Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dr. Who: “The Next Doctor” (BBC-TV, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The latest Doctor Who episode, aired on Christmas Day in Britain (the credit was from the Welsh wing of the BBC), was called “The New Doctor,” since it apparently signals the passage of the latest “Doctor” torch from middle-aged David Tennant to the genuinely young and hunky David Morrissey (any relation to the sexually ambiguous pop singer?). This is the first time we’ve watched any of the current Doctor Who series (though we have the third-season boxed set in the backlog) and the first impression I had was how good the production values are. Well, in the age in which computer-generated imagery has become standard in feature films they could hardly hope to get away with the delightfully campy special effects (or attempts thereof) of the classic Doctor Who series in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

This time around the action is set in 1851 London, and at first I wondered if their Christmas show would be an update of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Dr. Who and his sidekicks taking the roles of the three spirits and teaching a reprobate capitalist the true meaning of Christmas. Instead, 1851 London was used as the backdrop for a surprising attack by the Cyber-Men, whom I’d seen in a video transfer of a cycle of episodes from the 1960’s in which they were played by actors in the standard “robot” costumes of the time — the ones that looked like cardboard boxes sprayed with metal paint and with holes cut in them so the actors could get inside and stick their arms and legs out. This time I wasn’t sure whether they were actors or entirely computer-generated, and they looked like taller, more menacing silver-colored versions of C3PO from Star Wars.

One neat kicker was that they actually enlisted a human of that time and place, a woman named Miss Hartigan (superbly played by Dervla Kirwan in a performance that channeled Bette Davis — especially when she shocked onlookers by wearing a red dress to a funeral! — and her ability to spit out the most hackneyed super-villain lines and still maintain dignity and credibility as a performer would make her an interesting choice for the villainess in the next Batman movie), who sought to attain world domination with the Cyber-Men’s help and instead found them locking her in a giant robot to be the Cyber-King (the idea was to do their own twisted version of the Nativity in which what was coming was not the Son of God but a gigantic robot that would rule over all Earth in a far more direct sense) and threatening to suck out her brain in order to turn her into a Cyber-Person herself.

The acting was quite good for the format (Morrissey was an O.K. performer but a sheer delight to look at, and his African-British sidekick Rosita, played by Velile Tshabalala, threw herself into the role with the sort of spunkiness one expects in a super-heroine) and the effects were excellent, though one prissy commentator complained that the scene taking place at a funeral was filmed in a real cemetery, with actors bumping into the tombstones and otherwise failing to show proper respect for the dead. (I don’t think much of this, but then I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony when it comes to what’s going to happen to me after I die — frankly, I want to be mulched, which is what is supposed to happen to dead organic matter: it’s supposed to return to the soil and continue the cycle of life — and Charles recently told me that his sister has got a funeral director’s license and is specializing in so-called “green funerals,” which means no embalming, no taking out the body parts and replacing them with cotton batting, none of the other horrors visited on the dead that Jessica Mitford so vividly described to give them a simulacrum of physical permanence in defiance of the same laws of nature that require us to die in the first place).