Monday, July 5, 2010

He's Still My Hero, Man

Because not every post can be on the epic scale of a major political demonstration shutting down Canada’s largest city, I’ve decided to talk about Doctor Who. It’s been a long time since I’ve done so. Tom Baker once said that fan love is superior to human love. Because Tom's friends and family will tell him that he's gained weight, that it's silly to dye your hair white, and to stop being so strange. But Tom's fans will introduce themselves saying, "You're my hero, man!" Well, Matt Smith can definitely count me as a fan.

First, I want to make clear that I love what new producer Steven Moffatt has done with the show. I’m glad that Russell T Davies revived the show in the first place, and he often made some fine adventures, and wrote some good scripts. “Midnight” is still a brilliant suspence vehicle, and wonderful character piece for the Tenth Doctor. But I always found Russell’s aesthetic a little too pop for me, along with the Tenth Doctor generally.

If there’s any feeling that I get from Moffatt’s production and Matt Smith’s performance as the Eleventh Doctor, it’s nerdiness. The Eleventh Doctor himself is a fantastically strange man. You’re entertained watching him because of the fundamental, unpredictable weirdness of his personality. He’s a man who is always a bit odd everywhere he goes, but far from being alienating, this oddness is charming, ingratiating. He doesn’t fit in, but he fits around others. Russell’s Doctors were very much lost men looking for a home, an anxiety that shaped their personalities. I got the feeling at times that the Tenth Doctor wouldn’t have minded settling down in a stable, if unconventional, home. But Moffatt’s Doctor is at home wherever he goes, because he’s so comfortable with himself. The Eleventh Doctor is a true traveller.

A Moffatt story isn’t afraid to become complicated, never assumes that the audience won’t be able to follow a clear, if complex, story. His season finale, “The Big Bang,” involved a lot of time travel shenanigans that were played for laughs in the moment, but intricately constructed the plot. And ultimately, it became a very personal story about the relation between the Doctor and his main companion Amy.

A couple of the reviews I’ve read of Matt Smith’s first season as a whole, I’ve found miss the point of having a new production team and new Doctor, which is a new articulation of what Doctor Who is. I’ve read that this year’s finale missed the epic dimensions of previous season enders. Even though the universe itself was at risk of being wiped from existence, there were no grand battles or sci-fi vistas, but puzzle in an empty museum for the Doctor to solve. The drama was contained within the four cast members of that story, the Doctor, Amy Pond, Rory Williams, and River Song.

Yet the biggest complaints about Russell’s season finales were that his epic battles became cartoonish, solved with technobabble and deus ex machinas with little attachment to the drama of the characters. But the resolution of this season, the return of the Doctor from oblivion through an anchor in Amy’s time-cracking memories of him, was hinted at throughout the season. Growing up next to a crack in time had altered Amy’s memory, so that she could remember timelines that never existed.

The metaphysics of how the Doctor could return to reality through a memory, and rebuild one timeline with a sample of it in another, was actually seeded in Russell and the Tenth Doctor’s swan song, “The End of Time.” All that’s needed to bring Gallifrey and the whole universe of the Time War back from oblivion was a single Gallifreyan diamond. Likewise, all that’s needed to restore the original universe is a sample within the Pandorica box, and all that’s needed to restore the Doctor to the universe is a sample of his existence in Amy’s brain, her memories of the never-was.

I also don’t understand why consensus seems to be that Rory is dead weight. It’s been a long time since televised Doctor Who had more than two main cast members for an entire season: classic season 21 in 1984. The 2011 season crew of the Doctor, Amy, and Rory will be the first crew. Maybe we’re just not used to stories with enough activity for three people that don’t devolve into the clutters of Russell’s mass reunion episodes.

I think people still consider Rory a white Mickey, the boyfriend overshadowed by Rose’s relationship with the Doctor. But Amy and Rory do onscreen what Rose and Mickey never actually did: make out. Rory fits into the same ‘main companion’s boyfriend’ slot, but the relationships among the three leads (and they are three leads) are completely different in 2010 than in 2005-6.

Mickey started out scared and incompetent, not knowing what to do in an alien invasion in “Rose.” In “The Eleventh Hour,” Rory’s actions and suspicions about his supposedly walking coma patients give the Doctor the information he needs to track down the villain. And he’s just as fast as Amy at evacuating the hospital. By the time he was travelling regularly in the TARDIS, he was on a level with the Doctor setting traps for Silurian warriors. At the end of the season, he was defending Amy from Dalek and Cyberman attacks. Rory was on his feet the fastest of any second-billing companion who wasn’t already a Time Agent.

And I’ll have no disrespect to the mopey nice guy who scored the hot bossy redhead.