Tuesday, January 05, 2010

And In The End, Part Two

(Spoilers for last week's show, I guess.)

Even something as stupid as hanging around a council flat with Rose and her mother seems, in retrospect, necessary. It was a different kind of Doctor Who, but Eccleston was still recognizably the same Doctor - just having to face a different kind of threat than he had ever faced before. He actually needed people in a very tangible way. And sure enough, by the time he was ready to change into Tennant, he had changed significantly. He had healed quite a bit, and Tennant was - as a result - more confident, brash, downright conceited at times. These traits failed him as often as not, but this fallibility made Tennant a compelling character: he actually failed, because he wasn't always as clever as he thought he was.

One of the nice features of the BBC's general philosophy when casting new Doctors is that new Doctors are usually very different than the previous Doctors. The upside of this is, from a story perspective, it often seems as if new regenerations "correct" personality flaws of their previous incarnations. Pertwee was a genial, dapper swashbuckler where Troughton had been grumpy, disheveled and occasionally conniving. Tom Baker was forbidding and wry, so Davison was friendly, almost to a fault; the latter surrounding himself with an affectionate surrogate family, where Baker had traveled with single companions to whom he often visibly condescended. Colin Baker was arrogant where Davison had been warm; McCoy sly where Baker had been self-righteous.

Where Eccleston was emotional and hesitant, Tennant was self-assured to a fault. And certainly, this confidence - which had fatally curdled into conceit on "The Waters of Mars" - killed him in the end. Tennant was a good Doctor, and one of the best parts of his performance is that he wasn't afraid to make the character unlikeable. (Something similar had been done before with Colin Baker, but a number of other factors conspired to make Baker's tenure a failure, not least of which being substandard writing - at least until the generally very good "Trial of a Time Lord" series - and a truly horrendous costume that would have undercut even Sir Lawrence Olivier.) Sure enough, by the time the end rolled around, he had won but not necessarily through any fault of his own - he had stumbled into victory despite being on the defensive for the entirety of both episodes. He was overconfident and underprepared, and was saved in a moment of crucial indecision by the Master, of all people. And as a result of his failure, he put himself in a position of being undone by his hubris. He failed simply because he hadn't bothered paying attention to what his last friend in the world was doing - that is, being a hero when the Doctor was busy making the problem worse.

But that brings us back to the problems with the episode. In summation, all of these ideas are great, and a kind fan can see in outline all the ideas that Davies was trying to cover. Tennant was a good performer even when the script let him down. But the fact is, the script did let him down, repeatedly. That plot summary above looks great on paper, but I'm eliding the actual nuts-and-bolts of the narrative - with good reason, because there's a pretty wretched gap between conception and execution in this instance.

In thinking about the show over the last few days, the best analogy that came to mind in considering Davies' shortcomings as a writer was, to stay on a nerd tip, Brian Michael Bendis. Sure enough, Bendis is usually supremely sure-footed in terms of character-based drama (if not in giving each character a unique voice). Even his worst stories nevertheless usually have some kind of character-based through-line that makes them readable, even when - as is often the case with the larger crossovers - a little less character work would make for a much nimbler beast. (See "Avengers: Disassembled" House of M and Secret Invasion, all of which suffer more or less on the same account.) Bendis has trouble dealing with any scale and scope above the personal. Sometimes you just need the big panel of all the heroes sitting around a big room with identifying captions next to their heads while Reed Richards explains the story - and Bendis has always been chary about doing the scut work of plot mechanics above the minimum necessary to get from capital-M Moment to Moment. Watching "The End of Time," I was filled with a sensation not unlike that of reading Secret Invasion: I felt that I was watching a good outline for an eventually great story, except that the actual skeleton of the plot around which the nice character bits and grand Moments had been neglected altogether. Beginnings and endings are easy, I guess - it's what comes in the middle that's hard. There were lots of "Wow!" Moments throughout the episode, but shorn of a decent plot the effects were greatly lessened.

So even though the series explicitly tied up a pile of loose ends from across the last five years - and even raised a few new nagging twists that might never be properly addressed* - it somehow still managed to seem perfunctory. Maybe because they didn't have a whole season to build up the plotline properly, but the return of the Time Lords seemed rushed. The fact that the Time Lords initially lost the Time War because the Doctor trapped them at the destruction of Gallifrey in order to save existence itself was a meaty nugget, and certainly the next time I rewatch Eccleston it'll make even more sense to me that he was so scattered and downright bipolar in places. That the Doctor had to make the same choice twice - between the life of his race and the continued existence of the universe - made for good drama, even if the actual staging left quite a bit to be desired.

• So, OK, you're holding a gun to Rassilon, (presumably) one of the most powerful Time Lords who have ever existed, and he's wielding some Infinity Gauntlet-looking badass Power Glove . . . you're poking a British Army service pistol in his face and he's just sort of letting you do that? Was the Doctor too powerful for Rassilon to be able to disintegrate in the same manner he dismissed the dissenting council member at the beginning of the episode? Maybe a bit of dialogue to clear this matter up would have been nice.

• Additionally, the Doctor is standing there all that time and it takes him, what, five minutes to figure out if he just shoots the machine the problem will go away? I daresay even Peri would have figured that one out. I realize the point of the sequence was to make the Doctor's indecision look agonizing and to underscore the gap between his conceit and his abilities (just like on "The Waters of Mars") - but the way the scene is staged makes him look less humbled than merely stupid.

• And what about not just one but two very blatant and superfluous Star Wars homages? I don't mind the cantina scene - it's a genre staple at this point, even Trek has done them - but Xeroxing the scene in the first movie where Luke has to climb into the Millennium Falcon's turret to blast the Tie Fighters was just blatant and stupid. I mean, seriously, an old man and a civilian space junk dealer are going to be able to shoot off dozens of ICBMs? Really. I won't even bother asking why the hell a mining ship doesn't just have automatic firing capabilities far more effective than mere human reflexes, or why none of those ICBMs were carrying nuclear payloads.

• Or what about that deathtrap? Seriously, people: if you're going to build a deathtrap, you've got to make it at least slightly probable. Like, a magically shielded glass room that can absorb all the venting from an out-of-control nuclear reaction. Yes, OK. Assuming the Doctor wasn't just atomized instantly, why the hell couldn't he figure out a way to undo that lock? I know, I know - "not even my sonic screwdriver can help!" Just break the glass and pull the old dude free. Or, you know, use the robot from the end of "Waters of Mars."

• And while we're on the subject, why couldn't the Doctor just get some immediate treatment for radiation sickness? If he was still up and walking around, why couldn't he vent the regeneration energy like he did at the beginning of "Journey's End?" And it sure was convenient that he happened to live on just long enough to say goodbye to every single person he ever knew, save maybe for the guy who runs the BBC catering truck.

• From a purely mechanical standpoint, this was a horribly structured two-parter. How much of the first part was spent with the Doctor and the Master running around a junkyard banging on cans? It sure felt like forever. And considering just how massively important the real bad guys actually were, the revelation sure came out of nowhere (at least, if like me you had studiously avoided any spoilers beforehand). The last half of the story (barring the epilogue) was so rushed it almost seems perverse that the first half was so laconic and stuffed with purposeless red herrings.

• Speaking of which, just what was the point of all the stuff with Obama and Joshua Naismith? They could have accomplished the same plot bits without the extraneous exposition if they had wanted to, but as it is these two additions meant nothing.

I could go on but I'm feeling spent from this particularly bout of nerd rage. I guess, since we did one post on the past, and this post on the present, we have to do another on the future - and the prospects of Mr. Matt Smith. So, next!

* OK, I'll submit in a couple suggestions for possible fan-appeasing dialogue insertions for the DVD Directors' Cut:

"The Time Lords were mad enough to resurrect a dead god to lead them to suicide!"


">choke< . . . Susan!"

(preferable to ">choke< . . . mom!", considering that everyone knows Time Lords don't have mommies, they have looms.)

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