Sunday, April 11, 2010

More New "Doctor Who": The Beast Below

Last week we saw the debut of a new season and a new Doctor but this week was really the critical one for Doctor Who fans. It's one of those things that make the show unique and it's some of the stuff I talked about in my last review; that in a lot of ways, the first story with a new Doctor is often geared towards transitioning from the last incarnation to this one. Often this involves the changing of the entire supporting cast and/or setting for the series. Often it also involves the more subtle but recognizable shift in tone of the writing as well.

The point is that the first story is all about change and, as a result, viewers don't fully get a chance to see how the new actor and the new take on the Doctor is going to work on a weekly basis. They also often don't get a full sense of what kind of character the new Doctor is going to be. All of that is where the second episode comes in. The first story in the series can make or break a new Doctor because it is the introduction but the second episode can do so as well because it is the barometer for how things are going to progress from this point forward.

Happily, script editor, writer and show runner Steven Moffat proves that the 'second verse' is as good as the first and viewers get their first good, clear look at where things are headed... and it is a very good place indeed.

The Plot:
In her first outing in the TARDIS the Doctor takes Amy over a thousand years into the future where they stumble across the 'Starship U.K.'. At a point when solar flares threatened to roast the Earth each one of the countries built a space-going platform with basically their entire country on it then took to the stars until it would be safe to return to Earth and this is the United Kingdom (except for Scotland since it seems they built their own ship)

But Starship U.K. hides a secret. A secret so terrible that the government is willing to go to any lengths to hide it. The Doctor and Amy set out to uncover the truth but it may be too horrible for even them to face.

My Take:
Steven Moffat has said in interviews and elsewhere that he thinks of Doctor Who as primarily a 'kids' program' that adults can enjoy along the way. In other words, he sees it like "All Ages" comic books -- those comic books which are supposed to be able to appeal to both adults and children.

Sadly, All Ages stuff rarely ever actually IS. Most of the time All Ages becomes something 'kiddified' -- broken down to the simplest, lowest common denominator; something that panders instead of giving young people credit for having a certain amount of brains and sophistication. On those rare occasions when All Ages is done right it tends to fly beautifully, be remembered for years, and be hailed by critics. Take a took at animated series' like Tiny Toon Adventures or Animaniacs -- shows which are still remembered fondly today and appealed not only to their target demographic of kids but to the adults as well. I can remember being a college student and rarely missing an episode of Animaniacs. My friends and I all talked about it and laughed over the jokes and this was because the show didn't talk down to kids and threw in jokes that kids could get on one level but which older people would understand on a whole different level. And THIS is what Moffat understands and has crafted with this second episode.

The aim at children is apparent from the start of the story as we see children going home after a day at school. It is a strange but also dreary school -- something a lot of kids probably feel like their school is -- and one where a bad grade results in some dire consequences indeed. Again, this is a child's nightmare come to life -- the real-world fear that a bad grade will result in punishment turns into Moffat's dark fantasy fear that a bad grade results in something frightening. This is something that kids will get immediately but at the same time adults will smile and remember their own childhood fears and be transported back. The opening also is a bit surprising since it is the first time I can remember (even going all the way back to the classic series) in which the story opened with a child being put in danger. The show has had children in danger before but this is the only time I can think of in which it OPENED with a rather shocking scene of horror towards a child.

Of course, then the Doctor and his new companion, Amy arrive on the scene. We see a lot more of this Doctor's personailty as he fibs to Amy about his nature ("Observation only. I never get involved..." Yeah, tell us another one Doctor), acts nicely alien -- a little bit weird but with that undercurrent that he's the smartest guy in the room, and with just a dash of sprightliness thrown in as he leaps over the back of a park bench (can one still call it a park bench when it's technically not in a park? Just wondering here) and it's all just right. Just enough oddness for the Doctor to seems alien, to seem 'not one of us' but done in such a way as to have real charm and delight.

Prior to the season starting Moffat had said that the new Doctor would be more "professorish" and it is here that we get the first look at that. The Doctor begins almost immediately by teaching Amy -- trying to get her to see the world a bit more the way he does, challenging her to look at her surroundings critically, to think about what they can tell her, to open her mind and her eyes and see everything and consider what it can tell her. It is a nice touch and one done without bashing the viewer over the head with the fact. It also provides a sly little lesson in there for both younger and older viewers in that they, like Amy, should always keep their eyes and their minds open.

Moffat also makes a nice change-up to the format here as well. In the past, stories have usually had to come up with ways and reasons to separate the Doctor from his companion. Companions wander off or lag behind or get captured, etc. in various and sometimes horribly, obviously, plot contrived ways all to set up some narrative tension. Here, Moffat decides to quite frankly have the Doctor push Amy out on her own. He sends her off on a mission... no, in point of fact, he FORCES her off on a mission. When Amy seems reluctant to separate from him the Doctor basically threatens to take her right back to the small town of Leadworth if she doesn't do this. It lends some credence to my theory that the Doctor has an ulterior motive with Amy -- there is something he wants her to become and this is the first step in her transformation. At the same time it hints at the harder edge behind the Doctor which will come out later in the story.

There is also some nice political and social satire rather obviously hidden in the story as people routinely "vote to forget" something which is appalling to them. A truth which they do not want to face and so they don't -- a trait that is common throughout humanity. Of course it is then that Amy really shines and we get another 'lesson'. Once Amy faces up to the truth and keeps her eyes open and thinks critically she comes up with a solution to the problem -- she forges a new path rather than taking one of the forks seemingly open to her. The lesson that lies and willful blindness will never solve problems but having the courage to face the truth can lead to change. But at no point in time does Moffat explicitly sledgehammer viewers with this message and as such it comes off so much better.

Moffat also uses this episode to reiterate some of the points from the previous, Russell T. Davies era but the difference in approach can be seen almost immediately. The Doctor's insight into the psyches of children and parents leads Amy to ask him if he was a parent. Rather than an angsty moment, Smith's Doctor merely says nothing and that nothing speaks volumes. Likewise, when the inevitable moment comes where the Doctor must confess to being the last of the Time Lords viewers are not treated to a wealth of sad music and a Doctor trying to be stoic but with an attitude of a wibbly lower lip and a hint of tears. Instead we get a statement where it is obvious there is still pain there but the Doctor brushes it all aside quickly and cleanly. By underemphasizing things Moffat brings the situation home that much harder. Moffat also uses Amy's insight to help paint the Doctor as well; the audience sees the Doctor through Amy's eyes and through that in turn the viewers get a different look at the Doctor. Instead of being TOLD all the time about his compassion and kindness we literally SEE it through Amy. It is a very sweet moment in the best possible way.

And of course there is Amy. She is clever, compassionate and spunky herself. Taking on the Doctor in certain ways and also taking in his lessons and learning from them pretty much right away. Her misstep leads to an eventualy triumph and, as all companions must do pretty early in their tenure, she proves she has a right to travel with the Doctor.

She also becomes a kind of metaphor for younger viewers and a touchstone for the older ones. Like Wendy Darling in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan Amy sees herself on the cusp of "growing up". Here the signal of her irrevocably entering adulthood is marriage but many older viewers probably had their own right of passage -- going away to college for the first time, moving away from home to get a job, getting their first apartment and paying their own bills, or perhaps buying their first house... there are many things which can mark that moment when we first consider ourselves to be 'adults'. The thing most of us adults realize as we get older is that most of us never grow up. There was a video that made the rounds in the winter in which a group of British police officers ran into some people sledding down a public hill after a snowfall. Rather than bust the sledders one of the officers took a plastic riot shield out of the back of their van, sat on it, and his fellow officers gave him a push down the hill and gleefully watched him nearly land in a ditch. At unexpected moments our inner children will always come out to play. But Amy doesn't know that yet... or perhaps she fears becoming one of those people who DO manage to destroy their inner child. Either way, this story sets up the idea of Amy's struggle. Her fears of entering 'adulthood', her fears of getting married, her uncertainty that this marriage is really what she wants -- that is a part of her and probably reflects similar questions in the younger viewers as they think about their futures and wonder what it will be like to grow up. For the older viewers, we can watch Amy's struggle and think back to our own aches and fears and tentative steps as we tried to figure out what it meant to be an 'adult'.

Of course, the episode is not without some shortcomings. Moffat packed so much in here that there really wasn't room for a lot of things. The sinister, smiling figures in the booths which resemble those mechanical fortune teller machines are never fully explained. Their nature and the fullness of their purpose are never spelled out. Certainly much can be inferred but it is a little disappointing to have to guess at certain things.

Also, Sophie Okonedo is an Oscar callibre actress and she does an overall excellent job here but the forced, lower class accent she adopts as Liz X seems very forced and on top of all that it understandably slips from time to time. This is NOT a knock on Okonedo, merely that Moffat probably should have just let her play the role straight rather than going for an added omph of a fake accent. It pushes the character over the top into something bordering on a parody.

Ovarall, though, the complaints are minor for a story that, overall, feels just what Moffat wanted it to feel like... magical. It is a story that will resonate with children (particularly because another one of the supporting characters here is a child) and remind adults of the children the used to be... and still are in those little corners of their hearts and heads.

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