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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.

Overthinking the Office Part 8: Robert Californication

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.

Meet the New Boss

When we last left the drones of Dunder Mifflin, there was some uncertainly, before and behind the cameras, as to who would be taking over as the new manager with Michael Scott having departed.

The producers of MASH did kind of an interesting thing every time a cast member left. They would bring in a new character to fill the same basic role (Hawkeye’s pal, the CO, Hawkeye’s rival), but would reverse some aspect of their predecessor. Trapper John was as much of a womanizer as Hawkeye, BJ was devoted to his wife; Colonel Blake didn’t take the army seriously, Colonel Potter was career military; Frank Burns was enthusiastic about the military but only competent as a surgeon, Charles Winchester was apathetic about the army and Hawkeye’s superior as a surgeon. So did The Office go this route in season eight?

Yes and no.

The new regional manager of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch is Andy Bernard. And as I said back in part three, Andy is a cypher. He’s whatever the show needs him to be, which is why early season three Andy is barely recognizable as the same character compared to later seasons. And what they needed him to be in season eight was basically “Michael lite.” He keeps Michael’s need for acceptance, the need to be liked, but it’s toned down and its origins are made more clear. After a few seasons of hearing about how much more his parents loved his brother than him, we come face-to-face with it in Garden Party, as Andy’s family make their proper on-screen debut. To us, and to the other characters. This makes the redemptive moments when they reach out to and support Andy a little warmer, and rarely as unearned as some of Michael’s. On the flip side, however, Andy never really goes to the levels of cringe and idiocy that Michael did, meaning that while there’s no Scott’s Tots, the ceiling for his comedy is lower.

They do find some Andy-specific things to play with, though. For instance, a cold open which reveals that every day at 5:00 Andy signals the end of the work day by trying to lead the staff in a rendition of Closing Time by Third Eye Blind Semisonic. Andy doesn’t have the same relationship with Dwight that Michael did, but has a much closer relationship to Darryl than Michael ever could have had. And there is still the lingering “When will these two nuts get back together” plot with Erin, whose ending should have been triumphant but is just kind of… there. Overall, however, promoting Andy meant they didn’t have to worry too much about creating a new manager-staff dynamic, as Andy slid into Michael plots pretty easily. Especially towards the end of the series, when… next time, next time.

They did go a whole new direction, however, with Andy’s boss.

Reign of California

You know what the dumbest part of the season seven cliffhanger is? The fact that we have to be told who the new manager is at the start of season eight means that the Documentarians took their annual vacation while the new manager was being picked. Jim said “We’re going into this room and we’re not coming out until we pick a new manager,” and the Documentarians looked at the clock and said “Ah, geez, our flight’s in two hours, just catch us up in September.” Just… I know the Documentarians haven’t really been a big part of the story lately, but narratively that’s just weird.

Anyway, as Jim explains in the obligatory “How we spent our summer” catch-up talking head, James Spader’s Robert California was hired as the new manager, but after taking one look around at his new employees, he got back in his car, drove to Florida, and convinced Jo Bennett to give him her job as CEO of Sabre. It’s an entertaining build on the hypnotic quality he brought to his two scenes in Search Committee. But since The Scranton Branch Is Special (and because Robert owns a house there, and dislikes Florida), he spends half of his time working out of the Scranton conference room. Thus does James Spader not only join the ensemble, but he becomes the second of only two people to be added to the main opening credits (the first being Ed Helms, who was promoted to the opening credits… let me see… why, just after The Hangover came out, fancy that).

He’s not an obvious fit to the cast. Spader brings a very different energy than we were used to, and that’s precisely why he works. Robert California is unlike any VP, CFO, or CEO the Dunder Mifflin staff has ever dealt with, and he throws every person he interacts with delightfully off balance (save maybe Kevin). Spader’s gift for speech-making (wonderfully familiar to fans of Boston Legal) means he easily commands any scene he appears in, and the writers play into that. This is established right away, as Jim explains that when he’s in the office, he picks one staff member to lock in on for an “intense small talk.” As Jim puts it, “You just hope it’s not you. And yet, you hope it is you, too. It’s very strange.”

Andy spends the first half of the season desperately trying to curry favour. Jim is more intimidated by him than any boss or executive he’s had save for Charles Miner, the only one to actively dislike him. Dwight’s usual toadying tactics and Number Two self-importance are swatted away like biplanes circling the mighty Kong. When the show was struggling to adapt to a post-Steve Carell reality, Robert California kept things lively.

And then in the back half he disappears for six episodes, and everything begins to go wrong.

Dual Pregnancies

Another revelation in the “How we spent our summer” section? Both Pam and Angela are pregnant. And Angela’s “Senator’s Wife” smugness is cranked up to 11 as she notes how much bigger Pam’s become, calling them “Big Pregs and Little Pregs.”

And here’s what’s messed up about that.

Pam’s first pregnancy was a plot choice. Her second pregnancy was the producers writing actress Jenna Fischer’s real-life pregnancy into the show. Whereas Angela Kinsey (who plays Angela Martin/Martin-Lipton… they weren’t always super clever in devising character names) is wearing a prosthesis. So Angela spends the season passive-aggressively pointing out how much less weight she’s put on, and how much faster she loses it, and how much faster she’s back at work, and in doing so she’s making fun of Jenna Fischer’s real life pregnancy weight and maternity leave.

It just seems kind of mean. I’m sure Jenna Fischer signed off on it and everything, but still. Throw in the fact that Darryl’s plot in several episodes revolves around being attracted to Val, the new warehouse foreman, but is self-conscious about how much weight he’s put on in the last couple of years (rehab is a bitch on the ol’ waistline), season eight is a weird year for fat-shaming the cast.

When Angela’s baby is born “prematurely,” but comes out huge, it reveals that Angela got pregnant before her wedding to (State) Senator Lipton, and makes Dwight begin to suspect that Angela’s baby is a Schrute. I know what you’re thinking. Well, no. No I don’t. WordPress is not currently able to sense readers’ thoughts and email me a notification. I just know what I’m thinking, which is “What a great opportunity for Pam to shove some of Angela’s moralistic judgements about multiple lovers and getting pregnant out of wedlock” right down Angela’s throat. And you’re right, me, it would have been a great opportunity for that. But it doesn’t happen. At the very least, though, when Pam and Angela find out that they’re both planning to name their babies Phillip (Pam after her grandfather, Angela after her favourite cat, no she does not see the difference), Pam does not back down. Anyway, only Dwight and Angela (and the Documentarians) know there’s cause to think baby Phillip might be Dwight’s. The fact that the cameras are present when Dwight confronts Angela is played as a factor in her doubling down on denying the possibility.

Pam’s pregnancy leads to a new character being introduced: Cathy, Pam’s maternity replacement, who somehow sticks around after Pam’s back to work. Cathy… the second time I watched season eight (which took a while), I’d actually forgotten about Cathy. I don’t have the DVDs past season five, so I can’t be sure, but I have a suspicion that like Creed in season two, most of her material was cut for time. There may be all kinds of Cathy material in the deleted scenes. It might be funny. I don’t know. What I do know is that she’s in half of the season, but after her introduction in Pam’s Replacement, she fades mostly into the background for six episodes.

There’s a half-hearted at best romantic triangle plot going on, as her early appearances indicate she’s a little into Jim (paranoid and insecure, Pam allies with Dwight in an attempt to coerce Jim into admitting he thinks she’s attractive as well… it’s… awkward), and in the season’s major plotline, she starts making a play for him, but just like Pam and Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, it’s never presented as a major threat. Jim’s devotion to Pam is unshakeable, so Cathy’s seductions fall flat.

Let’s talk about that major plotline, now that I’ve brought it up.

Tallahassee

As the Michael Scott Paper Company was the centrepiece of season five (well, sort of, it did happen towards the end, not in the middle), the centrepiece of season eight is Tallahassee. Dwight, who had been after Robert California for a promotion, gets an opportunity… he is tasked to head to Florida to create and possibly run a chain of Sabre stores. To do so, he’s asked to build a team to bring with him. Dwight assembles his dream team of Darryl, Oscar, Angela, Phyllis, and Toby… only to be given the team of Stanley, Ryan, Erin, Cathy, and (due to gently demanding texts from Robert) Jim. Openly angered at first, Dwight comes to see this team’s potential to help make this project his path to greatness, but a couple of unexpected reunions are awaiting them in Florida.

The Sabre Store is being overseen by Sabre’s new president of special projects, Catherine Tate’s Nellie Bertram, back for the long haul after having been rejected for the manager position. Catherine Tate wasn’t available for the start of the season, but once her Shakespeare run in London was done, the producers snapped her up. Dwight’s mission is to impress Nellie in order to be made head of the Sabre Store chain, but he has competition in a returning Todd Packer, last seen heading for Florida due to a prank Jim and Dwight pulled in an attempt to get him fired.

Nobody really expected Todd Packer to outlast Michael Scott. Or at least I didn’t. But he makes a good nemesis for Dwight. Cunning, vindictive, and super easy to root against. It certainly seems like the producers felt we would all be generally on-side with Dwight by now, but hey, every little bit helps.

There are… there are strong points to the Tallahassee arc. Stanley embracing Florida life is reliably amusing. (He drinks and parties hard enough that Jim comments “I’ve spent so much of my life telling myself ‘Please, don’t end up like Stanley,’ and now I’m wondering if I even have what it takes.”) Erin’s plan to never return to Scranton, due to heartbreak over Andy’s commitment to his new love Jessica, doesn’t seem like much on paper, but Ellie Kemper doesn’t know how not to be funny. Well she probably does, she could likely manage a dramatic role, I’m just saying she’s damn funny. The test launch of the store is a solidly funny episode, filled with references to a show I dearly loved, Chuck. (Chuck is the official sponsor of Sabre’s triangle-shaped tablet, the Pyramid.) When Jim learns that Robert California plans to scuttle the Sabre store (explaining to Jim that Sabre printers are too cheap and unreliable to sell to people in person), and that Dwight will go down with it, Pam guilts Jim into doing whatever is necessary to save an incredibly smug Dwight’s job… leading to a mighty amusing fight as Jim is forced to physically block Dwight from attending the pitch to the board, allowing Todd Packer to fall in his place. (The highlight? Dwight shouting “Jackie Chan,” attempting to run up a wall, and collapsing to the ground.) But there are problems.

First of all, the bulk of the Tallahassee arc falls during Robert California’s six episode absence. He only turns up in the last chapter, just in time to scuttle the store. And the quality of season eight is often directly linked to the amount of Robert California in the episode. And touching on his absence… this is only the second time the show ever visited Sabre’s seat of power (the first being earlier in the season), and the lack of Sabre management present feels like a wasted opportunity. Robert isn’t around, Jo Bennett is mentioned (primarily as Nellie’s patron and endorsement in this project) but due to Kathy Bates having her own show at that point is never seen. Even Gabe is missing more often than not, and season eight has enough problems without sidelining Zach Woods. The face of Sabre is Nellie, and she’s great because Catherine Tate has some game, but it would have been nice to get a better look at Dunder Mifflin’s soon-to-fall overlords (yeah, Sabre leaves with Robert California at the end of the season).

Second of all… I mentioned back in part three that when the office staff is split between two locations it’s a dicey prospect for the portion that’s getting the B-plots. In the Time of Two Offices, the Stamford gang did well with the B-plots. During the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, the Dunder Mifflin loyalist stories were hit and miss. During Tallahassee… I’ve seen this arc two, maybe three times… no, only twice… and I can remember exactly one Scranton plot off the top of my head. And the best I can say is “It had its moments.”

It’s not like Scranton is devoid of talent. Darryl, Pam, Andy, Kelly, and Creed are all still there. It’s just that they’re not getting much to work with. Because this point in season eight is when the writing begins to suffer.

Stray Thoughts

  • Season eight isn’t anywhere near season two or three’s level. It just isn’t. But it’s not without highlights. Erin snapping at Kevin in the episode Lotto, for one… Dwight and Jim try to put it gently that an idea he’s pitching isn’t going to work, but when he doesn’t get it, she grabs him, and with more venom than we’d ever seen from her, hisses “You need to drop it, OK? They hate it. I like it a lot but they hate it so drop it!” and it is hysterical.
  • Season eight ends (over the course of several episodes) with Andy driving to Florida to win back Erin (Hey Andy, planes called to say “We exist, dummy”), Nellie usurping his job while he’s gone, Andy being fired/quitting as a result, and convincing a returning and newly rich David Wallace to buy the company from Sabre, which is circling the drain. Once David buys the company, Andy is reinstalled, but Nellie stays in Scranton as the head of special projects. I was going to make a longer section about this, but… this is the point when I actually stopped watching the show during its original broadcast. There’s really just not much more to say about it.
  • Sorry to keep harping on this, but Ellie Kemper even makes sadly pining for Andy funny. She’s not just gifted, she’s a gift.
  • Early in the season, Andy takes the staff (the willing ones, anyway) to Gettysburg, and tall, lanky Gabe is mistaken for an official Abraham Lincoln impersonator (despite lack of beard). Turns out this happens often enough that he has an audience-pleasing Abe Lincoln routine ready to go. It’s scenes like this that made me miss Gabe when he was absent for chunks of the back half. That and chiding himself for getting out-shmoozed at Andy’s garden party… “I can’t believe I didn’t think of toasting Robert. Get in the game, Gabriel! Why aren’t you talking to Stanley’s mistress?”
  • Nate transitions from Dwight’s lackey to warehouse staff. He remains reliably funny.

Key Episodes

I’m-a mostly stick to big Robert California episodes here, since he is far and above the best part of this season. The List, the season premiere, is the best for establishing Robert and his impact on the office. Garden Party not only shows us why Andy is the way he is, but is one of the year’s funniest, thanks in large part to Dwight buying a book on how to throw garden parties that turns out to have been written by Jim. In Spooked, the final Halloween episode, Robert tries to learn the staff’s greatest fears in order to form the perfect scary story. And Mrs. California brings us farcical Robert, as Robert’s wife decides she might like a job at Dunder Mifflin, which Andy learns when Robert informs him she must not receive one, only to pressure him to hire her while she’s in the room. It involves a truly funny chase sequence when Andy tries to drag Jim into his tough spot, and Jim frantically tries to escape being involved.

Skippables

<Heaves a sigh>

Not gonna lie to you, peeps. When I’m doing a rewatch, which happens a lot (as I write this I’m in late season three, it’s a sickness), when I hit Goodbye Michael I have to make a choice. Sometimes I stop there. Sometimes I power on. And sometimes I just skip to season nine.

Because there is, I promise you, there is worthwhile stuff in season nine, and I’ll make my case next time, but sometimes season eight can be a drag. So you can, if you want, skip the whole the whole damn year. The ninth season premiere will brief you on Dwight and Angela (in short, as of the premiere, he no longer believes himself to be young Phillip’s father), Andy’s dislike of Nellie might be a touch confusing but you’ll catch up. And Andy and Erin will be back together, but the sad thing is, for all he risked and lost to get her, that stops being a relationship we root for almost instantly, making the end arc of Andy, Erin, and Nellie feel kinda… irrelevant. Pointless. Andy making a grand gesture that is ultimately futile and self-destructive.

Guess he is the new Michael Scott.

Notable Guest Stars?

We have our third and final veteran of The Wire in Turf War, as Chris Bauer appears as a salesman from the Syracuse branch who quarrels with Dwight and Jim (and ultimately the recently fired Andy) over a big client of the Binghamton branch, which Robert closed while on a bender. The client? He’s played by the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta.

Robert California’s son is played by future Kid Bruce Wayne David Mazouz, for anyone who still cares about Gotham. And his soon-to-be-ex-wife is played by Maura Tierney, from one of TV’s greatest comedy casts, Newsradio. They set up a possible and wonderfully awkward romance between her and Andy, but since she never makes a second appearance, it doesn’t go anywhere.

Josh Groban makes his first of two appearances as Andy’s younger and far more beloved brother, Walter Bernard Jr. After all, if Andy’s going to have a younger brother his parents would see as his better in every way, he’d better be a damn fine singer.

Not only is Jack Coleman back as (State) Senator Lipton, post-Tallahassee his fellow Heroes vet Sendhil Ramamurthy turns up as Kelly’s new paediatrician boyfriend, who Pam actively encourages her to choose over Ryan. 

Wow. For the closest thing The Office has to Community’s infamous “gas leak year,” (when series creator Dan Harmon was off the show and the quality noticeably dropped) I sure had a lot to say about it.

Next time… how does it all end? Might need to cover the wrap up in a few goes…

Overthinking the Office Part Seven: Goodbye, Michael

 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 Road to Farewell

The one, true, key episode of season seven is Goodbye Michael. A year after announcing that the show’s one main star and central character, Steve Carell, would be moving on, the staff of Dunder Mifflin said an emotional farewell to their insensitive, loving, sometimes awful, sometimes pretty OK boss Michael Scott, as Michael left Dunder Mifflin and Scranton to move to Colorado with his one great love, Holly Flax.

Much like the Michael Scott Paper Company arc two seasons back, it would be easy to think Michael’s departure arc started when Michael announced his intention to move away three episodes earlier. And again, you’d be wrong. There’s a lot of ground to cover before Michael’s ready to jet off to his own blue heaven.

Now we’re not going to get into whether or not Michael deserves a happy ever after. It’s been seven years, at this point you’ve either learned to see past Michael’s faults or you haven’t. And if you haven’t you might not have made it this far. So no, we’re just looking at what needed to happen to get Michael to a point where he was ready to leave the company that was his home and that staff that were his family behind. The path begins in the season premiere, and runs right up until Garage Sale, when Michael makes his choice.

In the season premiere, “Nepotism,” the annual “how was your summer montage” reveals that the new and inept intern everyone hates is Michael’s nephew, who he has hired in an attempt to reconnect with his half-sister and her family.

Notice how this is the first time we’ve ever heard of Michael having a half-sister? Or a nephew? Or relatives other than his mom and step-dad (his father having walked out a long-ass time ago)? Notice how other than two phone calls to his mother and a failed attempt to get his grandmother to invest in his paper company, he seems to have no interaction with his family at all? That’s the key. That is why he is. Michael tries to force Dunder Mifflin into being a family because most of his own flesh-and-blood family rejected him.

Other key steps… in “Sex Ed,” an ingrown hair that an easily swayed Michael gets convinced is herpes causes him to revisit all of his relationships from the past six seasons. Encouraged by Dwight to inform all of his lovers that he may have given them herpes, he calls Holly. But after an actually sweet moment, she claims that they never had the deep, pure love he thought (I mean, you can see where she’s coming from, she and Michael dated for a week whereas she and her new boyfriend AJ have been together for two years), and he tends to over-romantacize. This causes Michael to use the herpes informing quest as an excuse to reexamine his relationships with Jan, Carol, and Helene to see if he really does blow these things out of proportion. And in so doing, he sees his past loves for the dysfunctional messes they were, and realizes he does, in fact, over-romanticize his relationships… but not Holly. Never Holly. The exercise only reinforces his belief that she’s the one great love of his life.

In similar terms, Christening brings Michael face to face with another unpleasant reality: that for all of his attempts to make Jim and Pam part of his family, he still isn’t part of theirs. Much like their wedding last year, Michael ensures that the entire staff turns up for baby Cece’s christening, only to be a) told he can’t sit in the family section, and b) made to say out loud that he understands that he is not, in any way, Cece’s godfather. (Pam tries to be as kind and apologetic about it as she can, but will settle for nothing less than hearing him say the words “I am not the godfather…” also, they met Cece’s actual godparents at a Mommy and Me class? Do Jim and Pam not have friends and siblings?) Being faced with this cuts deep enough that when the people of… whoever’s church this is… Jim? Pam? Is Pam Catholic? Neither of them strike me as Catholic… Anyway, Michael gets caught up in the church community spirit enough that he briefly joins a youth mission heading for Mexico (as does Andy, in an attempt to impress Erin, I’ll come back to that), which goes about as well as you’d expect.

As to more minor stuff. In Counselling, Michael and Toby finally go 12 rounds. Costume Contest allows Darryl to sound off about how poorly Michael’s treated him. Viewing Party challenges his view of himself as the office father figure when everyone starts deferring to Gabe (of all people) over him… only to see that lifetime foster kid Erin legitimately sees him as a surrogate father. In WUPHF.com, Michael comes to terms with his relationship with Ryan being more one-way than he believed.

And then in Classy Christmas, Toby leaving to serve on the Scranton Strangler jury (told you he had a role to play) brings Holly back. Once they get back together, Threat Level Midnight lets him see that Holly is more important than his dreams of making movies (and that the movie he’s been filming with his coworkers and other associates… a wonderful parade of past characters… is actually really, really bad), and Todd Packer provides the final “Michael sees a relationship for what it is” plot, as Holly opens his eyes to the fact that Todd Packer is not the friend or comic genius Michael thinks.

And then there’s nothing left but the farewells. Some are funny, some are incredibly touching, and one is silent, as Pam says her goodbye right after the Documentarians said theirs, reclaiming Michael’s mic pack. (Leading to a silent, goodbye “That’s what she said.”) And when we’re done… well, there’s a bit of a hiccup.

When We Fail to Plan

There isn’t really a concrete succession plan for Michael Scott. Story-wise, there kind of is, as Training Day introduces us to Will Ferrell as Deangelo Vickers, Michael’s impending Sabre-appointed replacement, but one episode after Michael leaves, a head injury sends him packing. Dwight gets appointed acting manager when Jim turns the job down, Creed of all people takes his place when he bungles it. But as for a long-term replacement? Nobody knew.

And I am including the producers in this.

The two-part season finale, Search Committee, ends with the titular committee (Jim, Toby, and Gabe) still not having chosen a new manager. It’s kind of a weak-sauce cliffhanger, because the only reason it’s happening is that the producers hadn’t picked one yet. And really, there is just no excuse for that. Steve Carell announced he was leaving a year earlier, so that the impending return of Holly was teased in the season six finale. So how is it possible that by the end of the season, four episodes after Michael left, nobody knows who the new boss is?

The way it certainly appears, and the way it’s often been reported, is that the producers used Search Committee as a kind of audition. It was filled with big name guest stars, some of which were just there as a lark, some of which were serious candidates to replace Steve Carell. So the producers used this episode, and fan reaction to it, to test-run some potential new managers.

The problem with this is that actors of the caliber they were looking for tend to make other plans if you don’t act fast.

Will Arnett was said to be the first choice, and why wouldn’t he be. His character claims to have a three part plan to rebuild the company, but refuses to share anything more than one small subsection of part two (“Colour code said documents”) until he’s hired. But by the time the producers decided they wanted to hire him, a pilot he’d shot got picked up for that fall (an utterly forgettable show called “Running Wilde,” only occasionally elevated by genuinely funny performances by Arnett, Peter Serafinowicz, Mel Rodriguez, and recurring guest star David Cross), so he was out.

Second pick was British comedian and former Doctor Who companion Catherine Tate as Nelly Bertram, a friend of Jo Bennet whose interview was as filled with confidence as it was devoid of meaningful content. Tate was already booked to do Much Ado About Nothing in London with David Tennant, from before season eight was supposed to start filming until a week before my visit to London that year. God DAMN it. So she was out… for a while. Stick around and she’ll be back.

There were also three internal candidates: Dwight, Andy, and Darryl. Dwight’s desperate attempts to get back in consideration after being removed from the position in the previous episode are mostly played for laughs, but… there was (to me) a confusing amount of support for the idea. Reviewers, some fans, even Mindy Kaling backed Dwight. And I was just… forget how bad he was at this job in season three, we just did an episode proving he is still utterly, laughably unsuited to any amount of legitimate authority. It’s especially weird to hear writer/producer/cast member Mindy Kaling in support. I mean, was she just not on set that week? Did she miss the writers’ room saying “Let’s do an episode proving that Dwight is still bad at management?”

But the one to watch is James Spader as Robert California. His scary, almost cult-like confidence won more discerning minds over pretty quickly.

Relationship Dramas

Everything is hunky-dory for Jim and Pam this season. Pam secures herself a new job basically by inventing it and claiming she’s had it for months now. And Jim… is present? I don’t think they actually have any major arcs this season.

Angela and Dwight, on the other hand. At the end of season six, Dwight decided he wanted a child, and recruited Angela to mother it. With a contract and everything. But having decided that Pam’s friend Isabel, who he’d hooked up with at the wedding, is a superior specimen, he tries to back out of the deal. Leading to the most Dwight and Angela reunion possible… a legal dispute over their contract ends in them agreeing to have sex to completion on five occasions (an agreement the arbitrator desperately tries not to be present for). As the season opens, Angela is trying to leverage their contractually mandated intercourse to rekindle romantic feelings, as any normal person would in this very common scenario. But eventually Dwight’s disinterest takes a toll, just in time for a new player to arrive… Heroes’ Jack Coleman as The Senator, aka State Senator Rob Lipton.

On the one hand, Angela’s new romance with The Senator (as she insists on calling him at all times) makes her more insufferable than ever, as she is absurdly tacky in her eagerness to throw around her new life as a politician’s girlfriend/fiance, despite Oscar’s habit of swiftly pointing out he’s only a state senator, which is far less impressive. For a time (before Oscar gives up on it), “State Senator” is the new “Assistant to the regional manager.” But on the other hand, Angela’s comeuppance is swiftly written into the arc… upon actually meeting him, Oscar notices that The Senator is secretly gay. (Something Ryan is swift to back up, citing “He liked my Facebook photos at 3 AM.”)

So basically, Angela becomes a monster of smugness and condescension unlike ever before, but at least her amazing new life is a sham, and you know it’s going to blow up in her face eventually. The only issue is that the fuse is pretty long.

Meanwhile… Andy and Erin hit a road bump when Erin found out about him and Angela. And I guess she never got over it, because when the season kicks off, she’s with Gabe.

Erin and Gabe. What can a person say about Erin and Gabe, other than you have to wonder if the writers looked at Erin and Andy, asked why they weren’t on the level of, say, Jim and Pam, and decided the answer was “They never had a Roy.” Erin and Gabe don’t make a lot of sense as a couple. Or any sense. They don’t have chemistry, their interests don’t really overlap, they’re never super believable, their first date story is a textbook case of sexual harassment. “Thank god he’s my boss,” says Erin, “Because I wouldn’t have said yes to dating him if I didn’t think I had to.” How little are we supposed to be invested in them as a couple? Look to one of Gabe’s talking heads: “Yes, we are still together. Why do you always ask me that?” Or when Jim and Pam catch Erin eating lunch in her car to avoid spending time with her boyfriend, and Jim taps out, leaving Pam to deal with Erin. “You’ve got this,” he says to Pam, before telling the cameras “I’m sorry, that… just wasn’t interesting to me.” You speak for us all, Jim.

No, Gabe and Erin… while nowhere near as toxic a couple as Angela and Andy, because no couple could be this side of Jessica Jones and Kilgrave (and I had to think about that one, that’s how messed up Angela and Andy were)… are not a couple you root for, sympathise with, or even understand. They exist so that Andy can try to win her back. Only to give Andy his own Karen Filipelli in his new girlfriend (thanks to a party invite from Darryl), so that when Erin decides it’s Andy she loves, they still don’t get together.

Works on paper, right? Worked for Jim and Pam, could work again? Sure, except no. No it doesn’t. Because I’m just going to warn you, this isn’t going anywhere worth reaching. Erin and Andy aren’t a perfect couple, or even a good one. Their relationship is a time-filler, a B-plot the writers will eventually lose interest in.

But that’s a ways away yet.

Key episdoes

I mentioned the key episodes of the Goodbye Michael long game. Andy’s Play is a fun one for musical fans. Skip nothing between Classy Christmas and Goodbye Michael, because you can’t afford to miss a Holly episode.

Michael’s Last Dundies is a great one. There are a lot of annual events at Dunder Mifflin that the Documentarians only bother to capture once. We see all but one Christmas party, and a handful of Halloweens, but we only see one company picnic, one beach day, one birthday party for Michael, one inventory, and until now, only one Dundie Awards. But for Michael’s penultimate episode, we take our second and final trip to the Dundies, as Michael tries to coach Deangelo on how to run the event in his absence. That his approach is lifted from The King’s Speech, one of the decade’s more forgettable best picture winners, does not age super well, but other than that, killer episode with a surprisingly emotional conclusion.

Skippables?

I’m not crazy about China, in which Michael successfully proves Oscar wrong about the Chinese economy, leading to a political knowledge showdown, and Pam (as office administrator) and Dwight (as the new owner of the building) clash over Dwight’s draconian money saving policies. Which… can we add this episode to the list of “episodes that prove Dwight was in no way capable of being the new manager, Mindy Kaling?” Dude goes mad with even a small amount of power, why would anyone… but I repeat myself. Anyway. Not crazy about that one.

Notable guest stars?

In addition to Will Arnett, Catherine Tate, and James Spader, Ray Romano, Jim Carrey, and Warren Buffett turn up as applicants for Michael’s job.

When Ricky Gervais, creator and star of the British original, was in town to host the Golden Globes, the producers saw an opening, and filmed a cold open crossover, in which Michael Scott meets David Brent. David Brent returned in Search Committee, having filmed an application for Michael’s job. They make for two cute homage cameos.

Kathy Bates makes her final appearances as Jo Bennett this year. She was missed. That makes it sound like she died… she didn’t. She didn’t die. She’s just busy and expensive.

In addition to Melora Hardin and Nancy Carell returning as Jan and Carol in Sex Ed, Rashida Jones (Karen), David Denman (Roy), David Koechner (Todd Packer) Melora Hardin, and others all return for Threat Level Midnight, to reflect the fact that Michael’s been filming this on and off for five years.

And Timothy Olyphant makes two appearances as Danny Cordray, a rival salesman who also has a history with Pam.

New characters

Robert California and Nellie Bertram are introduced in season eight, and we’ll be seeing more of them, but more significant to this season is Dwight’s new handyman, Nate. With Michael Schur busy running Parks and Recreation, Dwight’s cousin Mose couldn’t be his inept right hand very often, so a new henchman was required. Nate is somewhat clueless, but endearingly earnest and affectionate, making him a perfect henchman for Dwight without also making him one of Dwight’s equally crazy and aggressive friends. He never makes it into the full ensemble, but he’s reliably funny when he does turn up.

Overthinking the Office Part 6: Dawn of Sabre

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 Unbreakable Erin Hannon

The Michael Scott Paper Company arc accomplished a few key things. Not so much for Michael Scott, he ended up right back where he started. Sure there were some ruffled feathers to smooth over in Casual Friady, but by Café Disco all is back to normal. (Leading to one of his more depressing lines as he eats lunch in his office… “I guess they got what they want. I am eating alone. Might as well be dinner.”) No, it was important for other reasons… with his post-Basterds return to the series, BJ Novak properly debuted trend-chasing, phone-addicted, Silicon Valley-wannabe Douche Ryan, and Pam finally escaped the receptionist desk to become a salesperson. And in so doing, she opened the door for the new receptionist, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon.

I mentioned this last time, but in season five she’s basically “the new receptionist” and “the girl Andy likes.” Season six is when the writers began to fully realize what a weapon they had in Ellie Kemper. And they found the perfect way to carve her out a new and fresh role in the ensemble… enthusiasm. Sheer, unbridled, enthusiasm. When we meet the bulk of the cast, they’ve already endured up to four years of Michael’s cringe-inducing management style and Dwight as authoritative second banana. It’s mostly just sighs, eye rolls, and the occasional “Excuse me?” from Stanley when we join in. Erin? She buys into it. Into all of it. In her eyes, Michael is the greatest boss she’s ever had or could have, and all of Dwight’s demands make total sense.

We get the first taste of this in Café Disco, when Dwight gets suspicious about a map to a courthouse he finds, and in the process of leaping to conclusions demands to see Erin’s birth certificate. Whereas Pam or Meredith would have just given him a bemused or irritated look and ignored the demand, Erin says “Sure!” and practically dives for her purse. In season six, she truly believes that spinning Michael in his chair until he’s dizzy is an important and valuable creative exercise. With a frequent beaming smile and an unabashed glee, she greets every scheme and encounter with sheer enthusiasm that the more wearied staff could never manage. (Well, except Creed.)

And she nails it. Ellie Kemper is the poster child and greatest argument for the broader, less grounded show The Office became after season three. Erin wouldn’t have really worked in the gloomier, more cringe-driven Office of season two, with its failed Secret Santas and constant threat of downsizing. In season six, she thrives. Even if she does still have to serve as romantic interest for Andy. But as her character grew and developed, she made that work as well.

That said… if she’s not enough of a breath of fresh air for you, there is another option early in the season.

The First Off-ramp

A lot of shows would end with an episode like the two-part Niagara. (And it is/was designed as a two-parter, not an hour-long.) Jim and a pregnant Pam decide to get married at Niagara Falls, in the hopes that a destination wedding would scare away some of their co-workers. Hopes that Michael dashes by giving the entire office a long weekend to make the trip.

Not every wedding on this show gets the level of reverence that Jim and Pam’s does. Phyllis’ Wedding may have gotten an entire episode devoted to it, but it ultimately wasn’t even about Phyllis, it was about Jim and Pam and Roy and Karen, and Michael’s need to remain central to the attention. Jim and Pam’s wedding, though… yes, there are shenanigans. Michael fails to book a room, assuming he was so vital to the process that would be taken care of; Dwight successfully hooks up with a bridesmaid, triggering a triangle with Angela late in the season; Kevin leaves his shoes out to be polished only to have them destroyed by the hotel (“It became a safety issue,” explains the manager); Andy tears his scrotum trying to dance his way into Erin’s heart (or other regions). Jim and Pam are hell of late for the ceremony (for surprisingly adorable reasons) and Michael shanghais it to recreate a viral video, but…

If the end result doesn’t make you tear up a little you’re a robot. It’s a little cheesy but a lot touching and would have been a perfect “Happy ever after” for Jim and Pam if this is where the show ended.

But it didn’t. Stick around for the rest of the season for the birth of their first child. And to see Pam’s reaction when she finds out Michael hooked up with her mother after the wedding.

See, what’s weird is that his courtship of the recently divorced Helene Beesly is almost Michael’s second healthiest relationship… they actually get along, Helene seems very smitten, and the birthday lunch he plans for her could sway the strongest objections to them as a couple. But the silver medal still goes to Carol in season three, because all that seems to go wrong there is Michael getting way too excited and way too serious way too fast and in all the wrong ways, whereas here… he legit thinks this is his path to officially becoming a part of Pam’s family the way he pictures her as part of his, to the point where he’s stunned that this actually damages their relatrionship. And given the hints we’ve seen over the years, it’s clear Michael has a bit of a crush on Pam, and maybe getting with a relative is his “next best thing.”

So it doesn’t start in the best place and it ends a little ugly, but it’s worth watching to see Pam hit the moment where no power in the ‘verse can conceal her contempt for Michael.

Also you are going to want to stick around for season seven, and our first big farewell. I don’t super advise taking this particular off-ramp.

The Rise of Sabre and of Darryl

Dunder Mifflin as an overall company has been circling the drain since we met them. At least two branches have closed in the last three years, maybe more. Dunder Mifflin Infinity was a full blown boondoggle. Scranton only kept the lights on in the early seasons because Dwight and Michael have “Sales skills” written into the parts of their brains where normal people have “empathy” and “knowledge of appropriate interpersonal behaviour.” This was bound to catch up to the company eventually, and in season six, it does. After a few episodes of mounting tension surrounding Dunder Mifflin’s failing fortunes, the annual Christmas episode ends with the revelation that while the corporate office are all imminently out of work, the regional branches have been saved from the bankruptcy ax by a buyout from Florida printer company Sabre. And thus as David Wallace fades into the background (he takes season seven off, but isn’t gone for good), two new faces come to Scranton.

Kathy Bates is the showy one, arriving in the back half of the year as Sabre founder/CEO Jo Bennett, flanked by her giant dogs. Jo is the perfect antidote to the reluctant laissez-faire attitude David Wallace brought as Michael’s boss, yet without the humourless sternness of Charles Miner or the rage and self-destruction of Jan. What Kathy Bates brings to the role is a fun Florida charm blended with a steely disposition. Jo Bennett is not a boss Michael can charm, fool, or intimidate. And there’s no “over her head” to go to. He tries to resist Sabre’s policies at first, but Jo is unflinching, and after a look at how unemployment is treating David Wallace, rebellion against the new owners exits his mind.

(Side note… I mentioned last time how “Scranton is special” was important to upcoming arcs. This is one of them. Scranton had to be the top branch in the company, or else why would the new CEO visit so often?)

Our second new arrival, and ultimately the more significant one, is Zach Woods as Gabe Lewis, branch liaison to corporate. While Jo is an occasional Special Guest Star, Gabe swiftly becomes a full part of the ensemble. Gabe… Gabe is fun in a few familiar ways. In theory they report to him, as he’s the voice of corporate, but his attempts to wield authority don’t exactly go well. He commands slightly less respect than Dwight and has about as much confidence as Toby. He’s a new form of twitchy awkward, but a fun one.

And at the same time that Gabe joins the ensemble, something clicked in the writers’ room, and they asked themselves… why isn’t Darryl in every episode? Okay, sure, drug problems last year, but he’s doing better, so why isn’t there more Darryl? Let’s have more Darryl. A promotion from Jo brings Darryl out of the warehouse and into the new office that had been built for Jim (I’ll get back to that), and from there, he’s more of a constant… and delightful… presence.

Flipping the Wrong Dynamic

Prior to Sabre’s arrival, The Office tried something out. We’d seen Jim go from not caring about his job at all to taking being second-in-command surprisingly seriously, and at the start of the year, he makes a move second season Jim could never have expected… he lobbies for his own command. Jim seems to have liked being the boss a little, because he suggests to David that Michael be promoted to New York and Jim take over the Scranton branch. Michael, not knowing the plan, manages to compromise it, and to avoid losing Jim entirely, the two of them end up as co-managers. And sure that’s weird and it causes a few clashes as Michael’s management style finds itself at odds with Jim’s deliberate and ongoing attempts to move the office past it, but that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.

I want to talk about what this does to Jim’s dynamic with Dwight.

Back in season three we saw how Jim’s eagerness to prank Dwight goes down the more seriously he takes his job. As fellow salesmen, blowing off work to prank Dwight was Jim’s greatest non-Pam-related joy. As official assistant manager, he felt the urge to prank was something he should rise above. As co-manager, it’s gone completely. Jim’s new responsibilities make him attempt to live in peace with his former nemesis.

Dwight, on the other hand, sees Jim’s promotion as Jim stealing what should rightfully be Dwight’s, and is not prepared to take his enemy’s ascension lying down.

And it’s… it’s not great.

See, Jim’s pranks are certainly mean (all pranks are at least a little mean, save for “guten pranks,” which are years away), but they’re also slightly playful. As worst he’s trying to annoy Dwight a little. When Dwight schemes against Jim, it’s beyond mean. It’s cruel and sometimes uncomfortably violent (not this year but it’s coming). He wants to destroy Jim. And when he comes close to succeeding, sorry, I do not see the comedy.

At first Dwight’s plots are fun and largely inept. Which makes sense I mean, Dwight didn’t fall for all of Jim’s pranks over the years because he’s actually good at this stuff, so it makes sense that one of his opening gambits is to buy everyone bagels so that they’ll owe him a favour, which he will cash in to get Jim fired. It’s the exact sort of sinister but critically flawed scheme I’d expect from Dwight, one that can be undone by Andy’s stubborn refusal to let a favour go unrepaid. But in one episode, Dwight hatches a scheme that manages to turn most of the staff against Jim and comes within a hair’s breadth of hitting the target. If not for David Wallace’s fondness for Jim and Dunder Mifflin’s bigger problems, he might have pulled it off, ousted Jim, and then no doubt learned that corporate had no interest in giving Dwight the co-manager position instead. But that last part never occurred to him, because of course it didn’t.

That episode, by the way? Oh, it is notorious. But not because of Dwight nearly getting Jim fired. I’ll elaborate.

Scott’s Tots

I would just tackle this under “Skippables” but this one is special.

Damn near everything out there has an internet fandom, but I discovered a special branch for Office fans: the subreddit CannotWatchScottsTots. An online forum for people who habitually rewatch The Office (like myself) but skip Scott’s Tots every time (like myself in most cases). Nearly three and a half thousand people subscribe to it. Over three thousand habitual Office binge-watchers who can’t bring themselves to rewatch this one episode. (There is a counter-group, r/CanWatchScottsTots, but there’s only nine of them.)

It’s not Dwight, though. That’s mostly just me. Hell, maybe some people enjoy his surprisingly spot-on impersonations of certain co-workers in the final stages of his sinister plot.

No, it’s Michael. The title of Scott’s Tots refers to a group of black students he made a promise to ten years ago. When they were in grade two, he visited their class, and said that if they graduated from high school, he would pay their way through college.

It is, without question, the worst thing he’s ever done. And this is only a handful of episodes after he told everyone in the office that Stanley was having an affair just because spreading rumours got him attention.

It’s also a very Michael thing to do, because it was based on the idea that any day now Michael would sell his screenplay for Threat Level Midnight or get noticed by Drew Carey at improv class or something that was going to bring him the fame, fortune, and love that he was sure was right around the corner. But now graduation’s coming, and instead of a millionaire he’s a middle manager with a debilitating spending problem (Probably? We haven’t checked in on that since season four…). So while Dwight’s plot to get Jim fired reaches its climax, Michael is across town slowly, painfully informing a class of inner city youths that they are not getting free rides to college.

So the question is, why is this worse than the level of cringe this show is famous for? One of the cringiest episodes they’ve done, Dinner Party, is also known as one of the best, so why is this one so hated? Again, I feel the answer should be Dwight’s evil plot against Jim suddenly becoming impossibly, uncharacteristically successful, but no, that’s somehow not it. It’s the fact that this cringe is aimed at innocent school kids. They didn’t do anything wrong, and Michael’s need to be adored has actually damaged their lives.

And to make things worse, they couldn’t even just let him stew in this one. Like most “Michael acts poorly” episodes, they had to throw in the last-minute redemptive moment. In this case, Erin (because of course he brought Erin, no other staffer would have his back right now) tells him that thanks to his empty promise, the graduation rate for Scott’s Tots is up from the average. Sure, all those graduates have massively uncertain futures since they now have no idea where their tuition is coming from, but heaven forbid Michael end the episode feeling bad.

Lord. This one is just a slog.

Stray Thoughts

  • Yes, Andy is an underperforming salesman crushing on the receptionist. But they are not the new Jim and Pam. Nobody can be Jim and Pam, not even Angela and Dwight. But more to the point, while they do kind of work, their primary obstacle to getting together this season is mutual incompetence at hooking up, and their frequent mishaps are played for comedy as often as pathos. Also, Andy, come on… you got her the 12 Days of Christmas for Secret Santa? As some of us have tried to make clear, those gifts are monster behaviour.
  • I really didn’t spend much time on the co-manager plot. It was fun watching Jim be an authority for a while, and his attempts to normalize branch management against Michael’s wishes, but I was fine with Jo resetting the status quo after the Sabre buy-out. Especially since Dwight’s evil plan wore thin after Scott’s Tots.
  • The birth of baby Cece Halpert also brought us what I believe to be the first reference to the Scranton Strangler. Don’t worry, the show doesn’t become a crime procedural, but the Scranton Strangler has a key background role to play in the coming season.
  • Also getting its first reference? Ryan’s new venture, WUPHF, a mass-messaging system that, depending on your perspective, is either somewhat useful or hugely invasive.

Key Episodes

“The Meeting” kicks off the co-manager arc, and “Manager and Salemen” brings it to a close with a wonderful appearance by Jo.

Obviously don’t skip Niagara. We talked about this.

The Lover, for Jim and Pam’s priceless reactions to Michael’s new girlfriend.

And plotwise, certainly Secret Santa, Sabre, The Delivery, St. Patrick’s Day, Happy Hour, The Cover-up, and Whistleblower.

Skippables

Believe it or not, there is an episode more skippable than Scott’s Tots. I know, I’m surprised to be saying it. But there is, and it’s The Banker. Scott’s Tots is unpleasant, but The Banker is worse in a key way. See, Sabre has sent a banker to look over the company pre-takeover, which the staff uses as an excuse to look back at past shenanigans.

So it’s a clip show.

And there ain’t nothing more skippable than a clip show.

Notable Guest Stars?

We covered Kathy Bates. Todd Packer makes a return appearance after three seasons away in St. Patrick’s Day. Anna Camp is one of Pam’s bridesmaids. Mike Starr is an insurance salesman mistaken for a mobster by the office’s… less rational employees in Mafia. Nelson Franklin is the new IT guy, having previously appeared as a recruiter for a graphic design company, the guy who gets Pam thinking about art school in New York. You might not know who that is, but to me, he’s Comeau, the Guy Who Knows Everyone from Scott Pilgrim Vs the World.

And most significant, Christian Slater hosts Sabre’s confusing orientation video.

Next time… get ready to say a big, tearful goodbye.