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October 13, 2015

'Doctor Who' Makes a Dazzling Return, and Who Are We to Resist Its Charms?

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 22nd 2011 1:15PM
Just about anyone with a pulse can enjoy 'Doctor Who' (9PM ET Saturday, BBC America) -- it's that good and that much fun -- but if there are 'Lost' fans out there who've never tried this frisky British import, now's the time to get on board.

Never mind that 'Doctor Who' has been going for decades. You don't need to catch up on a lot of backstory unless you want to. Anyone -- whether they're 'Lost' fans or not -- can jump right in this weekend.

But the important thing for 'Lost' fans to know is that, as was the case with the ABC show, 'Doctor Who' doesn't dabble in time shenanigans just for kicks.

It may have a crunchy and delicious candy coating, but at its heart, the current era of 'Doctor Who' thoughtfully meditates on the intersection of time and memory and how one is inseparable from the other.

Both 'Lost' and 'Doctor Who' present characters who can't always be sure where they are in time and space, and all they have to cling to is their relationships with each other and their memories of how those relationships came to be. They don't fear death as much as they fear not remembering who they love and what they believe. It's a great foundation not just for adventures that take place across various timelines, but for stories with palpable emotional undertows.

As 'Doctor Who' executive producer and head writer Steven Moffat posits once again in the show's season premiere, a truly frightening villain isn't someone holding a ticking bomb. Okay, that can be pretty scary (and the show has its share of tense scenarios like that), but the worst kind of villain is someone who messes with what's inside your head.

Given all that, I'm forgiving when it comes to Moffat's affinity for stories that have dizzying structures or hinge on, as a classic Moffat 'Doctor Who episode from 2007 called it, "wibbly wobbly, time-y wimey... stuff."

Normally when a character utters a sentence with the words "time" and "paradox" in it, as happens in the two-parter that opens the new season, my brain begins to protest. They can be exhilarating fun, but sometimes the kind of puzzle plots Moffat unleashes begin to resemble the story problems that haunt my memories of grade school. Wisely, Moffat cannily packs his whizbang stories with so much wit, invention and heart that I'm willing to go where he leads.

And this 'Doctor Who' season premiere has more than its share of delightful bells and whistles. As FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware and time traveler River Song, respectively, Mark Sheppard ('Supernatural,' 'Battlestar Galactica') and Alex Kingston ('ER') provide terrific supporting performances, and the core cast of Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy and Arthur Darvill as her husband, Rory, have a crackling yet relaxed rapport.

For the season premiere, 'Doctor Who' shot scenes in America for the first time, and seeing the Doctor and his companions in such a truly alien setting gives the two-parter an epic sweep. The only downside to the location filming is that it makes the scenes shot in a very cheap and fake-looking Oval Office look that much less impressive (another minor discordant note: The fact that an actor who's allegedly playing Richard Nixon looks and sounds a lot like LBJ. Perhaps all American presidents look more or less alike to the Brits?).

Among the show's many pleasures is its dialogue, which may be the best on television right now. For me, the show's clever conversations recall the golden age of the Joss Whedon era, and, as was the case in the Jossverse, it's not all shiny smartness on display: There's a scene between River and Rory that is heartbreakingly written and acted, and Amy and Rory are put through different emotional wringers as well. Whatever the tone of a scene, however, Smith may be the perfect delivery system for Moffat's words.

I've been watching a lot of the Tom Baker era of 'Doctor Who' lately, and at times, Smith echoes Baker's line delivery style: Smith will hurtle through a line in a near-monotone, enunciating every word just so, and the way he stops in the middle or near the end of a long speech is sort of like a car hitting the brakes and screeching to a stop. Because you're always wondering when he'll stop and if if he'll crash (verbally), you pay more attention to what he's saying and how he's saying it. The charming smirk and the wrinkled forehead that he unleashes at the end of string of sentences are the perfect grace notes.

They're all delicious tricks, but if they were the only ones in Smith's arsenal, his Doctor wouldn't be one of the all-time greats. But, as he proved in his debut season last year, Smith's rubbery face and great range made him the perfect choice to play this mischievous character who, underneath the jokes and intelligence, is extremely serious. He hasn't just traveled around the universe having adventures, he's traveled around having his heart broken by the people he's had to leave behind during his thousand-year lifespan. Exactly how River Song fits into all that remains to be seen, but it's a treat to see Smith and Kingston play the flirtiness and the underlying sadness of that relationship with perfect pitch.

It isn't giving away a spoiler to say that, in some early scenes in 'The Impossible Astronaut,' the Doctor looks heartbroken, but hides it well from his friends. Not many actors could hunt evil supervillains while holding a sonic screwdriver and make you absolutely believe in the serious stakes that he's facing, but Smith makes it all look easy.

My only issue with BBC America is that the network could have been kinder and shown the two-parter all at once. I completely understand the business reasons for dividing the episode into a couple of installments, but making people wait a week to see how the thrilling story turns out seems cruel.

Sometimes, time is the enemy.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Dan O'Connor

Great review, Mo.

Agree with you on the dialogue and the way it's delivered. I laughed out loud when River Song looked coquettishly at the Doctor as she said "Oh, don’t worry, I’m quite the screamer. Now, there’s a spoiler for you." Amazing that they can get away with such fantastic innuendo on a family show at teatime (they show it at 6pm in the UK). Great first episode.

Nothing to be done about the ep being split in two, though; Doctor Who *never* does feature-length episodes. But not too long to wait! >;)

April 26 2011 at 8:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom Z

What a wonderful and thoughtful review. I especially liked how you captured how time travel is not just the means to epic fun and adventure in Doctor Who but also the source of intimately personal existential dangers. It was very well put and well observed as well.

April 24 2011 at 11:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stephanie Boylan

Hi Mo,

I am wondering if you will be recapping Doctor Who the way you do Supernatural (another of my favorite shows. I really like your reviews, they are very insightful and show me areas of the show that I did not see in that way.

I have been watching Doctor Who for years and was really excited when the new series started with Christopher Eccelson. All the Doctors have been great, and I really enjoy Matt Smith amazing for such a young actor to be so old and wise :o)

April 24 2011 at 5:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stephanie Boylan


What I want to know is if you are going to recap Doctor Who the way you do Supernatural. I really like your reviews they bring up various parts of the show that I didn't see.

I hope you will

April 24 2011 at 5:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This new Dr Who was filmed a couple years ago. To keep up I went the nexflix route, between the Dr Who season 4 or 5 their are a number of specials that prepare you for this Doctor. Do we get to see those? Doesn't sound like it. How about Torchwood series, the Jane series? Nope, gotta keep up to date by getting DVDS on line or as I did though Netflex. BBC is very behind, meanwhile, they have old shows running non-stop and their begging for money shows are horid. The same old thing over and over. But what can one expect from a network that has let the GOP take over? That woman who talks about money went broke, why would I listen to her. Sorry BBC is just not the great network it used to be.

April 22 2011 at 8:03 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Pamela's comment
Patrick Campbell

This new season of Doctor Who was not filmed a few years ago, it was filmed in the last year. We're just getting them on the same day as the UK. It started at Christmas and that's how it will be for the foreseeable future. I wouldn't have it any other way. :)

April 23 2011 at 3:00 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
General Kenobi

Sorry, Pamela, you clearly have no idea what you're talking about. Those previous seasons were seen on Sci-Fi before BBC America decided to keep the show in the fold... Since Matt Smith came on, they've been on BBC America. During his first stint the episodes were shown a couple weeks late. As of the Christmas Special 2010, we get the Doctor when the UK gets the Doctor... And something tells me they aren't queing up episodes of Doctor Who in Britain for "a couple years". You have no idea what you're talking about, but instead just wanted to go off on a rant about the GOP... then again, not sure what Republicans have to do with Doctor Who, the BBC, or anything, really... but I can't really expect myself to understand the ramblings of someone clearly so out of touch with reality given the "facts" you present here.

April 24 2011 at 11:01 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Doctor Who is very accessible to new fans. You'll miss the occasional reference, such as Rose telling Donna about "Bad Wolf" in season 4, but the main storyline is easy to follow. I wrote a post at TheTVAddict.com explaining the basic elements you should be aware of. It may make the experience less intimidating.


April 22 2011 at 7:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yeah, great. That's if your cable system happens to carry BBC America. I don't think Cablevision does. Even so, I don't think I could watch the new Doctor just yet. Too soon after the news of Elisabeth Sladen's passing. I'd see Doctor Who and be thinking of her. It was her that got me interested in watch the good Doctor.

April 22 2011 at 5:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Mo wrote:
"another minor discordant note: The fact that an actor who's allegedly playing Richard Nixon looks and sounds a lot like LBJ. Perhaps all American presidents look more or less alike to the Brits?"

I could be catty and say Oliver Stone must be a honorary British citizen, because Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen's resemblance to Richard and Pat Nixon was... well, somewhat sketchy. Bloody great performances though. :)

April 22 2011 at 4:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

While I'm a fan of Doctor Who and was a fan of LOST, the two bear little resemblance in just about everything. This is not quite the type of show I'd recommend to another fellow LOSTief. Entertaining at times, but not as good quality or level of maturity. IF however one was intrigued by the weird or scifi elements in LOST then maybe this show could make sense.

April 22 2011 at 3:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to 328698277's comment
Craig Ranapia

"Entertaining at times, but not as good quality or level of maturity"

I'm sure MO will be pleased to know I've taken a lot of deep breaths, and made a mantra of Sepinwall's Rules of Commenting. :)

April 22 2011 at 5:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Craig Ranapia's comment
Mo Ryan

Heh. I've had occasion for many deep cleansing breaths myself over the past couple weeks ;)

April 22 2011 at 6:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

I loved David Tennant, but to me, Matt Smith is more the Doctor than Tennant ever was. He is such an old soul in a young face. It's amazing to me. I cannot wait for the premiere tomorrow.

April 22 2011 at 1:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Wendy's comment

You got there first! I was thinking the very same thing, that Matt is a perfect happy-go-lucky puppy with that deep core of hard-earned wisdom and sadness. Amy Pond makes a brilliant companion, too!

I find that I'm still tearing up a bit about the loss of our Sarah Jane. I guess this experience makes it easier to relate to the Doctor's many losses, and to appreciate the Doctor's ability to still have a sense of wonder and joy in every new experience.

I never would have thought to compare Lost to Doctor Who, but I would love to see what the Doctor would have made of the Island!

April 22 2011 at 5:34 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to buster44's comment

There is an entire Sara Jane spin off, that could help you. She was with an much older Dr and K-9 was his gift to her.

April 22 2011 at 8:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

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