Monday, January 04, 2010

And In The End

Anyone who ever criticizes a fan for complaining too loudly and too often should take a step back and realize that, for many fans, that's the fun part of their hobby, and that they feel more involved and more excited the more they get to whine. S'truth. I suspect (without wanting to construct a Straw Man, this is just idle speculation!) that the people who complain that the complaining fans don't seem to be having any fun are probably just jealous because the people complaining - no matter how loud and vociferous those complaints may be - are still more engaged with and immersed in the object of their fan adoration than any casual fan without the necessary bit of self-identification necessary to see their own identity so tightly and inextricably wound up in the process. That's one of the reasons why die-hard sports fans resent fair-weather fans. It's been said before but it bears repeating: it's easy to root for the winning team, but it doesn't quite feel the same if you haven't also been on hand for ten straight losing seasons.

Fans complain, it's in their nature; sci-fi fans complain quite a bit; Dr. Who fans are perhaps the oddest and most dyspeptic sub-species of the latter group. Ergo: Dr. Who fans complain more than just about any other group of people on the planet except for, I don't know, Cubs fans. But they complain because they - we - love. So, anyone who wants to turn off at the inevitable fan complaints about "The End of Time" are probably justified in doing so, but for those who care, it's the Monday morning quarterbacking that makes up half the fun. (Sometimes even ¾.)

But the fact remains, it was a pretty bad episode, and a very poor send-off to one of the better Doctors. The fact that Tennant managed to come off so well despite being undercut by poor, maudlin writing at (almost) every turn really isn't that extraordinary: anyone who knows Doctor Who on more than a casual basis knows that at its best the show can still be pretty bad. Which does not mean that bad is the best to which the show can aspire, just that the reasons why we love it have little to do with "good" or "bad." Most of the old serials - and by "most" I really do mean most of them - are messes in one way or another. Anyone who's sat through a Pertwee or Tom Baker series on DVD in one sitting can attest that even the very best are horribly padded, filled with logical inconsistencies and downright daffy performances from many actors and actresses who should never have been allowed on a soundstage for a national television program (I'm thinking specifically of Peter Davison's companions, not just Adric but every single last one of them). But we love them all the same. Even a really, really good serial, like "The Green Death" or "City of Death" still drags on reevaluation. The villain is never anywhere near as smart or resourceful as their reputation leads the viewer to believe; the plot is overly complicated just to ensure that all the actors have something to do for four or six weeks; all the complications pile up one on top of the other in such a way that it seems less like a logical narrative progression than a particularly deadpan game of Exquisite Corpse. Still: it's great. It doesn't matter what cardboard-and-foam monstrosity the Doctor is facing this week, just seeing the Doctor outsmart bad guys and outmaneuver bad writing makes up for sitting through however many overlong scenes of badly costumed extras running around one of England's many abandoned industrial wastelands.

"The End of Time" was a poor episode not because it failed to live up to some imaginary sterling standard of science-fiction television excellence, but because it wasn't very good, period; and it wasn't very good in ways distressingly familiar to anyone who's followed the new Who closely. It was saved by good performances from good actors working hard despite a script that could have been written by an illiterate child.

But first, let's linger a moment on the good: Russell Davies leaves the show having accomplished a modern miracle, and he should get all the credit in the world for this. As bad a writer as he could be, he was a great producer. If they had brought back a new Who that felt like 1985 it would have flopped after one or two miserable, anachronistic seasons, but Davies was smart enough to know that in 2005, especially in a show now officially targeted at adults and families and not even ostensibly towards children as a primary audience, good TV is character-driven. Story-wise, he managed to change the Doctor's world without actually changing the Doctor himself, which is quite a neat trick: it wouldn't do to upend the Doctor's character and completely alienate the hardcore base, but he needed to be more a involved and more personable character to carry a prime-time drama. So - take substantively the same character but put him into a situation where he was uncharacteristically vulnerable and weak. Force him into a situation where he had to change, ever so slightly, in a way that would feel natural and unforced but made him slightly more identifiable and approachable for non-fans. Of all the modern relaunches of classic sci-fi properties, I would argue that Who has succeeded the best, way better than Star Wars, better even than Trek and Battlestar: Galactica. The reason why is that the show manages to feel simultaneously new and old - a brand new show conceived to fit snugly as an artifact of 2005-2010 pop culture, and yet exactly what Doctor Who should have looked like if it had never been cancelled in 1989 and had remained in continuous production for forty full years.

If you had told the assembled Who fans at the start of the decade that a relaunched Doctor would enter into intimately close relationships with companions, going so far as to actually meet his companions' families (gasp!) and leaning on them for (good heavens!) moral support and ethical guidance - well, they all would have howled to the high heavens. And sure enough, many of them did, but many more did not. And although I admit I disliked Rose (although not so much initially as I came to hate her later on when she just would not leave), found the endless scenes with Rose's mother and Mickey grating, and initially disliked Martha Jones for much the same reasons (even if Martha redeemed herself by being ever so slightly less helpless and cloying than Rose) . . . well, in hindsight, I can see where it was going. The Doctor that we met in 2005 was a hollow shell of the magisterial, imposing figure he had been in 1989 or even (shudder) 1996. He was chastened and shellshocked, for reasons we didn't fully understand until just this last episode. He was a changed man, and while certain elements of Eccleston's Doctor may have made the purists squeal, on the whole it worked because the characters were strong enough to pull it off.

Because he was only the Doctor for one year, Eccleston's Doctor was allowed to have an actual character arc: he changed and grew, came out of his post-war shell and reengaged with the universe. He was erratic and at times desperate, needy and even petulant - not necessarily conditions I would ever have associated with the Doctor before. But personally I was surprised by just how easily it all made sense once I started watching. I had initially dismissed the relaunch, and only relented to watch the first few episodes as a lark. (I distinctly recall them sitting on my DVR for a couple weeks before I got around to watching them out of nothing so much as a sense of resigned duty to another childhood favorite dutifully murdered by ill-conceived revamp.) But as soon as Eccleston walked onscreen and introduced himself as the Doctor, my reservations faded away. It just felt right in a way that, say, the new Star Trek movie did not. Perhaps it's not a good analogy, because in Trek's case there had never been a turnover in performers playing the same characters like last years' soft reboot. But still: I had expected the relaunch to be a misfire. It wasn't, and for all the changes the show experienced it was remarkable how much it still felt like the Doctor - the very same Doctor who had fought the Meddling Monk and the Black Guardian and Davros and worn a sprig of celery on his lapel - the same Doctor I grew up with and had watched every Saturday night at 10:00PM on the local PBS affiliate. It's hard to remember the skepticism now, but it was hard to imagine then that the new Doctor would ever fit so neatly in our imaginations as the logical and necessary continuation of the same old Doctor we all grew up with. That he does, with no reservations regardless of the new series' many faults, is as much or moreso a testament to Davies as Eccleston or Tennant.

Next: Why Tennant was a good Doctor, even if his scripts often failed him.

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