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Death's Deal cover

Sometimes it feels like Third Eye is something of a therapist’s couch, if not a confessional.

Regular readers (and personal friends, a few of whom are fellow Whovians) are well acquainted with my relative distaste for the revival series of Who and the audience it seems to have attracted and gathered about itself.

Whether once-ler Who viewers (with even a serious fan or two among them) or newbies wholly unfamiliar with the long history of the series to date, the radically revamped and “updated to modern tastes” iteration thereof appears to have created less of a retroactive appreciation of what came before (i.e. a decided positive, exposing a whole new audience to a perhaps neglected or at least sheltered and “culty” piece of history) than something of a Berlin Wall dividing line among fandom.

On one hand we have the proper Whovian, who came up with some era of Classic Who and remain enamored with some portion, if not the whole, of the series history thereof. Think of us as the diehards, the “true fans” if you must.  We’re the guys who know our history and can talk your ear off about what makes the Barry Letts and Philip Hinchcliffe eras far superior to the John Nathan Turner one, or about which companion is our personal favorite and why (and why this or that other companion just didn’t measure up).

If the Whovian in question is hardcore enough, you might even get discussions of authors (oh, the sacred Robert Holmes…) or directors tossed in to the mix.  Michael Grade’s name will be spoken in curse, as will the demented self appointed “guardian of public decency” Mary Whitehouse. A Whovian is the real deal.

The “Newvian”, on the other hand, tends to be a kid.  Maybe they just discovered the series sometime in the last 8 years, but that’s no crime in and of itself, certainly.  The problem is that they bear a strong tendency to actively disparage the classic series.

The usual litany of “bad” special effects, “cheesy” sets, endless sequences set in rock quarries or running down corridors, “hammy” RADA-appropriate British acting of the era, or (with some merit) the overly panto stunt casting of the John Nathan Turner era ensues.  We’ve heard it all before, and laughed it off – why pay attention to it now?

And yet, an even stranger variant of the Newvian has emerged, which is hard to describe in any other terms than as the Whovian defector.

Yes, there are really are folks out there who once followed the show faithfully back in the days of Tom Baker or Peter Davison, who rediscovered the series in the Davies era…and who now proceed to join the chorus of newbies in trumpeting the imagined “superiority” of the CG-centric, lights and mirrors and a whole hell of a lot of explosions based “modern” style.

Following Hollywood trends all too closely, this all flash and little substance approach obscures something even more insidious that’s happened, most pronouncedly in the transition from the Davies era to the Moffatt reign: the reductio ad absurdam of proper scripting to a succession of “beat points” and contrived emotional “highs” and “lows”.

Hands down, the most egregious sin of New Who is this, and this alone: in every single episode, we must have, in quick cutting, ADD-afflicted editing style and with the appropriate swells of overbearingly bombastic scoring to accompany it, a rapid fire succession of “concern” (for the guest or cause of the week), “triumph” (for the false cadence of the apparent success of the Doctor’s plan to fix things), “despair” (for the apparent death of a major character, which has of late graduated from “current episode character” to “companion and/or Doctor”) and “tear filled triumph” (for the true cadence and resolution of the episode, where it’s shown that everything is OK, and everyone gets out more or less unscathed at the end).

It’s more contrived and predictable than the autotune-afflicted, air raid siren “singing” commercial ditty “mini songs” of contemporary top 40 radio – a rollercoaster ride for the inattentive and easily distracted.

But while hardly a faithful viewer, thanks to my wife (who is decidedly more forgiving of the Davies and Moffatt takes on Doctor Who than I’ll ever be), I have in fact seen most of the ongoing run to date and found some merit along the way.

Effectively, if the new series served more as a sort of gateway drug, drawing new audiences in to the full Who experience rather than what often appears to be the reverse, I’d have little or no issue with it – and in fact, I’ve quite enjoyed a few Doctors, companions and weeping angels along the way (brilliant concept, that).

So let’s backtrack a bit.

Like most Whovians, I was both fascinated and trepidatious when Russell T. Davies announced the return to the airwaves of our long beloved series.  It was with mixed emotion and guarded excitement that my wife and I tuned in, amidst the latter of those long lost days of 2005 when we still subscribed to some level of cable (or in fact watched the telly per se, before moving to a wholly DVD based entertainment milieu).

While put off by the overreliance on CGI (a subject about which I’ve ranted enough for a lifetime, and shan’t waste everyone’s time tapping into here), I found Christopher Eccleston’s take something of an odd cross between Tom Baker’s pop-eyed, somewhat cross mania and Jon Pertwee’s quite physical man of action approach.

Pop princess Billie Piper put in an interesting (if somewhat crass) variant of Sophie Aldred’s Ace, and Camille Coduri’s Jackie was just awesome, love that woman!  Suffice to say, despite some overly Americanized “big budget” explosion filled (and oft subtextless) overtones to the whole affair, the future looked to be promising enough.

Well…not for long.

Eccleston, doubtless lured away by the promise of such important and well recieved roles as Destro and Malekith, seems to have decided Who was a bit beneath him and stepped aside after a single season, setting thereby a new record for brevity as Doctor (remember, Colin Baker and Paul McGann’s abbreviated runs were hardly of their own choice or doing).

And so we got David Tennant. While likeable enough (drinking game: count how many times you’ve heard his take on the Doctor described as “cuddly” and try not to get an advanced case of cirrhosis in the process), I have to be quite honest with you here. He didn’t impress me much.

In fact, if you go back among all the folks who’ve essayed the Doctor over the years…he and the softened, “grandfatherly” Hartnell do round up as the least memorable of the bunch.  Maybe it’s the softness, but there’s something clearly missing in the approach he took – I’ve been known to lump the televised Peter Davison and Paul McGann Doctors in with the two of them as well, so you get the idea of how I’m looking at things here.

Find the common link, and you’ll see by comparison with the other seven what’s wrong or lacking about the approach – I’m seeing softness (not necessarily “weak”, just…lacking in thrust somehow) as being the primary issue.

Mind you, I’ve come to truly love and appreciate both Davison and McGann’s takes on the Doctor thanks to their extensive (and quite excellent) work in audio with Big Finish, so who knows – I leave my take as subject to potential change somewhere down the road.  We’ll see if the man ever makes the jump to audio and how it plays out if so.

While I certainly preferred both Eccleston’s prowling tiger approach and Matt Smith’s crazed mad scientist take to that of Tennant, I’m not saying there was no merit to the man’s performance – as noted, he’s quite likeable and perhaps the most approachable of all Doctors to date (at least to go by his televised persona – I’ve never met the men in person to compare and contrast in that respect).

And so at last we come to this month’s installment of a series called Destiny of the Doctor, a sort of Companion Chronicles done in conjunction with a label called AudioGo.

Each month they released an audio focusing on that numbered Doctor narrated by one of the companions.  In other words, Tom Baker’s companion Romana Mark II (Lalla Ward) for the third release, Colin Baker’s Peri (Nicola Bryant) for the sixth and so on.  The only exception was last month’s Night of the Whisper, where Big Finish’s own Nick Briggs (voice of the Daleks on the new series) did the honors in place of Piper, Coduri or Noel Clarke.  Unfortunately, it appears that AudioGo may be having some administrative or financial issues, so it’s unclear as to when we’ll see the final installment (for Matt Smith’s cute and sassy Clara, Jenna Coleman).

But getting this particular audio was a bit of a surprise, to say the least.  While I’ve already discussed my somewhat mixed feelings on the David Tennant take on the Doctor, what I didn’t mention is the one season I spent very little time with.

Look, I sat through and tolerated my wife’s fascination and fandom of the (rather uncomfortable, occasionally nauseating) love affairs between the Doctor and Rose…and later River “spoilers!” Song (see how they’ve reduced even major characters to easily identifiable catchphrases?  Quick, who’s this?  “You’d better just back away right now, because you don’t know who you’re messing with!”).

I even appreciated the often painful “unrequited love” season with Martha (well, yeah, it wasn’t all that hard since Freema Agyeman was quite easy on the eyes, but even so – is this Doctor Who or the love triangle romance of Smallville?) and the lovely if domineering Amy Pond (Karen Gillan, honestly one of the best looking ladies in Who) with her weird “I’m the mother of your wife” thing and sissy husband (perhaps we should refer to Rory as the wife in this case?).

But the one I just couldn’t deal with was Season Four.

With her brassy, somewhat declasse approach, admin and temp Donna Noble bore something of an adversarial relationship with the Tennant Doctor.  Yeah, she was a redhead (and that counts for something), but the sniping, bickering and general nastiness of the episode I subjected myself to…nah.

I’ve come to understand that other folks (generally women, and interestingly, unmarried post-collegiate ones at that) absolutely loved her, in fact marking her as a favorite companion.  But that initial impression, combined with my growing distaste for the new series and the Tennant iteration of the Doctor, kept me from backtracking and giving the lady another chance.  Unfair, yes – but offering full disclosure here.

Well. Big Finish works its magic once again.

While a bit more comic bookish than usual for a Big Finish audioplay, Darren Jones delivers a wild flight of fancy chock full of exotic alien races, landscapes and locale.  The Doctor and Donna pick up a jumbled batch of transmissions, some of which he realizes are quite old, coming from a nearby planet.

With stranded members of an illegal travel tour, a pair of space pirate terrorist types and the Tardis swallowed up by a bizarre creature, the erstwhile pair investigate a long abandoned wreck and the secret of a terrible planet considered off limits across the galaxy, teeming with a hideous carnivorous life…

This is a quite appropriate script for a New Who era Doctor – jam packed with fanciful ideas and ingenious concepts, but somewhat less high toned and metatextual than Classic Who (and particularly the Big Finish iterations thereof) is noted for being.  Simultaneously fascinating and silly, it’s the equivalent of junk food – empty calories to be sure, but still quite tasty going down.

Catherine Tate switches deftly between a comparatively more posh vocal style (quite possibly representing the lady’s natural voice) and the rather lowbrow Eastender yobbo tones of both Donna and Groogan the pirate.  Somewhat less successful are the electronically enhanced voices she provides for several of the alien tourists, which are acceptably distinct but manage to come off a tad cheesy for my tastes.

Duncan Wisbey provides the sole backup, essaying a dual role as the mad scientist whose efforts prove effectively responsible for the planet’s deadly reputation, and alien arthropologist (and “walking barnacle”) Krux.  But as with most Companion Chronicles (which line Destiny of the Doctor shares strong similarity to), this is really all Cathy’s show, and she makes the most of her time in the spotlight.

Howard Carter is on hand once again with music and sound design, and perhaps taking cues from the tone of the series this draws its characters and inspiration from, delivers yet another overly bombastic score that’s nearly as in your face and obtrusive as the one he provided for 1963: The Space Race.  He’s done better.

I’m not sure if it’s the intimacy of the audio format – the fact that you can pace and visualize the story according to your own personal tastes certainly can’t hurt.  Suffice to say there are few flashing lights, tilted shakycam sequences, quick cuts or explosions in my head, and that’s an enormous improvement there alone.  But whether due to the mere characteristics of the medium, the quality of the writing, the direction, or the chance for the actor(s) themselves to strut their stuff without reliance on visual shorthand – dammit, it always happens.

Bring even the least of Doctors or companions to Big Finish and resistance somehow crumbles along the way.  Like it or not, I finally give these ladies and gentlemen the chance they likely deserve and start to figure out what they brought to their respective role in the first place.  I don’t quite understand it myself, in all honesty – all I can say is that it keeps happening.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you – as regular readers and listeners to Third Eye can tell, I’m nothing if not brutally honest.  I don’t think, on the basis of one lone audio, that I’ve suddenly become a huge Donna fan.  But I do understand her a bit better and have come away with a little more respect for Catherine Tate as an actress after experiencing Death’s Deal.

And isn’t that something quite significant in and of itself?