Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Doctor Who," Year Ten (or Thirty-Six)

Minor spoilers ahead.

This is my favorite season of "Doctor Who" in a while, a nicely self-contained season with a strong story arc, good characters, and heap of good payoff to several ongoing story threads.  However, it also cemented how repetitive the series has become, with many elements that feel recycled from previous years.  It's natural that the tenth series since the show's revival should be having issues like this, and at least it does the formula very well, but I can feel my patience with the show wearing thin.  It also doesn't help that we're looking at another major format change just as the series felt like it was on steady ground for the first time in a while.

But let's talk about what works first.  Peter Capaldi continues to do great work as the Doctor, striking a good balance between otherworldly and lovable.  He wears his heart on his sleeve a bit more here, less arrogant and more vulnerable.  It helps that he's put squarely in a father-figure role to the newest companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), who is black, a lesbian, a little funny-looking, and completely lovable.  A secondary ally is Nardole (Matt Lucas), an alien who serves as a majordomo figure for the Doctor, and as frequent comic relief.  Early episodes find the Doctor and Nardole guarding a mysterious vault at the university where the Doctor has taken on a job as a lecturer.  Bill is a member of the canteen staff, who the Doctor can't resist taking under his wing and showing the universe to.

Bill is everything that Jenna Coleman's too-perfect Clara wasn't - awkward, gangly, very relatable, and definitely still sorting out her own life.  She actually reminds me the most of Rose, who was another fresh-faced youngster occasionally a few steps behind the Doctor, but who could never be accused of being slow or uninteresting.  The student/teacher dynamic with the Doctor works wonderfully, especially the way Bill questions bits of the series lore as they're introduced to her.  This run of episodes really does make for an excellent introduction to "Doctor Who" for newcomers.  And I don't think it's revealing too much to say that Michelle Gomez's Missy plays an important role this year.  Her interactions with the Doctor are some of my favorite things that they've ever done with the character.  

The majority of the episodes in this series are nicely serialized, including a run of four episodes in the middle, from "Oxygen" to "The Lie of the Land" that make up a very strong alien invasion epic.  The stand-alones are pretty standard, though the dystopian "Smile," featuring robots that communicate through emojis, is a standout.  The final two-parter, however, felt very rushed, especially for the amount of story crammed into it.  Maybe I was just unhappy to see this series end, and a set of characters I'd really become invested in so quickly dispatched to their ultimate fates.  On the other hand, it fit the pattern of a final confrontation with old enemies a little too well, and there were an awful lot of parallels to the final stand of Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor a few series ago.      

It was the little moments that I ended up appreciating the most, the bits of meta and banter, like the debate over the Doctor's real name, Nardole's relationship troubles, and the little glimpses we get into Bill's life.   Steven Moffat thankfully left his most problematic characters behind, including River and Clara, and turned in some of the better stories of his tenure as a result.  I really wish Bill and Nardole had more time to develop and grow as characters, because they're some of the better companions from the entire revival.  However, maybe that would have been tempting fate.  After all, River only turned into a problem after Moffat kept bringing her back.

And while there are significant chunks of these latest series that I haven't liked, I wouldn't have minded Moffat sticking around for another year or two if he could still write series like this one.  And I'm really going to miss the current cast.  However, that's not to be, so here's hoping that the next reboot and Mr. Chibnall find their feet quickly.    


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