New Doctor Who Ups the Stakes

My ongoing obsession with the BBC classic series Doctor Who continues.

Doctor WhoLast week the 11th season of the (new) Doctor Who began. This season features three big changes: a new Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, a new head writer, Chris Chibnall, and three new companions.

Having seen the first episode, I can’t wait to see how the new season develops with Whittaker in the title role. Whenever an actor assumes the role he (and now she) brings a fresh take on the Doctor. Usually it takes a few episodes before they find their footing. Chris Eccleston’s loopiness sparked right away. David Tennant and Matt Smith both brought a boyishness to the role that took a little time to grow on me. I never ever warmed up to Peter Capaldi’s overly dour take on the Doctor.

Whittaker was thoroughly charming. There were some rough parts to the season opener–she’s overly giddy at times–but she has a warm confidence that telegraphs a strong future.

There’s one other change that’s more subtle but I think more important. The Doctor’s companions often serve as an audience stand-in. The companion, usually female, is full of wonder and amazement and learns and grows as she travels the universe with the Doctor, surviving one harrowing adventure after another. Danger is at every turn, but no companion in the new Who era has ever truly died.

Rose was exiled to an alternate earth (still alive).

Martha became a Torchwood soldier (still alive, I think).

Poor Donna Noble survived, though only because she had her memories of her adventures erased.

Amy Pond and Rory both survived, though they were banished to the past.

Clara Oswald, well, she died. But then the Doctor did his timey-wimey stuff and snatched her away just before the moment of her death. I didn’t get it either but I loved Clara so I was happy.

And then there’s Bill Potts. Turned into a Cyberman. That’s death, right? No. Another timey-wimey thing where she becomes an immortal puddle or something.

With each companion the danger and risk is heightened, but true consequences are denied.

Not so in this season’s first episode. We were presented with a cast of four potential companions: police officer Yasmin, determined bike rider Ryan, his grandmother Grace, and Grace’s husband Graham. While fighting the big bad tooth-faced monster with a name that sounded like Tim Shaw, one of those four potentials dies.

Like, really dies. Buried and all.

Not only that, it was the FIFTH human death shown in just this one episode.

Doctor Who is nominally a children’s show. Yes, characters die, but less often than you’d think. And never, until now, a (near) companion.

Does this mean that any of the three remaining companions could die this season?

Hopefully, and not because I want to see them die, but because I want to see stakes that matter.

 

 

 

Sensuality, Shakespeare and Stranger Things

Where the hell has Winona Ryder been?

Like half my friends, I just finished binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, an eight-part sci-fi/horror series that’s partly a homage to the 1980s. Overall it was very good, both addicting and entertaining, once I was able to slide into the story.

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A lot has been made of the fact that Stranger Things is set in 1983, and the directors took great pains to ground the series in that time frame. The senses are constantly distracted by elements from the early ’80s — from music to the clothes and hairstyles to the decor of the houses.

I appreciate the effort, but it was overkill, too much of a good thing, and it distracted from the story. Having been alive and aware in 1983 I kept finding myself questioning how accurate it all was, and it seemed too dated.

Luckily, in a stroke of brilliance, they cast Winona Ryder as the lead. She played against type — the woman who made her name as a quirky everywoman played a worried, desperate, and unstoppable mother.

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Winona Ryder is about my age, and when I was younger a lot of guys I knew had crushes on her. But to me she always seemed unformed. She a girl, not a woman. I didn’t get the attraction, and I never followed her career.

Winona_RyderIn these intervening years she’s had some not-so-secret difficulties, as we all have. And when I look at pictures of her now — she’s hot. She’s a woman now, a fully formed adult with all the complications that brings.

In Stranger Things Ryder was effective not just for her acting, but because, in contrast to the set, she was not stylized. She was gaunt and frail. Ryder’s pixie quality was a strength here, as we saw a woman who’s been beaten down by life in many ways but keeps fighting.

Coincidentally, last week I saw Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. One of the actors listed in that play was David Harbour as Achilles, a rambunctious warrior torn between his fellow soldier/boyfriend and a woman he pines for back home.

Harbour, unfortunately, dropped out two days before I saw the play. He tore his Achilles tendon during a performance (you can’t make that up). However, when I started binge-watching Stranger Things the next day, whose name pops up in the credits?

David Harbour, as Chief Hopper.

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Like Winona Ryder, he brought a physicality that rooted the show. In one of his earliest scenes he’s outside shirtless smoking a cigarette after a hard night of drinking. He’s pale with a paunch. He’s tired. He’s hung over. And he’s real in a fully relatable way.

Watching Stranger Things was a totally different experience than watching Troilus and Cressida. Compared with television, it’s harder for me to lose myself while watching a play. I’m hyper aware of the fact that it’s fake. Troilus and Cressida was hard-charging. The actors were loud and physical. There was constant movement — touching, scrapping, fighting. The play used these sensory elements to draw me in.

Stranger Things, while fun, was using the sensory elements of 1983 (or a close approximation) as a wink to the audience, and it was distracting. Luckily they cast Winona Ryder and David Harbour as their leads. They were natural, and by using their physicality to ground the show, they ended up saving it.