Monday, April 25, 2011

Dead Who

Spoilers for Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut

Seven minutes into the latest series of Doctor Who and everything changes again. It’ll change back again soon enough, but it’s still a remarkably somber and downbeat way to get a new season started.

Doctor Who is all about change. While it has maintained a heart of ethical, philosophical and moral certainty – as well as strict storytelling principles – over the past four decades, it has also been a television programme that is all about adapting to the new and keeping up with the modern.

This change is there even before the big, honking plot twist that comes in at that seven minute mark of The Impossible Astronaut. The Doctor’s companions are still his companions, but for the first time, they also have a life of their own to get back to. This isn’t a brief glimpse inside Nyssa’s bedroom; Amy and Rory have their own home and are busy building an actual life in between adventures.

It’s only a brief glimpse in a different way of travelling with the Doctor, but it’s something new. Now that the TARDIS isn’t getting mixed up between Brighton and Fang Rock, and can actually go anywhere it is supposed to, it’s nice to see that companions can actually duck home between travels for things like a decent night’s sleep, a home-cooked meal and making babies.

But then there is a summons from the Doctor and the Ponds and River Song and the man himself are off on another adventure into a beautifully photographed America that gives the story a surprising amount of weight, and then the Doctor gets killed.

It looks pretty final, and the kind of death that would be impossible to undo, but this is Doctor Who, where the impossible can be explained away with half a line of dialogue. After all, at the climax of the last series, the Doctor was completely wiped out of existence, only to show up at Amy’s wedding because she really, really wanted him to be there. And the last time the Doctor showed up on the Sarah Jane Adventures, the whole story revolved around his apparent funeral, only for everything to turn out nicely again.

So there is a very good chance that it will all be settled by the next time the end credits roll, although it might take a whole year’s worth of stories to completely set things right.

But it’s also a curiously somber start to a new series, with the crushing inevitability of the Doctor’s death pushing down on every other minute of the premiere episode, no matter how charming the Doctor is in the White House.

It’s an oddly disconcerting start to the new series, mainly because the viewer has to face up to the Worst Possible Outcome right from the very beginning. The rest of the episode is full of all the usual wonderful things – some strong acting from the core cast, another last minute twist and the Doctor looking incredibly clever by noticing something blindingly obvious, but we’ve just seen the main character brutally gunned down in mid-regeneration. It’s always going to be hard to lift spirits after that.

It might just seem weird because each new series of Doctor Who since Eccleston put on his leather jacket has kicked off with a real sense of celebration. After years of where there was no Doctor Who on television at all, the creators seemed as surprised as anybody that there was actually new episodes coming out, and each new premiere was an absolute celebration of the fact.

But it’s a show that has also been back for more than half a decade now, and that glow has worn off a little. I still did an embarrassed little fist pump at the opening credits of the Impossible Astronaut, pleased beyond belief that I was about to see a brand-new episode of Doctor Who. But thanks to its own surprising success with a mass audience, modern Doctor Who has become its own institution, and doesn’t really need to trumpet the fact every year.

So it’s become a series that can lead off with a massive downer, but any dramatic weight this downer creates also saps at the energy of the programme and series that usually hits the ground running is left moping along in a depressive mood.

It’s all going to be fixed, and the inevitable happy ending will taste all the better after starting from such a low place. And it will be fun to see how they get out of this latest predicament.

But this kind of mood is usually saved for the end of a Doctor's life - stories like Waters of Mars show exactly why his time is up, while the entire final season of Tom Baker's run is drenched in weary melancholy.

So to see the series go to this place while the Eleventh Doctor still feels fresh and new is a interesting decision, but to see a possible end when it's just getting started is jarring, and overshadows everything else in the Impossible Astronaut.

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