Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Doctor Who: The Tardis Driver And His Mate

So long, and good riddance, Martha Jones, hello Donna Noble.

The Doctor: The last time with Martha... it got complicated. And that was all my fault. I just wanna mate.

Donna: You just want ... TO MATE!?

The Doctor: I just want ... A MATE!

Donna: You're not mating with me sunshine!

The Doctor: A MATE. I want A MATE.

Donna: Well just as well, because I'm not having any of that nonsense. I mean you're just a long streak of nothing... you know alien nothing.

The Doctor: There we are then. Okay.

The quality of writing in Doctor Who is often all over the universal map. The number of genuinely great episodes versus average episodes will certainly test the patience of those looking for challenging science fiction. I didn't have quite as many issues with Doctor Who Season One featuring Christopher Eccleston as I'm finding with Series Two through Series Four helmed by David Tennant. Eccleston's brief run is like a shining star on every front, performance and writing being at the fore.

I understand the series as a whole is about adventure and escapism or when you can't escape essentially be forced to save the Earth every other week from complete annihilation. It's actually rather remarkable how the Doctor, through complete and utter luck, can find himself, at any given point in time or space, in just the right place to save us all. It is rather amazing isn't it? That part is likely Doctor Who fatigue talking. But apart from the preposterous nature of the show, there really isn't anything like it on television which more than explains why it's the longest running science fiction series in history and generally beloved despite its flaws season after season. It's indeed an original.

If the writing consistently equaled some of Steven Moffat's ambitious best (The Empty Child, The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink) or the quality of Russell T. Davies challenging highlights (The End Of The World, New Earth, Love And Monsters) or high marks like the works of Mark Gatiss (The Unquiet Dead), Robert Shearman (Dalek) or Toby Whithouse (School Reunion), Doctor Who would undeniably be a more consistent and satisfying experience. As it stands it's definitely a hit and a miss, and certainly its misses are good enough as passable entertainment. But many entries are hardly challenging as hard science fiction goes. Again, I suppose that is to be expected. But as someone reared on the atmospheric Tom Baker years it all feels a bit like sound and fury at times. Everything is so quick the characters rarely have time for an actual human moment.

On occasion the show devolves into the silly or implausible. I mean most of Doctor Who is that of course, but the crazy special effects simply cannot sell some of the outlandish ideas and the whole thing seems to just spiral or fall apart when I'm frowning at the lack of internal logic to a given episode.

When the series focuses on a singular theme or story without attempting to get too epic or too big it can be positively sensational (Dalek), but even big and bold risks can work out rather well (The End Of The World). Still, even in those large canvasses must be taken to bring things into the focus and intimacy of the Doctor and his companion. This often happened in Series One with Eccleston and Billie Piper. The preference to slow things down for the more human components of the series is when it really breathes believable life into its characters. Mind you I'm afraid that's not often enough. It may be why I enjoyed Human Nature (written by Paul Cornell) so much and why fans of the series rate that episode so highly. Take away those special effects and trust your actors to deliver the special stuff for a change and you'd be surprised. You may say they certainly do that of course. Then I say trust them a bit more then as they did with Carey Mulligan in Blink. School Reunion had some of those simpler moments too. Fans of the Fourth Doctor and the adored Elisabeth Sladen were certainly over the moon with School Reunion. It was not only a love letter to those fans - a very respectful nod - but a successful episode thanks to the concentration on story and performance reuniting the Doctor and his old mate Sarah Jane. Even with Series Four, Catherine Tate takes time to surprise with both comedy and drama, but those moments are still few and far between.

Honestly, my apologies in advance if I am fighting the David Tennant fatigue factor or I'm simply finding Doctor Who to go beyond the pale of believable with its formula. I know I shouldn't expect believable. But sometimes it all gets just a little too ridiculous. And diversions from that formula are always welcomed too. Tennant delivered Doctor Who to the mainstream globally and he is impressive at times. I don't want to take that away from him. Unfortunately, there are some real opportunities wasted at writing something a little more significant. Either some of the classics had a sense of authenticity about them or the sheer lack of flash served to ground it by default. Sometimes the new Doctor Who feels like it blows real opportunities in the writing department and delivering something truly special. You can't expect it week after week, but it would be nice to experience a little more consistently.

For me, Season One hit much more than it missed and I think there was plenty in that year of Eccleston that really felt right especially the character drama and interplay. I understand the three years of Tennant really established the series and popularized the show more than ever. It was a smart move that worked well and there is nothing to be ashamed of there, including a number of strong stories, but Doctor Who could still be a better science fiction adventure grounded by its terrific casting. Despite the highlights, there are some real gems of stupidity. I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes at the improbability of a number of factors in each given story. It just can't possibly be.

And don't get me started on Martha Jones. That character was an absolute out and out bore. Painful really. If I felt I was being too hard on that opinion of her it was cemented by Freema Agyeman's brief guest return in The Sontaran Strategem and The Poison Sky two-parter. This is a good example of dumbing down Doctor Who. Good grief they even cloned Martha Jones. In fact, she was such a boring character to begin with I couldn't differentiate between the real Martha Jones or the fake. Sorry, she was serviceable at best. And about the stupidity. I mean how does Martha Jones have top level clearance? Wait What!? Good riddance Martha Jones. That was one mate I could have done without. Her family wasn't even likable. The Doctor going solo might have been more fun. Sometimes it makes you wonder if the success of The Doctor isn't just as dependent on the strength of a given companion. Tennant seems only to be as good as his partner in crime, the company he keeps. Yes, Smith wasn't as thrilling with Jones.

And speaking of reunions and companions, without question Sarah Jane was one of the finest. She was authentic through and through. Billie Piper came along for the new series and sort of reinvigorated that girlish but tough ideal. As Rose, Piper has spunk and heart and energy and a great sense of humor. She just lit up the screen.

Following a year with Martha Jones, Doctor Who returned to Catherine Tate as Donna Noble with Series Four, Episode One, Partners In Crime for the first time since their split at the end of the Christmas special The Runaway Bride (2006). Unlike Jones, at least Noble is a character. I sometimes half expect she may break into a foul-mouthed Joannie 'Nan' Taylor skit from her own The Catherine Tate Show. Noble's return almost suggests, 'well, maybe we made a mistake. Maybe Donna Noble should have followed Rose.' But then again the producers saw the wisdom in bringing back the Martha Jones character for three episodes in Series Four so there goes that theory. Agyeman performance in The Doctor's Daughter was actually a little cringe worthy. Whhheelll, at the very least some of us were hungry after the rather flat year of Martha Jones for something a little more vibrant. I mean I have difficulty even buying into the idea that the Doctor was just absolutely great mates with Jones in Series Three. There was no chemistry. Whenever they reunited I just wasn't buying the act at all.

The contrast of Noble versus Jones is rather stark and welcomed. Almost immediately there is a bounce in the Doctor's step in Series Four. There is an energy back that seemed absent and, yes, there is humor again. The humor is welcomed. The child-like silly of some stories isn't so much. Agyeman played it all fairly straight and just wasn't a good comedic sounding board or foil for some of the Doctor's personality. The two lacked spark. Already the Doctor and Donna Noble in just one episode seem more alive. Obviously these things are subjective. But even when it seemed like there was an effort between Jones and the Doctor to seem high-spirited it all felt rather forced. The exuberance and the dynamic just didn't feel real or authentic. Jones return in Series Four reminded me of that rather lacking dynamic.

We just didn't care about Jones in the way Billie Piper developed Rose. Certainly, we could quickly point to the fact the Rose character had two seasons to work that magic, but, in truth, from the moment Rose appears we immediately took to her. It didn't take long for us to care about her, her mum, her Dad, her Earthbound love interest Mickey. But Martha and her family, eh. It just didn't really work there for me.

Already in just one episode, Partners In Crime, we like what we see between Donna and her grand dad. In just one entry it would appear the Doctor has found a dynamic that works, a companion that clicks, and what could possibly be an interesting mate for his travels. I'm curious to see where it goes from here. David Tennant's Doctor is certainly appealing and easily the most accessible. He knows how to say the word "Whhheeelll" and makes that a classic. The One To Be Pitied passed through the room and approved immediately, "he's cute." So there you go. Charming, cute, bouncy, but lacking in that sense of alien curiosity and complexity behind the eyes. There was something mysterious within Tom Baker and now Peter Capaldi that drew us in.

In any event the companion in the case of Donna Noble is firmly established as a mate rather than a potential love interest like Rose or whatever Martha Jones was trying to be. The mate, in effect, is more definitive than the over arching generalization of the companion. Yes, Noble will be the companion, but strictly the mate. The Pet Shop Boys recorded a b-side called The Truck Driver And His Mate, and Series Four is definitively the year of The Tardis Driver And His Mate strictly speaking. Oh I'm having a bit of fun here aren't I?

One thing is certain, as evidence would suggest, Doctor Who is often strongest when the two choices for the roles of Doctor and Companion are sound and the chemistry works. The selection for those roles is imperative.

For the series on the whole, Doctor Who would be best if there was a marriage of the more serious tone or at least the atmosphere of the classics with the narrative speed of the new series coupled with stronger stories. Doctor Who would get it right more often than not. As it stands, the new series gets overly silly and relies to heavily on winks, nods, noise and flippant remarks which need a little more support from a stronger, more disciplined tale to tell. The writing could be better as it is when scenes slow down to focus on a given character's actual handling and response to genuinely fantastic circumstances. This is where older fans would love to see Doctor Who really soar and get its narrative and tone just right. It would be nice to see them dig into Doctor Who a bit more. As Donna Noble says to the Doctor in The Doctor's Daughter, "You talk all the time but you don't say anything." That's exactly the problem at times with Doctor Who. Talking is a great defense mechanism for many people as it is for the sometimes guarded Doctor, but in terms of narrative at times I'd love for Doctor Who to be more. That's certainly the more demanding adult in me.

This is why so many fans, like myself, unfairly project high hopes upon an older, seasoned actor like Peter Capaldi. The face of the franchise may change but if the meat that it builds upon is unchanged how can we hope for a less cartoonish version of The Doctor himself? Certainly the evidence to date (Deep Breath, Into The Dalek and Robot Of Sherwood) suggest a complexity to the character that is refreshing. Sometimes the camera can just hold on Capaldi and at least the man is interesting. Not that it's perfect, but when it comes down to a Doctor and Companion dynamic you really can't do much better than Capaldi and Coleman.

I'm optimistic about Doctor Who's future. It will no doubt endure. Its longevity and popularity has certainly proven that. But can Doctor Who be better, smarter and possibly not faster? Wherever the Tardis takes us my hope is it will be stronger character-centric stories.

Time will tell and as Time Lords go I suppose we have plenty of that.


El Vox said...

Ha, I have to admit I read this post with a smile on my face as I was curious what your take was going to be. It's hard not to be indifferent about the newer series at times, plus it seems like every Who fan has their own take on how they wish they'd change a few things. I agree with what you wrote and your overall assessment. I too wish they'd slow it down at times, it just gets too manic for my taste, and yes, more character development, or interaction.

SFX are cool and all, and they have that down, but I wish they could cut out some of the silliness too. The older series had to have more character development and the stories were plotted a a bit slower pace because their efx were primitive back then, but that worked to their advantage for the most part.

I think too the companions play a big role too. I think Sarah Jane, Lela, Rose, and Jo Grant are all pretty good. Some I'm just not that familiar with enough yet. A solo doctor might be an interesting idea to do for a couple of episode or what about an alien companion? At any rate, I guess it is what it is, and hopefully they'll find a good formula that most can enjoy.

SFF said...

El Vox. I must admit I find some of the Doctor Who entries as silly or as hyper as you. I believe you really commented on that earlier on too.

Great effects certainly, but my recollection is that Season One seemed to have just the right balance. Either my memory betrays me or things did speed up a bit for the David Tennant run.

And about that formula, I think they found it long ago. ha. Most seem to enjoy this formula. Sometimes it sways one way and sometimes it sways another.

Loved your comments and additional thoughts on this one.

Roman J. Martel said...

Well I gotta say I'm kinda surprised we have opposite reactions to Martha and Donna. I really like Martha a lot, I thought she had a character that was pretty clearly defined. But I do think the writing let her down a bit. I got the feeling that they didn't quite know what to do with her as an overall arc. They didn't want another Rose, but they got the rebound girl element in there... and then... So yeah, I kinda wish that part had been handled better.

I just found Donna tremendously abrasive, so much that it made it a real chore to get through that season. There were some very good stories and yes some funny banter, but when it came down to it, I just really didn't like Donna. [shrugs]

The specials after the Donna season did feature Tennent traveling alone. So I'm curious to see what you think of those.

All told, my wife and I are really struggling through the Matt Smith episodes we are watching now. I think that manic silliness is getting to be a bit overkill for us too. We watched a couple episodes last week, but then switched over to watching reruns of "Night Gallery". Yeah, we're wacky that way.

SFF said...

That's okay Roman. Yes, we're at odds on our appreciation of Martha or lack thereof on my part, and Donna too, but that's par for the course when it comes to something as big and unruly as Doctor Who.

Maybe my appreciation for Tate's Catherine Tate Show made her a little more tolerable. Not sure.

And you really hit it on the head as something that is quite distracting to me, and it sounds like to El Vox as well, the "manic silliness."

Moving away from that would be much appreciated for this older Who fan.