Part one was just me begging off writing this review, while more or less promising that it would come. But in case you’re still wondering, here you go: Part One
Doctor Who is a science fiction dramedy largely aimed at what I like to call ‘family entertainment’. Doctor Who is a television phenomenon that has been around, in one state or another, for exactly fifty years. The Doctor and his companions travel through time, space, and the occasional alternate dimension, righting wrongs and saving as many lives as possible. Anyone who doesn’t know that yet is probably living under a rock.
The key factor in Doctor Who is that everything changes, from episode to episode, series to series, incarnation to incarnation. It never stops throwing up new and mad ideas, new cast members, new intrigues, new relationships, and yet does so in an exceedingly pleasing story shape, virtually every episode.
It’s also a series that has its detractors and, perhaps more importantly, fan critics. It’s often dismissed by outsiders as merely a kid’s show that has unfairly achieved cult status, somehow hindering the structure and breadth–the development–of science fiction by its very existence. The notion that science fiction is crippled by the success of Doctor Who always strikes me as a bit of sour grapes; as if the problem isn’t Doctor Who, but the fact that people enjoy it more than, say, the critic’s (or writer’s) darling idea of what successful science fiction should look like.
But its most vociferous critics are often self-proclaimed fans of the show, or at least, of an older version of the show, before it all went horribly wrong. Whether that be the switch from Verity Lambert to Barry Letts to Robert Holmes, or to Douglas Adams, or John Nathan Turner, or Russell T. Davies, or Steven Moffat, there have been many styles of show over the past five decades, and each has met with disdain from well-meaning fans who feel the show is being led astray. Fans of one Doctor often decry his passing long, long after he has cast the mantle aside, for whatever reason, refusing to recognize the benefits of the change to the formula represented by the new Doctor.
But all that probably sits in the corner and waits for acknowledgement, compared to the 500 lb twin gorillas in the room that represent the fact that the show is ostensibly science fiction, and that it is also ostensibly a children’s show. Both of these are oft-stated facts, and yet, I don’t think they are entirely accurate, or at least, not nearly as limiting as their innocuous descriptions would have us believe.
First off, as Science Fiction goes, Doctor Who pretty famously plays fast and loose with the pop science concepts of the day, but it also deals heavily in time travel, which a lot of hard sci-fi boffins will tell you is an overused plot device, along with alternate realities and pocket dimensions. And yet, Doctor Who makes repeated use of all three, plus magic and other fantasy and supernatural tropes, and comes out a winner virtual every week it’s on. However, truthfully, it is NOT hard sci-fi, and rarely attempts to be. Even in the classic era, the science talk was often second place to plot development and action sequences.
No, for my money, the thing that appeals to me about Doctor Who’s brand of science fiction is that it is essentially Speculative Fiction with lots of sci-fi (and the occasional fantasy) tropes thrown in for good measure. But that creates the problem that most folks don’t know the difference, and fail to recognize that science fiction comes in many, many different flavours, other than straight Space Opera, like ‘Lost In Space’, ‘Star Trek’, or ‘Star Wars’ (or my beloved Farscape, which was basically a melding of all three). Speculative Fiction may be best summarized by reminding people of ‘The Twilight Zone’, or for modern audiences, The ‘Outer Limits’. One of my favourite Spec Fic series was ‘Life On Mars’ and its sequel, ‘Ashes To Ashes’. Both were essentially police procedurals, but with a strange, creepy twist that turned the whole genre on its head, which is what Spec Fic does best. And that’s what Doctor Who (and Torchwood after it) do best.
KIDDIE SHOW NO MORE
No children’s show could affect the audiences this show has for fifty years and counting if it were merely a children’s show. Even a successful children’s show has to have a lot more grit to survive, and if there’s one thing Doctor Who has that most ‘children’s shows’ don’t have, it’s rows and rows of sharp teeth. All you have to do is look at the relative light weight and fairly unmemorable nature of poor Sarah Jane’s Adventures (of which I was a fan), or at the utterly forgettable travesty that was that K-9 show made for modern children’s audiences a few years back. It was so insipid and patronizing, it didn’t survive one season, as I recall. And that’s what I mean about children’s shows; there’s really no such thing. Kid’s shows are either morning and after school edutainment, or heavily merchandised animations. Doctor Who may have been heavily merchandised over the years, butt he quality and variety of the merchandise and the quality and variety of the stories are not strictly speaking for children.
Particularly when you consider the romantic and relationship angles that have been played in the last twenty five years (including Paul McGann’s now thoroughly canon run in the TV movie and Big Finish audio series). I mean, it’s not just the snogging. It’s the fact that several companions have recently and openly admitted that they’d very much like to shag the Doctor, and have had very romantic and edgy relationships with him that didn’t even remotely resemble the plethora of relationships that the show tried to portray (sometimes very unsuccessfully) in the classic series. I mean, try to convince me that there was absolutely no sexual chemistry between the Doctor and certain of his companions prior to Paul and the modern era. Sarah Jane and Four? Romana II and Four? Nyssa and Four? Nyssa and Five? Peri and Five? I’d even go so far as to say there was something slightly May/December between Ace and Seven, even though much of the time, he was manipulating her and playing with her already fractured and mercurial emotional state. I know you (and certain past Doctors) might want to, but don’t you think you were–and are–being just a bit naive?
This whole idea that ‘oh, he’s an ancient alien who would only see his female (and male) companions as being little more than a pet chimp or orangutan’ is, to me, the height of chauvinistic, classist snobbery at play. He obviously doesn’t think of his companions so lowly, and with each successive regeneration, has reinvigorated himself enough times that the weight of his years, far from staunching his appetite for intimacy, seem only to be heightening it. I’m not saying that he’s a sexual predator, but I certainly think that his legacy as a romantic figure goes back further than Eight, even if the series was still trying to play itself off as a children’s show. And maybe that’s why I think it isn’t; at least, not any more.
Mind you, with an older Doctor at the helm, I’m sad to think that there probably won’t be much more of that sort of thing in the show. It would be fitting to see some more May/December romance, but Moffat and company might flinch at the prospect of showing older men with younger companions, which will definitely affect the casting choices of the future. Again, a shame, because I think there’s still room for genuine romance in the TARDIS, even if it’s not with the companion du jour.
Now, with all of that out of the way, let’s talk about the review I promised.
First off, I want to review the Day of the Doctor for you. But to do that, I feel the need to review the minisode prequels. It’s relevant to the episode, and frankly, I don’t think the story of Day of the Doctor really makes sense without them.
So briefly, we have…
THE NIGHT OF THE DOCTOR [SPOILERS, SWEETIE]
Paul McGann (Doctor #8) not only returns to the role, but in style. He knocks it out of the park AND gets the regeneration sequence he has long been denied by three successive Doctors after his time. And it’s a really great minisode, with great production values and a script that doesn’t fall flat, despite the fact that it is, essentially, a sop to the fans. It feels important, and the performances are every bit as good as the rest of the series. Total vindication for the Eighth Doctor and his woe-begotten run. You only have to read about the petition to get him his own spin-off series to realize what a complete success it was.
THE LAST DAY [ALSO SPOILERS]
We’ve been hearing about this mysterious Time War for almost a decade, and other than the fateful scene during Ten and Donna’s series finale, we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of all but the Master, the only other old school Time Lord left in existence, despite the plethora of Daleks that keep cropping up, like a bad chest cold that never quite goes away. This minisode gives us a hint–just a hint–of how the Time War started. Not as dramatically compelling as the previous minisode, but relevant to the series and relevant to The Day of The Doctor, so a must see, even if only once.
…and finally, the main course…
THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR [DO I HAVE TO SAY IT?]
Okay, so we start off with Clara (the amazingly charismatic, talented and lovely Jenna Coleman) experimenting with a new teaching job, thus demonstrating her continued independence from the Eleventh Doctor (the always eerily fabulous Matt Smith), which has been a defining characteristic, and probably an important distinguishing to this companion, as she has previously marched through time and space in every era and every direction to keep the Doctor alive and (relatively) safe. Upon their reunion, we are just about to go off on another wild and woolly adventure/play date, when the TARDIS gets hijacked by a military helicopter and dragged off to look at some paintings. But as this is Doctor Who, they can’t be just ordinary paintings. First off, they’re being held by Kate (Lethbridge-)Stewart (the coolly intense Jemma Redgrave) of UNIT, and second, one of them is a 3D landscape painting of the last day of Gallifrey, depicting the Time War shortly before ‘The Moment’ arrives (cue harrowing melody).
Next, we actually drop into the painting and see the War Doctor, played brilliantly by John Hurt, basically setting out to end the war, declaring ‘No More’ to the Daleks and, unbeknownst to them, the High Council of Gallifrey, and incidentally ripping the tops off of about a half dozen Daleks with a flying TARDIS. Then he proceeds to infiltrate the High Council’s secret armoury of dangerous pre-High Council Gallifreyan weaponry to steal a bomb capable, if names are to be believed, of destroying the entire constellation of Kasterborous… or was that the entire galaxy? I’ll have to rewatch that to clarify myself.
Back in the Gallery, Eleven and Clara next see the wedding portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and the Tenth Doctor, reprized brilliantly by David Tennant in full Lothario effect. He soon discovers he’s a victim of Zygon shape-shifter’s efforts to seduce and possibly capture him for some unknown reason, only to discover that it’s not just him that the Zygons are after, but his inamorata, the lusty, busty Queen Elizabeth the First (played quite charmingly by Joanna Page). More on that in a minute.
Then we’re back in the Gallery to look at some paintings that have had their glass frame covers shattered (outward, as it happens) and their figures vanished. Meanwhile, Eleven has procured a conspicuously displayed fez, which he happily dons until a time portal appears in the space above their heads. He then throws the fez through, and, having tested the waters, jumps through himself to meet the Tenth Doctor in the middle of an argument with two quarreling Queen Besses. Then the War Doctor (who has been chatting with the sentient bomb, which now is sporting the fine frame and visage of Rose Tyler, little miss Bad Wolf herself… well, at least it has been for the War Doctor, who periodically sees her and talks to her even in mixed company, as she attempts to do her best Clarence the angel routine with him), comes into the picture (so to speak), and the story gets extra timey-wimey from there.
Without giving away any more plot, I just want to say that this episode was perhaps my favourite season closer of all time. I usually feel a little bit put off by the efforts of the show to leave the series on a cliffhanger, and they did it again this past season as well, but with this, the anniversary episode, all or most of my questions were answered, while asking a few good ones as well to take us into the next fifty years. There are still more surprises, and guest appearances that were not mentioned anywhere, and shouldn’t be, for the sake of the fun of the show. So I won’t mention them here. End of Review.
Oh, but one more thing…
THE FIVE DOCTORS REBOOT
This is a fun 50th anniversary spoof, officially endorsed by the Beeb and Moffat’s crew, with official credits sequence and all, written, directed and starring Peter Davison, along with co-stars Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and the mysteriously mostly absent Paul McGann, plus a bevvy of Doctor Who stars (past and present) and surviving companions and cast members in cameo roles to spice things up. It’s fricking hilarious, and well worth watching, particularly if you have a sense of humour about the series, and an affection for the old school series Doctors.
AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME
Mark Gatiss’ docudrama retelling of the genesis of the Doctor Who series is incredibly charming, heart-warming, poignant and heart-breaking. Definitely a good film for anyone who has a passing interest in the making of historic television, or non-fans who like docudramas but have never understood what makes Doctor Who tick. Might not convert them, but it might give them a deeper appreciation for it, at least.
© 2013 Lee Edward McIlmoyle