Saturday, September 6, 2014

Doctor Who Weekend: Last Impressions





Hi there and welcome to Doctor Who Weekend. Once again I'm doing a two day post. Tomorrow will be review of the next new episode of Series 8, Robot of Sherwood. Today I pick up on a theme inspired by last Saturday's post of each Doctor's first story after regeneration. Today I'm going to the other end of the scale to rate each Doctor's last story. Which one is the best? And which one is, eh, not so much? At least one of those answers will surprise you.  


William Hartnell in The Tenth Planet
Hartnell’s swan song is among the missing and/or incomplete stories of the 1960’s. The regeneration scene from Hartnell to Troughton survives at all because it was a clip used on the Blue Peter TV show. (Aside: OK, the idea that there is anything out in the world called “Blue Peter” is astounding, especially that it’s a children’s program.) What I’ve read of the story synopsis, I may not be missing much. Most of the heavy lifting was done by companions Ben and Polly. The Doctor wasn’t even in part three of the four part episode owing to Hartnell’s illness. Hartnell’s deteriorating health probably informs everything about the 1st Doctor final adventure. There are repeated references to feeling weak and his body “growing a bit thin”. At the end, the Doctor just collapses. Since Doctor Who appealed to children, I guess there was some reluctance to have someone just up and shoot the Doctor or have the Doctor valiantly give up his life to save an innocent. No, he just crumbles to floor. A bit anticlimactic, I would imagine, except this had never been done before. I guess there was drama enough in the idea of the Doctor changing his form. I imagine for the viewers of that era, it was a mind-blowing experience. 

Patrick Troughton in The War Games 

Troughton’s exit is centered in an epic tale. The Doctor and friends facing a humongous threat and the only thing the Doctor can do is the one thing he really doesn’t want to do: call the Time Lords. The War Games is significant in that the Doctor’s race is identified for the first time as Time Lords and we get the very strong sense that the Doctor knows his options…and his time…are running out. Patrick Troughton goes out at the top of his game with his unique mix of humor and humanity as the Doctor faces his fate. The very end is a bit silly given the dread that the Doctor felt about going back to the Time Lords.  The Doctor is sentenced to exile and his appearance will be changed.  It makes it sound like a makeover more than the end of his (second) life. And the Doctor’s reaction to the process? “Stop it! You’re making me dizzy!”. The story is way overlong but it’s an effective vehicle for getting the Doctor to his next date with his future. But viewers looking for a glimpse of that future will have to wait; we don’t actually see the Doctor regenerating into his next form.

Jon Pertwee in The Planet of the Spiders

The final story to feature Jon Pertwee as the Doctor is the first to establish certain details that would play out in the future. For one thing, the process is called “regeneration” for the first time. It’s also the first time the Doctor’s impending death triggers the change. The first Doctor establishes being “weak” but there’s nothing to confirm that he dies of that weakness, just that he’s too weak to stand and needs to be (as the series put it then) “renewed”. And the 2nd Doctor’s change is called just that: a change. It’s only in retrospect that we can assign additional meaning to these events: the 1st Doctor dies of old age and the 2nd Doctor is executed, triggering his change.  But in Planet of the Spiders, the Doctor is forced to make a choice that he knows will kill him but he needs to set things right and face his fears. OK, the spiders are weird and the voice of the Queen Spider is just too cartoonish to be taken seriously. Oh and we have another element appearing for the first time: a companion reacting sadly to the Doctor’s “death” followed by the shock of watching him change. 

Tom Baker in Logopolis 

The last story of the Tom Baker era was the first to ramp up the atmosphere of gathering gloom and impending doom. There is a dark foreboding sense of death and decay. Entropy is at the center of Logopolis as a commentary on the Doctor’s time coming to an end as well as to the overall plot. Oh, the plot. OK, I’m going to give this a go: entropy is eating the universe, a bunch of guys who can speak Math are holding it back, the Master wants control of entropy so he can rule everything and the Doctor has to stop him. It’s really that simple but it’s hard to tell with all the balls in the air. Companion Adric is joined by Teegan and Nyssa in this episode so now we have THREE companions to keep track of (which will dog the program for almost all of Peter Davison’s run) and a weird ghostly albino dude who keeps popping up to haunt the Doctor. It’s revealed this Watcher was the Doctor all the time as he merges with the 4th Doctor to bring forth the 5th. And Logopolis has one of the best all time exit lines for the Doctor: “It is the end  but the moment has been prepared for.” 

Peter Davison in The Caves of Androzani

The sad thing about Peter Davison’s last story is it’s his best story. In the hands of a writer who knew what the hell he was doing (Robert Holmes), the Doctor and his ONE companion (Peri) are thrust into one terrible violent mishap after another. The Doctor and Peri’s doom is sealed from the first episode when they encounter the toxic Spectrox. Death has already found the Doctor; the Doctor just needs to out run him for the next three episodes. And out run him he does in epic style. Peter Davison’s Doctor is by turns sarcastic, forceful, fearful and determined. The Caves of Androzani gives Davison some good stuff to chew on and devoid of encumbering excess companions, he has time to explore being the Doctor, not just playing nursemaid to three tagalongs. In fact the greatest power of this episode is that the Doctor puts himself through a great deal of pain and suffering not for some large goal of saving a planet or a universe. No, he’s going through hell to save just one person, Peri. The end of part three where the Doctor has commandeered the smuggler’s space ship is probably Peter Davison’s best scene of his entire run. “Nothing is going to stop me now!” Indeed. The only bad note is struck at the very end: “Change, my dear, and it appears not a moment too soon.” I’ve come to appreciate Colin Baker more in retrospect but I still want to slap his smug little face when he delivers that line. 

Sylvester McCoy in The Enemy Within (the Doctor Who movie) 

Colin Baker alas did not get a final episode to redeem himself. And in a way, neither did Sylvester McCoy.  His regeneration was a part of a larger story, a plot device needed to get the rest of the Doctor Who movie going. And he’s the first Doctor to have his regeneration triggered by being murdered. Yep, the Doctor is shot down in an alley way. No big scene of saving the life of a person or lots of persons. Nope, just the dumb luck to walk into a hail of bullets. Well, that’s what he gets for materializing in America. The regeneration itself is distinctive for actually morphing McCoy's features into McGanns with a lot electrical energy sparking about. 


Christopher Eccleston in The Parting of the Ways
With Eccleston's exit as the 9th Doctor at the end of the first series of the revived Doctor Who, we have a big epic struggle that calls for everything that the Doctor and his companions got. Daleks come blasting through space in a multitude of metal evil that we long time fans could have never, ever thought possible back in the classic days. It's the future of Earth and humankind at stake, helpless before an armada of Daleks. But in the end, much like the 5th Doctor, the 9th Doctor's life is not sacrificed for the many but for the one: he saves Rose. It gives the moment a poignancy and power that this man from beyond the stars who moves through time like its air give his all to save one person. Chris's farewell speech is short but covers so much of his Doctor's character. And it's here that we see for the very first time the regeneration effect for the 21st century: blazing golden energy comes blasting out in all directions. It's a bit over the top for classic fans who were more use to fade outs and fade ins to bring about the change of the Doctor. We're talking about regeneration, a force that re-writes the entire physical structure of a Time Lord. Yeah, it should be a big deal.  Oh, and for the first time, we also see regeneration while the Doctor is standing up. 


David Tennant in The End Of Time Part 2
Like Eccleston's exit, David Tennant's end as the Doctor was preceded by epic derring do with the Master shooting bolts of energy all over the place and taking over the world, then the Time Lords come back. But it's none of this that forces the Doctor to sacrifice his life; it's the life of one man, Wilford Mott, that the Doctor must save at his own personal cost. There are a couple of tropes of Doctor Who regeneration that get upended here. One is the process actually kicks in to heal the 10th Doctor. But its just a reset before the regeneration kicks in. And the other thing is that the time between the triggering event and the regeneration itself. Usually, it's a fairly quick turnaround. (With the possible exception of the 5th Doctor whose regeneration kicks in after nearly 4 episodes of fighting back against the deadly poison in his body.) But for the 10th Doctor's exit, the Doctor has time to say goodbye to friends and companions before finally staggering through the snow to his TARDIS. Let me say this: I liked David Tennant as the Doctor a lot. When I heard David was leaving, I echoed the sentiments of lots of fans who didn't want him to go. But when he's standing in the TARDIS and whimpers, "I don't want to go", I felt like yelling, "Regenerate already!" And when it does happen, it so terribly significant that it nearly destroys the TARDIS. Russell T Davies was looking to squeeze a lot of blood out of this particular stone, wasn't he? 

And now we go from the 10th Doctor to...the 8th Doctor?    


Paul McGann in Night of the Doctor
Time’s getting wibbly wobbly. Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor regeneration story actually aired a few months before the 11th Doctor transitioned to the 12th.  When Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005, Russell Davies elected to start with a new Doctor who’s already in action when we first meet him. So the 8th Doctor was long denied his chance to go down fighting for the lives of others. Until 2013 when Whovians got the pleasant unanticipated surprise of Night of the Doctor starring Paul McGann. It was just a six minute mini-episode but writer Steven Moffat packs in a lot of action, drama, comedy and tragedy in those six minutes. If the 5th Doctor was outrunning death, the 8th Doctor finds he’s already in its clutches. The event leading to his demise is his refusal to give up on a woman who hates him because of the Time War. The Doctor is given a reprieve by the Sisterhood of Karn who have the ability to trigger his regeneration and free him from death. The Doctor would just as soon refuse the offer, let the reprieve fade and finally bring an end to his long life. It’s only when the Sisterhood convinces the Doctor that he..and only he stands in the way of the total destruction of the Universe by the Time War does he relent to the offer. His impassioned recitation of companions past is very touching as the 8th Doctor goes out on a very dramatic and well-presented moment.

And a special honorable mention to this Doctor's farewell.  

John Hurt as the War Doctor
This Doctor is bemused to see that he's about to regenerate at the end of Day of the Doctor. He notes, like the first Doctor, that "the old body's growing a bit thin". And his last comment on hoping his ears wouldn't be so big with the next body? Hate to break it to you, dude, but...sorry. 

Matt Smith in The Time of the Doctor
Here we go again: a much beloved actor leaving a role he seemed so perfect for and we didn't want him to go either. This time its the companion, Clara, who speaks for the audience when she whispers, "Please don't change."  But change is coming and what a road it took to get there. Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, the Silence, Weeping Angels and more get tossed into the mix as the Time Lords are peaking through a crack in the universe to see if there's a way in and that gets everybody stirred up. But despite all the firepower of the Doctor's greatest enemies, the Doctor is dying, having used all his regenerations, of old age. But Matt Smith, who was awesome throughout his four years as the Doctor, really tears into the role of the Doctor as an old man who realizes that finally, after 2,000 years, he's out of time. A miracle gift from the Time Lords restores the Doctor's regeneration and he unleashes that golden energy in an almost nuclear explosion of power that wipes out the Daleks. Like the 10th Doctor, the 11th gets a reset before the real thing kicks in. (Did you really think Matt Smith's last scene ever as the Doctor would be in the old age make-up?) The Doctor is at peace with what's about to happen; maybe it helps that he's been "rockin' this body for centuries". But for Clara (and millions of fans around the world), it's hard to let go. But then the regeneration status quo gets another shift as the transition from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi happens in a second, the fastest regeneration ever. 


So looking back over the these events, what do I think is the best of these and which is, well, not so good. Let's start with the not so good first. 

I'm tempted to cite The Enemy Within for the poor judgement of having the Doctor shot in an alley. But this is not the 7th Doctor's story, it's the 8th Doctor who's coming on deck. I'm also casting an eye towards Logopolis because of its convoluted plot involving math and entropy. But Logopolis was my first "last Doctor" story so it has a special place for me. And Tom Baker's performance, the mysterious appearances of the Watcher and the Doctor's final words also help to k raise this story above its shortcomings. 

Ultimately I have to give the bottom spot to The End of Time Part 2. I know, I know, we all love David Tennant's Doctor and David does a fine job of having the Doctor face his destiny and the end of his time as the Doctor. And I prefer when the Doctor changes from having saved a single life as the Doctor does here with Wilf. But the story itself? We've got the Master leaping about London zapping people with energy bolts, then there's this dude who's building an immortality gate for his daughter for Christmas, then Master uses that gate to turn everyone on Earth into the Master and, oh great, the Time Lords have shown up! The fact that the Doctor is done in by a plot device that I never quite understood in the first place diminishes the power of the Doctor's sacrifice. And the end where the Doctor goes on a farewell tour, yeah there are some sweet moments there (meeting the granddaughter of Joan Redfern, for instance) but ultimately it seems overwrought and self-indulgent. 

But for the best last story, the clear winner is The Caves of Androzani. The Doctor himself is in peril through out the story; the thing that "kills" him has been killing him since part 1. This gives the Doctor a personal stake in this but being the Doctor, the main thing is to save Peri. He feels guilty for getting her in this fix and what we see is the Doctor moving heaven and earth to do what it takes to save her. In the end he gives what's left of the antidote to Peri because there's only enough for one. A great performance from Peter Davison working with a script by Doctor Who's best writer of the classic era, Robert Holmes. As for the very end, when Colin Baker sits up, turn off the TV before he says a word. It's better that way.




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Tomorrow on the blog, we review the 12th Doctor's next new adventure, Robot of Sherwood. Until then, be good to one another.  

Dave-El
I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You

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