Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Phantom Who: Doctor Who Series 7 Overview

On the most recent Earth Station Who we covered Series 7 in its entirety – the ups and downs and ins and outs. I think when I look back, it was overall a very fun season with some astounding highs and some surprisingly disappointing lows.
           I am definitely weary of the idea that the assistant/companion needs to have a major part in the narrative. In all honesty I feel like this new paradigm has reduced the Doctor’s importance to the show. Rather than being about him, it is about Amy Pond or Clara or River Song and the Doctor just happens to be the one unraveling the mystery. This is a big problem for me, as I feel like it has reduced one of the greatest fictional characters in history to the role of being a reactionary figure. No longer is the Doctor taking off across all of space and time to just to have grand adventures – now he is some sort of psychological detective that has a new client to solve every so often.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t still enjoy the adventures when they’re done right. And we have gotten quite a few that were done right.
I’m not going to write massive recaps of every episode here; instead I’m just going to touch on my basic thoughts about each one. If you want deeper insight you’re going to want to go and check out the corresponding Earth Station Who episode.
I went back and watched Series 7 in its entirety in preparation for what was supposed to be our wrap-up episode of ESW. Of course, the weekend before the episode the BBC announced that Matt Smith would be leaving after this year’s Christmas Special. So we ended up talking about that for an hour.
I like Matt Smith very much, but I still don’t know how I feel about his run as the Doctor. He was absolutely fantastic, but I’m starting to suspect that I am not a huge fan of Stephen Moffat. I think the biggest shame about Smith leaving is that we’ll never get to see him under another show runner. He’s so charismatic and clearly cares so much about not only the character he is playing but the history and significance of that character, as well. I would love to see the show go in an entirely different direction with Smith as the Doctor.
And then there’s the speculation about who will take over. There’s a whole list of British people that I am unfamiliar with that people seem to think are locks. There’s also all of the talk about how great it would be to have a non-Caucasian, non-male, or non-straight Doctor (which is stupid because RTD already established the Doctor as at the very least bisexual if not pansexual). As far as race and gender go, I don’t care about that. All I care about is that they cast a good actor that has respect for the role. If the stories are good and the actor is good, it won’t matter.
The sexuality is a whole other issue. And I don’t think it should be. I think people who define themselves and others by way of their sexual orientation are shallow and lame. Beyond that, I do not think the Doctor’s orientation should be addressed in the show. He should be asexual. While I liked Rose, the idea of the Doctor having relations with a companion makes me uneasy. I think he (or she) should be stolid and apart from such concerns. As simplistic as Classic Doctor Who may be, it was smart enough to make the Doctor a caring, compassionate character without resorting to the crutch of romantic interest.
Okay, enough of that. Time to take a look at Series 7. I watched all of these episodes at least twice originally to prepare for the podcast, but hadn’t watched the first portion of Series 7 since they aired.
Asylum of the Daleks – What kind of crazy surprise was it to see Jenna Coleman in this thing? While I did like this story for the most part, I feel like it set the stage for the season’s trend of promising big things and not delivering. The Daleks never felt like very much of a menace – even the ones in the Asylum. I was expecting an awful lot out of this episode and didn’t really get it.
In retrospect it might seem like the setup of Oswin/Clara was worth it, but to use the Daleks as a device in service to Stephen Moffat’s Mary Sue character doesn’t seem very cool to me. I will say that this story definitely held up on my recent viewing. As a matter of fact, I think I liked it more. My only real problem was that the Amy/Rory split-up felt more like a device than an actual progression. I find it utterly unbelievable that a characters as outspoken as Amy and as caring as Rory with the relationship that they have would have ended up where they were at the beginning of this episode. It was preposterous.
The Doctor’s significant pause after Amy says something about him being with them until the end seemed to mean something, but didn’t. At the time I was positive we were going to discover that the Doctor already knew the fates of his companions and that we were seeing him traveling back along the timeline. There were even things that suggested this in other episodes. But it never bore out. It was just a collection of weird moments.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship – I totally loved this one. It felt like good, old-fashioned Doctor Who and Rory’s dad was a delight. My one nitpick was that for two episodes in a row we had people able to contact and summon the Doctor. This seemed like it might lead somewhere, but didn’t. Just two more examples of the lazy storytelling that seems to be a trademark of Moffat’s run. I feel like the general approach to stories is this:
Well, I want to have the Doctor in this place to do this thing, but I don’t know how to get him there. Oh, well. I’ll just have somebody summon him even though that’s completely unprecedented and goes against pretty much everything the Doctor is about. Because that’s the easiest way.”
A Town Called Mercy – The third story was the first one that felt about ten minutes too long, something that would become a recurring issue with Series 7. I didn’t particularly care for this one and I generally like Westerns. It seemed like twenty minutes of really good story was drawn out into 40+ minutes of… I don’t know what. There were so many interesting possibilities with the idea of a cyborg and a war criminal being stuck in the Old West, but instead we got a bunch of standing around and moralizing. I expect a little bit of that in my Doctor Who, but this should’ve been an action-packed tale.
Oh, Ben Browder was great and Matt Smith was outstanding. His over-the-top emotional outburst was very well done.
The Power of Three – This one should have been awesome, what with all of the great things that ended up in it – Rory’s dad, UNIT, the Brigadier’s daughter. But it was just kind of boring. And the ending was another example of that lazy writing. The Doctor chases off an enemy that is supposedly hell-bent on destroying the human race before we can “infect the universe”. And that’s it. He just chases them off. They leave. And it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that they might, you know, come back. This is one of my least favorite stories ever, which is a shame considering the continuation of UNIT and the Stewart legacy.
The Angels Take Manhattan – I only had one problem with this story, but it was a big one. Literally. The Statue of Liberty thing was stupid. Ghostbusters 2 had a more believable scene with the monument and that’s just sad. But I could buy ghost snot making the thing walk around more than I could that it is a Weeping Angel and that nobody was looking at it for any amount of time in “The City That Never Sleeps”.
Other than that this was a great, fun episode with stakes that felt real and a conclusion that was in line with the rest of Amy and Rory’s arc. Matt Smith’s reactions at the end of the episode are heart wrenching.
The Snowmen – I liked this much more than the last Christmas special, but it was still missing something. Despite looking sort of menacing, the snowmen just never felt like a threat. Madame Vastra, Strax, and Jenny were a lot of fun and Richard E. Grant was interesting to watch; though he didn’t chew nearly enough scenery for me. It was almost like he was trying to keep things understated.
The Bells of Saint John – Oh, look – we get to meet Clara. For the third time. Other than that this was a fun little adventure. I think it did well as a season opener, which brings me to an important thing about Series 7 – it feels very much like two seasons. I appreciate that the producers were willing to make a major change in the midst of the season rather than sticking with the tries-and-true method of ending the season with change or the promise of it.
Anyway, the premise of this one was solid. Wi-fi is a sinister enough idea on its own, never mind the possibility that it could literally – as well as figuratively – suck our souls out. The revelation of the Great Intelligence was honestly kind of flat. There was no drama or build-up. It was just, “Oh, look – it’s that guy again.”
The Rings of Akhaten – There were bits of coolness in this one, but mostly it was awful. I loved that Clara asked the Doctor to take her somewhere awesome and when they stepped out of the TARDIS the sight was truly awesome and – more importantly – alien. Not Venice or Rome or some other Earthbound spot. Obviously the alien marketplace was cool. But the rest of this episode was dreck. The singing was so corny as to be unbearable, the story didn’t actually seem to make a whole lot of sense, and the big face on the sun at the end was embarrassing. This one gets an F+. I can’t think of a Doctor Who story I’ve enjoyed less.
Cold War – Thankfully, things got back on track with this rousing submarine adventure. The cast was great, the Ice Warrior was handled well, and the setting worked. As a matter of fact, I liked this one so much I ended up doing my first Phantom Who recap in months. Check it out here.
Hide – I thoroughly enjoyed this ghost story, too. While it didn’t inspire me to write like the last story, I loved the haunted house setting and the supporting cast. There were many moments throughout Series 7 that felt like classic Doctor Who. There were even entire stories, and this was one of them. This is the formula that works – the Doctor shows up with his companion in the midst of a crisis or mystery. He gets involved because that’s what he does. He solves/fixes the problem.
Journey to the Center of the TARDIS – While this story didn’t give me what I expected and hoped for, it did turn out to be quite fun and interesting. Unfortunately I think we’re at a stage where the best episodes of Doctor Who are the ones that remind us of the classic series and the good ones are the ones where the fun manages to outweigh the lazy writing. This was a good one.
We didn’t get the varied and eccentric TARDIS interior that everybody was expecting. And it certainly wasn’t unreasonable for us to expect that. From our first glimpses of the TARDIS beyond the control room and front corridors back in the original series to the majestic, gothic interior seen in the ’96 TV movie to frequent discussion of workshops, pools, and more in the current iteration of the show; we have been told for years how infinite and strange the TARDIS is. What we got in this story was the same generic corridor shot from different angles. Yeah, we got the library and that was awesome. But from the title of the episode I think we were all justified in expecting a whole lot more. I feel like budget concerns are the reason we didn’t get it.
But once you get past that this was actually a very good story, even if it did end with a reset and turn out to be nothing more than a device to add to the mystery that is Mary Sue… er, Clara Oswald.
The Crimson Horror – Obviously this title is fantastic. The story ended up being good, as well. But mostly it was the supporting cast that made this one so enjoyable. Not only were we treated to the return of Madame Vastra, Strax, and Jenny; we also got tremendous performances from Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling. Between this one and “Hide” we got a good helping of Hammer-style horror this season and it sat well with me.
Nightmare in Silver – This story was probably the most anticipated of the series. It featured two huge returns.
The first thing we found out was that Neil Gaiman was writing another story for this season. Now, Gaiman is an all-around amazing writer – I’ve loved everything I’ve read of his – but I think even his most ardent fans were a bit surprised at just how good his first televised Doctor Who story was. “The Doctor’s Wife” was not only an ingenious episode of the modern series but also a clever wink to the past. Something was explored that had never been looked at before – the deep, loving relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS. It was beautiful and is in my Top Five list of the best Doctor Who stories ever. So expectations were high on all fronts for Gaiman’s sophomore Who script.
The second thing was the return of the Cybermen. The Cybermen are hands-down my favorite Doctor Who villains. The Cybus versions that Russell T. Davies introduced never sat quite right with me. They made great-looking action figures, but were a bit goofy on screen. I was eager to see different versions. I was pretty much happy with the updates, though some of the decisions made were odd.
If you want my full reaction to this one, I actually wrote a review of it, as well. Though I did it for reasons quite the opposite of what motivated me to write about “Cold War”. Check it out here.
The Name of the Doctor – And finally we get to the big series (season) finale and the lead-in to the 50th Anniversary Special.
This story delivered. Perhaps not beyond my expectations, but it met them in a way I did not expect. There was some of the same old lazy storytelling where it felt like they knew where they wanted to get but not quite how, but I was able to dismiss that in favor of the spectacle. I was again inspired to write a review, and you can read it here.
This series brought some highs and some very low lows. “Cold War” was definitely my favorite, with “Dinosaurs on A Spaceship” being a close second. “The Name of the Doctor” was not in and of itself an overly amazing episode, but when combined with the season before it (indeed, all that has come before it) it was a pleasing and exciting promise of the future. Meanwhile, “The Power of Three” and “Rings of Akhaten” are two of my least favorite stories ever, and it’s telling that they are both from the same series. The rest seemed to range from “fun” to “okay”.
3 out of 5
That’s not to say I won’t be buying the Blu-Ray set when it comes out. I am , after all, still a Whovian.

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