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Scott Larson

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Script Doctor

So, eleven weeks after I shared my reactions to the debut of the eleventh and current incarnation of the title character in the venerable BBC sci-fi-ish series Doctor Who, how is the franchise doing?

That’s right. I’m going to get all geeky and nerdy and talk about Doctor Who. If that’s not your cup of tea, see you next week. Or if you haven’t been able to see all the episodes broadcast in the UK yet and you don’t want to confuse yourself by reading comments out of chronological sync.

Actually, it is a bit premature to pronounce a judgment on showrunner Steven Moffat and star Matt Smith’s first series. Never has a season (to use the American term) of a TV show been so hard to judge without having seen all of it right up to the last minute of the final episode. That may sound strange to those who don’t watch Doctor Who or who have been watching only casually. Shouldn’t each episode stand on its own? Isn’t having seen twelve of thirteen episodes more than enough to have an impression of the quality of the writing and the production and the acting? Normally, yes. In fact, people can make (and have done) plenty of judgments about whether they like this Doctor and where the creative minds behind him have brought him—or not.

But the fact is that, more than any other series since the good Doctor was rebooted back in 2005, the current one has established more cumulative plot continuity as the weeks passed. At times it feels more like an extended miniseries than a conventional TV show. Details have been dropped in from the very first episode that clearly are not meant to pay off until the very final episode. Now, this is not really a departure from how Moffatt’s predecessor Russell T. Davies did things. In the 2005 season, which starred Christopher Eccleston in his only series as the Doctor, the phrase “Bad Wolf” kept popping up mysteriously everywhere. In the finale, all these occurrences turned out to be warnings strewn about time by the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler (played by the eminently likeable Billie Piper), who wound up absorbing all the timey-wimey power out of the Doctor’s spaceship cum time machine, the TARDIS. One wonders why she didn’t just write “Watch out for Daleks!” everywhere instead of the much more cryptic “Bad Wolf,” but it still gave a pleasing sense of the first 13 episodes having been somewhat carefully planned out. Subsequent series did similar teasing including subtle mentions of a British prime minister who would turn out to be the Doctor’s centuries-old nemesis during one year and numerous mentions of disappearing bees that would eventually foretell an intergalactic kidnapping of our planet during another.

But Moffatt has taken this foreshadowing thing to a whole new level. And that’s not really surprising since Moffat, as a writer, had already shown that he likes to play around with the ironies and paradoxes of time travel in such sparkling episodes as “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink” and the two-parter “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead.” We quickly saw in Matt Smith’s proper debut episode that the Doctor’s latest companion was not like the ones who had come before. Usually, the Doctor meets a woman by chance and off they go on adventures. This time, the Doctor meets Amy Pond when she is a child. And there is something strange about her. Actually, there are a lot of strange things about her. For one, she appears to live in a creepy old house by herself. She seems to be an orphan. She mentions an aunt (who is not seen), but another time mentions her mother. There is a crack in time on her bedroom wall, through which an extraterrestrial prisoner has slipped and begun living in a somewhat invisible part of her house. And from there, as hard as it is to believe, it gets stranger.

In subsequent episodes, Amy seems to know things about the Doctor that she shouldn’t. At least not yet. But she doesn’t know what Daleks are—even though they basically conquered and stole the entire earth back in 2008. It was the sort of thing that was hard to miss if you were anywhere on the planet. And speaking of Daleks, they turn up at one point (during World War II) but they look different. They seem to have been painted in bright colors instead of sporting their usual dull gray. Other weird things happen. Like in the episode “The Time of the Angels” when the Doctor shows up next to a blinded Amy after he has just said good-by to her. It’s like, well, a visit from the future. Or in the very first episode when the Doctor leaves young Amy and returns in the TARDIS years later rather than minutes later. That part isn’t so weird (given the imprecision often inherent in the TARDIS), but at the end of the episode we see the TARDIS appearing for young Amy who is still waiting patiently. It could have been a dream. But it could also mean that the Doctor has been visiting Amy in what for him is not strictly chronological order.

In last Saturday’s penultimate episode (as broadcast in the UK), the Doctor more or less says to Amy that there is something strange about her whole existence. He says to her, “Does it ever bother you, Amy, that your life doesn’t make any sense?” Indeed, there have been so many strange things going on ever since the Doctor first met Amy, which is to say, since he regenerated (since meeting Amy was the first thing he did after his first post-regeneration TARDIS landing). This has prompted some internet speculation that this whole series has been occurring in an alternate universe or some other artificial construct. Or that reality will be reset at the end of the first series, which is to say, it would be the sci-fi/fantasy equivalent of the time that supposedly dead Bobby Ewing showed up in his wife’s shower after a misbegotten season of the 1980s TV series Dallas, which was explained away as having been only a dream.

My guess is that what we will see in the finale will be more along the lines of the 1980s movie Back to the Future Part II, in which we saw much of the first movie but from the point of view of Michael J. Fox’s character who had to return to the 1950s to fix problems he had created the first time he had gone back. In the first half of the season-ending two-parter, we have already revisited many places and characters (Vincent Van Gogh, Winston Churchill, the future queen of Britain) that were featured during the past few months. Most notable of these is the mysterious River Song, played by Alex Kingston. This is our third encounter with Ms./Professor/Dr. Song, all two-parters. What is interesting about her is that her appearances are happening (for her) in reverse chronological order. That is to say, when the Doctor met her in “Silence in the Library,” it was the first time for him and the last time for her. In “The Time of the Angels,” it was the second time for him and the penultimate time for her. And so on. Talk about a writer going out of his way to give himself a headache.

All of this time travel conundrum stuff is why it is hard to judge the quality of the writing of the current series until the very last minute. How much of the inconsistency has been planned from the beginning? And how much, if any, has just been sloppiness? (Some things may be hard to explain away, like the way sometimes this Doctor seems hopelessly clueless about earth people, particularly in the episode “The Lodger,” much more than his two previous incarnations were.) Never has so much hinged on the ending of a story. After 12 of 13 episodes, we are at a point where it could all turn out to be a huge disappointment. But it could also all be wrapped up with a huge and satisfying payoff that makes the previous 12 episodes seem absolutely brilliant.

Frankly, the Davies/Eccleston/David Tennant series were a very hard act to follow. But it is worth for the likes of me to remember that it took me a good while to warm up to the previous Doctors and all of their companions. Indeed, I often didn’t realize how much I liked each of them until they were being written out of the show. (In particular, I didn’t realize what a really good character Martha Jones, ably played by Freema Agyeman, was until I re-watched the third series.) In that tradition, I have yet to fully embrace Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, although they have certainly had their moments. But I would never dream of not watching the next episode, whenever it becomes available. Promisingly, the most recent episodes, judged on a stand-alone basis, have been stronger than the early ones—something else that is quite normal for a new creative team.

So we will all be gathered round the telly in our house on Saturday. We will be on the edge of our seats to see if the Doctor and his friends can extricate themselves from the fix they are in. And I will be on the edge of my seat to see if Moffat can wrap up the story satisfactorily. I am betting that he will do.

-S.L., 24 June 2010

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