Thursday, July 22, 2010

Culture Shock 07.22.10: 'Doctor Who' season finale plays with time

I've been a "Doctor Who" fan ever since I discovered reruns of the original series on public television in the 1980s.

My first Doctor was Tom Baker — the fourth Doctor overall, and, with his floppy hat and absurdly long scarf, the most recognizable one, at least until BBC Wales revived the show in 2005 and David Tennant (the 10th Doctor) became an international celebrity.

Fans usually say your first Doctor is always your favorite, and Baker still occupies my personal top spot. But the new Doctor, Matt Smith, is quickly gaining ground. And no offense to the legions of Tennant fans, but Smith's first year as the 11th Doctor almost has me asking, "David who?"

For the first time since it returned after a 16-year hiatus, the show feels like old-school "Doctor Who," albeit with a faster pace and glossier production values. And Smith's odd, brilliant and eccentric interpretation of our wandering Time Lord is a big part of that.

Season 5 of the new "Doctor Who" concludes Saturday at 8 p.m. on BBC America with "The Big Bang," which finds our time-traveling hero trapped in an inescapable prison and his companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and River Song ("ER's" Alex Kingston) seemingly either dead or about to be. As far as cliffhangers go, that's pretty impressive. But for an extra inconvenience, the entire universe is about to cease ever having existed in the first place.

Or maybe it has already ceased existing. That's the problem with time travel. You're never sure when you are.

So, if you need to catch up, BBC America will also air the rest of season 5 during a marathon beginning at 8 a.m.

In the "The Big Bang," new producer and head writer Steven Moffat does what he does best, which is play with the concept of time travel. He's the one who put the term "timey wimey" into the geek lexicon with his season 3 "Doctor Who" story "Blink," where the Doctor uses it to explain unexplainable time paradoxes without really explaining them.

"The Big Bang" is all about the wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff, even jumping back to episodes earlier in the season. For instance, how is the Doctor wearing his jacket in one scene in "Flesh and Stone" when he lost it earlier in the episode? Timey wimey.

For everyone wondering how "Doctor Who" would fare without Tennant and producer Russell T Davies, who oversaw the show's return from the mists of time, the answer is, just fine, thank you.

"The Big Bang" is the strongest finale since the program's return. And, top to bottom, season 5 ranks as possibly the best in the show's 47-year history. (The original series' season 14 with Baker and producer Philip Hinchcliffe, however, is also a contender for No. 1.)

For me, the highlight of Moffat's stories is the way he makes time itself an integral part of them. His "Doctor Who" isn't just a show about a character who travels through time. It's about playing with the idea of time.

Not everyone agrees with me. Charlie Jane Anders of writes that time travel has become an overused plot device. But I think it's about time "Doctor Who" started playing with time more often. The Doctor is a Time Lord. And even the original series was often at its best when time travel was a major plot point, for example in "City of Death" (another Fourth Doctor story), written by the legendary Douglas Adams ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy").

Moffat's most interesting timey wimey innovation is River Song, a future traveling companion of the Doctor's, whom he keeps meeting out of sequence, so she knows all about him, while he knows almost nothing about her. She keeps a diary, in which she has recorded the Doctor's future adventures, but she won't let him read it because it contains "spoilers."

As Doc Brown once told Marty McFly, you should never know too much about your own future.

But there's no need to panic. The Doctor's future is in good hands.

If only I had a time machine so I didn't have to wait until Christmas for the next episode.

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