Doctor Who, Year Two

The London Review of Books examines the new Doctor Who series and concludes, “It’s obvious that the future is not with families, or sofas, or even tellies as we imagine them: though they sit in bedrooms and in the backs of cars, and hang on walls, made of plasma, opposite massive empty fridges, in apartments in which the only seating is on one of those healthful rubber balls. The BBC claims to be looking forward to a newly interactive and demanding audience of ‘participants and partners’ and ‘communities’ and so on; but there is an opposing possibility, a movement to lonely super-consumerism, fan and fantasy fused together in wi-fi symbiosis. Sometimes, I think Russell T. Davies and his team have built a commentary on this process into Doctor Who’s current storylines. Sometimes, I think I am hallucinating this notion, from watching too much Doctor Who too close together, causing plots to ripple and shimmer with interference, story-arcs to swim across my eyes.” (via Bookish)

I will confess that the fanboy in me was shouting at the climax of last week’s episode. But Who‘s second season has been very problematic, suffering from lackluster scripts, Tennant’s inability to find the same firm footing that his predecessor did, and a base capitulation to giving the fans what they want (Sarah Jane Smith, K-9, the Cybermen, et al.). When Who explores intriguing ideas (a parallel universe featuring zeppelins in homage to Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable series, Satan embedded near a black hole), it stops short from weaving these ideas into a taut emotional quilt, opting for blockbuster action and shaky narrative conclusions instead. It’s a telling sign that the only episode that has reached last year’s high watermark, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” didn’t find a way to figure Rose, who struck me as a far more integral component last year, into the picture at all. Perhaps this is why Billie Piper is leaving. In fact, there was one episode, while entertaining on a crass level, that had little to do with the Doctor at all, telling the story from an unemployed thirtysomething named Elton and lingering far too long on the man dancing around in his flat. (No surprise. Russell T. Davies, the show’s producer and worst writer, penned this story.)

If Who is to maintain its impact and its freshness, it must take more chances. It must find more ways to rethink its own mythology (such as last year’s “Dalek”). I suspect last year’s success had more to do with the performance and the characterization of Christopher Eccleston, who provided a dark and often peremptory edge that we hadn’t seen so frequently in the Doctor before. Tennant, twelve shows or so in, plays like an awkward and better-looking amalgam between Troughton and McCoy — almost as disposable as Paul McGann was in that terrible TV movie from a few years ago. Unlike Eccleston, Tennant, who is a natural comic actor who deserves more room to breathe, isn’t convincing when he tries to be threatening. Every actor who has played the Doctor (including Tom Baker) has understood that this dramatic heft is a pivotal part of the Doctor’s character, essential to maintaining his mystique. But I’m not convinced that Russell T. Davies or his writers completely understand this.

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