Watched the first two eps of the BBC’s Sherlock the other night, starring Benedict Cumberbatch’s lips and cheekbones as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as John Watson. The three-ep first season transplants the crime-solving duo from Victorian/Edwardian London to present-day London, where the two act as “consulting detectives” to Detective Inspector Lestrade and the rest of the new Scotland Yard.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes really reminds me of David Tennant and Matt Smith as the Doctor. With a spectacular intellect that moves much faster than the brains of mere mortals, Cumberbatch’s Holmes astounds people with his rapid-fire deductions in the same way that Tennant’s and Smith’s Doctors shock people with their free-associating intelligence. Additionally, both this Holmes and those Doctors take a self-conscious, performative glee in their superiority, enjoying the way that they befuddle people. Just as Smith’s Doctor is an adventure junkie, gleefully shouting “Geronimo!” as the TARDIS speeds toward a crash, so Cumberbatch’s Holmes enjoys living on the edge, dancing near suicide in the first ep just so he can get the buzz of adrenaline. I attribute some of this similarity to the fact that Sherlock was co-written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both writers of eps for the New Who. Also interesting to note is that Cumberbatch has something of the Doctor – or at least the Doctor’s potential in him – as evidenced by the fact that he discussed taking over for Tennant, but never did.
Needless to say, I love Sherlock for its strong characters, its Doctor-like Holmes and its stellar lead actors. I dislike it for its pointless exoticization of Chinese people as demonstrated in the ep The Blind Baker. From the minute the eerie stereotypical bamboo flutes start playing in the first scene as a clay tea set is ceremonially laid out, we know we’re in for Chinese stereotypes. The stereotypes continue throughout the ep, including a scene in which the Chinese tea set-laying-out character speaks to her brother in unsubtitled Chinese, reinforcing the idea of foreign characters as strange and incomprehensible. This ep’s main villain, General Shan, leader of a gang called the Black Lotus, even delivers, as her first line, a supposed Chinese proverb in halting English [something about a book being a magic world in your pocket]! [I also noticed that General Shan’s English started out broken in her first scene and markedly improved throughout the rest of her scenes, making me think that she was directed to speak in stereotypical stilted English.] I condemn such lazy, thoughtless characterization as racist.
I must say that I easily see why so many viewers adore Baker as the Doctor. With his buggy eyes, uncontrollable hair and facetiously long but always useful scarf, Baker projects an air much like Harpo Marx. Seemingly childlike in his non sequiturs and mood shifts, Baker conveys the impression of an intelligence and a personality moving much too fast for most humans to grasp. While light-years beyond humans in comprehension, Baker's Doctor also enjoys playing with them, changing costumes, offering jelly babies and doing other performative flourishes that require an appreciative audience. I don't think of him as an arrogant performer, but a self-satisfied one, always ready to prove how sparkling he is. His smugness, playfulness and utter confidence wrap up into an endearing whole.
As a whole show, Dr. Who was different in 1974 than it is now. With shorter episodes and stronger musical cues pointing out humorous moments, Dr. Who in 1974 comes across as more sit-com-like than dramatic. At the same time, the constant shooting, blowing up and cliff-hanging endings work against the sit-com frame, suggesting more of an old-fashioned serial drama. The show has an interesting hybrid form, and I can see why it appealed back then to viewers of all ages.
I would like to report that I still like Amy better than the Twelfth Doctor; with her sharpness, briskness and quick thinking, Karen Gillan's portrayal reminds me of a less infatuated, more intelligent Rose. Gillan seems to have more range than, say, Freema Agyeman.
However, even though I prefer Amy over Matt Smith's Doctor, at least the Doctor has settled down a bit from the first ep and shown himself some more consistent personality. He's slapdash, risk-taking and fond of waiting till the last minute for his genius to kick in. In his dramaticness [yes, that's a word that I just made up] and unpredictability, he seems a close follower of Tennant's portrayal.
As the Doctor, Smith plays a bouncy, funny, nearly addlebrained version of the BBC's flagship alien, who talks faster and jumps around more than previous versions. Smith's Doctor seems much looser and more out-of-control than even Tennant's, kind of like a puppy whose feet are too big for it.
Meanwhile, with her crisp primness and matter-of-fact reactions to a spaceship in her front yard, Amy, as played by Gillan, offers a certain uptight confidence that is quite likeable. Possibly she is also a study in the faithfulness of human nature, given that she's been waiting most of her life for the Doctor to come back.
So far, after one ep, the Doctor feels like a big collection of personality spasms and tics rather than a fully fledged character. Amy comes across as more well-rounded and -grounded. In this case, the companion transmits herself as more endearing and accessible than the Doctor. Meanwhile, there is some hope for Matt Smith, as he's definitely demonstrated the comic chops necessary for the role. It would be nice for him to find the center of the character beyond the farce, however. So far, I haven't seen it.
P.S. Despite the fact that it's missing the signature long electrical warping sounds [weeeeee-ooooooooooo!], I do like the new theme. And the new TARDIS looks cool too.
Rose, played by Billie Piper, seems to be the most quintessentially human of the Doctor's companions. Neither particularly smart nor particularly stupid, she is notable for her compassion, even towards Daleks in season 2's "Dalek," and her adventuresome curiosity that more than matches the Doctor's in whatever form he's in. Her constant sense of wonder toward her weird adventures and her ability to see the personhood of non-human aliens makes her the representative of the best of human nature. I think it also helps that Piper had one of the longest-running companion roles, allowing her a full range of emotions in her performance, which thus lets her sort of embody the full gamut of human sentiment. As an actor, Piper is convincing, competent and naturalistic, a permeable Mary Sue with adorable qualities.
Martha, played by Freema Agyeman, seems to be the most academical and dependent of the Doctor's companions. With her doctor training, she represents human knowledge, but she does not seem to have the same voracious spirit of adventure demonstrated by Rose and Donna. She appears less interested in the awesomeness of space and time and more interested in the Doctor as a love object. Therefore she sticks like glue to him and gets very very anxious when he's, for example, human in season 3's "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood." She comes across as more desperate than the other companions of the New Who, probably because of her unrequited love for the Doctor. As an actor, Agyeman gives a performance with remote, high-strung and occasionally wooden notes. Even though I have a very cute doll of her, I dislike her the most of the New Who companions.
Donna, played by Catherine Tate, seems to be the most energetic and snarky of the Doctor's companions. Her rubber-facedness matches perfectly with Tennant's [see season 4's "Partners in Crime" for brilliant examples], while her dry remarks demonstrate that she has a cool self-possession that she almost never loses. Thus she represents the human sense of humor and ability to take weirdness in stride. With her matter-of-fact negotiation of her role as the Doctor's "mate" and her eagerness to fly around with him, she shows a sort of practical sense of wonder. She's also the most mature character of the three companions. As an actor, Tate shines with comic flair and energetic snippiness.
At its best, Dr. Who is a paean to human curiosity and inventiveness, as personified by rubber-faced Tennant, the eternally childlike and brilliant Doctor. It also honors human compassion and bravery as modeled by the various companions. Tightly written and often witty, episodes display the boundless, questing imaginations of the writers and producers, an inventiveness brought to life by solid performances all around.
Watching this show really brings forth a sense of wonder, of continuous joy over the neverending story of a fantastic serial. Even though I have a crush on David Tennant [he smirks!], I wouldn't recommend watching whole particular seasons, just eps here and there so that they mash together in a pleasing mass of seething ideas to inspire one to one's own fictional endeavors.
Thank you to bella_fox for sponsoring my acquaintance with Dr. Who in the form of her link to downloads.