Monday, July 14, 2008

New Who: Further Reflections

Mark Goodacre promises a comprehensive review of the fourth season of Doctor Who, and I have some further reflections of my own. How does it compare overall to the previous three? (See here for my reviews of all the individual episodes.) Mark seems to think it's the strongest, while I think it's the weakest.

Season two was definitely the high point for me. It did almost everything right: The Girl in the Fireplace was pure magic, and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit left me floored. Unlike the other seasons, it had a strong first half -- a good Christmas special introducing a new Doctor, no fluffy season opener introducing a new companion (like Rose, Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime), an excellent early double bill (a fantastic story about the Cybermen in a parallel world, unlike the disappointing double-eps about the Slitheen in London, Daleks in Manhattan, and Sontarans in the sky). Aside from a couple of lemons in the second half, I never felt let down in season two. The script writing was top-notch all the way.

And there was strong character drama: a special return of Sarah-Jane Smith, and heavy pay-offs with story arc going back to season one (with Rose's father, Mickey's departure, and Rose's swan song) -- in stark contrast to season four, where returning characters became forced attempts to relive the past. Season two showed Davies at his best with story arcs, and there were never any cop-out endings. The Doctor's romance with Madame de Pompadour ended in appropriate tragedy; Mickey, realizing his inadequacy, left Rose for another world; and Rose's swan song was just heartbreaking. (No, she didn't literally die as we were led to believe, but the end result was equally tragic.) All of this took Doctor Who to a new level -- the pinnacle, no less, of the new series.

Seasons one and three were great too. They had their lemons like any season, but stories don't get any better than Dalek and Blink. Even more memorably, Paul Cornell left his stamp on each -- with Father's Day and Human Nature/Family of Blood, dramas so tragic they're almost sinful to waste on TV. Unlike Davies, Cornell understands what the triumph of the spirit is really about. His stories are emotional without being sentimental, true to the heart in every way.

Season four, while on the whole enjoyable, didn't leave me soaring like the others. In terms of emotion, only Fires of Pompeii was that affecting. There were two strikes in particular. First, Davies was leaning way too much on the past instead of just letting new dramas carry their own weight. The return of Rose, Martha, and Sarah-Jane (and many others) were forced, unlike in season two where story arc fell perfectly and naturally into place. The returning characters in the atrocious finale had virtually nothing to do; they couldn't be developed in any way. They basically all greeted each other with hugs, stood around the TARDIS-consul pushing buttons to tow the Earth back home, laughing and hugging each other. Honestly.

Second, it was the season of cop-outs. The Doctor's daughter returned to life at the last moment, as did his future wife's consciousness, undermining the theme of sacrifice built so well up to those points. The worst, of course, came in the finale: the Doctor's non-regeneration, Donna's non-death (copycatting Rose in season two, but this time feeling like a complete cheat), and -- most offensively -- a romantic duplicate of the Doctor who now lives happily ever after with Rose. That last completely destroys what Davies accomplished at the end of season two. It's as if the new series has suddenly become afraid of good storytelling, afraid that viewers are too delicate and just want cheap thrills. That's too bad. Doctor Who has always been a kids (family) show, but one that allowed kids to grow up.