Thursday, June 09, 2005

New Who Review (is coming right at you)

(fangeek mode on)

Doctor Who is back and it's both better and worse than I'd expected.

First, the better. The new Doctor Who (technically season one, but actually season twenty-seven of TV's longest-running science fiction serial) can be considered successful just about every count. Some of the season one stories are easily among the best ever written for Doctor Who and two, Dalek and Father's Day, are dramatic television at its finest. There have been very few weak performances and a surplus of terrific ones. Christopher Eccleston's performance as an endearing if emotionally-damaged Doctor is nothing short of a triumph and it's a huge shame that he'll be leaving the series at the end of the season (although expectations are very high for Doctor #10, David Tennant). Billie Piper's portrayal of Rose Tyler has salvaged a rather weak character and made her one of the series' strongest companions. Visually, the new series is remarkable. The art directors have eschewed the budget-driven gaudiness of the 1997 Fox TV movie in favor of a no less glossy but more subdued, almost gothic look. The beautiful new Tardis interior appears to have been inspired in part by H. R. Geiger's Alien designs, the Tardis from the Fox movie (the best thing about that turkey, aside from Sylvester McCoy), and, interestingly enough, from the ramshackle, jerry-rigged Tardis from the two 1960s Peter Cushing movies. The new, partially-orchestral version of Ron Grainer's opening theme is extremely cool, and, best of all, the new Dalek design is pretty much the old Dalek design with a few well-thought out frills thrown in.

And worse? Russell T. Davies is writing the bulk of the series.

(hypercritical fangeek mode on)

It's no small irony that the man responsible for getting Doctor Who back on the air is also the new series' weakest link. Russell T. Davies, the creator of the original UK Queer As Folk, tends to value Grade Z emotional drama and weak parody over science fiction or action or even adequate storytelling. A great deal of Davies' character work is engaging and well-considered (Eccleston's Doctor is one of the best-realized TV characters of the last five years, although I'm not sure how much of that is Davies' doing) but is largely rendered ineffective in his own scripts by remarkably lazy plotting. Davies also lets his worship of Joss Whedon leak through his writing like a particularly unfortunate stain, most evident in the weakest episode of season one, the essentially plotless Boom Town, and its wisecracking, alien-hunting "Team Tardis" ("Worst... episode... ever.."). Davies' shortcomings as a writer are even more obvious when held against every season one episode he didn't write. Mark Gatiss's The Unquiet Dead, Rob Shearman's Dalek, Steven Moffat's The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and especially Paul Cornell's Father's Day, are among the best Dr. Who stories ever produced for the small screen and, not coincidentally, each was written by a veteran of either the novels or the Big Finish audio stories (or both), people who have honed their skills as writers for this very special franchise. Russell T. Davies, who has made no secret of his indifference to science fiction, is one of the only people involved with the new series who insist on it as some kind of "re-imagining". While the other writers draw from, and expand on, the strengths the original series, Davies is insistent upon rebuilding the show from the ground up as a soapish sci-fi spoof, full of fart jokes and sledgehammer satirical references to current politics. He points to the series' ratings as proof of the success of his formula, but I believe the ratings were bound to be good, soap opera dramatics or no. People have been waiting for Doctor Who's return to TV for years and the only way you can screw up a sure thing like this is to drive viewers away. I have no doubt that the new series will continue to thrive in the coming years even with Davies at the helm, but I can't help but think about how much stronger it could be without the obligatory love triangles and hamfisted satire Davies' apparently feels are necessary to keep an audience's attention rather than solid storytelling.


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