For the last 4 weeks, I've been looking at each series of the revived Doctor Who with Series 1, Series 2, Series 3 and Series 4. Today, we'll look at what I call Series 4 1/2.
In 2008, Series 4 ended with a bang. Russell T Davies had brought Doctor Who back from the dead and put it back on TV for 4 ever increasingly successful years. But as the saying goes, all good things must end as RTD announced before Series 4 went to air that he would be stepping down as Executive Producer and Head Writer for Doctor Who at the end of 2009. Whatever concerns there were about the departure of the man who saved Doctor Who, they were allayed by his hand picked successor, Steven Moffat. Still, there was plenty of sadness to see Russell go.
Then the news came that Whovians would have to go almost two years without a full season of episodes. It wouldn't be a total desert of no new Who. There would be a series of specials that would run from Christmas 2008 to the end of 2009 before Moffat would come on board and launch a new 5th Series in 2010.
Among the reasons given for the specials was to give David Tennant some time to honor commitments he had to stage performances including MacBeth. OK, we would stand that, a bit of a breather for David then back at the Doctor full tilt under the direction of new Who honcho Steven Moffat.
Except that was not the case.
In the fall of 2008 at an awards ceremony where David Tennant picked up an award for his portrayal of the Doctor, David made the announcement that sent a wall of moans from the collective mouths of the audience assembled there. He was going to step down as the Doctor.
So the year of the specials became a farewell tour for the 10th Doctor. Because of the paucity of episodes, each special took on an added meaning, a level of intensity they otherwise might have lacked.
So how did this series of specials, this Series 4 1/2 shape up? After the photo, let's take a look.
#5 The Waters of Mars **
I have seen The Waters of Mars twice, once it originally aired in November 2009 and once the next year when my family went through our box set of the specials. This is not because it is a bad episode. Far from it. This installment of Doctor Who is among the mostly intense, dramatic and graphically realized adventures ever.
But therein lies my problem with it. The Waters of Mars does its job too well. The sense of doom is extremely overwhelming as we watch the crew members of the Mars base get picked off one by one by...water. Water that turns these explorers on Mars into (for lack of a better description) water spewing zombies. And it didn't take a lot of water; just one drop was sufficient to completely and irreversibly doom a person. All this happens as the Doctor deals with the dread realization that every single one of these people are going to die. These events in Earth's future, the mysterious loss of the entire Mars exploration crew, are fixed and cannot be altered.
Until the Doctor decides to alter them. The rules of time were put in place by the Time Lords and enforced by the Time Lords but the Time Lords are gone. Only the Doctor is left and he can set his own rules. So he saves three crew members who otherwise died. Except there are limits on the power of a Time Lord for a reason and the Doctor finds that tragedy cannot be completed avoided. And he does not like who he has become.
The drama, the horror (oh, the horror) and the tragedy are all expertly brought to life. But there is a distinct lack of the joy that makes a Doctor Who story unique from other science fiction series. I don't know, if perhaps The Waters of Mars had been part of a longer season, I would have rated it higher, maybe right up there with Midnight from Series 4. But instead of being 1 of 13 episodes, its 1 of 5 and we're saying goodbye to the 10th Doctor. 1/5th of our time with this Doctor was spent in a darkness that we...and the Doctor...could not completely escape.
Another mark against this episode? My daughter refused to take a shower for a very long time. It wasn't pretty.
#4 The End of Time - Part One **
Oh the pressure was on for this one. And look what was at stake here!
- The return of the Master!
- The return of the Time Lords!
- And, most importantly, the return of Wilfred Mott.
And, of course, the swan songs for Russell T Davies and David Tennant. There are some clever bits:
- The Doctor's cavalier attitude at the beginning when he arrives on the Oodsphere
- Wilf's gang of elderly spies finding the Doctor
- The Doctor & Wilf in the cafe as they watch Donna Noble from across the street. (If you can watch that without crying, then you're a Dalek).
- The Master finally gets the Doctor to hear the drumming in his head.
But there's a sort of randomness about this installment. Lots of rushing about but not really getting anywhere. Bits and pieces that careen from overwhelming dread to awkward human interactions. And nothing was more awkward and more random than Joshua Naismith and his creepy daughter. These are really badly realized characters both in writing and in acting. They are barely functioning plot devices to get the Master to a point where he can slap together a world dominating plot. He may have come up with his scheme on the fly but it's a doozy as the Master becomes everyone on Earth. Yes, John Simm gets to wear a lot of hats. And coats. And skirts.
OK, another thing I didn't care for: that head shaking transformation effect. Maybe the idea was to look low tech to evoke memories of classic Doctor Who. It just looked stupid. Sorry.
#3 Planet of the Dead ***
I've read the views of other people about Doctor Who and this one does not get a lot of love and I'm not sure why. My main misgiving is that we only see the TARDIS at the very end (exterior only). Other than that, we have a rollicking adventure on another world (portrayed by sunny Dubai) where the Doctor promises to save everyone. And actually does! Well, except for the bus driver but that was the driver's fault for not listening.
The Doctor and Lady Christina make a good team and I hated that we did not get to seem them together again after the end of this story. And we get UNIT in action, always nice to see them back on Doctor Who. Hey, they actually take down a alien monster by shooting at it! The Brigadier would've been so proud. Meanwhile UNIT scientific adviser and Doctor fan boy Malcolm is a joy to watch whenever he's on screen. Man, I wish we could see him again. (Malcolm and the 12th Doctor? Ooh boy, that wouldn't be pretty. But it would be fun!)
I guess the knock against Planet of the Dead is that it's just there, a diversion from the doom we know is coming. A doom we're reminded of at the end when the Doctor hears the prophecy: "He will knock four times."
Sometimes, we really need a good diversion.
#2 The End of Time - Part Two ****
After all the pieces are moved around the chessboard in Part One, we get some serious stuff in the 2nd installment.
- Donna Noble vs. a bunch of Masters...and wins! (Even if she doesn't know how.)
- Worst. Rescue. EVER!
- Another heart string pulling moment with the Doctor and Wilf looking at the Earth from a spaceship.
- That spaceship vs. a whole mess of missiles. Oh look, Wilfred Mott is a space cowboy!
- The Time Lords are a collective pain in the ass, aren't they? And the Time Lord President is a particularly painful boil on that ass.
- Gotta admit, though, the Prez taking down a planet full of Masters with a flick of his wrist and a smirk was fun.
- The Master saves the Doctor and takes down the Time Lords? OK, then!
- And the Doctor survives it all! He's beaten the prophecy!
We find out who knocks four times. And it breaks your heart.
The expected conventions of the Doctor's regeneration are upended. Here, the 10th Doctor fixes himself with the same face. But the process has started and there's no stopping it.
The Doctor popping in on his friends, former companions, was a bit sweet even if it was a bit overlong. And the build up to the regeneration goes on forever. "I don't want to go!" says the Doctor. "Go already!" I'm thinking. (Well, not really but I almost wanted to.)
So the big farewell for the 10th Doctor may have seemed a bit overwrought but hey, when a much beloved Doctor is leaving, I think that's allowed.
#1 The Next Doctor ****
The Christmas special immediately following the end of Series 4 starts off on a hard to beat note: Christmas in London, 1851? Classic! The Doctor finally gets a proper Christmas snow.
The plot by the Cybermen is okay I guess but what really drives this episode are human stories at the core of this special. And the stand out for that is guest star David Morrissey. Some kind of zappy-wappy makes him think he's the Doctor and he begins crafting his version of the Doctor's tools such as a "sonic" screwdriver and a TARDIS that's a hot air balloon. Morrissey's gusto at being the Doctor makes you really wish he could actually be the Doctor. But alas, this "next Doctor" is a fiction and David Morrissey's portrayal of the grief, pain and loss his all too human character faces is incredible.
And then there's Miss Hartigan, a woman who is fed up with the limits of her world and the men who rule it. So she's allied with the Cybermen who kill a group of men in a particularly terrifying sequence as Miss Hartigan very casually directs the carnage around her. And yet we see again that grief, pain and loss is a driving force. The indignities and injustices she has endured in her past are not detailed but we can guess. And it must be particularly galling for a woman with a strength of will like Miss Hartigan. But her determination to exert her will on the world leads her to destruction. The Doctor did try to give her a chance to stop.
Puttering about time and space on his own, the theme of grief, pain and loss are echoed with the Doctor. Alone after losing a companion in the absolute worst way he could lose one, he's determined to stay alone. Of course the universe has other plans and the Doctor is caught up in a new mystery. In the end, grief, pain and loss drives one person to death and destruction while another feels the hurt but resolves to move forward for his family and friends. And in the middle is the Doctor. Which way will he choose? We will see the price the Doctor pays for his choice over the coming year. But at the end of The Next Doctor, the Doctor relents for a moment and agrees to stay for Christmas dinner.
And God bless us everyone!
Next Sunday, I take break from 10 Years of Doctor Who Reborn but this series of posts will return the Sunday after that (July 5th) with the beginning of the Moffat era and the arrival of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor.
Starting tomorrow, I begin a 6 part daily series of posts and...well, it may well be the stupidest things I've ever posted. (And I once posted a 10 part series called The Internet Is For Corn so, that's saying something.)
In the meantime, thanks for dropping by and until next time, be good to one another.
I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You