The joy of not knowing

I watched “The End of Time” again last night, only my second viewing of that episode ever. I have a tendency to avoid the heavy episodes, since they require a lot more attention and emotional investment, but I had wanted to review the return of the Time Lords. And I cried. The Tenth Doctor is such a tragic figure. And I love the Master. I think I like complex enemies (which is probably why I also like Dalek Sec and Dalek Caan).

Afterwards, I got to thinking. I’m watching this series long after it aired, and I already knew at the outset that Matt Smith is the current Doctor. In order to watch the episodes in order, I had to first figure out the order in which they were aired, and thus, I knew that this was going to be David Tennant’s last episode. However, even if I had been watching the series as it was aired, I still would have known that it was David Tennant’s last episode, because there’s no way that I would have not heard about his retiring from the role and Matt Smith starting up. I am sure that at the very least, my Facebook feed (which I’m sure would have had the Doctor Who page on it) would have been filled with “Tonight is the last episode of the Tenth Doctor!”

As a fan, I want to know everything about the show, and I’m certainly checking the news every day to find out if anything else has been released about “The Day of the Doctor,” but on the other hand, it’s kind of sad. Watching “The End of Time,” either when it was first shown or years after the fact, you’re watching to find out how the Doctor ends up regenerating, instead of watching all these horrible events unfold without knowing if the Doctor is going to be able to survive it. The Woman tells Wilfred that the Doctor may still survive, and you hope he does, but you already know he’s not going to.

Can you imagine watching “The End of Time” without the foreknowledge that it was David Tennant’s last episode? You start the episode with all of these prophecies that the Tenth Doctor is going to die, then ride through all of the ups and downs of the episode: the Master directly attacking the Doctor with lightning, the Doctor falling through the skylight, the Doctor holding the Master and Rassilon at bay with the gun and Rassilon taunting him that the last act of his life would be to kill. Then, after the Master and the Time Lords are swept back into the Time War, you breathe a sigh of relief as the Doctor rises from the floor, still alive and having evaded the prophecy, as the Woman had suggested he could.

Knock, knock, knock, knock.

Your heart falls into your stomach as you realize what that means. Wilfred offers to die for the Doctor, and the Doctor rails against the injustice of his fate, then realizes that he’s again falling into the corruption that threatens every powerful being, and accepts what he must do. You hope that maybe Wilfred will punch a button to force the radiation to kill him before the Doctor can take his place in the chamber, but realize that that action would be even worse than death to the Doctor, that someone would sacrifice for him. And while the Doctor claims his reward, you keep hoping that he’ll be saved, thinking that David Tennant couldn’t possibly be leaving the show.  He says, “I don’t want to go…” but in a few moments, Matt Smith goes sauntering away.

“The End of Time” is an emotional rollercoaster, but it is robbed of its potential by our demand to know what’s going on behind the scenes. This could also be said of any episode in this show, in which the main conflict usually consists of not knowing how the Doctor is going to solve the problem and if he can do it before being killed. We already know that there’s going to be another episode next week, and so we aren’t actually afraid for the Doctor or his companion: something in the back of our mind is always saying, “Well, we know at least that they must survive.”

This is a weakness in modern storytelling that writers try very hard to overcome. For example, the film Star Trek: Into Darkness had a big secret that they tried to conceal: the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. The fans – who, incidentally, were the people the secret was aimed at, since a casual moviegoer would not have known the character – demanded to know who it was and did tons of research and conjecture, and came up with the most probably theory. If I remember correctly, the character was leaked shortly before the premiere, and the fans were going, “Oh yeah, we already knew.”

Personally, I forgot the movie was coming out and didn’t know anything about it, other than Benedict Cumberbatch was in it. I saw the film soon after opening day, and the reveal hit me like a ton of bricks: the knowledge of who the character was in the old Star Trek universe and the realization of the horrors he could unleash in this new film completely charged the movie with tension. And then I saw what people, who had known about it before seeing the movie, posted on the Internet: that the whole John Harrison thing was lame and that there was no reason to make it such a big secret, etc. Because they spoiled themselves before the movie came out, it lost its impact on them. They cheated themselves out of a fantastic experience, because they felt entitled to know the secrets beforehand.

Another fine example of this is The Game of Thrones. I have not read the books, but going into watching the first season, I knew one thing, that the heir to house Targaryen was going to die from angering Khal Drogo and having molten gold poured on his head. When the event happened, it was not surprising or horrifying; I had been expecting it. But when Ned was executed, something I didn’t know was going to happen, I cried. Since then, I’ve heard of many instances of outcry when characters die on that show, and I am willing to bet that the outcry comes from the fact that we, as the audience, don’t have information about which actors have been dismissed from the show. We go into each episode expecting that everyone survives to the end, but we honestly don’t know that it’s true. The only ones who do know are those who have read the books, and they already went through the surprise while reading.

I do wish that we, as a fan base, would not demand so much information about the inner workings of the show, but I know that will never happen. All I can do is try very hard not to search for every little tidbit of “The Day of the Doctor,” so that it is completely new to me when I get to see it. Honestly, I think it’s the best way to experience any new story.

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Not so scary

A number of my friends who don’t like Doctor Who cite the fact that the show requires an immense amount of disbelief, and I have to agree with them. Monsters often move incredibly slowly. Many will stop attacking if the Doctor yells “Wait!” at them, giving him plenty of time to talk his way out of the situation. Some enemies are simply silly (one friend loves to taunt the Daleks’ plunger hand). However, us fans are willing to overlook such things in favor of paying attention to the story and characterizations.

On the other hand, having a good, believable enemy only adds to the story. Father’s Day, for example, is really about Rose’s relationship with her father and the things that happened when she messed with his timestream, but the efficient and ruthless Reapers added to episode’s tension. They quickly attacked their victims, and during the course of the show, which covered maybe an hour or two of time passing, they cleansed most of the world.  Though the people in the church had nothing to do but wait, the pressure of not having much time came from an enemy that could not be persuaded to wait.

One of the most popular enemies in the Doctor Who universe is the Weeping Angels, so much so that they often beat out the Daleks in polls of “favorite enemies.” They were introduced in the Tenth Doctor episode “Blink,” and returned during the Eleventh Doctor’s run in the episodes “The Time of the Angels”/”Flesh and Stone” and “The Angels Take Manhattan.” “Blink” was a fantastic episode, usually considered as the best Doctor Who episode ever – a statement I might agree with if I didn’t think that “Midnight” was just a touch better – but I don’t get people’s fascination with the angels.

In itself, “Blink” was a brilliant episode because it married a very complex plot (Sally Sparrow trying to figure out how all these odd events fit together and how a DVD easter egg could possibly have anything to do with what’s going on) with a terrifying monster that would attack the instant you closed your eyes, but when I watched it for the first time, I was already having problems suspending my disbelief about the angels. Here is a monster that cannot move if anyone is looking at them, so all of the characters spend their time staring at these statues, and yet the angels have not yet learned to circle around and approach their quarry from multiple directions at once. They turn to stone when someone is looking at them, and in this form, they’re indestrucible – since when is stone indestructible? And worst of all, if they look at each other, they turn to stone. Since they seem to travel in gangs, they should be always in stone form (the one in the back must see the one in front of it).

“Blink” works so well because it persuades the viewer to always consider the angels to be working alone. When in the house called Wester Drumlins, even though there are many angels present, you rarely see more than one at a time. Especially when Sally is alone in the house, when she sees one angel, any of the others could have taken her out, but since the camera focuses on only one at a time, it’s the only one you as the viewer needs to worry about. The single angel you’re concentrating on fills the screen, and when the lights blink on and off, you see it strobe closer and closer, and it’s terrifying. Only at the end of the episode are the angels attacking in a group, and by that time, you’ve forgotten about their weakness. In fact, when the TARDIS dematerializes and the angels are stuck staring at each other, even Sally and Larry have to rediscover their weakness.

As an aside, I think the truly terrifying thing about the angels is that they don’t kill, but instead consume their victim’s time energy and send him back to live the rest of his life in the distant past. There are a lot of things that are more frightening than death, and to me, that’s one of them.

I truly enjoyed “Blink” even though the angels were completely implausible (how does a species that can’t look at each other arise in the first place?). And then more episodes with them appeared. In “The Time of the Angels”/”Flesh and Stone,” the angels now have the power of “whatever takes the image of an angel becomes itself an angel.” Considering the number of angels and cameras on Earth, why isn’t the entire world infested with angels? Especially in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” when the Statue of Liberty is shown to be an angel. (Not to mention, the Statue of Liberty is made of copper, not stone. And wouldn’t someone in the largest city in the world have seen it walking towards the angels’ apartment building, freezing it in place?) They gained other abilities (taking over victims, feeding off electricity, etc.) which had the effect of diluting the terror even more. And they always attacked in groups, which should cripple them.

The later episodes took an enemy that was extremely well-crafted for the episode it was designed for, and turned them into just another implausible Doctor Who villain in “The Time of the Angels”/”Flesh and Stone.” And “The Angels Take Manhattan” was just a joke.  They certainly deserve to be remembered for “Blink,” but why anyone considers them to be so terrifying is beyond me.

Sarah Jane and Rose

It’s a day less than a month until “The Day of the Doctor” and information about the theater showings in the U.S. has just been released. As is typical in my life, I will not get the chance to see it in the theaters: the nearest simulcast on November 23 will be 4 hours away, and the repeat showing will only be 2 hours away, but it’s on November 25, which is a Monday and therefore a work day. I cannot justify taking the day off to travel up there for the show, and driving two hours, watching the show for probably two hours (there’s going to be a lot of extra content), and then driving back two hours will not be conducive to work the next day. Since we don’t get any TV service at home, we are reduced to begging our friends to let us come over to watch on their TV. Or, hopefully we can use BBC iPlayer to watch it. At the very worst, my understanding is that the BBC will be releasing the episode on DVD within the month.

This horrible tragedy of my life aside, I actually came to write about a happier topic. This morning, I was watching bits from one of my favorite episodes, “School Reunion.” Now, this episode, as a whole, is actually not the greatest. I remember watching it for the first time and not being particularly impressed, though I can’t really put my finger on why.  It just wasn’t great. It was adequate.

So why is “School Reunion” one of my favorite episodes? Because of Sarah Jane Smith and Rose Tyler.

In case you don’t know, Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) was a companion of the Doctor in the classic series. She started traveling with the Third Doctor, was with him when he regenerated into the Fourth Doctor, and traveled with the Fourth Doctor until he was called back by the Time Lords. Since humans weren’t allowed on Gallifrey at the time, the Doctor had to leave Sarah Jane on Earth, in her hometown of Croydon (or so he thought at the time), and that was the last she saw of him.

The reunion of the Doctor and Sarah Jane was very sweet. Headmaster Finch introduces the two of them, and while Sarah Jane does not recognize the Doctor (who is posing as physics teacher John Smith), who has regenerated six time since she last him, the Doctor knows her immediately, and is positively enchanted. As is usual with the tenth incarnation when he is utterly and completely surprised, he is nearly incoherent as he chats with her, at least to her. To us, his babble demonstrates his regard (if not love) for her and his dumbfounded state.

Later that night, Sarah Jane and the Doctor’s “gang” break into the school separately. While fleeing some very scary sounds, Sarah Jane stumbles into a storage room and comes face-to-face with the TARDIS. It’s her turn to be dumbfounded, and she backs out of the room, running into John Smith, who says, very seriously, “Hello, Sarah Jane.” She immediately knows who he is, and the following conversation is very strained. Over the course of the show, they talk about the difficulties the both have with their relationship. Sarah Jane has waited for the Doctor for thirty years, being unable to live a normal life, so boring compared to the wonders of the universe that he has shown her. For his part, the Doctor is unable to return to past companions, because all he sees is that they age and die, leaving him alone yet again.

This part of the story is moving because you get to see the aftereffects of traveling with the Doctor. Sarah Jane never had a normal life after the Doctor, and only after re-encountering him was she able to come to terms with it and move on.  The episode also prepares you for what will happen when Rose must leave. You don’t know at this point what will cause her to leave the Doctor, but you can see that whatever it is, it will be just as traumatic for her as it was for Sarah Jane.

The other half of the episode is the development of Rose’s character. Before I go on, I want to say that I’m not the biggest fan of Rose. She is a reasonable companion – strong-willed, brave, clever (the British use this term a lot, it seems, instead of “smart” or “intelligent,” and I like it, because it has a connotation of “quick-witted”) – but I also found her to be a bit whiny and impetuous, often causing the situation that the Doctor must fix. She helped both Nine and Ten grow, learn, and develop, and Ten (and probably Nine) both loved her deeply, but these aren’t necessarily reasons for me to like her. I cried when she and Ten were trapped in different universes, but I was also happy to see her go.

“School Reunion” provides a great example of one of the things I disliked about her. The Doctor introduces her to Sarah Jane, and she takes an instant dislike to the former companion. Granted, it was sparked by Sarah Jane’s caustic remark about the Doctor’s companions getting younger, but Rose’s first complaint was that there were other companions before her: she wasn’t the Doctor’s first. This isn’t even a reasonable expectation – she’s 19 and already had a steady boyfriend, but she expected the 900-year-old Doctor to have always been traveling alone – until you realize that yes, she is 19 years old and still immature. Of course she’s going to react like this. This is definitely one of the things that I don’t like about her – her selfishness when it comes to the Doctor – but I can also recognize that this was a fantastic characterization of a young girl who is in this extraordinary situation of falling in love with an ancient alien.

As the story continues on, though, Rose learns and grows. Through discussion with Sarah Jane and the Doctor at separate times, she learns that the Doctor has had many, many companions, at different levels of intimacy, and that the one thing that connects them all is that they all eventually leave him, and he continues on alone. The companions, too, are scarred, as she sees that Sarah Jane had an empty life after she left the Doctor, but Sarah Jane teaches her something that everyone has to learn sometime: that the love is worth the eventual heartbreak. At the end of the episode, Rose hasn’t sorted everything out yet, but she’s getting there.

One other thing that I didn’t like, though maybe it again describes Rose’s character even more clearly, was her treatment of Mickey. At the beginning of the episode, Rose is flirting with Mickey on the phone, suggesting that he fabricated a situation just so that she would come back to see him. Mickey seems actually surprised at this, as if he called them without any romantic thought towards Rose, then gets his hopes up when she flirts with him. Then, at the end of the episode, she is upset because Mickey is going to travel with them. It seems to me that she wants both men, so that she can travel with the Doctor while keeping Mickey at home, wrapped around her finger, and now she’s angry because Mickey took her flirting seriously. It’s not the most flattering portrayal of her, and I almost think it was a mistake in the design of the episode. I’m not sure. Unfortunately, this storyline is never really explored, because the next episode, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” was written without knowing that Rose and Mickey were at odds, and the one after that, “Rise of the Cybermen”/”The Age of Steel,” barely deals with them.

And so, “School Reunion” is one of my favorite episodes without being all that great. It marries the nostalgia of a old and favorite companion with the deft development of that companion and the current companion, and that’s really what appeals to me most.

Two news items

There are a couple of interesting Doctor Who news articles today. The first one nearly made me cry. The important part is this: Steven Moffat, the executive producer of Doctor Who, said that while filming the 50th anniversary special,

“By the end of it, Matt told me that he’d worked out this plan that they’d both continue in Doctor Who: do five individual episodes each and three together – would that be ok? It was a nice plan. I think if I’d said yes they’d have gone for it.”

Can you imagine that? The return of the Tenth Doctor for five episodes, five more episodes of the Eleventh Doctor, and then three episodes of both? A full season of the two fan favorites? AND HE CHOSE NOT TO DO IT?

I think my world is falling apart.

Ok, back to reality. The rest of the article is so endearing.  It’s nice to hear that Mr. Tennant and Mr. Smith got along so well, and that they were nervous about each other at first. I imagine that meeting each other is like meeting the guy who’s leaving the job you’re taking, who everyone loved and was brilliant at it, and you feel like there’s no way you could possibly live up to that.

The other article I came across is the Radio Times’ poll for Best Companion. I voted for Jackson Lake even though there are other companions I like more than him (though I think he’s fantastic) because I wanted him to have at least a few votes. I don’t know who might actually win this poll, but at the moment, the leader is Adric at 33% to Rose Tyler’s next highest spot at 16%.  In other words, Adric is beating Rose by double.

I am absolutely surprised by this. First, you have to realize that my husband has watched Doctor Who since Jon Pertwee was the Doctor, and he has always said that the #1 most hated companion was Adric. He likens Adric to Wesley Crusher: young know-it-all. I’ve only seen a few of Adric’s episodes (“Logopolis,” “Castrovalva”), and he was frankly rather irritating. I know that Adric does have the distinction of his death shaping the personality of the Fifth Doctor, but that’s hardly a trait you’d use to vote someone “Best Companion.”

So the question is, why Adric? The problem with polls is that you can’t answer that question. I guess I really need to step up my Fourth and Fifth Doctor viewing to figure this out.

Truth out of humor

If you don’t read the website Cracked.com, you really should. It bills itself as a humor website, but it’s so much more than that. My favorite part of it is its daily lists of interesting things. They usually delve into pop culture, but they also do lists on science, history, etc., which appeals to my inner nerd. (Inner nerd? Who am I kidding? I’m completely nerd. And geek. I am proud to say I am both nerd and geek.) The site will publish articles submitted by others, but they have a stable of excellent writers; my favorites are John Cheese, Gladstone, and David Wong.

Among today’s articles is Gladstone’s The 4 Worst Moments from Otherwise Great Artists, and coming in at #4 is the Ghostbusters reference in “Army of Ghosts.” Now, personally, that reference made me laugh out loud and I don’t find it to be a bad moment in Doctor Who, but sure, I can see why other people would find it to be horrible.  I also absolutely love the caption under the photo of David Tennant in the article. If Mr. Tennant is making Gladstone question his heterosexuality, then he (Gladstone) really needs to watch Casanova.

Gladstone mentions in his article that he is a great fan of Doctor Who and links his article about how the show became his religion. It’s a very interesting article about how the Doctor is a god, what that really means, and why people will connect with the show on almost a religious level. You should read it, because Gladstone is a brilliant writer and any synopsis I make here will only dilute what he says. I’ll summarize by quoting him: “I mean the Doctor is a god. But one we can see and understand. And he loves us more than all the other creatures in the universe. He would die for us, but what he really wants to do is live with us.”

Now, I’m not so sure that I could call my newfound devotion to Doctor Who a religion. An obsession, yes, but a religion? No. But why is the show so compelling? I’ve discussed this with my husband many times, and it’s hard to figure out and put into words. I have other things that I’m fan of – Star Trek: The Next GenerationFirefly, Jane Austen novels – as well as past things that I no longer follow rabidly such as the X-Men and Spider-Man. (I define my fandoms as things that I’ll go out and search for merchandise of. I really like Big Bang Theory, but I have no interest in BBT merchandise. And yes, I do have Mr. Darcy t-shirts, as well as a really nice Regency gown.) However, I’ve never before had the experience of any show or book so completely taking over my waking thoughts. I can re-watch the episodes over and over again, with only the discomfort of my brain telling me that it really isn’t that healthy to watch “The Christmas Invasion” for the fourth time in a week.

Gladstone’s article is right on target: The Doctor is a compelling character because he fights for us and protects us, because he is lonely and needs us as much as we need him, and because he can fail and he can die, thus demonstrating that “horrible events can occur… and that doesn’t mean we are lost or unloved.” The best episodes are all about the ways in which the Doctor fails while he succeeds: losing his control in “Dalek” and then learning something new about Daleks (and himself) from Rose, not returning to Reinette in time, killing John Smith to become the Doctor once again, being unable to curb the rising panic of the humans trapped in shuttle bus, not realizing that all of his enemies unified to trap him in the Pandorica, losing Amy and Rory to the angels…

The episodes are very real: clean wins are rare, the Doctor must often defeat himself to win the situation, and he is constantly learning from his experiences.  This is what makes the show compelling: The Doctor may be alien and evolved so far beyond human understanding, but he is still learning and growing, and he still cares so much for all other life in the universe that he’s willing to die to make it right. We get to watch all of this happen, and we can’t not come back to see what he does next.