New Doctor Who Series 2
He’s back – and it’s about time. No, I mean it: I’m watching in New Zealand, which means the new series has arrived on screens here just as it finished in the UK – so it’s a whole year since I last saw brand new Doctor Who. Yes, I know there was ‘The Christmas Invasion’. No, I didn’t see it: being otherwise engaged on Christmas Day, coupled with the failure of our VCR to record, meant I missed out – and then I contrived to miss it again when it finally got shown here a week ago (only six and a half months late), so until now my entire experience of the Tenth Doctor has been confined to “Oouhhrr… new teeth. Odd,” and “Barcelona!”, at the end of ‘The Parting of the Ways’ twelve long months ago.
No longer, though; now, I’ve at last seen the Doctor’s latest incarnation in action – and he’s marvellous. David Tennant seems so natural in the role it’s hard to conceive I hadn’t seen him in it before, which I guess is a mixture of his performance, the subconscious knowledge that I was watching his second adventure not his first, and the fact that it’s already been a year since his debut onscreen, plus a couple of months before that since he was named as Christopher Eccleston’s successor – whose own tenure from announcement to regeneration lasted only a year and a half, making the Tenth already seem as much ‘The’ Doctor as the Ninth. Given the brevity of that stint, it’s also logical that Eccleston hadn’t established himself to the extent that a long-term fan, accustomed to these changes, would be disoriented initially in the way that one would have been after say Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker’s reigns, which were lengthy enough almost to erase memories of their predecessors.
All that being said, Tennant’s performance as a whole is spot on – wide-eyed, effervescent, vivacious – and he achieves the transition effortlessly. Unfortunately, some of the material he has to work with is less than brilliant, the character being suddenly shoehorned into periodic outbursts of extreme emotions that all seem forced. These certainly existed in the last series too, but never quite overstepped the boundaries; here, though, isn’t allowed to merely show anger or excitement, he must be Angry or Excited. It’s as if those worst moments from last time have been picked out as ideals rather than borderlines, and used as the basis for Emotional Scenes 101 wherein they are extrapolated and multiplied to unfortunate effect. It’s the Ninth Doctor’s “I am TALKING!” to the Nestene Consciousness in ‘Rose’ – abrupt, but not jarring, and Eccleston has the authority to carry it off – but squared and cubed to form the Tenth’s outbursts against the Rose-stealing Cassandra and the ethically dubious cat-people nurses, which come across more self-righteous than righteous anger. Thus too the ending, where in ‘The Doctor Dances’ we had the corny yet exuberant "Just this once, everybody lives!", here the Doctor drifts around 'doctoring' everyone in sight while radiating such happy-clappy peace and love vibes it would make a Hare Krishna sick. I hate to criticise this - he looks so radiant with joy it's like kicking a puppy in front of Francis of Assisi - but even for someone with as high a capacity for touchy-feely as myself this was too, well, wishy-washy. The trick with the disinfecting lifts was neat, but why di the laying-on of hands cause the myriad diseases to immediately evaporate? Why did the 'lab rat' humans, after a lifetime in cocoons, look (disfiguring pustules aside) so normal? Has Russell T. Davies never seen The Matrix? Okay, they shuffle around like zombies, but otherwise they seem remarkably human - which would stretch credibility if the story was set now, let alone five billion years in the future when 'normal' ought to be unrecognisable to start with. The plot likewise skips just as blithely over the conumdrum of how some are developing speech as do the nurses, whose characters are also underexplored - particularly the sympathetic companion to the Face of Boe, who threatens to be interesting before the second half ignores her. The Face of Boe himself also ends up with surprisingly little to do except allude to an ongoing story arc in a fairly unsubtle manner before vanishing, although this does allow the Doctor the line of the night: "That is enigmatic - that is, that is textbook enigmatic,"!
It's surprising to see Boe and his fellow 'The Emd of the World' alumnus Cassandra reappear; regrettably the Last Human's ability to psychically transfer herself into different bodies means Zoe Wanamaker's delightfully catty performance is reduced to a cameo, and Billie Piper spends most of the story not playing Rose as such - which isn't good when that character has been such an integral part of the new Who's success. On the other hand, she does a great job filtering Cassandra's vocal style and mannerisms through Rose's body, and I can't complain about said body being the focus of much of the transformation... It's a sexy, vampy, bitchy performance - or, I should say, "bit rich-y", as one amusing instance of dialogue cross-cutting would have it. To think, though - all those fans who got hot under the collar about their chaste hero's Eighth-incarnation snogs with Dr. Grace Holloway must be blowing gaskets now, what with the end of the last series (though the kiss with Rose did have a higher purpose) and the latest bout of interspecial tonsil hockey on display here. Anyway, all Cassandra's body-hopping is quite fun, giving Mr. Tennant a chance to camp it up outrageously when the Doctor briefly holds her consciousness, and when she effectively dies in her own arms it is almost affecting in an episode that in general just tries too hard.
I will applaud the producers for effort: the interior special effects are mostly very good, in common with the high standard of the last series. It seems silly to gripe when in this department it clearly blows classic Doctor Who out of any tyoe of water you care to mention, and maybe I'm spoiled by photorealistic movie CGI, but BBC budgets are evdently still a little stretched by exterior effects work - the city backdrop and buzzing aircars stuck out in a way that (to compare with the 'worst' from last time, as above) only Rose swinging from an airship above the Blitz did in the previous series. Still, they're not used to creating alien planets in new Who yet - maybe a good old-fashioned gravel pit is in oder? Mind you, landing on a world that is 'New Earth' is a bit of a cop-out there - although the Doctor's riff on Newnewnewnewnewnew New York" and him being the "New New Doctor" was utterly and infectiously (as it were) charming.
Lots of potential evident then as we get the second new series rolling, but an opening instalment a long way short of greatness - I'll be expecting much better from the episodes to come...!