Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The 11th Doctor

Matt Smith took over the role of the Doctor in I frankly can't keep track of which season (or series?) of "modern era" Doctor Who. All I know is that it was long enough ago that two Doctors have gone after him and the latter has already been at it for a couple years. The DVD of the Matt Smith episodes recently turned up at a price point I could afford, so I brought it home and semi-binged on it over the past week or two. I'll say out front that I am guardedly satisfied with this segment of the Who saga. Take that for what it's worth, considering that (apart from the Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant boxed set) I'm a newborn where the Tardis (TARDIS?) is concerned.

Matt Smith's Doctor delivered some pretty good episodes. For about the first two-thirds of them, he is accompanied by a girl named Amy (or Amelia) Pond, whom he first meets when she's a small girl praying to Santa Claus for someone to help her with the crack in her bedroom wall. For reasons related to this crack, which runs straight through the fabric of reality, she's a pretty remarkable girl and by the time the Doctor straightens her trouble out, she's a fine young woman. Also joining them a lot of the time is her boyfriend/fiance/husband Rory, who follows his own unique path to distinction by dying, being erased from history, reappearing as a Roman Centurion in the wee years A.D., turning out to be a sleeper agent programmed by the Nestene Consciousness (which has the ability to possess plastic), switching sides, waiting for his true love for 2,000 years, losing her and getting her back at least a couple of times – once by time travel and once by divorce – and who comes to his ultimate fate, more or less hand-in-hand with Amy, at the hands of the (spoiler deleted). I mean, really. They're a pretty romantic pair.

The 11th Doctor's other companion is "the impossible girl" Clara Oswald, who dies the first two times he encounters her – first in the future, then in the past – before joining him for the duration in the present day. Yeah, it's weird, but you didn't come to Doctor Who for a slice of ordinary life, did you? There are also numerous encounters with River Song, the purported Time Lord's Wife whose previous encounter with the 10th Doctor was her last and his first. Time travel! Other past Doctors make appearances, including the one who famously fried the Time Lords' homeworld thinking it was the only way to end the Time War against the Daleks. This pre-Doctor (not one of the official number) is played by the late, great John Hurt, who had the title character burst out of him in Alien and sold Harry Potter's wand to him. Also returning are former Doctor players David Tennant and Tom Baker – besides a Who's Who of archival footage.

These adventures also feature crossover appearances from other great fantasy/sci-fi franchises (well, at least actors from them), adorable Star Trek references, and so many instances where the Doctor's or the universe's demise seems imminent (or actually occurs) that the gimmick actually becomes tiresome. S'truth, the 11th Doctor seems to spend half of his tenure bracing himself for the end, even though he eventually proves to be the one incarnation of Gallifrey's Last (the Oncoming Storm, etc.) to expire of old age. Fortunately, he also finds a loophole in the rule that was supposed to prevent him from regenerating any more, so we meet Peter Capaldi's Doctor in the final episode.

As I said, lots of great adventures happen in this season, in spite of a tiresome trend in the writing that seemed to be telegraphing Matt Smith's exit from the role long before it happened. He seemed (contrary to actual fact) always to be the Doctor who wasn't going to make it much longer. He faced the Daleks a few times, the Weeping Angels two or three times, some Cybermen, Silurians (a.k.a. Homo reptilia), fish vampires from space, dinosaurs on a spaceship, a Westworld-worthy cyber-gunslinger, carnivorous snowmen, a Martian who has been frozen for 5,000 years, programmable flesh doppelgangers who try to steal the identities of the people they are based on. He rubs elbows with Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth X, Winston Churchill, Vincent Van Gogh, Adolf Hitler, 17th century pirates, 1970s ghost hunters, and the crew of a 1980s Soviet nuclear sub. He gets a lot of help from a Silurian lady who is apparently the basis for Sherlock Holmes, and a little help from a comically warlike Sontaran named Strax who has been in the Doctor's debt for some time, among other recurring allies. He gets a lot of flack from a religion devoted to preventing the ultimate question ("Doctor Who?") from being answered; among its acolytes are the Silence, a terrifying race so genetically engineered that as soon as you stop looking at them, you forget you ever saw them. They're the coolest new alien since the Weeping Angels, right?

During his run, Doc 11 voyages to the center of the earth and the center of the Tardis. He reboots the entire universe. He arranges his own death (to save the universe another time), botches it, and nearly causes all of reality to collapse. He visits a pocket universe outside the real universe, where he meets a being that eats Tardises for breakfast. In his Christmas specials, he recapitulates such holiday classics as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and – this is where I have to start my list of Three Episodes That Made It For Me – (1) A Christmas Carol, with Michael Gambon (lately Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies) playing the equivalent of Scrooge on a world where fish fly in fog, and only a time traveler with the ability to tinker with the old guy's Christmases Past, Present and Future can prevent a space liner from crashing. I know, that synopsis doesn't sound like a story. But it really is a pretty good one. You just have to be there.

(2) "The Lodger," in which the Doctor moves in with a hopeless bachelor played by James Corden while trying to find out what their upstairs neighbor is doing to prevent the Tardis from landing. The scene in which the Doctor takes a shortcut to explaining everything to Corden – a headbutt followed by "Wait. You're..." "I know." "From..." "Shhh." "You have a Tardis!" – reduced me to a quivering Jell-o mold of laughter. Corden's performance of this moment of discovery is by far the funniest moment in this boxed set.

(3) Sorry, Matt Smith's episodes don't get much better than first one, "The Eleventh Hour," in which the Doctor meets Amy Pond and leaves her waiting for 12 years before fulfilling his promise to deal with the crack in her bedroom wall. In the meantime, an escaped prisoner who can hide from you when you're looking right at him (except at the corner of your eye), and who can assume the form of a comatose patient, takes up housekeeping in her house and manipulates her so profoundly that she forgets that the room he lives in is even there. I thought this creature was so creepy, and the build-up to saving the world from him (or rather, from the police force that was willing to incinerate the planet rather than deal with him) was so effective that it did a great job of launching the Matt Smith era Doctor.

HONORABLE MENTION: The Van Gogh episode was very touching. It made me cry, actually.

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