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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Who’s next

I really, really, really meant to get started this week on my annual roll call of remembrances of many of the movie and other entertainment people who passed away during the previous calendar year. But, in another annual tradition, I am putting it off a week (hopefully not more) in order to indulge myself. I need to talk about the end of the Russell T. Davies/Julie Gardner/David Tennant era of Doctor Who, which ended on New Year’s Day.

Fans much more rabid than I and with much longer standing have already weighed in with more context and volume than I could ever muster. But still I would like to mark this moment and have my say.

As I have written before, I came somewhat late to the whole Doctor Who thing. For years I was well aware of the existence of the long-running series and that it was something that would be right up my alley. But I never took the plunge and put off watching it because, by the time it was on my radar, it had been running for so many years (it first aired on the BBC in 1963, three years before Star Trek aired on NBC) that I knew that, with my compulsive personality, I would not be able to enjoy it unless I could start watching from the beginning. And by that time, there were so many episodes to catch up on, the challenge was simply too daunting. But when the series made a fresh start after a 16-year hiatus (with a one-off made-for-TV movie somewhere in the interim), I figured it was my chance. And the ride has been well worth jumping on board for.

It’s hard to classify Doctor Who. Ostensibly, it is science fiction, but most of the time it really seems to be more fantasy. The writers freely make up their own rules for the governance of time and space and physics. So many outlandish things are possible in the Who universe that the powers of The Doctor’s space-hopping, time-traveling TARDIS might as well be magic. It certainly makes it easier to enjoy if you don’t try to apply strict logic to it—although its many rabid fans constantly insist on doing so.

It is probably fitting that David Tennant chose to retire from the role at the same time that Davies and Gardner did. Although the series will continue (under new showrunner Steven Moffat and with new star Matt Smith), the Davies/Gardner years made a nice five-year story arc. While clearly not as carefully pre-plotted as another cherished five-year arc of mine, J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, the two do share some similarities. Not the least of which are the corrective replacement of the main character after the first year (Bruce Boxleitner for Michael O’Hare in B5, Tennant for Christopher Eccelston in Who), some pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo as the main character heads toward his final destiny and a somewhat drawn-out, sentimentalized finale.

Indeed, Tennant’s two-part swan song (airing on Christmas Day and on New Year’s Day in the UK) was ripe with references to other science fiction works, notably Star Wars (particularly in an amusing inter-galactic barroom scene uniting two characters from earlier episodes) but also Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, in the way that the tenth Doctor ultimately meets his demise. Was it a great story? There have others during this Doctor’s run that I’ve admired more, and it did pull out that old trump card of establishing a menace that threatens to end all of time itself and then have it beat back within a matter of minutes. But after all this time, we have learned that there are only so many Doctor Who stories to tell and re-tell, and this wasn’t the worst. What made it worthwhile was to see the end of this Doctor’s journey and his transition from a precocious whiz kid to a man haunted by impending destiny. There was a long, dragged-out ending that revisited many of the people who were important to this Doctor, and I can understand the annoyance of some since the Doctor has been having his poignant farewells for more than a year now. Still I was happy to see them all.

Making it feel more like the end of an era was the fact that almost all of the dangling plot loose ends left over from previous episodes were tied up, mostly clearing the path for the new team. And the good-byes to so many supporting characters made it feel as though we shouldn’t expect to see them anymore. But there are still a couple of loose ends to pique our curiosity as the Moffat era gets underway in the spring. Just who was the mysterious woman played by Claire Bloom? And what of Professor River Song from the fourth year episode “Silence in the Library” who knew Tenant’s Doctor from some future point? Shouldn’t she have shown up before he regenerated? Maybe she did and we just didn’t see it. After all, the Doctor told Ood Sigma that he had gotten married since they last met. He suggested that it was Queen Elizabeth I he had wed, but that seems (historically) unlikely. Could it have been an in-joke, since Alex Kingston, who played River Song, is best known for playing a character named Elizabeth on the long-running U.S. series ER?

While I am sad to see the end of the tenth Doctor’s run, I heartily look forward to the next incarnation. After all, Moffat wrote the six best episodes of the Davies/Gardner years: “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink” and the two two-parters “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances” and “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead.” While Smith’s brief debut in the title role suggests an even more amusing quality to the stories, Moffat’s teleplays to date suggest a darker ambiance and tone. It also suggests more mind-bending time travel conundrums. Bring it on!

* * *

Something less happy happened on New Year’s Day. Michael Dwyer, the longtime film critic for The Irish Times died at the age of 58. For years he was the preeminent voice on movies in the country’s most influential (if not most popular) newspaper. But he was more than a writer. He was a fan and activist and promoter for cinema in general and Irish cinema in particular. He established the Federation of Irish Film Societies and was instrumental in the founding of no fewer than two major Dublin film festivals. He was a frequent commentator on television and radio, as well as in print.

While I cannot claim to have really known the man, I did happen to rub shoulders with him from year to year during breakfasts. He and I tended to lodge in the same guest house during the Cork Film Festival. In another coincidental connection, typical of small countries, the surgeon who performed my cataract surgery was an acquaintance of Dwyer’s years ago in Dublin. My surgeon said that he was a man of strong opinions and conversations usually went better if you didn’t seriously disagree with him. I was not surprised to hear this, since this would be true of most professional (and indeed many amateur) movie critics.

While taking nothing away from Dwyer’s accomplishments and writing in the world of film, I have to say that, since Dwyer’s departure from the Times after last year’s Festival de Cannes, I have been enjoying the expanded role of his Irish Times colleague Donald Clarke. Clarke is a very entertaining scribe and the paper’s movie pages are in good hands. But Dwyer’s passing does leave a gap in the Irish cinema world. My condolences to Michael’s family and friends and to his partner of nearly a quarter-century.

-S.L., 7 January 2010

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