Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Whovian Problem: Old men, young men, and decorative vegetables.

We've entered into a season seven (part two) Doctor Who problem which either qualifies as meta sci-fi, or the show and its production have been sucked into the Twilight Zone without its knowledge. Which is, in fact, a meta plot. So I guess that first sentence isn't so much a statement of this or that but more of a this or this non-option.

First problem: In the first few episodes of season 7.2, Clara, the current companion, comes across as more Doctor-ish than the Doctor himself. As if she's the timelord. Or as if she's draining him of his Doctor-ish mojo and his portrayal is becoming that of ... the companion.*

I told you it was very meta.

Clara is bright, witty, spunky. She delivers quick intelligent banter. And while her statements don't necessarily possess all the knowledge of centuries spent traveling the universe in an impossible time machine, she is always intelligent. Sometimes more intelligent than the Doctor. Clara also got to save the day in her first off-earth adventure ("Rings of Akhenaten") in a way that most of the other companions had to earn -- with the possible exception of Amy Pond in "The Beast Below"; although that was more of a save-the-day by gut instinct and the quick, last minute push of a button, whereas Clara had this whole drawn out speech proceeding her high-concept saving-of-the-day. All the other companions had to work up to that sort of Doctorish-understanding of how to save the universe, which makes Clara ... ahead of the game?

Unlike some past companions, Clara doesn't ask dumb questions or jump to mundane conclusions. Where Rose, Donna, and even uber-educated uppermiddleclass Dr. Martha Jones blundered into things in a very modern earth-centric human way, Clara ... doesn't.

Will this become an important aspect of her Impossible Girl conundrum? I sure as hell hope so because otherwise it's just dragging down my viewing experience. Clara's the Doctor, and the Doctor is ... old.

The character of the Doctor in season seven part two, is becoming an old man. But he's a thousand years-old, of course he's an old man! But he was so sprightly and spry when he was a mere 900 years-old, and now he's acting like when we first met him back when he was still traveling with his granddaughter Susan!

Don't think too hard on the problem of the older character now seeming older like he did when he was much much younger -- I tried and all I ended up doing was giving myself ice-cream-style brain freeze. But consider this:

The first few actors to portray Doctor Who played the character as if he were an old man. A weird old man, yes.  But it wasn't until a few actors later that the Doctor gained a youthful energy.

Let me explain. No there is too much. Let me sum up.**

As part of a charity fundraiser in 2007, Doctor Who filmed the following short, featuring the tenth Doctor, David Tennant, and the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, in a paradoxical moment of Doctor-Doctor overlap:

Old men. Young men. A vegetable as an accessory.

Well, it's less about the celery and more about not taking yourself too seriously. How on earth can you wear a decorative vegetable and carry yourself as old and grumpy and important? Doesn't work. Doesn't happen. When you invite the fun in, the fun shapes you. And this was what grabbed me when I started watching the 2005 reboot: it was dramatic, playing on the core of human emotions, but it never took itself too seriously. Not in the script, not in the acting.

As season seven (Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor) gears up in 50th anniversary frenzy, I'm not sure I feel the same way about the series. As the eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith -- one of the youngest actors ever to portray the Doctor -- seems to be getting more serious. Harsher. More like the old men who originally portrayed the Doctor.

The show keeps bringing back original monsters in honor of the 50th anniversary. Monsters that they don't bother to make sense of, or reestablish the cool-factor for, because they appear to be relying on the audience to make personal connections to the monsters of old.

In short: Doctor Who has assigned me homework. Gone are the days when a Dalek or Sontaran shows up on screen with enough context to make him meaningful to my New-to-Who eyes. Now I must go back to the beginning to figure out the deal with The Great Intelligence or Martian Ice Warriors.

I don't mind going back to the beginning -- I had already started. Although sadly Netflix's "Classic Who" archive is miserably spotty. Thankfully my local library has Whovians who've ordered the DVDs for fifty years worth of Who. But I must admit that I'm a bit put off by feeling like the new narrative is requiring it of me to have a satisfying watching experience.

This is all a roundabout way of saying I've been watching the performances of the first three Doctors, and I find Matt Smith's performance moving more and more in that original direction every episode. Narratively speaking, I could lay this at the feet of the disastrousness of traveling alone for too long.

And while I'm on the topic of disatrousness: I would totally not let this guy talk to my child. An adult male appears suddenly in an area frequented by children but has no children of his own with him and wants to talk to my kid. Seems suspiciously pervvy to me. What would be the British idiom -- something to the tune of he's a total creeper, perhaps? Or am I to believe that late-80s/early-90s England didn't have Stranger Danger campaigns?

Fans who champion Smith as adorkable will likely dismay over my assessment. He is adorkable, I agree.*** He does possess that mainstay of quirkiness and seemingly random association. But the eleventh Doctor has always been curt in a way that didn't sit well with me -- he was the first Doctor whom I noticed telling someone to "shut up." Other Doctors said this, but never with the sort of curtness that made me feel that it was an insult. He seems old and mean, and no longer the charming hero of the universe, championing and protecting the human race.

That may be the most disturbing aspect of the eleventh Doctor: that he's been scripted as having written himself out of history. How many times has the Doctor stood up and proclaimed, "Don't you know who I am? ... Don't you know who protects this planet, these humans?" That was sexy. That was awesome. That was heroic. I never got into Superman saving humanity again and again. My Superman was The Doctor. But now he can't do that. Won't do that. Has undone that. My Superman has written himself out of Metropolis's newspapers and history books. And I don't know how I feel about that.

There's talk that Matt Smith won't renew his contract again and that he may depart as soon as the 2013 Christmas special. Whenever it happens that we embark on the twelfth Doctor, it's my hope that he's more of a Davison-Eccleston-Tennant Doctor than a Hartnell-Troughton-Smith Doctor.

*This issue was largely resolved in "Hide" (Season 7 part 2, episode 4) when the Doctor finally returned to a unique state of youthful energy also known as being bonkers. This is either an intentional marker of personal improvement as the Doctor recovers from traveling alone, or it was a production team remedy to a rather ill-conceived first three episodes of the season.
** What's the point of rabid fandom if you can't cross reference quotes from one fandom while discussing another? Ten karma points for anyone who identifies this phrase's origin. 
***  I dig the adorable dork combination, I won't pretend otherwise.

Highly Recommended