Monday, June 27, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Best Dram. Pres., Short - Doctor Who: "Christmas Carol"; "Pandorica/Big Bang," Steven Moffat; "Vincent & Doctor" by Richard Curtis

After a disappointing set of specials dominated this category last year, it was to be expected that the strong fifth season would do well. I’m actually a bit disappointed that season opener “The Eleventh Hour” and the Angel two-parter didn’t get nods…not that I was rooting for a category sweep. Lots has changed since those specials. The Doctor has regenerated into a new body with a slightly different personality, meaning that young actor Matt Smith is playing him rather than David Tennant. Smith’s Doctor is more awkward, eccentric, and all around geekier, though my wife swears he’s cuter than Tennant’s. I’m not sure I like Smith as much as Tennant, but that in itself is quite a compliment, as Tennant has probably done more to define the role than anyone since Tom Baker. We also have a new showrunner in Steven Moffat. Moffat wrote most of the best episodes of the previous Russell T. Davies (and picked up four Hugo nominations and three wins for his four stories). People expected Moffat to do great things, and he more or less delivered (though for some people, expectations may have been too high). Finally, and not to be underestimated, we have a new companion in plucky Amelia Pond (Karen Gillan), who is engaged, but also manages to sexually harass the Doctor a few times.

The highlight of “Vincent and the Doctor” is first time Doctor Who writer Richard Curtis. Curtis is more famous for his very British film comedies like Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually (Hugh Grant is not in this episode for some reason). The Doctor and Amy are viewing a Van Gogh exposition when they notice a monster’s head portrayed in the window of a cathedral in one of his paintings. So, being time travelers, they zip back to 1890 and ask him about it. They learn that Vincent is tormented by an invisible chicken monster that only he can see, and they spring into action. It’s very unusually paced for a Doctor Who episode; the monster fighting is a small part of the episode and is resolved early. Most of the episode is given over to quieter, reflective scenes and some light comedy, and that fits nicely into the overall arc of the season, considering that something tragic happens in the episode before. And, the invisible monster is an effective metaphor for Vincent’s mental illness (he committed suicide in 1890). This is not mind-bending speculative fiction…there’s not much new in here at all in fact, but it is very well executed.

The next two nominees are both Moffat-written, and I think they illustrate both his strengths, and some of his tics, which have become clearer as he writes more episodes. “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” is the big season finale that ties together several running plotlines. We’ve seen cracks running through space and time in several episodes – in this one, the Doctor’s enemies believe that he is responsible, so they attempt to imprison him, but the universe explodes anyway. Oh well. So, tic #1: Moffat is great at coming up with cool images and catch-phrases (“don’t blink,” “cracks in the universe,” gas mask kid, etc.) and he seems to build episodes around them. For me, “The Pandorica Opens” is a giant exercise in this. We get a flashy beginning that runs through several guest characters and across space and time to get a simple message to the Doctor, then we get aliens versus Romans at Stonehenge, the greatest prison in the universe, the Doctor threatening a horde of circling spacecraft, and the universe exploding. Yeah. A lot of big, impressive stuff happens…but I’m not sure there’s enough story there to hold it all together. Then, “The Big Bang” has the unenviable task of dealing with the fact that the Doctor was defeated and the universe exploded in the previous episode. There’s no way fixing all this isn’t going to feel like a cheat, and it more or less does, but it’s a good, exciting cheat. Previous showrunner, RTD, was often derided for his “clap you hands if you believe Doctor” deus ex machine season enders. We get much the same thing here, without all the complaints. Maybe people just aren’t as sick of Moffat yet…or maybe Moffat just does it better. I tend to favor the latter theory. Moffat keeps things small and character focused (it looks like most of the budget went into the “Pandorica” half, as we spend most of this episode in one location, and there’s really only one physical villain). “Pandorica” is exciting, but it feels dangerously over-the-top; “The Big Bang” is quieter, and gets progressively calmer. The two episodes balance each other out nicely, though they also leave behind a lot of big questions that are still unresolved, half-a-season later.

Finally, at the end of 2010 we got the usual Doctor Who post-season Christmas special. I liked “A Christmas Carol” very much, but I got the feeling that general reception was not so positive. It does fall prey to Moffat tic #2, he does repeat himself sometimes. There are motifs he likes – shadowy figures in space suits ("Silence in the Library," "The Impossible Astronaut"), monsters talking in crackly radio voices of dead friends ("Forest of the Dead," "The Time of Angels"), and the Doctor meeting someone several times throughout their life in rapid succession ("Girl in the Fireplace," "Eleventh Hour"). “A Christmas Carol” does the latter, and the set-up to get there is pretty contrived as well. But, those two flaws aside, I think this may have been the finest hour of Doctor Who in a very strong year. The Doctor’s companions and thousands of others are in a crashing space liner, but the Scrooge-like plutocrat Karzan Sardick (the great Michael Gambon) that runs the planet below refuses to save them. The Doctor decides to make Sardick a better man by time travelling to every Christmas of his youth and giving him a better childhood. Young Sardick finds a tragic love along the way. Yes, we see some repetition of themes, and yes, the plotting can be a bit ham-fisted, but the fine performances and the sweet holiday story made this a favorite of mine.
It was an excellent year for the Doctor. I don’t know how long this show can dominate this category without some sort of backlash developing. I also haven’t been as fond of season 6 as I was of season 5 so far. I guess we’ll see what happens next year.

Grades: “Vincent and the Doctor” A-
“The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” B+
“A Christmas Carol” A-


  1. Richard Curtis is at least as famous for writing Not the Nine O'Clock News, Blackadder (the only person involved with every episode's writing) and Mr Bean. So really, we should be more surprised that Rowan Atkinson is not in the episode... :)

  2. Not in America! Only nerds (like me) have even heard of those shows from late-night PBS showings.

    And, considering that he's already played the Doctor, a Rowan Atkinson cameo would've been confusing.