 7th Doctor goes through a variety of outfits that resemble those of his previous selves. 

Time and the Rani.jpg

Thankfully, also like Pertwee, McCoy was not content to play the Doctor as a comedic tramp and with the help of script editor Andrew Carmel, McCoy began to explore a darker, more serious tone to the Doctor. The result was that the 25th and 26th seasons were overall a vast improvement. Sylvester McCoy is remembered correctly as an important part of the Doctor Who chain but I doubt that memory would be as kind if the he had continued to play the Doctor as he did in his first story.

Paul McGann in The Enemy Within (AKA, the Doctor Who movie) 
Other than maybe a flashback to the final seconds of the previous Doctor’s end, a new Doctor's first story is theirs. This person is THE Doctor now. 

Except in the Doctor Who movie. Sylvester McCoy returns as the 7th Doctor and is in about 25% of the movie before regenerating. And at least another 45% is Paul McGann’s Doctor dealing with post regenerative loopiness. The upshot is that Paul McGann gets maybe 30% of the movie’s time to actually be the Doctor. Which would not have been a bad thing if subsequent episodes had followed the movie but those failed to materialize. Still kudos to McGann’s eccentric behavior as he copes with his new body and for getting the Doctor, even as off as he was, immediately into action.

David Tennant in The Christmas Invasion
David Tennant is on record as citing Peter Davison’s Doctor as his Doctor when he was a kid. So shades of the celery wearing 5th Doctor, Tennant’s Doctor spends a great deal of the special lying around. And even when he gets up to confront the alien menace, he’s still in his pajamas. The 10th Doctor is not fully realized in form and character until the story’s epilogue. 

Granted, what David Tennant does get to do in this episode is brilliant and very quotable. (“This new hand is a FIGHTIN’ HAND!”) And as the pressure builds, as the aliens look to be the new owners of Earth and there is absolutely no hope of victory or salvation, the anticipation built to a fever pitch explodes as the TARDIS doors open and there stands the Doctor. “Miss me?” he says with a grin. So while The Christmas Invasion follows the Castrovalva model of a Doctor who needs time to rest and recover, it works better due to a faster pace and a basic easy to understand plot with a threat to others that the Doctor must save.  

Matt Smith in The Eleventh Hour
While post regeneration episodes are fairly hit or miss, this one knocks it out of the park so effectively that it remains the standard by which all subsequent 11th Doctor stories are measured by. Within moments of his change and his TARDIS crashing, the Doctor finds himself engaged in a young girl’s mystery. He’s ready to help, even if he is, as he put it, “still cooking”. There are dire things afoot and there’s no time to take any kind of personal stock. When Prisoner Zero impersonates the Doctor, the Doctor doesn’t recognize him because he hasn’t had time to even look in a mirror. Dashing about in the tattered remains of the 10th Doctor’s suit, even that gets plugged into the Doctor’s narrative as Amy Pond keeps calling him “Raggedy Man”, even up the imagined farewell to the 11th Doctor in Time of the Doctor.

Peter Capaldi in Deep Breath
Dealing with a first wherein the Doctor’s regeneration actually leads to a significantly older face, Peter Capaldi’s debut as the 12th Doctor is a whirlwind. His marbles appear more disorganized than during the 11th Doctor’s first hours and it takes a while for the 12th Doctor to settle in. Yet like the 11th Doctor, the 12th Doctor still has work to do even while half-mad and dressed in a night shirt. While the plot involving robot zombies is just plain off the hook gonzo, watching the Doctor’s development is fascinating. From the start when he first pops out of the TARDIS, all wide eyed and manic, unable to tell the difference between Clara and Strax to the showdown with the sinister Half Faced Man where the Doctor is clearly in control, there’s an incredible progression that I really do not know at what point the Doctor stop being crazy and start being himself.

So which one is tops and which one leaves a lot to be desired? Here’s what I’m looking for in a post regeneration episode.

  • Regenerating ain’t easy so the Doctor better have at least some issues with figuring out his new body, his new face and his new personality.
  • But we’re not watching Doctor Who to see the Doctor lying in bed. We’re anxious to see what this new Doctor can do.
So to end on a positive note, let me first address the least of these. And that would be Castrovalva.

Wait! I didn’t pick The Twin Dilemma? Yes, it’s a flat out awful story and it would still be awful no matter where it landed. The fact it landed at the first of a Doctor’s run just makes it hurt worse. That being said, it does deliver on the two things I look for in a post regeneration episode: complications for regeneration but the Doctor still getting quickly to action.

Whereas Castrovalva meanders for too long with too many people who are not the Doctor and even the Doctor is not the Doctor for much of this story. And while the concept of an invented city and culture has possibilities, in the end this is just a convoluted plot by the Master to trap and destroy the Doctor. Again. The only people in jeopardy are the Doctor and his companions. 

Do understand this: I would rather watch Castrovalva than The Twin Dilemma anyday. There should be some kind of United Nations resolution against The Twin Dilemma. But as to delivering what a post regeneration story needs to do (and that's what this review is about), then Castrovalva is found wanting.  

A post regeneration story that does not come up short is The Eleventh Hour. The Doctor's new body comes with new rules and the Doctor spends some time working that out. The sequence of the Doctor in the kitchen with young Amelia is a perfect distillation of watching the Doctor work out the kinks even as strange, alien events begin to demand his attention. 

And those events are simple: Aliens have placed the Earth in danger and the Doctor has to stop them. Of course, it's a bit more complicated that; we're talking Steven Moffat here. But the basic gist is easy to grasp so we can focus attention on both the story and the Doctor getting use to a new persona.  The Doctor is not at his best and he's without a working TARDIS or even a sonic screwdriver. And the Doctor still wins. 

A man stands on a rooftop across from a giant eyeball.

That's one hell of a great first impression.

Tomorrow: Doctor Who Series 8 continues with its 2nd new episode, Into the Dalek. And I'll have my review of it right here.

Until then, be good to one another.

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