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Critic's Notebook: 'Doctor Who' midterm checkup

June 12, 2010 | 11:40 am

DocwhoThe Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, along with his made-up and real-life companions in front of and behind the camera, is about two-thirds through his first season of "Doctor Who." (Episode 8 of 13 airs  Saturday night on BBC America.) Smith's is the face you see on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine now and in the comic strip that runs within it (action figures coming soon), while Tenth Doctor David Tennant -- Smith plays the same character but in a different skin, if you need that explained to you -- has moved on to the permanent near-future of a freelance actor; his NBC pilot "Rex Is Not Your Lawyer" was not picked up, but he will be joining Toni Collette and Colin Farrell in a DreamWorks remake of the 1985 vampire flick, "Fright Night."

How's it been so far? Good, I'd say, very good. Excellent. I love it, it has not let me down. Series Five, as it is officially called, looked promising from Episode 1, but you never know. "Doctor Who" may be an English cultural tradition to stand alongside corgis and fish and chips, but it is just a TV show, after all, and a kids' show at that and is not immune to failure. New show-runner Steven Moffat (taking over from Russell T. Davies, who revived the brand in 2005 after a long hiatus) was a known quantity and a fan favorite, author of some of the Ninth and Tenth doctors' deepest and cleverest episodes -- he has a talent, useful in this context, for folding time back on itself in interesting ways, like conceptual origami. But given the high expectations -- Tennant being easily the most popular Doctor since Doctor Four, Tom Baker -- it was not outside the realm of possibility that the new "Who," if it did not kill the franchise outright, might at least make fans volubly grumpy.

That has not happened, as far as I can tell -- Britons, anyway, are still watching in the several millions -- nor should it. This remains smart, fun, suspenseful, often challenging sci-fi, and I can't think of another show of any sort that hits so many bases, for so broad a demographic, as successfully: There is farce, there is philosophy, there is, as the characters themselves have noticed, a lot of running around; it is ambitious without being dour, poetic without being sentimental.

This mix of attitudes and ambitions has been true, to varying degrees, from the beginning -- that is, since 1963 -- but they have gotten very good at it, these makers of "Doctor Who," and they have the resources now to make it look as good as it ought to. Moffat has written nearly half of the present series himself; his sensibility is not necessarily darker than Davies', but it is cooler and less romantic. And whereas Davies liked to locate the ordinary within the extraordinary, and the extraordinary within the ordinary, Moffat is more about engaging the strange.

Smith's Doctor is more of a crazy sprite than was Tennant's (and not nearly as guilty: "I'm so sorry," was practically Doctor Ten's catchphrase). He's Puck with a touch of Caliban, a bit of a troublemaker. ("There's something here that doesn't make sense. Let's go and poke it with a stick.") Or he's Peter Pan, the season's unnamed guiding spirit:

Docwho2 "We have to grow up eventually," says Rory, the fianc√© of the Doctor's current traveling companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), who is at the moment along for the ride.

"Says who?" replies Amy, who was wearing her nightgown, Wendy-like, when she first flew off and away from conventional time with the Doctor.

At the same time, there is a deliberateness about Smith's Doctor, a straightforwardness that makes him seem paradoxically less knowable, and more of an alien, than his recent predecessors; his manner is measured even when his actions are not. (Though here is how his embodied darker side sees himself, from "Amy's Choice": "If you had any more tawdry quirks, you could open up a tawdry quirk shop: the madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first-year fashion student. I'm surprised you haven't got a little purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.") Seven episodes in, Smith already seems less the new boy than the reference point against which the earlier Doctors will for the moment be reckoned; re-watching a Tennant episode takes a bit of mental recalibration for me now, as fickle as that also makes me feel.

As to Gillan's Amy, young and redheaded and Scottish, I found her a little slippery at first; she popped her eyes maybe a little too often, or perhaps that's just how she was edited. But her rhythms seem right to me now and complementary to Smith's. And though both actors are young, he has enough authority to balance her wildness. Naturally, she shares qualities with earlier companions -- they all have to be cool with aliens and time travel and space and such -- and she is not the first to have fallen for the Doctor or to have kissed him. But she is, I believe, the first actually to have tried to get him into bed (at the end of "Flesh and Stone"), though being 907 years old and not from around here, and a gentleman, he is slow on the uptake.

"Quite possibly the single most important thing in the history of the universe is that I get you sorted out right now," the Doctor says, thinking cosmically.

"That's what I have been trying to tell you," says Amy, whose meaning is biological.

The regenerative nature of the Doctor, which is mirrored by the regenerative nature of the production, means that "Doctor Who" is unusually engaged with its own history, upon which it comments and about which it jokes, and the series plays out over time as a set of themes and variations that can look to the skeptical eye like mere repetition. Although clearly distinct from the Davies Years, Moffat's first season does go to a lot of familiar places.

As in seasons not long past, we get: a simulacrum of British society offloaded to a spacecraft, a bride-to-be for a traveling companion, a boyfriend temporarily along for the ride, a trip to old Italy, encounters with great persons of history (Winston Churchill already this season, with Vincent Van Gogh to come). The "smilers" of Moffat's "The Beast Below" resemble the clockwork men from his earlier "The Girl in the Fireplace"; the climactic climb to the top of a tower in this season's "Vampires of Venice" echoes a similar climb in the 2006 "Idiot's Lantern," just as Venice's vampire aliens recall the vampire aliens of the same year's "School Reunion." (Both vampire episodes were written by Toby Whithouse, who also created BBC America's "Being Human," which also has a vampire in it.)

Who3 More significantly, Moffat is building on canon he helped create: We have seen the return of Alex Kingston's River Song (from his "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" 2008 two-parter), who has been involved with the Doctor, whom she calls "sweetie," in both his and her own unlived future -- each is aware of what is yet to happen to the other but not talking. (They hint a bit.) And the Weeping Angels -- creatures frozen like statues just as long as you're looking at them but out to get you otherwise -- came back from 2007's revered "Blink". And there have been Daleks, of course, now in candy colors.

There is also a crack in the universe, which like a little lamb follows the Doctor and Amy wherever they go, and through which unsavory things have been climbing or falling. It's sort of Moffat's version of Davies' "Bad Wolf," an ominous recurring motif that will pay off at the season's end. There is also talk, and foreshadowing, of some sort of impending catastrophic cosmic "silence"; other aliens seem to know more about these things than the Doctor does, even though (they imply) he may be their cause. But that is business for the future: I can't wait to see it, but I'm in no hurry to get there.

-- Robert Lloyd

Photos: BBC

Related:

Never fear, "Doctor Who" is here (again)


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