Monday, April 05, 2010

Doctor Who: Season Five

Readers may recall back in the spring of 2008 I tried predicting my ratings of the fourth season episodes of Doctor Who. I didn't do too badly, though got a few surprises; see Goodacre and Rosson at Doctor Who. I'm going to have a go at it again, but this time in a single rolling post, supplanting my predictions with brief reviews as the episodes air. I will also provide longer reviews of each story in separate blogposts.

1. The Eleventh Hour. 3 ½ stars. Feeling like a leftover of the Davies era, this season opener fares significantly better than previous ones which introduced a new companion, even Smith and Jones whose plot it copies: an illegal alien disguised as a human, pursued to Earth by other alien authorities, around a hospital setting. There is enough Moffat influence to offset the Davies feel, such as the Doctor returning to a much older Amy (shades of The Girl in the Fireplace), and Prisoner Zero being a more fearsome creature than the Autons, Plasmavore, and Adipose combined. It remains what it is -- an invasion-of-earth story in which the Doctor saves the entire planet in the space of twenty minutes -- yet an incredibly fun ride demanding repeated viewings.

2. The Beast Below. 3 stars. Here are smiles that would give your grandmother a heart attack, the entire British kingdom crammed on a starship searching for a new home, and a beast lurking beneath to eat protesting citizens. This story works on two levels, one as a political fable about society kept in ignorance, albeit democratically by their own choice, and two as a metaphorical commentary on the Doctor's nature. The "Last of the Starwhales" allows Amy to understand the Doctor better, and more polysemously, than previous companions. And she gets to save the day, as the Doctor is caught up in helpless fury as he works to destroy the whale on humanity's behalf. We haven't seen Time Lord fallibility like this since Eccleston, and it's refreshing.

3. Victory of the Daleks. 3 stars. A rushed episode that needed another to breathe, but a fun World War II story that sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich. Churchill gets a nasty surprise when they show their true colors, and quite literally: the new and improved Daleks have an intricate caste system (red = drones, blue = strategists, orange = scientists, yellow = eternals, and white = supremes), which will surely be fleshed out later in the season. The space battle between Britain's Spitfires and the Dalek ship is ludicrous but thrilling, and the Doctor's fury as he assaults a Dalek with a spanner surpasses even the Ninth Doctor's rage in Dalek. Not a stellar achievement, by any means, but a fun ride.

4. The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. 5 stars. This two-parter is to Blink as Aliens is to Alien: bigger, longer, more. The weeping angels are back in droves, faced off by an army of priestly soldiers who aren't nearly as equipped as they think. Like Ripley, the Doctor understands the menace better than anyone, though not always quite enough, and the angels have some alarming new tricks, like breaking peoples' heads open in order to reanimate their consciousness. In terms of suspense, I haven't been kept on the edge of my seat so much since the Ood closed in on the space crew back in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit -- and as in that story the body count is high. Amy is in deep trouble, and when on death's door she cries out in a pitifully broken voice, "I'm scared, Doctor," our Time Lord hero callously retorts, "Of course you're scared, you're dying, shut up." Amusingly, when all is said and done, she wants to jump in the sack with the Doctor and fuck his brains out. Not quite as good as Blink, but as close as can be expected, and a crown jewel of the new series.

5. Vampires of Venice. 3 stars. Vampires return to Doctor Who in a gothic period piece, and the result, while hardly groundbreaking, is fun. The plot is distinctly linear, from the opening as the school of Calvieri welcomes innocent ladies into its monstrous breeding (feeding) program, to the climax which involves an apocalyptic storm of tidal waves, concluding rather lazily with the Doctor saving the day by climbing a tower and pushing a few buttons. Amy's fiance Rory joins as a TARDIS companion, and the love triangle between the three characters reminds of how effectively Sarah was used in School Reunion by putting Rose's relationship to the Doctor into perspective, and calling into the question the way the Time Lord eventually discards his companions.

6. Amy's Choice. 5 stars. Feeling like Doctor-lite, this story struts with determination to ignore the rules and throw something bizarre at us, only this time with the Doctor getting his usual screen time. By far the weirdest story of the new series, and in a good way, as if David Lynch had penned it. It finds the Doctor, Amy, and Rory flicking back and forth between two scenarios, one of which they are told is a dream they are sharing, the other reality. To die in the dream will cause them to wake up in reality for good, and to die in reality will cause them to really die; so they must choose wisely. The choice, however -- Amy's choice -- ultimately boils down to a choice between the Doctor and Rory, and it comes together splendidly. A work of art.

7. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. 4 stars. Feeling like classic Who more than anything seen before in the new series, this story taps into how everyone remembers the Pertwee era to be, but with shades of Colin Baker too -- protracted torture scenes and luminescent underground sets. It takes a tired cliché and turns it on its head. The alien (Silurian) invaders aren't really aliens but "Earthlians" who have as much claim to the planet as humanity. "From their point of view, you're the invaders," the Doctor lectures his human friends, and actually manages to get the two races to begin negotiating for terms of coexistence before foul play kills hope for a shared planet. The death of Rory is a shocker, and Amy's memory wipe tragic, the most emotionally powerful scene of the season up to this point.

8. Vincent and the Doctor. 4 ½ stars. A character piece about a tormented genius who has visual acuity beyond the norm. It represents the final year of Van Gogh's life quite well, recreating various sites painted by the artist, the paintings themselves in arresting color, and his disturbing fits of manic depression. The theme of vision permeates every frame, as we learn that Van Gogh can see things others are blind to. On the literal level this plays out in the attack of the Krafayis, an invisible giant bird-reptile that Vincent fends off entertainingly with long wooden poles and armchairs, while the Doctor gets slammed against walls by its tail. On the deeper level, Van Gogh sees things in nature's midst and people's souls. The scoring at the end is a bit rubbish, but aside from that this is a powerfully affective story.

9. The Lodger. 1 star. Worse than pedestrian, playing like a garden variety sitcom, about a monster luring innocent victims up the stairs of a flat complex. The Doctor moves in to investigate and becomes far more involved with the personal affairs of his flatmate than the alien threat above, and it's never clear why he can't go up the stairs right away to deal with the problem other than to satisfy the demands of an empty script. The direction is barely adequate, the design uninspiring; the cast struggle bravely to deliver what is essentially a trivial love story. The set up of the staircase is promisingly sinister, but it delivers manure. The best thing about the story is the sight of Matt Smith naked from the waist up.

10. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. 4 stars. Like The Eleventh Hour, a guilty pleasure which effectively gives Moffat's predecessor the finger whilst feigning homage. The subtext essentially is, if you're going to raise the stakes to extreme heights, Mr. Davies, this is how you do it. The crack in Amy's bedroom wall proves to be the most successful seasonal story arc in the new series, and while there are certainly resets to be found here, they're not cheap, they come at a fair price, and there's solid emotional payoff. The Doctor's farewell to Amy as he prepares to sacrifice himself -- "You don't need your imaginary friend anymore" -- got me a bit choked up. Well done, Mr. Moffat; bring on season six.


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