The New "Who" (Part Two)

July 30, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Now to an episode-by-episode overview of the new "Doctor Who." As I see it, the 13-epidode season is divided into two sections: the setup (episodes 1-7) and the payoff (episodes 8-13). Most of the bad stuff and the least successful stories comes during the first half of the run. Just after the mid-point, the progam makes a turn for the better. Over the span of the first seven episodes, there is only one really solid story. Conversely, in the last six, there is only one sub-par entry, and that has an explosive final third.

The season opens with "Rose," a genial but confusing episode that not only introduces all of the characters, but has the Doctor facing his old enemies, the Autons. Coherence isn't a strong suit, but character interaction is. In 45 minutes, we get a sense of the strong chemistry between the Doctor and Rose, and are introduced to the new, slicker feel of "Doctor Who." The electronic score is ghastly, as are some of the attempts at humor, but, as a way to re-start the franchise, it succeeds more often than fails.

"The End of the World" offers viewers a look into the future. Lots of aliens in this one, and some excellent special effects. More fun interaction between the two leads, and a surprising revelation about the Doctor's past. The drawback is that there's not much of a story. The episode is forgettable but not unpleasant.

"The Unquiet Dead" is the new series' first real winner, a 19th century ghost story, guest starring Simon Callow as Charles Dickens. The episode gets everything right except perhaps the ending (which is a little too contrived) - excellent acting, pristine period detail, crisp dialogue, and a gothic atmosphere. "The Unquiet Dead" offers a glimpse of what "Doctor Who" can be at its best.

Unfortunately, the subsequent two-parter, "Aliens of London" and "World War III," shows what "Doctor Who" can be at its worst. About the only strengths of this overlong, too-silly story are the interactions between the Doctor and Rose (including a touching admission of affection and responsibliity by the Doctor). The aliens, despite being rendered in CGI, recall the man-in-a-rubber-suit days and very little about what happens during this 90-minute tale makes sense. The Slitheen will not go down in the annals of television history as one of the great "Doctor Who" monsters. Give me the Sea Devils any time.

The most anticipated episode of the season, aside from "Rose," was "Dalek," which brings back a single representative of the race that has tormented the Doctor since 1963. I found the episode to be disappointing. There are times when it's possible to de-mystify evil (Star Wars) and other times when it doesn't work. The Daleks should not be humanized, and the episode's attempts to do so cause it to strike a wrong chord. About the only thing worse than Darth Vader letting out a heart-wrenching cry is to hear a Dalek whining, "Help me!" Despite massive bloodshed, this episode is devoid of menace. Plus, it introduces Adam, a really annoying temporary sidekick.

The setup portion of the series ends with "The Long Game," another forgettable episode that takes place on a space station orbiting Earth in the distant future. The only thing memorable about "The Long Game" is that it ends with the Doctor dumping off the annoying Adam, who gets his just desserts.

Now, on to the good stuff... It starts with "Father's Day," a compelling story about the dangers and paradoxes of time travel. Yes, there are some flaws, but you have to be looking to find them. Besides, time travel is only a device here. This episode is about fathers and daughters, and one huge unresolved issue in Rose's life. It's also about the Doctor and Rose, and what the former is willing to sacrifice for the latter.

The best story of the season follows: the two-parter "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances." Written by "Coupling" creator Steven Moffat, this effort has everything: tension, humor, terror, and exhileration. It includes some of the best one-liners of the series, and keeps the viewer guessing where it's going next. The conclusion doesn't disappoint, nor does the new companion, the dashing Captain Jack Harkness, who joins the Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS. If you're interested in trying new "Who," this is the episode to start with. If "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances" doesn't get you hooked, nothing will.

"Boom Town" brings back the Slitheen, but this is a different kind of episode from its predecessor. Like "Dalek," "Boom Town" is a meditation on ethics. The Doctor does some soul-searching in this story, and it reminds us that the best science fiction is often the allergorical kind. "Boom Town" is probably as good as it gets for any episode featuring the Slitheen.

Fans of reality TV may appreciate "Bad Wolf," but I found the first 30 minutes to be filler. I don't watch "Big Brother" or "The Weakest Link," so the in-jokes were lost on me. But, after a weak and meandering first two-thirds, this story kicks into high gear with an amazing final quarter-hour. We get to see how the Doctor really feels about Rose, and then the Daleks are back - lots of them - and not the wimpy kind that we encountered earlier in the season.

"The Parting of the Ways" has it all - great special effects, the Doctor playing the hero, Rose proving herself worthy (amazing acting by Billie Piper), all-out war with the Daleks, a race against time, the long-awaited lip-to-lip kiss between the Doctor and his companion, and the regneration of Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant. It's a winner of an episode, although I'll be the first to admit that parts of it don't hold together upon careful scrutiny. Still, the emotions it generates are real, and it's an excellent way to end a solid first season. Not since the death of Tom Baker's Doctor have I been this affected by a change of actor.

"Doctor Who" hasn't been this much fun since the early days of Peter Davison (say, 1982). The challenge now is for the producers to up the ante and give us more episodes like "The Doctor Dances" and fewer like "Aliens of London." Keep the sexual tension between Rose and the Doctor. It works. And bring back Captain Jack. I didn't like the guy at first, but, over the course of his five episodes, he grew on me.

I'll be back watching again in December for the holiday special, "The Christmas Invasion."