Saturday, December 20, 2014

Clinging To Its Lingering Elements, Doctor Who Season Two Struggled To Let David Tennant Soar As The Doctor!

The Good: Moments of performance, Character development, Larger plot arcs that work
The Bad: Awkward unresolved plotlines that were carried over into the second season, First major continuity problems, Bottle episodes
The Basics: Doctor Who Season Two was a solid start for David Tennant’s tenure as The Doctor, but it was hardly a flawless one as the show struggled to find the balance between continuity and reinvention.

Hindsight is 20/20. In science fiction, reinvention often comes as a result of external factors; cast shifts, deaths, writers’ strikes, etc. Some of the best works of science fiction television have been plagued by problems that had nothing to do with the writer/executive producers’ original vision. Babylon 5 (reviewed here!) suffered mightily when the lead actor on the show had to leave after the first season, Claudia Christian opted not to return for the final season and Warner Brothers jerked the creator of the show around about whether or not the series would even get its promised season (forcing rushed elements in the fourth). Doctor Who is a television series uniquely designed to survive virtually all external factors to the show: the protagonist periodically transforms his body into a new incarnation and the time-travel aspects of the series allow for a fluid sense of how dead villains might pop back up. Still, it is hard to imagine that when the BBC and Russell T. Davies revived Doctor Who in 2005 that they were truly prepared for the impact of their lead, Christopher Eccleston, to depart after his first season (reviewed here!).

Eccleston’s departure left some serious issues with how to continue Doctor Who into its second revived season. Even as David Tennant fulfilled his lifelong dream, eagerly, of taking up the mantle of The Doctor, the BBC and writer-showrunner Russell T. Davies, were faced with some serious issues on how to maintain the audience built by the prior thirteen episodes. The result is Doctor Who Season Two, a season that struggled to find its footing because it was clinging to prior elements (most notably Rose, Mickey, and the premature resolution of a number of concepts from the prior season). While the erratic nature of the second season of Doctor Who is nowhere as severe as keeping Clara Oswald relevant in Doctor Who’s eighth season (reviewed here!), David Tennant’s first season as The Doctor was a bit more erratic than it could have been.

Opening moments after The Doctor and Rose have saved the future of humanity, at the cost of the Doctor’s prior incarnation, the new regeneration of The Doctor falls into a coma. While Rose tries to explain to Mickey and Jackie just who the new Doctor is (and how he is not, actually, all that different from the one they met), a powerful alien race invades Earth. While Rose and Mickey try to repel the Sycorax, it takes the British Prime Minister and her secret project, Torchwood, and the new Doctor to repel and then destroy the invaders. Infuriated by how the Prime Minister destroyed a fleeing enemy, the Doctor offers Rose the chance to continue her journey through time and space with him. Rose, naturally, leaps at the opportunity.

That journey takes Rose and The Doctor to New Earth where they confront Cassandra again, then back in time on Earth to fight aliens who seem very much like werewolves. There, they actually create the incident that inspires the Torchwood Institute. Returning to the present, The Doctor meets his old companions Sarah Jane Smith and K-9, before taking Mickey with him and Rose back into the future (and, simultaneously, Earth’s past). After a trip to an alternate universe where Rose has a chance to interact with an alternate version of her father and help that Earth repel the Cybermen, Mickey sets Rose emotionally free and remains in a universe where Rose and The Doctor may never return. But trips to the past where aliens are using the television to enslave people, the future where humanity discovers what might be the source of all evil in the galaxy, and the near future where Rose and The Doctor stop a creature that is absorbing people who are intent upon finding The Doctor and a creature feeding off attention using a girl, culminate in the revelation of what Torchwood has become in our present. The organization, running experiments in power and multi-dimensional transport, unleashes two of Earth’s most lethal foes . . . and leads to a sacrifice that will separate The Doctor from his Companion!

Looking back, fans of Doctor Who tend to romanticize the relationship between Rose Tyler and The Doctor. There is good reason for the romanticization: the entire first season of Doctor Who led to a kiss that was eagerly anticipated (though, objectively, not inevitable) between The Doctor and Rose Tyler. So, the regeneration of The Doctor into David Tennant’s incarnation of the character left the series with the question of whether to reestablish/grow the relationship between Rose and The Doctor or mortgage it and move on. Because the series is not, fundamentally, a love story about The Doctor and his Companion, the second season becomes somewhat unsatisfying looking back because Doctor Who failed to commit to either course of action for the relationship.

Rose is clearly attracted to The Doctor in his new incarnation. By the end of “The Christmas Invasion,” she is over the weirdness of figuring out who he is relative to his prior incarnation and she’s ready to follow him through time and space again. The problem is that The Doctor does not commit the same way. While the pair has decent chemistry in “New Earth” and “Tooth And Claw,” it is almost instantly mortgaged. The Doctor is clearly delighted to be reunited with Sarah Jane Smith and afterward is powerfully smitten with Madame De Pompadour. While Mickey frees Rose up to pursue a relationship with The Doctor, his focus is on virtually any other woman but Rose (including incidental women he just ends up potentially trapped underground with for eternity). The reason this is so unsatisfying upon rewatching is that there is no satisfactory answer given for it within the season. In the Star Trek franchise, the closest analogy to The Doctor are the Trill, a race with a symbiont that outlives its hosts. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the episode “Rejoined” (reviewed here!) explored how it is taboo for new hosts to interact with prior symbionts/hosts/people with whom they had prior relationships; there is no analogous episode in the second season of Doctor Who. So, the entire first revived season builds up to a kiss between The Doctor and Rose and the new Doctor never actually says, “let’s pick up that relationship” or “I’m new, it’s not going to happen” and that damages the season.

Unfortunately, it is not the only serious detraction in the second season of Doctor Who. Doctor Who Season Two both tries to include continuity elements from the prior season . . . and mortgages them. The Doctor in season one recalled Prime Minister Harriet Jones as the leader who saw Britain into its new Golden Age. Well, in Season Two, that Golden Age is over in the first episode! Temporal mechanics being what they are, this means that the prior Doctor’s death in the distant future somehow effected a change that led to the future he remembered being irrevocably altered. Or, the new Doctor is just a dick. The prior Doctor recalls Harriet Jones as creating a new Golden Age for Britain and when he is forced into a new iteration, the David Tennant version of The Doctor refuses to support Jones in a way that would actually allow her to bring about that positive future that his prior incarnation remembered. Instead of making Jones a better Prime Minister who bring about the Golden Age, the new Doctor cuts her loose, abandons Earth’s positive future and sets up a season in which Earth’s future is ravaged by various alien and extra-dimensional forces.

Doctor Who Season Two suffers as well from internal continuity issues and an excess of bottle episodes that gel poorly with the serialized ones. Take, for example “Fear Her,” which occurs in 2012. In the Doctor Who universe, this is a mere six years after ghosts began appearing all over Earth and were revealed to be an interdimensional invasion force. While there is some reason to not spoiling one’s own season finale, there is something absurd about leaping into the near future to an Olympics that makes no allusion to the worldwide trauma that occurred only a few years prior. Similarly, “Love & Monsters,” which is an altogether underwhelming monster of the week episode, occurs within the timeframe during which “ghosts” would be a normal part of daily life . . . yet they are unmentioned.

In a similar fashion, Doctor Who - which has maintained a pretty strong science fiction core since its revival – loses some credibility in the second season when it puts forth a two-parter that essentially introduces the devil to the Doctor Who universe. This is about as psychically unsatisfying as considering how the plot of Prometheus (reviewed here!) is based upon how ancient scientists lead their lab rats to their secret military weapons development facility!

At the other end of the spectrum is generally fine acting from the leads in the second season of Doctor Who. David Tennant takes over as The Doctor with an impressive enthusiasm and great on-screen chemistry with costar Billie Piper (even if the writing did not develop a romance between the characters). Piper is much more confident as Rose Tyler in the second season and she adds some genuine continuity strength to the season. Having lost the lingering Rose storyline of the Bad Wolf, Piper is saddled with temporal technobabble, developing chemistry with Tennant and giving a very human perspective for fans to relate to.

Tennant immediately bursts onto the screen as an energetic and intellectual Doctor who is very watchable. But what the writers and producers have Tennant doing is more erratic than how they had Eccleston’s Doctor moving through time and space. Tennant rises to the challenge, going with whatever scripts are thrown at him and while the character is developed consistently, the plot arc of the season is not.

The result is a season that is occasionally very enjoyable and clever with episodes mixed in that are uncharacteristically terrible . . . which makes Tennant’s first season as The Doctor the least exciting to return to.

For more information on this season, please check out the episodes contained in the set! They are:
“The Christmas Invasion”
“New Earth”
“Tooth And Claw”
“School Reunion”
“The Girl In The Fireplace”
“Rise Of The Cybermen”
“The Age Of Steel”
“The Idiot’s Lantern”
“The Impossible Planet”
“The Satan Pit”
“Love & Monsters”
“Fear Her”
“Army Of Ghosts”


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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