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Doctor Who Review

Hop To

by Chris McEneany Jan 4, 2007

    First and foremost, it must be stated that I am a confirmed fan of Doctor Who. I love the old series - mainly the Tom Baker period - and I have embraced the incarnations of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant wholeheartedly, though not without an awful lot of reservations. Having covered the first couple of standalone releases for Series 2 - and feel free to refer back to them for much more detailed reviews of those earlier stories - I have probably already addressed many of the pros and cons to Russell (I refuse to put that annoying middle initial in there) Davies and his occasionally joyous, often inept, but almost always juvenile writing. Series Two did little to alter this basic opinion, although I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by his exciting and marvellously self-contained werewolf story Tooth And Claw. The second season also brought about a stronger performance from Billie Piper, who had now totally settled into the role of Rose Tyler and the chemistry between her and David Tennant's new Doctor was plain to see from the get-go. Tennant, it must be said, took on the mantle of the last timelord with verbal dexterity, super-fast wit and a beguiling complexity that could turn humour into tragedy with just a simple phrase. He can eat up the sci-fi gobbledy-gook with appetite to spare, launch his spindly frame around the sets with Tom Baker-ish lunacy and, best of all, transform an archaic, and eminently eccentric character into a vibrant, hip and happening hero, whilst still remaining true to his original incarnations. This Doctor wears his heart on his sleeve, refuses to give in and often reveals a darker side to his nature.

    Put another way, the timelord has finally moved with the times.

    Another great thing about the Doctor - not just this Doctor, but all the Doctors seen thus far - is that he never really gets away with it. His sins will always find him out. He may wander in and out of time and space, regenerating every so often and recharging his batteries, but no victory, however emphatic it might seem, is ever totally final - the vanquished always have a habit of returning to harass him again at another point in the universe. His arch villains, the Daleks and the Cybermen, always return to scramble his Gallifrayan morals, making him curse his own seeming immortality. For Sarah-Jane Smith, for Leela, for Perri, or for Rose Tyler there comes an inevitable end to it all - a natural end. But the Doctor just goes on and on, never really defeating anything, his existence forever turning full-circle, his fate entwined eternally around the very things that he vows to eradicate. And that, in essence, is why Doctor Who, the cult phenomenon that it is, will also never die.

    A special mention must go to Murray Gold for his outstanding music. In a show that dips and dives all over the place in terms of writing, direction and overall style, his scoring never once drops the high standard he set with Series 1. With a sense of epic scale and grandeur, Gold's themes hoist each episode up to a higher level, giving Doctor Who a big and textured wall of sound that never fails to excite, cajole or move. Finally, with this season, we are treated to the full main theme that plays out over the end credits - the version that really pushes the heroic element of the music with its extended second part and higher note shift. The use of a choir brings an ethereal quality to the two-part finale, and Tooth And Claw gains considerable impetus from a fierce action track. But it is the hauntingly beautiful melody that he has accompanying the Doctor's mourning for The Girl In The Fireplace that is the standout piece of the season, truly finding the heart and soul of the revamped character. And there are a nice couple of songs from The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, specially written for the show, that add a quirky, offbeat quiver or two. Fans that haven't already picked it up should do themselves a big favour and get hold of the new CD soundtrack from Murray Gold featuring 75 minutes of music from both seasons. All of the above cues are lovingly reproduced on it.

    So, lets dive into this second set of new adventures to see what Russell Davies, producer Julie Gardner and their in-house team of writers conjured up this time. The complete series, as broken down episode by episode, comes out looking something like this -

    The Christmas Invasions was ineptly plotted and directed with a cack-handedness that had you simply begging for David Tennant's re-tooled and re-toothed Doctor to wake up and save the day from the naffly-visualised Sycorax threat - the woeful attempts of Cardiff buildings to stand in for London and various other international locations was dreadfully apparent. That Tennant did, in fact, manage to save the day and the show from near-terminal farce was thanks to him and him alone. But things still didn't bode too well for the coming series and I couldn't help but fear the worst after Davies' childish script kick-started things in the worst possible way.

    Considering that I now had severe doubts about the new season, and Russell Davies' vision of what Doctor Who should look like, New Earth didn't disappoint my drastically low expectations, by being both insipid, uninspiring and downright boring. I hadn't been a fan of Zoe Wanamaker's wafer-thin Cassandra the first time around, and to have her back again just felt like a backward step, jiggly-boob jokes at the buxom Billie's expense notwithstanding. Fairly obvious CG and a cop-out sentimental ending let the side down, too. By now I was beginning to feel a bit embarrassed about the whole thing.

    My faith was, however, totally and utterly restored by the season's third episode - the simply awesome Tooth And Claw, a grand old werewolf saga that ingeniously combined a hint of Hidden Daggers-style martial arts, some crafty sci-fi shenanigans and a well directed and gripping narrative that pushed the boundaries of family viewing in some strange new directions. I doffed my cap, albeit in surprise to his suddenly excellent storytelling skills, to Davies and well and truly began to rethink my opinions of the new Doctor's abilities to both stimulate and captivate. Tennant was taking the character by storm and delivering the most exciting Doctor to date. But, could it last?

    School Reunion brought back my childhood crush of Sarah-Jane Smith, played exquisitely by a hardly-aged Elizabeth Sladen, to a tale that proved to be thrilling and nostalgic. The emotional side to this new incarnation of the Doctor was brought to the fore and, for the first time, a kind of reality was added to the plot, with the ramifications of being left behind in the doldrums of a restrictive Earth by a space and time traveller who had shown you the universe intelligently woven into a fast-paced tale of school-dinners, CG bats and Anthony Head's sinister machinations for re-crafting the cosmos. Fabulous and touching stuff that seemed to get the series back on track.

    The Girl In The Fireplace received some flack from me in my earlier review, and now I feel obliged to redress that opinion. Well ... sort of. Sophia Myles gives an excellent performance as the 17th Century's Madame De Pompadour, the somewhat bizarre object of some intergalactic spacecraft repair perpetrated by a crew of macabre, time-shifting clockwork droids. The doomed love-affair effected between the Doctor and this elegant courtesan still seems totally forced and highly unlikely, but the emotional damage wrought about by such a meeting of tragically ill-suited souls proved to be incredibly moving, with Tennant's resonant and restrained sense of loss and helplessness epically conveyed through just a series of heart-torn and resigned expressions - and, of course, Murray Gold's gut-wrenchingly haunting score. I was unkind to this episode the first time around and I regret that now as it definitely proves to be a steady grower in mood and atmosphere, even if Rose and Mickey end up being given the run-around by the script.

    Next up was the long-announced return of the Cybermen for the pulverising double-header of Rise Of The Cybermen and The Age Of Steel. Set in an oh-so-convenient parallel universe (that would prove to set up a continuing story arc throughout the series), this tale finds the usual team-up discovering alternate versions of Mickey, Jackie and Pete Tyler in a world that will soon be overrun by Roger Lloyd Pack's cybernetic upgrades in a reasonably clever re-working of the original Cybermen tales. Kudos must go to the awesome new-look, buffed-up metal-heads as they stomp in chromed-to-the-gills regiments through the streets and smash through windows and doors in their time-honoured and remorseless fashion. It may be crafty to give them a whole new backstory - invented here by Lloyd-Pack's electo-evolutionary Lumic as the only possible future for mankind - but purists still bemoan the new interpretation. However, in the context of a different dimension, this story still works extremely well and is thunderously exciting. I just love that long-shot of the Cyber-Factory as the timeless “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” plays out over the screams of those rounded up for their horrific upgrading. The main difference, or rather addition, that Davies' new Doctor keeps on supplying is emotion. The show even finds the time to shave away the cybernetic shroud to uncover the ripped-raw humanity lost beneath the metal plating. Despite some eyebrow-raising new character traits for Mickey and some sugary moments along the way, these episodes deliver seriously good-time thrills and an energy that cannot fail to bring some excitement into a show that, at this point, seemed to be going from strength to strength. Roll on the spooky-looking, face-stealing next instalment.

    Well, here was the one that flat-lined the show again, bringing it back down to earth with a sadly filler feel that let down all the good things that the new Doctor had achieved so far. The Idiot's Lantern, despite its cool title, was bereft of energy, intelligence, wit or scares. Maureen Lipman's airwave-eating Wire was anything but frightening, her bogusly cheery face leering out from 1950's TV sets all over terraced suburbia giving the show an excruciatingly twee feeling and a total lack of menace. The show's smaller scale story seemed largely duff and redundant, inevitably suffering in the wake of the grand vision that had preceded it. And it is here that the writer and director should have maximised on the momentum that they had been able to achieve so far - small-scale doesn't have to be boring. Even the first series episode 2 - The Unquiet Dead, also penned by Mark Gatiss - delivered the goods in terms of frights and excitement and sustained a tale that took in a more contained location in contrast to a much larger scale threat. A series-deflating disappointment that just goes nowhere.

    Next up came another double-header with Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Initially, despite an exceptionally cool setting in a hellish planetoid teetering on the brink of a vast black hole, the concept was purely derivative. It was just Aliens meets The Exorcist by way of a large stop-over aboard the Event Horizon yet, come the second part, where the Doctor makes a tremendously ominous descent into an ancient chasm, Matt Jones' script becomes quite brilliant and audacious. A terrifically sustained atmosphere of otherworldly dread and suspense is maintained by good all-round performances from the likes of Danny Webb, from Alien 3 and Will Thorp as the possessed Toby, and especially from Tennant and Piper, who take to the diabolical theme with gusto. With a hint of Quatermass And The Pit thrown in for good measure, this Who mini-movie proved to be a terrific double-act of tension and mystery. And the onslaught of the giblet-chinned Ood was just zanily pulse-pounding as they stormed en masse down the air shafts.

    What came next was a brave misstep from the makers, though. Love And Monsters, starring the great Peter Kay as the pantomime alien, the Abzorbaloff, and Mark Warren as the ultimate Doctor Who fan was completely ridiculous, crazy and warped. A real audience-splitter that can be viewed either as a genre-busting triumph or a total blasphemy, the episode unwisely left the Doctor and Rose largely sidelined and upped the comedy ante far too much. Personally, I almost like it. There is an idiotic charm to the story and some good performances amid a script that playfully takes the proverbial out the show. But, by far, the greatest thing on display here is Camille Coduri (the most alluring woman in the series so far) as Jackie Tyler, playing the older woman sexpot to a glorious tee. A final lewd joke about the love life between the episode's hero and a paving stone is definitely pushing it a bit far though. I can imagine some awkward questions having to be evaded by mums and dads after that one. I was lucky, my son just loved the fact that the Abzorbaloff has a victim's face on his green, warty behind. Still, I don't want to see any more Doctor-less stories like this one.

    Next up was Matthew Graham's Fear Her. Now this was utter rubbish, folks. By far the worst story that these new adventures have so far cobbled together. The Olympic Torch finale - oh, puh-leeze! Just appalling and not worth discussing any further.

    But the series certainly went out with a bang. The double-header of Army Of Ghosts and Doomsday really delivered, although the emotional impact of the final denouement didn't quite have the punch that I'd expected, given the tearful rehearsals we'd already had along the way. You wanted action - you got it. You wanted a face-off between two of the Doctor's most feared adversaries - you got it. You wanted some head-scratching paradoxical jargon amid the frantic chaos - you most definitely got it! Now, I was never really a fan of either the Daleks or the Cybermen when I was a kid. They never gripped or frightened me at all. In fact, when either of these tin-bonces was hailed in a story's title, or was menacingly revealed at the end of a particular episode's cliffhanger, I would then normally resign myself to a relatively fright-free run from that point on. Give me the Sea-Devils, the Autons, the robot-mummies or some green maggots any day. But what Davies and Gardner have managed to do is give these stalwarts a genuine shot in the arm, some real presence and threat and, most surprisingly and rewardingly of all, genuine pathos. Some of the exchanges between the two races are simply brilliant and the Daleks, the clear winners in my book, deliver some absolutely classic lines. When the Cybermen accuse them of declaring war on them, the chief Dalek acerbically replies, “This is not a war. This is pest control.” Or when Rose rallies at them for barbecuing the brains of one of Torchwood's minions with an enraged “You didn't need to kill him!” They just sarcastically inform her that “Nor did we need him alive.” Finally, we get some good, intelligent concepts as Doomsday's impulsive narrative straddles parallel worlds, alter-ego matchmaking, time-shifts, trans-dimensional empathy and dates with destiny with giddy glee and an almost perverse sense of “Mickey”-taking ... all backed up by a fabulous bank of haunting choral voices on Murray Gold's impressive score as the Doctor's taunts gets the Daleks' heads in a spin. So much stuff goes on in this final episode that the screenplay practically bubbles over, with pseudo-science and sentiment eventually fusing with an urgency that almost makes up for the naff episodes that have fallen by the wayside.

    Overall, the second season lacks the doom-laden drive of the first, but only marginally so. We knew that Eccleston's stint was going to end, and we liked him a lot and would miss him. With this series, we knew that Billie Piper was going to throw the towel in but, as much as we liked her, loved her even, the feeling of impending loss was tempered by the fact that we'd been down this road before and, even if it was only our second loss, the effect was still diluted. We're getting used to it - and that has to be something that the producers and the writers simply have to avoid in the future. Doctor Who, by virtue of its format, is predictable. But seasonal story-arcs do not necessarily have to conform to such a pre-determined template and, in the seasons to come, I hope for a wilder ride all the way.

    And, whilst on the subject of Series 3, here are a few more hopes and ideas ...

    Good to see Freema Agyeman assuming the role of Doctor's new companion, Martha Jones. Last seen being brain-fried by the Cybermen in the final two-parter as a totally different character, she looks set (at least in my eyes anyway) to be the sexiest assistant the Doc's ever had. Which is nice. And, on a similar topic, I'd also like to see more of Camille Coduri - although just how they'd achieve that is beyond me. Although I'm sure that I could find a way.

    And let's have more adventures out on distant planets and more actual space travel. I don't know about you but I'm getting a little fed up with modern-day Earth (alternate universe or not) hogging the limelight. Cardiff doubling for London just doesn't convince, and stock shots of the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower with Cybermen or whatever looming up in the foreground are even less credible. I know that New York will feature in the series at some point - the real New York, that is - but, come on guys, let's do some exploring even further a-field, eh?

    No Cybermen or Daleks this time out. If we have to have some vintage villains return, let's see a Sontaran, or a Zygon. Actually, there are pretty strong rumours that the latter, those knobbly, man-sized foetuses no less, will be putting in a long-overdue appearance which would be great. They always gave me the creeps.

    And please let's try to brush up the scripts for the Christmas Specials. The Runaway Bride had a few nice moments here and there - the Tardis chasing a taxi down a busy motorway looked especially neat, although the complete ignorance of the other vehicles to such a bizarre spectacle, save for the two kids in the back of people-carrier, let the whole scenario down a lot - but was just too stupid on the whole. What was the point of a having a huge multi-legged spider-woman on the rampage if she was never once going to move from the same spot? Shouty mouthpiece Catherine Tate was horrendous, too.

    All things considered though, at least Doctor Who is back and gaining fans and awards at a brisk pace. I can say all I want about Davies's juvenile writing - and I do - but I will always give him credit for giving television back one of its greatest institutions, and sci-fi back its demigod. It's just too bad that he is also the man behind Who-offshoot, Torchwood - the most risible thing on TV today. Even the references to it within this series have a detrimental knock-on effect to the stories they spring from.