Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Journey's End: The Fourth Series of Doctor Who

s4artwork.jpgRose is back in her parallel universe (for now), Donna's in her ignorance (for which she should be grateful), Davros is vanquished (until next time), the Doctor moves on (as always), and all is well that end's well. Or not. I've had things to say about Russell Davies, good and bad, but even a curmudgeon like me has to admit the good wins out on whole. New Who has transcended the classic series enough times that we can blink at Davies' shortcomings.

Of which there are plenty, even if Mark Goodacre is blind to it. But I suppose we've kept each other in check through our ratings of the season four episodes (see Goodacre and Rosson at Doctor Who), and Mark wrote wonderful reviews for each story. Now for my own brief reviews, which follow what I did for the first, second, and third seasons last summer. I've added these to the older post, which sits on the sidebar (under "Film/TV reviews"), so all four seasons are now consolidated. And a special hat-tip to Lee Johnson for a smashing piece of artwork which I've pasted above. It's a bit Star Wars, but I really like it.

Season Four

Voyage of the Damned - 1
Partners in Crime - 2
Fires of Pompeii - 5
Planet of the Ood - 4
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky - 2
The Doctor's Daughter - 2
The Unicorn and the Wasp - 3
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead - 5
Midnight - 4 ½
Turn Left - 3 ½
The Stolen Earth/Journey's End - 0

Voyage of the Damned. 1 star. Damned in every sense, this Christmas special offends like last season's Runaway Bride but twice as garishly. The Doctor finds himself on a floating spaceship, caught between corporate greed, sabotage, and robotic angels armed with killer halos. It sounds impressive but be sure it's not. There's comedy in every line, but nothing funny; noise and action in every other sequence, but no excitement. It's a sign of how bad a story is when the body count is so commendably high (as in classic Who) but you just don't care about who dies. I'm glad Russell Davies is retiring, and I pray these Christmas specials soon go with him. The Christmas Invasion is already a classic, to be sure, but it can't be relived.

Partners in Crime. 2 stars. Fatsos look out: a company in present-day Britain is selling diet pills which make body fat come alive, break off in chunks, and kill the host. The adipose aliens are silly -- marshmellow cubes straight out of Pokemon -- but the kind of fluff we've come to expect from season openers introducing a new companion (Rose, Smith and Jones). I do get a tickle out of the way Russell Davies milks so much fun out of obesity, but let's face it, this is dumbing down to an all-time low. On the bright side, Donna Noble turns out to be more than a fishwife (when we last saw her in The Runaway Bride) and a worthy companion -- better than Martha, in fact, though certainly not Rose -- more subdued and genuinely funny. Wait for her emotional performances in some of the heavier stories.

Fires of Pompeii. 5 stars. "We're in Pompeii, and it's volcano day!" says the Doctor before the sting, having no idea that he'll be the one to blow up Mount Vesuvius and kill thousands. The season's most ambitious story tackles the dilemma of whether or not history should be altered to save lives. Tennant's struggle to pull the lever and doom Pompeii recalls Tom Baker's agony over committing genocide on the Daleks. Dark stuff. The Sibylline Sisterhood is another throw-back to the Hinchcliffe era (The Brain of Morbius), and half of the season's special effects budget seems to have gone into creating the Pyrovile (stone-magma creatures resembling Balrogs) which the priestesses are hideously transforming into. Easily the best historical piece of the four seasons with a bit of everything -- drama, comedy, horror, tragedy -- and not a minute of screen-time wasted. You'll be weeping with Donna at the end unless you're made of stone yourself.

Planet of the Ood. 4 stars. It's not often Doctor Who gets political and crushes oppression, but it happens from time to time, especially on alien planets in the future. Revisiting the Ood in the year 4126, this time on their icy home base, he takes on and topples the conglomerate which has kept them in slavery for centuries. The best "revolution" story after Tom Baker's Sun Makers (taxation), Warriors' Gate (slavery), and Sylvester McCoy's Happiness Patrol (fascism). It's great seeing the Doctor bring management to its knees when provoked, and in this case he clearly feels guilty for having let so many Ood die in his battle against Satan two seasons ago. But savor the musical climax above all, so haunting it defines the story in a way never seen on the show.

The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. 2 stars. Don't get excited over the Sontarans: they're not as menacing as in the classic years, and they even chant hakas like football jocks. Don't cheer for UNIT, because the military outfit isn't the same without the Brigadier we knew and loved. And don't applaud Martha, who for crying out loud just left at the end of season three. Groan and exasperate over a substandard invasion-of-earth story in which Sontarans are using human agents to release poison gas into the atmosphere. Like last season's Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (though not quite as abysmal), this story laughs at our expectations and gives us the finger. I did like the Doctor's passing remark about working for UNIT "back in the 70s...or was it the 80's?", a nod to the unresolved contradictions in the classic chronology. But boobytrapped automobiles don't do it for me.

The Doctor's Daughter. 2 stars. Susan's mother unveiled at last? Not hardly. "Jenny", spawned from the Doctor's tissue sample in mere seconds, is more Little Miss Rambo than Time Lord, born to kick ass in a war against the alien Hath. On an underground planet in the distant future, people have been fighting the Hath for "generations" -- meaning for a single week, since twenty generations are born daily from their progenation machines. Under the delusion they need to combat aliens who usurped power from them in decades past, they imprison the Doctor and Donna as pacifist invaders, while the Hath abduct Martha. The story's center of gravity is the relationship between Jenny and the Doctor, but it isn't impressive, and the emotional climax of her dying in his arms is robbed by a last minute return to life and zipping off like a comic hero. Disappointing overall.

The Unicorn and the Wasp. 3 stars. The Doctor and Donna invite themselves to a posh dinner party in 1926, and when a Professor Peach is killed in the library with a lead pipe they team up with Agatha Christie to find the murderer. Turns out the culprit is a huge alien wasp (the image of which would later appear on the cover of Death in the Clouds) that assumes human form at will. The wasp, for demented reasons, thinks Agatha's mysteries are the way the world really works, and so kills people in caricature of them (i.e. wielding a ridiculous lead pipe instead of just stinging the poor sap to death).It's an unusual story for Doctor Who because there's no threat to humanity, just a bizarre murder mystery -- a surreally comedic Clue game involving an alien. A fun romp for Christie fans, but with a climax feeling strangely like a non-sequitur.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. 5 stars. I dream of planet-sized libraries but wouldn't visit this one. Here shadows kill on contact and eat flesh to the bone, hard to distinguish from the garden variety, and as hard to evade as the weeping angels from last season's Blink. Not a nice place for the Doctor to run into his future wife, but there you have it. Professor River Song, leading a team of archaeologists, has come to investigate this 51st-century library, and with the Doctor learns that 4000 people have been "saved" from the shadows -- to the planet's hard-drive, while their consciousnesses live on in a warped alternate reality. The first half of the story is a horror piece ending on the cliffhanger of "Donna Noble being saved", while the second takes us inside the disturbing Matrix where Donna is married and has kids and no memory of anything else. A creepy, creative story; and the season's best, even if the epilogue waxes schmaltzy.

Midnight. 4 ½ stars. The season's filler episode scores big-time. On a leisure planet the Doctor boards a shuttle bus and gets possessed by an invisible alien, leaving him at the mercy of an hysterical mob. With the claustrophobic intensity of United 93, possession-horror of The Exorcist, and dialogue-drama of Twelve Angry Men, the story succeeds unexpectedly by undercutting the Doctor's hero qualities. Now it's precisely his arrogant superiority that renders him powerless by an alien force and turns people against him (opposite Voyage of the Damned, where his melodramatic speech about a being a Time Lord makes the ship's passengers obey him without question). The tension and yelling reach a horrifying crescendo, as the passengers try to kill him and he's unable to save the day -- something unique in the Tennant years. You'll remember this one for a long time.

Turn Left. 3 ½ stars. "Turn right, and never meet that man," hisses the fortune teller. "Turn right, and change the world!" That's what Donna does, and her life replays without ever meeting the Doctor, who dies as a result. This would have been 4-stars easy if not for gaping plot holes, most notably that if the Doctor died at the start of season three, the world would have retroactively ended in 79 CE, since he doesn't go back to Pompeii and stop the Pyrovile. We also have to revisit Davies' lemons (The Runaway Bride, Smith and Jones, Voyage of the Damned, Partners in Crime) though he makes lemonade out of them with a new outcome of loss and tragedy. There's a lot of good drama here: the Italian family being taken off to a "labor camp" is heartbreaking, as is Donna's life as a refugee. The return of Rose is handled surprisingly well, and Catherine Tate puts in a hell of a performance as she sacrifices herself to turn left and get the world back on track.

The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. 0 stars. A complete shower of piss. Davros is back but gets saddled with the worst story of the four seasons. Think The Five Doctors -- this time The Five Companions: Rose, Sarah-Jane, Martha, Captain Jack, and Donna -- all fanwank, no plot, and five times as hollow. The Daleks have whisked away 27 planets, including Earth, to a hidden part of space for their new empire. Sound promising? It's not. In the first half everyone is just trying to telephone the Doctor, ending in the mother of all cop-out cliffhangers: the Doctor starts regenerating but doesn't. The second part gets exponentially worse, with more cop-outs, mockeries of Rose's closure in season two, mockeries of Donna's character and fate, a romantic duplicate of the adds up to the worst script we've seen since Timelash in the Colin Baker era. Davros doesn't feel threatening, the Dalek Supreme is impotent, and the Daleks are easily disposed of with a cloud of deus-ex-machina technobabble -- by companions who do little more than greet each other with hugs, laugh and hug each other some more. To cap it all off, we're treated to the ridiculous spectacle of the TARDIS towing the Earth back home. Every TV program has its lemons, but when a season finale is this bad, it's a sign that something new is needed. Good-bye, Russell Davies. Time to move on.


Blogger James F. McGrath said...

I have offered my own post on the Doctor Who finale. In the end I decide that the plot is entangled and problematic, but perhaps no more so than stories that people have nevertheless continued to enjoy, study and discuss for millenia... ;-)

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

A lot more, James. A lot. I wish it weren't so, but it's the truth.

I enjoyed your post -- thanks.

Blogger James F. McGrath said...

I assumed that the idea of the TARDIS towing the earth (with only a bit of shaking of furniture as a result) was not intended to be taken seriously. I don't think the series has ever genuinely tried to offer a realistic vision of the future. That doesn't mean that it has no social commentary at any point - Lady Cassandra who has made herself thinner and thinner, for instance - but such instances are themselves comical/satyrical, not plausible.

I liked the idea that the TARDIS was supposed to have six pilots. The idea of a 'lone time lord' is so familiar to us that we have to be shocked into seeing what an anomaly it is.

Maybe my own appreciation for new Who is shaped both by having missed the show when it was gone, and also having been astounded by how very bad the special effects and other aspects seemed rewatching old episodes as an adult. The same thing happens when one watches new additions to the Star Wars series without the benefit of the nostalgia surrounding having seen them as children.

Childhood nostalgia helps the Bible's stories, too, by the way... :)


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