Friday, October 2, 2020

REVIEW: Doctor Who 2008-2010 Specials

For the last two years my friends and I have been on a mission to re-watch the new series of Doctor Who.  The terms of our endeavour are simple – every episode (and minisode) of the revived 2005 series until we are caught up with the current instalments.  Predictably, it’s been a divisive experience – everyone has their favourite characters, storylines and moments and, in a room full of self-confessed nerds - passions run high.

Well into coronavirus lockdown, we rounded the corner to series 4.  It was the first time we’d reached something approximating group consensus.  We each fondly recalled the initial broadcast of the season in 2008 and the esteem in which the popular zeitgeist regarded the show.  Series 4 appeared to be Doctor Who at the height of its critical acclaim with David Tennant reaching near Tom Baker levels of popularity.  Comedienne Catherine Tate joined the cast full time providing the Doctor with a companion who was unafraid to point out his foibles.

Doctor Who Specials James Patrik

The episode themselves were a winning bunch, and in my opinion, represent the most consistently excellent streak of the series.  “The Unicorn and the Wasp” was a unanimous favourite, as was the superlative “Turn Left” with only “Midnight” generating significant debate and splitting opinion.  But it was the series’ two concluding episodes that engendered the most favour.  Sure, they’re a little self-referential and heavy on “fan service”, but the “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” two parter feels like a reward for ardent fans who’d been there since “Rose”.

Roping in characters from contemporaneous spin offs Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures (while plugging into those show’s own internal continuity seamlessly), “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End” feel more like a series finale rather than simply the end of a season.  Make no mistake, these episodes are top shelf science fiction television.  Cinematic in execution and expansive with their scope (and cast), they are the best exemplars of the broad theatrics and global stakes that became a pleasing trademark of Russel T Davies’ writing.  As well as delivering emotional catharsis for Tennant’s 10th Doctor (and his unresolved feelings for former companion Rose Tyler), it finds room for Daleks and even Davros – not seen since 1988 – played with manic malevolence by Julian Bleach. 

Crisis averted, and Davros dispatched (for now, at least), companions and friends each make their exits in a bittersweet coda which leaves the 10th Doctor alone once more.  Roll credits.  But wait…

It’s in viewing these episodes out of context in a marathon that the problems with the specials make themselves most obviously apparent.  They feel like a deal driven mistake or a contractual obligation of sorts.  A transparent attempt to gain more mileage out of Tennant’s popularity by a production team nervous about the future of the franchise. 

I suppose It’s understandable.  It’s been widely reported that the BBC considered cancelling the show at the time, unsure that any actor would be capable of filling David Tennant’s now battered pair of converse shoes.  So, the “Specials Year” proceeds unevenly, beginning with “The Next Doctor” (an irritatingly manipulative title).  Despite the appearance of the excellent Cyber Shades and the simmering rage of Dervla Kirwan as Miss Hartigan, this is a story that smacks of disappointment.  Once Jackson Lake is revealed to be a poor unfortunate amnesiac, the dramatic tension of the episode dissipates, culminating in a lacklustre finale.

“Planet of the Dead” certainly delivers on sheer spectacle.  With a foreign filming location (Dubai) and finally upgraded to high definition, Doctor Who has never looked or sounded better.  In many ways this episode is quite the visual feast – the metallic Sting Rays of San Helios providing a terrifying addition to the franchise’s pantheon of monsters.  Its agreeable to see Erisa Magambo back in action and the hysterical Malcolm provides a dose of comic relief (and possibly meta-commentary on fandom), but it’s all in service of a story that feels far too trite.  The image of a flying double decker bus is seared in my memory as a creative low point of the year.

Its “Waters of Mars” that finally ups the ante, delivering a handsome slice of grown up science fiction encased within the “base under siege” trope which Doctor Who practically invented.  Lindsay Duncan’s formidable Adelaide Brooke stands toe to toe with the 10TH Doctor – questioning his now dubious morality.  Indeed, it’s an episode whose themes of determinism versus free stand in stark contrast to the cartoonish imagery of its immediate predecessor.  Fan consensus seems to favour this episode as the best of the specials and I’m inclined to concur - especially with its low key (yet jaw dropping) denouement.

Somewhere within the bloated two episode run time of “The End of Time” is contained a decent story.  Unfortunately, David Tennant’s run stumbles to a close with two episodes that often feel directionless and vary wildly in tone.  The morose 10th Doctor - now fully conscious of his impending regeneration - attempts to stop the Master (a revived John Simm) from replacing the planet’s population with clones of himself.  Add to that, an extended 20-minute epilogue in which the Doctor revisits all of his old companions – and I mean all of them.

This sequence feels emotionally redundant – we had already bid most of these characters a proper farewell in “Journey’s End” – do we really need to check in with Mickey Smith one last time?  Most egregious of all is the 10th Doctor’s final scene – his regeneration.  While the notion of sacrificing one’s life for someone else is a noble one, the 10th Doctor seems to do so begrudgingly, making time for an indignant rant about how he could have been “so much more”.  It’s an awful moment.  Instead of meeting his end with bravery or dignity, the character goes out a sobbing mess, petulant and fearful of oblivion.

Still, these five episodes show flashes of brilliance, even if they do interrupt the momentum of a binge watch.  I’ve always personally felt that “Waters of Mars” would have been a perfect regeneration episode for the 10th Doctor – his hubris finally exacting a cost in the form of regeneration.

Like most television, Doctor Who is art and should be applauded or critiqued within the context it was created.  The specials aired months apart at a time when taking a year off was an unknown concept to fans who were still relatively gun-shy following the original series’ cancellation in 1989.  Out of context, watching the episodes one after another felt like a difficult slog – no more than a protracted wait for a new Doctor in the form of Matt Smith.  Despite my criticisms, I feel that the ability to voice them in itself is a luxury.  Gone are the days of Doctor Who being broadcast one season after another, with intermittent breaks now a regular occurrence (and a fact of life where modern television is concerned).  As fans, we can at least be grateful that the creative team at the time – including the inimitable Russel T Davies – saw fit to at least provide fans with some content to sate our appetites.  With the production currently on pause due to the unfortunate state of the world at the moment, we should only be so lucky now.


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