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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Doctor Who In Review


"Doctor Who". It's the one major part of geek culture I sorely lacked experience in. Before I was introduced by a friend, I really had no idea what Doctor Who was. It looked cheesy. It looked low-budget. It looked stupid. It looked like all those science fiction movies MST3K made fun of + special effects from a live-action children's show. Neil Gaiman said he (like other British people) watched Doctor Who sitting hiding behind their couch, peeping out. I never understood why.

Now I've now finished four seasons of the new "Doctor Who" series (on to Matt Smith!), and finally feel sufficiently versed to give an opinion. I wanted to be very careful because Whovians are as rabid as Trekkers or Star Wars fans. This list is for anyone curious about the Who, if they're deciding to get their feet wet. The show is not great. But it is fun. Sometimes.

Pro #1: The Doctor

Simply put, the Doctor makes or breaks this show. And fortunately, they pick good actors. The Doctor is always consistently fun and charismatic. He loves what he does. He's interested in things -- science-y things, explore-y things. He has passion, he has drive, and he has some delightful British charm. That's probably a big part of it. Whether it's his delight at little gift shops or when he puts on his glasses to read something (serious Doctor is serious).

I'm still undecided on whether I like that the Doctor can change actors. On one hand, if you have a not-so-great Doctor like a soccer hooligan Christopher Eccleston, you can wait for a new one. On the other hand, if you've got a good one like David Tennant (who I wasn't sure about at first -- I thought he looked like Harry Potter), then his regeneration comes all too soon.

My question is -- why is it always a white male? Why can't he regenerate into a woman? How fun would that be? Or a black man or an Asian person. What matters is that they act as spontaneous and charismatic as the Doctor should. They should be like Star Trek captains -- demographically universal.

Con #1: The Companions

Really, the companions are no more than a foil. They represent the stupid human, the Greek chorus that can comment on the goings-on or give the Doctor a reason to explain what is going on. I don't know whether the prior series did this, but the writers seem to think companions = excuse for a love story, a paltry one at that. Like they had to throw in something for the ladies. As if.

The whole first two seasons there's all this eye-batting at each other that never goes anywhere. I don't believe for one second anything would have happened between them. Then the whole of the THIRD season is the Doctor pining away for his lost Rose, while Martha pines for him. I know the Doctor's lost companions before, and I didn't see what was special about Rose.

I don't buy it. For one thing, what is a 900-year-old man going to see in a human? What's his plan? Settle down and have kids? For another, it's just so pointless. The story is not about romance. That's just something they threw in for the ladies. It's tacked on and it shows. It's peripheral to the plot and the subject of the Doctor's "feelings" comes up too often. Donna Noble may be a little obnoxious and opinionated, but the one good thing is that she does not care about a love connection -- she wants to see some interesting things. And why does his companion always have to be a woman?

Pro #2: Season Finales

This is probably true for most television -- they blow their remaining budget on the last of the season and pull out all the stops -- explosions, danger. And everything gets shaken up plot-wise -- character deaths, old enemies, things we thought we true turn out not to be. The season finales have the most mythology too, and allow longer, more involved stories. So it's no wonder they often become the most remembered episodes. They're also neat because the season enders always involve some reoccurring motif. It's a little reward for paying attention.

Con #2: Two-Parters

Each season has about two or three stories that arc over two episodes. The problem is that these stories just draaaaag. They almost always have nothing to do with the mythology, and the padding is blatant. You get instances of infodumping what the audience already knows, or long establishing dramatic shots, or, the most egregious, forced idiot ball.

Usually this consists of lots of pointless running, overly complex villain plots, or convenient amnesia. The one that most comes to mind is "The Sontaran Stratagem" where poison gas is filling the world. The companion's dad is locked in a car, the bad aliens are chanting meaninglessly, and the Doctor is running around panicking like he doesn't know what to do. First, the Doctor doesn't panic. Second, just break the window, you idiot. It's like the writers had too much material for one episode, but not enough for two.

Pro #3: Daleks

I never really knew what a Dalek was until Doctor Who. They were some kind of short robot that couldn't climb stairs and liked to exterminate things. Now that I know their true meaning, I'm fully a fan. I even bought a polo shirt with a Dalek on it. I think the eighth episode "Dalek" is the one that did it for me, and probably other people.

Before this episode, I hadn't seen the Doctor scared of anything. He'd seen a giant monster in a pit underneath London, mannequins come to life, the Earth's sun going supernova, ghosts, and aliens infiltrating world government. None of it fazed him. Then he sees one little robot chained in some guy's basement and he shouts "Kill it! Kill it with fire!" If this episode wasn't done as well as it was, the Dalek might have continued to be a laughing stock instead of a serious threat. Now when I hear that screechy tone or see that eye-stalk I think "Oh shit, we're fucked now."

I don't know why, but there's something about the Daleks that provokes dread -- their uncompromising world view, their bizarre appearance, their alien voice that single-mindedly shouts "EXTERMINATE". They're not perfect. They can never decide whether they're the last of their kind or that there's a hundred million of them. They're invulnerable to bullets, yet people keep shooting them.

Unless you have some kind of special gun. I don't know why everyone doesn't get one of these.

Con #3: Cybermen (and other silly aliens)

Cybermen are the poor men's Daleks. They act the same way, do the same things. The only difference is that the Cybermen want to assimilate you, and the Daleks want to kill you. Same diff. Although the best part was when the Daleks and Cybermen met and started bickering. I love it when epic enemies meet. But the Cybermen look really ridiculous -- like an emo Tin Man.


And there's other weird monsters. The first season had the Slitheen, which look like Greys that ate too much McDonald's. If they're not in that Romper Room character suit, they're in zippable human costumes. And they fart constantly. And they were featured in not one, not two, but three episodes. I'd blame this on early "finding your way" mistakes. Except that later on you get werewolves, TV mind control, cat people, gargoyles, aliens who act like General Patton, and SATAN!

Pro #4: Adventure Through Time and Space

You have a device that goes through time and space? Well, hell yes. You've got that, you can do anything. The adventure fills itself. Find alien worlds. Watch stars explode. Fight robot races intent on conquering the world. Spelunk into black holes. Escape aliens that only exist in a quantum state. Bust ghosts. Save the world. Help historical figures. Explore the multiverse. See the progress of humanity. Where we've been, where we're going. The pitfalls and possibilities. Perhaps even an answer to the eternal question: why? If you've got a TARDIS, you can go anywhere and do anything.

Con #4: The TARDIS

So why don't they? You have a freakin' TARDIS, why do you keep going to Earth? Out of the 55 episodes I've seen of Doctor Who, 61% of them take place on Earth. Of those, a little more than half take place on present day, and usually in England. I mean, come on. And half the time, the damn thing doesn't work. It just takes them where they want to go. If there's a reason for that, it's nothing more than hand-waving.

I'm not being Americentric here. Just going to visit amazing places and things on the Earth throughout history would fill a lifetime. Find out what killed the dinosaurs already! (I hope it was Daleks.) I know the writers keep it rooted in Earth for viewer accessibility, but other successful sci-fi series have taken place with little to no relation to Earth -- "Star Trek", "Star Wars", "Battlestar Galactica", "Babylon 5", etc. And more to the point -- it doesn't make sense.

The Doctor has a device that can go anywhere in any time and space. ALL of space and ALL of time. His whole motivation is to show his companion amazing things, mind-opening things, and have adventures. Space is clearly full of awesome things -- living faces, talking spaceships, steampunk robots, time portals, planets made of diamonds, SATAN! Why don't we visit any of these things? Why are we always going back to Earth to talk to Agatha Christie or Charles Dickens or solve some mad scientist's scheme to turn fat tissue into cute little aliens or become a Resident Evil tyrant or, as often seems to be the case, do something related to WWII.

I know, it's hard. Once you have a time machine, all (and I mean ALL) conventional plot devices go out the window. There's no risk anymore, because you can just CTRL+Z and fix it. I know there's some phlenobotium that prevents that, but still, it doesn't explain why his instant teleporter keeps going back to Earth stuff.

Pro #5: Short Seasons

The nice thing about watching Doctor Who is that the seasons are only 13-15 episodes. That means story arcs don't meander for too long. And lord knows there's enough filler episodes. So like I said before, if you get tired of one thing, you don't have to wait very long before something changes. Like shaking the etch-a-sketch. This isn't really specific to "Doctor Who", but a trend of spec fic dramas, like "The Walking Dead", "Game of Thrones", and some anime. I like it.

Con #5: British Stuff I Don't Get

"Doctor Who" is, at its heart, a British show. You can plainly see that from my breakdown of episode settings. Lots of great television has come from Britain -- "Mr. Bean", "Monty Python", "The Office", "Teletubbies", "Hell's Kitchen", "Three's Company", "American Idol", "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" The problem is that certain parts of British culture just don't translate.

For example, in "The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky" (I know, I keep harping on that 2-Parter. It was dull, cliche, transparent, and predictable, and never should have been written.) the new trend is getting these "ATMOS" devices installed in your car -- little GPS's that eliminate toxic exhaust. And occasionally drive you into the river. Because they were designed by some conceited kid genius working with the aliens, naive to their intentions.

The problem (that is relevant to this topic and not one of the hundred others) was I knew this plot had something to do with something going on in Britain at the time. But I had no idea what. Prolific GPS devices? Environmentalism? War? Clones? Technology taking over? I couldn't tell. It's all over the place.

And lots of episodes are like that. We've visited not one, not two, but three British authors (Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare), ridden on a space Titanic, been trapped by The Running Man versions of UK shows like "Big Brother" and "The Weakest Link", and seen a few prime ministers come and go. If it happens in Britain, then it's probably something to do with Britain, and it's a crapshoot whether or not you know about it.

Pro #6: British Stuff I Do Get

For as much as I complain about the Earth-centricity, I do like some of the historical places they go. They visit Pompeii to see Mt. Vesuvius erupt (which was caused by aliens). They do meet authors instead of political figures or actors (which are usually being attacked by aliens). "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances" was a great episode for both scary stuff and factual context (aliens!).

And each time they show British stuff, I gain a little insight about their culture and how they interpret things. Especially about how WWII colors so much cultural media. Look at Japan. A lot of their stories deal with occupation, nuclear apocalypse, and other results of the war. "Doctor Who" has stuff like firebombing, military schools, conformity takeovers. These are things America doesn't worry about.

Conclusion

I like Doctor Who, but it gets maddening at times. Sometimes you get great episodes like "Blink" or "The Doctor Dances". And other times you get stupid filler action like the evil monster in the closet symbolizing the abusive parent or getting oral from your girlfriend who's permanently a face embedded in concrete (yes, this happens). It's interesting because on the Who, there is no in-between -- it's always one extreme or another.

I think if you watch the show, you have a 50% chance of sticking with it. It depends on how you handle the bad stuff and can see through it to the good stuff. I think you should, because there is so little good stuff out there.

Are you my mummy?
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