Last week, Craig Ferguson dedicated almost an entire episode to a television show. Now, this isn’t entirely uncommon in television talk shows, but it’s normally someone like Oprah searching for the zeitgeist by introducing the cast of Glee or something. Ferguson, meanwhile, wasn’t chasing the zeitgeist so much as he was chasing the T.A.R.D.I.S., dedicating an entire hour to British sensation Doctor Who, which remains just a cult favorite on this continent (you can see Ferguson’s interview with Matt Smith on YouTube).
It was a nice reminder that Doctor Who’s fifth “Series” was one of this year’s television highlights, regardless of which side of the pond you may be on. As someone who had seen only bits of pieces of the series in the past, the arrival of a new Doctor (played by Smith, Ferguson’s guest of honor) and companion in Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond seemed like as good a time as any to jump into the phenomenon.
BBC America was kind enough to send along a copy of the Blu-Ray – which was released on November 9th and can be purchased at the BBC America Shop – for review purposes, but unfortunately it was sent to my Canadian address. However, that’s sort of ideal, as it means that my brother might be able to experience what I did when I chose to dive into the series at this “late” point.
“The Big Bang”
June 26th, 2010
While I never publicly agonized over it, the decision to watch Doctor Who’s fifth series (or first series of the Moffat era, if we want to get really complicated) on the British schedule was not an easy one: while a large part of my readership appear to have been watching at the same pace, making for lively conversations, I have not been making light of the ethical dilemmas therein in continuing to post in this fashion.
However, ultimately, I think Steven Moffat has created a season of television which demands to be watched as part of a collective audience, and as a newcomer to the series I feel as if I would have been lost had I been following the North American viewings. Commenters have been most kind at helping contextualize my experience with the series within the series’ larger framework, and the season has been so aggressively timey-wimey that there is a great value to be watching at the same pace as those who can help provide important context for what I’m experiencing. If I were three weeks behind, many of those fans may no longer be interested in these episodes, and I think this season would have been a much less enjoyable one as a critic.
“The Big Bang” is a story at once about the beginning and the end of the world, and yet it is a sparse story told using only a few primary characters as opposed to some sort of epic struggle. There is struggle, but it is struggle which unfolds between various different versions of the same characters over time as opposed to between a larger number of characters. And while there’s enough time travel to make your head spin, and it introduces various elements which border on dei ex machina, those elements are so intricately linked to these characters that they play out more like poetry than plot.
And through a small story with big consequences, “The Big Bang” stands as a conclusive finale which connects back which all which came before, an episode which solidifies the quality of the Eleventh Doctor, the importance of one Amy Pond, and the sheer potential which lies in the future with Moffat at the helm.
“The Pandorica Opens”
June 19th, 2010
As a newcomer to Doctor Who, one of the challenges I’ve had to face in terms of writing about the series is what to do with its two-part episodes. In particular, there’s a distinct challenge with writing about the first part of those episodes, as Doctor Who tends to quite literally split narratives in half as opposed to telling two connected stories. As a result, the first half tends to be fairly heavy on exposition and setup before the second half brings it all to a resolution: while this means that there is plenty to speculate on about the first episode, it’s tough to offer a critical opinion when so much of the two-parter’s effectiveness depends on how it concludes.
[Note: this seems as good a time as any to link to Scott Tobias and Noel Murray’s fantastic conversation about the challenges of writing about television at The A.V. Club – I’d add “two-parters” to their list of confounding situations for television critics who write about television on a weekly schedule, although they are not particularly common in this day and age.]
I’ve gotten away with it so far this season by either writing about episodes from previous series (catching up with the Weeping Angels and River Song in my review of “The Time of Angels”) or catching up on previous episodes in this series (lumping reviews of “Vampires of Venice” and “Amy’s Choice” in with “The Hungry Earth”), but with “The Pandorica Opens” (the first part of the series finale) I knew that there was no such cheat available, which meant that the episode was either going to lend itself to instant analysis or it wasn’t.
There are times when I write about episodes of television because I feel I have something to say, or because I want to start or continue a conversation, but there are other times when I simply feel as if I need to write about something so as to be able to even come close to being able to wrap my head around it. “The Pandorica Opens” is one such episode, a first-part which wastes no time drawing a clear (and quite ingenious) connection between this story and the ongoing series narrative and in the process leaves me enormously confused in the best possible way.
“Vincent and the Doctor”
June 5th, 2010
Last week’s “Cold Blood” was one of those episodes which required some time to decompress, for us to see the consequences (or the consequences of the lack of consequences, to speak more accurately) of the events at its conclusion. Of course, the complicated nature of those events (which I’m avoiding spoiling above the fold so that those following the American schedule don’t see something they shouldn’t) means that the show isn’t necessarily going to act as if something terrible has happened, and the characters (for various reasons) will be moving on with their lives as if it hasn’t happened at all.
It puts “Vincent and the Doctor” in a legitimately fascinating position, and lends Richard Curtis’ compelling standalone story a weight it may not have otherwise achieved. While you could consider the episode’s visit with Vincent Van Gogh and his encounter with an invisible creature to be a solid little piece of storytelling separate from its place within the season’s narrative, its subtle moments of serialization and its broader thematic position within the series make it more accomplished than it may have been otherwise. It doesn’t necessarily surprise us, nor dazzle us with anything particularly amazing, but the notes it hits feel like the right ones for this stage in the series as we march towards its conclusion.
May 29th, 2010
I didn’t have a whole lot to say about last week’s “The Hungry Earth,” both because I wanted to talk more about the two episodes which preceded it and because it isn’t actually really important. While “The Time of Angels” was also the first part of a two-part story, it seemed like it had a narrative of its own: actions were undertaken, and the tension built during the first hour felt carried over into the second. This time around, meanwhile, there was no transfer of tension, as “Cold Blood” more or less takes the basic facts and situations created in the previous episodes and gives them consequence the first part was lacking.
This isn’t to say that “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood” is entirely dissatisfying – rather, I simply want to note that this is a much less intriguing way to do a two-part episode, a scenario where the first part can be pretty easily summed up in a brief one-minute synopsis and the rest filled in through a few bits of dialogue here and there. However, luckily for the series, this episode packs both an emotional and intellectual wallop, delivering some key clues to the “endgame” of the series while also creating a substantial bit of narrative gymnastic which adds a new layer of complexity to our understanding of Amy Pond. Throw in a compelling glimpse at the Doctor’s love for humanity mirrored by a race with absolute disdain for them, and you’ve got an hour that does a better job at giving some hints at the big picture than it pays off the hour we spent last week.
And considering its position at this late stage in the series, that’s probably okay – the standalone story might have needed some work, but the ramifications of the story on the Doctor, his companion, and the series as a whole are a nice bit of momentum heading into the final act of the series.
“The Vampires of Venice, “Amy’s Choice” & “The Hungry Earth”
May 22nd, 2010
I’ve never watched Doctor Who before, but I think I’m starting discover that the mid-portion of each season is not necessarily conducive to weekly reviews (although it’s probably still conducive for weekly discussion, so sorry for my negligence). I didn’t review “The Vampires of Venice” or “Amy’s Choice” because I was busy on those respective weekends, but I also didn’t review the former because it didn’t feel particularly eventful even when I did get to the episode. This is not to say the episode isn’t worth our time, or that it serves no function, but rather that it will take a paragraph to discuss its function rather than an entire review.
However, there’s more to say about “Amy’s Choice,” and some preliminary thoughts on “The Hungry Earth” (on which judgment can’t really be laid until “Cold Blood” next week), so let’s take a look at these mid-season transition episodes, shall we?
“Flesh and Stone”
May 1st, 2010
As I expected after last week’s extremely engaging “The Time of Angels,” philosophizing about the meaning of said episode was sort of impossible: I spent most of my review last week talking about the Weeping Angels and River Song in general (especially since I had just gone back and watched the earlier Moffat entries introducing them), but you could tell that this creepy thrill ride was not just leading to a simple resolution.
“Flesh and Stone” confirms these suspicions, delivering a continuation of last week’s action which communicates a very different sort of message. There are a lot of pretty substantial ideas at play here, and I think I’m probably a bit too new to the Doctor Who universe to grasp their meaning, but the hour managed to integrate them into the story without seeming out of place amidst the simpler pleasures (or terrors) of the Weeping Angels. The contrast between Moffat’s interest in finding fear in the ordinary and the extraordinary circumstances ends up serving the series extremely well, as despite a very forward-reaching focus “Flesh and Stone” remains incredibly engaging television, even when I don’t know what half of it means.