Monday, November 16, 2009

Review of the 2009 Thanksgiving Special: "The Waters of Mars"

Now that was more like it!

“The Waters of Mars” is the first genuinely good episode of Doctor Who that has been broadcast since, well, since “The Stolen Earth” in June of 2008. Last December’s Christmas Special, “The Next Doctor”, was alright – fun but forgettable – and then Easter’s “Planet of the Dead” was just terminally stupid with its random psychic ladies, its flying manta rays, and that god-awful, babbling Malcolm idiot. I had almost forgotten what it felt like to enjoy an episode of this show!

As we’ve been shown repeatedly (most obviously in the 2006 Christmas Special, “The Runaway Bride”), the Doctor needs a companion to reign in his not-so-benevolent impulses. This episode, which picks up with the Doctor having traveled alone for an unspecified period of time (possibly many years), takes that idea to its ultimate – and surprisingly dark – end. This is not the Tenth Doctor we first got to know, jaunting around the universe with Rose and having a grand old time. This is a much older, much more world-weary Doctor more akin to Christopher Eccleston’s battle-hardened Ninth Doctor. One almost gets the feeling that the oncoming regeneration could be a blessing to this wounded character, granting him a new lease on life and a new pair of eyes through which to rediscover the universe.

David Tennant does a marvelous job with this more somber version of the Tenth Doctor. I like his Doctor so much better when he only occasionally gives in to his more manic impulses. He was serious when he needed to be and fun when he could be. And at the end, when he went on his “Time Lord victorious” power trip, he was downright scary. Tennant would make a much more frightening Master than the version given to us by John Simm in “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords.”

But Tennant’s performance would have meant very little if he hadn’t been matched up with someone of equal talent. Thankfully, that happened in the person of Lindsay Duncan who played AdelaideBrooke, head of the Mars colony. Duncan – who, as Servilia of the Junii, was one of the best things about the TV series Rome – matches Tennant note for note. She portrays Adelaide as an extremely competent leader who commands respect and has sacrificed much in pursuit of her goals. She is an equal to the Doctor, not a subservient, love-struck child. Her decision at the end of the episode, to preserve history even at the cost of her own life and in defiance of the Doctor, is a fantastic moment. This is the kind of companion with whom the Doctor should be paired – someone who can force the Doctor to make the hard decisions, or make them for him if he fails. She reminded me of Dr. Lazarus from the movie Outland, but that could be because of her age and gender paired with the extraterrestrial outpost setting.

Even the monsters in the episode worked for me. I found them creepy and effective. Yes, they were obviously influenced by the most recent spate of “zombie” movies, but they were really just window dressing to set up the themes of the episode anyway. As window dressing, they did a good job! Having said that, though, the scene where a single drop of liquid fell onto a character’s face from above, infecting him, was lifted almost shot for shot from 28 Days Later. Theft or homage? You be the judge! Too bad the character that was infected in this episode wasn’t half as likable as Brendan Gleeson’s father-figure from that movie.

All of the creepy goings-on at the Mars base build up to one terrific ending in which the Doctor learns that, even if he is the last Time Lord, he cannot control time. What he calls “time,” he discovers, is really made up of an endless number of personal choices by an endless number of individuals; no matter how powerful he thinks he is, he cannot control those individual choices. In the end, Adelaide makes a choice, a shocking, violent choice to preserve the timeline despite the Doctor’s wishes. The painful lesson hits the Doctor full-on, leading to his emotional breakdown outside the TARDIS. In the midst of this breakdown, he has a vision of Ood Sigma. The last time the Doctor saw Ood Sigma in “Planet of the Ood,” the creature prophesized that the Doctor’s “song” would soon end. As the Doctor questions Ood Sigma, the spectral visitor fades away, recalling the mysterious appearance of the Watcher from “Logopolis,” which also signaled an oncoming regeneration.

Clearly, the Doctor’s defiance of time is going to have further ramifications. Even though Adelaide offed herself, two other crewmembers survived who shouldn’t have. Could their survival have an impact on the timeline? An impact that the Doctor will have to die undoing? And how did the two surviving crewmembers explain their escape from the Mars colony, anyway? And how will Adelaide’s suicide be explained? That she was overcome by guilt because she was unable to save all of her crew?

The teaser trailer shown at the end of the episode didn’t provide many clues. The Master is returning, for sure, which begs the question, what about Mrs. Saxon? Will she return as well? Was it Mrs. Saxon who took the Master’s ring? We also see a glimpse of Donna and her grandfather Wilfred. I must admit, I’ll be glad to see them both again. Overall, the teaser looked promising. It’s not all rainbows and puppy dogs, though! Davies has shown in the past that he knows how to build suspense toward the big season-ending events (“Utopia,” “Turn Left”), but he hasn’t actually shown that he knows how to wrap them up in a satisfying manner (“Last of the Time Lords,” “Journey’s End”). Still, if he can avoid any magical cell phone prayers or TARDIS-dragging-the-Earth moments, we could get a pair of excellent final episodes yet! “The Waters of Mars” gives me hope, at least.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review of the 2009 Easter Special: "Planet of the Dead"

Russell T. Davies is officially out of steam. If only we could just skip over his final few episodes and get straight to Steven Moffat because, frankly, I'm starting to wonder why I even bother to watch Doctor Who. And coming from a guy who spends his time writing a Doctor Who blog, that's saying something!

So what was so bad about this episode? Almost everything. The one thing that I did sort of enjoy was the relationship between Christina and the Doctor. I liked how she immediately took charge when they reach the alien planet and how she insisted on calling him “The Doctor.” It's always fun to see someone take the Doctor down a peg or two. And the dialogue between them had a few nice moments as well. “You look human,” she said. “You look Timelord,” he countered. "We make quite a couple," he said. "We don't make any sort of couple, thank you very much," she said. Good stuff!

Unfortunately, that was the only good stuff. First off, the plot was nonsensical bordering on nonexistent. Some people on a bus end up on an alien planet. Why? Well, something about flying manta rays zipping around in swarms really, really quickly or something. Whatever. Really, it seemed like they ended up there just because Russell T. Davies thought it'd make for a cool visual. I assumed that they were transported through the wormhole as a consequence of whatever artifact Christina had stolen from the museum in the opening Mission Impossible "homage." But noooooo…. That would have actually made sense and would have tied her sudden appearance on the bus to the overarching plot. Turns out, an international super-thief hitched a ride on the Doctor's bus purely by coincidence. And speaking of coincidences, there also just happened to be a psychic lady on the bus. Of course there was. Isn't there always? I was hoping that perhaps she would somehow relate to the plot as well. Nope! She was just a really lazy way to give the audience the occassional info dump or scary portent. In fact, she turned out to be rather useless, never revealing anything that the other characters couldn't have figured out for themselves. As to the other people on the bus, I'm not sure why we needed them either. Not a single one of them did anything worthwhile and we never got to know (or care about) any of them. This episode was really the Doctor and Christina show - which would have been fine if we didn't have to put up with the occassional line from one of the glorified extras. Overall, the whole people-trapped-on-a-bus-bond-and-bicker scenario was done better in the episode called "Midnight," also written by Davies. In fact, the Doctor actually makes a joke to that effect. You know, calling out that you're plagiarizing your own stories doesn't make it okay....

Other things that I hated. The alien fly people approached Sarah Jane Adventures-levels of cheap - and the bad purple and green lighting in their ship only made things worse, especially when the Doctor commented on how beautiful the interior of their ship was. Yeah, really beautiful. If you think color gel sheets are the epitome of beauty. And don't even get me started on the comedy stylings of Malcolm. He was the single most irritating character in the history of Doctor Who. Every second that he was on-screen was like nails on a chalkboard. When he popped up wearing those stupid goggles or tried to use the fire extinguisher only to be knocked over, I felt my soul die a little.

Speaking, er, typing of souls, I'm not a religious man. At all. And yet, even I found the religious metaphors in the episode more heavy-handed than those of the typical Narnia book. Given the fact that the episode was set on and broadcast on the day before Easter, I can’t believe that they actually named the main female character “Christina.” She's like a female Christ, see! Oh, and in case that was too subtle for you, the people on the bus returned from a "planet of the dead" on the very holiday that celebrates the return of Christ from the dead. And I won’t even mention that Christina just happened to steal a golden cup that looked a hell of a lot like many depictions of the Holy Grail. Oh, and the Holy Grail somehow managed to save the day, returning all of the boring, stock characters to the world of the living. Yay!

Because there are only a few episodes of Doctor Who this year, you would think that the writers could devote a lot of time to each episode, really putting together a tight story with a coherent plot. But, no. We’re still getting the same nonsensical Russell T. Davies plot mechanics. For example, all of the fly aliens conveniently get killed so the Doctor can steal their only means of getting home without feeling guilty. Oh, and the bus suddenly flies. That's so wizard, Russell.

So, what I'm saying is, I didn't care for the episode.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Doctor Who: Room With a Deja View" Announced

According to this week's Lying in the Gutters column over at Comic Book Resources, Rich Johnston is reporting that IDW will be releasing a Doctor Who one-shot comic this July called "Room With a Deja View" (great title) drawn by EricJ and written by one Rich Johnston. I'd say Rich is in the clear to give this particular piece of comic industry gossip a green light.

Check out the amazing cover by Tom Mandrake:

Congrats, Rich!

Youngest Doctor, Meet the Oldest Companion

Russell T. Davies has now confirmed (on BBC Breakfast) that Wilfred Mott, Donna's grandfather played by the always excellent Bernard Cribbins, will be returning as the Doctor's companion for David Tennant's last two episodes.

This is fantastic news! I loved Wilf in Season 4, especially in his heart-breaking last scene with the Doctor after Donna's memory had been erased. I have been saying for a while now that the producers ought to change up the Doctor/companion dynamic beyond the older Doctor/wide-eyed lady combination they've had going for the past few seasons - although, to be fair, Donna was a bit of a departure from that as well. I could really see Doctor #10 and Wilf working well as a team.

And just imagine if Wilf sticks around post-regeneration. How interesting would it be to have the youngest Doctor ever paired up with the oldest companion ever? That combination could really shake up the expected dynamic, perhaps putting the Doctor in a position where he actually asks for his companion's advice and wisdom on occasion. In short:

In a completely non-sexual way, of course. Although, this is Russell T. Davies.....

Review of the 2008 Christmas Special: "The Next Doctor"

Given that the Easter Special (I guess that's what we're calling it) is set to air this weekend, I decided I better hurry up and type up my thoughts on this past Christmas's episode. I just couldn't bring myself to write about it at the time because it was so middle-of-the-road. Hopefully this weekend's special will be a tad more inspiring!

So, the 2008 Christmas Special, then. They called it "The Next Doctor," which set expectations fairly high. No, I didn't expect that David Morrisey was really going to be the next Doctor, but when you tease us with that idea from the outset, you better have a darn satisfying reason why he doesn't turn out to be Doctor #11 in the end. Sadly, satisficaction was something entirely lacking in the episode.

No, I didn't hate it. It started out well enough, with the Doctor arriving alone at a typical turn-of-the-century English Christmas scene for a little cheering up and immediately becoming embroiled in trouble with an act-alike adventurer and his companion. I actually really liked David Morrisey at the start of this episode. His over-the-top heroism and obvious affection for his role was ennervating. The scene where the Doctor and the faux Doctor are pulled through an abandoned warehouse on a rope and are saved from certain death at the last instant - only to then collapse into each other's arms in a laughing fit - was great. And the very idea that our current Doctor could suddenly be the companion to a future Doctor was an intriguing role-reversal that really could have been fun if sustained for a while longer.

Unfortunately, things went downhill. Fast. As soon as Russell T. Davies made it obvious that something wasn't right with faux Doctor (about 10 minutes into the episode, mind you), my interest began to wane. Soon, Jackson Lake (as we learn the faux Doctor is really called) became a blubbering, useless excuse for a companion. It was blatently obvious from the get-go that his wife had been killed and his child had been captured, but Davies decided to "save" the second revelation for a ridiculous scene near the end of the episode that comes complete with slow-motion sparks falling and bored children seemingly kidnapped from the set of Temple of Doom. By that point, Jackson Lake had become so ineffectual that all he could do was stand around crying and pointing while the Doctor made use of some improbably available rigging to rescue Jackson's sunken-eyed son.

And don't even get me started on the villains. I'm not a huge fan of these new Cybermen at the best of times, but when you add some silly new shaggy monsters with cyberfaces (creatures who are never adequately explained or utilized) and a shouting woman in a red dress, I begin to mentally tune out. There was a lot of nonsense involved in the plot on this one as well. What was Miss Hartigan trying to do? Get revenge against men? Why could she control the Cyberking? Because she was some sort of feminist genius? Why were the children necessary at all? You can't tell me that 30 lethargic children marching in circles is really going to provide enough energy for the Cyberking to rise.

Ah, well. I did like Jackson Lake's TARDIS (Tethered Aerial Release Developed In Style) and I appreciated that the Doctor actually stayed for Christmas dinner for a change. Although Jackson's speech about how the Doctor had never been thanked made me want to wretch, so there was that....

Disappointing outing all around, really.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Matt Smith is Doctor Who's Eleventh Doctor

Sorry there's been no review of this year's Christmas Special, "The Next Doctor,"  yet. I didn't really love or hate the episode, so it's hard to get worked up enough to write about.... I do plan to force myself to review it soon, though.

Of course, the lackluster Christmas Special is now old news given today's announcement. Earlier this evening, the BBC broadcast a special episode of Doctor Who Confidential revealing the name of the actor who will replace David Tennant as The Doctor. After months of speculation (with the odds being on Patterson Joseph, who would have been the first black Doctor), the big reveal for the Eleventh Doctor is kind of a head scratcher.

Matt Smith.

Cue the crickets chirping.

So, who is Matt Smith? Here's what we know. 1.) He's 26, making him the youngest actor to ever tackle the role of The Doctor (Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor, was 29). 2.) He has appeared in TV movie versions of Phillip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North as well as an episode of The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, all alongside Billie Piper (Rose from Doctor Who Seasons 1, 2, and 4). Maybe she vouched for his Doctorness? 3.) He's done just a few other TV shows and some theatre work. 4.) He has an, um, interesting look to him.

I must admit, when Matt first appeared in tonight's Doctor Who Confidential episode, I was a little taken aback. To be blunt (and a little rude), I thought he looked like an emo version of Frankenstein's monster. Or Eric Stoltz in Mask. Still, I also thought David Tennant was quite a homely sort when I first saw him, so maybe I'll get used to Matt Smith's look. And besides, who cares what he looks like, right? The important question is -- can he act? Because I have seen none of his previous work, I really can't address his talent. I'm just going to assume that Steven Moffat knows what he's doing. I have no reason to doubt him, so I'm remaining cautiously optimistic. Perhaps the Eleventh Doctor will meet up with Professor River Song (from last season's "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" two-parter) and begin The Doctor's relationship with her. The older woman/younger man dynamic would be very interesting following The Tenth Doctor's perpetual cradle robbing.

I do hope the production team trims Matt's Flock of Seagulls haircut before they begin filming, though. Not everything from the 80s needs to make a comeback.