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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Doctor wow

What a week it has been for what I like to call visual literature. (That’s my five dollar term for movies and television.)

For us Dark Shadows fans, there was the exciting news that principal photography on Tim Burton’s big screen adaptation wrapped on Friday at England’s Pinewood Studios. Now there is nothing but to keep waiting as the filmmaking process continues through all the post-production stuff, leading up to the long-awaited release next May.

On another front, there was another bit of exciting news, that the cult sitcom Arrested Development, which was canceled in 2006, would be returning for ten more episodes and a feature film. This is the sort of news that cannot help but get the pulses racing of fans of all kinds of canceled series. Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t mind seeing Dark Shadows coming back to the small screen, as well as the big screen. And, in the hope that other TV execs could be cajoled into feeling repentant, let me also put in a word for Firefly and Babylon 5. Heck, it might even be time for another series of Star Trek—the gold standard for phoenixes rising from the TV ashes of premature cancellation. I myself have become, fervently if belatedly, a fan of Arrested Development. A while back the UK’s Sky channel conveniently showed the entire series, at a pace of two episodes per week, allowing me the chance to catch up with it all in one go. I wasn’t too sure after the first few episodes, but after that I was hooked. The show was a wonderful mixture of character humor laced with an amazing amount of word gags, sight gags, in jokes and meta-humor. If it was only a formula, it could have worn out its welcome pretty quickly. But the wit and cleverness kept getting dialed up. I could have gone on watching for several more years. And maybe now I will.

But all the above news was about things that haven’t actually happened yet. This past weekend saw an actual TV show that many of us, admittedly of the geekier persuasion, had been anticipating eagerly since last spring. And thus we arrived at a bittersweet moment for Doctor Who fans. Actually, there were two bittersweet moments. Two days after the Doctor Who finale, the CBBC channel began airing the final (and truncated) series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which feature the final performances of the late and beloved Elisabeth Sladen.

But back to the Doctor Who finale. It was sweet because we finally got the answers to many of the mysteries and questions that the writers had tantalized us with since Easter. It was, at the same time, bitter because we now have only one new episode (on Christmas) to look forward to between now and, well, sometime in 2012—likely in the autumn, based on what one reads.

The anticipation for the next series will be extremely high, not only because of the long wait but also because the next series will apparently reach its conclusion in 2013, Doctor Who’s golden anniversary year. And Doctor Who has a long tradition of going all out for major anniversaries. At the ten-year mark, former Doctors William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton returned to join then current Doctor Sean Pertwee and break the laws of time travel to join forces to save his (their?) home world Gallifrey in the four-parter The Three Doctors. At twenty years, four previous Doctors (with Richard Hurndall stepping in for the late Hartnell and the unavailable Tom Baker appearing only in archival footage) joined Peter Davison to play out the deadly Game of Rassilon in the 90-minute special The Five Doctors. The silver anniversary was observed with a three-part adventure called, appropriately, Silver Nemesis. Rather than meeting earlier incarnations of himself, this time the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) tangled with Cybermen, neo-Nazis and a 17th-century sorceress in a story that seemed to set up revelations of significant secrets about everybody’s favorite Time Lord. But that promise was not kept, as the Doctor had only five more adventures (comprising 18 episodes), the last one with the ironic title “Survival,” before he disappeared from television sets. The show was off the air when the 30th and 40th anniversaries came and went, eventually returning in 2005.

So in 2013 will the powers that be attempt to unite eleven Doctors? If so, it will require no small amount of narrative and production trickery since they will have to work around three actors who are deceased (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee), at least one who has indicated he will not play the role again (Christopher Eccleston) and seven others, who are anywhere from 6 to 37 years older than they were when they first played a Time Lord. (The age of the actor is significant since, if the plot involves crossing time streams, each Doctor would logically be around the same age he was when last seen by the viewers.) Of course, there are no limits to how previous Doctors could be woven into a narrative since the laws of time and space are pretty much made up by the writers as they go along. (Although you wouldn’t know this from reading comments by fans. They debate every logical inconsistency as if time travel, galaxy hopping and universe changing were all elements of a system of completely settled science.)

Anyway, with showrunner Steven Moffat at the helm, I am confident that whatever he and his writers come up with will be tantalizing, provocative, frustrating, surprising and absolutely wonderful. Despite my resistance to the new tone and cast during Moffat’s first year of creative control, he has won me over with his second season/series. He basically showed us the climax of the whole season (the apparent and firmly documented final death of the Doctor) in the first few minutes of the first episode and then went on a roundabout journey to get back to the same spot twelve episodes later. Since we knew that Matt Smith was already on board for a third year, the question was always how the Doctor would escape and could it happen without us feeling cheated. Happily, Moffat delivered, as well as filling in the rest of the backstory (or just story) of the once mysterious River Song. Incidentally, an indispensible companion to the series is the (sadly) final episode of Doctor Who Confidential, the behind-the-scenes documentary series that has told us how all the magic has been done. In Saturday’s finale, the confusing chronology of River Song was laid out from her point of view, and it actually made a fair amount of sense.

With the end of the sixth series of Doctor Who, Moffat has set up a new situation for the Doctor’s adventures going forward—in current TV parlance, a game changer. Everyone in the universe now believes that the Doctor is dead (well, except for the inevitable-to-grow number of people who know better) and he will henceforth do his work covertly, in the shadows. Never mind that, as a time traveler, the Doctor has always shown up in any year in any place, logically mooting the question of whether it matters if he is dead since he had more than a millennium of adventures in numerous eras while he was alive. But that is part of the fun of Doctor Who. The logical circle can never be quite squared. Everyone seems to be able to follow the Doctor’s personal time line no matter how much time hopping he does. Except for River Song, the only person in the universe who keeps meeting him in reverse order.

Perhaps the best revelation of Saturday’s episode was the question that is hiding in plain sight. With that, the series seems to have evolved into meta-literature. What could be more in plain sight than the TV show’s very title? The mystery now is whether the threat posed by the Doctor’s name has to do with the name itself or with his very identity. I for one cannot wait to find out. Or not find out. I will take it either way.

-S.L., 6 October 2011

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