Well, another season of the longest-running, pioneering sci-fi has come to a close, and it marks – in case it hadn’t happened already – the metamorphosis of Doctor Who from a camp, slightly naff butt of sci-fi jokes into Saturday teatime destination television and arguably the biggest British show on the planet. Even several years after it was resurrected and rebranded to wild success in 2005, the show was still very… British. It was 21st century British of course, with CGI and proper actors and the rest, but there was something charmingly duff about it when you matched it up against the American juggernauts of the time, such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica. That, it turns out, was just a foundation. With the rebranding complete, Doctor Who has evolved and changed much as the Doctor himself has done, with each series becoming more and more polished, with higher production values, until it could stand toe-to-toe with just about any show on television. Kitsch no more, Who is considered properly impressive these days.
The Doctor stumbles across the patented Stalker’s Wall Of Photos, BBC TV Centre c.1970
No more was this new Who on show than in the latest series, the second half of the seventh series of the rebooted franchise. Now, I’ve ranted before on how much I hate the mid-season break, but to be fair it has allowed them to massively increase how efficient they are with their budget. A lot of the previous shows had to use careful budget balancing, mixing effects-heavy action episodes with more low-key, talky episodes, but since the adoption of the mid-season break the high production values can be easily applied to the whole series. This means, in terms of being a pure thrill ride, these short half-seasons provide the most concentrated blasts of fun yet, with the sumptuously shot Hide being a particular highlight as a brilliant sci-fi twist on a classic ghost story. The rest of the episodes are similarly impressive, with Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS and season finale The Name of the Doctor both also standing out as fantastic blends of fresh, hip, fizzing action and loving tributes to the beloved Who lore. Unfortunately though, it does have the downside of making the one episode that isn’t up to scratch –The Crimson Horror, which is slow, oddly paced and with a truly uninspired villain – seem like a real clunker. However, that episode is the single major blip in what is otherwise a consistently superbly-produced run of Who, which trundles along at a breakneck pace without so much as a pause for breath. It’s really quite remarkable for a soft sci-fi such as Who to have such electric, efficiently plotted action, but this season more than any other is a remarkable feat in screenwriting. The science may be unashamedly of the fiction variety, but the scripts are consistently engaging with barely a wasted line of dialogue in the whole season.
The crackling script is also delightfully brought to life by the brilliant pairing of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman as The Doctor and his new assistant Clara, who manage to pull off the kind of cool, modern banter that could so easily descend into obnoxious dribble in lesser hands. It masters the art of being cool, as opposed to simply trying to be cool, and it’s a testament to the writers and the performers for delivering such a natural and bewitching chemistry. Coleman in particular is fantastic, bringing a genius sense of timing and a wide-eyed curiosity towards the insane world of a 1000-year-old time travelling alien, while also appearing realistically vulnerable (she is only a human against the biggest dangers in the universe, after all) without ever resorting to the doe-eyed, damsel in distress routine that so many of The Doctor’s companions have done in the past. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Coleman’s remarkable balancing act and her electrifying chemistry with Matt Smith is one of the chief reasons for the success of this latest half-season. Many of the guest stars also put a shift in, with Liam Cunningham, David Warner, Diana Rigg and Dougray Scott being just some of the Hollywood royalty on show. Indeed, the performances are so uniformly excellent that the irritating child actors who play Clara’s nanny responsibilities stick out like a pair of particularly troublesome sore thumbs. Their performances are so distractingly bad you wonder why they were included at all (my money’s on a pushy producer demanding his kids have some role, otherwise I’m completely stumped), but thankfully the damage is limited to one episode.
With The Name of the Doctor now in the bag, and with the big twist revealed, it seems only fitting that the most memorable series of Who since it relaunched should end with one of the most memorable and unexpected twists in the recent history of the franchise. It capped off what was, overall, a brilliant series of what was already a pretty good show. It manages to be consistently excellent horror, sci-fi and prime time entertainment, helped along by usually solid scripts and some phenomenal performances from the lead actors and most of the guest stars, child actors aside. It marks the ascent of Who from a mere Saturday teatime staple into proper destination TV, and, as it marks something of a gear change for the franchise, this second half of the seventh season is as good a jumping-on point as any for the uninitiated. So, what are you waiting for? Geronimo!