Friday, November 22, 2013

A Doctor A Week (double Post): David Tennant: Army of Ghosts/Doomsday and Matt Smith: The Eleventh Hour

By Russel D Mclean

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejudices about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

David Tennant: Army of Ghosts/Doomsday

Ahhh, David Tennant. Voted recently as the most popular incarnation of the Doctor. He truly was the populist incarnation of the character. Eccentric without being threatening. Odd but recognisable human. And of course, many regarded him as easy on the eyes, something that can’t be claimed by many of the Doc’s past incarnations.

I’m not actually over enamoured with Tennant’s run on the show. He had some amazing moments and when he was on form, he was truly, truly spectacular, but too often the scripts played to his humanity rather than his alien nature and he had an annoying habit of playing to the back of the room.

And let’s not mention the fact that two of his stories almost stopped me watching the show altogether (both co-starring that most brutally underused of all evil Timelords, the Master - - now I love John Simm as an actor, but he was woefully miscast and miswritten in his two outings). Now not all of this was Tennant. A lot of it was then showrunner Russel T Davies, who brought the show back in style, but soon lost the heart of his story amidst bombast and spectacle. But then, what do I know? Both he and Tennant had a brilliantly populist touch, and when it was on (Family of Blood, The Christmas Invasion, Impossible Planet, Silence in the Library) it was on. Nothing could touch them. But when it was bad (Fear Her, Midnight - and yes, I know its a fan favourite, but only if you haven’t seen Lifeboat or give a damn about developed characters - and the last two “specials” that just about lost me the will to live, especially that Lord of the Rings ending) it was horrid.

So why choose to write about the close to David’s first season?

Well I think Army of Ghosts and Doomsday show off the show and its best and worst. They show Russel T Davies’s soaring imagination and have a great performance from Tennant, but they also have lazy plotting and frankly ludicrous moments where characters obey plot rather than the other way round. Also there’s the interminable Rose/Doctor romance that worked very well for a while until it tipped over. The whole thing about neither of them saying they love each other is sacharine and carries more than a touch of the Mary Sue*. After all, RTD had always said he wanted to be the companion, and with Rose, he gets to fulfill that ambition completely. Of course, the end here is almost right for the story; the romance is never fulfilled and the characters are seperated by a whole wall of reality. If you’re going to do it, then make it bitter sweet. It would be two years before RTD brought Rose back and gave her a fake Doctor of her very one to play with in one of the most convoluted and unlikely plot lines of all time (Until The end of Time, that is)

Army of Ghosts is definitely big budget fan fiction. Daleks! Cybermen! Weird ghosts bleeding through reality! It all starts off well with the ghosts, and the Doctor (despite his odd Scooby Doo impression) doing his best to find out why people believe the dead have come back to visit them. Its all great fun. Rose’s mum is a great, sulky one-off companion and plays well against the Doctor (her face when he claims she’s Rose after facing the Time Vortex is brilliant). And its nice to see Mickey the Idiot (no longer an idiot) back as well. The first time I saw it, the cliffhanger at the end of Army of Ghosts gave me chills. They managed to hide the fact that Daleks were back so well that no one expected the ship from the void to contain them.

Like I said:

Daleks! Cybermen!

Its a fan’s best dreams come true.

RTD may have been great at set up, but he rarely followed through. As we would later discover, he loved cop outs and reset buttons. There’s a bit at the beginning of Army of Ghosts where Rose talks about being on the beach where she died. Her “death” is merely an administrative paperwork gag. And for all the chat about how she can’t come back through ever again, the Doctor meets her again and again on his travels. Its hardly the all consuming bittersweet frustrated romance RTD wants it to be when taken in context.

And then there’s the misplaced humour. The catty Daleks and and Cybermen “Daleks were not designed for elegance” “That is obvious.” as amusing but contextually misplaced. And then of course there’s the question of how some Cybermen slip in completely to land an invasion force while others appear as ghosts. The second half rushes towards it conclusion with bombast but it all falls apart when you start to look at it. And in the end, I’m still not sure I really care about two races whose goal is simply to destroy and assimilate. This story makes it very obvious just how similar the Daleks and Cybermen have become, except one stands on two legs and the other “E-lev-ates!” (no, really, the Daleks continue their habit of stating the obvious whenever they try and do anything).

As for Torchwood... well, at this stage RTD was setting the stage for his beloved spin off. So he wanted them front and centre. Its a great idea, that the Doctor’s actions earlier in the series make Queen Victoria decide to set up a group to stop him from ever returning. But given how long they’ve been around, its surprising they never ever caught up with the Doctor. Especially when he was Jon Pertwee, stuck on earth and working UNIT. (“Hey, hang on, this UNIT lot have a scientific advisor with a time machine. He calls himself the Doctor... do ya think...?”). But sometimes you just can’t think about these things too much.

In all though, its a bombastic end to the second season that entertains but falls apart the more you think about it. The performances are excellent, but it really does highlight all the greatness and all the flaws of an RTD run in one package. And it would prove to be the last of the great RTD end of season Dalek-taculars that really, really held together.


- Nice nod to Cyber history when they rip through plastic sheeting. Bit of a reference there to Tomb of the Cybermen. And that’s always a good thing.

- No, really, what’s up with that whole “Who you gonna call?” gag done in a Scooby Doo voice? Did anyone understand it? Event RTD himself?

- Aghhh, the celebrity cameos... just stop it RTD, just stop it... one thing I hate in this era of Who is the reliance on 20th century pop culture. And especially those rolling news segments to fill us in on what’s happening when the story should be making it obvious. Grrrr....

- On the other hand, I did chuckle at the ghost of Dirty Den appearing in the Queen Vic. Bit wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey, though, considering that the Doctor has visited Albert Square before during his 7th regeneration (although most right thinking people do try and forget about the terrible Dimensions in Time story that was produced for 1993’s Children in Need).

- All that said, though, what a great great cliffhanger to episode one. Totally jaw dropping the first time you see it. The void ship is a great idea. Something you can see and yet your brain doesn’t want to acknowledge it. An idea that would later be explored again in Matt Smith’s era with the creepy (if underutilised) The Silence.

*In the world of fan fiction, a Mary Sue is a character thrown into an established dynamic who is perfect, often romantically involved with the lead, and generally just the author’s wish fulfillment. This character can also be found in general fiction too but they’re far easier to spot in fan fic.

Matt Smith: The Eleventh Hour

Matt Smith.

What a thankless task taking over from the popularly handsome and dashing David Tennant. Smith could never hope to replicate Tennant’s romantic lead. Not least because he is not so classically handsome as tennant. But that face - composed of rubber, and capable of a million expression - is wonderful; just alien enough to work as the Doctor while still able to express a full range or recognisable human emotions.

Add to that Smith’s physicality. Its not just his face that’s made of rubber, but his whole body. He is always in control while looking utterly chaotic. And that’s a wonderful combination. Harks back a little to Patrick Troughton, the man who really started the kind of characterisations by which we understand the modern Doctor.

The 11th Hour had a lot of work to do. Tennant had defined the modern era of Who along with Russell T Davies. But Davies left along with Tennant and new showrunner Stephen Moffat had to establish himself and his new Doctor right off the bat. And he does so with some style. The opening scenes - following off the bat from Tennant’s bombastic finale where, for no discernible reason, his regeneration blew up the TARDIS interior - are brilliant with the TARDIS crashlanding in a child’s garden. The mysterious stranger. A little girl. Fish fingers and custard. Its all very fairy-tale ish. And Matt Smith pulls off that “old man, young body” feel that Moffat kept promising us. He’s out of touch and yet very wise. He silly and smart. He’s contradictory and yet understandable.

But all the same, I think for those who were looking for another Tennant - a romantic hero - they felt short changed. Smith’s not a dashing to the rescue type of hero. He’s darker than that in spite of all the silliness and even over the course of the 11th Hour, you can see his mood change from daft and frivolous to serious and in command. When he tells the aliens to leave Earth as it is under his protection, you utterly believe it.

Also his bow tie is cool.

Amy Pond gets a great introduction here, too. Moffat likes to play with the idea of the Doctor dropping in and out of people’s lives. so to see her here as a child and then a young woman, utterly unsure of who this man is or why he keeps appearing, is brilliant. Gillan plays it mostly straight and assured, and she feels like a real person; someone growing and discovering themselves. Its a shame her character would be messed around with in later seasons as the story got a little too muddled for its own good, but in the 11th Hour she makes a fantastic first impression.

As for Rory, her boyfriend and later husband... his introduction here is subtle and perhaps a little underplayed. He wasn’t someone we were too desperate to see return, but Darvill would grow in his performance and quickly become one of the highlights of the Smith season. But as as a supporting character here he just seems a little unnecessary in some ways; not quite fitting in yet.

Its interesting to see how Moffat plays a longer game that Davies did. And that’s been divisive. Stuff that seems odd at first soon becomes clear. While Davies liked to hammer us over the head with catchphrases (“bad wolf”, “torchwood”, “Mr Saxon”)  and then just pull something out in the season finale, Moffat teased things out further. Things that were initially irrelevant soon became important, and in his first season he seemed like a master magician as everything came together at the end, right back to small and seemingly insignificant moments from this first episode. From Amy’s house being a bit strange, to the cracks in the wall... creepy and mysterious and quite brilliant.

On its own, though, the 11th Hour is great fun. The main plot - the escaped prisoner from another dimension - is just engaging enough on its own without overshadowing the real business of getting to know Matt Smith’s new Doctor. Amy is a nice contrast to Rose and feels less of a Mary Sue and more of a growing character. And Smith himself owns the part from the moment he climbs out of the wrecked TARDIS.

The 5th season on new Who will remain one of the highlights for me. Despite a couple of dodgy eps, it reintroduced the Doctor with flare and panache. And despite criticisms of the seasons beyond 5, the fact remains that Smith’s performance has never been less than brilliant.


- I don’t think we ever did get an answer as to why Rory’s nurses badge had a date that was different to the year they were in... mysteriouser and mysteriouser...

- Smith’s Doctor has a real thing for food. From whipping up his fish fingers and custard to making Omelettes for Craig in the lodger, he seems to be a Doctor of the senses; out to experience as much as he can.

- Smith is the youngest person ever to take the role. The worry could have been that he wound up like Davison; a little overwhelmed by the character or forced to play it too young. But Smith channels an energy that is decades - maybe centuries - older than his body. Its an incredible feeling to look into those eyes and see something unexpectedly alien looking back.

- One of the reasons I like Smith so much is that he harks back to Troughton. The odd little man in the blue box. The cosmic hobo.

- I’m still perturbed by what happened to Amy in later seasons. It feels like there was a whole story to be told but production schedules messed with it. Its a shame because if she got the chance to continue to develop as a full person she could have been one of the greatest companions of all time. However, her journey in season 5 is excellent..

- Its a great title, too. The 11th Hour. Its about the 11th Doctor. He’s arriving to save the world at the 11th Hour. It invokes a feeling of heady danger. I just really like it.

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