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Thursday, April 26, 2007
Catching Up on Doctor Who
The new season of Doctor Who recently began in England, the third of the current series, the second starring David Tennant, and the first starring Freema Agyeman as the Doctor's newest companion, Martha Jones. I've had...access...to the episodes, and overall I've been very pleased with this latest series and wanted to share some thoughts on it, in as non-spoilerish a manner as possible, for those Doctor Who fans without...accesss...to the episodes.
As far as season opening episodes go, Smith & Jones follows very much in the tradition of Rose. The primary purpose of the story is to introduce us to the new companion. S&J has a slight advantage over Rose in this respect in that all it has to concern itself with is the introduction of the new companion and getting the audience to respond positively to her, whereas the first season opener had to do all that, and introduce the Doctor and the concept of the show in a way that was accessible to a new audience without alienating the pre-existing audience. Removing that burden from S&J makes it, in the end, a more successful episode. The story is, by the stakes of the show, fairly low-key, focusing on the Doctor trying to avoid alien police-men while directing them towards their real target, in an effort to save everyone inside a hospital. And so there's no vast or complicated plot and no larger story to link up to, and the interesting visual designs of the space-cops, the Judoon, a kind of space rhino can be played off a rather camp nemesis for the Doctor, can take a more secondary role.
The focus on Martha in this episode reveals a companion that, already, I like more than Billie Piper's Rose. After so much was made in the Christmas special, The Runaway Bride of the Doctor's need for a companion, we see the Doctor essentially testing Martha, examining her potential for the job. What we as the audience see is a woman who is competent, inquisitive, brave, keeps her head in a crisis and excited by the possibilities of life with the Doctor. In the end, when she decides to travel with the Doctor, it's a deliberate choice to go and fully experience a new and exciting world, as opposed to Rose, who seemed to run off with the Doctor because, to borrow a phrase, it was either that or off to the Dole queue on Monday.
And as charming as Billie Piper's Rose was, I have to say that I much prefer Freema Agaya's Martha. While Rose could be selfless, she could also be petty and jealous. Look no further than her continual mistreatment of Mickey and Jackie for proof of that. And she always struck me as more in the mold of a Jo or Tegan or Mel or (God help us) Peri, with her role being primarily to be exposistioned at by the Doctor and to get into peril in order to move the plot along. Martha has already been conveniently exposistioned at many times as well, but in her reactions to danger and in her banter and (deserved) cross-ness with the Doctor, she seems to fall more into the Liz, Sarah-Jane, Romana and Ace camps in terms of personality and relationship to the Doctor.
The second episode, The Shakespeare Code somewhat sidelines Martha, focusing instead on the "celebrity guest star," William Shakespeare. It's a very good episode, easily one of the best of the new series, and for a Shakespeare nerd it plays nicely with some metanarrative conceits and semiotic ideas. There's a lot of clever jokes, by English major standards, about Shakespeare's tendency to steal ideas and phrases from others, and a particularly impressive bit of casting against popular conception in setting up Dean Lennox Kelly as Shakespeare, as a sort of Elizabethan rock-star. We still get quite a bit of Martha's natural curiosity and intelligence, as she asks the right questions about the nature of time travel and fluidity of history, in between being flirted with by Shakespeare. She even gets to tell the Doctor off a little bit in the third episode, Gridlock, both for his refusal to get over Rose not being with him anymore (a sentiment I share, three episodes and a Christmas special of the Doctor whining about Rose being gone was two episodes too many) and for lying to her. Sadly, Martha being annoyed with the Doctor were the best things about Gridlock. The central conceit, a motorway so congested that people spend years, if not decades, trying to reach their goal, while something sinister eats people who go into the fast lane, isn't a bad hook to hang a story on. But the episode is so busy dealing with current series continuity, and dredging up past series continuity so obscure even most classic series fans are hard pressed to remember the significance of those villains (though do check out Dave's overview if you don't mind the spoiler), not to mention finally getting around to kicking off the through-story for the season, that the good parts of the episode sort of get crowded out.
One of the aspects of Doctor Who that I always think deserves special note is the integration of gay themes and characters into the show. Most science-fiction fans have politics that could, charitably, be described as Neolithic, yet for the most part Doctor Who has managed to incorporate the radical suggestion that not everyone in the universe is heterosexual into its world. Oh, to be sure, there is the normal grumbling about a "gay agenda" when such unspeakable things as Shakespeare flirting with the Doctor or a nice elderly lesbian couple or a well-timed joke about musical theatre show up, but nothing anywhere near the scale of what you might expect were, say, anything remotely similar ever to happen on Star Trek or in Star Wars.
There are a few reservations here and there. For those who dislike the soap opera and family drama elements that were introduced with Rose, the Jones family manages to be even more dysfunctional, and the number of episodes for the current season which promise to be set in contemporary Earth (or near-future Earth...the timing of the last couple of seasons versus real world chronology is threatening to make UNIT dating arguments seem tame) make it look as if we'll be seeing plenty of them. I don't mind the family dramas, I think it makes for a needed look at the consequences of traveling with the Doctor on those left behind, something the classic series never dwelt on. There was also, especially in Gridlock a return to the overt religious symbolism and metaphors which began to creep into the second series and the spin-off Torchwood. It doesn't sit well with me, as it never feels like it fits the tone and world of Doctor Who. This is a world, remember, in which Demons are, quite literally, just another race of aliens. The concept works better when it stays secular, to my mind.