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Date Posted: 19:38:37 11/21/14 Fri
Author: cjl
Subject: DOCTOR WHO: Talkin' 'bout Regeneration (Buffy tie-in/general overview)

Hi, everybody. Just finished Season Eight of the new Doctor Who, and my head is still buzzing. I know there are a number of devoted Whovians out there in ATP-land and I thought I’d share my thoughts about S8 and the series in general before my head explodes. (Settle back—this is going to take a while.)

**********************

In the beginning, there was BUFFY.

It’s hard to remember back in the old days, before Joss Whedon came along, when TV series were just a string of unrelated episodes with the same cast of characters—when Season One and Season Seven were just slightly different flavors of the same dish, and it was ordained from on high that no significant changes in these little TV worlds would dare disturb the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Then came Joss, and Buffy introduced a new paradigm.

Whedon didn’t introduce anything new. Richard Kimball was chasing down the one-armed man in a continuing plotline; Wiseguy practically patented the self-contained arc years before Buffy popped up on the WB; and charting the emotional development of high schoolers was the bread and butter of series like James at 15 and My So Called Life before the demons of Sunnydale High killed their first student. But combining all of these elements, mixed in with a potent fantasy/horror allegory (“high school is Hell”) and putting a butt-kicking feminist icon out in front, completely changed how viewers and showrunners saw the episodic drama. The children of Buffy are all over the airwaves now; you look at Joss’ Agents of SHIELD, Minear’s Hannibal, Greenwalt’s Grimm, the vampire and superhero dramas on the CW, and even the hoary procedurals on CBS, and you can see the Buffy seasonal structure reflected in all of them.

One of the showrunners who paid close attention to the Buffy paradigm was Russell T. Davies, creator of the British (and later, American) hit drama, Queer as Folk. In 2004, when the BBC asked Davies to come up with another idea for a TV programme, Davies suggested a revival of the old BBC science fiction staple (yes, there it is) Doctor Who. In 2014, this idea seems like a no-brainer; broadcaster-owned property, name recognition, oodles of merchandising possibilities—what’s not to love, right? But Doctor Who hadn’t been a viable property for the BBC for at least 15 years; it had been almost laughed off the air in 1989 as a juvenile relic of an earlier, innocent era. If Davies was going to bring back his childhood favorite—and he had to fight for it—the series would have to be reimagined for a new century. Fortunately, Davies had a model readily available.

For the 21st century Doctor Who, Davies stripped the series down to its basics: The Doctor, the TARDIS (his signature time machine/spacecraft), and his traveling companion. All the other landmarks of the series—the Time Lords of Gallifrey (the Doctor’s insufferable brethren), iconic villains like the Daleks, the Master, and the Cybermen—were shelved to concentrate on adventure and the relationship between the two protagonists. These elements of Classic Who would come into play as the series progressed, but for the most part, Davies spent the first season tracing the emotional arcs of the Doctor—recovering from the personal trauma of a Time War that supposedly destroyed his homeworld—and Rose Tyler, an aimless shopgirl in 21st century London who hitched a ride with the Doctor and never looked back.

Even though the series was name Doctor Who, it was clear from the beginning that Billie Piper’s Rose—a very blond, very Gellar-ish heroine—was on a journey just as important, if not more important, than the Doctor’s. She was a radical change from the Doctor’s companions of the 1970s and 1980s, who (at best) lent competent support in a crisis, or (at worst) stood around and screamed at high decibels. (If there are fans of Sarah Jane, Leela, Romana, and Ace out there, please don’t kill me. Yes, it’s a generalization, but it’s mostly true.) The idea of exploring her hopes and dreams, her family, her emotional attachment to the Doctor, even the possibility of romance (!) with the alien, would have been unthinkable back in the old days. Davies saw Rose as the audience entry point to the multiverse-spanning world of the Doctor just as Joss saw Buffy as the entry point to the world of the supernatural. With Christopher Eccleston on board as the leather-jacketed Ninth Doctor, and quality scripts from seasoned writers like Davies, Stephen Moffat and Paul Cornell, the revival took off.

Looking back, it’s fun to pick out the similarities between the first season of Buffy and the new Doctor Who. As I said, you had the season-long emotional arcs of the protagonists, with Rose finding her mojo as the Doctor’s companion and confidante, and the Doctor coming out of his PTSD shell and learning to fight evil with passion again. In the supporting cast, you had Rose’s single Mom (Jackie), her Xander-ish boyfriend (Mickey), and a mysterious, omnisexual pretty boy with a billowy coat (Captain Jack Harkness). You had the season-long mystery of Bad Wolf, and hints of a Big Bad lying in wait for the Doctor—which turned out to be an army of Daleks.

But that was just the start. Just as Buffy Season One was a hint of the greatness yet to come, the new Doctor Who series hit its stride in Seasons Two through Four. Despite Eccleston’s abrupt departure and a rotating series of companions, the series was remarkably consistent for the remainder of Davies’ tenure, as he filled in the DW universe with dozens of memorable characters and wildly imaginative, emotionally wrenching adventures. The debate about who was the best companion of that era is pointless: Rose, Martha and Donna were all great in their own ways, each having mad chemistry with Tenth Doctor David Tennant, each actress (Piper, Freema Agyeman, and Catherine Tate) holding her own against Tennant’s pop-eyed enthusiasm. By the time Davies, Tennant and the huge supporting cast took a final curtain call at the end of Season Four, Doctor Who was once again an established money-maker for the BBC. It was up to the new showrunner (Moffat), the new Doctor (30 year-old Matt Smith) and his new companion (Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond) to keep the creative momentum rolling.

Season Five was… fine. Moffat has confessed to struggling to find a consistent tone, and there were numerous dull patches in the first half of the season. But he did have a convincing through-line that offset some of the growing pains: Amy’s decision whether to marry her long-suffering boyfriend/fiancée, Rory (an endearingly nerve-wracked Arthur Darvill) or extend her adolescence close-to-forever by traveling with the Doctor. The whole season was framed as a fairy tale (appropriate for a “passage from childhood” story), and the format subtly shifted from science fiction with fantasy elements to fantasy with some SF. Smith’s Doctor seemed equal parts intergalactic badass and twirling magic pixie, and critics grumbled that the series had switched from an adult drama that kids could watch to a “family show” safe for the young’uns. But by the end of the season, the writers and the ensemble were firing on all cylinders, crafting a finale that resolved both the personal and cosmic dilemmas with style and pyrotechnics to spare.

Season Six and Seven were a stickier problem. (Sound familiar, Buffy fans?) Season Six was wildly ambitious, starting off with the assassination of the Doctor, then segue-ing into the twin mysteries of Amy’s pregnancy and the identity of the Doctor’s once-and-future paramour, Dr. River Song (Alex Kingston, absolutely terrific), before circling back to the Doctor’s inevitable doom. It was the story of a family and a love affair twisted into knots by time travel (a recurring theme in Moffat’s DW scripts), and it could have been a powerhouse. But Moffat was so busy piling on the plot twists and giving the viewer temporal whiplash that he lost almost all of the emotional beats of the season. Incredibly frustrating.

Season Seven was an odd duck: a split season, the first half being the long goodbye of Amy and Rory, and the second half the introduction of new companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). Most of the individual episodes were solid, but Moffat failed to stick the landing both times, and the concluding episode for each plotline (“The Angels Take Manhattan” and “The Name of the Doctor”), not to mention the tie-up-all-the-loose-ends regeneration story (“The Time of the Doctor”), verged on the nonsensical. The one honest-to-goodness standout was the multi-Doctor 50th anniversary special, in which the Doctor finally summoned the courage to revisit the destruction of Gallifrey—and in finally coming to terms with the act of Pushing the Button, he found the inspiration to change the act itself and save his people. It was the resolution of the long-standing plotline started in Season One, and paved the way for Matt Smith to exit, and the birth of a new Doctor.

That’s where we come in at the start of Season 8—Moffat still the showrunner, Clara as the companion, and Peter Capaldi (the one-and-only Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It) as the Twelfth Doctor.

So… how did they do?

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