Thursday, October 9, 2014

Doctor Who: The David Tennant Years

-The Doctor-

Bold. As Tom Baker once said, and I am paraphrasing, 'kids sometimes like to be bold.' Doctor Who often makes efforts to be bold too.

Doctor Who is one of those series that, in part, sometimes succeeds and sometimes falls short in that arena. There is little doubt the rebooted Doctor Who creates some pretty remarkable and brilliant work for the BBC and television in general each and every series. The special effects and casting is generally speaking top notch. But sometimes those stories just aren't bold enough. They don't take enough risks with The Doctor. In my viewing experience it seems the creative teams needs to break from formula a bit. Going big on special effects isn't the kind of bold many necessarily look for.

Having said all of that, before launching in to the final year of David Tennant, let us summarize our look back at The David Tennant Years. As many of you know, Series One remains the high watermark for me personally. The year of Christopher Eccleston seems to strike just the right tone, humor, edge whilst injecting the formula with risks and a majority of rather fine stories. DalekThe Empty Child and The End Of The World are true highlights of a remarkable year. And maybe, possibly, to some degree, Eccleston benefits from the freshness of a new start for Doctor Who.

As noted in my post, Doctor Who: The Tardis Driver And His Mate, I was not as convinced with the mixed bag that was Series Two, Three and Four in the care of David Tennant as The Doctor. Series Two, thanks in part to the carry over of Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, felt to be the strongest offering, a solid wrap up to the first two years of the new Doctor and infusing an almost romantic bend amidst the thrills and adventure. The chemistry was undeniable those first two years. And clearly The Doctor is in capable hands in large part with David Tennant not to diminish what he brings to the character. Sometimes a combination of weak material combined with a performance that seems a little lazy brings out the critic in me. But when the material and Tennant peak together the episodes can truly be unmatched. There is more than enough evidence of that which we will note in a moment.

Series Three was generally a let down, in part thanks to dreadful new companion Martha Jones. Jones was a generally unbearable bore as companions go. Yet, despite her, Series Three had some standouts. Human Nature, The Family Of Blood and Blink were exceptional and that's testament not only to the great writing of Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat, but particularly a stellar performance from Tennant in the aforementioned two-parter. Let's face it Blink is entirely the Carey Mulligan show. Also worth noting are the Weeping Angels. After years of anticipation for this episode they were as creepy and as wonderfully conceived as ever, but not at all as I had imagined. I mean they weren't even animated. It was as if someone on the set actively moved statues around for effect and yet it worked. It wasn't terrifying, but it was interesting. Odd that little episode.

A number of episodes err to the side of silly and they come off a little too much. The three-part finale of Series Three is a wild and wacky mess filled with sequences that hit and miss. Some of Doctor Who just does that. They sometimes just don't get the tone right or even lose focus. Some positively lap up the absurd for which Doctor Who is often associated, but, quite frankly, it can be a little over the top for my taste.

We arrive at Series Four following the shortcomings of Series Three. Series Four was an improvement with the inclusion of Catherine Tate. Unfortunately Doctor Who loves to fall back on old characters and fuse them into insanely zany storylines sometimes to the show's detriment, though the stories themselves bear the brunt of the trouble, thus a slight hiccup for three episodes occurs following a promising start in Series Four. Cate's character, Noble is joined by a reunited Doctor with Martha Jones (ugh). This literally distracted from the more interesting dynamic of Donna Noble and The Doctor which was being established.

Prior to this writing Series Four had not been viewed. The good news is that Doctor Who finishes rather strong following Jones departure in her brief role with the kind of character-based stories I adore on the series.

The Unicorn And The Wasp, Silence In The Library, Forest Of The Dead, Midnight and Turn Left roll off an incredible run to salute Tennant's tenure on the series. Fan favorites Silence In The Library, Forest Of The Dead and understandably Turn Left, which reunites the magic of Series Two stars Tennant and Piper, all mark strongpoints in Tennant's run. The aforementioned also lend themselves well as magnificent stories steeped in science fiction concepts and time travel. And Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have a lot to do with those highlights which again speaks volumes to the necessity of quality writing.

Take Moffat's Silence In The Library and Forest Of The Dead for a moment. This is near perfect Doctor Who and great science fiction weaved into the Who formula. There are elements of classic Who whereby The Doctor meets a group of explorers on his travels and a truly frightening, bold new enemy lurks among them. The Vashta Nerada shadows are truly unnerving and the repetition by the dead is haunting to the core. There is a sense of entrapment and claustrophobia that made the Tom Baker years such a treat. There are excellent touches of damn fine science fiction throughout these tales complete with entirely original ideas. There is even a cliffhanger that rivals and reminds us of the best of the classics. And as a result David Tennant and Catherine Tate shine. This is just stellar sci-fi. There is a near cinematic inspiration to this piece of television. Honestly, it even bests the exceptional Human Nature and Family Of Blood. The two-part Silence In the Library and Forest Of The Dead is the brilliant fruition and amalgamation of story, casting and human drama without all of the nonsense and goofiness that can sometimes derail a new Doctor Who adventure.  All of the adventure is steeped in sound science fiction concepts and just beat perfect storytelling with its many twists and turns. Tennant is going out on a major high with Series Four after despite the brief Martha Jones misstep by the creators and writers.

It's been said time in memoriam, but the writing is everything or at least the start of something great. Without it the product can fall apart. The One To Be Pitied recently underscored this rule when watching the star-studden Tom Cruise opus Rock Star. It's a dismally bad film in general loaded with stars and cameos. Throw all of the talent you want at something but without a well-conceived idea and a solid story foundation it can all be for naught, if not a disaster, certainly forgettable. The final entries in Series Four are not that.

Further, I've been a bit hard on Tennant, but he has a way of growing on you. Tennant may not be everyone's cup of tea, or of quite the same caliber as Eccleston (certainly that might anger a few fans) but the last half of Series Four really sees the actor go out on a high note. He really shined in Human Nature from Series Three, but excels in stories like The Unicorn And The Wasp. These strong finishes really elevated the actor for me. So clearly Tennant is no slouch and to some degree suffers in part from some weaker stories and the often overly manic silliness of it all. But when the writing is really good that is when the principals on the show have a chance to soar. The great Doctor Who stories genuinely highlight the inconsistency of the show. But when it is good it really is "fantastic."

Doctor Who even does for the thriller and horror what it does for science fiction sometimes as you know. Midnight is a prime example of clever frights complements of Davies prior to his final exit from the show he brought back from the dead following the two-part finale and the Specials. Midnight further cemented Tennant's strong close to his run as well as Davies for that matter. Midnight takes the kind of claustrophobia felt in Gridlock and Star Trek's Galileo 7 and other great sci-fi adventure series and adds elements of horror into something refreshingly original for Doctor Who. And those earlier complaints about the inclusion of Jones and a preference for some solo Doctor stories bear fruit. Midnight drops the Donna Noble character and The Doctor must go it alone, wwwweeeelll with strangers on a strange world. In some respects The Doctor can be so isolated and so minimized without his trusty Tardis, yet he is always heroic and rising to the occasion. Midnight is loaded with an abundance of fine dramatic touches and atmosphere further securing a triumphant end to a mixed run for Tennant. Midnight, too, is really a tour de force performance for Tennant who has sometimes been given short shrift in the drama department often supplanted by special effects and renegade action adventure. Midnight allows an ensemble cast an opportunity to actually act and enjoy the tension and conflict cultivated by a great story. It's the kind of drama you really want to see more of. It's a monster on the loose tale and yet the monster is within. We never even need to see a monster and yet it is brilliant.

And then of course Doctor Who had been giving us a little Rose Tyler Easter eggs throughout Series Four to finally come to fruition in Turn Left. Once again, the David Tennant run continues its gripping dramatic run even deferring to a strong Catherine Tate performance.

Turn Left, sadly, is not exactly a shipper's dream. The sexy, confident Billie Piper and David Tennant never reunite or share the screen, but it's still positively electric thanks to more fabulous writing at the back end of Series Four.

Character. Character. Character. It's certainly in abundance all the while tying all of the various plot points together from the entire season whilst working the beloved Rose Tyler back into the program for Tennant's final days.

My only concern is the two-part finale which I've omitted to speak of here. This is partially due to the fact Doctor Who has a track record of going all big, epic and bad wolf with its climaxes often sacrificing all of the character stuff we've just mentioned in favor grand pyrotechnics leaving the character stuff to devolve and all fall apart. Does it happen here with The Stolen Earth and Journey's End? Let's just say, I'm leaving on the high note of Turn Left and saving the final two for another day.

With the Doctor pushed to the periphery for favorites like Blink (Mulligan) and Turn Left (Tate) one might suggest the Doctor or Tennant really isn't necessary. What are we saying? Wwwweeeell of course he is and the good word is we have have many wonderful entries among The David Tennant Years to prove it. Stories like Midnight and others prove the value of the good Doctor and more importantly the actor playing him, in this case Tennant. Though as much as the Doctor is valued, a story like Turn Left truly magnifies the world hinges as much on the companion and the decisions and difference any one of us can make. It's a story about significance and what makes us so significant as individuals.

How many times have you thought what might have been had you taken a different path, chose a different mate of your own? What would the future have looked like then? You can't help but wonder. Doctor Who's Turn Left is the It's A Wonderful Life (1946) conundrum run through the Doctor Who prism. We matter and that's a wonderful lesson to remember even for this humble blogger.

In the end, the final proper episodes of David Tennant's run would prove to be excellent. They prove writing is everything. The final five entries penned by Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies combined are more than ample evidence of that. The second half of Series Four is really Doctor Who at its boldest and best reminding us of the best science fiction stories that came before Tennant's run. The performers themselves can only carry the day so long without good writing. And many, Blink for example, offer more than ample evidence that special effects and monsters need not rule the day.

Though monsters are nice.