Sunday, June 19, 2011

Goodbye to Ten. It has been an honor.

I’m now up to the Eleventh Doctor in the Doctor Who Series.  Before I jump fully into Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor I want to take the time to think about David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor.  I’m really going miss Ten.  What a terrific Doctor. 

In David Tennant’s first episode an alien invader demanded of the Doctor “Who are you?” and the Doctor bellowed back in a mocking voice “I don’t know!”  This was literally true because the Doctor was still in the midst of regenerating, leaving behind Christopher Eccleston’s excellent 9th Doctor and becoming something totally new. But it was also the theme that the writers and David Tennant would spend the next few years exploring.. 

The series was given the gift of a highly talented actor in Tennant and the writers took full advantage of that in crafting situations that really stretched the Doctor’s concept of who he was. 

Spoilers ahead.

As I said before, Tom Baker was my Doctor.  I didn’t grow up with him as a child; I was in my early twenties when PBS was re-running Doctor Who.  But he was my first Doctor and he shaped all my expectations.

Of course, in some ways it is silly to compare them. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. The nature of television has changed over the years. There are new production values.  Audiences tolerate more.  Audiences demand more. The Tenth Doctor couldn’t have existed in the 1970’s any more than the Fourth Doctor would excite audiences in the 21st century. So at some point I stopped comparing them in my minds and simply accepted that they were different.

It was good to ease back in with Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor, before being bombarded with Ten.  As we picked up the story line with the 9th Doctor, it seemed that many of the Doctor’s existential battles over whether he had the right to exterminate the Daleks had been long ago fought. Not only had the Doctor exterminated the Daleks, in doing so he had exterminated his own race and was the last remaining Time Lord. 

The 9th Doctor is very much alone when we meet him.  He is a Doctor who is still dealing with the immediate personal after-affects of his choices even though he doesn’t doubt he has done the right thing. Even after he takes Rose on as a Companion, he is still dealing with the arrogance in his nature that it took to wipe out your own race. He is a Doctor who, in an early episode, decides against all advice that it was a good idea to let a race of aliens arrive through a time rift to inhabit (even temporarily) human corpses, and then he must watch as that decision turns into catastrophe. He is a Doctor who pleads with some unknown power in the universe for a group of little computerized nanogenes to recognize the DNA of a mother and turn her son back into a human boy; this Doctor pleads to the universe that Just This Once Please it will turn out well and people will live. He is very much living day to day and doesn’t seem to be thinking ahead to what he should become.  And yet, every time Rose makes him laugh, you can see that the essence of the fun loving Doctor is in there somewhere. And he learns how to dance again.

Eccleston seemed like a Doctor who wasn’t so pleased with life that he was sad to leave it.  It is only his interactions with Rose that makes him sad to move on; but his exit is stoic.  Nine seemed at peace with the idea of regeneration perhaps because he had never been completely comfortable in his own skin.  

Yes, Eccleston’s Nine was a good transitional Doctor. 

And then came David Tennant’s Ten.  David Tennant inhabited the Doctor completely and totally in a way I haven’t seen since Tom Baker and in a way that Tom Baker didn’t.  In the end it always comes down to the words on the page and the actor’s ability to convey the words and their essence to an audience. And. He. Nailed. It.  He killed it.  Yes, the fact that he is an award winning actor certainly helps. The fact that he’d wanted to play Doctor Who all his life probably helped.  But the main thing was that he seemed to love being the Doctor.  Which is, perhaps, why it was particularly poignant when it came time for him to move on.  “I don’t want to go” were his very last words. And I believed him.

Ten was a multilayered character in what was essentially a children’s cartoon series.  Think about how hard that is to pull off.  Let’s face it.  Doctor Who has never been a series for sophisticates.  It has always required an audience willing to completely suspend disbelief in the face of cheesy 1950’s style monsters.  And the updated Who didn’t update the monsters very much.  The Daleks and the Robomen were shinier but were still cumbersome robots.  That’s why it was nice for the writers to make Ten’s final foes live actors.  I always think human actors are more fearsome than cheesy robots. 

No, Doctor Who has always relied on the character of the Doctor to carry the show.  And the writers gave Tennant a character that he could fully inhabit from the beginning and then they and he began to stretch that character as far as it would go. Ten’s Doctor was a Doctor who spent almost the entire first episode asleep because the regeneration was so difficult.  This should have been our clue that he was coming back a fully new man, unlike any Doctor we’ve ever seen. 

This was a Doctor who, from the moment he appeared, was funny and sort of whacky but then could be utterly ruthless when necessary.  He believes it is always necessary to give everyone a chance and sometimes those chances could go on for a very long time.  Butthere are  “No second chances” he said in the first episode as he ruthlessly killed the alien with nonchalance.  In one episode he patiently went into hiding from a group of aliens who are out to get him.  He strips himself of his Time Lord powers and becomes totally human so that they won’t detect him.  Is that because he is afraid of them?  No.  By hiding he was giving them a chance to move on and not incur his wrath.  They don’t and ruthlessly takes care of them.

Ten is a Doctor who takes delight in the wonders of the universe and sharing those wonders with everyone around him.  He is unabashedly outgoing, he seems to be a born people person.  And yet the fact that he is alone permeates every scene and he is, ultimately, so lonely.  And Ten is a Doctor who is angst ridden in a way that the Doctor is seldom angst ridden.  And clever.  Too clever:  “It's not like I'm an innocent. I've taken lives. And I got worse, I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own.”

And boy could he talk.  Words just spewed out his mouth as thoughts raced this way and that way through his mind.  It was hard to keep up with him.  He could be a lot of fun. 

Where Nine seemed to wonder why he bothered so much with the human race (so backward, so irrational, so helpless). Ten unabashedly loved earthlings. He loved them even when he disapproved of whatever they were doing. Love was, perhaps, the defining feature of Ten and that made his wrath so powerful.  Ten was perhaps the most godlike and the most human of the Doctors - all at the same time. 

All of that is makes for a difficult character to write and a difficult character to act.  It requires a character to change on a dime and it requires a character who can be moralistic one moment and a great pal the next. And Tennant did it, seemingly effortlessly. 

I’ve seen multiple Doctors regenerate and I admit that when Tom Baker ended his run it was a scene that brought tears to my eyes even though I knew in advance it would happen.  But I was unprepared for how emotional the end of Ten would be.  The end of The Death of Time left me unabashedly crying.   The look on David Tennant’s face as he moves from joyous wonder that he is still alive, with music soaring in the background, to the look on his face the next second when he hears the four knocks that prophecy his demise was worthy of an award all on its own.   The light literally went out of his eyes and they became blank as he (and the camera) turned to face his fate. 

And how appropriate that Ten didn’t die saving the entire human race (again) but died to save one man.  One useless old man who even told him – leave me.  I’m old, leave me.   And it is true.  As Ten says, “look at you, not remotely important. But me... I could do so much more.” Oh, how Ten railed against his fate.  He does not go quietly without a fight, even if the fight is only with himself.   It’s not fair! he shouts.  He is so human at that moment.  But no one is forcing him to do it, no one CAN force him to do it.  It is his choice.  Or perhaps he realizes that it is one of those fixed moments in time that cannot be changed.   It is his time.  And he faces it with grace.   “I’d be honored.”   I think the moment he says that pretty much sums up the Tenth Doctor.

After watching that episode I wondered if Russell Davies was a long ago fan of Jesus Christ Superstar.  Because that scene had a touch of Gethsemane about it.  Very much gospel channeled through rock opera.  

And then another surprise.  He’s not gone.  This is a long slow death that allows him to come back out of the death chamber and walk among his followers once more for a limited time.  Leaving them something to remember him by.  If it sounds very archetypal it was.  And it could have been terrible but it all worked.  I weeped.

But that was at the end.  I also laughed, I laughed a lot, through all the seasons.  So I want to end with some general thoughts picking up where I left off the last time.

  • Donna annoyed me at first but she grew on me.  I thought what happened to Donna was sadder than what happened to all the other companions who were simply left behind.   On the other hand, even though she grew on me I was ready for her to move on and I was glad she didn’t carry over into a Companion for the next Doctor. 
  • Whatever were the writers thinking when they wrote the end of Journey’s End?  They should have left Rose well enough alone where she was.  This is Doctor Who – we all knew they couldn’t end up together.  They had a very poignant goodbye at the end of Season 2.  Leave it at that.  It was ok to have that little moment at the end of the End of Time when the Doctor tells her 2005 is going to be a really great year.  That was nice.  But having her end up with the Other One? That was just dumb.
  • I loved that Sarah Jane was brought back to the series.  She is still my favorite Companion.  I hope that at some point the writers recognize the death of Elizabeth Sladen by making the Doctor mourn the death of Sarah Jane.   In the first episode she appeared in, the moment when David Tennant sees Sarah Jane across the room was just magical.  He played it so well.  I wondered if they were going to write it so that she never knew he was the Doctor.  But having her find the TARDIS and then realize it was him was perfect.  And the end of that episode when he called her “my Sarah Jane” and hugged her was somewhat cathartic, after the Tom Baker episode where he showed almost no emotion when she left.   And her other cameos was nice too.
  • I still think “Blink” was one of the best episodes of television ever.
  • I loved how the first David Tennant episode had the Star Wars reference with his hand being cut off a la Luke Skywalker and the last David Tennant episode had the Star Wars references with them shooting at incoming starships (not to mention the space bar with Captain Jack).  Nice balance.
  • Rude and not Ginger.  Why do I think Ginger is going to be an ongoing theme – yes I’ve seen three episodes of the Matt Smith Doctor.   Here’s the brand new Doctor discovering he’s rude but no red haired.
  • Here’s another scene with with Martha (who I really liked) that also includes Captain Jack AND Sir Derek Jacobi (I was really excited when he appeared in an episode).  The whole hand thing always did creep me out:

On to Eleven.  From what I’ve seen so far he will be fine.  Although he seems soooo young.  

Oh, and Torchwood to follow at a different time.