Friday, October 21, 2011

A Quick Review of Neil Gaiman's Episode of Dr. Who

Before we start, it is my duty to inform those of you not already aware that The Sandman is to comics as Shakespeare is to literature, as much as Watchmen is the comic geek's Bible.

Sandman's writer Neil Gaiman is a household name, for all intents and purposes, isn't he?  Besides numerous kid/teen-friendly novels, a collaboration concerning the Apocalypse co-written with Terry Pratchett, he's also the writer for a plethora of comic mini-projects, finds the time to co-ordinate a love affair with Amanda Palmer on Twitter, a contentious court battle with hotshot douche Spawn magnate Todd McFarlane, a deep and abiding friendship with Tori Amos, but also is attentive to his blogs, and his NPR interviews, and much much more.

Maybe you saw Coraline, or less likely, Mirrormask? Mr. Gaiman does in fact moves more seamlessly between mediums than most comic book writers, the television series Lost being an example of an exception, where Marvel scribe Brian K. Vaughan could really express his talent for easy character development on a sensational prime-time phenomenon writ-overblown.  So it's not easy to sum up how Gaiman fits perfectly in any one niche, but by the very nature of having collaborated with so many brilliant people, he exudes success.  It drips from him and his work as honey from a beehive.  He can very nearly do no wrong, so far as a portion of the fanboy population is concerned, and should get an award every single year for something, anything, whatever.

It comes down to the fact that he's a solid writer and observant to the nature of human beings, which might arise from his origins as a journalist.  His sense of plot and pacing is often perfect, his characters project honest intent in their given archetype, regardless of whatever that may be.  Even when he's coasting, as in the Marvel project 1602, he's triple the talent of most hacks or editor-harried stable-boys working the trenches.  It is this critic's opinion that if the world at large were able to see full uncut trade paperback versions of Miracleman (recently hints of this have been emerging, with Marvel releasing oldschool pulpers of that title after finally wrangling the rights from aforementioned douche McFarlane), which he took over after Alan Moore's ground-breaking work, they would see even there the elegance of his earlier efforts, before the Major Phenomenon that would become his run on The Sandman, ostensibly his crown jewel of accomplishments (being an import from the U.K., after all, imported over the pond like so many of his contemporary and wildly successful comic book scribes).

Perhaps it seems like I am gushing and working out Gaiman's history in toto, needlessly.  Rather, all of this near-fellatio assessment prefaces an open-ended appraisal of an episode that Gaiman wrote for the "6th season" (actually, post ret-conning, following a hiatus, factoring in radio-serials, more like the 27th or 30th) of the BBC series Dr. Who, aptly titled "The Doctor's Wife".

[To those unfamiliar with Dr. Who, f you get the chance, give it a shot.  Start with Season Five if you want to start on the newest incarnation or, if you want a real treat and some almost indigestible camp, start from season one, then shortly thereafter observe the glory days of David Tennant in the role he wished for as a young child and received as a rich reward, though to reinforce that sense of camp, it should be said his first action as the Doctor was a scene in which he started out fighting a Christmas tree. All you need to know going in is that the Doctor is a Time Lord.  The Time Lords as an ancient cosmic race are dead, save him.  The Doctor sent them all to "Hell" when they threatened to destroy the cosmos in their war with the Daleks. Twice.  He travels in a time/space-traveling police box. Let's not even begin to get into the time he killed Satan.]

The episode in question is what Dungeonmasters would likely refer to as a side-quest in a demi-plane. The Doctor's mode of conveyance, the TARDIS (an acronym: Time and Relative Dimension In Space, for the uninitiated), has picked up a distress signal from a fellow Time Lord named The Corsair.  After briefly relating that they knew each other intimately, The Doctor locks in and follows the distress beacon (dragging along a recently-wed couple pivotal to the audience's engagement of the story, one being his faithful companion Amy Pond, the other Rory Williams) they end up in what would be referred to by some as a pocket dimension, or bubble sticking to a bubble, as The Doctor puts it, although not at all, where an asteroid is inhabited by three badly stitched and oddly familial characters, Auntie, Uncle,  and Nephew (an Ood).

Now, postponing our shot at the plot for the moment, let's look at structure. Gaiman's obviously a longtime fan of the series, as many "inside joke" throwaway lines in this episode indicate. Since he's accustomed to working within the constraints of mainstream comics, where short and punchy and to the point is the name of the game still, but always keeping with a rough sense of continuity and content and relevance (though not necessarily canon). 

The plot involves another old Dungeonmaster trope, and somewhat more dialogued than Lost's take, the Sentient Island, or in this case, Sentient Asteroid, referred to as House, collecting the refuse of the universe, luring in and trapping Time Lords for the occasional snack of their variations of the TARDIS, itself containing a Time Vortex which gives off energies for said consumption.  Easy enough, but in order to do so, the Asteroid in question transfers the "consciousness" inhabiting the TARDIS into a woman suspiciously similar in appearance to Helena Bonnam Carter.  It makes sense to draw the connection. The same people consuming The Sandman series in its time of serialization and after were the precise sort to enjoy something like Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare before Christmas, produced by Tim Burton, who of course went on to marry HBC.  So-called Nerd Culture recognizes these things, however subtle or unconscious.

The syntax of the inhabited subject's dialogue/running monologue is yet another example of Gaiman moving fluidly with language.  Her phrases are garbled with clips of the future, the present, and hints at the next few episodes.  Overall she speaks as a time in relative dimension in space construct inhabiting a human host should, that is, confused and confusing.  The TARDIS is not accustomed to talking, in the strictest sense, nor will it be in future episodes (that would spoil things).

We have heft in all characters, we have a plot that carries itself in the one-shot comfortably without the cliffhanger notches so common in Dr. Who.  Amy Pond and the erstwhile husband Rory go back to the TARDIS for the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, then are promptly  taken away in a swirl of green mist by House, eager to be off after realizing no more Time Lords and their TARDISes will be arriving.  After taking over, House poses the question to them "Why don't I just kill you right now?"  Here it is important to note that Gaiman is directly lifting a cue from The Arabian Nights, wherein puny characters are confronted with an entity of severe power (much as a djinni) and must be quick-witted in order to survive.   Effectively Amy's response is "It won't be fun to kill us immediately."  This buys her and Rory time as they run through the presumably near-infinite structure of the TARDIS (what does "bigger on the inside" mean?).  Of course House can play with their senses, shift bits of the TARDIS through space and time, and again Gaiman is clever in how he presents this within the constrains of the medium and characterization.  House blinds them, separates them, presents illusions in which Rory dies, and so forth.  Basically runs Amy and Rory ragged.

Meanwhile the Doctor and his "Wife" are having their first real conversation, her half non-linear and kooky.  Turns out he calls her "Sexy" when they are alone, and that's her chosen name.  To get after the TARDIS/House they need to jury-rig a new TARDIS composed of the husks left over by House after his consumption of them.  Effectively chasing a prize rooster out of the hen-house with an animated pile of chicken bones. Okay, not at all like that.  But here we have a grandiosity of parallel "coolness" playing well with the running power of the Doctor's mythology.  Some Dr. Who episodes are formulaic (the "little kid as secret alien" has played out well repeatedly over the years) but this particular one is fresh and distinct.  The calls for sets and special effects to pull this episode off without a hint of hokiness (okay, maybe just a hint) make for good television.  Somewhat sentimental, sure, but not too contrived that repeated viewings will ruin the effect.  On the contrary, multiple viewings of this episode will enhance the series as a whole.  It could be, in a fashion, viewed as an apocryphal episode. Somewhat disposable in the long run, but overall enhancing the ongoing mythos.

To give a direct play-by-play of the plot would also become tedious.  Needless to say, there are elements of the story I am not and will not explore, but to sum up, we get a better sense of the bond and history between the TARDIS and the Doctor (we can extrapolate from their dialogue that he "stole" her from a museum, while she maintains that she "stole" him) and safely note that every single episode in which the TARDIS transports them into a crazy situation beyond the Doctor's intent is a textured Deus Ex Machina ("I always took you where you needed to be," she tells him). 

 Of course they survive. Of course they get away.  The manner in which all this happens is a natural matter of course.  Gaiman respects each character he inhabits and conjures, as a good wordsmith should.  Should Dr. Who get accolades for episodes like this? Absolutely. It's well in keeping with the mythology of the storyline, adds positive aspects to the running narrative, specifically in the realm of character, the Doctor and the TARDIS are drawn into a more intimate relationship, for the first time ever in decades of the series run... I would hazard to say that making Neil Gaiman head writer for the series, if he was so-inclined and well-disposed, to have him structure not just an episode but an entire season, would give the whole series as stark shot in the arm, bringing the best of the comic world to the best of the science-fiction/fantasy television world, a space that seems more barren and sterile with series such as Fringe, more crude and nonsensical with a series such as True Blood, and likely more contrived and dare I say it hokey with certain other attempts at the genre which shall not be named.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that Neil Gaiman can do no wrong, so far as the evidence he has provided us thus far infers.  He shines well selectively and within certain subjects.  I would embrace any further episodes of any show he deemed worthy of his talents, but am especially enamored of his work with the mythology of Dr. Who in "The Doctor's Wife".  Let's give him a hand folks. No, seriously. Standing ovation.  Twitter-bomb him.  Call for an encore.


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