A Chat with Arthur Darvill (“Doctor Who”)

Doctor Who” returns to BBC America on Saturday, April 23, but for the first time in the exceedingly long history of the franchise, the emphasis will be on the “America.” Not only does a portion of the season take place in the US of A, but, indeed, some of it was actually filmed here in the States. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Arthur Darvill – he plays Rory, in case you didn’t know – about the new season, but since the thought of accidentally revealing anything of importance about the goings-on in the new season clearly petrified him, the majority of our conversation actually ended up being about last season. Still, he was willing to offer up a few teasing comments here and there, as you’ll see.

Stay tuned for…

Bullz-Eye: Well, I’m a big “Doctor Who” fan, so I followed your exploits all last season, and I’m sure you’re as excited as I am for these new episodes to hit the air, since you worked on them awhile back now.

Arthur Darvill: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we’re really excited about it coming out. The scale of it has gone up, and it’s bigger and better and more exciting. Yeah, I just can’t wait for people to see it, really.

Plus, of course, you’re in the States, which really ups the ante.

Absolutely.

Now, obviously, we’re excited about you guys having filmed here, but do you have a sense for how folks back home feel about you making your American debut?

I mean, it’s quite cool, I think, because “Doctor Who” is such a British institution, and it will always be quintessentially English, but to do an episode in America…? You know, we have so many… (Hesitates) All my old favorite films are American movies, and I think our cultures are very much linked, so to have an episode in America, yeah, I think everyone’s really excited about it.

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Doctor Who 5.13 – The Big Bang

And so we come to yet another season finale of the greatest science fiction series ever created. This is the recap I’ve been both anticipating and dreading writing in equal parts since first seeing “The Big Bang” some weeks ago; anticipating because of how much I adored this finale, and dreading because there’s no way I can do it justice in a mere recap. It’s not even an issue of space or time (or is it?), it’s a matter of the story, as well as the 12 episodes prior to it, being too dense to dissect thoroughly. You’ll have to forgive that this doesn’t resemble a recap proper, and I instead ramble on about other issues.

I didn’t go into “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang” expecting a whole lot, conditioned as I am on Russell T Davies’s extravagant-yet-ultimately-lightweight season finales. Don’t get me wrong, they were most always a great deal of fun, but they most always left me somewhat wanting – excepting Season Three’s Master trilogy, although I’m not sure that’s in line with popular opinion. Oh, and “The Parting of the Ways.” Wait a minute…I loved most of his finales! But I often felt as if they didn’t go as far as they could. Part of the way through the current season the Pandoricrack, as I’ve come to call it, started to annoy me, and I began not so much resenting the thread, but rather simply dismissing it – assuming that whatever it was about wouldn’t be terribly thrilling. It turned out to be not only thrilling, but strange and deep and stimulating. This was Steven Moffat’s trademark “Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey” taken up to 11. (Maybe next year will go to 12?) This two-part finale forces viewers to go back and reexamine most of the season, and that isn’t something that can really be said for the Davies finales, which isn’t to imply they’re inferior. More on that later…

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Doctor Who 5.6 – The Vampires of Venice

I was sold on “The Vampires of Venice” (not “Vampires in Venice,” which is what I mistakenly called it at the close of last week’s recap) by its beginning – well, its second beginning, since there are two. In the first, we are in Venice of 1580 and Guido (Lucian Msamati) has brought his daughter Isabella (Alisha Bailey) before Signora Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCrory). He wants for her to be a part of Calvierri’s school, so that she can have a better life. Since we’ve all seen plenty of “Doctor Who” at this point, we know this isn’t going to end well for Isabella, and since we’ve seen the previews we also know that Calvierri, as well as her son, Francesco (Alex Price), are vampires (or are they?). So there’s precious little that’s surprising or of interest about Beginning #1, although the sequence ends with a lovely little smash cut from Isabella screaming to Rory (Arthur Darvill) screaming at his stag party, which is Beginning #2, and the point at which I was won over. The two beginnings are also the jumping off points for what end up being the episode’s A and B plots, but more on that later.

Ah, the stag party! Drunken friends, cardboard cakes and the clichéd sound of “The Stripper” wafting through the proceedings. The Doctor may rescue the human race from all manner of grotesque alien creatures and life threatening situations, but this is the first time he’s rescued a human from this occasion that’s grotesque in an entirely different manner. From the moment Matt Smith pops out of the cake, he’s bloody brilliant, simply because he chooses to play it straight, in what’s a thoroughly absurd setup. Many actors would’ve mugged and tried to add to the already ridiculous situation, but Smith (or perhaps freshman “Who” director Jonny Campbell?) allows the scenario to happen around him, and in the process the joke becomes about five times funnier than it has any right to be. I’ve been trying to figure out for weeks now how to explain precisely what it is about this actor in this iconic role that I find so very appealing, and this scene offers up the best example yet of why this guy is the perfect Doctor for his time. Smith’s very much the anti-Tennant, which isn’t to bag on Tennant, but the series really needed this kind of change coming off Tennant’s tenure, and it’s a decision that’s shaping up to be the best one Steven Moffat made for his inaugural season.

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Doctor Who 5.3: Victory of the Daleks

“Daleks. I sometimes think those mutated misfits will terrorize the universe for the rest of time.”

Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, following yet another skirmish with the cockroaches from Skaro, uttered the above quote near the end of his reign as the Time Lord. If he’d known then that he’d still be dealing with them in his Eleventh incarnation, he may well have decided to forego his impending regeneration, and just gone ahead and called it a millennium. Many “Doctor Who” fans would likely have sympathized with him had he done so. Having been writing these recaps for five years now, I am exhausted by Daleks as well. What else is there for me to say about them that I haven’t already said, or hasn’t been said by countless others time and again? And yet here I am, once again backed into a corner by some angry pepperpots demanding that I find something fresh to say on the subject. Of course, if the series can’t be bothered to do so, I don’t really see why I should, either.

Surprisingly, “Victory of the Daleks,” written by Mark Gatiss, is drenched in promise at its start. Surprising not only because all ground concerning the Daleks seems so thoroughly trod at this point, but also because the last thing Gatiss wrote for the series, “The Idiot’s Lantern,” was a forgettable misfire. The idea of subservient, benevolent Daleks isn’t a new one. It was first explored in Patrick Troughton’s first story “The Power of the Daleks,” but since that serial was junked by the BBC ages ago, only the most hardcore of fans are going to care about this. For all intents and purposes the idea is new, or at least new to us. And the show has a field day with the notion for about ten minutes. Professor Bracewell’s (Bill Paterson) Ironsides are going to win the war against the Nazis, and they’ll serve you tea as well. Just the notion that the Daleks will become this story’s Inglourious Basterds is a fun one, since the Nazis are what the Daleks were based on in the first place. With “Victory of the Daleks,” on some obscure meta level, the entire concept of the Daleks has seemingly come full circle.

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Doctor Who 5.2 – The Beast Below

After gushing over the season premiere last week, it pains me to find “The Beast Below” is lacking. One element of the episode I found to be a huge letdown, and one that’s critical to the story is “the children,” and I had a bad feeling about this as soon as the episode started in a classroom. Now it’s not necessarily that the children angle of the story is sloppily plotted, it’s that I’m annoyed by Steven Moffat’s ongoing insistence at using kids as pivotal elements in his stories. I realize that last week I went on and on about how magical the stuff was between the Doctor and the young Amelia Pond – and make no mistake, it was – but with “The Beast Below” I found myself instantly bored with the angle. Of the four stories he crafted during the Davies era, three of them involved children to one degree or another, and the first two stories of his own era have now featured children.

My problem with this is that even though “Doctor Who” is a family series, and that children are a large part of the viewing audience, that doesn’t mean children must be a component of the narrative. It becomes doubly irritating when you’ve already got a lead character who acts like a kid much of the time anyway. Somebody might argue that they’re used as audience identification figures for younger viewers, to which I say balderdash. For 26 years “Doctor Who” hummed along quite nicely, rarely making anyone younger than a teenager part of the storyline. Kids, I believe, are perfectly content to watch adults on the tube and in film. They don’t long to see other children involved in these types of adventures. Somebody else might argue that Moffat uses children in order to help adults find their inner child. I can actually buy that more than the former proposed argument, but it needs to be used sparingly and smartly, and hot on the heels of the young Amelia Pond is hardly sparing, and the climax of “The Beast Below,” which hinges on crying children doesn’t strike me as particularly smart.

Once again I’ve gotten ahead of myself and jumped to the end of the episode, but once again I reiterate – you’ve no business reading these pieces if you haven’t seen the episode being written about. Events kick off in the 29th century where the entirety of the Britain (apparently save Scotland) exists on a giant spaceship appropriately named the Starship UK. Due to solar flares, humanity has been forced to relocate from the planet’s surface. (They’ll one day head back down to the planet once the danger is gone.) We’ve seen so many different periods of Earth’s future on the series so far, in episodes like “The End of the World,” “The Long Game,” and “New Earth,” that it isn’t a stretch to buy into this, yet at the same time there’s a certain “been there, done that-ness” to it all.

The post opening credits sequence with Amy floating in space outside the TARDIS, while the Doctor holds onto her leg is really rather splendid, as is her voiceover about her imaginary friend who has come back to her. Before the duo travel to the ship, he gives her a very goofy speech about his one rule, which is to never interfere in the affairs of other people. Ha!! Who does this cat think he’s foolin’? But it’s interesting nonetheless, because in telling Amy that, it demonstrates how little she actually knows about this man whom, we, the viewer, actually know a great deal about. These are early days for Amy, and there are many adventures yet to come. What causes the Doctor to break the rule he just set down? A crying girl seen on the scanner. Amy follows him, still dressed in her nightie, which has a certain Arthur Dent-ness to it. (If so, then is the Doctor Ford Prefect?)

The world of Starship UK is a dreary place, and the residents live in fear of these figures called Smilers, which are frankly one of the dumbest elements of the entire episode, as I still, after seeing it twice, have no real idea what their function is other than to look scary. A water glass comes in mighty handy, when the Doctor uses it to deduce that there is no engine running the ship. The Doctor and Amy split up only to each find clues leading them closer to the great mystery of the Starship UK. Tentacles, voting booths, and a masked woman who knows the Doctor are parts of the equation. The masked woman is eventually revealed to be Liz 10 (Sophie Okonedo), or Queen Elizabeth the Tenth, who’s heard all the stories of the mysterious, wise Doctor. She’s been working against the government to get to bottom of the “this ship has no engine” problem as well, but hasn’t made much headway.

There are so many seemingly random elements knocking up against each other in this episode, that by the time it’s revealed that the ship has no engine because an enormous space whale has been carting it across the stars, I’d all but lost interest in what was going on, despite the fact that I actually sort of like the space whale idea, as well as the bigger, more important idea of a society in denial. But when it was revealed that the whale was doing it for the crying children, I just rolled my eyes. If this were any show other than “Doctor Who,” I never would’ve made it through the entire episode. In the end, Amy saves the day and proves her worth, while the Doctor is left with just a little bit of egg on his face.

What saves the proceedings is Matt Smith. I can’t turn this recap series into a Smith gushfest every week, so it’d be best to keep it short: This guy’s incredible. Even though Amy had a lot more to do in this episode, I’m still not finding her character to be all that. I’m not sure Karen Gillan has found her yet, either. Ultimately this episode didn’t come close to living up to the promise of “The Eleventh Hour.” I hope that Moffat is building up to something big, as was evidenced by the crack from Amy’s wall appearing on the side of the ship as the episode came to a close. We’ve had duff entries in the first act of many a season of new “Who,” so I’m not worried about this stumble, but it’s a shame that such a lackluster offering should be the second of this new era. I guess it goes to prove that even with Steven Moffat there are bound to be missteps, and that not everything is going to work perfectly. In any case, the tag at the end with Winston Churchill and the Dalek was great fun, and hopefully next week will be better.

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NEXT TIME: It’s back to the Blitz for the TARDIS, when the Doctor and Amy visit Churchill in “Victory of the Daleks.”

Classic “Who” DVD Recommendation of the Week: I can’t be bothered to recommend any classic “Who” this week, so instead I’ll recommend Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather,” which features an entire world floating on the back of an enormous turtle.

(Thanks as always to Sonic Biro for the screencaps.)

  

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