Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Doctor Who Day, Everybody!!

Happy Doctor Who Day! In case you've forgotten, the very first episode of Doctor Who was transmitted exactly 47 years ago on Saturday, November 23, 1963. Matt Smith is looking pretty good for being middle aged, isn't he? Read my take on the first episode, An Unearthly Child, here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review of The Sarah Jane Adventures Series 4, Episodes 5 and 6: “Death of the Doctor” Parts 1 and 2

I don’t usually review episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures on the blog, not because I don’t like the show (I think it’s perfectly alright for a program squarely aimed at children), but just because I am focused on Doctor Who, not its spinoffs. I don’t review episodes of Torchwood, either. This week’s two-parter demands an exception, however. Why? I should think the title (“Death of the Doctor”) would be explanation enough! Yes, Matt Smith turns up as the Eleventh Doctor. Yay! These episodes also mark the first time that our old friend Russell T Davies (RTD, the man who returned Doctor Who to our TV screens back in 2005) has written for Matt’s Doctor. How did RTD do? Read on!

Plotwise, the story is fairly simple. UNIT contacts Sarah Jane and tells her that the Doctor has been killed. They plan to hold a funeral for him, which will be presided over by the Shansheeth, a race of intergalactic undertakers/professional mourners. Sarah Jane, in a state of denial regarding the Doctor’s death, agrees to attend the memorial service with Clyde and Rani. (Luke is apparently too busy with his studies at Oxford to take a day off to pay his respects to the man that he knows has saved all of reality numerous times. Ingrate.) At the funeral, Sarah Jane finally meets Jo Grant (or Jo Jones as she’s been called since marrying Professor Clifford Jones at the end of The Green Death), another of the Doctor’s former companions. Jo also doubts the Doctor’s demise. Their skepticism is rewarded when the Eleventh Doctor suddenly trades places with Clyde from the other end of the universe, meeting his old friends for the first time in his present incarnation. Of course the Shansheeth turn out to be bad (or at least misguided) and the Doctor and his pals foil their plans.

These two episodes are a feast of nostalgia for old-time viewers. Jo makes a fun return, still as ditzy and lovable as ever. She basically serves as the co-lead with Sarah Jane in the story, turning it into a double-act. Even though this is the first time the two characters have met, they have an easy rapport, reminiscing about their Doctors and their adventures (especially Peladon), running up and down corridors together holding hands, and verbally tag-teaming the new Doctor. The two ladies complement each other nicely, Jo’s devil-may-care, free-thinking attitude contrasting with Sarah Jane’s slightly more conservative point of view. Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing Jo take on a more permanent role in the series. Those kids are all going to have to go to college some time, right? Maybe Jo could move in to 13 Bannerman Road after Sarah’s high school pals have moved on and the two older ladies can go on wacky adventures together as a team. Aside from the co-lead role for Jo, we also get shout-outs to many other companions and monsters from the program’s past, including Daleks, Ogrons, Tegan, Ben, Polly, Harry, and Ace (at least, I assume that’s the “Dorothy” that Sarah Jane mentions). Oh, and I always knew that Ian and Barbara would end up together! Although I never suspected that they’d stop aging…. Even more impressive than these mentions, we actually get to see many of the classic monsters in flashback, not to mention the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Tenth Doctors. Seeing Tom Baker appear in the middle of The Sarah Jane Adventures certainly made me smile.

The rest of the serial was top-notch as well. The CBBC budget was apparent in a few places, most notably the exterior to UNIT’s Mount Snowdon base and the rock quarry/alien planet on which the Doctor was trapped. And, okay, the Shansheeth did look a little like giant Muppets (or perhaps the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal). Still, I actually liked the design for the aliens as giant, lumbering buzzards. Maybe it was a bit too literal for a race of professional ambulance-chasers, but it worked. They didn’t look “real,” but they looked creepy and otherworldly. And I found it really disturbing, for some reason, when one of them played the harp.

When they finally stop switching places and get a chance to meet, Clyde and the Eleventh Doctor have a fun moment together where Clyde instructs the Doctor on how to travel through the air duct. “You have to shuffle backwards,” he explains as if it’s rocket science. And then comes the “controversial” part. Clyde asks how many times the Doctor can regenerate, and the Doctor says “507.” The classic series answer was 12. Quite a big difference there! But does it really matter? I know that some ├╝berfans are upset about this possible change, but, come on; we always knew the BBC would find some way around this “rule.” And the way the Doctor says the line (not to mention that he’s speaking to a kid that he hardly knows) made it seem like he could have been joking anyway. Speaking of the kids, I’m not quite sure why Jo’s grandson Santiago was introduced in the story. He didn’t do anything of consequence (aside from giving RTD a chance to mention that Santiago’s father was hiking across Antarctica with his gay dad’s club, anyway). I was afraid that he was being introduced as a regular to replace the now away-at-university Luke. Thankfully, RTD didn’t go that route, letting the hippy kid leave with his grandma at the end of the story. I wonder if the plan was to see how he worked with the cast and then make the call about whether to keep him or not at the end of filming. Probably not since I assume they already had all the subsequent stories written for this season in advance without his character in them, but it’s still fun to speculate. Maybe they’ve set him up to come back next season, though, if there’s a positive response to his character. Personally, I hope we’ve seen the last of him.

Although the story was good overall, there were still a few RTD-isms that grated. First off, why were there Grosks involved at all? It seemed like they were thrown in just so RTD could reuse that Grask costume the producers had lying around. I can hear his thoughts now, “We’ll paint the costume blue, I’ll change a vowel in the creature’s name, and then it’ll be totally different alien! And for added cleverness, I’ll call out what I’ve done in the script!” The funny thing is, RTD’s pretty much done this same trick before with the Zocci/Vinvocci. There were also a couple of lines that just seemed, well, off. First, it seemed a tad out of character for the Doctor to make fun of Jo’s visible aging. I believe he said something like, “You look like you’ve been baked in an oven.” Bad Doctor! Then, at the end, when all of the Shansheeth and at least one human UNIT soldier have been burnt to a crisp, the Grosk says, “Smells like roast chicken.” I admit, I laughed. But then I felt bad for laughing. Also, the end was a bit “magic-y,” as is usual for RTD. To recap, the Shansheeth need a key to the TARDIS so they hook up Sarah Jane and Jo to some kind of glowy machine thing called a Memory Weave that will create a new key from their memories but then the gals think too hard, overload the machine, and blow up the bad guys. Or something. Yeah, RTD always has problems with endings. Oh, one more thing. “Scarlet Monstrosity.” 'Nuff said.

Aside from those few niggles, though, these two episodes made for quite an enjoyable hour of TV for this old Doctor Who fan. In fact, I’d say it was the best storyline of The Sarah Jane Adventures yet. Certainly better than David Tennant’s two-part appearance as the Tenth Doctor last season, anyway. Matt Smith really is an excellent Doctor. Bring on this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Doctor Who from the Beginning: 100,000 BC

In my last post, I examined “An Unearthly Child,” the very first episode of Doctor Who. The next three episodes of the program (“The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker”) form a serial of sorts, which I am going to refer to as 100,000 BC and discuss together in this post.

Curiously, “The Cave of Skulls” does not pick up directly where “An Unearthly Child” left off (with the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan taking their two new captives, Ian and Barbara, for an unwanted ride in the TARDIS). Instead, the episode begins by introducing the viewers to a crowd of dirty, Stone Age tribesmen who are all dressed in rags and are fairly indistinguishable from one another. Bold move for only the second episode of a new program! From what I could gather in this scene, Za, son of the tribe’s previous firemaker is having problems making fire. His father appears to still be alive and well, although he, too, is now unable to produce fire. The inability to make fire must run in the family, which makes me wonder how Za’s dad got fire the first time. Was he just walking in the woods and found a burning stick or something? Anyway, Za wants to make fire so he can become leader of the tribe, marry his sweetheart (creatively named Hur), and live a life of cave-bound luxury. Unfortunately for Za, the rest of the tribe, including the requisite Creepy Old Woman, wants the hunter named Kal (who is an outsider from a destroyed tribe) to step up and be their new leader. It’s hard to feel too bad for rather whiny Za given that his attempts to make fire seem to consist solely of rubbing both of his hands on an animal bone. He says he expects “Orb” (the sun, I guess) to show him how to make fire because he’s special or something. I guess religion hasn’t changed much in the last 100,000 years.

After this scintillating opening, we finally cut back to the TARDIS. The Doctor says he doesn’t know where they are, but Ian insists that they’re still in the junkyard. At one point in this scene Ian calls the Doctor “Dr. Foreman” and the Doctor promptly replies, “Eh, doctor who?” Ah, that old chestnut. As a matter of fact, that “joke” is used not once, but twice in this serial. Eventually they all leave the TARDIS and even Ian is forced to accept that they’ve moved. What convinces him? An old horse skull, of course! I guess they didn’t have horses in London in the 1960s. Interestingly, from a Doctor Who fan perspective, this is the first time that the TARDIS’s broken disguise mechanism (later called a “chameleon circuit”) is mentioned. The doctor looks at his ship and mumbles, “It’s still a police box. Why hasn’t it changed?” As the Doctor ponders this issue, Kal the hunter sneaks up on him, knocks him out, and kidnaps him because he saw the Doctor light his pipe with a match. Or maybe he was just hunting old men. Hard to tell with Kal. When the Doctor’s abduction is discovered, Susan becomes scarily hysterical. Is it just me or does this kid seem seriously psychologically messed up? Maybe all Gallifreyan kids are this weird? Meanwhile, Kal has brought the still-unconscious Doctor back to the tribe and tells them that the old man will make fire appear from his fingers for the tribe. Because “the creature” is his, Kal says, he should be the leader. The Doctor finally wakes up and tells the tribe that he can make fire for them – if they take him back to his ship. How is the Doctor able to speak their primitive language, I wonder? Ian, Barbara, and Susan then conveniently/inconveniently stumble into the tribe and are taken captive. Za says they should wait until daybreak when Orb shines again before killing them; maybe that will bring them fire, he hypothesizes. Convinced by Za’s sound logic, the tribe tosses the four captives into the Cave of Skulls where Barbara promptly tries to get romantic with Ian before noticing the piles and piles of split-open human skulls surrounding them.

“The Forest of Fear” reveals to us that Stone Age tribes apparently slept in one big pile, like a really boring orgy. While they sleep, their new captives are trying to escape, their time as prisoners uniting them. The Doctor tells Barbara that fear “makes companions of all of us.” This is where the four of them finally stop bickering (as much) and become a more unified crew. The Creepy Old Woman frees the TARDIS crew with Za’s knife and makes them promise not to make fire. She says that fire will bring trouble. I’m not sure what her motivations are here, to be quite honest. Has she seen fire destroy a tribe before? Does she just not want Za to get the credit because she’s a Libertarian and she’s backing Kal? And aside from the question of her motivation, how the hell did she move that giant stone at the doorway to the Cave of Skulls? Anyway, Za and Hur show right after the Doctor and company have escaped, so they assault the old broad. Meanwhile, in the forest, Barbara fakes a breakdown so Ian will hug her. Then she freaks out when she sees a dead boar. Maybe she wasn’t faking. Her screams bring Za and Hur. Before the two Stoners can recapture the TARDIS crew, he is mauled by an unseen (for budgetary reasons) wild animal. Tellingly, the men want to abandon Za, but the women force the Doctor and Ian to stay and help. Ian even mocks Barbara by saying, “Your flat must be littered with stray cats and dogs.” Sensitive comment, Ian! Especially when directed towards a woman who probably lives with at least 14 cats. In exchange for their help, Za and Hur agree to guide them back to the TARDIS. Back at the homestead, Kal goes to the Cave of Skulls, finds the Creepy Old Woman, and kills her because he thinks she let the captives go. Oh, Kal. She totally supported you, dude! When he discovers Za’s knife on her person, he decides to rather cleverly use the weapon to frame Za and Hur for the murder. The Doctor and company finally make it to the TARDIS, but are met there by the angry tribesmen. Oops!

At start of “The Firemaker,” Hur tries to explain to the tribe what really happened to the Creepy Old Woman, but because she’s just a stupid girl and Za is still unconscious from his previous mauling, her people refuse to believe her. The Doctor somehow proves that Kal really killed the old woman, though, so the tribe drives Kal away into exile. Yeah, that’ll stick.... Now it’s back to the Cave of Skulls for our heroes! Za recovers from his wounds and goes to visit the captives, who are busy trying to make fire with the old “rubbing two stick together” method. Ian proves that he is The Man by being the first to produce a flame. But is having a fire safe in such an enclosed environment as the Cave of Skulls? Ever hear of smoke inhalation, Ian? I thought you were a science teacher. Before anyone can get sick from the smoke, though, Kal appears and attacks Za. Begin filmed sequence of caveman on caveman action complete with anguished reaction shots from the regulars! Yay! Of course Za wins the fight, although I must admit that I had trouble telling the two hairy, dirty men apart until all the action was over. Stand-up guy that he is, Za then passes off Ian’s fire as his own and becomes leader of the tribe. Even though he’s achieved all of his dreams, including getting the luscious Hur, Za still insists on keeping the TARDIS crew captive. Because the episode is nearly over, though, they manage to escape by using a lame, unbelievable trick where they stick four skulls on torches and run away into the forest while the tribesmen cower in fear. They get to the TARDIS and dematerialize. Unfortunately for Barbara and Ian, the Doctor says he cannot take them back to their time because they “left the other place too quickly for him to properly set the coordinates.” So, they land in a strange-looking petrified forest, instead, and decide to go exploring. As they leave the TARDIS, a radiation meter on the console of the machine suddenly reads “Danger.” No one except the camera operator seems to notice, though.

This is an odd story. For one thing, it seems like Kal, the outsider underdog, is going to be the protagonist of the piece from the outset, not Za, the “privileged” son of the previous firemaker who convinces the rest of the tribe that they should kill the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara at dawn. Even at the end, when it’s become apparent that we’re supposed to sympathize with Za, he just seems like a jerk, claiming that he made Ian’s fire and refusing to release the prisoners. Kal may have killed the Creepy Old Woman (for which we should all probably thank him), but I don’t doubt Za would have done the same if it had brought him power. Plus Kal shares Superman’s Kryptonian first name. How can he be bad? For another thing, the rather rudimentary politics of a Stone Age tribe does not make for the most fascinating basis for a plot. Although I said I liked the four-person crew in the previous story, some of the individual members of the crew don’t really get to do much in this serial. Instead, this seemed like a story that could have been told using just the Doctor and one other person, probably Ian. Does Susan even do anything in this story? In fact, both of the women characters just seem to get hysterical and scream a lot. Was this common in the 1960s, I wonder? Both of the women seemed necessary to the plot in “An Unearthly Child,” Susan because she set the story in motion with her weirdness and Barbara because she convinced Ian to help her investigate. I wish the two ladies got more to do in this story. I did like how Za and Hur related to the TARDIS members in ways that made sense to their limited experiences. For example, they call the TARDIS crew a “new tribe,” they decide that the TARDIS itself is “a tree,” and Hur says that Barbara watched over the injured Za “like a mother taking care of her baby.”

Next time: Introducing the sensational character find of 1963 – THE DALEKS! Yeah, I’m not really a fan....

Friday, October 8, 2010

Doctor Who from the Beginning: “An Unearthly Child”

This weekend I sat down and watched “An Unearthly Child,” the very first episode of Doctor Who, which was broadcast on the BBC on November 23, 1963. That was nearly 47 years ago! Wow, this show has been on the air a long time. I guess people love ’em some Doctor Who.

But will people today love this episode of Doctor Who from the early 1960s? That’s debatable. TV was just different back then. TV programs, especially on the BCC, were more akin to filmed stage plays than the mini-movies that modern audiences expect. The pacing was slower, there were no quick camera cuts, and the acting could sometimes be, well, theatrical. Taking all of that into consideration, though, I think the first episode of Doctor Who holds up rather well. It’s surprising the number of constants that have remained throughout the program’s long history. The Doctor is already a cranky know-it-all when he first appears, for instance. Yes, William Hartnell’s portrayal of the First Doctor is markedly different than, say, Tom Baker’s portrayal of the Fourth Doctor, but there are similarities such as the strange sense of humor and the condescension to modern-day humans. And he’s already traveling the universe with one young female assistant for company when we first meet him (although, by the end of the episode, he ends up with a set of unwanted older companions as well). The TARDIS, too, is here at he beginning, looking and functioning pretty much as we expect it to. The machine is even described as “alive,” a contention that I assumed came along much later.

Plot wise, the 23-minute episode is pretty straightforward. Basically, Susan Foreman is an odd 15-year-old kid who has been attending Coal Hill School for around 5 months. She knows some things that a kid in 1963 shouldn’t know (she apparently understands more about science than her teacher, including the existence of a fifth dimension), but she doesn’t know some things that a British kid in 1963 should know (how many shillings in a pound, for example). She does love listening to (and sort of dancing to) those crazy 60s tunes on her transistor radio, though, so that’s pretty normal. Although she’s also fond of saying things like, “I like walking through the dark. It’s mysterious.” Yeah, she’s weird. Concerned by her behavior, her science and history teachers (Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, respectively) decide to follow her home one night. That seems a tad bit like stalking to me, but I suppose they had good intentions, right? Truthfully, I think Barbara’s primary intention was to get Ian alone in a dark car; she invites him to trail Susan with her as if she’s asking him on a date. When the pair of teachers arrives at Susan’s address (76 Totter’s Lane; kind of a fairytale-sounding address, isn’t it?), they find a scrap yard owned by one “I. M. Foreman” (or so the sign says). In the junkyard they meet a secretive and ill-tempered old man who looks like he just wandered away from playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a local theater production of A Christmas Carol. Naturally, this is the Doctor. They question him about Susan, but he only laughs at them and denies any knowledge of the girl. He nearly convinces them to leave – until Susan yells to him from inside a police box (a common site in England in those days, although not in a junkyard). Of course Ian and Barbara rush in to the police box to investigate and are shocked to find that it is (altogether now) “bigger on the inside.”

Susan appears and explains that the police box is really her grandfather’s space ship/time machine, which is called a TARDIS. She tells them that the name stands for “Time And Relative Dimension In Space” and that she coined the term. Her claim doesn’t seem possible given that we later meet other time travelers with TARDISes of their own. Little liar. The Doctor gets some good lines in this scene. When Ian is confused by the Doctor’s description of the TARDIS as a ship, for example, the Doctor says, “Yes, ship. This doesn’t roll around on wheels, you know.” And when Ian tells him not to treat them like children, the Doctor replies, “The children of my civilization would be insulted.” The Doctor and Susan seem to be exiled from their own planet and people (not here identified), which makes secrecy imperative. When the Doctor explains to Susan that they cannot stay in the present if Ian and Barbara know their secret, Susan says that she would rather stay in the 20th century without him and the TARDIS, then. Wow. Talk about family loyalty! The Doctor doesn’t take kindly to this idea, so, instead of opening the door to the TARDIS to let Ian and Barbara (and possibly Susan) stay behind, he decides to kidnap them all to the Stone Age. Sensible idea! This Doctor (who we assume to be the First Doctor) is quite old, remember, so maybe his thought processes don’t always make the most sense…. After a trippy, psychedelic time travel sequence, the episode ends with the shadow of a caveman falling across the exterior of the TARDIS. Cliffhanger!

All in all, “An Unearthly Child” makes for an intriguing start to Doctor Who. It is mysterious and makes me want to know what happens next. I like the fact that the Doctor is given multiple companions, each with a purpose. Susan is the viewer-identification character, Ian is the expert in science, and Barbara is the expert in history. Given that the show was originally developed for children, these characters all make sense. I also like the sense of mystery that pervades the episode. Is Susan’s last name really Foreman, for example? Surely she just took the name from the sign at the scrap yard, right? Heck, for all we know, her name may not even be Susan. Maybe she’s the Student or the Assistant or something. And why are the Doctor and Susan on the run from their own people? What are they hiding from? The episode was definitely atmospheric with the fog and the darkness and the spooky junkyard (the black and white helps with this, too). And I can see why kids used to hide behind the couch when they heard the eerie theme song! If I had tuned into this in the 60s, I definitely would be back for the next episode. The idea that the travelers can go anywhere in time and space is too enticing to not check in again. And who could resist the promise of cavemen?

P.S. I know that some people refer to the first four episodes of Doctor Who (“An Unearthly Child,” “The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker”) as a serial called An Unearthly Child. Given how different the first episode is to the other three, though, I have decided to discuss the first episode on its own. I will review the other three episodes in my next post as a serial called 100,000 BC.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Doctor Who from the Beginning

As I patiently wait for the DVD box set of Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series to be released on November 9 so I can review all of the newest episodes of the show here on the blog, I thought it might be fun to go back and revisit the very earliest Doctor Who serials from the 1960s. So, I’ve decided to embark on a rather ambitious project – discussing/reviewing all of the First Doctor (William Hartnell) stories that have been released on DVD to date, starting with An Unearthly Child. These reviews will run up until the Fifth Series DVD is released, at which point they will run concurrently with my reviews of Matt Smith’s first season.

I am setting aside time to watch An Unearthly Child this weekend, so look for my review of that very first Doctor Who story early next week.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Tegan!

No, not this Tegan:

THIS Tegan:

Yep, that’s right. It’s the first birthday of my adorable little niece Tegan. Surprisingly, my sister and my brother-in-law did not name her after Tegan Jovanka. They know nothing about Doctor Who, poor souls. No, they named her after Tegan Quin from the Canadian indie rock band Tegan and Sara. Because I introduced them to that band in the first place, though, I still get to take credit for the name! And, yes, I like to pretend that little Tegan is going to get to have exciting adventures in space and time as well as in the bathtub. What can I say? I’m incredibly lame.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Return of Doctor What!

Some of you may have noticed that it's been a while since I posted an article or a review here. My absence was probably doubly puzzling given that an entire series of new Doctor Who episodes (with a brand new Doctor, no less) has aired over the past few months. The truth is, I decided to try a little experiment with this most recent series; I decided to wait until the end of the series to review the individual episodes. I thought this would be an interesting exercise given how important the overall season plots have been to Doctor Who since the show's revival a few years back. By reviewing the individual episodes at the end of the season, I can better take a look at how each episode fits into the season's uberplot. And that's just what I intend to do! The DVD box set of Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series is scheduled to be released on November 9 in the US. As soon as that set is in my hot little hands, I'll re-watch the individual episodes and post my reviews/thoughts here.

Before November 9, I will also be posting a few reviews of "classic" episodes as well. I've just finished watching the Kamelion-related episodes starring the Fifth Doctor, so I plan to start with those stories. Keep your eyes on this space!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Pre-Review of the "End of Time"

I watched Part One of "The End of Time" last Friday on Christmas. I really did not care for it. Nevertheless, I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt. "Be patient," I told myself. "Maybe it won't really make sense until you've seen Part Two." Well, now I've seen Part Two and the story still doesn't make any sense. Look, I know that Russell T Davies is, by definition, a professional writer. But just because someone gets paid to do something doesn't mean they're any good at it. Look at Britney Spears, for example. Or Uwe Boll. There are many, many people in the world who are completely incompetent at what they do for a living, yet somehow make enough money to continue doing it. I have now added Russell T Davies to my own private list of incompetents.

I'll write a more complete review of this story in a couple of days where I'll articulate precisely why "The End of Time" was a terrible example of Doctor Who - nay, of television - nay, of storytelling in general. Until then, you can be sure that I was severely underwhelmed.

Come on, Steven Moffat. Fix this mess next season! I want to like Doctor Who again.