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Doctor Who (second season, 2005-06)

The first season of the new Doctor Who was very good. The second season is much better.

Anyone who hasn't seen it doesn't know what they're missing, because if they knew what they're missing they wouldn't miss it. My advice is — don't miss it.

Here's the story so far, as the second season begins: "The Doctor" is a mildly insane space alien who wanders through space and time in his space & time machine called the TARDIS, accompanied by Rose (Billie Piper), a young blonde from London. 

The Doctor has just died, but Doctors don't die, they regenerate, so he's back with a new face (David Tennant), and together The Doctor and Rose are always righting wrongs and fighting monsters and cracking wise. Like in...

S2E00: "The Christmas Invasion"

Regeneration into a new face and body always leaves The Doctor temporarily discombobulated, so he spends much of this episode sleeping it off. 

Doesn't matter — it's still a kicker of a story, as wicked space aliens celebrate the holidays by attacking Earth, specifically London, and aiming target practice at Rose, her mother Jackie, and her ex-boyfriend Mickey.

There's a hilarious but creepy killer Christmas tree, and a Christmas band that blows explosives from the brass instruments, and as soon as The Doctor is finally awake and fully himself, comes some grand swordplay miles above the city. And then there's a sweeping, goosebumpy message about the difficulties and moralities of war. 

"Episode 00," by the by, means that this was actually a 'special' that aired on Christmas, months before the regular season started. The streaming channels sell it separately, though, so it's not even listed as an episode of "season 2", making it difficult to catch all the episodes in the right order. I missed "The Christmas Invasion" for years because I didn't know it existed, so if you're watching, search for it by its title.

This episode got great ratings, which made "Christmas specials" an annual Doctor Who event. So all the Chirstmas episodes are hard to find, but they're usually worth seeking out and paying the extra two dollars.

What I always wonder, though, is why the heck a space alien — who's explicitly agnostic — would celebrate Xmas every December 25?

S02E01: "New Earth"

This is set on a far-future planet called New Earth, and when The Doctor and Rose land, they're looking at a shiny city across the bay. It's a trick shot, of course — the show is not filmed on location.

As it starts, The Doctor and Rose stand on applegrass below as air taxis whiz by overhead, and you can see the shadows of the air taxis' moving across the ground. It's a tiny thing and I only just noticed it, but what a huge contrast to the original Doctor Who, where everything always looked fake and cheap.

I shan't tell you much of the story, but The Doctor's been paged to a hospital that's run by human cats. There's also the stretched-skin "last human" previously seen in S01E02, who starts body-jumping into Rose and then into The Doctor, all of which packs surprising comedic and emotional wallop. 

Watching and re-watching the series many times, there are some episodes I've grown weary of and sometimes skip. This will never be one of those. Every rewatch, it still works, as a near-perfect blend of silliness and science fiction, with an ending that always makes my eyes wet.

S02E02: "Tooth and Claw"

We're in Victorian-era England, where trick photography-augmented musket-wielding kung fu killer monks from outer space have taken over a man's home just as Queen Victoria herself comes by. 

This episode has great one-off characters, and the Queen is a hoot and "not amused," and the drama, tension, and heroics are 98% of the episode, and make it impossible not to recommend.

Those trick photography-augmented musket-wielding kung fu killer monks from outer space are only the last 2% of the episode's ingredients, but they get kind of annoying. So do the werewolves. 

S02E03: "School Reunion"

Though I've never seen much of the original Doctor Who (1963-89), I'm well aware that Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) was a beloved companion for several of those years, and there's no not noticing the magic when she's brought back for this marvelous episode of New Who.

There's very funny interplay between ex-companion Sarah Jane and now-companion Rose, grand scenes of forever friendship with Sarah Jane and The Doctor, and campy but shiverry spookiness from the rest of the story.

Another brilliant stroke is casting Anthony Head (Giles, from Buffy) as the principal of a high school where strange things are afoot (or afood). Sarah Jane is now a journalist snooping around, amazed to discover The Doctor and the TARDIS in the school's basement.

We get the return of a metal dog that talks, too. The dog is from the Old Who, with Sarah Jane. Woof woof. The appeal of a metal dog eludes me, but everyone's having a blast and it's as infectious as metal rabies.

S02E04: "The Girl in the Fireplace"

This one's almost nonstop mystery, intrigue, and adventure, as The Doctor discovers an abandoned spaceship which has a fireplace that's also a portal to 17th century France. Looking through the flames, he spots and chats with a young girl named Reinette, who in a flash of time grows up to be Madame de Pompadour, main mistress of King Louis XV, and herself a lady of the arts so influential she's in Wikipedia.

You're thinking that sounds unlikely, yes? Wait til you see the stuff I didn't mention, like the horse and the roasted human flesh.

Really, though, none of it's any more unlikely than a space alien who looks human traipsing the known and unknown galaxy, platonically accompanied by an Earth blonde. 

Reinette: "Reason tells me you cannot be real."

The Doctor: "Oh, you never want to listen to reason."

It's a beautiful story, giving plenty for Rose and Mickey to do, and some of Reinette's spirit is resurrected in a remarkable performance from an actress I've never seen in anything else.

There's also a brief but breathtakingly blunt glimpse into the mysterious Doctor's past, and very brief foreshadowing of events years in the show's future.

As often happens on Doctor Who, no matter how hyper-absurd the events, the emotions are as real as Dickens or life. Anyone who could watch this episode without needing to dry their eyes at the end is someone who'd glance at the Pyramids and have seen enough.

"Go to the window. Pick a star, any star." 

S02E05: "Rise of the Cybermen"
and E06: "The Age of Steel"

Here's the return of Rose's dead father, only he's on an alternate Earth in a different dimension where he's not dead, and also not her dad, because she's never been born.

The episode's bad guy is a Rupert Murdoch lookalike who's eager to 'upgrade' everyone to his newly-designed mechanical hive mind. It's a two-parter, dark, but also lightly comic.

What the show's boss Russell T Davies does so splendidly is, most episodes have one-time characters who must decide whether to pitch in and help in a crisis (note: there's always a crisis), or walk away. You can't guess which ordinary man or woman will rise to the occasion and which will falter, but it's always stirring to see it — and this time, the person who steps up with heroics isn't a one-timer, it's Rose's twerpy ex-boyfriend, who turns out to be made of more than merely jokes and cowardice.

Murray Gold's background music for this particular story is among the best orchestral scores ever written for television — about five minutes of it is in my perpetual playlist. There's also one of the wildest-ever uses of "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)". 

S02E07: "The Idiot's Lantern"

We're back in London, in a time when television was new, and with the upcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth, everyone wants a TV set so's they can watch. There's a shop down the street selling TV's at an affordable price, but you might prefer to pay more elsewhere. Or maybe don't get a set at all.

"I hear they rot your brains. Rot them into soup. And your brain comes pouring out of your ears. That’s what television does."

Under the straightforward plot, there are serious considerations of patriotism, political panics, and an abusive husband and father. There's also a very creepy special effect, which heightens the horror and has literally given me nightmares.

I'm uneasy with the message at the end, but that might be because I'm a prick. Most folks would doubtless find in weepy and inspiring.

S02E08 "The Impossible Planet"
and E09: "The Satan Pit"

Once again, the setup seems impossible — The Doctor and Rose are on a planet that's next to a black hole. The planet and everything on it should be sucked in straight away — that's what happens to anything near a black hole. Instead the planet mysteriously generates a gravity funnel that holds it in a steady balance against all the laws of astronomy.

A crew of scientists has been sent to drill down into the planet, to find the source of the unexplained gravity funnel, and they're assisted by numerous strange-looking "voluntary slaves," called the Ood. Then there's a planetquake, and the TARDIS is lost, and things start going seriously wrong.

The Ood are seriously creepy, yet sympathetic. The story moves fast, except when it slows to savor the drama. It's gruesome and grown-up, and great. 

It's hard to remember sometimes, but the original Doctor Who was a children's show. Children still watch and enjoy it, but it's mostly for adults. This two-parter could've been a darn good movie, which definitely would not be rated G.

S02E10: "Love & Monsters"

"Elton, fetch a spade!"

Elton Pope is an ordinary 21st century earth dude who likes Electric Light Orchestra, has a video blog, and tends to occasionally burst into song.

When he was a kid, something odd happened and he very briefly saw The Doctor in action.

As an adult, he's noticed all the odd goings-on with alien invasions and the recurring presence of some mysterious 'Doctor' who always comes to the rescue, so he joins an amateur 'Doctor' club, called LINDA (the London Investigation 'N Detective Agency).

At LINDA meetings, five friends share what clues they've gathered about the mythical 'Doctor', but mostly they just enjoy hanging out together. Then everything changes when a sixth member joins the group.

There's not much of The Doctor and Rose in this episode, but there's plenty of Rose's mother — she's always delightful, and here the character is given and the actress delivers genuine depth. This episode has action, a hundred laughs, piano-tinkling romance, and a people-eating alien from the planet Clum. 

With its unexpectedly unconventional ending, it's all somehow horrific and happy at the same time. At the moment, I can't think of another TV show or movie that pulls of that emotional combination so splendidly.

"When you're a kid, they tell you it's all 'Grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that's it'. The truth is, the world is so much stranger than that, and so much darker, and so much madder, and so much better."

S02E11 "Fear Her"

When I visit a Doctor Who chatroom, or (rarely) talk to someone in real life about the show, it's nearly unanimous that this episode sucks. I'll be the dissenting vote: "Fear Her" is pretty dang good.

In a middle-class London neighborhood, there've been a rash of children disappeared. The cops haven't a clue, so perhaps The Doctor can help, and there's one kid who knows more than she lets on.

The general objection to this episode is that its 'bad guy' is a little kid. She's written and played unpleasantly — but in most fiction, the antagonist is usually unpleasant. The girl is great — meaning, creepy. Nobody's accustomed to children so completely unpleasant, but I don't much like kids so I have a head start on that, and "Fear Her" rocks, until it gets kinda watery toward the end.

"There’ are lots of things you need to get across this universe — warp drive, wormhole refractors. You know the thing you need most of all? You need a hand to hold."

S02E12: "Army of Ghosts"
and E13: "Doomsday"

This a mismatched two-part season finale — part 1 is sorta stupid, and part 2 is a classic.

The people of London are visited by ghosts of their loved ones, or so we're told, though the ghosts don't look or act like ghosts. They're humanoid but clearly not human, and they don't even speak, and all these mute glowing mannequins look exactly the same — but people have decided that this one's Aunt Mabel back from the dead, and that one's Uncle Phil.

Interesting, scary, and rousing things do happen — the episode is not garbage — but I can never get past the plain dumbness of the concept. Doctor Who is usually set in a universe where ordinary people are intelligent, and everything about the acceptance of the 'ghosts' shatters that rule.

Fortunately, part 2 tells a better story, and all the characters are intelligent again. Two of the show's iconic bad guys — Cybermen and Daleks — unite for delightful villainy and bickering, and there's a snickeringly sweet moment where Rose's mother meets her long-dead husband, Rose's father from that other dimension mentioned a few episodes back.  

"I made my choice a long time ago. I'm never going to leave you."

We also get our first, very brief glimpse of The Doctor's next companion, Freema Agyeman, in a different role here.

Much of the music is borrowed from Torchwood, the pretty darn good spinoff series that was about to debut — and which I might rewatch and review, since I know y'all love my Doctor Who reviews.

So, tallying up the show's second season, it has 14 episodes, of which 1 is so-so, 2 are quite good, and 11 are outstanding. That's a better win-loss ratio than Star Trek ever had, and it's right up there with Breaking Bad.

Newbies can jump into Doctor Who anywhere, and I'd recommend anywhere in the first five seasons, before (like everything on TV) it eventually gets worse.

10/16/2023  

1 comment:

  1. There was this point where YouTube, Google Video and a bunch of Chinese video sites I can't even remember basically took the whole of The Pirate Bay's video torrents and uploaded them. On YouTube they were broken up into 10 minute pieces but on Google Video and the Chinese sites they were streamed in their entirety. I was trying to remember exactly when this was and the oldest video I have saved is an FLV (flash something video, I think) of the Weather Underground documentary from 2008. That seems about right. Things from public sources I really only bother to save if I think they might go away (which means a huge number have gone away because it all vanishes eventually, internet permanence is a myth).

    Anyway, that was when I first saw the new Doctor Who, already a few years old I guess. I was stunned. I just remember my aunt (a "young" aunt a decade or so older than me) who was totally into it when I was a kid and I just couldn't understand why. It was so cheap. This was actually... pretty slick. Good acting and I have to say that great art direction covered up for some of the budgetary holes, there was continuity that you didn't have to follow but you were rewarded if you did.

    Interestingly, I had no desire to go back more than 1 year (the Christopher Eccleston season), I'm not really that interested in the rest of the mythos or the lore which after decades seems to strangle the contemporary version more than enrich it. I think that makes me a noob?

    And after a few years I lost interest in the new one too, though these 3 seasons really are some of the best sci fi ever on TV. Gonna pull it out at some point, I don't think I've watched it again since, well, then.

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