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Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Doctor Who Review- The 50th Anniversary Special

**spoiler alert: this article assumes you have full knowledge of the contents of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special.  If you have not seen it yet (unlikely if you are a fan of the show), turn back now**

            Well, it’s official- with last month’s premiere of “The Day Of The Doctor,” Doctor Who, which can rightfully stand next to Star Trek and Star Wars as one of the most extensive and influential sci-fi series of all time, reached the golden age of 50.  I cannot count myself a “true” Whovian, as my experience with the show only extends to the first five seasons of the reboot, but I can definitely say that I am a big fan of our favorite bow-tie-wearing, fez-nipping, screwdriver-waving time traveler.  I’m a sucker for any show, book, or movie that plays around with big, out-there, universe-sized ideas and themes, and Doctor Who, even at its campiest, is chock full of curiosity-tickling concepts. 

            I don’t think it’s possible to understate how hugely anticipated this birthday special was- I am friends with a number of Class A Whovians, people whose metric for how good each episode is centers around exactly how many tears they shed by the end of it, so my Facebook feed was filled with updates for nearly every major reveal involving the special for at least 6 months prior to it actually happening.  With all this build-up, even my distanced and less-invested expectations were raised fairly high by the time it finally aired (after which my feed once again exploded with statuses describing “feels,” “squeeees,” and “OMG WTF’s.”  So after all that build-up, when I finally sat down to watch the special a few days after it aired, what did I think?  Well…..

            Okay, let me say up front that I did enjoy the special a lot- although it would have benefited immeasurably from the presence of Eccleston, it was great to see Tennant back as the 10th, I really like Matt Smith’s Doctor, John Hurt was an excellent bring-in as the “first” Doctor, and having “The Moment” take the form of Rose in order to connect with the Doctor’s future was a clever way to bring back Billie Piper, while also showing off her acting chops by giving her a role to play other than that of a love-struck companion.  The effects were great, and it also reenergized my desire to push through the remaining two seasons of Smith that I have not had the time to pursue in recent months. 

            However (and I realize merely voicing this will inflame a great many devoted Whovians), if I am to be honest, I have to admit that I found the special somewhat unsatisfying, no better or worse than your standard Who Christmas special- fun and diverting, certainly, but nothing worth breaking the piggy bank over.  It was certainly nothing worth six months of “this is everything my personal life has built up to” hype.

            One issue I had involves the show’s obsession with always having some sort of weird alien with a way over-the-top design as the reason behind whatever happens to be going on in a given episode.  Not that there’s always a problem with that- it’s a sci-fi show about a space/time traveler, so the show needs its aliens.  I get that.  What I take issue with is how often a great set-up or an episode with a flawless first and second act is partially, and sometimes completely, marred by the big, revealed alien being something so ludicrous-looking that all the tension, fear, and drama they’d spent 30-40 minutes carefully crafting deflates like a hot-air balloon in a Pokemon episode (I plan to tackle a particularly egregious example of this in a future post- but not until after Oscar season ends and my inevitable rage fits subside).  I’m beginning to suspect that the show’s growing budget has been tied to one of those awful “spend it or lose it” contract clauses that force directors to regularly stretch x amount of pounds over sets and aliens in episodes that might not necessarily need it. 

              The 50th special, sadly, is a prime example of this- the designs of the aliens and monsters in the show range all across the quality/subtlety spectrum, and in this case, the Zygons rank alongside the Slitheen and the Cybermen as one of the show’s more distracting antagonists.  The idea of shapeshifting aliens that can make themselves near-indistinguishable from the humans they copy is a great idea for providing a suitable threat to the Doctor.  But why does their original form have so many suckers?  Even if that’s how they get the DNA data they need to change shape, why have them all over the body?  Why not do the suckers and skin-color using makeup instead of sticking the extras in massive body-suits they can obviously barely move in?  Yes, this is a relatively minor issue, but it’s one I have with an unfortunately large number of episodes.  Doctor Who has so much great writing behind it that it can easily afford to go smaller more of the time.  Some of the best episodes I’ve yet seen, works like “Blink,” “Midnight,” and “The Waters of Mars,” have the most minimal and least-intrusive costume and makeup designs in the show.  Just because there needs to be aliens doesn’t mean they always have to be AAAAALIEEEEENS.    

            While we’re on the issue of disappointing reveals bruising solid set-up, let’s talk about the decision to actually show part of the Time War.  This War has loomed big-time over the revival of the series, especially during the melancholy-heavy Tennant years, and its aftereffects- the continued animosity between the Daleks and the Doctor, all the planetless alien refugees who seek to invade Earth not out of malice, but simply out of desperation, etc.- have driven whole reams of the show’s plot.  The mystique surrounding it has only been increased by how little we know about what actually happened- we know it nearly ripped apart all of reality, and we know that the Doctor was forced to end it by basically sealing away both the Daleks and his own people into a time pocket (which comes back to haunt him at the end of Tennant’s days, as we all know).  Given how little we know about what happened, and with a name like Time War, how could you not feel compelled to conjure up the strangest and most indescribable images whenever it’s mentioned?  The imagination of the mind is always far more interesting than anything you could possibly show, and the Time War is no exception.  I was immensely disappointed when we finally get scenes from the end of the war itself, and it’s just your standard spaceships and ground forces firing lasers at each other.  Boooooooriiiiiiiing. 

            This inclusion of the Time War in the episode’s plot brings me to the biggest and yet most nebulous concern I have with the show, and it’s been growing ever since Smith came on board.  After seeing this special, the first season with Smith, and watching a few reviews about what’s gone down in Seasons 6 and 7, I think the show is starting to loop around on itself a bit too much.  There are only so many times the Doctor can literally save reality itself before it starts to get a touch blas√©.  All of the known universe has now been brought to the brink of annihilation and back again so many times, I’m surprised every living thing in it is not suffering from the unending effects of severe whiplash.  Doctor Who has, of course, never been a doctrinal show, and has changed its internal rules whenever it has the whim to do so.  Also, what brings us back time and again, in the end, is the Doctor himself, and how incredibly fun he is to watch, whether or not what’s happening around him makes sense or not, or whether it even bothers to be exciting- there have been plenty of episodes before that would have been utter snooze-fests without Tennant or Eccleston or Smith around to chew the scenery. 

            I get all that, and I am still on board with this show, but as I said earlier, this show really can take more risks than Moffat seems willing to take at the moment.  It can branch out of universe/reality level threats more often.  Give us some adventures outside of Britain.  Give us more stuff on other planets.  Or keep it small- keep showing us famous figures and eras where there’s some sinister mystery going on.  But not every season has to end with all of history and the future and the past and every pocket alternate dimension about to be destroyed by more Daleks.  Don’t always try to throw absurd monster designs in our face for cheap jump-scares. 

            While those larger, more general problems spoiled parts of the special for me, however, what really threw me off-kilter was its stunning lack of an ending regarding, oh, about half the entire episode.  The entire plot thread that brings the Doctors together is another threat from this new alien species that wants to take Earth away from the humans.  Through a clever bit of technical trickery, Tennant and Smith cause the aliens and humans to forget who is who, to make sure a proper settlement is reached.  Then they run off to stop the Time War together, and……that’s it.  No word on what happens with the aliens.  No word on whether or not the Doctors try to spirit away all the horrible weapons Torchwood 2.0 has stashed away in a vault.  No resolution whatsoever.  Nothing.     

            This was particularly disturbing to me because, for all of its flaws, for all the criticisms that can be fairly leveled at the show, the one thing you could never accuse it of was writing so lazy that an episode failed to resolve its own story.  Even the most absurd, out-of-left-field plots this show has dregged up were tied together in some way come the 45-minute mark (90 minutes if it was a two-parter).  This is the first time that, to my knowledge, an episode or special was so uninterested in itself that it actually just sort of stopped and didn’t even try to provide some form of conclusion.  It was the same prickly sense of fear I felt at the end of Into Darkness, when the screen may as well have started flashing the words, “Sorry, we just gave up!” in glowing red letters. 

            I realize I’m being rather on harsh on this special, but I do so because I care.  No show can last half a century without doing a lot of things right.  I’m merely using this special as an opportunity to express my thoughts on where I’d like to see the show go in the future, especially since we have a new Doctor coming up, which will be a good opportunity to freshen things up a bit.  Until then, keep watching, and keep enjoying, the adventures of the strange and silly man in the policebox.  I know I will!  


-Noah Franc 

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