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Doctor Who Review

Hop To

by Chris McEneany Jun 2, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    After the triumphant return of the good Doctor last year, some people may have been surprised to see Christopher Eccleston bow out after only one series. But, being a major fan of the original show and, thankfully, this energetic re-tooled version as well, and having watched the first season quite comprehensively a few times now, I have to say that another run of adventures with Eccleston's Time Lord may have proved quite an endurance test. His quirks - the ears, the leather jacket, the northern accent and that damned catch-line of “Fantastic!” every couple of minutes - could, perhaps, have called last orders on the character. Last orders ... get it? “Time”, gentlemen, please ... Oh, never mind. But, the celebrated return to the screens of this Great British Institution was no mere flash in the pan. Emotional upgrade notwithstanding, Doctor Who has been a phenomenal success. Old time fans have embraced it and even a new generation of viewers - my young son, in particular - who had no prior knowledge of the character have taken the show to heart. How many re-vamps, remakes or re-imaginings can you say that about? Now, I'm no devotee of Russell T. Davies, in fact, I cringe whenever his name appears as an episode's writer, but the exuberance and self-belief that he has injected into a format that had seemed, beyond any doubt, to have run out of steam a long, long time ago, is nothing short of extraordinary. By his own admission, he tends to write the more juvenile shows - ie. the ones that don't work and just make the die-hards squirm (flatulent aliens, anyone?) - but his excellence has proved to be the long-running themes that compose the stories, giving them a solid emotional basis, and his steady knack for creating companions that actually live and breathe. My favourite was always Sarah Jane Smith - my very first crush - but the creation and evolution of Billie Piper's Rose Tyler has been a revelation in the canon of Doctor Who. By giving her at least as much involvement as the Doctor - and, in a few cases, quite a bit more - the show has a much wider-ranging appeal and a far feistier and believable heroine than we have seen before. Her mother, Jackie, may be an irritating hanger-on, and there is a little too much revolving around her dead father (even going so far as to involve him in the alternate universe that brought us back the Cybermen, later in this series), but the addition of her erstwhile, and somewhat lovelorn, boyfriend Mickey provides even more humanity to the mix. And it is this emotional weight that gives Doctor Who the impetus it needs to engage and en-trance a modern audience. So ... hats off to producers Davies and Julie Gardner for having the courage to resurrect a crusty old sci-fi show from the vaults of the Beeb and drag it confidently and enthusiastically into the 21st Century, whilst retaining all the elements that made it so magical in the first place.

    Volume 1 of this new series kicks off with the Christmas Special, which is divided into 12 Chapters and entitled The Christmas Invasions.

    Just like last year's opener, Rose, which I just thought was a mess and really didn't bode well for the new series, The Christmas Invasion feels muddled, rushed and just packed with far too many ideas to really make for a coherent introductory adventure. The Doctor is in the midst of his regeneration - love that little throwaway line from the end of the first season finale “Ooh, that's odd,” as his new tongue jams into his new teeth - and the process is giving off galactic vibes that are attracting troublesome aliens, the evil Sycorax, towards the Earth with plans of dominating its inhabitants. As he lies comatose in Rose's flat, a vast mothership appears over London (where else, eh?) and strange, fang-jawed creatures with faces like raw muscle make demands of our planet's spokesperson, none other than Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton reprising her role from the much-ridiculed, yet strangely fun, Aliens Of London/World War Three double-header from last year) who is now Britain's redoubtable Prime Minister. Thus, when roughly a third of the world's population are telepathically controlled by the Sycorax and sent like lemmings to the tops of high buildings, poised to throw themselves off, planet Earth is held to ransom unless the Doctor can, somehow, recover from his regeneration and save the day. Again. We even get a scene of Harriet Jones hijacking the Queen's slot for her usual Christmas speech to make an impassioned plea to the Doctor, if he's out there somewhere, to help mankind in this, their darkest hour.

    Well, despite some good elements like the strange cluster of murderous Father Christmases and a festive tree in Rose's mum's flat that goes on a spinning rampage, or the neat little references to that secretive organisation known only as Torchwood that we are ALL going to get to know fairly well once it gets its spin-off series, the episode is really quite ghastly. The script is symptomatic of all that can, and often does, go wrong with Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who. Neither scary, nor particularly exciting, and full of inept social jibes and flippant plot developments like Mickey's ability to hack into the MOD's secret computer tracking system, The Christmas Invasions serves merely as an overlong scene-setter to bring David Tennant's hip, motor-mouth Doctor up to speed with his heroic nature and his relationships with certain tag-along humans. But, with his being unconscious for most of the story, it is asking a lot of the new guy to save not only the fictional Earth, but the entire ramshackle episode. The surprising thing is, though, he does it. And, by God, he does it with some style. Tennant, rising above the idiocy of a script that sees a pin-wheeling Tardis do a spectacular crash-bang-wallop against the side of a block of flats and then halt traffic without arousing anything more than a simple head-scratching from the bemused onlookers, or the simply pathetic solution of spilled tea being the catalyst that the Doctor needed to speed up his regeneration, takes the show by the scruff of the neck and shakes it up with a spellbinding performance that is, at once, comical, dangerously unpredictable and deliciously eloquent. Not since Tom Baker - still the definitive Doctor and the one that I grew up with - has the character possessed such an air of wild abandon, or passion, or of barely restrained violence. Tennant's Doctor is a marvel. He ditches the love-all attitude of the previous incarnation in favour of an intensity that couples madcap verbal interplay with direct, in-your-face (or tentacles) aggression. His final rousing from Gallifrayan slumber not only saves the show but stamps Tennant's wholly refreshing persona upon a series that, in the past, has moved in confused circles, its themes and stories veering chaotically from the intelligent and the emotional to the downright drivel that Davies, himself, tended to come up with. In some truly shining moments, such as his delight at finding “a big, threatening button” before his duel with the leader of the Sycorax, and then later when he issues his ultimatum to the surprisingly gung-ho Harriet Jones, Tennant establishes his new Doctor as a man of action, wit and, most interestingly of all, vindictiveness. And it is precisely this last quality that marks him out as something special. His Doctor would be the least likely to offer an alien threat jelly-babies.

    The scene where he picks out his new attire, accompanied by a song that was commissioned specially for the show, is destined to become a fondly-remembered moment. Wisely avoiding the Doctor rummaging through something that recalls each and every incarnation he has had, the scene plays out with a nostalgic nod to the legacy and, more pertinently, the faint whiff of a new broom sweeping clean. Mind you, they still couldn't resist having Tennant twirl Baker's trademark scarf around his neck, could they? And who can blame them?

    The second episode on this volume, New Earth, also presented in 12 Chapters, was actually the first proper show in the current series. Assuming the role of a pseudo-sequel to last year's The End Of The World, in that it features one of the settlements that humankind made after the old Earth finally blew up and revisits a couple of characters from that largely forgettable episode - the narcissistic face-wafer Cassandra, and the epoch-aged head-in-a-jar The Face Of Boe, New Earth is fast, fun but ultimately lacking in narrative meat or imaginative integrity. Having agreed to continue journeying through time and space with her fresh-visaged hero, Rose now finds herself at the mercy of her old skin-sheeted nemesis when she is waylaid in the dank tunnels beneath a plush new hospital in the gleaming city of New New York. Run by a race of Cat-Nuns (splendid masks by Neill Gorton, perfectly capturing their feline mischief), the establishment appears to offer mankind the best treatment in the galaxy. The Face Of Boe, languishing in his immense jar on Ward 27, has summoned the Doctor via the Time Lord's nifty psychic notepad with the promise of some profound information, so the trip is not just for sight-seeing purposes as Rose may have hoped. But this enigmatic plot-thread will end up being nothing more than a childish hook to keep you watching the rest of the series in a fashion vaguely reminiscent of the Bad Wolf enigma last time around.

    Although the two leads reveal a genuinely sparkly rapport and provide enough camaraderie to make the show entertaining, New Earth is still a disappointment. The return of the bitchy Cassandra (again voiced by Zoe Wanamaker, who we also get to see in person this time out during some woeful flashbacks) smacks more of desperation than of clever writing. And her efforts to regain a more full-bodied physique by swapping life-essences with Rose leads to a ludicrous body-hopping routine that takes up far too much of the running time, and just cheapens the show by playing it for laughs when the tension should be rising. Cassandra's plaything-minion is an utter annoyance, too. And the diseased victims who lurch around the gleaming and sterile establishment like Romero's zombies are quite pathetic. We are told that they are each afflicted with every disease in the universe, yet this is just signified by a few boils and an un-washed complexion. Of course this is still what is termed as a “Family Show”, so we are hardly going to be treated to scabrous, flesh-peeling makeup effects, but when compared to the next episode, Tooth And Claw (destined to become one of my favourite-ever Doctor Who shows despite having Russell T. Davies writing it!), which features a marvellously bloodthirsty werewolf standing tall in all its drooling glory, a bit more conviction for the ostensible monsters of the piece would have been a bonus.

    This episode also suffers from a rather bland and cosy denouement that is, again, symptomatic of what can often go wrong with these new shows. But, then again, the overall series has shaped up extremely well, with some tremendous ideas, great character-interplay and a steady dynamic swirling around David Tennant's soon-to-be iconic incarnation. He occupies the role with brevity, lust and a keen sense of personality. The humour is still there, but he forces it to go hand-in-hand with a volatility that makes him a true wild card. With Tennant you can never be sure of what the Doctor will do next ... which makes him, without a doubt, the most exciting thing about the show. It can't have been easy to follow on from Christopher Eccleston, what with expectations running so high, but Tennant makes it look like he was born to play the part. As this season progresses he reveals so much more beneath that wide-eyed mask of confidence that he presents to the universe that we can totally see and feel the humanity that vies for dominance within him. Check out the incredibly poignant climax to The Girl In The Fireplace, coming up in Volume 2, to see what I mean.

    So, all in all, this first volume offers a reasonable introduction to the new Doctor, who hits the ground running when the script finally unleashes him and certainly provides high points even when submerged in a lacklustre episode. Tennant is a force to be reckoned with and I, for one, hope that he stays with the role for a good while yet.
    Folks, I'll be covering Volume 2 soon ... so be prepared for fan-boy overkill because that disc has a couple of classics on it!