Friday, November 7, 2008

Review - Doctor Who: "The Empty Child", "The Doctor Dances", "Girl in the Fireplace", and "Blink"

Doctor Who: "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances"
2006 Hugo Winner for Best Short Form Dramatic Presentation

Doctor Who: "Girl in the Fireplace"
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Short Form Dramatic Presentation

Doctor Who: "Blink"
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Short Form Dramatic Presentation

I'm not British and yet somehow I managed to find Doctor Who at a young age. When I was a child I happened to stumble onto a local PBS station broadcasting the second serial, "The Daleks", and over the course of several years managed to watch the entire series through at the rate of about one serial a week. It never overwhelmed my life like some other SF media did mainly due to the isolation (I never encountered anyone else who watched Doctor Who during that time), but I was a faithful fan even when I was old enough to recognize the tour of British quarries. I found the show right when I was in the sweet spot for its target audience of children.

Flash forward a few decades and there's an announcmenet that a new Doctor Who series was in development. I wasn't enthusiastic about it mainly because revivals of old SF shows have a rather shoddy track record.

And yet this time it worked. The show was a note perfect contiuation of the original series; a light and fluffy SF adventure series that was perfectly willing to show some goofy charm. And by casting some wonderfully charismatic actors the new series has sparked a revival which is rivaled only by Star Trek: The Next Generation for success.

The premise of the show is that the Doctor is the last of a species of time travelling immortals who were wiped out in a cosmic war. He has taken a liking to late twentieth/early twenty-first century Earth where he regularly has adventures. The Doctor is inevitably followed by a human companion who assists him as he confronts strange alien threats.

The four episodes that have won the Hugo award were all written by Steven Moffat and easily rank among the greatest episodes of the new series. In the two part episode "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" they travel to London during the Blitz and encounter a lost boy who has a gasmask permanently attached to his face. Those who come into contact with this boy are transfigured into gasmask faced zombies who cry out for their mother.

"The Girl in the Fireplace" has the Doctor and his companion find a space ship run by clockwork robots who have opened windows through time to various points in the life of Madame Pompadour. The Doctor protects her throughout her lifetime from these clockwork robots that seek to abduct her back to their ship.

Finally in "Blink", easily my favorite episode of the new series, there are creatures who look like stone statues that can only move when no one is looking at them and cause anyone they touch to vanish. The Doctor is missing throughout most of the episode but communicates in mysterious hidden messages from the past to the episode's protagonist.

If you attempt to examine any of these concepts too closely they're ludicrous but Doctor Who as a series is solidly and unashamedly a space opera; the strange creatures and adventures are evocitive rather than realistic. On some shows this would be annoying but Doctor Who always has a manic energy even in dark, spooky episodes like Moffat specializes in.

That atmosphere is what makes these shows so effective. The a hospital during Blitz, the court of Louis XV, and a house haunted by statues that move when the camera is not on them are well represented. In fact those statues in "Blink" are so well done that I'm positive it will be remembered as one of the great childhood traumas for children who are under ten right now. These episodes stick with you thanks to some spectacular visual stylings.

There is only one other television series to win three Hugo awards: The Twilight Zone. I strongly suspect that the series will continue to win the award mainly since there weren't many challengers last year on television. "The Unicorn and the Wasp" was my favorite episode of last year but I would not be surprised to see Moffatt continue to walk away with Hugos for many years to come.