Sunday, June 2, 2013

TV Review: Doctor Who: Series 7b

So, as I write the news has broken that Matt Smith is standing down as the Eleventh Doctor at Christmas, so we can all look forward to a regeneration story, a new Doctor, and weeks, if not months, or people on the internet pontification on what the next Doctor MUST be like, else disaster. I may even join in at some point. But for now, the second half of Season 7 has just ended, so before we look forward, we should look back. A new companion, a new mystery arc, and a big anniversary to build up to; how will the Doctor face these challenges?

It's become the fan narrative in the last few weeks that Doctor Who has got tired, or suddenly weakened, or that its creative team woke up in January after a big night out and forgot how to write. Which I find slightly odd, because if anything this season is pretty much more of the same - a mix of good and not-so-good episodes held together by a strong central cast, with wildly varying tones week to week that is always going to give variable mileage. I think it's more likely that after three years of this Doctor/Showrunner combination, a lot of the bag of tricks has been seen before, and its increasingly hard to pull out something "new" to wow the diehards.

The new for this series is of course Jenna-Louise Coleman as the new companion, Clara. The character is burdened with also being the central mystery of the run, and whilst it resolves itself nicely in the end (surprisingly, given Who's long, long, history with anti-climaxes) its not the most engaging way to introduce a character. Clara is in many ways refreshingly normal, and "the impossible girl" halo that sits around her in the series structure, for me, reduced her rather than enhanced her. Its a trope of the new series - making the companions "special" for one reason or another - that I'm pretty tired of. That said, when allowed to be "just" Clara she is engaging and fun, albeit with a whiff of "manic pixie dream girl" about her.

The other big "theme" for this series was "New" Who embracing it's past in a way it never previously has. Every episode came with a Bingo-Card of references to past stories, Doctors and companions, for the most part seamlessly chucked into the scripts so the fans would get them but never plot-critical so I'd have to explain it to the kids. This even seemed to extend to the nature of the stories - Cold War is a 2nd Doctor era  "base under siege"; Hide could easily have been a 3rd Doctor/UNIT story (it's even set in the 1970s) and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS calls back to the 6th Doctor era by being a decent idea done disappointingly poorly.

So if I had to call out the strong episodes I'd pick the aforementioned Hide and Cold War, along with the utterly-daft-but-hugely-fun The Crimson Horror. The Bells of St John gets a pass and whilst Rings of Ahkaten gets a lot of hate it had a strong first half and the first singing scene was fantastic, before it all sort of fell off the quality cliff. It probably looked better on the page. Neil Gaimans Nightmare in Silver was disspointing only because The Doctors Wife was so great, so "just" a decent episode felt like a let down.  Finally, the only real duff episode for me was Journey, which felt like such a great opportunity but ended up misfiring pretty badly on the script, effects and even the acting front.

And finally, to the finale. (See what I did there?). The Name of the Doctor is a wonderfully misleading title, letting you draw the wrong conclusions as to what it would be about, but also so totally accurate to what the episode ended up being about. A decent resolution to the "Impossible Girl" mystery followed by a properly stunning cliffhanger to lead into Novembers 50th Anniversary episode? Yeah, that pretty much blew me away, and left me keen to see where this particular story goes.