Monday, April 14, 2008

New Who

Longtime readers of this blog (Hi Ted and Stella!) know that my all-time favorite television program of all time is that all-time all-timer, "Doctor Who." On the 18th of this month on Sci-Fi Channel, the good Doctor returns in the show's fourth series since its resurrection in 2005. Pop Culture America is privileged to have received an exclusive early screening of the first three episodes (we must be livin' right!) and here are the reviews. Warning: I'll keep the big stuff under my nonexistent hat, but there may be a slight spoiler or two ahead.

"Voyage of the Damned"

After parting ways with Martha Jones at the end of Series 3, The Doctor -- once again played by the energetic David Tennant -- wanders a bit on his own, ending up on an orbiting spaceship with the rather ominous name, "Titanic." There, he meets a serving girl named Astrid (guest star Kylie Minogue) and when calamity strikes, the two must lead a group of survivors through the crippled vessel to safety.

If any of that sounds familiar, it's probably because the episode is an unabashed lift from The Poseidon Adventure. Tennant has a ball dashing about through one disaster movie set piece after another. Kylie is pretty good; the show has a history with showcasing blonde pop stars (Hi Billie Piper!) and it does right by its guest star here.

But despite the energy and appeal of the principles, "Voyage" remains a flat, overwrought would-be romp. Originally aired as a Christmas special in the UK, this episode, like the previous season's holiday-themed "The Runaway Bride," tries for a zany lark but just ends up replacing drama and wit with shouting and flailing. It doesn't help matters that the "monsters" of the show are robots shaped like angels who kill people with their halos.

2 stars.

"Partners in Crime"

The first proper episode of the new season sees The Doctor investigating a remarkably effective new diet pill from the Adipose corporation. What he doesn't realize is that the Runaway Bride herself, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) is also snooping around Adipose. The two come together in time to realize that Adipose is actually a front for a somewhat ghastly alien plot.

British comedienne Catherine Tate reprises her role from "The Runaway Bride" and is The Doctor's main travelling companion for this series. After her initial, abrasive turn in the part, the producers and writers have clearly sought to soften Donna as a character; having her pine for the adventure The Doctor once offered her and she turned down; introducing her kindly old grandfather (played by "Doctor Who" veteran Bernard Cribbins, first entering the Whoniverse in 1966 in the Daleks' Invasion Earth:2150 AD movie). It's effective. She's far more sympathetic than she was in her first appearance.

The Adipose aliens, made of fat and resembling miniature versions of Gloop and Gleep from the "Herculoids" cartoons, are disarmingly adorable. I waited for them to sprout teeth or fire death rays from their cute little eyes, but it never happened. The real villain of the show is the Adipose head, Miss Foster (Sarah Lancashire), a character very similar to Samantha Bond's Ms. Wormwood in the series premiere of "Doctor Who's" sister show, "The Sarah Jane Adventures."

As an introduction for Donna in her new role as a recurring regular, the episode works well; she and Tennant have a genuine comic spark between them. As a sci-fi adventure story, "Partners in Crime" never really hits the big score. It does however feature a surprising cameo at the end that I will not reveal here. All I'll say is: it left me wondering how Sylvia would ever find her car keys.

2 1/2 stars.

"The Fires of Pompeii"

The Doctor takes Donna on her first real trip in the TARDIS and they end up in the doomed city of Pompeii on the eve of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Historical adventures have been highlights of all the previous seasons of the show and this one is no exception. From the outset, with Tennant and Tate cheerfully frolicking around the Pompeiian marketplace, through the moral dilemma the Doctor faces -- a dilemma the show has worked before, but never any more effectively -- all the way to the forbidding conclusion, this is a tremendous episode.

Those of us who remember the glory days of the original program might remember The Sisterhood of Karn from the Tom Baker serial "The Brain of Morbius." There's a similar sisterhood here, The Sybilline Sisterhood, a cadre of seeresses who take their inspiration from a sacred fire. Is the one a precursor to the other?

The entire 45-year series could be summed up by one key image from this programme: The Doctor facing down a fierce creature of stone and magma armed only with a squirt gun.

This is why "Doctor Who" continues to be my favorite show of all time.

All. Time. Hey! I just got it!

4 stars.

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