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Scott Larson





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Doctor Doctor

I expect to be off the grid later in the week, so I’m posting this week’s missive a bit early. Surprise!

What is it about Jonathan Ross and flies?

Or, put another way, what is it about Jonathan Ross and my cult favorites?

Two weeks ago I noted how Tim Burton and Johnny Depp had appeared on Ross’s Friday night BBC chat show and, in discussing their prospective big screen version of my old favorite Dark Shadows, focused on the fact that the actors seemed to be bothered by an unusual number of flies, as they were being taped live. The very next week, Ross was chatting with another favorite of mine, the lovely Emma Thompson, and darned if Ross himself, as well as Thompson, weren’t plagued by a persistent fly, which finally settled in full view in Thompson’s hair. It was uncanny how determined that single fly was to be seen on camera and not be shooed off.

Thompson was on the show to talk up her new movie, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang which, contrary to the Missus’s initial impression, does not have the supernatural child-minder meeting a group of geeky physicists from Pasadena. (I’m not joking about that.) But, as interesting as that was, that was not the most interesting segment of the show that night. It was the bit where actor Matt Smith, armed with a new snazzy sonic screwdriver, came out to promote (as if it needed to be) the new series of Doctor Who, which debuted on the BBC six evenings later. His casting, inevitably, has divided the sort of people who post their opinions on internet message boards. Many people are quite ready and willing to embrace him and love him as the eleventh Doctor, and others seem determined to be unmoved. In the interview, although he was more than game, I found him a bit nervous and ill at ease, but who wouldn’t be? He’s under a lot of scrutiny and, as I was reminded in watching him, this man is very, very young. He is the youngest Doctor yet and, as the Muchkin suggested, the next regeneration of the Doctor will probably produce an actual baby. Is there a conscious plan to make the Doctors get progressively younger? Is he aging backwards like some sort of time-traveling Benjamin Button?

In a way, these two cult faves of mine, Dark Shadows and Doctor Who, have a fair amount in common. They both have fantastic premises, involving time travel, and both became beloved in spite of, or more likely because of, the necessary constraints of time and budgets in their productions. Indeed, the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who probably points the way for the best possible way to reboot Dark Shadows. It didn’t try to start the whole saga over but merely continued it, albeit with a new cast and better production values made possible by advances in technology since the Doctor’s early days. It was easy to reboot Doctor Who without negating its past incarnations because the character was defined early on as someone who periodically regenerated and acquired a new body—making it possible to recast the character as often as necessary. Well, up to twelve times, until the writers figure out a loophole to that arbitrary limit. Dark Shadows doesn’t have that out, but a TV series reboot is still not out of the question. (I am talking about a reboot that continues the original rather than restarting it as the 1991 NBC primetime version or the failed WB pilot.) In fact, audio dramas released by Big Finish have done just that. Several members of the original cast have been quite happy to reprise their roles for those versions. Unfortunately, Jonathan Frid (currently 86 but who does make the odd appearance at DS gatherings), who played the key role of Barnabas, was apparently not among them. But that problem was got around by casting Andrew Collins (who sounds eerily like Frid) as Barnabas’s spirit transferred to a new body. When you’re dealing with the supernatural, there are all kinds of way to get around these things. Anyway, four decades after the original series it is way past time for a new generation of Collinses anyway. But the presence of actors like David Selby (Quentin), Lara Parker (Angelique), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie) and John Karlen (Willie) would provide more than enough continuity. Just a thought, in case any motivated producers out there are paying attention.

So how did Matt Smith do in his big debut on Saturday? Who cares? Okay, I don’t mean that the way it sounds. What I mean is, I was more interested in what the writing was like. I know we invest a lot in the actors playing our favorite characters, but at the end of the day, the success of the series has more to do with the performance of Steven Moffat, who has replaced Russell T. Davies as the show-runner and head writer on the series. Interestingly, the debut episode, called “The Eleventh Hour,” seemed determined to establish continuity rather than break with what had gone before. The story, in which the Doctor meets his new companion Amy, was reminiscent of Davies’s “Rose” which introduced us to Christopher Eccelston and Billie Piper as the main characters. The Doctor may have a new face and body, but he still exhorts “Run!” soon after meeting his new travel-mate and he still exclaims, “What?!” when something completely unexpected happens. There was even a quick montage (similar to one that appeared in last year’s “The Next Doctor”) reviewing the past Doctors. And Moffat, who wrote some of the best episodes during Davies’s reign, deliberately revisited some of his key narrative motifs. The Doctor first meets Amy when she is a child and reappears at intervals during her life, just as David Tennant did with Sophia Myles in “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The threat they face involves a group of people in comas in a hospital, used as puppets by an extraterrestrial, similar to what happened in “The Empty Child.” And at a key moment, Amy gets a text message from the Doctor warning her to “Duck!” thereby evoking the chilling episode “Blink.” Oh yeah, and the villain of the piece lives in spaces just out of people’s normal range of perception, not unlike the dreaded Vashta Nerada in “Silence in the Library.” It was as though Moffat wanted to remind us about all the cool ideas and notions he had come up with, so as to reassure us that the series is in good hands. And it clearly is.

Oh yeah, and Matt Smith was fine. In fact, it was easy to imagine David Tennant doing and saying all the same things. If anything, this Doctor isn’t different enough—yet. I suspect that will change. And I, for one, cannot wait. Finally, after too long an interim, there is a reason to anxiously anticipate Saturday evening again.

-S.L., 6 April 2010


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