Very old. And very kind. And the very last.

For your Saturday morning edification this week: get yourself a cup of tea (or coffee) and a jammie dodger if you fancy one because, boy, I have got thoughts about the 5th season of Doctor Who and — well, you must want to read them or you wouldn’t be here. 🙂

My original plan — just so you know — was to write commentary disc-by-disc. This probably won’t happen; I’m thinking more episode-by-episode. But, because it’s Saturday, I’m writing this on Friday night, and I’m trying to grin my way through a 3rd week of insomnia, we’ll make it a nice long one for today, yes? Yes.

Fair warning: Spoilers, minor or major, may lurk ahead. To date, I have watched through Amy’s Choice, so expect spoilers for anything up through there.

So first off, lets talk Eleventh Hour.

When last we saw the Doctor…he wasn’t really having a good day. Radiation-forced regeneration, lots of near misses with Donna, serious stress with old schoolfriends, and his whole home planet trying to come back and take over the universe. Not good. And then the TARDIS bursts into flames. Really not good.

Amy Pond, the Girl Who Believed.

With our newly regenerated — and still not ginger — Doctor aboard, the TARDIS crashlands into the backyard of one Amelia “Amy” Pond.

Amy, at age seven, rocks. She is prepared, by God! She is praying — to Santa, I believe — for help with the voices that lurk behind a crack in her bedroom wall when she hears a loud crash and bang and looks out her window to see a smoking blue box in her potting shed. Is she baffled? Does she crawl under the bed and call for Mummy? She does not! She get her wellies, a warm sweater, and a great big flashlight and goes to see what the hell this is all about. Amy rocks.

Various sillinesses occur as the Doctor’s character veers from extreme to extreme — for some reason the new series always pictures the newly regenerated Doctor as fixated on food and drink. In this case, there’s a very funny sequence of scenes with the Doctor getting Amy to give him various things — starting with apples — or cook him various dishes which he then discards in disgust, including tossing a plate of buttered toast out the door, shouting, “And stay out!” after it.

You thought we’d forgotten about the crack in the wall? Oh, not at all. The crack in the wall is…well, it’s not good. As the series is going on, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the crack in Amy’s bedroom wall is very very not good indeed. It is a very not good thing. There isn’t anything really very good about it at all.

The crack in the wall has allowed a prisoner to escape: “Prisoner Zero has escaped.” (A nod to The Prisoner? Very likely.) There are things lurking just at the corner of vision — out of the corner of the Doctor’s eye — and Amy’s — and is this ever a good thing? Nope.

But the Doctor is distracted, and the TARDIS may be about to blow up or melt or something, and he leaps off, promising Amy to return in five minutes and pick her up for a quick trip in the TARDIS once he’s got all the kinks worked out.

Once again demonstrating perfect English child preparedness for the weird and wonderful, Amy packs, gets her duffel coat and returns to the garden to wait — for approximately 12 years.

When he finally does return, having figured out that the whole Prisoner Zero escape thing is way worse than he originally thought, she’s a little irritated. In fact, she knocks him cold with a cricket bat as he comes barging into the house. Reasonable thing to do, under the circumstances.

So, okay, you’re not here for a blow-by-blow of the plot and, really, I’m not that interested in doing one (despite what I’ve just done for the last few paragraphs!) There are several interesting things going on in Eleventh Hour, though.

For one thing, there’s Amy’s aunt. She’s supposed to be the orphaned girl’s guardian — and where is she? Ever? She’s not in the house when Amy is cooking the Doctor his despised multi-course banquet; she’s not there when he returns 12 years later; Amy never mentions her again. Is this a huge rug which Steven Moffat hopes to yank out from under us at the end of the season (“Hah! Gotcha! She was the Black Guardian all along! Whee!”)? Or is it simply a hole in the plot that never got filled?

And then there’s the Doctor. He seems to lie. A lot. Rather a lot in fact.

Giving up sonic screwdrivers for cell phones?

In fact, the new Doctor is morally ambiguous in a way that previous Doctors, particularly Tennant’s 10 as the most immediate model I have in mind, have not been. He seems to inhabit an area that is almost entirely grey. He’s not happy there, but he seems reluctant to move anywhere else, really. There isn’t a lot of sunlight in his particular universe; I get the sense more and more as the season goes on that this is a deeply pessimistic, unhappy version of our Timelord. He yells. He shouts. He loses his temper. He gets upset — not easily, but when he does it has a force and a clarity of anger behind it that 10 didn’t have and 9 only used about…twice in the whole season. There’s a lot of rage here and it isn’t being let out in little dribs and drabs of pity, sympathy, empathy, and angst as with 10 — it’s being hammered into something very strong. I don’t know yet if I’d call that “something” self-protection or a weapon, but I’m sure the end of the season will show.

Note, for example, the end of Hour with the Doctor facing off the Atraxi — the prison guards who have been searching for Patient Zero and are now threatening to burn the planet unless he is returned or gives himself up:

That’s a bluff. That’s a huge giant bluff — as well as a huge giant eyeball — and it’s also a huge giant threat. And I’ve been thinking it over since I saw the episode and I can’t say as I honestly think, as a long, long-time Who fan, that I think this is a threat that any other Doctor would have delivered. Certainly not either of the last two: 10 would have played the bluff for a laugh and had some thing that goes “ding when there’s stuff and can boil an egg at 30 paces” in his pocket; 9 would have bluffed it and, possibly, bare-faced it as 11 does, but without the threat, I feel. I always felt that 9 was far too aware of the possibilities inherent in a violent situation to be truly happy when he had to resort to it: it’s the difference between his take in Rose and in The Doctor Dances. And while 10 could leap to a violent solution more quickly — it wasn’t good for him. You could see it not being good for him; it was a forcing of his personality, a choice he really didn’t want to have to make and he hated making it.

All the new Doctors have been at peace with chaos; even welcoming of it — 11 is the first for awhile to seem to relish the fight in a direct physical “come on in if you think you’re hard enough” sort of way.

He seems quite happy brazening it out with a big stick: I am the Doctor. I am the baddest motherfucker in this valley and what are you going to do about it.

And it is hard not to love; I’m  in for the ride, I’ll admit. I have to say, this Doctor’s approach is intoxicating; the scene is a pulse-raiser and an adrenaline-charge…but it also seems very, very dangerous.

Another small point: when he’s so frantically looking for help to figure out the Prisoner Zero problem — where’s UNIT? Where’s TORCHWOOD? Where’s my dear darling Captain Jack? Or Sarah Jane and Luke? From a series point of view, I understand why there weren’t cameos of intensely popular characters from other series plunged into the middle of Matt Smith’s first attempt to establish himself as the latest face of the Doctor but…not mentioning them or not mentioning why they’re not mentioned…felt like a gap. And it felt like a stupid one — I realise the Doctor’s memory isn’t all it should be when he’s immediately post-regeneration, but then tell me that. Remind me of that fact and I can rationalise why UNIT doesn’t get called in. Or maybe this new regeneration has taken an irrational hatred to his past activities with UNIT and doesn’t want to get involved. Fine. Great. Just tell me and we’re good.

So, episode two, The Beast Below.

Someone saw The Wall far, far
too young.

We open with a scene in a school. The children are lining up to get their grades for the day from a deeply creepy kind of carnival fortuneteller-in-a-box dude. There’s a really nervous boy at the back of the class; he gets a zero and the figure’s head revolves from a cheery smile to a scowl. When he tries to get on the lift to go home when the class is released, he is plunged down “to the beast below” to the accompaniment of a really-not-psychotic-and-disturbing-at-all rhyme.

All this takes place, so the Doctor helpfully tells us when he and Amy show up, on Starship UK, the last remains of the British Empire after the Earth has been devastated by solar flares — a late entry in the 1970s Tom Baker story arc that started with Ark in Space and ended with Revenge of the Cybermen, apparently!

The Doctor tells Amy all about how he never interferes in the lives of the people he meets on his travels — and then immediately starts to consider a girl he sees crying — we know she is one of the boy’s friends from the class we opened with and presumably sad about losing her classmate. Amy chastises him: “You never interfere in the affairs of other people or planets…unless there’s a child crying?” Well, of course. You can’t be having that kind of thing — you can almost hear Granny Weatherwax saying it and of course the Doctor can’t be having with crying children; he doesn’t even bother to pause to explain that one. Not to mention the other weird things about Starship UK — like the fact that it doesn’t seem to be moving.

There’s lots of fun stuff in Below: there are nods to The Empire Strikes Back, to China Mieville’s The Scar, and to Life on Mars — anyone else notice the girl in the panel on the elevator when Timmy gets in at the beginning? Yeah — check her out on your next pass through this episode. If she doesn’t ring any bells, picture her with a big ol’ clown doll — and then enjoy hiding under your bed for the next…oh, an hour or so should do it. *shudder*

“Basically, I rule.” So cheesy. So good!

There’s also Liz 10, the ruler of Starship UK, who is a fantastic, scenery-chewing, over-the-top character — right up until the point when she becomes deadly serious and very sad in the last few scenes of the episode — along with, I have to say, pretty much everyone else in the show.

Karen Gillian — Amy — is fantastic here. I have to say, I’m becoming a serious Amy fangirl. I had a hard time cosying up to either Rose or Martha, the first two companions of the new series. I dealt better with each of them when they came back into the series as cameos or, in Martha’s case, in Torchwood even though she was indirectly responsible for getting Owen killed; I’ll try to forgive her! Donna I went with without reservation from her first episode; season 4 was a heartbreaker for me. From Turn Left on, I had to watch the show with a box of tissues. I won’t even discuss what happened with Journey’s End.

Amy could be my next favorite: she is smart, she is quick, she doesn’t defer to the Doctor or expect him to spend all his time saving her without her expending effort on her own behalf. She thinks independently, calls him out when he’s being a prat (which, lets face it, he is prone to do), and isn’t afraid of doing her own thing. With all of this, she really loves the Doctor. And we’re not — thank God — doing another unrequited adoration thing here as we did with Martha or a stifled love affair as we did with Rose. This is much more affectionate, in a way; much less fraught; much more the emotion between long-time friends or between family members.

“This is the sound…”

And she rescues him — and I mean seriously rescues him — in Below. The Doctor has discovered that the Starship is based, quite literally, on a starwhale. This giant creature, like the avanc in The Scar, has been harnessed to the bottom of the ship and is being tortured with regular jolts of pain directly applied to its brain in order to keep it going. Most of the inhabitants of the ship don’t know this. There are feelers from the whale — scorpion’y lookin’ things — breaking through into the city and inhabitants who see them or who are of age to vote are taken off to education booths. They watch a short film that tells them the history of the Starship, the use of the whale, and are then given a choice: they can vote to remember what they now know — and to know that if enough people on the ship vote to remember, the whale will be released and the Starship will die — or forget, and keep the whale in bondage but the Starship alive.

Even the Queen has to make this vote. To her debit, she has voted to forget many many many times. To her credit, she has tried to discover the truth an equal number of times. (Her story is a little complex.) So is the story of the starwhale — it came when the Earth was dying, allowed the Starship to be strapped to its back, and has kept the city alive in the centuries since, only to be repaid by having people it doesn’t want to eat regularly dumped down its neck and a probe stabbed into its brain.

When Liz 10 discovers it again now, in the company of the Doctor and Amy, the Doctor takes charge: “Look, three options: One, I let the Star Whale continue in unendurable agony for hundreds more years. Two, I kill everyone on this ship. Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then I…I find a new name. Because I won’t be the Doctor anymore.”

A moderately good adventure episode becomes a critical character development episode as the Doctor leaps right over all intervening options to lobotomizing the poor whale in order to save the human race. He ignores all over evidence — the original story mentions the fact that the children were crying and the whale came from the sky to save them; of all the people dumped down to “the beast below,” the children are all returned; and the fact that the children in the room at the minute, having just been coughed back out of the whale, are playing rather happily with the feelers the whale has sent up into the city. Amy, on the other hand, puts it together: “What if you were really old, and really kind, and lonely, your whole race dead. What couldn’t you do then? You couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.”

And a character development episode becomes a really moving moment between the Doctor and Amy and what I feel is an important moment for the Doctor as he realises his error and realises the depth of the mistake he just nearly made. All they need to do, of course, is stop torturing the whale. It’s perfectly happy to help; it volunteered, in fact, to save the children of Earth; they don’t need to hurt it.

As you may be able to tell, I really liked Below — it had holes, yes; it had a lot of them, but there were some great ideas in here and I can’t tell you how much I liked the solution. This was akin to seeing the second episode of Farscape and expecting a real old school Star Trek “Kirk will thump it to death”solution and having Crichton say instead, “Why don’t we try talking to them?” and meaning it. This was great stuff.

Not to mention the fact that it re-established the Doctor’s back story — in about two sentences. Amy asks about others like him and he says, no, there are no others. It’s a long story. Maybe another time. And she figures it out on her own. The link between the star whale and the Doctor is hers and it’s gorgeous.

So, thank you for following me so far; tune back in next week for more on the new season and, as a treat for all our Saturday mornings, a video I was reminded of by a recent post from my wonderful friend Diana and I wonder if the creator may revisit in light of Mr. Smith:


2 thoughts on “Very old. And very kind. And the very last.

  1. Nice post 🙂 …

    Sending me straight back for another look The Beast Below, which we watched when it aired but wasn't a favourite in our house. Have fun hurtling towards the finale!

  2. @tashauk: glad you liked it! i always feel like i'm really enthused at the beginning of a season and i fade gradually — but so far i'm exactly half-way through and no momentum loss so far! mostly, this is going to come out in lots of 'oh my god did you see the bit when—' blog posts. 🙂

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