Saturday, 26 June 2010

Season review: Doctor Who: series 5

Warning: contains spoilers for the entire season!

Well, now that's out of the way...

Big change this season. New Doctor, new companion, new TARDIS - new showrunner, in Steven Moffat. Big things were expected; Moffat was one of, if not the most popular and successful writers during Russell T Davies' stint at the wheel, while Doctor 11, Matt Smith, had the unenviable task of following David Tennant, once again arguably one of if not the most popular Doctor. Matt Smith was a relative unknown, while Moffat is (these days, at least) largely known for writing very, very scary episodes of Doctor Who. Fans rejoiced, assuming that under the 'Grand Moff' the show would take a much darker, much more adult tone.

So he fashioned a series designed to echo children's bedtime stories, and fairytales. Go figure.

If that sounds like a criticism, it isn't - the series has, obviously, not been perfect from beginning to end, but I feel it a roaring success.

For a start, we have Matt Smith's Doctor, who is quite simply...brilliant. There were concerns that he was too young for the role at 27, that he wouldn't be able to deliver the necessary gravitas and intellect for the 900ish (time-travel can be confusing...) Doctor. These concerns were inaccurate. It's a simply marvellous performance. In short, and to get the inevitable comparison to David Tennant done and dusted: Doctor Ten was manic. Doctor 11 is insane. More detail required? 11 seems genuinely alien at times, in a way neither 9 or 10 really achieved in my books (I'm not familiar with the series pre-revival, so I shall refrain from comment). He had the intelligence in spades, occasionally thinking so fast that even he lost track, combined with deeply affecting and subtle emotional touches. Best Doctor ever?'s perhaps unfair to judge so soon, but the fact that it's even being considered should tell you something. And for what it's worth, I think he could be.

Secondly, we have the writing. Here, we have a slightly mixed bag. At the risk of sounding like a salivating fanboy worshiping at his altar, Moffat's six episodes were uniformly superb. I'll go into more detail later, but essentially, every episode he contributed was tightly plotted, smart (the final episode in particular), involving and endlessly quotable. The non-Moffat episodes...well, they weren't quite as good. As I said, I'll go into more detail later, but while Moffat's were the only outstanding episodes, there wasn't a truly bad episode among them.

Third, we have the supporting cast. Karen Gillan, as Amy Pond, was rather good. Not perfect - or at least, Amy Pond herself wasn't perfect; I'm not entirely certain whether the issues were character or actor based - but definitely rather good. She was rather stroppy in certain episodes, and even in the finale there were moments where I wanted to give her a shake and tell her to grow up, but these were never more than momentary annoyances. Her fiancee Rory was another fine character - better, in fact, given the high quality of character development involved. Where Amy matured solely (although importantly) in regard to her love for Rory, he himself evolved from a slightly wet, would-be doctor to a legendary hero. You've got to love a man who'll die for his friends, then overcome enemy conditioning to stand guard over his lover for 2000 years. Finally, for the recurring cast at least, we have River Song. She's a divisive character in the fandom - is she a brilliant, fun addition, an annoying mystery, or an unlikeable Mary Sue? Personally, I'd put her somewhere between A and B; she's been great so far, but there's a danger of her being overused if she keeps showing up like this.

Finally, the overarching plot. While we're used to plot words, this season was far more intricately linked together, with last minute reveals of timey wimey, wibbly wobbly...stuff going on all over the place. Everything, right back to the first episode, was linked together in one long paradoxical adventure. Impressive stuff.

And now, without further ado, a brief episode by episode account.

1. The Eleventh Hour (Steven Moffat)

Much of the goodness of this episode is covered above, under Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and the top notch writing. The pace never lets up, whilst finding time to introduce everyone satisfactorily (plus an impressive cast of extras) and establish key themes for the series - especially the complexities of time-travel. This was crowned with a moment proving just how imposing the Doctor can be, in a scene that's destined to be on the greatest moments lists for a long, long time. Add in the new theme tune, and this episode left me more excited about Doctor Who than I have been since 'The Christmas Invasion'. 5/5

2. The Beast Below (Moffat)

Another top quality offering from Moffat. An episode to establish the working relationship between the Doctor and Amy, while showing us a bit more of the world. More traditional scares - the Smilers - plus a genuine ethical dilemna at the end of the episode, woven around a fascinating scenario and a great script. 4/5

3. Victory of the Daleks (Mark Gatiss)

The first lacklustre episode of the season. Essentially, too many ideas and not enough time; the episode goes well until the halfway point, and then everything gets wrapped up in twenty minutes, with little pause for logic. And while this is Doctor Who we're talking about, and logic is in short supply, it's bad when one of the biggest flaws could have been sorted out with a single line of dialogue earlier in the episode. As a two-parter, this could have been fantastic. As it is, the first half is excellent, while the second half is memorable mainly for the Jammy Dodger Gambit. Furthermore, Churchill does not exactly come across as a firm, inspiring war leader. Quite the opposite, in fact. Disappointing, if necessary to bring back the Daleks. 2.5/5

4/5. Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (Moffat)

The first two parter of the season, and it's brilliant. Take some of the scariest villains of the show. Give them some terrifying new powers, and proceed to ramp up the tension throughout the episode. Throw in some great character work from Alex Kingston as River Song, some clever - and audacious - timey wimey stuff, and an impressive set and script, and you have a fine set up for the next part. 'Flesh and Stone' is less successful; the conclusion of the episode is a rather convenient crack in reality for the villains to fall into, and some of the mystique of the Angels is lost in a badly judged moment. On the other hand, the acting continues to impress, the script is otherwise as good as you'd expect, and there's some key development in the arc plot.
ToA: 5/5. F&S: 4/5

6. Vampires in Venice (Toby Whithouse)

Back to a more traditional style of episode now - monsters, exotic locales, and dodgy effects. Seriously, they're the worst part of the show. The finale wouldn't look out of place in Adam West style Batman, and the scene where a young woman is executed is painful for all the wrong reasons. A definite result of the budget cuts the show was hit with. Other than that, an entertaining episode, if fairly unimportant. We get a little more about the cracks in time, Rory boards the TARDIS and his relationship with Amy is established, and the Doctor saves the day. 3/5

7. Amy's Choice (Simon Nye)

Surprisingly good, given that Nye is best known for Men Behaving Badly. But this is a rather tense, engaging episode - you could argue that the twist is a bit of a copout (it's all a dream!), but that aside, there's plenty to enjoy here. Certainly as far as Amy and Rory are concerned, with the best scenes so far regarding their character arcs. And the darkside of the Doctor is interesting. Hopefully we'll see a return. 4/5

8/9. The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood (Chris Chibnall)

The return of classic enemy the Silurians. Not a bad episode by any means, but not the greatest. As with Vampires..., this felt like Doctor Who on autopilot. The conceit - aliens (well, technically not aliens) at the centre of the Earth - is great, and the initial 'attacks' of mysterious holes in the floor opening up and eating people were rather creepy. However, the budget affects things badly, since it's hardly a world devastating threat - there are four people in the village. Four. That said, Meera Syal was a fine guest character, and there's a tense cliffhanger. The second part doesn't quite follow it up - there's some schizophrenic characterisation, with the Silurian doctor going from gruesome fiend, desperate to vivisect Amy, to friendly and honourable. The sonic screwdriver becomes ridiculously powerful, to the extent that it could become even more of an episode breaker than it already is. Most of the events of the episode feel kinda pointless by the end, since the Silurians just go back to sleep. This would be utterly unmemorable, if not actually bad, were it not for Rory's death at the end, which is a genuinely tragic moment. 3.5/5

10. Vincent and the Doctor (Richard Curtis)

I'll admit, I was expecting not to like this one - I'm not a fan of Curtis's writing. However, this actually turned out to be one of the best episodes of the series. For a start, Tony Curran was superb as van Gogh, delivering a masterful portrayal of the depressed artist. There were some wonderful character moments for the Doctor and Amy as well, and an astonishing sequence where the stars morphed into a van Gogh painting. The ending was beautifully bittersweet. A very different take on Doctor Who, showing another side of time travel than just stumbling across monsters, and all the better for it. The monster was, to be honest, rubbish, but the rest of the episode was excellent. 5/5

11. The Lodger (Gareth Roberts)

A frustrating episode. Once again, nothing wrong with it per say, just a little pointless. Again, we get to see a different side of things; specifically, how the Doctor can affect peoples lives. In this case, for the most part, it's badly. He completely eclipses James Corden's character in every respect - professionally, socially, and romantically. It's an interesting side of things. However, while it's all interesting, there's still the monster of the week. Someone is building a TARDIS. A TARDIS. That's a huge plot point! But it's wrapped up in five minutes and never mentioned again. It might reappear at some point down the line, but it's a massive missed oppurtunity. So yes, not bad, amusing, but inconsequential and frustrating. 3/5

12/13. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (Steven Moffat

TPO was not what I expected. From the pre-credits teaser, which went back and linked together pretty much every previous episode to the Pandorica, to the Doctor standing up and telling every single enemy he has ever faced ever to come and have a go if they think they're hard enough, to most of the good guys being dead or imprisoned at the end of the episode, this was one long audacious blast. However, while individual scenes impressed, the whole felt a little like a triumph of style over substance. I had the misfortune to be spoilt for the twist, and as a result the buildup didn't catch me the way it could have done. Perhaps if it had, I'd have a different view of the episode, but the mark of a good twist is that you can enjoy it even when you know what's coming. Unfortunately, that didn't really happen. On the other hand, the scene with the Cyberman was rather scary, and unexpectedly so. Good work on that!
TBB though knocked it out of the park. The pre-credits sequence had me gawking in shock and bewilderment, and seeing how that all played out was great fun. Sure, the stable time loop is a concept that doesn't really make much sense, but it was a good example of one, and it worked. The end was...technically dodgy, in that it was essentially a case of 'I do believe in fairies', but it played out so well that I can't make myself care that much. River Song did edge slightly into Mary Sue territory, and I hope Moffat can rein this in for the future, but overall this was a wonderful conclusion to the series. Matt Smith can stay for a while, in my book. He's just brilliant, and the scene at the end with him telling Amelia about his life was beautifully done.

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