Tag Archives: overthinking

The Arrowverse in Review: Year One

Not everyone agrees with me on today’s topic, but I can’t help it. I loves me some superhero shows, I loves me some DC heroes, and the CW delivers me both of those things through a series of shows that, while flawed, I find overall much more entertaining than annoying. And while they have their own sets of recurring flaws, they lack Marvel Netflix’s habitual pacing problems, failure to understand episodic narrative, disastrous third act twists (goddamn Diamondback), and all things Iron Fist, and their annual crossovers have managed to improve year by year, setting a high bar for what superhero TV can be that The Defenders (and a certain movie) just did not manage to reach. The franchise has grown from one show trying to escape the shadow of the teen-drama-with-occasional-superheroes that preceded it to a five-show empire slightly too big for its network.

So I wanna talk about ’em. And I have a blog, so I’m gonna, in a five-part series chronicling the first half-decade, the highs and lows, successes and failures, twists, turns, and tragedies of what should be called the DCW-verse, or if you prefer whimsy, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory, but remains called the Arrowverse because the internet makes bad choices.

Except for naming new road gritters in Doncaster, UK, David Plowie and The Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney. That’s brilliant.

(Don’t worry, still gonna alternate TV and non-TV blogs, I haven’t forgotten that.)

Arrow: Year One

Hard to believe it started so simply. One show, trying to bring Batman Begins to television via a different DC character that the parent company was less protective of. Yes, let’s cover that right away… Arrow is very much a Batman show, with Green Arrow (or rather a crime-fighter who grows into being the Green Arrow) replacing Batman. The switch isn’t a difficult one to make… Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne are both billionaires who use their seemingly endless fortunes to wage war on crime, sometimes with a lair and a young sidekick. There are a few key differences, though. Oliver Queen, unlike Bruce Wayne, has a tendency to go broke from time to time to change up the character. And most significant to Year One… you can have Green Arrow kill people without all of the controversies that happen when Batman does it. I mean, seriously now, Oliver… or “The Hood,” as he’s known throughout season one… racks up more of a body count in a handful of episodes than Ben Affleck did throughout Batman V Superman, even by the most liberal of estimates.

Why the body count? Well, and this is just for starters, he does use a bow and arrow. Not the easiest weapon for non-lethal combat. Not impossible, but not natural. And second, if you’ll permit some wild speculation on my part, I feel like Arrow had a large priority in its first season: don’t be Smallville. Now I could be wrong about this: Smallville was a big enough hit for the CW and its predecessor, the WB, that it ran for a decade. And it’s doubtful that anyone would have greenlit a TV show about Green Arrow of all people if Justin Hartley hadn’t made him a highlight of Smallville’s back half*. That said… if they wanted more of that, it was probably an option. They could have just spun Smallville’s Green Arrow (and probably Chloe) off instead of starting over from the beginning with Stephen Amell in a world with no Superman.

So they kept the things that made Smallville work: a blend of season arcs and villains-of-the-week, and plenty of fan service, in the form of nerd-friendly guest stars and appearances by other comic characters, which we’ll be looking at below. They abandoned almost everything else, especially Smallville’s mission statement of “No flights, no tights.” Well– he doesn’t fly. Green Arrow can’t fly. That’s not a thing he does. But instead of spending four years in high school foiling random monsters while refusing to wear a costume, Oliver’s in a green hood seeking arrow-justice against his city’s worst millionaires in episode one.

Sure it takes him three more years to start using the name “Green Arrow.” I’m not saying Arrow isn’t an origin story, it’s just a different kind of origin story. A five-year flashback story recounts Oliver’s journey from a spoiled, arrogant trust-fund kid marooned on a hostile island to the hood-wearing, justice-seeking, archery-based-vigilante we meet in the pilot, and in the first four(ish?) seasons he grows from a killer fixated on a list of names his father left behind to the true hero of Star City.

*Because Smallville wasn’t allowed to use Bruce Wayne. When Batman’s unavailable, Green Arrow is close enough.™

The Rough Spots

Now, Arrow didn’t shake off all of Smallville’s flaws, and in them, we see the biggest flaws of the Arrowverse. First off, and I feel this is a network mandate of some sort because this flaw just screams “CW,” there is a definite over-reliance on pretty people having teen-soap-style romantic drama. Now I’m not against romance in my superhero shows. I prefer the characters in my entertainments to be decent facsimiles of three-dimensional people, with hopes and objectives, rather than simply bundles of personality quirks and sunglass manoeuvres that solve murders with science. Which means that yes, sometimes they’re going to hook up and fall in love. So that’s not the issue. The issue is that the romance arcs tend to be overwrought and kinda cheesy.

In season one, that’s the triangle between Oliver, his ex-girlfriend Laurel, and his best friend and fellow trust-fund billionaire Tommy. Irresponsible Tommy and lawyer-for-the-common-folk Laurel were having an affair before Oliver came back from the dead, and former womanizer Tommy is hoping to make that a more official, ongoing thing, but he worries how his resurrected best pal will react. Oliver is still very much in love with Laurel, but there are a couple of problems. First, she is still pretty angry about Oliver a) cheating on her with her sister Sara; b) bringing Sara along with him on his doomed yacht trip to China; and thanks to that c) getting her killed* when his yacht sunk, marooning him on the mercenary-infested island of Lian Yu. Second, he is launching a plan of arrow-infested justice-vengeance, and doesn’t think he can do that and make things right with his high school sweetheart. Who, again, he betrayed pretty epically before his five years away from home**. He tries to push her away, but Oliver’s about as good at staying away from Laurel as I am at staying away from extra cheese on a pizza, so he keeps popping up in her life. It’s very Dawson’s Creek.

I assume. I have seen precisely zero episodes of Dawson’s Creek but I’m led to believe overwrought romantic drama was a thing they did, yes?

The second major flaw… there is almost always one character per series who gets savagely underwritten, and what stories they do get are cringe-worthy. This year, it’s Oliver’s sister, Thea Queen, who for the first half of the season just complains about how closed-off Oliver is, does ecstasy and the new designer drug Vertigo, and is generally a brat. She begins to improve a little as the season progresses, but overall she keeps soaking my Green Arrow show in Gossip Girl nonsense.

I also have never seen Gossip Girl but that feels apt.

*The presumed-late Sara Lance comes up a lot in season one, including a mini-arc where Laurel’s mother thinks she might be alive. Given that Mother Lance’s lead turned out to be false, I don’t think they’d decided that Sara wasn’t actually dead yet, let alone that she was coming back as a badass assassin. They definitely didn’t know she’d end up the leader of a time-ship filled with misfit superheroes. But that’s later.

**They must have known he didn’t stay on Lian Yu the whole five years. They established he was somehow a captain in the Russian mafia within three episodes, and they can’t have thought that would happen on a remote island in the North China Sea.

The Name Quirk

Not technically a flaw of the series, unless you’re a longtime fan easily disturbed by small differences. Like me. I mean, change the races, genders, or sexualities of whoever you want, but tell me Metropolis is in Kansas, like Smallville did, and I will freak out. In the Arrowverse, the little details that keep annoying me are changes to the names. Character names get changed for reasons I have never understood. Dinah Lance is the classic alter ego of the Black Canary, but on Arrow she went by her newly invented middle name, Laurel. (“Dinah Laurel Lance,” Tommy says, in a promise to fans, “Always trying to save the world.”) Star City is Starling City… although that’s a shorter leap than in the Rebirth era, where the recently renamed Star City was formerly known by the even stranger name of “Seattle.” At least when Arrow finally fixed the city name, they didn’t have to blow up a famous landmark to do it.

In three more years, they’ll introduce Curtis Holt, clearly modelled after the comics character Michael Holt. I don’t understand. There might be multiple Dinahs (her mother is also named Dinah) but no Michaels, and even if there were, there are two Rays and two Rorys…  Why do they do this. I don’t get it, I don’t get it at all.

The Heroes

Oliver Queen is not good at heroing when we begin. Sure, he wins some victories early on. He successfully steals from the rich and gives to the poor, stops assassins, foils some bank robbers, does some minor hero stuff pretty well. Known by the press and police as “The Hood” (a name even Oliver thinks is awful, though around Christmas he rejects “Green Arrow”), he’s got a list of names of corrupt millionaires his father left him, a quiver full of arrows, and a thirst for justice, but doesn’t know the first thing about how to protect a city. He merely takes vengeance on those who betray it, never asking where the List came from and what it might mean. And by Christmas, this gets his ass kicked, as his first encounter with the Dark Archer goes brutally bad, and he learns that the List isn’t what he thought. It’s concealing a darker purpose than he ever imagined.

All of this means that the best thing Arrow did in its early days was introduce John Diggle. First he’s Oliver’s would-be bodyguard, an annoyance to be ditched at the earliest opportunity, but by episode four he’s being asked to join Oliver’s crusade. This accomplished two things: it let them drop that godawful voiceover they had Stephen Amell do in the first few episodes because they didn’t trust us to follow what was happening, and it gave Oliver a conscience. Diggle pushed Oliver to be a better hero and a better man. He is the first and still greatest of Oliver’s allies, although year one introduces a few of the others: Felicity Smoak is gradually worked into the cast, a genius computer hacker from Queen Consolidated’s IT department who fans either love or hate*. Laurel’s father Detective Quentin Lance is there from the start, who wants to put the Hood behind bars, but gradually gets drawn into helping him out. He and Oliver will have a complicated relationship for the next few years, hood or no hood. And last but not lea… actually, since he’s the only one not still on the show, I guess he technically is least… late in the season Thea meets a surprisingly nimble street thug with a heart of tarnished gold named Roy Harper, who comics fans know as Green Arrow’s original sidekick.

The boldest part of Oliver’s journey in season one, and the final example of how The Hood isn’t enough of a hero for his city? Oliver loses. He got in a fight he didn’t understand, underestimated his adversary, let rage and vengeance take the wheel, and it costs him and the city in the end. Your five year journey from castaway to vigilante may have ended when you came home, but you still gots some learning to do, son.

(Meanwhile, Flashback Oliver is just trying to stay alive and deal with the mercenary army led by Edward Fyers, with the help of an Australian soldier named Slade Wilson, a mentor named Yao Fei who betrays him constantly, but not for no reason, and Fei’s daughter Shado.)

*The so-called “fans” who hate Felicity are the second most odious and obnoxious faction of Arrowverse fandom, so side with them if you like, but know that I’m judging you for it.

The Villains

The Arrowverse tends to do surprise twists with its villains, and thus far most of them have been far more successful than when Marvel Netflix tries a third-act villain-swap (the replacement villains have never been improvement, Netflix). As such, this section will be reliably packed with spoilers. Y’all been told. Anyway.

Does it get better than John Barrowman? Maybe. But not often.

Doctor Who veteran and living treasure John Barrowman plays the List’s architect, Malcolm Merlyn, yes he does have the same last name as Oliver’s best friend Tommy, no that isn’t a coincidence. They roll Malcolm out pretty gradually… first he’s just the sinister figure who created the List, and is aggravated that the newly arrived vigilante is targeting his cabal’s members. Only after establishing this did they reveal that he was, indeed, Tommy’s father and a long-time friend to the Queen family. And once we knew that… in the fall finale (last episode before the Christmas hiatus) he’s revealed to secretly be the cabal’s enforcer, the Dark Archer, the man who earlier that episode beat Oliver like a pinata.

Malcolm Merlyn is one of the better villains the Arrowverse has come up with, based on comics villain Merlyn, an archer assassin. (They leave out his ridiculous mustache, not only because covering any part of John Barrowman’s face is a crime.) His season one motivation is simple, understandable, if twisted. This is a trademark of the better Arrowverse villains. Plus menace and great performances. John Barrowman brings the performance, his mask-wearing stuntman brings the menace when the Dark Archer goes to work, and motive-wise, he’s fittingly Oliver’s polar opposite. Oliver fights a crusade against corrupt one-percenters for failing his city; Merlyn recruits corrupt one-percenters in a crusade against the city for failing him. His wife was murdered in the Glades, the poorest and most crime-riddled neighbourhood of Starling City. His solution? Reduce the Glades and everyone in them to rubble. 

A monstrous overreaction, sure, no question, but in season three we do learn that his wife’s killer was a total dick. An atrocity born from grief is much easier to relate to than an atrocity born from “I just love killing.”

Merlyn’s backstory is also part of a long game the producers were playing, slipping in less and less subtle references to DC A-lister Ra’s Al Ghul, to see if they’d get in trouble. They did not. Whether it was worth it… well, that’s a year three thing. Merlyn is an ex-member of the League of Assassins, which is why he’s so good at fighting and uses arrows instead of, like, guns or something.

Fan Service

Fan service in the Arrowverse comes in three varieties: the good (characters from the comics and geek-friendly guest stars), the bad (characters grossly misinterpreted), and the weird (characters named after comics characters but not even vaguely similar to them). Examples? You got it, ’cause we have all three this year.

The Good: 

  • Slade Wilson, known to comics fans as Deathstroke the Terminator, is one of Arrow’s best comic imports.
  • Deadshot makes his debut three episodes in, and Arrow Deadshot is probably, no, definitely a better take on the character than Will Smith in Suicide Squad. Hm. Flash, Superman, Deadshot… is the only character the DC movies do better than the Arrowverse Captain goddamn Boomerang? Maybe Amanda Waller.
  • The bank robbers Diggle uses to teach Oliver that heroism extends beyond the List are the Royal Flush Gang, DC’s go-to expendable robber villains. In the comics, the Royal Flush Gang have been taken down by so many heroes in so many cities, they eventually revealed the name had been franchised.
  • Farscape’s Ben Browder plays Diggle’s ex-CO, who may or may not be someone the Hood needs to cross off the List.
  • Seth Gabel, best known at the time for Fringe, makes a couple of appearances as The Count, designer of the drug Vertigo. This is a clear reference to DC villain Count Vertigo, and based (probably) on this, Count Vertigo was brought into Green Arrow’s comic. So it goes. The Count is almost certainly the most ridiculously over-the-top campy villain this series… no, this franchise has ever had. And I say this knowing that the Flash has fought both a giant, hyperintelligent, telepathic gorilla and a similarly giant man-shark. Really, only Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff is giving him a run for his money, and that’s five years later.
  • Our first Batman villain to be borrowed by Arrow is Firefly, here a fireman out for revenge against the old boss who left him to die. I almost never say this, but… Gotham did this one better. Ugh. That did not feel good.
  • Dinah Lance the Elder is played by Dr. River Song herself, Alex Kingston.
  • Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis and Tahmoh Penikett make appearances, because BSG actors tend to hang around Vancouver (where all Arrowverse shows, if not the entire CW network, film) and are easy to cast in nerd-friendly projects.
  • And one of my favourite TV villain actors, David Anders (who I became a fan of in Alias and now peddles brains on iZombie) drops by as well, as the would-be kingpin of Starling City.

The Bad:

Helena Bertinelli, The Huntress, was almost in “The Good.” Based on her first episode and a half, she seems to be a decent take on the post-Crisis Huntress (please don’t make me explain “post-Crisis” right now). Then in the end of her two-part debut, she turns on Oliver, and eventually goes full villain. Same thing with the Blackhawks: heroes of World War II in the books, a corrupt security firm on Arrow. They keep doing this, taking lower-tier heroes and using them as villains. I don’t get it. Expect everyone in “the Bad” to match this description.

In her third appearance, Huntress gets a comics-accurate costume… but only when she’s pretending to be a stripper. Says a lot about female superhero costumes in the 90s, doesn’t it. Yeah. Not… not great.

The Weird:

Edward Fyers and Shado are both key characters in a classic (if controversial) Green Arrow story called The Longbow Hunters, which was apparently influential enough that John Diggle gets his last name from the story’s author, Andy Diggle (John’s brother gets the full name, which turns out not to be the best tribute). They both became long-term recurring characters in Green Arrow lore, and other than Fyers’ mercenary background and Shado’s fondness for archery, neither of them are what you’d call similar to their comics counterparts. Fyers was ultimately his friend, for Zod’s sake, whereas he and Shado (lovers on the show) do not get along at all.

One-off villains Dodger and Drakon are also pretty dissimilar from their pre-Flashpoint (Google it if you’re so damn curious) comic incarnations.

Also worth noting here that there was, back in the 80s, a comics character named Felicity Smoak. She was a nemesis and later stepmother of Ronnie Raymond, one half of the hero Firestorm. It’s pretty obvious they just borrowed the name and nothing else. But in their defense, they didn’t know they were creating one of the series’ central characters. It just kind of went that way.

The Crossover!

There isn’t really a crossover this year. I mean, how can there be, there’s only one show. Now, the episode when the crossovers typically happen, episode eight, is the episode where Helena Bertinelli puts on a mask and costume for the first time. But it’s also the episode where she and Oliver have their falling out and she begins her fall to full-on villainy, soooo…. wouldn’t really call it a crossover, per se.

RIP

There’s always deaths in the Arrowverse, and it’s usually someone you didn’t want to go. I’ll be putting this section in spoiler text for best practice.

Year one casualties

Oh, Tommy Merlyn. In actor Colin Donnell’s hands you had wit, charm, and were the second best friend Oliver could have had (after Diggle). The show tried to pull you to the dark side over the season, giving you more and more reasons to lash out at Oliver and side with your maniacal, poor-person-murdering father, but you never went bad. It’s a shame your storyline just got grimmer as the year went on, ’cause Donnell has a way with a one-liner that was delightful in the early episodes. See, for instance, “Have you noticed how hot your sister’s gotten? [very brief glare from Oliver] Because I haven’t.” On rewatching, Oliver being forced to watch his best friend die in the rubble of an attack Oliver failed to stop is pretty crushing. Donnell acted the hell out of his last moments.

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Parting thoughts

Two of the names on Oliver’s list are Isabel Rochev and Hannibal Bates. Shoulda… shoulda tried to cross them off sooner, Oliver. Could have saved yourself and the good people of Central City some grief down the line.

Season one sets a trend that lasts into season two: the costume tends to appear before the iconic character. Yao Fei was first to wear Oliver’s green hood (from which he gets his first nickname), Slade Wilson’s mask first appears on a thug we learn is his old partner Wintergreen (another departure, he’s basically Slade’s Alfred in the comics), and down the road Dinah Laurel Lance will not be the first person to use the codename “Canary.”

Another trend: names of key writers and artists from the comics are everywhere in this franchise. John Ostrander, Dan Didio, Gail Simone, that’s just off the top of my head. Suffice to say, if an address has names instead of numbers, they’re the names of comic creators.

Next time… Arrow opens the door to a larger, stranger world, multiple presumed-dead characters prove hard to kill, and no fewer than three cast members of The Flash make their debuts in what many considered to be Arrow’s best season.

Overthinking Doctor Who 6: Silence Will Fall

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

“On every world wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact midpoint, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done! Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.'”

“Hey,” said Steven Moffat, as his first Christmas special approached. “What if, right, what if the Christmas special was actually about Christmas, instead of coincidentally taking place on Christmas?”

(I mean really, Donna Noble, getting married on Christmas Day? Dick move, if’n you ask me.)

And so came A Christmas Carol, which may well still be my absolute favourite of the Who Christmas specials. (Last Christmas, which we haven’t reached, is competitive.) On Christmas Eve Amy and Rory, mid-honeymoon, are stuck on a spaceship about to crash due to unstable clouds covering the planet. The one man who can stop it, Kazran Sardick (Dumbledore his own self, Michael Gambon), refuses to do so. The Doctor has one night to turn a mean, rich, old man nice.

Fortunately his old pal Charles Dickens had a recipe for just that.

Over a series of Christmases*, The Doctor tries to find a way to make Kazran a good person… but he might do more harm than he expected. And along the way there are flying fish, visits to the Rat Pack, fezzes, and a for old school fans, a brief appearance by a familiar giant scarf.

It’s love and loss, hilarious and heartbreaking, and it features a tour de force performance from an extra energetic Matt Smith. Moffat explained it thusly: in The 11th Hour, Smith was an unproven quantity. He was replacing the beloved David Tennant, no easy feat, and he knew he had a crowd to win. In A Christmas Carol, he’d won them over. Some might still prefer Ten to Eleven (not I, though it’s super close), but Eleven was still a hit. Which means Smith got to strut. The second The Doctor arrives via chimney (it’s Christmas, he got excited), he is captivating.

*Moffat also said “What if this show about a time traveller used time travel a bit more?”

Series Six: River Song and War With The Silence

Moffat believed that Doctor Who should always be event television. It‘s arrival should be an event, which meant not being predictable like American network television shows. This meant rarely premiering at the same time any given year, and in the case of series six, it meant taking just under three months off around the halfway point.

He had another new idea for series six as well. This was the year he said “Let’s open with the finale.” The two-part premiere, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, is every bit as epic, sweeping, dramatic, and eventful as most finales tended to be, with the exception that the stakes are less universal and more planetary. It’s a knockout opener that sets the stage for the year to come… the Silence, hinted at in series five, make their terrifying debut, there’s a mysterious girl who might be a Time Lord, a woman with an eye patch only Amy can see, River Song’s back, Amy has a secret, and The Doctor dies in the opening minutes. Although a Doctor 200 years older than last time Amy and Rory saw him… and the next, as it swiftly turned out.

Of course, once you’ve opened that big, you have to keep the the momentum going. So just saying “Bad Wolf” once a week is off the table. They needed equally big moments at the mid-point and the finale, and A Good Man Goes to War, the last episode before the three month hiatus, didn’t disappoint. It’s a huge showstopper of an episode, filled with twists and action and unforgettable characters (plus a couple of returns), and it sent us off to break with an instantly intriguing promise: “The Doctor Will Return in… Let’s Kill Hitler.

And if the title of the finale, The Wedding of River Song, doesn’t have your attention, what show have you been watching?

Things get big in series six. The show embraces The Doctor as a galactic hero, only to have him realize he’s taken it all too far.

Although there’s a whole other reason the Silence is gunning for him… there’s a question The Doctor is destined to be asked. The first question, the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight… a question they feel must never be answered. The Doctor must die. Silence must fall.

There’s a lot of prophesying in the back half. And worry not, it’s going somewhere.

The Doctor

Moffat realizes that The Doctor has been fighting off the worst that time and space have to offer for a long time now. Long enough that he’s become a figure of legend, heroic or horrifying depending on who’s telling the legend. Maybe this is one of the issues anti-Moffat people have… they preferred the anonymous wanderer to the man who stares down entire armies with a glib speech. But in fairness, this has been building for a while, since back in the Davies era. If not Dalek and The Parting of the Ways, then certainly when Ten stared down the Vashta Nerada in Forest of… the… Dead…

That’s a Moffat episode. Son of a bitch, that’s a Moffat episode.

In the back half, The Doctor himself realizes he’s become too big. He never meant to inspire the kind of fear that raises armies against him. So it’s time to step back. And, well, he is scheduled to die in two centuries, unless he can figure out a way around it.

(The continued existence of the show, and the two subsequent incarnations of The Doctor, might indicate he has a decent chance of figuring out a way around it.)

We also see a trait that has become a key part of the 11th Doctor: the old soul with a young face. Despite being the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor, Smith excelled at showing the weight of the Doctor’s 908 (1100 and change by the last couple of episodes) years of life. When his scheduled end draws near, he can’t pretend he hasn’t gotten tired.

That said, this might have something to do with having spent two centuries travelling more or less on his own. Sure, there’s some escapades with River Song along the way, but for those two centuries we don’t see, he’s mostly alone after parting ways with two returning friends.

The Companion(s)

Amy Pond is the first returning full-time companion since Rose Tyler. And she remains as Amy as ever.

Rory’s back as well, and now he’s a full companion instead of just popping in and out. He expands on his role from last year as the man willing to call out The Doctor when necessary. He loves the travel, and he loves doing it with Amy, and sure he likes to help people, but while he likes The Doctor fine, he’s never been under The Doctor’s spell. When a line’s being crossed, when Amy’s life is being risked, when there’s hypocrisy to be called out, Rory is on it. Also he dies a lot. But if you’ve made it this far that’s not news. He died twice last year alone.

Series Five Spoiler

Oh, and he can remember those 2000 years he spent guarding the Pandorica while made of plastic. Sometimes he can, anyway.

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Series six also dips its toes into a whole new concept where companions are concerned: the idea that they can be dropped off at home for a spell. Classically, when a companion leaves the Tardis, that’s it. They’re done. An odd few might pop back for a visit (Rose, Martha, Sarah Jane), but in general, good-bye was good-bye, not “see you in a bit.” But The Doctor wanted to give them a chance at normal married life. Maybe a kid or two, which… well… you’ll see.

When we rejoin the Ponds in Impossible Astronaut, they’ve been on their own since the honeymoon. A month, maybe two, not more than three. But then after watching the older Doctor die, they’re back on the Tardis with younger Doctor for ooo, six or seven months before getting dropped back off after A Good Man Goes to War. No, yeah, that’s accurate, I have reason to know that time frame is about accurate. And after a realization hits late in the series, The Doctor sends them home again, to a new home he’s purchased for them (somehow), this time for good. Well, he thinks. The thing about The 11th Doctor is that he can never turn away from Amy forever. And even when he does, he can’t replace her. For two centuries, she leaves a void he can’t bring himself to fill.

(Some anti-Moffat people decry series six for two scenes in which The Doctor asks Rory for permission to hug Amy, rather than asking Amy, claiming that The Doctor is acknowledging Rory’s ownership of his wife’s body. To that I say… be serious. The Doctor and Amy hug all the time, he knows Amy is okay with hugging him, this is well and truly established and has been since The Beast Below. Rory, on the other hand, can be sensitive about his place in Amy’s life compared to The Doctor, and there are moments when The Doctor wants to make sure he’s not setting that off. He asks Rory for permission to hug Amy because Rory is the only person who would mind. Come on, people, surely there are better ways to fight rape culture than attacking platonic, consensual, mutually appreciated hugs. Because when you blow things like this out of proportion, you make it harder to talk about the real stuff.)

(Yes, hugs do require consent, so if Amy were uncomfortable about hugging him, this would be an entirely different conversation, but she’s not and it isn’t.)

The Life and Times of River Song

Sure our main story is the Silence’s latest effort to kill The Doctor, and the reason why they’re trying so hard to do so, but along the way we answer a key question… who is River Song? Who was she, and who will she be to The Doctor? Is she The Doctor’s wife (do not expect this question to be answered in The Doctor’s Wife)? Is she a murderer? She is good with that gun.

Look… I shouldn’t talk about it here. But suffice to say, it’s a satisfying story, every bit as twisted and timey-wimey as it deserves to be.

The Supporting Cast

Hmm… Amy, Rory, River… that’s about it, really. There are some spectacular one-offs along the way, some of whom even survive meeting The Doctor, but none I’d call a “supporting cast.”

Oh, except this. Remember when I said that Silurian Neve McIntosh (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) and Sontaran Dan Starkey (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky) would be back as more notable characters? Well, it’s happening. A Good Man Goes to War introduces us to their more popular selves. McIntosh plays Madam Vastra, a Silurian who started solving murders in Victorian London (including catching– and eating– Jack the Ripper) with her maid/wife Jenny following a run-in with the Doctor. Starkey is Strax, a Sontaran The Doctor punished by making him serve as a combat nurse. Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are some of The Doctor’s first stops assembling his task force to hit Demon’s Run. We’ll be seeing more of them, even the one who seems to be dead.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Chief among the Silence, and the species known by that name, are aliens who look a little like the classic grey aliens, with a suitably spooky twist. The trick of the Silence is that the second you stop looking at them, you forget they exist. They could be in the room with you and you wouldn’t know, because unless you’re looking at them you forget anything was there. They also work alongside some of the Catholic marines we met back in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.

(Some anti-Moffat people used The Doctor’s method of dealing with the Silence in Day of the Moon as a way of decrying Moffat and Eleven. To this I say… they had enslaved the Earth, they killed innocents on a whim, The Doctor gave humanity the only way of driving them out he could… and you’re taking their side? Who hurt you? And why didn’t it stick? Also, the scene where he springs his trap is amaze-balls, so nuts to you.)

This Year in Daleks: They mostly get the year off. One unfortunate Dalek gets a cameo appearance in the finale, but other than that, Moffat decided that maybe the most dangerous yet also most defeated race in the universe could use a year off to recharge. The Cybermen drop by a couple of times, though.

Classic Monsters Revived: None this year, but they double up with some deep-dives in series seven.

The Good: The Flesh are a good sympathetic creature, providing another two-parter where it isn’t clear whose side The Doctor should even be on. Actually there’s a lot of “monsters” who aren’t as bad as they seem this series. A siren preying on the sick and injured who’s less sinister than she appears; a minotaur feeding on faith that’s as eager as anyone for The Doctor to stop him; killer robot nurses who just want to help, it’s not their fault their medicine is lethal to humans; a shapeshifting person-shaped time machine with a minaturized human crew that actually wants to do some good for the universe, even if their idea of good is a little… Black Mirror. The giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices, however, they’re just jerks.

You heard. Giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices singing an ominous nursery rhyme. One friend snapped at that point, screaming “Fuck everything about this episode!” Also the nursery rhyme contains the theme for the rest of the year… “Tick tock goes the clock, he cradled and he rocked her… tick tock goes the clock… even for The Doctor.”

The Bad: They all work for me, really.

The Ugly: They don’t avoid having a lot of closeups of the minotaur just because that episode has some weird directing choices.

High Point

Back in the Davies era, Moffat would come in, write one story, and it would be the best one of the year. In series six, Neil Gaiman arrived to do the same thing to Moffat with The Doctor’s Wife. Although… when someone on Twitter attempted to get Gaiman to talk smack about Moffat, he not only heaped praise on Moffat as a writer and person, but also gave him credit for “all the best lines in The Doctor’s Wife.” And there are some great lines in that episode. Gaiman’s initial goal was to explore the larger Tardis interior, and to make it a hostile environment, but along the way he tripped over something wonderful.

The Doctor gets a distress call from a Time Lord named the Corsair, leading him to take the Tardis outside of space as we understand it to a meteor calling itself House. Soon the Tardis goes dead, because the soul of the Tardis has been planted into a woman named Idris. Finally, for the first time in seven centuries, The Doctor and the Tardis meet face-to-newly-acquired-face, and it’s amazing. Or, as The Doctor and Amy put it…

“She’s a woman and she’s the Tardis.”
“Did you wish really hard?”

The Doctor is hoping that he’ll find living Time Lords here. He thinks that if he does, maybe he can explain why he did what he did in the Time War, wiping his own people out.

“You want to be forgiven,” says Amy. The Doctor freezes, half turns back, and with just a hint of a crack in his voice, asks “Don’t we all?” Amazing moment, subtle and profound, utterly relatable and just a touch crushing.

Great lines. Fun episode. Really touching end. And I knew Moffat had to have written at least one line, the one about “the only water in the forest is the river,” but it wouldn’t be the first time Gaiman wrote a TV episode and left a note for the showrunner saying “put a prophecy in here.”

Low Point

Curse of the Black Spot is pretty forgettable, and it’s sandwiched in between the far superior Day of the Moon and The Doctor’s Wife. But frankly that is as bad as series six gets: fun, interesting, but somewhat disposable. It’s a pretty solid year, all told.

Highlights?

The primary arc episodes–Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler, and The Wedding of River Song– all range from really damn good to utterly spectacular. God Complex may have some really spotty directorial choices, but is notable for its sweetly tragic end, and the introduction of Tivoli, the most invaded planet in the galaxy (“Our anthem is ‘Glory to Insert Name Here.'”) Closing Time brings back an old friend, and it’s a perfect reunion.

Skippables?

Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors are adequate episodes that don’t add a lot to the overall year. I doubt you’d hate them, you’d probably enjoy them, but if you didn’t watch them you wouldn’t really miss much.

Actually, I kind of see Night Terrors as what Fear Her should have been. At the centre… spoilers… is a child who is actually an alien, but instead of trapping people inside of drawings out of selfishness, this alien child traps people inside of a doll house out of terror. Replacing an extended tantrum with a child’s nighttime panic attack makes all the difference in terms of sympathy. At least I felt so.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars

  • Professional Awesome Guest Star Mark A. Sheppard, best known as Crowley on Supernatural but also a veteran of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, White Collar, Leverage, and that’s just off the top of my head, brings his usual growly charms as ex-FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III in the two-part premiere, one of those temporary companions that you wish could stick around. And his older self is played by his father, William Morgan Sheppard.
  • Craig’s back! James Corden returns in Closing Time, as Craig pitches in for what The Doctor thinks will be his last ride. Every series could have involved a Doctor/Craig adventure and I’d have never minded.
  • Supermodel Lily Cole is the siren-like figure haunting the pirates of Curse of the Black Spot. A phantom-like figure who lures men to their doom but doesn’t talk much is right up her alley, I feel.
  • Perpetually underrated but always excellent British actor Michael Sheen, Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in The Crown, and many other things, plays the voice of sentient meteor House in The Doctor’s Wife.
  • Imelda Staunton also lends a voice as the Interface in The Girl Who Waited.
  • Apparently Raquel Cassidy was on Downton Abbey. Not sure as who. Look, if you want Downton Abbey cast spotted, you’re mostly on your own.

Between the end of The God Complex and the start of The Wedding of River Song, The Doctor is happy to keep running, pretending he doesn’t have an unmissable appointment at Lake Silencio. The thing that changes that? The moment when he decides it’s time to head back to Utah (albeit after pulling one little trick)? He tries to call up his oldest human friend, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, friend to Doctors Two through Seven, for a night on the town. But the nurse on the other end of the phone informs him that the Brigadier has passed on. This isn’t just a sad moment for The Doctor. It’s the show acknowledging the recent passing of Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier across three decades of the original series and two episodes of more recent spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Brigadier may have never made it to new Who, but his legacy, and his importance to the show’s history, aren’t forgotten.

Closing Time opens with a nice parallel to the opening of The Lodger, as Craig once again swings open the door expecting to see Sophie but instead is greeted by The Doctor. And on the subject of Craig, turns out that spaceship that was parked over his flat in The Lodger was an abandoned Silence craft.

One night in 2011, after a few nightmares, it was clear I wasn’t getting any more sleep, so I got up a few hours early and decided to catch up on Doctor Who. What did I get? God Complex. A hotel full of nightmares. Thanks.

Speaking of God Complex… every room in the hotel The Doctor and the Ponds find themselves in has someone’s nightmare in it. Including The Doctor’s. He finds his room, but we aren’t shown what’s in it. If you think that’s a cop-out, well, I used to think so too… but be patient.

Six years, six years I have been convinced that in one episode, The Doctor called Rory “Mickey,” confusing him with former companion-boyfriend Mickey Smith. I finally found the moment. It’s in The God Complex… but he didn’t say “Mickey.” He called Rory “Beaky.” Needless to say, I’m crushed.

The Doctor’s Wife is also the first episode I can think of to establish that Time Lords can and do shift gender during regeneration, beginning to pave the way for Jodie Whittaker. Sure it took six years to get there but, hey, it was a start.

Shoulda paid closer attention to that diner in Impossible Astronaut, Doctor. It’s gonna turn out to be significant in a while.

Impossible Astronaut changes the saddest moment of series four, as it shines a new light on when River and Ten crossed paths.

If you didn’t notice, a lot of complaints about Moffat and Eleven were aimed at series six. And these were the complaints that made it hard, if not impossible, for me to take the anti-Moffat crowd seriously. Two of the ones I flagged? Nonsense. Shenanigans. Although next series there’s… well… we hit a problem.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Those were the days.” Nobody infuses that line with sadness like Matt Smith.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: The most notable comes in the first two episodes. Moffat and the writers thought “We keep having The Doctor meet all these really great characters from history, so this time why not have him meet someone who was a little bit rubbish?” And so did The Doctor team up with President Nixon in Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.

In addition, Winston Churchill is back when time breaks in The Wedding of River Song. Charles Dickens also has a cameo in that episode, as a news team asks how he plans to top A Christmas Carol. Seemed a little meta, since the next episode would be the Christmas special, and people must have been wondering how Moffat would top his own A Christmas Carol. (Spoilers… he didn’t, but he tried.) And Hitler does predictably make an appearance in Let’s Kill Hitler.

Saddest Moment: “I just wanted to say… hello. Hello, Doctor. It’s so very, very nice to meet you.”

Overthinking Doctor Who 5: Enter Eleven

Been a while since the last one of these, huh? Well, I was working on a script, had a tight deadline facing me, and was about to hit a six-episode stretch of pure Doctor greatness, and thought it would be too distracting. And so the 2017 Doctor Who Rewatch hit a pause for a spell. But we’re back. So, where was I?

Ah yes.

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

…No it isn’t. Tennant’s farewell tour took up the last two Christmas specials, so the Moffat era begins in the regular series. Moving on.

Series Five: “The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”

When Nine regenerated into Ten, the show didn’t change much. Sure, The Doctor changed. Became more cheerful, more open to people, ever so slightly less haunted by the Time War. That… that never goes away completely. Not yet, anyway. But other than that, things stayed the same. Same companion, same supporting cast, same Tardis, same Doctor’s Theme, same will-they-won’t-they relationship between The Doctor and Rose, only amplified.

Not so this time.

In series five, everything is new. Steven Moffat took the reigns from Russell T. Davies, he had a new Doctor to break in, so he cleared house. New Tardis interior (after the cliffhanger-resolving cold open, the first cold open in a season premiere since the revival began), new sonic screwdriver, new opening credits, new opening credit theme, new theme for The Doctor (I Am The Doctor, one of my favourites), new supporting cast, new everything. 

This included a new approach to the arc for the year, but we’ll talk about that below.

Also returning for a few episodes is River Song. Who she is and the nature of her relationship with The Doctor is still a mystery, but the truth is coming. In the meantime, she’s around for two key adventures… and does her best to curtail The Doctor’s newfound love of fezzes.

The Doctor

Matt Smith was… still is, by four months and 25 days… the youngest actor to ever play The Doctor. I would say that this meant he brought a new, youthful energy to the role, but he followed David Tennant, and his Doctor was energetic enough to power London. No, being young enough to be unfamiliar with The Doctor meant that in the year (about) between being cast and staring filming, he had to do his research. And as Moffat tells it, one night Matt Smith called him saying “I just watched Tomb of the Cybermen. I’ve got it.”

Matt Smith took his inspiration from the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. And what Troughton brought to the role was a surface-level clownishness that hid how dangerous he truly was from his enemies, and an alienness that comes from never being 100% sure how to interact with humans, resulting in awkward shenanigans.

Also a bow tie. The bow tie is key. Bow ties are cool, or so he assures us.

Eleven combined The Doctor’s brilliance with a general cluelessness about social cues or normal behaviour that was reliably good for a laugh. Witness his attempts at dancing in The Big Bang, his efforts to blend in with the lads in The Lodger, and, of course, the bow tie.

But it’s not just humour Smith can nail, either. Witness the subtle tragedy when Amy asks him if there are other Time Lords: “…No. There were, but there aren’t… just me now.” And then his anger. Ten’s rage burned hot like a volcano, Eleven’s is cold as ice. It’s all there in his six word warning to the Atraxi in his first episode: “Hello. I’m The Doctor. Basically… run.

There’s something about Eleven that spoke to me. That I connected to more than any Doctor before or since (fine, at the time of writing, “since” is two guys). The way he loved the people around him, but never fully knew how to connect with them. And that while Amy was the most important person in his life (something they dig further into down the road), he was not the most important person in hers… and that was okay. He didn’t need to be. Not as long as she was happy. Seeing Amy happy made his own loneliness easier to bear.

I get that.

Also I’m obviously going to connect to an awkward Doctor more than a confident, handsome god who won hearts wherever he went.

The Companion

Amy Pond. The Girl Who Waited.

Being a Scottish redhead in a miniskirt could have been enough to make Amy my favourite companion, but she’s so much more than that. Amy is what saved The Doctor. After an unknown amount of time on his own, after having his hearts broken losing Rose and Donna in one day, after crossing the line on Mars, after being the least ready to face regeneration/death since Six banged his head on the Tardis control panel and became Seven, encountering young Amelia brought him back to himself. He took on a companion again, albeit partly because he saw that she may have needed more help than she knew thanks to the pesky crack in her wall.

Amy is strong, resourceful, and clever. She saw solutions The Doctor was missing on her first day in the Tardis, and she acted as his conscience, his drive to be better, even after she ultimately left. The Doctor becomes the hero he was meant to be because Amy won’t accept anything less. And because there’s no crisis, no enemy, no army he won’t stare down in her name. Although I guess that’s true of all Doctor/Companion relationships since the revival, isn’t it? With the possible exception of Nardole. Who’s Nardole? Spoilers. We’ll get there.

Also, while Amy does develop a crush on The Doctor, she’s nowhere near as passive about it as Rose or Martha. She makes her move early, allowing The Doctor (Not quite so pro-kissing as Ten sometimes was) to try and pump her brakes a little.

No, I heard it as soon as I said it. As Eleven would say… “Oh… shut up, not like that…”

The Universe is Cracked

Moffat’s “everything new” approach included a new way of tackling the season arc.

Russell T. Davies was happy just to say “Bad Wolf” or “Torchwood” once an episode, then finally pay it off in the two-part finale. Well, more “explain why he kept doing that” than “pay it off.” Moffat, on the other hand, likes to dribble out details of the main plot over the course of the year, while often keeping a mystery or two close to his chest while he does it. In the case of series five, the universe is cracked. The Doctor runs into this fact minutes after regenerating, in fact while still finishing his regeneration cycle, clad in the raggedy remains of Ten’s signature suit. A young girl named Amelia Pond asks him to examine a crack in her wall, which turns out to be a crack in time and space, which allows a toothy worm named Prisoner Zero to escape into Amelia’s house, which results in a high-octane real-time adventure that ends in Prisoner Zero having a laugh at The Doctor’s expense. See, he thought Prisoner Zero made the crack. That he doesn’t know where the cracks came from amuses it.

“The Doctor in the Tardis doesn’t know,” it laughs, before delivering a warning: “The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”

The cracks follow The Doctor and Amy through time and space, but unlike his previous selves and the Bad Wolves, Eleven isn’t willing to just ignore this until it comes back to bite him. When he and Amy spot the cracks, he does his best to look into why one specific crack is following them wherever they go. And the results point him towards a secret Amy’s been keeping about her plans before she left with him.

Basically, every multi-part episode reveals another piece of the puzzle. But in the end, the Pandorica opens. Silence?

Well, you’ll have to wait and see.

The Supporting Cast

Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Darville as Rory Williams. Rory is introduced as Amy’s boyfriend (a label she is reluctant to fully grant him, possibly because she was having slightly squelchy thoughts about The Doctor at the moment). Later, he’s her fiance (a lot happens to Amy in her first episode). But he’s not the new Mickey, even if I’m occasionally sure there’s an episode where Eleven calls him that by mistake.

Rory is at first terrified of everything Doctor-related, from the aliens of death (his words) to the time travel, and most of all what being around all of this does to people. Girl-people, more specifically. Amy, most specifically. That said… he does grow to love it. He has his worries that Amy’s going to get herself killed trying to impress The Doctor, but one trip to Venice, fish aliens pretending to be vampires notwithstanding, and he’s hooked.

Also Arthur Darville has his skills at comedy and drama. He’s one of my favourite Legends of Tomorrow for a reason.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: It’s a crack in a wall. Or rather a crack in the universe. Anything else I could tell you, you should really learn yourself.

This year in Daleks: In Victory of the Daleks, The Doctor discovers Daleks (or Ironsides, as they’re being called) being used as Britain’s secret weapon during the Blitz. Which he is correct in assuming isn’t a great sign. And… spoilers… it’s not called Victory of the Daleks for no reason. Steven Moffat decided to get off of the “Oh no the Daleks survived somehow! There, killed all the Daleks. Oh no the Daleks survived somehow!” rollercoaster once and for all. Sorry, universe, the Daleks are back to stay. That said, it is a pretty great episode. I mean, some fighters get modified weirdly fast, but other than that, great episode.

Classic Monsters Revived: The Silurians, lizard people from the age of the dinosaurs, who put themselves into suspended animation deep underground… and don’t care for being woken up to find that monkeys have taken over the world and driven it off a cliff. The Silurians are great for moral dilemma episodes, because it’s always hard to claim that they’re in the wrong. This was, after all, their planet first. The main antagonist Silurian(s) is/are played by Neve McIntosh. Like Dan Starkey in The Sontaran Stratagem, she’ll be back… but not as the same Silurian(s).

The Good: The Weeping Angels are back for a two-parter that’s basically a Jack Harkness appearance short of being titled “Steven Moffat’s greatest hits.” There are those who claim that they don’t fully live up to Blink this time, but they’re still effective.

The villains in The Beast Below might not seem like much, until you realise that the real villain is humanity yet again.

Pay attention to that spaceship in The Lodger. You’ll be seeing a similar one soon.

The Doctor gets jumped by an all-star rogues gallery towards the end.

The Bad: I actually didn’t love the Silurians. Just as well they don’t tend to get used as villains after this.

The Ugly: The CGI on Prisoner Zero must have set someone back $12.

High Point

I cannot, will not, shall not downplay my love for The 11th Hour, what may well be the greatest introductory episode for any Doctor ever, even Rose. Remember how good I said The Christmas Invasion became once Ten finally woke up in the last ten minutes? The 11th Hour is a whole episode of that, and it never gets tired. An amazing showcase for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, and the perfect antidote to the End Of Time blues.

Low Point

You know what I don’t love The Hungry Earth. Cold Blood is decent, but Hungry Earth is just a lot of set-up for part two.

Highlights?

Gonna have to set a higher bar for this, because series five is great. If I don’t get picky I’ll be naming most of the series. Okay, speed round, and then two of particular note… The Beast Below is solid throughout and the moment Amy first shines as a companion. Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone unite two of Steven Moffat’s three best inventions during the Davies era, as River Song recruits The Doctor and Amy to help with the Weeping Angels. Vampires of Venice brings Rory into the fold. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was, at the time, my favourite two-part finale. Did it make a ton of sense? Maybe not, but next to The Journey’s End or Last of the Time Lords or Parting of the Ways it’s downright straightforward.

Okay. So. Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger. Two episodes that would have been the high point of any season that didn’t contain The 11th Hour.

In Vincent and The Doctor, The Doctor sees something alien and nasty-looking in one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. Having done so, he whisks Amy off to meet the sad, tortured, brilliant artist, despised by the local villagers, but the only man who can save them from the invisible beast stalking their village. It’s one of the greatest examples I can name of how sadness can be beautiful. Well, after all, Moffat creation Sally Sparrow put it best… sad is happy for deep people. And if you don’t tear up a little when Vincent sees the museum, you, sir or madam, are dead inside.

In The Lodger, a man named Craig is trying to figure out how to tell his best friend Sophie that he’s in love with her. This is complicated by the fact that his new flatmate is The Doctor, a strange bloke in a bowtie who begins to outshine Craig in every aspect of his life. Also there’s a sinister being upstairs killing passers-by and leaking an incredibly toxic rot into Craig’s flat but honestly that is not his biggest concern right now. Third biggest at best. This episode is just a delight through and through (despite minimal Amy Pond), and the ending gets to me every time. It’s not only one of my favourite episodes, it became one of my favourite Chameleon Circuit songs.

Skippables?

Once again, my least favourite is indispensable to the main arc, so… not really, no.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

It’s almost weird to talk about notable guest stars when the leads of this season are some of the best known and most visible Who veterans of the past ten series. Matt Smith is now Prince Phillip on The Crown (let’s all just try to forget Terminator: Genysis); Karen Gillan is a full-blown movie star now, most notably a Guardian of the Galaxy; in addition to Broadchurch, Arthur Darville founded the Legends of Tomorrow as DC’s time travelling Rip Hunter; and Alex Kingston’s been a notable name since ER. And yet there are more.

  • Watch enough British television and you’re bound to come across Olivia Colman. Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, The Night Manager, Broadchurch, she keeps busy. She was even a favourite to become the first female Doctor, but her Broadchurch co-star David Tennant said that he knew her schedule, and there was no way she had time. Anyway, she’s the most vocal of Prisoner Zero’s disguises in The 11th Hour.
  • Actor, late night host, and Carpool Karaoke innovator James Corden plays Craig in The Lodger. Or from my perspective, Craig from The Lodger is currently hosting The Late Show.
  • Toby Jones, particularly notable as Arnim Zola from the Captain America movies, torments The Doctor and the Ponds in Amy’s Choice.
  • Bill Nighy is a tour guide who shares The Doctor’s taste in ties in Vincent and The Doctor.
  • Mark Gatiss lends his voice to the pilot Danny Boy in Victory of the Daleks.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: Iain Glen, who plays Daenerys’ stalwart and Snow-icide Squad member Jorah Mormont, is Octavian, head of the Catholic marines in Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels. And Robert Pugh, known briefly as Caster, the worst person north of the wall (possibly including the ice zombies), is a geologist in The Hungry Earth and In Cold Blood.

In The Beast Below, the people of the UK are fleeing Earth due to deadly solar flares making it uninhabitable. This is a time in human history that The Doctor pops by from a lot of angles. A neat coincidence: the second Matt Smith story and the second Tom Baker story (The Ark in Space) both involve ships of humans fleeing the solar flares.

The Daleks discover that The Doctor does not, in fact, have a self-destruct button for the Tardis: “Okay, it’s a jammie dodger, but I was promised tea!” This will be Eleven’s favourite biscuit for the duration.

“It’s a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.” They get that particular fez off of his head, but he’ll never give them up entirely.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Bowties are cool” and “Come along, Pond” are real contenders, but in this, Eleven’s first series, it can only be “GERONIMO!”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: Prime Minister and friend to The Doctor Sir Winston Churchill commands the totally-not-Daleks-don’t-worry-about-it Ironsides, and we already mentioned Vincent Van Gogh. Both turn up a second time as part of a historical chain that gets The Doctor to the Pandorica.

Saddest Moment: “I don’t understand. We were on the hill, I can’t die here.”

Overthinking Doctor Who 4.5: Road to Regeneration

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

The Specials: “This song is ending.”

In 2005, Russell T. Davies finally, after years of fan hopes and prayers, reintroduced Doctor Who to television. Later that year, as the first series drew to a close, David Tennant took over the title role, bringing the show to new levels of popularity and fan love.

And in 2008, both men announced they were leaving.

While series four was their last full series on the show, they both took 2009 to do a sort of farewell tour. While incoming showrunner Steven Moffat got everything in place to take over in 2010 (Moffat series take a while to write), Davies and Tennant came back for five hour-long specials airing between Christmas Day 2008 and New Year’s Day 2010. The Specials represent the terminus of Ten’s journey, ending with his regeneration into Eleven.

Something Davies specifically, maliciously set out to make the most brutally heartbreaking regeneration of all time.

So we’ll have to break format a little to cover these.

It’s Christmas!

The Next Doctor finds Ten trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to shake off the remorseless string of increasingly sad farewells that marked the end of series four by visiting Christmas in Victorian London (this will not be the last time a hearts-broken Doctor comes to this time and place to wallow). He’s only barely landed when suddenly he’s running into returning enemies the Cybermen… and an oddly-dressed gentleman calling himself The Doctor (David Morrissey), claiming to have a sonic screwdriver and a Tardis. Has The Doctor found his future self?

Well, no. By the time they even announced this episode we knew that the next Doctor would be some kid named Matt Smith, so the bluff wasn’t strong, but the mystery behind why this guy thinks he’s The Doctor was well-told. And provided the first clear, undeniable proof that Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is in fact canonical.

The pain of The Doctor’s losses is partially buried beneath his curiosity in this false Doctor, but it’s there. He has no companion and isn’t seeking one. And when Miss Haritgan, who has taken control of the Cybermen, rebuffs his offer for a peaceful solution, it’s clear that he resents being made into a killer.

“What do you make of me, sir?” she asks, refusing to leave Earth in peace.

“The question is, what do you make of me?” he replies. Then his tone goes ice cold as he says “You make me into this.” And he fires.

It’s a pretty standard Christmas special, all told. A charming self-contained adventure in which they casually mention that it’s Christmas. But it also makes it clear that some part of Ten died during The Journey’s End, and despite the best efforts of his would-be replacement, it doesn’t look to be coming back.

It’s Easter!

Planet of the Dead was meant to be The Tenth Doctor’s last good time, one more simple, fun adventure before things start to get dark. Well, simple for The Doctor. There’s still a far-off planet and alien fly-people and an incoming swarm of fangy death. So, sure, pretty casual.

A woman we will come to know as Lady Christina de Souza steals a valuable golden chalice from a museum. Fleeing the approaching police, she trades diamond earrings for a ride on a London bus, only to have The Doctor hop into the seat next to her, munching on a chocolate egg.

He doesn’t care about the chalice, though. Doesn’t even know about it yet. He’s more concerned with the wormhole he’s trying to track, which has grown large enough that the whole bus drives through it and ends up on some foreign desert world.

Problem is, it wasn’t a desert world last year, and the things that stripped it down to sand are heading their way. The Doctor and Christina have to get everyone home and ensure that the incoming death swarm doesn’t reach Earth.

Like Astrid in Voyage of the Damned, The Doctor and Lady Christina were the a perfect-companion-meeting that was never meant to be. They hit it off quickly, she’s clever and resourceful almost beyond The Doctor himself, and they share a thirst for travel and adventure (even if her desire for travel is slightly escape-the-law based). And she’s eager, so eager to hop in the Tardis and see the stars. But it’s not happening.

Where Astrid and The Doctor were torn apart by Kylie Minogue being expensive circumstance… and for all we know, a little temporal manipulation from Dalek Caan to keep Astrid from delaying The Doctor’s reunion with Donna… it’s The Doctor himself keeping Christina out of the Tardis. After having to say goodbye to Rose for a second time and then immediately losing Donna, he can’t bring himself to let anyone else into his travels. So Lady Christina serves two key roles here.

First, she delivers that “last good time” Davies was trying to deliver, and second, she’s important to showing how damaged The Doctor has been since that mess with Davros. She is almost precisely the sort of person he’d normally take off into time and space. The whole “cat burgler” thing isn’t fully a value-add, but Jack was a con artist when they met and look at him now, all defending the Earth. So to sell The Doctor’s deep spiritual damage, they hand him a perfect companion desperate to go with him… and have him say a firm no.

But that’s just where his problems begin.

One of the passengers on the bus is psychic, and after an hour of seeing their impending doom hurtling towards them, she has a final warning for The Doctor, after repeating the warning he received from the Ood last year, “your song is ending.”

“It is returning, it is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor… Oh but then, he will knock four times.”

The end is nigh, and The Doctor’s not walking into it willingly. He likes who he is, he’s liked being Ten more than he’s liked himself since the Time War turned ugly, and he is not looking to change. Why else would he have dumped a regeneration into his severed hand so that he could heal without changing?

It’s… Fall, I guess?

“State your name, rank, and intention.”
“The Doctor… Doctor… fun?”

The Doctor arrives on Mars, in the mid-21st century, where he comes across the planet’s first human settlement. Problem is… the first human settlement was destroyed. Which may have inspired its leader’s granddaughter to later captain Earth’s first faster-than-light ship, and explore the galaxy. The destruction of this base is a fixed point in time, like Vesuvius. And it’s happening today. Any minute now. Because there’s something in the underground glacier they started using for water, and it’s infecting the crew one by one, turning them into water-spewing crag-faced zombies.

The Doctor is eager to get away, because it’s a fixed point, so not only is there nothing he can do… after Pompeii, he’s afraid that if he stays, he’ll be the one who makes it all happen. But the crew aren’t eager to let this inexplicable stranger leave, the water zombies draw his curiosity… and he likes these people. He especially likes their noble commander Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan, filling the companion role this time around), whose grandchild starts a dynasty of space explorers, and when he finally begins to leave as everything goes wrong… he can’t. Or at least, he won’t.

“There are laws of time,” he shouts to Adelaide as he seeks a way to stop the water zombies. “Once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws but they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realise that the laws of time are mine and they will obey me!”

If you think The Doctor asserting dominion over time itself is a good thing, you are way off. Adelaide sees it. He’s been alone too long. He’s gone too far. He’s becoming something terrible, someone willing to rewrite history to his own preferences. It’s not a power she thinks he or anyone should have, and is willing to sacrifice to take it from him.

And The Doctor collapses, emotionally. He knows he’s gone too far. He’s become lost, the exact sort of monster he once fought. And as this is sinking in, an Ood appears in the snow, signalling that his end is drawing near. So he does the only thing that makes sense to any Doctor in this position…

He runs.

Waters of Mars is when The Doctor, already damaged from Journey’s End, finally breaks. And it sets the stage for the End.

Brace yourselves. It’s gonna get teary up in here.

It’s Christmas Again! And Also New Year’s!

The Ood have seen a terrible omen. A sinister cabal seeks to resurrect The Master. An industrialist named Joshua Naismith has his own plans for The Master, and is trying to build an alien healing device called The Immortality Gate. Two of Naismith’s staff have their own agenda. The people of Earth are plagued by nightmares, but only Wilfred Mott (Donna’s granddad, remember?) recalls them and knows what they mean. A mysterious woman is reaching out to Wilfred, telling him he must take up arms. The drumbeats in The Master’s head are getting louder. And behind it all, something horrible… the End of Time itself.

It’s all a trap, a way for the Time Lords to survive the Time War… at the expense of everything.

And The Doctor gallivanted through time and space too long (marrying Queen Elizabeth along the way… improbably, we’ll get back to that), and is late to the party. Or so say the Ood, anyway.

We could spend a lot of time talking about everything that happens in this final two-parter for Davies and Tennant. What The Master does, what the Lord President of Gallifrey is willing to do, Donna’s return, the mournful Chameleon Circuit rock epic summarizing it all… one last triumphant “ALLONS-Y!” But while End of Time is an appropriately epic tale for Ten to end his run with, what we should really focus on is this…

While The End of Time Part 2 isn’t without humour, don’t get used to it. Russell T. Davies set out to write the Saddest Regeneration of All Time. And good lord but he nailed it. He nailed it hard.

First, he took away the security blanket of regeneration not being the end. Ten, facing his prophesied death, laments that even if he does regenerate, it’s still like dying. “Everything I am dies. Some new man saunters away… and I’m dead.”

When the prophesied “he” knocks four times, and The Doctor sees his death approaching, it takes him a moment to meet it gracefully. “I could do so much more. So much more!” (Also of note, Wilfred isn’t making it easier, as throughout the second half he begs The Doctor not to let himself die, and Bernard Cribbins makes it heart-rending.) But the cost of living on, small though it was, is still too high. And so The Tenth Doctor must end… following a farewell tour.

Every companion, friend, loved one… everyone who meant anything to Ten gets a final, often silent farewell. And after one last visit to 2005 Rose Tyler, the Ood return to sing him to his rest. He staggers back to the Tardis, utters the saddest final line a Doctor has ever had*, The Doctor’s Theme plays one last time in epic fashion…

And Matt Smith arrives. It’s a rough ten minute ride to get here, but it’s going to be okay. I promise you it’s going to be okay from here.

Except when it’s incredibly sad. That doesn’t end. But it’s not all the time.

(*I would argue that the second saddest final Doctor line ever is Colin Baker’s “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice!” because nobody knew that would be his final line. The head of the BBC fired Baker between series, in the first of several moves that seemed to be engineered to kill the show.)

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Rassilon isn’t just a Time Lord, he’s the Time Lord. As covered in Chameleon Circuit’s Gallifreyan History 101, “he was strong, he was mighty, he was the founder of Time Lord society,” one of the two men who mastered time travel and elevated Gallifrey. The other having been Omega, who was unfortunately erased in the process, something he took umbrage to in 1973’s The Three Doctors. There were also some hints during the Sylvester McCoy years that The Doctor himself may have also been involved, a story thread that was dropped when the BBC clamped down on attempts to explore The Doctor’s past.

Anyway, since the end of the original series, books and radio dramas have dug further into the legends of Rassilon. Was he the wise and benevolent ruler of a good and just Gallifrey, or was he a cruel despot who intentionally killed Omega? Whatever he was before, being resurrected to fight the Time War has made a monster of him now. But that’s what the Time War did.

This Year in Daleks: They got 2009 off. Still wiped out from The Journey’s End.

The Good: The Master is back to, albeit indirectly, kill his second Doctor. The Master has been involved in the incidents that caused the regenerations of Four, Ten, and Twelve. Man, that’s two of the all-time favourites.

Miss Hartigan made a good human ally/overlord for the Cybermen in The Next Doctor.

The Bad: …Eh. They’re all fine.

The Ugly: I have some qualms about the design choices for the water zombies in Waters of Mars. Not fun to look at, and the head water zombie kind of annoyed me any time she was on screen, I’m glad they’re all dead.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: 

  • Timothy Dalton, James goddamn Bond, is the Lord High President of the Time Lords, revealed in the end to be Rassilon.
  • Brian Cox is the voice the head of the Ood in Out of Time.
  • Joshua Naismith is played by Supergirl’s Martian Manhunter, David Harewood.
  • Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya is one of the passengers in Planet of the Dead.
  • I want to include Michelle Ryan as Lady Christina, but other than Steven Moffat’s surprisingly good Jekyll and 2007’s failed Bionic Woman remake, she hasn’t really done much. Shame. I liked her.

End of Time is the first and only time that a villain, in this case John Simm as The Master, is included in the opening credits. Though he turns out not to be the villain.

The bus in Planet of the Dead sustains damage going through the wormhole because they filmed the desert planet scenes in Dubai, and the bus did suffer significant damage in the process of shipping it there. Which caused some production headaches.

The woman contacting Wilfred in End of Time is a Time Lord, one of two who opposed the plan, credited only as “The Woman.” The Doctor seems to know her somehow. How, exactly, is the one last unanswered mystery of the Davies era. Is she Romana? Susan? The Rani? The wife we never knew, a child they’ve only alluded to, some other family member? Just a like mind from the days of the Time War? We don’t know. We may never know. “I was lost, long ago,” she tells Wilf. In the words of The Doctor, that is textbook enigmatic.

She comments on Wilfred’s military service, that he missed the war and never killed a man. “No I didn’t,” Wilfred says. “No I did not. No. But don’t say that like it’s shameful.” This mirrors actor Bernard Cribbins’ military service. He served in World War II, never killed anybody, and is incredibly proud of that. One more reason Wilfred, the Final Companion, is the best.

Planet of the Dead uses a cute lampshade-hang on the question of how similar to humans The Doctor is, one Moffat will steal in the year to come:
“You look human.”
“You look Time Lord.”

“I don’t know what I’d be without that noise,” says The Master.
“I wonder what I’d be… without you,” replies The Doctor. There can be some interestingly sweet moments between these two eternal foes.

On a personal note, The Last Doctor was the only episode I managed to watch between Last of the Time Lords and May of 2010, when I started binging my way through series four. The rest of the specials ended up waiting until that summer, after series five was up and running. So I had a slight advantage over most other viewers at the time: heart-crushing as Tennant’s final scenes were, I’d already fallen for his replacement, and knew that fresh good times were on the other side.

“Legs! I’ve still got legs!” The newly minted 11th Doctor begins with an inventory, and a disappointment: “And still not ginger!”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: A speech from Barack Obama plays a role in End of Time Part 1, but I wouldn’t count it.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “I don’t want to go.”

Saddest Moment of the Year: See above.

Next time… Hello, Mr. Smith and Mr. Moffat.

Overthinking Doctor Who Part 4: Companionpalooza

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

Voyage of the Damned was the first “apropos of nothing” Christmas special, not setting up or paying off stories from the main series or centered around a recent/impending regeneration. It’s got all of the hallmarks: a one-off story (not unique, most Doctor Who stories are one-offs), a one-time companion, and a weird amount of heartbreak for freaking Christmas. The only exception here is that they do technically introduce a character of interest, even though they didn’t necessarily know that at the time. But maybe they did? Could be, he is back on the show in the first episode of series four.

Anyway. Moments after dropping off Martha Jones at the end of Last of the Time Lords… or depending on how canonical you consider it, moments after the really sweet Moffat-written Children in Need short Time Crash in which the Tenth Doctor meets the Fifth (who both Tennant and Moffat grew up watching)… sorry, where was I.

Moments after dropping off Martha Jones… sorry, but it just is really endearing watching David Tennant give a tribute to the man who helped shape his childhood love of the character, both lightly mocking things like the stalk of celery he wore on his lapel and paying homage by listing all the Fifth Doctor quirks that Tennant incorporated into his own take. Right, back to it.

Moments after dropping off Martha Jones— and the moment where he looks at Davison and says “You were my Doctor,” that is just–

Right. Got it. For real this time. Moments after dropping off Martha Jones at the end of Last of the Time Lords, The Tardis collided with a luxury liner called The Titanic, for the second consecutive finale cliffhanger in which Tennant was reduced to just “What!? What!? What?” Turns out to have been the Starship Titantic, bringing alien guests on a stellar cruise to Christmas-time Earth.

“Why is called Titanic?” the Doctor asks one of the slightly creepy robot angels called Hosts that just seem to cry out “These go on a killing spree in the second act” the second you see them.

“Information: the Titanic is the most famous ship in Earth history,” the benign assistant about to go full murder-bot says.

“Yeah, cheers, any mention of why it’s famous?”

So it’s pretty clear where this is going. The Doctor meets a waitress named Astrid (played by Kylie freaking Minogue), a poor couple who won first class seats named Morvin and Foon, a tour guide with faulty Earth information named Mr. Copper, an upper class bag of putrid dicks named Rickston Slade, and a fun-sized spiky alien named Bannakaffalatta.

And just as everyone’s bonding and having a great time, the sudden yet inevitable disaster strikes, and it’s up to The Doctor to save who he can. Which… well, the disaster movie template requires that it not be too many people, and it’s not who you’d expect or hope.

Don’t get attached to Astrid, is what I’m saying, fully aware that you will anyway.

It’s a fun and touching episode with an instantly likable supporting cast (save for that asshat Rickston) and moments almost guaranteed to bring out the tears. First being the most unlikely yet brutally effective tug at the heartstrings…

“Bannakaffalatta stop! Bannakaffalatta proud. Bannakaffalatta… CYBORG!”

And then, of course, The Doctor’s desperate wail, pain masked by rage, determination giving way to failure… “I can do anything!”

And along the way, there’s an alien-suspecting newspaper salesman played by Bernard Cribbins that you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Series Four: Companionpalooza!

It took me a year and a half to get around to this. My PVR didn’t record series four in fall of 2008, and somehow it took me until spring of 2010 to catch up. Nineteen months of thinking “I need to get on that.” Never again.

Series four was Russell T. Davies’ last full series as showrunner, and he intended to go out big. Donna Noble’s return becomes the capstone to an arc that began with the Cult of Skaro’s appearance in Army of Ghosts, although I have no proof that Davies actually meant for Army of GhostsThe Runaway Bride, and Evolution of the Daleks to all be pieces of one larger story.

Martha Jones (who has joined UNIT, as we learned in series two of Torchwood) is back for three episodes in the middle, Rose Tyler is trying to reach The Doctor, and those are just opening salvos. For the big two-part finale, everyone’s back, and I mean everyone. Everyone.

Rose, Martha, Jack, Mickey, Sarah Jane, K-9 (briefly), all three of the horrible companion mothers, even Former Prime Minister Harriet Jones. Jack brings Gwen and Ianto from Torchwood (allowing The Doctor and Rose to note her similarity to when the same actress was in The Unquiet Dead, waaaaaaay back in series one), Sarah Jane brings her son and supercomputer from The Sarah Jane Adventures. The only non-evil, still alive characters of note from the last four series missing are Nine (of course) and Pete Tyler.

And in the end, they all join together for one sweet, perfect, heartwarming moment where they all fly the Tardis the way it’s meant to be flown… as a team.

Enjoy it while it lasts, because the sadness is coming and coming fast. As an Ood warns earlier on… every song must end. And this song’s ending soon.

(Oh, and one more time for the kids in the bleachers… anyone who thinks the Moffat era relies too much on deus ex machina, rewatch this finale and explain yourself. It’s better, or at least more narratively satisfying than Last of the Time Lords, but it remains basically gibberish.)

The Doctor

Series four shaves a few layers of grief off of Ten this year. The loss of Rose is less fresh, so he’s less hung up on it (just in time for an unexpected reunion), and with the final villain not a fellow Time Lord, they don’t have to punch the grief over losing his homeworld and species in order to sell his determination to keep his old foe The Master alive.

This, then, is David Tennant as his apex as The Doctor. He’s always incredible to watch, because he is that astounding an actor basically always (look, people, I saw him live in London, and you just… you have no idea), but this year he cut loose and had the most sheer fun in the role.

Not that his white-hot rage and flares of grief are absent, because those are parts of the character. But by now it’s all a well-fitting suit. Two years of practice, and Tennant can really strut his way through time and space.

The Companion

Donna’s back!

Much as I somehow didn’t enjoy her first appearance in The Runaway Bride for reasons that I can no longer recall or comprehend, Donna Noble is the greatest of Tennant’s companions, fight me.

First of all, Donna doesn’t fall in love with The Doctor. And after two years of will-they-won’t-they with Rose and one year of quiet pining from Martha, that was refreshing. 

Second, she has the best arc of possibly any companion ever. A simple temp from Chiswick, she doesn’t seem like most important person in all of time and space, and cannot believe that she might be, but she grows into that role over these 13 episodes. Plus, she is amazingly capable, often spotting clues The Doctor misses, and saving his soul along the way.

Catherine Tate and David Tennant have amazing comic chemistry together. It takes a few short minutes for them to become a screwball comedy double act again in Partners in Crime, and it remains delightful all the way through.

Road to the Medusa Cascade

A lot of big, epic stuff happens in the finale, requiring every recurring character of note from the first four years, but basically all of it happens in the last two episodes. Leading up to that, we have a few Bad Wolfs; recurring phrases, shots, or ideas that pop up throughout the year to hint towards what’s going to happen in the finale.

First, and most flashy, a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by Rose Tyler, leading up to her full return right before the finale in Turn Left.

Second, the bees are disappearing. A real-world environmental catastrophe that provides a key clue to The Doctor in The Stolen Earth.

Third, as the title The Stolen Earth suggests, planets are going missing. Whole planets, missing. Probably should have looked into that a little faster, Doctor, it was important.

And they sure do like to remind us that The Doctor keeps his old hand in a jar in the Tardis. You know, the one that was cut off and regrown right after his regeneration in The Christmas Invasion? That Jack had in his office throughout the first series of Torchwood? And that The Doctor took back from The Master in Last of the Time Lords? That one.

The Supporting Cast

Donna’s mother is kind of the laziest Russell T. Davies companion mother of the trio. Sylvia Noble is overly harsh with Donna, and at one point is quick to pin the Earth’s problems on The Doctor, the very person trying to stop them. She doesn’t have Jackie Tyler’s “Cautionary tale of mundane existence” or Mrs. Jones’ instant, irrational, sell-out-humanity commitment to distrusting The Doctor. In place, she has… not much. Not even grief for her husband, who we saw in The Runaway Bride but apparently passed on since then. She’s just mean to Donna. Like I said, kind of lazy.

There is, however, Wilf.

Wilfred Mott, played by Bernard Cribbins, made his first appearance in Voyage of the Damned, then in Partners in Crime was re-introduced and established as Donna’s grandad. (In The Sontaran Stratagem they underline that it’s the same guy.) And he is delightful. A believer in aliens, he also believes in Donna, and swiftly puts his faith in her new friend, despite having seem him vanish the previous Christmas.

Wilfred Mott is Ten’s final companion, but that’s still to come.

Also of importance this season… in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, the annual Steven Moffat story, The Doctor meets an archaeologist by the name of River Song (Alex Kingston), who swings into the adventure with a knowing “Hello, Sweetie.” She claims to already know him, but he’s never seen her before. An awkward situation for them on your first watch, heartbreaking once you’ve reached series six. River’s going to be vitally important down the line, but for now enjoy her intro/exit.

(Is River’s dismissal of Ten as not “the real Doctor,” not the Doctor she needs right now, a statement by writer Steven Moffat about how he intends to write a better Doctor once he takes over? No. No, it couldn’t be, could it? No… no. Maybe–no. No, Tennant hadn’t even committed to leaving yet, although… Let’s not worry about it.)

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Welcome back to the stage Davros, mad genius of Skaro, creator of the Daleks. This is a dude in serious need of some chill, and is out to unmake reality. Shame that there’s practically no trace of him for eleven episodes. Honestly, the whole “just drop a few buzzwords and then have them be important in the finale” Davies model can be just a touch unsatisfying.

Davros works almost better as a dark mirror to The Doctor than The Master. All of The Doctor’s genius with none of his compassion. Where The Doctor devotes his incredible mind to kindness, Davros is fixated on destruction. But he is able to cut into The Doctor’s very being, showing that they both create weapons of death: Davros created the Daleks, The Doctor makes weapons of his friends, and has left a trail of (mostly) good people dying in his name in his wake. There’s even a montage of people who died to help him, starting with Jabe the Tree from End of the World and going all the way to the unnamed hostess from Midnight. Davros might lose, but that revelation about The Doctor cuts deep and won’t heal in a hurry.

This year in Daleks: Dalek Caan, last survivor of the Cult of Skaro, managed to break through the unbreakable seal and pull Davros out of the Time War, so that he could build a new Dalek Empire. In the process, Caan went more than a little crazy. Anyway, brace for another trip on the old “The Daleks are back, the Daleks have been wiped out, the Daleks are back” rollercoaster. But a decent one.

Classic Monsters Revived: Say hello to the Sontarans, a cloned race of short, potato-looking warriors out to either conquer all or die in battle. Makes them hard to threaten, when death in combat is almost as good as dying. The lead Sontaran is General Staal, but keep your eye on his second-in-command, Commander Skorr. He’s played by Dan Starkey, who has a bright future playing Sontarans on this show.

The Good: The Adipose, little blobs of sentient fat, are utterly adorable, even if their Nanny is a little aggressive with the humans they’re born from.

People died, sure, but you can’t stay mad at the little guys.

The Vashta Nerada, microscopic swarms living in shadows (“Not every shadow… but any shadow”) once again prove Moffat’s ability to wring scares out of very simple monsters. A kid in a gas mask, a mime made up like a stone angel, and now darkness and shuffling space suits.

People probably wouldn’t keep insisting that Midnight is the best episode of the year if the villain weren’t so effective.

And humanity itself manages to be the monster no fewer than four times, either by being the real villain (Planet of the Ood) or by being swift to sell their fellow humans out to the villain (The Sontaran Stratagem, and to a lesser extent Midnight, where humans’ ability to be nasty plays into the monster’s agenda).

The Bad: I guess the villain of Voyage of the Damned isn’t their best work.

The Ugly: The big damn CGI wasp from The Unicorn and the Wasp is a little cheesy-looking. And the Pyrovile sure shout their name more dramatically than they needed to…

High Point

Several people I know would say Midnight, in which The Doctor is trapped in a broken transport with a group of increasingly agitated passengers while an unknown monster lurks outside in an impossibly hostile environment. I disagree. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying it’s not even in my top three.

No, for my money, the single best episode of series four is Fires of Pompeii. The Doctor and Donna find themselves in Pompeii on, as Captain Jack Harkness once called it, Volcano Day. Donna confronts the dark side of time travel, The Doctor has to make a horrible choice, the cast is solid, the central story strong, the tragedy is profound, and the ending is simply beautiful, if still sad. Catherine Tate proves that she brings a lot more to the table than screwball comedy, and it features two guest stars who will go on to be major players of future series.

Midnight is highly effective. Fires of Pompeii is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders.

Low Point

Turn Left, in which a sinister alien uses a beetle thing to alter history, making Donna change one decision, ensuring she never met The Doctor. And without her, he doesn’t survive the events of Runaway Bride.

Want to know what would have happened if The Doctor hadn’t been around for any of the crises of the last two years? Think watching the world slide into ruin from the lack of Time Lord intervention might be fun? Well it isn’t.

Turn Left and Midnight came about for the same reason as Love and Monsters and Blink: need to compress the shooting schedule. The previous two years, they just gave The Doctor and his companion a much reduced role so that David Tennant and Billie Piper/Freema Agyeman could start filming the next episode at the same time. In this case, David Tennant could film the bottle episode of Midnight while Catherine Tate was doing Turn Left. Catherine Tate was certainly capable of shouldering an episode without Tennant’s help, but after a year filled with screwball comedy and high-octane adventure, Turn Left is just a major downer, and by the time Britain is building concentration camps I just really wanted it to be done.

Highlights?

Lots.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a great two-parter from impending showrunner Steven Moffat, and as I’ll elaborate later, never, ever miss a River Song episode.

Partners in Crime is delightful screwball comedy that brings Donna back to the Tardis.

Unicorn and the Wasp continues a tradition of high quality Historical Guest Star episodes.

The Doctor’s Daughter is pretty incredible, as The Doctor, Donna, and Martha find themselves in the middle of a war between humans and fish-aliens called Hath fought through soldiers grown in instants from tissue samples of other people. Not clones, separate beings grown by reassembling the donor’s DNA. And when a sample is taken from The Doctor, resulting in Jenny, he must grapple with the notion that there’s a possible new Time Lord that is, in a way, his offspring. It’s one of the few episodes to acknowledge, and possibly the only one to drill into, the fact that once upon a time The Doctor had a wife and children. And at least one grandchild, whose name was Susan. And they’re all gone.

And Planet of the Ood is basically the best Ood episode, and they’re about to be important.

Skippables?

…Nope, can’t think of one. I don’t love Midnight, but I can’t advise skipping it. I mean for what it is, which is an incredibly tense bottle episode, it’s really well done. And The Sontaran Stratagem is a lot of build-up to the more engaging The Poison Sky, but is a “Previously on” segment really enough?

And Turn Left is the return of Rose and features Wilf. You probably shouldn’t skip that.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

  • Most important is Fires of Pompeii, which features both a future Doctor and a future companion. Peter Capaldi, at the time of writing about to end his reign as Twelve, appears as a marble merchant whose family becomes key to The Doctor and Donna’s investigations. Karen Gillan, future Guardian of the Galaxy and Jumanji victim, back then less than two years away from getting her own Tardis key, has a less significant role as a local prophet/priestess. There’s no callback to this for Gillan, probably because the makeup and accent disguise her more than, say, Freema Agyeman playing Martha Jones’ weirdly identical cousin the year before Martha was introduced, but the Twelfth Doctor looking exactly like some guy an earlier self met in Pompeii eventually gets an explanation.
  • Academy Award Nominee and Rogue One platoon leader Felicity Jones turns up as a guest at the party in The Unicorn and the Wasp.
  • In addition to Kylie Minogue, the crew of the Starship Titanic includes Being Human’s and apparently Quantico’s Russell Tovey and British actor of note Geoffrey Palmer.
  • I mostly just know Colin Salmon as Oliver Queen’s stepdad from the first season of Arrow, but apparently he’s a big enough deal to have played himself in Master of None. Anyway, he’s in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. As is Westworld hostess Talulah Riley.
  • Midnight features David Troughton, son of Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor. He’s not famous, but that’s neat.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: Joe Dempsie, who GoT fans know as Baratheon bastard Gendry, turns up in The Doctor’s Daughter. And Tim McInnerny, who has been popping up lately in Winterfell as one of the crankier northern lords, but who I still remember as Percy/Captain Darling on Blackadder, is the would-be owner of the Ood in Planet of the Ood. If you claim to own a species, try not to meet The Doctor. It won’t go great.

Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter is played by Georgia Moffett, the daughter of Fifth Doctor Peter Davison. And apparently she and Tennant hit it off on set, because they got married and had a daughter (possibly in that order). So The Doctor’s Daughter is played by The Doctor’s daughter, who married The Doctor and gave birth to The Doctor’s daughter. Only on this show.

Martha’s engaged to that doctor she met in the third series finale’s alternate timeline. Guess she looked him up after all. Won’t last, though. Their careers don’t match and he’s Lucifer.

After enduring Jackie Tyler’s pestering and Wossname Jones’ bitter paranoia, The Doctor lands a solid burn against Sylvia Noble’s constant belittling of Donna towards the end.

UNIT is back in a big way, though they suffer heavy losses against the Sontarans and the Daleks, and lose their flagship The Valiant. No more CG helicarriers for you, UNIT. Also, they reference The Doctor’s old pal and UNIT’s commander, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Sadly he never made an appearance on the reboot.

Doctor Quote of the Year: Ten finally gets to say “Alons-y, Alonso!” but also mixes it up with the odd “Molto bene!” And everybody seems to take a turn saying “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: Agatha Christie solving a parlour mystery.

Saddest Moment: First time through, it’s got to be What Happens to Donna. But if you rewatch, if you know where things are going, if new characters have become old friends… then it’s in the Library. “All the time we’ve been together, you knew I was coming here.”

Next time… Russell T. Davies and David Tennant take a goodbye tour as the show mostly takes 2009 off.

Overthinking Doctor Who 3: On the Rebound

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

I didn’t overly care for The Runaway Bride first I saw it. Not sure why, because it is delightful.

At the end of Doomsday, in the closing seconds after the tear-stained farewell between Rose and Ten, The Doctor turns to see a bride (the wonderful Catherine Tate) has appeared in the Tardis and is angrily demanding to know where she is and how she got there, to which he can only stammer “What?” over and over. It’s pretty funny.

The Christmas Invasion was a key part of series two, introducing plot threads (Torchwood) and the new Doctor. Hope you didn’t count on that being a regular thing, though, because it won’t happen again for a while. Okay, sure, The Runaway Bride introduces a companion, Donna Noble, but not this year’s companion.

The Runaway Bride is a break from the tragedy of Doomsday, some simple screwball comedy (and world-threatening menace) that showcases delightful comic chemistry between Catherine Tate and David Tennant (his reaction to repeatedly being called “Martian” is simple yet hilarious).

And in the end, while Donna chooses not to run off with The Doctor today, she does remind him of something important… Rose or no Rose, he needs someone. He shouldn’t be alone.

Luckily…

Series Three: “Time Lord… You are not alone.”

At the beginning of series three, The Doctor has never felt more alone. When the trauma of burning Gallifrey was still fresh, he had Rose. In series three, she’s gone, stranded somewhere he can never go, and the happy-go-lucky best pal Doctor of series two is hollowed out as a result.

So when the Face of Boe tells him he might not be alone in the universe after all, it’s a beacon of hope he can’t quite bring himself to face.

Series three is all about reminding us that The Doctor is a big, mythic character. That for all of his attempts to seem down-to-Earth-or-equivalent, he’s so much more. “He’s ice and fire and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

By the time the resolution of the finale hinges on everyone on Earth thinking about The Doctor until it gives him godlike powers, it’s like “Okay, we get it, he’s cool. He’s so very cool. We’re on board, already, we watch the show.”

Yeah, on that… I’m going to need everyone who thinks Steven Moffat is bad about deus ex machina to rewatch Last of the Time Lords and then explain yourselves. I’m not saying Moffat doesn’t occasionally make up some freaky time travel things to resolve a plot, but the deus ex machina finale nonsense Davies pulled makes Moffat era finales look like Law and Order.

Really sensible and logical. Was that not clear? I feel that was clear.

The Doctor

Weird to take such a positive, energetic take on The Doctor and then suck all of that out of him for a whole year. Okay, that was unfair, it’s all still there in most episodes (but definitely not all), but The Doctor is defined by grief this year. His heartbreak over losing Rose haunts everything he does, from his reluctance to take on a new companion to one of the reasons why his new companion Martha voluntarily takes her leave from the Tardis, something that almost never happens, and certainly hasn’t happened to a companion since.

Well, mostly not.

How alienated is The Doctor? When he turns himself into a human (something I’ll be discussing later, and not in a flattering way), he gives Martha a series of instructions on what to do if things go wrong. He does not even think to include “What to do in case I fall in love with someone,” a fact that fake-human-Doctor John Smith finds horrifying.

The Doctor needs a kick in the ass, is what he needs, but he won’t really get one until next year. And he won’t get one that takes for three.

The Companion

Martha Jones, would-be doctor, would-be Doctor’s girlfriend, and the first ever Companion of Colour.

Poor, poor Martha Jones.

A med student prepping for her final exams, Martha gets swept up with The Doctor when her hospital (St. Thomas’, a pretty swank hospital to be across the Thames from Parliament, frankly, so she must be fairly damn clever). She doesn’t even get to be a full, proper companion until the halfway point of the series. Until then, it’s The Doctor offering her one adventure into the past, then okay we may as well do one into the future, alright that was a rough one, one more into New York…”

The first seven episodes all happen in a row, over a few days, with minimal time jumps (like, cut from night to the next morning is probably the biggest), and that’s all the time it takes for Martha to fall for The Doctor. In fact it’s happened well before the first “Some amount of time and adventures later” cut. She’s completely smitten by the time she asks, no, demands that this stop being a temporary arrangement at the end of The Lazarus Experiment. However… it’s already begun to be clear that he doesn’t really see her, because he’s still hung up on Rose.

And that never gets better, and that’s agonizing for Martha. Eventually it’s part of what makes her choose staying with her family rather than travelling on with The Doctor. He’ll never see her the way she sees him, and while she’s confident they’ll meet again (rightly so, after a guest stint on Torchwood series two she pops back for a couple of visits next year), she needs to get away from him to figure out a life for herself.

There are a lot of implied Doctor/Martha adventures between 42, the last “We pick up where we left off” adventure, and Utopia, the beginning of the three-part finale arc, and good for her. I hope there were a lot of adventures that happened between episodes, because otherwise her time in the Tardis would be a downer. Two trips to the past, two to the future, two adventures at home, nearly dying in five of those, and then stuck in one place for months. Twice. Human Nature/Family of Blood sees the pair spend months in 1913, an incredibly sucky time/place for a black woman at the best of times, where future doctor Martha Jones has to work as a scullery maid. That would be a rough gig even if she didn’t need to watch The Doctor fall in love with someone else. And then right after that is Blink, where The Doctor and Martha get stuck in 1969 (which again is not the friendliest time towards black women, like all of recorded Earth history up to and at least somewhat beyond the present day) and she has to take a job in a shop so that she and The Doctor can afford food and shelter.

You are an indescribable genius with natural charm, Doctor. Get. A. Job.

But she does mention having watched the moon landing four times. Which means she’s had some good times with The Doctor that might not even have been life-threatening. It also means she’s probably killed a few Silents by now.

We’ll get to that. Later.

Harry Saxton

Beginning in Smith and Jones, our premiere, the name “Harry Saxon” begins flying around. But it’s slightly more than “Bad Wolf” and “Torchwood,” because that Harry Saxton is up to something. He’s an MP on the rise, riding anti-alien-weirdness sentiment and an odd, indefinable charisma into the void left at Downing Street when The Doctor arranged for the fall of Harriet Jones.

Now… it would be easy to say “Hey Doctor, I know you were mad at how the Sycorax thing played out, but maybe you shouldn’t ought to have done that to Harriet, because look what happened” given what her replacement will do. But that’s unfair. If she’d still been in office when Saxon began his play, she’d have just been one more obstacle to be removed. And if the goddamn Slitheen didn’t let an existing Prime Minister stop them from seizing control of British government, then Harriet Jones couldn’t have slowed down Harry Saxon.

As to who Harry Saxon is, why he’s so interested in The Doctor as to weaponize Martha’s family against him… the answers to this 21st century mystery are, improbably, waiting at the very end of the universe, with a well-meaning old man named Professor Yana.

Who seems to find the words “Tardis,” “regeneration,” and “time vortex” reeeeeeaaaaally familiar somehow.

The Supporting Cast

Martha has more than just a mother, she has a whole family, all of which seem to count on her to be the voice of reason in familial disputes. But while her brother, sister, and father are simply tethers to Earth, her mother… well, she’s a Russell T. Davies era companion mother, and also the worst Russell T. Davies companion mother. She’s bitter, hostile, and paranoid. She decides, within minutes of meeting him, that she doesn’t care for this Doctor guy her daughter’s taken an interest in, and her ugly, angry, overprotective nature makes her all too willing to sell out The Doctor to Harry Saxton.

The one and only thing I like about Martha’s mother is that she gets a nice, long time to know that that was the single worst decision she could have made, and given Martha’s life choices from here, her opinion about what Martha should do with her life clearly carries no weight from then on.

“I don’t like this new job of yours, Martha–”
“Hey, remember when you tried to sell out the planet, the whole planet, because you had a ‘bad feeling’ about a guy I brought to a party?”
“…Right.”

“I don’t know about this man you’re seeing–”
“You know who you did like? Harry Saxon. You liked him plenty.

No, no, don’t talk to me about hypnotic signals affecting all of the UK, I know about those, but they didn’t work on Martha’s father, so I’m not letting that harsh old woman off the hook.

But hey, Captain Jack’s back for the last three episodes! Yay! And they explain A) what happened when Rose resurrected him at the end of series one and why he got left behind (for Who fans), and B) why he can no longer die (for Torchwood fans).

The Monsters

The Big Bad: What if you were the last of your kind? Alone in the universe, no matter how many other people you find and befriend. But what if there were just one more? One more person like you?

And what if that one person were the worst possible choice?

Ladies and gentlemen, readers of all ages, the first and greatest of The Doctor’s Time Lord nemeses, The Master.

Introduced as a foil for Third Doctor John Pertwee, the would-be-conqueror Time Lord has battled Doctors across the decades, and made his first reboot appearance in series three. All of The Doctor’s cleverness with none of his conscience, The Master is never an opponent to take lightly. Even back in the 90s when he was briefly Eric Roberts.

The Master takes on new meaning in the Davies era, because The Doctor’s nemesis is now also the only other living Time Lord. An old friend that is The Doctor’s only living link to his people and his past, but who is determined to destroy him. Whether he beats The Master or not, The Doctor still loses.

This Year in Daleks: The Cult of Skaro, those four Daleks designed to explore new ideas, take over the construction of the Empire State Building to further their most radical and un-Daleky experiment yet. It… doesn’t go great for them.

The Good: The Carrionites, aliens who look like witches and speak in iambic pentameter. Series one had ghosts who were actually aliens, series two had a werewolf that was actually an alien, now these ladies. And if you were wondering, eventually there’ll be vampires that are aliens and a mummy that’s… I forget the mummy’s deal. We’ll get to him.

The Weeping Angels, now a classic, make their first appearance this year.

As do the Judoon, rhino-faced freelance police officers with a somewhat forceful approach.

The Bad: I don’t love The Family of Blood.

The Ugly: They did not have the technology to animate a scorpion monster with a human face in The Lazarus Experiment. That was some Mummy Returns-bad CGI.

High Point

I know what you think I’m going to say and I’ll get to it, but first…

The Shakespeare Code is clever beyond measure, and it involves William Shakespeare repelling an alien invasion by freestyling iambic pentameter, which ends in a Harry Potter spell.

I don’t know what else I need to say.

Low Point

Human Nature and The Family of Blood have a couple of points of merit, I guess, but… to escape the body-stealing hunters The Family of Blood, The Doctor transforms himself into an average human: an instructor at a private school in 1913. His memories replaced, lost in the illusion of being teacher John Smith, he and Martha are essentially trapped in immediately-pre-WWI England, which again is just a bummer of a time for Martha to be stuck in (man but it sucks to be Martha).

This “Time Lord hiding out as a human” thing is vitally important to the Harry Saxon arc, but… I dislike these episodes for the same reason I dislike episodes of The Flash where Barry doesn’t have his speed: watching the hero not be the hero isn’t any fun. It might be a little interesting to watch The Doctor being human for a bit but he’s lacking as a protagonist.

And it doesn’t help that the hyper-obnoxious Family of Blood cried out for a swift and brutal defeat like nobody since the goddamn Slitheen (they aren’t Slitheen bad, nobody is). Realizing that this story was going to continue for another week was one of the most crushing moments I’ve had watching this show. Why did Russell T. Davies give the worst villains two parters.

That said when they do get theirs, it’s pretty satisfying.

Highlights?

Any fans reading are mystified that I didn’t name Blink as the highlight of the year. Like Love & Monstersit’s a Doctor-light episode, with The Doctor and Martha barely appearing and a new character driving the action. Unlike Love & Monsters, it’s brilliant. It introduces a new and swiftly iconic villain in the Weeping Angels, is the first appearance of the phrase “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey,” it sells a completely new and utterly one-time protagonist in Sally Sparrow, it juggles horror, humour, and heartache, and has a really neat conceit, as Sally must unravel messages from The Doctor from almost forty years in the past to defeat the Angels. It’s just… it’s weird to call an episode that barely features the title character the best of the year. Shakespeare Code did a lot of that and also The Doctor is, you know, in it.

Other highlights… Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks is a solid double feature. The Lazarus Experiment is worth it just for why and how The Doctor sticks around after saying his good-byes to Martha.

Skippables?

Nope, sorry, much as I dislike the villains and the lack of Doctor, Human Nature and Family of Blood are absolutely indispensable to the year’s arc, and really let David Tennant act his heart out in the second half.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

  • John Simm might be a big deal in the UK but I only know him from this and the British version of Life on Mars. Maybe he’s more familiar to you, I don’t know. Anyway.
  • Two Academy Award nominees this year. Star of The Social Network and history’s worst Spider-Man movies Andrew Garfield tests out the southern drawl that got him an Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks.
  • Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan takes centre stage as Sally Sparrow in Blink.
  • Mark Gatiss, occasional Who writer, co-creator of Sherlock, where he also plays Mycroft Holmes, makes his first of two appearances– well, three including an uncredited voice-over– in The Lazarus Experiment.
  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I know from… things, and will be in Wrinkle in Time soon, is Martha’s sister.
  • Pip Torrens, currently playing Herr Starr on Preacher, is John Smith’s headmaster in Human Nature/Family of Blood. 
  • In Last of the Time Lords, Martha Jones teams up with a resistance soldier (a doctor, in fact) played by Lucifer’s Tom Ellis.
  • And Jessica Hynes, co-creator and co-star of Spaced with Simon Pegg, is the 1913 school nurse who tempts John Smith with a simple and good human life.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: There’s enough overlap over the years to require a second category. Human Nature/Family of Blood features two: Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen) is the most notable member of the Family of Blood, Son of Mine, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed) is a slightly psychic student who’s key to resolving (albeit prolonging) the whole mess.

Wow. Lots of neat guest stars this year. Probably a record.

Christopher Eccleston got the first stab at telling the audience (via Rose) that Gallifrey and the Time Lords were gone. But, for all of his strengths as an actor, based partly on what he was given he couldn’t sell that profound loss like David Tennant did in Gridlock, finally telling Martha what happened to his world, and allowing the grief over its loss to trickle out.

This season got a new theme for The Doctor, which next series became the theme for Martha: The Doctor Forever. Does that not say everything about Martha Jones. Doesn’t even get her own theme, just has to ride shotgun on The Doctor’s.

Future showrunner Chris Chibnall writes his first episode: the real-time disaster adventure 42. I mean the story revolves around a disaster, not that the episode is a disaster. Actually it’s pretty decent.

Doctor Quote of the Year: It made its debut last season, but it’s back to stay: “Allons-y!” Although “I’m sorry” is still a frequent flier.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: William freaking Shakespeare. Maybe I named Madame de Pompadour as the best one too soon. Yep, yep, I surely did.

Saddest moment: “I have until the rain stops.”
(Honourable mentions: David Tennant can make you sad when a monster dies, and he does in the finale. Also, in Family of Blood, The Doctor’s human identity John Smith must die so that The Doctor can return, and he doesn’t love that idea. But I was so ready for that to happen by then that it didn’t bother me much.)

Next time… Russell T. Davies ends his last full series as showrunner with a bang, I tell you what.

Overthinking Doctor Who Part Two: Enter Ten

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

Between series one and two begins a beloved annual tradition, the Doctor Who Christmas special. David Tennant, briefly glimpsed in the traditional post-regeneration new-guy cameo, makes his proper debut in the closing act of The Christmas Invasion. Before that… well…

Regenerating from absorbing the Time Vortex takes a lot out of The Doctor, and he ends up in a coma for most of the episode. While he sleeps… stalked by robot Santas and Christmas trees… aliens invade, compelling a large chunk of the human race to walk up onto the roof. With The Doctor out of commission, it’s up to Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (told you she’d be back) to face down the invaders.

No, I didn’t say “Harriet Jones and Rose Tyler.” Sure, she’s still here, but she is goddamned useless. If she hadn’t almost wiped out the Earth through her daddy issues, this would definitely be Rose Tyler at her worst. Like half an hour of ugly crying and one pathetic attempt to stand up to the invading Sycorax, and then The Doctor strolls out in his jim-jams and sorts everything out through an epic introductory scene. No, David Tennant doesn’t stroll out, he struts out. He owns every frame of his screentime, and shows off everything that’s amazing about Ten.

This is the only time a Christmas special has ever been used as an intro episode for a new Doctor. Mostly it goes the other way, with three Doctors so far using Christmas (or a combination of Christmas and New Year’s) for their swan songs.

Series Two: “The Doctor, in the Tardis, with Rose Tyler. Just as it should be.”

…Or should it?

As Doctor Who tribute band Chameleon Circuit  put it…

“Because my life before you was unreasonably mundane
Never been happier although we face death every day,
I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

See… supporting cast are often quick to point out the dangers of life with The Doctor. Unreasonably high risk of Dalek-murder, proven risk of Cyberman-related death, and the fact that wanting to impress The Doctor makes people all-too-willing to throw themselves into all of that danger. But what doesn’t get brought up enough is that life in the Tardis is a drug. Life back home can never, ever compete to exploring all of time and space with the most remarkable man (soon to be woman) you’ll ever meet.

And that’s where we find Rose. We’d seen, more than once, that Rose was choosing Tardis life over home life, and given how Jackie and Mickey made it look, who on Earth could blame her. But it gets worse this season. Pay attention and you’ll see it. The very idea of leaving The Doctor seems toxic to Rose. She would stay on a collapsing space station rather than leave it without him. She would abandon her mother on an alternate Earth rather than leave The Doctor’s side. Earth life is losing all meaning as she loses herself in The Doctor.

It’s not just the time travel and other worlds anymore. The Doctor and Rose Tyler are falling in love, which was unprecedented for any incarnation of this show. Even Romana, the only Time Lord companion who wasn’t a blood relation, was a student and not a girlfriend. They might not be able to say the words until it’s too late (or a second past that), but it’s happening. It’s clear. And it’s not heading to a happy place.

He tries to warn her it can only end sadly. “You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of my life with you.” But she only cares about that first half, even if her mother fears that everything that was Rose Tyler is being hollowed out by the experience. Not that Jackie’s opinion on the subject had ever been trustworthy, but… she doesn’t seem to be entirely wrong. Rose is only alive when she’s near The Doctor, and that’s not healthy.

The Doctor

“Look at these people, these human beings. Consider their potential! From the day they arrive on the planet, blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than – no, hold on. Sorry, that’s The Lion King…”

Tennant’s Doctor is a tour de force. His edge has softened since Nine, but it’s not gone. Never gone. But when Ten’s charming and personable, it’s not covering pain. He authentically loves (nearly) everyone, bonds easily, and never forgets a face, even if it was someone he only met briefly who’s aged a couple of decades. Chat with Ten for a few minutes and he’ll be your new best friend. But cross him and you’ll live in fear.

He’s filled with love and compassion, but do. Not. Cross. Him. Tennant goes from gleeful to burning rage on a dime, and the fury of this Time Lord is not to be trifled with. His smile could melt ice, but his rage burns like the sun.

He’s brilliant at speeches. He turns a phrase like nobody’s business (Just watch his fascination with a “big, red button that must never be pressed”). He’s possibly the most lovable Doctor since Tom Baker. I think. I have seen practically no Peter Davison episodes, so I’m kind of guessing on that front.

If you can’t love the Tenth Doctor, you can’t love Doctor Who, and if that’s the case… in his words, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

The Companion

Rose is in love. Deeply, passionately, the type of love that they’d write novels about in the 19th century. Tragic novels. Novels about houses brought to ruin by doomed romance. Her love for The Doctor plays out more like addiction than true love. In most cases, left without The Doctor, she collapses.

There are exceptions. Fear Her, most notably, where The Doctor is taken out of commission and Rose has to finish saving the Earth. Which, with help from the sidelined Doctor, she manages to do. But this is driven more by a need to get him back than a desire to help out anyone else. And when the monster is stopped, it takes a lot for her to care about anything but where The Doctor is.

And her daddy issues are ongoing and rampant. Upon accidentally landing on a parallel Earth where her father never died (or had kids), despite every protest The Doctor lodges, she is drawn to her alt-father like iron to a magnet. This might technically result in The Doctor saving everyone on Earth-2 faster than he might otherwise have, but it doesn’t quite excuse how she cannot wrap her head around “alternate Earth, these are not your parents.”

And she accidentally protects the ultimate evil a little in The Satan Pit but that’s largely excusable.

Rose spends series two insisting that she’ll stay with The Doctor forever, no matter how many red flags ex-companions, her mother, and possibly-Satan throw her way suggesting that she might be wrong about that.

Torchwood

This year’s Bad Wolf is Torchwood, briefly mentioned in the episode Bad Wolf. In the second episode, Tooth and Claw, Queen Victoria, angered over her run-in with aliens and their nonsense, founds the Torchwood Institute to deal with alien menaces.

And then they get mentioned once per episode until taking centre stage for the two-part finale.

It’s kind of weak, really. They don’t add anything to series two. The finale could have been centered around anyone… Earth-1’s Cyberdyne Industries, Harry Van Statten’s people, anyone. That it happened to be a clandestine government agency stealing alien tech to advance Britain is just sort of… there.

All it really does is pave the way for Captain Jack Harkness’ spinoff, as Jack takes control of what’s left of Torchwood following the finale.

The Supporting Cast

Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith improved this year. Jackie didn’t get less demanding, but did begin to shift away from being a personification of the mundane life Rose seeks to escape and towards the real life Rose is throwing away to run from disaster to disaster, monster to monster. Jackie’s concerns about Rose’s safety stop being over-protectiveness (although… not that “over,” all things considered) and start being a legitimate concern about her state of mind.

And Mickey grows tired of being the one left behind. He steps up, joins Team Tardis for a spell, and then charts his own path as a defender of the Earth.

Pete Tyler is a bigger part of the show this year… well, Pete Tyler, because of course he does, because the only thing that drives Rose more than loving The Doctor is her literally world-shattering daddy issues.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Welcome back The Doctor’s number three classic villain, the Cybermen.

Upgrade or be deleted. You pick.

Only now, in a world with actual production values, they’re more horrifying metal monsters instead of people in flimsy looking silver jumpsuits. The Cybermen come into being on an alternate Earth, but eventually find their way to Earth-1. And even if they didn’t, a much later episode claims that the Cybermen happen, always. Wherever man considers upgrading himself with cybernetics, a time will come when emotions will be considered a weakness, and Cybermen will come into being. And from there, they’ll decide everyone should be Cybermen.

This Year in Daleks: What, you thought Rose wiping out all of the Daleks meant no more Daleks? Please. The Daleks come back from utter extinction no less than four times. This year, we meet the Cult of Skaro: Daleks Sec, Jast, Caan, and Thay.

Sec’s gon’ give it to ya

Tasked by Dalek high command during the Time War to experiment with that so un-Dalek notion, creativity, they were the first (and only) Daleks to adopt names, and escaped the end of the Time War by hiding in the void between universes. Not a fun choice for them, all told. They also experimented with something much more important… smack talk. Dalek/Cybermen trash talk is something beautiful to behold. Not that fans didn’t experiment with some improvements.

The Good: The Krillitane might be a little cheesy in their CG bat form, but in their evil teacher/Anthony Head form they work well. As do the clockwork robots of The Girl in the Fireplace. Cassandra the Last Human makes a body-hopping return appearance, only not to end up the villain of the episode.

The Bad: Enjoy watching spoiled brats have a tantrum? No? Then Fear Her might be a rough ride. Also… she mostly works, but I do find the face-eating television lady from The Idiot Lantern a little smug and grating at times.

The Ugly: Look… I’m not saying that Doctor Who shouldn’t work with the Children in Need charity… but the Abzorbaloff is what happens when you ask children to design monsters and promise to put the winner on television.

Yeah. Not… not great.

Could they afford a CG werewolf stalking Queen Victoria through a Scottish manor? No. Should they not have had a werewolf, aided by kung fu monks, stalking Queen Victoria through a Scottish manor? Hell no, that was awesome.

High Point

It’s hard to pick. There are two amazing episodes near the beginning, and it’s impossible to choose which is the real highlight. They aren’t a two-parter, but they are back-to-back.

School Reunion sees The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey investigating bizarre behaviour at a school… bizarre behaviour that has also attracted the attention of Sarah Jane Smith, companion to the Third and Fourth Doctors, and one of the longest-running and most beloved companions of the original series. And even better? She’s brought K-9, the robot dog who The Doctor adopted for much of the 70s.

This was huge for me, since Sarah Jane and K-9 were right out of my childhood. My earliest Who episodes were Tom Baker and Sarah Jane, and K-9 becoming a part of the Tardis crew was the greatest non-Jedi and non-Ghostbuster thing tiny me had ever seen. So having them back was brilliant. Sarah Jane seeing the Tardis for the first time in decades, K-9 back in action, and Rose seeing the first thing that’s truly scared her since she started travelling in the Tardis… the possibility that she could be left behind one day. And it doesn’t hurt that the episode is very well done, features a pivotal character beat for Mickey, has a great villain played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head, and one of the more simply chilling moments for Ten’s dark side. “I used to have so much mercy. One warning. That’s all you get.” This would easily have been the highlight of the year.

But then it’s followed by The Girl in the Fireplace, which is just amazing. Ten, Rose, and on his first proper Tardis voyage ever, Mickey find a spaceship run by clockwork robots and stalking a French noblewoman 3000 years in the past throughout her whole life. Yes, it’s the Moffat episode, and it’s brilliant. Hilarious in places, heartbreaking in others, one of their best historical guest stars in Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis and the uncrowned Queen of France, plenty of callback lines to his last episodes and a few lines that will be called back to in a few years. It’s a genius piece of storytelling that has one of my all-time favourite exchanges:

“It’s a spacio-temporal hyperlink.”
“What’s that?”
“No idea. Made it up. Didn’t want to say ‘Magic door.'”

And this great deleted scene.

I can’t say enough good things about The Girl in the Fireplace, so I’ll stop trying.

Low Point

I always thought it would be Love & Monsters, the first Doctor-light episode, with The Doctor and Rose barely appearing. I mean any episode with more Jackie Tyler than The Doctor can’t be all that great, can it?

But no, it’s Fear Her.

In Fear Her, a trip to 2012 to check out the London Olympics brings The Doctor and Rose into conflict with an alien being that has possessed a young girl, Chloe Webber. Chloe was traumatized by her (now dead) abusive father, and the alien comes from a race that telepathically clings to each other to endure their journeys through space. Now it’s been cut off, lacking connection to billions of friends and family, and is attempting to fight its loneliness by trapping nearby people in drawings.

This is… an annoying monster. Not horrible like the Slitheen, but just annoying. There’s an element of sympathy here, because she’s going crazy from solitude. But her method of dealing with it is inflicting real damage on people. The Doctor and Rose clash on this, correctly identifying it as a child throwing a tantrum. Rose favours discipline, The Doctor empathy… he thinks the only humane response is to find a way to get her back to her people. Once she’s reconnected to billions of her own kind, she won’t need to possess Chloe and lash out at the world.

But she is possessing Chloe and is lashing out at the world. She is trapping innocent people in living Hells and then getting mad at them for not liking it. And she comes alarmingly close to doing this to the entire world.

And she isn’t even sorry. I agree that we’re talking about a traumatized child, so The Doctor’s solution is the best one. Put things right rather than inflicting further harm. But the humane solution falls slightly flat when that punk-ass, whisper-talking, world-ruining psychopath child alien doesn’t even seem to understand why what she did was wrong.

Better hope she doesn’t get lost again, is all I’m saying.

It just makes for an unsatisfying episode.

Highlights?

The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit introduce everyone’s favourite tentacle-faced aliens, the Ood, and are a nicely tense two-parter. Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel are the lynchpin of series two, and allow Mickey to finally be more than the “tin dog” of Rose’s pals and gals. And Tooth and Claw features Queen Victoria, shaolin monks, and a werewolf. I have hooked people on this show with that description alone.

Skippables?

You know, I just don’t love everything in between The Satan Pit and Army of Ghosts. Huh. That turns out to only be two episodes. Love & Monsters and Fear Her. I made my feelings clear regarding Fear Her, and Love & Monsters is just a little… disposable. If you’re going to introduce a bunch of lovable losers and have them become a make-shift family only to start immediately killing them off, make it a better episode.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: I mentioned Anthony Head. Future companion and Sense8’s Best Girlfriend Ever, Freema Agyeman, has a brief role in Army of Ghosts, which is retconned to be her future character’s weirdly identical cousin. They don’t say “weirdly identical,” that’s me, because I have seven cousins and none of us look that similar to each other. Sophia Myles is the titular Girl in the Fireplace, but maybe only I know her from stuff? You might not. Harry Potter’s Moaning Myrtle is a member of LINDA in Love & Monsters.

The Face of Boe is back, with a message for The Doctor that he isn’t quite ready to deliver. In The Doctor’s words… “That is enigmatic. That is textbook enigmatic.”

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Brilliant!” followed closely by “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” But his signature line debuts in the second to last episode.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: As mentioned, we double up this season with Queen Victoria and Madame de Pompadour.

Saddest moment: “I suppose, if it’s my last chance to say it… Rose Tyler–”

Next time, The Doctor’s on the rebound with the first Companion of Colour.

Overthinking Doctor Who Part One: Back from the Dead

Look, if I can spend eleven posts talking about The Office, I can probably manage a few about Doctor Who.

Anyone who knows me… or takes even one look around my living room… knows how much I love Doctor Who. Always have, as far back as I can remember. There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

Series One: “I’m The Doctor, by the way, what’s your name?”

Series one (“series” is British for “season,” and the way their TV shows work, a more apt description) was a miracle. A gift. Doctor Who had been off televisions, more or less, for almost twenty years. The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace had wandered off, and that was it. Save for radio dramas. And the infamous American TV movie, an attempt to launch an American Doctor Who series… on Fox.

That feels like a bad match, network-wise, but in the dark years before Netflix and Amazon Prime it’s hard to think of a network that would be better.

And the weird thing is, as much as we disliked it at the time… enough that I’ve owned it on DVD for years, but still haven’t actually watched it since 1996… it actually serves as a bridge between the languidly paced cliffhanger serial that was old Who, and the more action-driven series it’s become.

So the first series had a daunting job ahead of it. They had to appeal to old-school fans, but also win over a new generation. A generation who might not be used to the BBC’s bargain-basement effects. But they did a decent job. In fact, I’d say a great job.

It’s easy to look down on series one, given that every series is an improvement on the one before it* until… look, series eight had its issues, I don’t deny that. But it is fun, and it’s charming, and it does a solid job of making you love its central characters, whose largest flaw is that they get a little overshadowed by their replacements.

*In my opinion, which is the one we’re listening to here.

The Doctor

Christopher Eccleston had the job of re-introducing TV’s favourite Time Lord. And while the Tennants and Smiths to come may have overshadowed him, that’s not his fault. His material was… slightly dodgy. His Doctor, when you pay attention, is actually pretty great.

A major theme of series one isn’t entirely apparent until you look back on it years later. But the hints are there. Nine is fresh out of the unspeakable, indescribable, and most certainly unfilmable horrors of the Time War. Right before meeting Rose, he (as far as he knows) wiped out his own species, burned his own homeworld, in the desperate hopes of stopping the last great Time War before it could end all of existence.

And that’s the Doctor Eccleston plays. A man haunted by his own deeds, still grappling with the trauma of unspeakable conflict ended with an unbearable price. He’s the last of the Time Lords, and the only way he can deal with that is to grab onto a new companion and run as fast as he can from adventure to adventure.

Nine has a pretty great sense of humour, to be sure, but if you watch closely, you notice something… it’s a defense mechanism. He’s never more jovial than when he’s covering up his own pain and sorrow. This means he’s thoroughly pleasant when he meets Rose, but that’s mostly because he’s freshly regenerated from his Time War self, as we can surmise from him apparently seeing his face for the first time in his second scene.

He’s also got a temper, and is swift to turn on any humans who let him down or seem to be serving a greater evil. When someone helping run a series of game shows that slaughter their contestants states they’re only doing their job, she gets a swift and cold “And with that sentence you’ve lost the right to talk to me.” On the other hand, show promise and he warms up to you. And in Dalek, he begins to shake the trauma of the Time War. He begins to heal, to walk the path away from destruction and towards becoming the everyone’s-best-pal Doctors that are Ten and Eleven.

This progression builds to a head in the season finale, when he finds himself confronted with the same choice that ended the Time War: burn a planet, kill billions of innocents, to end the Daleks. And his choice, in that moment, sums up Nine’s 13 episode journey. The Daleks ask… is he a coward, or a murderer?

“A coward,” he says, abandoning his plan. “Every time.”

Anti-Moffat fans are known to say “Never skip Nine,” out of respect for what Eccleston accomplished. On this, and this alone, we agree. As to Eleven going back on what Nine said, they can get stuffed. But that’s a future discussion.

The Companion

Unpopular opinion coming… Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is the worst contemporary companion. Fight me.

She has her strengths, sure. She is, in her way, exactly what the PST-ridden Ninth Doctor needs. An innocent, filled with curiosity, wonder, and unshakable goodness. She pushes Nine to be a better man by refusing to accept he could be anything else. The Doctor refuses to burn the Earth to stop the Daleks because of Rose’s influence. A classic trope: the companion saves The Doctor so that The Doctor can save everyone. She’s also not without her moments of intuition.

That said.

She is not, when you get down to it, all that useful. For every monster she plays a key role in defeating, there’s a situation she makes actively worse, or an episode where she just collapses into a weepy mess. Mostly she’s there to coo over The Doctor while he saves the day, and improbably believes she represents her species at their best.

And then there’s her daddy issues.

She’s so obsessed with the father who died when she was a baby, she tears a hole in the fabric of time and nearly dooms the entire Earth. Say what you like about Clara Oswald, she never almost wiped out humanity because she was selfish and stupid about history.

Bad Wolf

Russell T. Davies, the man who brought Doctor Who back to television, didn’t really do season arcs. What he would do is have some sort of recurring reference that would finally pay off in the last two episodes of the series. In this case, it’s the words “Bad Wolf.”

The words haunt The Doctor and Rose, being spoken or appearing as text in nearly every episode, until in Boomtown they finally begin to notice and think it’s odd. Why is this happening? Frankly… it’s weird.

Turns out Rose, imbued in the finale with god-like powers by the Heart of the Tardis, planted those words everywhere she and The Doctor had been as a message to herself, that she could in fact get back to the future and save The Doctor.

Sounds… sounds kind of dodgy, doesn’t it? Well, it… mostly works. And the finale also pays off threads started in two of series one’s best episodes, Dalek and The Long Game, so there’s a sense of everything coming together.

That said… anti-Moffat people sometimes complain that Moffat relied on deus ex machina endings. In The Parting of the Ways, Rose gets godlike powers from the Tardis, uses them to magically fix all of their problems, and then The Doctor makes her all better with a kiss.

So if deus ex machinas bother you in the Moffat years, I have to ask what the Hell show you were watching up until then.

The Supporting Cast

The revival of Doctor Who introduced a new element that the classic series never really had: the idea that The Doctor’s companions have friends and family back home that they want to keep in touch with. Normally a companion would get swept up (or assigned to him by UNIT*), bounce around time and space with The Doctor, and eventually get dropped off somewhere to live their post-Tardis life (or, in one case… not). Well, except for Jon Pertwee’s main companions, who didn’t get to travel much.

But Rose Tyler has a home, and she even chooses to check in with it now and again, which allows Russell T. Davies to launch his favourite recurring theme: Everyone’s Mother is Awful.

That’s… I’m not saying that. I don’t even agree with that. My mother isn’t awful, yours probably isn’t either. But if you’re a companion to a Davies-era Doctor, you’re probably unpleasant.

(If you’re the mother of a Moffat-era companion, you’re probably dead. Neither trend is ideal.)

So. Jackie Tyler.

Rose’s overbearing mother turns up no less than six times over the first series, and she’s a nuisance in five of them. Overprotective, over talkative, and we see where Rose gets her weepiness. Jackie Tyler represents, personifies the humdrum, empty life that Rose is trying to escape. There might be real love between the Tyler women, but the one good thing she does in series one is help Rose leave again in the finale.

But we also see where Rose gets her “take no crap from man, god, or Dalek” attitude from, because if her daughter’s in danger, she’ll take no crap from a Time Lord. Which rarely accomplishes anything, and in fact at one point puts the whole world in danger, but still?

And then we have Mickey Smith. Known at times as “Mickey the Idiot,” he actually deserves a bit more respect than the show cares to give him. Mickey is Rose’s kind of useless boyfriend, who she quickly and happily abandons to see all of time and space. This… damages his life. A lot. Mickey never fully gets over Rose, but also learns that he’ll never really have a key place in her life. She’ll always run off with The Doctor, but lord save him, he’ll still come running when she calls.

Mickey is a prototype for a later, better companion. He exists to not be caught up in The Doctor’s aura, to never fall for his charms, to be the first to point out the damage he’s capable of leaving in his wake. Trouble is, he mostly just comes across as whiny and jealous. But he still has his uses. In Rose, he’s Rose Tyler’s boat anchor. By World War III, he’s learning to hack global defense agencies. But mostly he’s just here to be angry that Rose will never choose him over The Doctor.

And there’s one more of note, but we’ll get to him in a minute.

*Unified Intelligence Taskforce, the UN organization that deals with all these alien invasions and whatnot. They’ll come up again.

The Monsters: Good, Bad, and Ugly

The Big Bad: They waste little time (five episodes, to be precise) before getting to the biggest bads in Doctor Who history… the Daleks. They hang a lampshade on all the easily mockable aspects of the classic pepper pots of death… having a plunger for an arm, being seemingly unable to handle stairs… and then push past them. The plunger arm kills a guy, and with post-80s effects, making a Dalek fly is easy enough. One Dalek slaughters his way through dozens of armed guards. And then they dare you to feel empathy for the perfect killing machine.

The Good: The Editor in The Long Game is a top-notch example of a frequent type of Who villain, the human all too willing to sell out his species for power and profit. And he’s played by Simon Pegg, who’s delightful in the role. See also Dalek’s human villain, Henry van Statten.

And future showrunner Steven Moffat shows how he can create classic, creepy villains with just a few flourishes. The Empty Child’s titular villain, a small boy in a gasmask stalking the homeless children of Blitz-era London, is damned unsettling.

The Bad: The goddamn Slitheen. I’ll come back to that.

The Gelf, aliens that use gas to inhabit the bodies of the dead, aren’t really anything to write home about.

The Ugly: Man those bat/vulture aliens from Father’s Day are some bad, cheap CG. Good thing that episode’s real villain is Rose Tyler’s daddy issues.

High Point

The final five minutes of The Doctor Dances are, without question, the most beautiful five minutes of the year. One of the most beautiful sequences of the show’s first five years, frankly. And the road to that point is a fantastic two-parter.

See, Steven Moffat didn’t get asked to replace Davies as showrunner for no reason. During the Davies era, Moffat would come in, write one story per series, and it would be the best one. Or one of them, anyway. In this case, it’s The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances.

We’ve got a brilliant monster in the titular Empty Child (the phrase “Are you my Mummy?” will freak you right out), some perfect subtle scares, a heartbreaking and then heart lifting plot, and the best lines of the year. Anything The Doctor has to say about bananas is gold.

And if that’s not enough, it’s also the first appearance of John Barrowman as time-travelling con artist turned defender of mankind, Captain Jack Harkness. The omni-sexual time traveller out for redemption is a fan-favourite, and you’ll love him too. I mean, he was the first character to get a spinoff for a reason.

Low Point

The goddamn Slitheen.

Aliens of London and World War Three have their moments. Harriet Jones, MP, is a fun and ultimately important character, and this is her debut. Also, Rose’s mother finds out what exactly Rose has been up to, when an attempt to stop off at home 12 hours after they first left goes askew and they discover Rose has been presumed missing for 12 months.

However.

The A-plot to this two parter is simply insufferable. The Slitheen, a family of murderous alien criminals, seize control of the UK in an attempt to nuke the Earth and sell off the slag. All with shit-eating grins and an overwhelming amount of fart jokes. They are actively painful to watch. As a result, this two-parter is virtually irredeemable.

I hate it when the annoying villains get two-parters. That’s two episodes of Nine’s very short run they burned on this train wreck. The Slitheen got one more (admittedly improved) appearance later in the year, and then were banished to the even more kid-friendly* spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures.

*Yes, despite how obsessed adults get with this show, and despite the body count, in the UK it is still largely considered children’s programming. Go figure.

Highlights?

It’s remarkable how much the show improves the second you get away from the Slitheen. Dalek, The Long Game, those are classics by any measure.

Rose is probably still the second best introductory episode ever (my favourite is yet to come), because, well, it had to be. But those first few lines from The Doctor sold me on Nine right away, from his simple intro line (“Run!”) to actually introducing himself (“Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!”). It was a perfect, high-speed into to the central character.

Skippables?

Look, I tried this time, I really tried, to get through the whole first series without skipping anything. But I can’t. I just can’t. The Slitheen are awful. Smug, campy, farty, painful to watch. I can’t go back.

And if the early production values annoy you, or the high camp levels, there is a streamlined approach I’ve recommended in the past. Skip from The End of the World all the way to Dalek. All you’ll miss in The Unquiet Dead is the first of a seven-series long tradition of historical guest stars and a meta-joke that comes from one of the cast turning up in the Who-spinoff Torchwood a couple of years down the line.

You can skip Father’s Day if you like. I think the emotional payoff works, but it is most defintely Rose Tyler at her very worst. And if you’ve skipped Aliens of London and World War Three to avoid the goddamn Slitheen, you may as well also skip Boomtown. The Slitheen in question has improved as a villain, she has an amusing philosophical showdown with The Doctor, Captain Jack is in it, and the resolution sets up something kind of important, so it’s hardly all bad. However, it’s still a Slitheen episode, and the B plot is a relatively empty and meaningless character beat for Mickey and Rose, so it’s not all great either. If your goal is to reach the greener pastures of David Tennant’s run… well, you can always come back later.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: Not something old-school Who was known for (save for a 70s cameo by John Cleese), but new Who manages a few. Simon Pegg is the most notable in The Long Game, which also features Black Books and Green Wings Tamsin Grieg. Penelope Wilton of Shaun of the Dead and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is backbench MP Harriet Jones, who we’ll be seeing more of. And notable British actor Simon Callow is the first historical guest star, Charles Dickens, in The Unquiet Dead.

Perhaps the very best explanation for how British The Doctor is comes in the first episode:
“If you’re an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the north?”
“Lots of planets have a north!”

“Bananas are good.”

The End of the World introduces the Face of Boe. He’s gonna be important.

Rose hints at visiting other worlds, but they must all be off-camera. Series one never makes it further away from Earth than orbit.

Doctor Quote of the Series: “Fantastic!”

Saddest moment: Heartbreak is inevitable on this show, but the hardest hits come from Pete Tyler’s big sacrifice in Father’s Day and the end of Nine in The Parting of the Ways.

Next time… welcome to the Tardis, Mr. Tennant. It’s going to be brilliant.

Overthinking The Office Part 9.5: Goodbye, Farewell, That’s What She Said

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are the last of mine.

For now.

Preparing for the End

The final episode of The Office takes place one year after the release of the documentary (which happened in the previous episode), as the crew returns to Scranton (just in time for Angela and Dwight’s wedding) to film some bonus material for the DVD. I could spend this last Office blog just walking you through all the ups and downs, twists and turns that lead to that point, but instead I want to talk about endgames. When you know you’re into your final season, you get to decide how you want to go out. Where the final leg of the journey is going, and where your characters will be at the end of it. Clark becomes Superman, Buffy destroys the Hellmouth (and Sunnydale), JD leaves Sacred Heart, the humans and Cylons make peace and settle on a new… no, screw it, God doesn’t know what was happening in that finale. Then, you figure out the best way to get there.

No one in The Office’s ensemble gets neglected in season nine, even the new guys, but the big finale of The Office was always going to revolve around the leads, or at least the firsts among equals in the cast. With Michael gone (and Ryan, who despite being in the opening credits, was never really a “lead”), that’s Dwight, Jim, Pam, and Andy. Now, as melancholy as the early seasons were, and as ongoing a theme as self-deception was, they weren’t going to go out on a sad note like the entire branch being shut down or something. The melancholy days were well past by now. Greg Daniels himself moved past them before stepped back from showrunner after season four. Jim and Pam were together, Michael had met Holly, and the threat of downsizing was massively reduced, if not yet gone completely.

Not everyone gets a happy ending, no. Andy, as we discussed, is at most bittersweet, and his ending best fits the theme of self-deception. Sorry to jump back on Andy, but my latest rewatch has been opening my eyes to the fact that, despite his actual vocal talent, Andy’s not actually that good at a capella. Witness his “guitar solo” in season five’s “Heavy Competition,” his reliance on “Root doo da doo” and awkward falsetto, or just how much worse his attempted father/son duet in “Garden Party” is compared to Walters Sr. and Jr. And in the name of Buddha and all his wacky nephews, for his make-or-break reality show singing audition, he picked the Cornell fight song? Oh, Nard-dog. Success was never yours to claim.

Where was I. Right. Some characters don’t even get an “ending,” per se, because Dunder Mifflin lives on and some people (Phyllis, for instance) just keep on as they were. But they were still aiming for a big, heartwarming ending, and that required two ingredients: Jim and Pam happy ever after, and Dwight K. Shrute as regional manager.

At least, I’m 90% sure that was the plan. After all, Dwight’s British equivalent, Gareth, ended up manager.

So… let’s see how they got there.

Jim and Pam: Marriage in Crisis

As I’ve said in the past, nothing they threw at Jim and Pam’s relationship ever felt like a legitimate threat. Distance only made their hearts grow fonder. No outsider could ever lure them away from each other, be it Mad Men’s Rich Sommer or… Cathy? That was her name, right? Man. She’s like the Silence from Doctor Who, once she’s out of your eyeline you forget she was there…

So in order to create a real conflict for the Halperts to drive their final story, they had to get a little more creative. They had to create a situation in which neither of them is 100% right, neither is 100% wrong… but one of them has to lose. That situation? Athlead.

An old college buddy of Jim’s decides to push forward with a sports marketing company he and Jim had discussed back in the day, and Jim, staring down the barrel of spending the rest of his days selling paper, decides to reverse what he and Pam had decided and jump in. The catch? In addition to soaking up $10,000 of their savings (instead of $5000, which Pam had eventually agreed to), the new company is in Philadelphia. Which would mean uprooting the family and leaving both Dunder Mifflin and Scranton.

And Pam did not spend nine years with Roy because she’s great at change.

In the premiere, while Jim is seeing Pete’s lack of life plan and wondering what happened to all of his own career dreams, Pam is telling Dwight “I happen to like my boring life, and will do what I have to to keep it.” Admittedly she was saying this to explain why she wasn’t going to help with an extremely dangerous and ill-thought-out high wire routine, but still, here we have the seed of their conflict.

And before you leap onto Jim’s side, and I know how easy to do that is, he did not really consult Pam. He joined the company without asking Pam (or more accurately, after Pam and he had agreed against it), doubled their investment without asking Pam, then started living in Philadelphia for half the week, leaving Pam alone with their two young children. Pam was kind of an afterthought in Jim’s new big career/lifestyle, and wow, I have been staunchly pro-Jim in this plot for years but I’m starting to talk myself out of it.

Also Brian the boom mic guy clearly had a thing for her but that didn’t really go anywhere.

The Athlead situation comes as close to splitting up Jim and Pam as anything had since her wedding to Roy drove him to Stamford. At what seemed like the 11th hour, Jim, who had been torn between his dream career and his dream wife, had a moment of clarity as to which of those he could live without, and stepped away from the company he helped found to rededicate himself to his wife and kids. And to subtly pranking the newly promoted Dwight.

Which led to a revelation for Pam. Between disbelief from Darryl (who Jim took with him to Athlead) that Jim could really be happy selling paper, hearing that the company was finally becoming a big success but Jim was passing on being part of it, and seeing him regress from having pride an ambition in his work to slacking off and devoting his energies to pranking Dwight, she had a revelation of her own. Jim saw what Athlead might cost him, Pam saw what asking him to stay at Dunder Mifflin meant giving up. But Jim, being confident in his choice, enlists the Documentarians in pulling off a reassuring gesture you just need to see.

That said. Having seen that Jim was willing to sacrifice his dream career for her, Pam decided that maybe she could sacrifice her safe, stable, boring Scranton life to take a risk with him (even before the fans at the reunion panel PBS organized were firmly Team Jim). Pam sells their house (with the help of Michael’s ex, Carol), and the Halperts leave not for Philadelphia but Athlead’s (now Athleap) new home in Austin, Texas. All is well for the Halpert family.

So they kind of pulled a Gift of the Magi. In order to sail into a new, better life (for Jim because of the dream career and for Pam because after a few months of not having to live with Angela’s snipes and Meredith’s calls of “Little Miss Thing wants attention” she is not even going to miss these people), they each first had to prove that what mattered most was each other. Jim by sacrificing Athlead, and Pam by giving it back.

But the problem with hanging a happy ending on Jim and Pam is that Athlead and Austin don’t change the fact that they got their happy ending way back in season six. New city and better career (for Jim) is a nice bow on an ending that basically just re-affirmed the status quo. So Athlead became the finale’s B-plot, and the Big Happy went to Dwight.

The Face Turn of Dwight K. Schrute

Now there are a couple of issues with hanging a happy ending on Dwight and Angela. The first is that some of the producers (and actor Rainn Wilson) wanted to keep the Dwight train rolling, and were pitching a spinoff called The Farm, which would have involved Dwight and his previously unseen non-Mose family running a new, larger Schrute Farm (Michael Schur was far too busy running Parks and Recreation to play Mose on the regular). So while they waited for word from NBC on whether or not that would go forward, a large part of Dwight’s endgame was put on hold… that part being whether or not Dwight and Angela would ever find their way back together, as all appearances were that Angela was not heading to The Farm.

The other issue is that these are not characters who, by and large, had thus far earned a happy ending. Dwight may have become more beloved by viewers than we would have expected at the beginning, but every time he’d been handed authority he abused it instantly. And Angela has been straight up awful. So some steps would need to be taken to pave a path to happily ever after.

The main one, and that fact that it starts happening early is the reason I think Dwight was always meant to end up regional manager, was getting Dwight to a point where he could be in power and not be a train wreck. This happens in episode four, “Work Bus.” It begins with yet another Dwight-as-authoritarian overstep, but as he and Jim butt heads in a more intense fashion than anything since the snowball fight, Jim actually breaks Dwight, and triggers a rare moment of camaraderie between the old nemeses. Dwight believes himself to be infertile, having been deceived about the parentage of Angela’s baby (while The Farm was still in play, we were all led to believe Dwight wasn’t the father), and Jim convinces him to view his coworkers as his family. Something Dwight even had a German word for to encourage him. And so begins a change in Dwight, from the would-be dictator out to crush or eliminate the staff, to a benevolent dictator who only trims off the truly deserving.

Shortly after taking command (at an occasion where I’m not 100% sure who’s filming it, as the Documentarians should have wrapped), Dwight does fire a couple of people… Kevin (for gross incompetence) and Toby (who in fairness checked out years ago), but he also hires on new people, and treats the remaining staff surprisingly well. And he does eventually live out his old dream of firing Jim, but when it happens, it’s out of love… he fires Jim and Pam before they can quit to leave for Austin, sending them on their way with a year’s salary each as severance.

Now, Angela.

Angela has long been the most insufferable member of the ensemble. Judgmental, bullying, demanding that the staff live up to a repressive puritan lifestyle that she herself consistently fails at living. And she’d been extra smug ever since she got together with (State) Senator Robert Lipton. You remember this… the (State) Senator is secretly gay, and everyone on staff seems to know that except her? We talked about it in season seven, and the fact that this story had a long fuse. Well, the fuse reaches the gunpowder pretty quickly this year, as Oscar starts seeing the Senator behind her back. Which causes, shall we say, tension in the workplace when she catches on. With the documentary’s release imminent, an advance review makes it clear that everything is about to, excuse the expression, come out, and Robert makes a choice: he comes out live on television, and announces his relationship with… his press secretary.

It’s a little heartbreaking for Oscar, to be sure, but Angela loses nearly everything. First she’s forced to stand next to her husband on live TV while he says that marrying her helped him come to terms with his homosexuality, as she showed him how “charmless” he finds the female body. Then in rapid succession, she loses her husband, her home, whatever nanny or team of nannies was tending to Phillip so that she her to rub her perfectly poised supermom routine in Pam’s face, and after being forced into a studio apartment, she even loses her cats. And then the apartment. Plus she’s about to lose her moral Christian reputation, as her years-long affair with Dwight is about to be broadcast to the world. She’s left with nothing but her job and her son (who clearly means slightly less than her cats), and ends up living in Oscar’s walk-in closet.

That would have been an appropriate place to leave her. Lord knows she earned it. But having lost everything humbles her enough that when The Farm fell through, we could be on board with Angela and Dwight getting back together. She is a wreck of a human being when she tries to convince Andy not to quit his job in a futile chase for stardom, and by that point, even I think that maybe she’s suffered enough. And come on… those two dysfunctional weirdos belong with each other. And no one else deserves them.

Plus, the wedding of Dwight and Angela is just weird enough that it’s an appropriately “The Office” way to sign off.

The Finale

At the time, I wasn’t certain how I felt about the finale. It gets most of its joy and sentimentality from characters who spent much of the series playing the villain, and so while it is a delight to watch, I wasn’t sure how earned it all was.

Following the wedding, there’s a farewell party back at the office thrown by PBS. While the network executives whoop it up in the warehouse, the Dunder Mifflin staff and the Documentarians head upstairs for a sweet little goodbye party. Sure, it’s not goodbye for everyone… six of them are back to work on Monday. But this farewell again for at least as many, even before we count the film people who’ve been around filming everyone for the last decade, and a new goodbye for two more, as Jim and Pam won’t be back.

It’s not as beautiful as the final moments of Scrubs’ eighth season finale (stupid ninth season keeping that from any “best series finale” list). But it’s sweet, and it’s funny, the return appearances are pretty perfect, there is the occasional moment to lure out tears. I couldn’t say it was perfect, but I also couldn’t think of a thing I’d change about it. Still can’t.

Key Episodes

“New Guys” for the introduction of Pete and Clark, who are, as I said, delightful. “Andy’s Ancestry” brings Darryl into Athlead. “The Boat” writes Andy out for a while, and “Couple’s Discount” reveals that his return is nothing to be celebrated. “The Whale,” “Suit Warehouse,” and “Stairmaggedon” are the best team-ups of Dwight and Dwight Jr (Clark). “Customer Loyalty” is when Brian makes his entry and the Documentarians take their first full step beyond the fourth wall. “Promos” is when the existence of the documentary fully enters the story.

And “AARM” and “Finale” take us home.

Skippables

Let’s talk “backdoor pilots.” A backdoor pilot is an episode of a TV show that exists to set up a spinoff, rather than give said spinoff a standard pilot episode. Take, for example, the episode of CSI where Catherine follows a suspect to Miami, where she meets up with David Caruso and his CSI team. Then years later, David Caruso followed a perp to New York, where he met the CSI New York team. That sort of thing.

Backdoor pilots can be weird for binge-watchers. On the one hand, Jess on Gilmore Girls travelling to Venice Beach to see his father makes perfect sense. On the other, if you’re watching Bones on Netflix and suddenly a whole episode gets handed over to someone called The Finder, that’s a little jarring. And it’s especially jarring when it’s a backdoor pilot for a spinoff that didn’t get picked up, introducing us to a bunch of characters we’ll never see again.

Which brings us to The Farm.

The Farm was set up through a backdoor pilot in the back half of the season. Dwight’s Aunt Shirley passes away, and her video will gives a challenge: she’ll leave her enormous farm to Dwight and his siblings if they run it together. This is our first time meeting Dwight’s farmer brother (“After I left the army, I bought a 9-acre worm farm from a Californian. Turns out “worm” means something else out there. And, I am now in the business of… pain management. Or, the smoking of pain management.”) and his single mom sister, and our second time meeting his non-Mose cousin Zeke. Some might see this sudden introduction of siblings as being out of left field, like when Frasier invented a father and brother for Frasier Crane that didn’t match and even actively contradicted what we knew about his family from Cheers, but the fact is that they’d always been clear about the Schrutes being a large family. Dwight obviously had siblings, this was just our first time meeting any of them.

First and only.

Between filming the episode and writing the finale, The Farm was rejected by NBC. And in the wake of it all, they began walking back everything that happened. Dwight’s new farm became a sidenote, as his rise to Regional Manager became his one, true endgame. Dwight’s new love interest became just an obstacle for Angela.

And Dwight’s siblings don’t even show up at his wedding.

Kind of makes that episode feel pointless. Although if you skip it, you will miss the final appearance of Todd Packer.

Notable Guest Stars?

So, so many. In terms of returning players, Pam and Jim have to attend Roy’s wedding at the beginning of the season (also appearing, his dolt brother); Jan makes two last appearances (one over the phone) as the new head of the White Pages, the county’s biggest paper client; Josh Groban returns as Andy’s younger, more loved brother; Nancy Carell makes one last appearance as realtor Carol Stills; Todd Packer turns up one last time with drugged “apology” cupcakes; the stripper from Ben Franklin and Fun Run works Dwight’s bachelor party while Merdith’s son (first seen in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”); and of all people, Devin (unseen since season two’s Halloween, save for a deleted scene) gets hired back to replace Creed.

Also Kelly, Ryan, and even Michael are all back for the wedding. Michael only has two lines, one of which is a final “That’s what she said.”

Lucifer’s Rachel Harris turns up for the wedding as Angela’s sister.

Mr. Show/Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk turns up as a real estate office manager Pam interviews with, who turns out to be a carbon copy of early Michael Scott.

One last Daily Show veteran as Stephen Colbert plays Andy’s old friend/nemesis, Broccoli Rob.

Michael Imperioli turns up as Dwight’s new sensei.

A bunch of athletes someone other than me might recognise pass through Athlead.

Dakota Johnson and Better Off Ted’s Malcolm Barrett are new hires in the finale, replacing Kevin and Stanley.

And Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr. are perfectly cast as Erin’s long-lost birth parents.

Final Thoughts

Is The Office perfect? No, it drags in places and the cringe comedy can misfire. The cast is solid, but not quite the sitcom supercasts of Newsradio, Arrested Development, or Brooklyn 99. Speaking of that last one, The Office has left an impressive legacy, serving as the prototype for the knockout follow-up Parks and Recreation and its successor, Brooklyn 99, both from Michael Schur, who has now brought us the hilarious, if entirely different, The Good Place. That dude moves from success to success.

The Office may not be the most clever, nor the most touching, but succeeds at both often enough that it’s endlessly endearing and, to me and others, endlessly rewatchable.

Even if you may never, ever be on board with Angela and Andy as a couple. Jesus, Andy. Way to over-commit to a bad idea.

Thanks for joining me on this journey, those who did. Next time, let’s talk Oscar nominees. Or nerd stuff. A little of both to come.

Overthinking the Office Part 9: Beginning of the End

And we’re back.

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Final Season

There’s something about a final season that knows it’s the final season. When the creators have a chance to build a satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t always work out, no denying that… Lost had three years to prepare, and Battlestar Galactica had a year-long break mid “season” (if you’re off the air for 12 months, how is it still season four, BSG? HOW?), but they infamously fell short. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s final season is very much a “leave everything on the field” story, but nobody considers it one of their best. Losing the creator/showrunner and her writer/producer husband hamstrung the final season of Gilmore Girls. I would, however, argue that each of those is better than the poor shows that were cancelled unexpectedly after ending the season on a cliffhanger, like Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles, Carnivale (had it ended just two minutes earlier…), My Name Is Earl, or the most unnecessarily dark finale for a family-friendly show of all time, Alf.

“And then the main character is taken to a secret government torture lab. The end.”

But the really good or great series finales all have one thing in common… they all knew it was coming.

So after giving up on The Office after Tallahassee, when I heard that the upcoming ninth season of the show would officially be its last, they regained my attention. Especially when I heard it would feature an important return.

(Not Steve Carell. Let’s just rip that band-aid off now.)

Return of the King

A few things necessitated The Office bringing itself to a close. In addition to being just long in the tooth (something that doesn’t seem to be stopping The Simpsons or Supernatural, but there are plenty willing to argue “maybe it should”), they were beginning to haemorrhage key personnel. Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, of course, had been gone since late season seven. The fall of Sabre at the end of season eight meant the departure of James Spader’s Robert California and, more unfortunately, Zach Woods as Gabe Lewis. But far more significant? Writer/producer Mindy “Kelly Kapoor” Kaling left to do The Mindy Project on Fox, and took writer/producer BJ “Ryan Howard” Novak with her, meaning season nine’s “How we spent our summer” montage included the departures of Kelly and Ryan. And Ed Helms was only willing to come back part time. So with all of these departures, it took one return to revitalise the show… series creator Greg Daniels.

See, for all the departures we’ve covered, from the Roys and Jans all the way to Michael Scott, we haven’t discussed all the comings and goings behind the scenes. Greg Daniels brought the show to America and refined the Gervais/Merchant clone of season one to the golden years of seasons two and three. But after four seasons at the helm, Daniels and writer/producer/Cousin Mose Michael Schur left to create Parks and Recreation (and who could begrudge them that?), leaving Jennifer Celotta and Paul “Toby” Lieberstein in charge. Celotta left two years later, leaving only Lieberstein in charge (which probably explains Toby’s diminished role during the Sabre years).

I don’t know if he was just burnt out, being the last showrunner standing, but season eight proved that he just wasn’t able to maintain the show’s quality. So you can understand how I was excited to have the original creator– fine, original adaptor back.

Having Daniels back in charge meant a few things. More natural, earned romance arcs for one. The best Jim prank in years, for another. But most significantly, the Documentarians re-entered the story in a big way. No, they’d never really gone… the talking head sections never stopped, and there was the odd reaction to the cameras’ presence (particularly when Michael left for Colorado or when Dwight tried to get Angela to admit little Phillip was his baby), but they’d dialed back considerably. There were multiple moments where the presence of the cameras would/should have been a bigger deal.

Not so in season nine. In the premiere, they take their first step from behind the scenes and into the story, as we hear one of their voices for the first time. Jim and Pam ask why the crew is still coming back year after year, and they admit that at this point they’re just curious what happens to Jim and Pam (which sparks one of the year’s big arcs but we’ll get back to that). Later, we get our first glimpse at the crew, as Brian the boom mic guy breaks the cone of silence to comfort Pam after a hard day. Oscar asks the crew for discretion after his new relationship is revealed, only to hilariously realise he’s just let Kevin in on the secret.

And as the season comes to a close, promos for the documentary begin popping up on the internet, and the Dunder Mifflin staff realise just how much of their lives has been filmed.

The unseen, unsung, hidden leads of the show finally get their day in the sun, and the documentary becomes the lynchpin of the final episodes.

But first, there were some gaps in the cast to be filled.

The New Guys

If there’s one thing that revitalized the show in its final year and kept it from being a slow crawl to the finale, it’s the additions made to replace the departing Kelly, Ryan, etc.

Following a contentious battle for the manager position with Andy, Catherine Tate’s Nellie Bertram is still around, and she’s even funnier in season nine. She’s freed of the manipulative, ambitious streak that defined her earlier appearances, and is able to just be quirky and part of the team. They even come up with a cute explanation for the softening of her character, after the documentary promos come out and everyone begins realising what they were filmed doing. “I sneezed into the candy bowl!” Nellie exclaims. “I thought I’d get more screen time as a villain!”

Now, many shows add people as they go along. Sometimes it’s a Poochie scenario, and the addition doesn’t really work. Think Conner on Angel, Riley on Buffy, or Nikki and Paolo on Lost. Added, swiftly dropped, never missed. Other times, they fit right in, as if they should have been there since the beginning. We saw this back in season six with Erin. And sometimes they manage to find that perfect fit character just as the show is ending. Scrubs managed it with Denise the surly intern (the always delightful Eliza Coupe), and The Office pulled it off with Pete and Clark, aka Plop and Dwight Jr.

Played by Jake Lacy and Darryl’s Hot Tub Time Machine co-star Clark Duke, Pete (swiftly, randomly, and to his unending chagrin nicknamed “Plop” by Andy) and Clark (nicknamed Dwight Jr. for his resemblance to Dwight), the new customer relations staff become indispensable pretty quickly.

Clark brings a blend of low-key yet determined ambition and ethical flexibility that makes him a perfect partner in crime for Dwight… yet he’s still grounded enough to be baffled at how said shenanigans end up going. A particular highlight is when Dwight, having lost hope at promotion, tranquillises Stanley to force him to attend a customer meeting. Clark goes from unwilling bystander (“Hey, c-c-can you just let me out of here before whatever comes next?”) to sidekick in the struggle to get an unconscious Stanley down the stairs and into the car, where he becomes weirdly impressed at how intuitive Dwight finds the process. (“If only there was any other use or situation for that kind of knowledge.”)

Pete falls easily into the role Ryan was supposed to have back in the early years: the new guy who isn’t desensitised to the DM shenanigans (eg. cutting off a list of insulting names Meredith claims to have been called with “Meredith! That is enough. That is more than enough. Why does no one stop her?”). But he also fits easily in with the others: in an early episode, he unites much of the staff in a quest to build a ceiling-height house of cards out of customer complaints.

Pete also comes the closest of any pairing save Michael and Holly to recapturing the old, easy chemistry of young Jim and Pam. Of course, for that to happen, someone else had to be pushed aside.

The Heel Turn of Andy Bernard

Y’all know the words, sing along… Andy Bernard is a cypher, Andy is whatever the show needs him to be. And when season nine starts, they don’t need him to be sympathetic anymore. Which is kind of awkward.

The end of season eight revolves around two things: Andy trying to win back Erin, and then trying to reclaim the manager position he lost to Nellie by driving to Florida to win back Erin. And as season nine starts, he immediately takes both of those things for granted. Okay he only takes Erin for granted immediately, it takes a few episodes for him to stop caring about the job, but it still happens. And the fact that it happens makes his and Erin’s entire eighth season arc feel hollow. Not only do Erin and Andy not end up together, we don’t even feel slightly bad about that fact. So thanks for spending three seasons trying to invest us in them as a couple, jerks.

So why does this happen? Why did they spend season eight selling us on Andy as manager and finally get him and Erin back together only to chuck all of it in season nine? Well, I think there are two reasons, and neither of them are Greg Daniels taking the reins back.

Number one, as I said, Ed Helms only came back for part of the season. He disappears for eight episodes right in the middle, as Andy decides to sail his family yacht to the Caribbean before it’s sold (Andy’s family goes broke after his father blows the family fortune, it’s a whole thing). So maybe they felt that if Andy was going to go AWOL for a third of the season, maybe it was okay for the staff/audience to resent him a little for it. But I lean towards a second theory.

When the teasers for the documentary begin to be released, Andy becomes convinced that his star is about to rise in a big way. And so he begins pursuing stardom, first through a dicey local talent agent (played by Roseanne Barr, yes that Roseanne Barr), and later by quitting Dunder Mifflin and putting all of his hope in an a cappella knockoff of American Idol (featuring American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken, Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, and some people I in no way recognise).

And when all of this happened, I couldn’t help but think that aside from the a cappella angle, which is pure Andy, this is exactly the sort of final arc Greg Daniels might have had in mind for Michael Scott seven years earlier. The belief that a few positive comments on YouTube would translate to superstardom? Doubling down on that belief despite all advice to the contrary? That is textbook Michael Scott. So it really feels like Daniels had been sitting on this endgame plot since they got picked up for a second season, and since Michael had left two years earlier, decided to hand it to Andy.

Whether or not that’s true, the fact remains that Andy was being set up for an end-of-series fall. Andy fails at his reality TV audition, has a breakdown in front of the cameras (and weren’t the producers of The Next Great A Cappella Sensation peaches for letting the Documentarians use that footage), and ends up finding fame in the worst way: his breakdown goes viral, and Andy becomes infamous worldwide as Baby Wa-wa (including an unflattering impression by Bill Hader on Saturday Night Live). He ultimately ends up working for the admissions department of Cornell, which is a decent enough turn, but still a fall.

Of all the leads, which is to say “people in the primary opening credits,” it’s the least happy ending handed out. Robert California makes out better than Andy. So maybe they felt that they had to manoeuvre Andy into a place where the audience would be on board with him getting an ending that is bittersweet at best. And if that meant turning their backs on Andy being a good manager or good boyfriend to Erin, so be it.

Next time we’ll put this series to bed by looking at the other endgames the final season presented. And then I’ll go back to ranting about Oscar nominees and geek stuff for a bit.