For Whom the (Cloister) Bell Tolls, or Why We Hope Steven Moffat’s DOCTOR WHO Is an Island

For people who were so enjoying Doctor Who, we’ve been pretty silent on all things Whovian around here lately. The Steven Moffat era of Who returns to Auntie Beeb and BBC America tonight, and…well, we’re not sure we’re returning along with it. We just aren’t loving The Amazing Cold-Hearted and Illogical Adventures of the Eleventh Doctor and His Companion, The Skirt. And not loving something we were so enamored with makes watching the new stuff all the more difficult.

So what’s the problem? There are certainly things to applaud in Moffat’s Who. While we’re not sure it always works, the decision to explicitly stretch story arcs across the entire season is both ambitious and a wink back at Old School Who. Trusting established “outsiders” like Richard Curtis and Neil Gaiman has resulted in stand-out episodes. The child characters Moffat creates tend to be very successful, perhaps revealing how much he adores his own kids and how much his version of Doctor Who is directed toward kids. There’s been some brilliant set-up (those Silence-sighting hash marks are creeeeeepy).

And if some of that set-up hasn’t paid off, well, how different is that from the Russell T Davies-era Who we so loved? It’s not like we didn’t forgive RTD for sins against storytelling similar to what Moffat is committing. For every example of Moffat ruining something wonderful he’d done before, like taking the Weeping Angels out of the Wester Drumlins basement, you can find an example of Davies doing the same thing. I still refuse to acknowledge that ridiculous “Doctor 10.5 riding off into the sunset with alternate universe Rose disaster that undid the beautiful ‘Doomsday’” thing ever happened. While Moffat sometimes seems to fall in love with an idea and pursues it down a bad, bad road regardless of what it does to the story (no one tell the Doctor someone will kill him in the future, or he’d have to take sensible action!), Davies did that, too (Yoda Doctor of “Last of the Time Lords” is nigh unforgivable.)

But it turns out that nigh unforgivable isn’t the same thing as unforgivable. While our purpose here isn’t to pit Davies against Moffat—they both have strengths and weaknesses—their consecutive eras make for a sad comparison: why were we so willing not just to forgive but to embrace Davies’ sometimes lumpy Who, but we’re about to change the channel on Moffat’s?

  1. Puzzle Problems

It’s not like previous eras of Who locked down excellent science fiction logic. Why, for example, does Meglos need a human to fabricate a Doctor disguise…you know what, don’t even bother trying to answer that. Davies, in particular, made up egregious Point B nonsense to wrest the story from Point A to Point C (“It’s a magic diamond! That the Time Lords threw from inside the Time War! Wheeee!”). Moffat’s stories, however, tend not to bother with things like connective tissue at all. Instead, he merrily hops from Point A to Point C without worrying about whether that shreds the story beyond recognition. How does Rory go from being dead to having his consciousness in a plastic body that’s supposed to behave like a Roman? “Don’t know—he feels himself dying and then feels fuzzy and then feels Roman.” But…how? “Don’t know—doesn’t matter. Got to blow something up now.” But that doesn’t make any sense. “Eh. Call it a miracle.” Moffat doesn’t try to connect Thing A to Thing C at all—he just declares it to be so.

Perhaps the worst offense is the use of the TARDIS as a magic wand. There’s a reason stories about time travel employ rules preventing the characters from going back in time and removing the dramatic catalyst: without the dramatic catalyst, there’s no drama. Moffat’s blatant disregard for general sci-fi tropes about time travel and paradoxes—let alone rules actually established over decades of Whovian lore–remove any sense of tension or consequences from the story. Need a way out of trouble? The Doctor will pop in in a bubble of time and provide the solution. You know what that is? The last 20 minutes of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where they think to go back and provide themselves with conveniently placed garbage cans and key chains.

But what bothers me most, and this has its roots in the puzzles themselves being a failure, is that the reason puzzles work in stories is because the way they slam together in the end provides emotional catharsis (which, as you’ll see, will lead to our #1 complaint about Moffat’s Who). Sometimes that catharsis is joy, sometimes it’s relief, sometimes it’s a chill down the spine, but it’s emotion. Moffat’s puzzles aren’t providing that emotion, at least in part because their construction is shoddy.

The thing that’s so frustrating is that Moffat has shown he can make the puzzles work to provide emotion. I know I’m in the minority, but I love, love, love “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and it’s got nothing to do with Reinette. I love it because the reveal of the puzzle at the end—the audience learning something that the Doctor will always be haunted by but will never know—makes me cry every time I see it. The puzzle resolution itself has an emotional power that seeing a coffin being carried away doesn’t. Sally Sparrow’s delight and relief at figuring out that she’s the Doctor’s key is actually a big fat cheat, but it’s not as much of a cheat as what Moffat’s trying these days, and it’s an emotional catharsis that completes the entire episode. To paraphrase the great CJ Cregg, “The puzzles are bad. If the puzzles were unknown, I could help you, but they aren’t. They’re just bad.”

  1. Gender Issues

I’ve been trying to be patient with Moffat’s gender problems, but I finally reached my boiling point around the time they started making a game of Amy’s reproductive system. Kay Reindl’s tough but accurate piece on this development outlines very nicely why using Amy’s uterus as a plot point is misogynistic rather than cute, and Moffat’s problems with women hardly begin and end there.

Who are the women in Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who? Alien queens, nurses, soldiers. The problem is the pattern that emerges when looking at them all together: virgin/love interest, wife, mother. The whores or the wombs, the pretty or the evil. Over and over and over. It’s fine that Nancy’s a mother, both to the empty child and to her little band of WWII misfits. After all, the manager of the Flesh plant is a woman. It’s not a big deal that Reinette is, to be delicate, a courtesan—after all, the cool Sirulian Sherlock Holmes and her sidekick are women. But line them up. All four of Moffat’s Davies-era female characters fall straight into the major feminine archetypes: mother, whore, virgin (as far as Larry’s interests are concerned), wife. Now Amy’s a supplicant and a womb. Yay. Is Liz 10 a virgin queen? The “Vampires of Venice” baddie is just trying to protect her offspring—mommy. There are women in “Victory of the Daleks” and “The Lodger,” but they exist to be in love. And so on and so on, ad infinitum. Which is a long damn time when there’s a TARDIS involved.

What of Moffat’s most prominent women, Amy and River? The Amy we know has mostly been rendered non-existent—literally, what we thought was her was not, more than once—and the real Amy gets to be wife and womb. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a woman being married or having kids—in fact, those things are great. But when Moffat got a chance to create a Doctor Who companion, he made one who is nothing but those roles instead an actual human woman with thoughts and feelings of her own that include but are not limited to her family connections and responsibilities. Luckily, Amy’s been available to wear short skirts.

And River? At least she’s fun. But she’s fun because she’s just Captain Jack all over again, minus the Y chromosome. River is Moffat’s replacement Mary Sue, which is why she’s kind of awesome, yet oddly lacking any real depth.

It’s not terribly hard to see the gender issues playing out in Moffat’s overall handling of female characters, but he has trouble with his male characters, too. Looking over his body of work, he seems only to write immature men. And his immature men can be lots of fun when that’s what the story’s supposed to be about: Sherlock and Watson (whom we are loving—there’s the Who we wish Moffat had made), or Captain Jack, or Jeff and Steve and Patrick. But when he forces the Doctor into that box we get a Time Lord who becomes something heartless and twisted, with the brutally self-centered attention deficit of a child. Matt Smith is trying hard, but he’s being asked to play a Doctor who’s coming up on a thousand years old but who could show up on an American sitcom with a wife who is way out of his league. Part of the fun of the Doctor is that he sometimes bursts his seams and shows us an intelligence and perspective beyond human experience. Moffat’s immature Doctor is an all-too familiar brand of fake humanity.

  1. Moral Dilemmas

Again, we don’t mean to pit Davies against Moffat, or to imply that Davies-era Who has no flaws. But in thinking about what we’re missing from Who these days, we fell into discussing “The Waters of Mars,” a story we’ve not yet reviewed at TV Bacon. While we’re split on the end—Susannah doesn’t enjoy watching the dark turn it takes, while I dance around in a little circle singing, “Valeyard! Valeyard!”—we are both staggered by the difference between that episode and Moffat’s stuff. The Doctor’s dilemma in that episode, as in so many of the best of Davies’ episodes, was a moral one. It wasn’t a problem that could be solved by being clever or using the sonic or the TARDIS to fix everything. There was no winning scenario—the Doctor had to choose the best of two bad outcomes and it hurt to watch him do it. It made us hurt for him, which made us love him all the more. The Doctor knows what fixed points in time are, so can he refuse to save Pompeii? Should he have prevented the Dalek race from ever being born? Was it wrong to destroy the Racnoss, or was it just wrong to take steely pleasure in it? Was it wrong to depose Harriet Jones? There’s a moral question like that underpinning all the best of Who.

There’s very little of this exploration in Moffat’s Who, which creates an Eleven who is that arrogant, dangerous Time Lord Victorious from the end of “Waters of Mars.” He doesn’t have moral dilemmas, he’s not bothered about the consequences of his actions, he doesn’t even pause long enough to worry about the people who might get trampled under his feet or feel bad when innocent bystanders end up as collateral damage. Consider the particularly nauseating example of the solution to the Silence infestation of Earth in “Day of the Moon”: humans being hypnotoaded into being weapons of niche destruction. Perhaps it’s a testament to the vividness of his storytelling, but think about what Moffat has created here: in that world, thanks to the Doctor, every time you or I turn around we might feel a compulsion to splatter open a skull. There’s very little to love about a character with so much power who wields it so carelessly.

Part of what’s so maddening is that Moffat often has the opportunity to explore the moral dilemmas right in front of him and refuses to do anything with it. “The Beast Below” was more interested in playing with pointless clown police than in grappling with the moral issues the story set up. Matthew Graham’s Flesh two-parter had all kinds of moral shades available to play with, but right after showing that Flesh and Human should get along the Doctor dispatches Flesh!Amy for a shock reveal. “The Waters of Mars” slaps the Doctor with consequences almost immediately after his bad choices. If there’s a consequence to the Eleventh Doctor’s behavior, Moffat’s hiding it inside a strangely constructed Rubik’s Cube, and we’re no longer convinced he isn’t more interested in playing with the puzzle than finding what’s inside.

  1. Emotional Connections

While we (obviously) have some issues with the details of Moffat’s sci-fi, our biggest complaint is that we feel nothing. We were willing to critique but ultimately overlook hot plot messes in RTD’s work when we got big emotional payoffs, and the same is true for Moffat—as much as crossing the timelines drives us batty, we’d likely get over it if a huge emotional payoff was attached.

There’s no love anymore. No heart. No joy. No sincere affection or emotion of any kind, far too much of the time. (We suspect this is why Rory is so popular, and our favorite Moffat-era character: he’s the only one who consistently displays any genuine feelings for anything or anyone. Everyone else is too busy being glib and clever and showing off.)

And yes, the Doctor has always been glib and clever with a predilection for showing off. But he’s also been a man with two hearts overflowing with affection for the people who cross his path (until/unless they prove themselves unworthy of that affection, and then they better watch out). He used to look at the whole of the universe with a childlike joy and sense of wonder. Now we’re too busy twisting into pretzels to experience wonder or attachment or loss.

Consider our favorite episodes of Moffat’s reign—both “Vincent and the Doctor” (Richard Curtis’ work) and “The Doctor’s Wife” (hello, Mr. Gaiman) tie the Doctor to love. One person he loves is a new friend; one is his oldest friend of all. Both tether him to something outside of himself, stretching the Doctor so that he’s bigger on the inside. The Master once mocked the Doctor’s choice of moniker: “the man who makes people better.” But watching Vincent have a moment away from the ache of his mental illness to hear a museum curator discuss his work as timeless is so moving that it makes the Doctor’s rule-breaking worth overlooking. Seeing the one being who always makes the Doctor better finally get to say hello to him is nearly 50 years’ worth of emotional payoff. Compare that to the revelation of River’s identity, which should be a huge moment and instead feels like a magician shouting “ta da!” and pulling nothing out of his hat.

One of our greatest frustrations is that Moffat has shown in previous work that he can bring the emotion. The Doctor’s pure joy in “The Doctor Dances” is a sure tearjerker. Donna asking if “I’m all right” is Time Lord for “really, really not all right” in “Forest of the Dead” is one of the most piercing moments of Season 4 of New!Who. So why doesn’t he want to make us cry now?

We wonder if weak characterization is part of the emotion problem, not just with the main characters but compared to RTD’s ability to draw colorful, memorable one-off characters we immediately cared about. It’s a good part of why Gaiman was successful—every new person on screen was interesting and, to some extent, deeply sad. Fake and imaginary Amys make it impossible to create deep characterization, and the Doctor doesn’t seem interested in anyone else. That leaves a lot of emotional weight for Rory to carry, with very little help from either side characters or plot to get there. If the theft of a baby can’t make us cry, we’re having a hard time connecting with your world.

While we’d stand by the argument that some parts of Moffat’s Who are simply not well-executed, it’s also true that there’s nothing inherently wrong with flattening out the moral aspects of the show or going for sprung traps over emotion. We suspect that Moffat thinks he’s making a return to Old School Who, and maybe he is. I do think he takes his kids into account when writing this stuff. And the Davies era really was a major update to modern television expectations in terms of infusing emotion into the show. So yay for Moffat if a retrofit is what he wants. We’re just not enjoying watching it with him.

M Is for the Murders That She Ordered: TV’s Best and Worst Moms

Susannah is off being feted for Mother’s Day; I, on the other hand, am cheerfully/crabbily boycotting. This, then, seems the perfect Bacon nod to Mother’s Day: celebrating those TV moms who did it right and side-eyeing those who could have used a refresher. Or a visit from Social Services.

Let’s look at some heroes first:

10. Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox), Cougar Town: Heaven knows she’s a tad on the clingy side–we expect a whole episode to be built around Trav finding a NannyCam implanted in roommate Kevin. But when push comes to shove it turns out Jules knows when to back off (even if she doesn’t want to) and when to step in. What makes her a compelling candidate for the good list, however, is all the mothering she does of the Cul-de-Sac Crew that makes up her little constructed family. No one in the neighborhood is going without wine, advice, or hugs while Jules is on the job. (Well–maybe Tom.)


9. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Downton Abbey: We love our PBS costume dramas, with Downton Abbey the latest obsession. Isobel Crawley’s progressive ways make her not only an encouraging, inspiring mother to reluctant heir Matthew, but, in the ways she’s searching out to let him be lord of the manor while keeping a toe in the career she’s so intensely proud of, the mother to a new age. Plus, she’s got the cojones to toe-to-toe with Dame Maggie Smith’s fearsome Dowager Countess of Grantham without even flinching.

8. Virgina Chance (Martha Plimpton), Raising Hope: Virgina might seem an odd choice, given that she gave birth at 16 and then raised a son for whom a Wal-Mart level job was a huge step up, but the pilot demonstrated that Virginia’s someone you want on your side. Between walloping the serial killer who would become the mother of her grandchild on the melon with a household appliance and tenderly singing said granddaughter to sleep, Virginia’s got all the mothering bases covered in her own way.

7. Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri), Doctor Who: Jackie’s another tough initial sell–it certainly takes the Doctor a while to warm up to her. As her layers are peeled back, however, we find a fiercely protective Jackie who fought on after being widowed to raise a girl so brave and resourceful she can hold her own with a Time Lord. On top of that, Jackie’s observant enough to worry about how Rose’s journeys are changing her. “Let me tell you something about those who get left behind,” she tells someone perceived as a threat to her daughter and the Doctor, “because it’s hard, and that’s what you become: hard. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I will never let her down, and I’ll protect them both until the end of my life. So whatever you want, I’m warning you, back off.” We’ll take Jackie’s tough love any day of the week.

6. Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner), The Simpsons: She’s brought down tyrants through the hearth arts (scotching Mr. Burns’ gubernatorial campaign with one well-placed entree). She’s shielded Lisa from the Simpsons Gene. For the love of Pete, she’s homeschooled Bart Simpson. Marge has given up a lot to put her kids first, but she might be rewarded one day by being the mother of a president. And Bart Simpson.

5. Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong), My So-Called Life: The anchor of a show that was too good for this world, Patty could bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and nurture Angela through all the heartaches great and small that come from just trying to grow up in this world. And in her spare time, she could do the same for Rayanne and Rickie. We wish Angela had been our friend in high school, mostly so we could hang out at her house and have Patty mother us.


4. Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), Friday Night Lights: If mothers are judged solely on how their kids turn out…well, they shouldn’t be. But if they were, Tami’d better hope Gracie Belle turns out well, because Julie Taylor is working our last nerve. But the Julie saga is actually a perfect example of why Tami’s a great mom–by turns sympathetic and demanding, she gives her kids all the support they need to succeed and then insists that they work hard to be all they can be. Then she does that for an entire town of kids. Add to that her example as a wife and professional (well, most of the time), and she’s top-notch.

3. Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad), The Cosby Show: Claire’s the head badass in charge, and everyone in her house knows is. She’s head disciplinarian, head cattle prodder, head listening ear…she might be the #2 dance leader in the house, but you get the idea. To be fair, the dream life the Huxtable kids live has a lot to do with their socioeconomic status, but Claire is an equal partner in providing that, too. And she does it all with class, sass, and, yes, being a badass. If I could choose one of the moms to be instead of one of the moms to have, it might be Claire.

2. Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Tortured, torturing. Shooting, being shot. Taking on the military-industrial complex to save her son, who will lead the glorious revolution against our robot overlords. Sarah’s not just mothering John Connor, people–she’s giving up her hopes and dreams, and maybe her own life, to save us all.

1. Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), Gilmore Girls: She may every once in a while be a little overindulgent, but Lorelai’s determination to give her daughter the childhood she herself never had sets off a cascade that starts with a teen mom raising her daughter in a potting shed and ends with Stars Hollow’s Most Beloved Girl Ever graduating from Yale. Along the way, we see one of the warmest, most supportive mother-daughter relationships ever shown on TV. We might want to be both Lorelai and the daughter she raised.

And to those moms you might not want to emulate:

10. (Tie) Lucille Bluth and Lindsay Bluth Funke (Jessica Walter and Portia de Rossi), Arrested Development: One makes her youngest son so codependent that when trying to escape her he mistakes the warning “Loose seal!” for her name and loses a hand. She then uses his prosthetic replacement in…happy times and leaves it in the dishwasher for him to find. The other merrily ignores her daughter until she wants to date said daughter’s high school boyfriend. The apple doesn’t fall far from the funny, funny tree.


9. Mom (Tress MacNeille), Futurama: On the surface, a sweet, bustled woman who just wants you to be happy because she loves you so much. Underneath the corset, a corporate overlord who just wants to suck the life (and all of your money) out of the entire galaxy. Don’t disappoint Mom–she might slap you. Or send her army of killer robots to express her displeasure.

8. Lianne Mars (Connie Bohrer), Veronica Mars: Imagine a mother who gives up every vestige of her old life, including being able to see or care for her teenage daughter, in order to protect that daughter from nefarious folk. A candidate for the best moms list, right? Sure, until she returns, drains her daughter’s college savings going to fake rehab, and then steals a very hard-earned paycheck on her way out the door a second time. Veronica became a better person with Lianne out of the picture anyway.

7. Colleen Donaghy (Elaine Stritch), 30 Rock: Highly critical. Ridiculously demanding. Acid-tongued. Unaffectionate (“Tell him his mother loves him. But not in a queer way”). The anti-matchmaker. And almost sure to bring all of these delightful qualities to the next generation (“I see you brought the bag…that my bastard grandchild will come in”). Like some of our moms on the best list, Colleen did the best with what she had, but now that she has more she’s happy to use it to keep twisting the knife.

6. Ellis Grey (Kate Burton), Grey’s Anatomy: It seems like we should have felt sorry for Ellis Grey, given that her career as one of the foremost cardiothoracic surgeons in the world was cut short by early-onset Alzheimer’s. And maybe we would have, if she hadn’t treated her husband with contempt, cheated on him and then pushed him out of their daughter’s life. Or expressed nothing but disappointment in Meredith, while spitting on her dreams at every opportunity. Oh, and then there was the time Ellis slashed her wrists in front of her daughter, just to manipulate a lover. Meredith drives us up a tree, but she comes by her crazy honestly.


5. Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), Weeds: We’d like to watch this show more regularly, but we can’t get over the intense discomfort we feel when Nancy puts her children in grave danger not only because she’s running a weed business, but because she’s just so bad at it. We can understand being scared about losing her lifestyle along with her husband, but in what world did exposing her children to criminals and druggies become a better choice than downsizing and getting a crappy desk job?

4. Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), Justified: Well, she’s all about family, you have to give her that. A rural version of the Godfather, Mags is willing to use anyone to further her Kentucky kingdom, and that includes selling out her sons, pitting her sons against one another, manipulating her sons, putting her sons in danger, asking her sons to commit heinous crimes…and if they don’t obey to her satisfaction? She smashes their fingers with a ball peen hammer. Sure, she feels deeply sad when things go badly for said sons, but you’ve also gotta suspect she’s got one of those poisoned mason jars set aside for everyone in the family, just in case the need should arise.

3. Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), Damages: Patty would like you to know that she loves her son very much, albeit in her own heartless, extremely demanding way. That’s why she lies to him about his paternity, disowns him, has all of his belongings removed from her home, attempts to bribe his pregnant girlfriend, and has said girlfriend arrested for statutory rape. At least she was pretty understanding when, in return, he tried to run over his mom with her own car.

2. Betty Draper Francis (January Jones), Mad Men: Look, I can understand how soul-killing it might have been to try to live the traditional roles that were imposed on women in the 50s and 60s. It’s not all the smoking and drinking and dieting she does while pregnant, or even the frequently administered spankings that make her such a bad mother, because, hey, it was a different time and who didn’t let their kids play with dry cleaning bags back then? It’s the fact that she allows her bitterness about her strangled life to manifest as resentment of her children. Most of the other moms on this list at least manage to pretend to show some affection towards their kids every once in a while. Not Betty. When she’s not ignoring hers completely or telling them to go away and watch TV, she’s shutting them in closets, telling them to go bang their heads against a wall, or force-feeding them sweet potatoes in front of her new in-laws. But perhaps the worst thing she’s ever done was petulantly fire Carla, the maid who was the closest thing to a loving caregiver those poor kids ever had.



1. Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), The Sopranos: She’ll probably end up on every bad mom list you’ll see, and she’ll even probably come in at #1 on most. That’s what happens when you compare your children to dogs, fake a stroke to manipulate the entire family, ruin your daughter-in-law’s relationship with her own family, make it clear you think your son will tire of his wife…yeah, Livia’s a peach. Until another TV mom tries to persuade family members to kill her own son, Livia’s likely to be the undisputed queen of the damned. Where’s the Hallmark card that says, “I’m Glad We Got Over Your Putting a Hit Out on Me–Happy Mother’s Day?” In Livia’s cold, dead hands, that’s where.

She’s Rather Better When She’s Not Bionic: DOCTOR WHO Special “Planet of the Dead” on BBC America Tonight

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On the one hand, if you were with us in enjoying “The Next Doctor” but kind of wishing that the countdown to the Tenth Doctor’s demise was exhibiting a bit more…gravitas, buckle in for more of the same. Special #2, “Planet of the Dead,” belies its name a bit, being relatively light, fluffy, and chipper. On the other hand, if you need a Russell T Davies palate cleanser after an extremely dark week of Torchwood (who would have thunk it? All Torchwood needed to be good was consequences), “Planet of the Dead” might lighten your spirits.

“Planet of the Dead” finds the Doctor with a double-decker’s worth of passengers on a sandy, dangerous planet after the anomaly he’s tracking turns out to be a wormhole to another world. Way to leave the TARDIS behind, supergenius. It’s gaffes like that that serve to remind us that the Doctor works better with a companion by his side, and “POTD”‘s is a fun one: aristocratic cat thief Lady Christina de Souza. Having suffered through the Bionic Woman reboot, we were a little concerned to see Michelle Ryan cast in this key role, but she’s a delight here, prickly and smooth all at once. The landscapes, shot on location in Dubai, are glorious, and if the story is slight, well, it’s also fun. Davies promises that this is the last trifle on the menu, so enjoy it before the heavy entree arrives. Premiering (a word David Tennant apparently finds hilarious) tonight on BBC America at 8pm Eastern.

Well, That Title Is Just Mean: DOCTOR WHO Special “The Next Doctor” Airs on BBC America Tonight

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We may still be mourning David Tennant’s choice to move on from Doctor Who, but that’s not going to stop us from enjoying tonight’s US debut of last December’s Christmas special. Well, actually, it might–“The Next Doctor”‘s big climax is so ludicrous it’s hard not to feel a little cranky that we lose 20 percent of the short time we have left with the Tenth Doctor on it.

Still, Tennant has so much chemistry with guest star David Morrissey (previously seen with Tennant in Blackpool and with recent Master John Simm in the original BBC State of Play) that it’s hard not to be a little in love with this Victorian steampunk fantasia. The Doctor, traveling alone after the tragedy of losing Donna Noble, stumbles over a hero who insists he is…the Doctor. Since we know Morrissey isn’t actually the next doctor, who is he? The answer is a bit touching, and a certain sepia-toned moment is very touching. If that info stamp doesn’t get to you, I have some old-school Who DVDs to recommend. Ring in the holiday in style–TARDIS style, as you have to turn back the clock a bit–tonight on BBC America (who generally do a better job in terms of not cutting the episodes to ribbons) at 9pm Eastern. Tennant pops up on Graham Norton immediately after. The odds of a peculiar suit are high.

DOCTOR WHO News: Old Friends, New Companions

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For a show that’s taking a year’s hiatus (sort of), Doctor Who is making a lot of news this week:

  • BBC America announced it will be showing the specials that comprise that last stories involving David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. The 2008 Christmas special and 2009 Easter special–which have obviously already shown in the UK–will be on BBC America on June 27 and sometime in July, respectively, with the final three episodes to appear later.
  • Auntie Beeb announced the new companion who will be accompanying Matt Smith‘s Eleventh Doctor: little-known Scottish actress Karen Gillan. Gillan’s already appeared in the Whoniverse (as a soothsayer in last year’s “The Fires of Pompeii”) and…not much else. We like and want to trust new showrunner Steven Moffat, but it’s interesting to think that if you combine Smith’s and Gillan’s ages, they’re a whole year older than Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston.
  • BBC2 announced they’ll be filming a version of the Hamlet that Tennant appeared in last year alongside Patrick Stewart. The Baconeers can attest that the play was sixteen kinds of awesome (and also that both Tennant and Stewart might have been upstaged by Oliver Ford Davies’ terrific Polonius). This is exactly the kind of thing that shows up on US shores on Masterpiece Theater (e.g. Ian McKellan’s triumphant King Lear), so we won’t be surprised to see Hamlet wash up on American shores, too. Too bad Tennant’s hosting Masterpiece Contemporary instead of Masterpiece Classic.
  • Finally, outgoing showrunner Russell T Davies announced that Tennant’s Tenth Doctor will be popping up in one of the Sarah Jane Adventures stories this fall (a two-parter, no less!). Given how much Tennant seems to adore Elisabeth Sladen and Sarah Jane Smith, maybe this is the sendoff he should really get.

BBC Announces the Eleventh Doctor

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…and he’s probably not who you thought he was going to be.

After four more Russell T Davies-generated specials with David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, new producer Steven Moffat’s first series will kick off in 2010 with new Doctor Matt Smith. Producer Piers Wenger praises Smith’s fundamental “Doctor-ness.” We’ll all pretty much have to take his word for it, as the 26-year-old Smith doesn’t have an extensive film or television record to check out. I was not a fan of the glacially-paced adaptions of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby and the Smoke and The Shadow in the North (in which, emphasizing the incestuous nature of British television, he appeared with former Doctor Who companion Billie Piper), nor of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-but no-professional-ethics soap Secret Diary of a Call Girl (hey, look, there’s Piper again), but he has a strong stage record. He’s the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor (three years younger than Fifth Doctor Peter Davison was when he took the role); whether that’s a positive or a negative remains to be seen.

Smith has a year and a half to hear about what big Converse shoes he has to fill before his first episode airs, so wish him luck.

The Ten Best Television Moments of 2008

I’m one of those grouches who generally doesn’t love New Year’s Eve, spending the evening grousing in a corner about another year slipping away into the ether. In a lot of ways, however, 2008 has been great enough to kick me out of that rut. This year, we saw whales in two different oceans and camped with alligators and saw David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in Hamlet (side note: truly excellent) and touched Paul Revere’s headstone and made awesome Brussels sprouts and actually did workout programs. Heck, one of us even survived a hurricane and a week without power by washing dishes in rainwater while one of us had a chunk of her head removed and lived to tell the tale (should we give out prizes if you guess which was which?). Good year.

A lot of times, it didn’t feel like TV kept up–although we did (and still do) support the WGA in their strike, the repercussions slammed down 2008 TV pretty hard. We can’t say there’s a new show from the fall docket we actually, you know, watch, and that probably has a lot to do with the munched-up development season. We lost a bunch of old TV friends this year, too (shut up, ABC). Upon further reflection, however, we found plenty to celebrate in TV 2008.

This is only our list, of course, made up of shows that we watched. If your top ten list is different, feel free to leave a comment letting us know what we’ve egregiously omitted (or criminally overrated). Fair warning–any video or links may have spoilers.

10. Tina Fey asks whether the vice presidential debate will include a talent portion on Saturday Night Live (October 4 on NBC): It’s probably stretching things to suggest that a comedy show decided the US presidential election, but it’s hard to deny that David Letterman’s jilted outrage and Fey’s spot-on impression of Sarah Palin put the McCain/Palin campaign in an unenviable position: they moved from being candidates to lead a superpower to being punchlines. Fey might have done more to revitalize late-night comedy in a couple of months than she did in years as SNL‘s head writer.

9. Amber shuffles off this mortal coil after trying to do House a solid (“Wilson’s Heart,” May 19 on Fox): House is essentially a procedural, just one set in a hospital and with a really tremendous lead. House will guess the Disease of the Week is vasculitis about ten minutes in and then manufacture a crash cart crisis right before every commercial break. It really stands out, then, when they break that pattern, and they’ve never broken it like they did when they broke Wilson’s heart. Watching doctors who deal with life and death every day shed their professional armor to say goodbye to the colleague they can’t save gave us emotion we rarely see from this crew, and the resulting break-up between Wilson and House drove the fall run of the show. Part of the reason Hugh Laurie is so great on this show is because Robert Sean Leonard raises his game, and Mr. Leonard has never been better than here.

8. Shawn asks his (appalled) father for a pair of his underwear in an auto shop classroom on Psych (Murder?…Anyone?…Anyone?…Bueller?,” July 25 on USA): Maybe Psych is more fun for those of us old enough to remember all the pop culture gags the show tosses out at lightning speed. No episode had more of those gags than the one centering around Shawn and Gus’ 13-year (yes, you read that right) high school reunion, which was a cornucopia of 80s teen movie jokes. Having a reference to Abe Froman, Sausage King of Chicago, or ending the show with the Breakfast Club fist in the air is nice, but what really put us over the edge was Shawn bonding with Henry in a dark auto shop classroom…and then asking for his underwear in a Sixteen Candles homage so funny it makes us want to break into a chorus of “If You Were Here.” We wonder if Shawn’s long-lost mother will claim that she paid a buck to see Henry’s underwear at the dance.

7. Desmond finally finds Penny–or is it the other way around?–on Lost (“The Constant,” February 28 on ABC): I’m neither the biggest Lost fan around nor the biggest romantic, and even I got all teary at the end of this one. After an episode of bouncing dangerously through time and space revisiting his own past and salting in potential clues about physics and relativity, Desmond faces the same fate as others who have messed with the island: death by nosebleed and seizure. How is he able to avoid such a sorry end? He has a constant in time and space. Penny’s looking for him, too. In one quick scene, Lost gains more emotional momentum and satisfaction from an oft-referenced but rarely seen character than it does from many of its regulars.

6. Jason Lezak’s come-from-behind relay leg keeps Michael Phelps’–and NBC’s–Olympic dreams alive (4X100m freestyle relay, August 11 on NBC): The Beijing Olympics left a big footprint on the television landscape this year, and no athlete was more of a Sasquatch than 8-time-gold medalist Michael Phelps. We were able to learn more about his diet, his mother, and his dog, however, because his 32-year-old teammate, Jason Lezak, hunted down recent world record holder Alain Bernard of France to keep Phelps’ record hopes alive. Lezak made up half a body length in 25 meters and merely swam the fastest relay split in history. It wasn’t an implausible comeback–it was an impossible comback. And it was almost more fun to watch Phelps scream his teammate to victory just like we were than it was to watch Phelps swim.

5. Crews and Reese find unhappy surprises in trunks scattered across LA in the season opener of Life (“Find Your Happy Place,” September 29 on NBC): Other detective shows focus on how ugly the world can be. Life is different because it focuses instead on how unsettling the world can be. A nearly dialogue-free opening with our heroes helplessly opening trunk after trunk containing dead bodies underscores why the conspiracy hiding who framed Charlie Crews is so important. In a world so unsettling, we need Charlie Crews (and Dani Reese) to find the bad guys and keep us safe…but Charlie isn’t even able to protect himself, not even with a Zen attitude and a lot of fruit. The typically brilliant musical choice accompanying the scene–Gram Rabbit’s “Devil’s Playground” –says it all: the mean streets aren’t so cheap as to just murder you. They’ll play with you first. Better hope Charlie is there to help.

4. Chuck hears her mother talk about giving birth to her on Pushing Daisies (“Oh Oh Oh…It’s Magic!,” October 29 on ABC): Lonely Tourist Charlotte Charles can occasionally be a little grating (did you see that? Did you see how I slipped that little cheese pun in there? Hello?) in her insistence that everyone be as fascinated by their origins as she is. Still, given that her boyfriend accidentally killed her father with his magic finger and she’s only recently discovered that the aunt who raised her is actually her mother, Chuck’s obsession with her family tree is understandable. The end of this episode, with ever-patient third-wheel Olive wearing a wire and asking Aunt/Mother Lily an eavesdropping Chuck’s questions, gave us a window into how much these bits of information mean. We can’t put too fine a point on it: Chuck, who was told her mother died giving birth to her, is able to hear her mother say she knew her baby was an angel. It would have softened us toward Chuck’s perspective, but we were too busy crying our little hearts out with her. (And did Olive retreating to fantasy love while singing “Eternal Flame” make us cry, too? Maybe. A little. Hush, you.)

3. The TARDIS tows the Earth home on Doctor Who (“Journey’s End,” July 5 on BBC One; August 1 on Sci Fi): Doctor Who‘s season finales can be…a bit messy, and this one was no exception. Several old buddies didn’t really do much plot-wise but get in the way (really, what were the odds Martha Jones was going to use the Osterhagen Key?), but they needed to be there for one purpose: they needed to be there so we could see the TARDIS fully staffed, flown the ways TARDISes are meant to be flown. For one glorious moment, the TARDIS is viewed in all of its potential, with all of its might–it’s towing a planet. And it can because it’s piloted by a family, restoring to the Doctor so much of what he’s lost. Yes, the end of Donna’s story minutes later is crushing, but it hurts so good because everything was singing so beautifully such a short time before. From this point forward, every time we see the Doctor running around the TARDIS’ console and hitting things with sledgehammers, we’ll miss this moment, and something so indelible in a show that is so much about how things change is special.

2. David Simon and Co. say goodbye to Baltimore to close the series finale of The Wire (“-30-,” March 9 on HBO): One of television’s greatest achievements, The Wire revisited over and over again the idea that unless institutions change, the same patterns of poverty and corruption will keep destroying people’s lives. Perhaps the most amazing thing, however, was that in the midst of that soul-deadening truth, both the show and the viewers found characters to love, the most notable of which was Baltimore itself. The series-closing montage showed us not only where each of our beloved characters ended up (sweet merciful crap, how did he become police commisioner?!? The circle really is unbroken), but also the beauty and pain of the city they loved in so many different ways. I’ll never love a dining room table as much as I did in this moment of watching television.

1. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech (November 4 on various networks): Regardless of your political leanings, the sight of as many as a quarter of a million people crowding into Grant Park to hear the newly elected US president was a spectacle made for television. At the same time, the sight of sheets of bulletproof glass separating said newly elected president from the people he will represent is the kind of thing politicians used to be able to hide before the advent of television. Can you imagine FDR keeping his health issues a secret if there had been 24-hour news channels in his day? The thing that makes television different from other medium is the shared nature of the experience–millions of people might see the same film, but they don’t do it all at the same time. Obama’s acceptance speech, so rousing that researchers are using it to try to study emotional elevation, would likely have affected people anyway, but the exponential expansion of that elevation that comes from sharing it with millions of other people comes thanks to television. And the inability to hide things less elevating, things that still need fixing, is in many ways thanks to the real-time, moving pictures television is able to provide. There’s some talk that web-based communication will supplant this function, but I’m not sure texts can ever create elevation the same way watching history unfold can. Even in a television year that may not have been historic itself, this kind of participatory history gives us something to celebrate about television.

PUSHING DAISIES “Robbing Hood”: I Like Your Moxie, Sassafras

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“Robbing Hood” may not have been top-shelf pie, what with the overarching Dwight Dixon story crushing a lesser Mystery of the Week. Since Susannah and I were sitting on the couch knitting after a day of holiday-induced stress baking as Emerson’s mechanical yarn swift wound, however, we’re going to give it a pass. While we acknowledge the gifts we were knitting may end up unwanted, we don’t really consider ourselves frustrated grannies.

Ned’s amusing encounter with a roomful of hunting trophies (cleverly staged so Ned has antlers in the opening shot and an off-stage roar caps the joke) makes us wonder what else he can’t touch. We’ve seen him revive rotten fruit and subsequently choke on his own pie, but what other rules govern his power? Do items have to be essentially in their original form, even if horribly mangled? Or does Ned have to avoid leather shoes and cotton T-shirts?

We can’t concentrate on such deep questions–or even what might be in Charles Charles’ grave, the cruelest cliff we’ve hung on since late-season Doctor Who–for very long when Olive is marching around with a pig doing a Zsa Zsa Gabor impression and Aunt Lily is talking about Tinkerbell’s tiny buttcheeks. Even when an episode isn’t firing on all cylinders, we like their moxie.

It’s Really Real This Time: David Tennant Leaving WHO

It’s official. Our worst Doctor Who fears have been realized. David Tennant is vacating the TARDIS after filming four more specials, to air in 2009 and early 2010. That’s right, we’ve got this year’s Christmas special (airing in the U.K. on Dec. 25), followed by four more specials and then that’s it. Five measly hours before we have to say goodbye to our favorite Doctor.

And just so there would be no denying the cold, hard truth, Tennant made the announcement himself, during his acceptance speech at Britain’s National Television Awards.

“I love this part,” Tennant said, speaking via satellite from the stage door of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre, where he was literally in the middle of a performance of Hamlet (well, in the middle of intermission). “And I love this show so much that if I don’t take a deep breath and move on now I never will, and you’ll be wheeling me out of the TARDIS in my bath chair.”

Tennant has cunningly timed his departure to coincide with the end of executive producer Russell T Davies’ tenure at the helm of Who. In a BBC statement he says that he “always thought the time to leave would be in conjunction with Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner who have been such a huge part of it all for me. Steven Moffat is the most brilliant and exciting writer, the only possible successor to Russell and it was sorely tempting to be part of his amazing new plans for the show. I will be there, glued to my TV when his stories begin in 2010.”

I suppose congratulations are in order for, you know, winning the NTA awards and all, but it’s hard to get excited about much of anything now that our Doctor Who hearts have been broken.

If anyone needs us, we’ll be curled up in the corner watching “Journey’s End” on a continuous loop and weeping uncontrollably.

Why HEROES Is Killing Me

The Baconeers like comic books. We get it. We’ve been to Comic-Con more than once and read Brian K. Vaughn’s website and are dying to see what happens next in Powers and are worried about the Watchmen movie and are excited that Pia Guerra is drawing the new Doctor Who comic. I once cried like a baby while reading Runaways (it was something the Leapfrog said. Shut up.). Really–we like comic books. Heck, we’re even very fond of Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb together. So it’s not an anti-comic worldview that leaves us easily irritated with Heroes. In fact, we wonder if it’s just the opposite–maybe it’s that we’re familiar with comic book structure and find it’s not working very well on TV…or maybe just on Heroes (even with Loeb and Sale on the team).

So we try to avoid Heroes, because, to be perfectly frank, we haven’t got time for the pain. There are too many characters complaining too often about having superpowers, for heaven’s sake, and making too many stupid choices about too many alternate universes (I’m especially fond of Alan Sepinwall’s assertion that if you give either Peter or Mohinder any two choices in the world, they will pick the wrong one). Even Hiro seems to have the special power to get dumber every time he uses his superpower, which is just about the end of things as it ruins the only character worth rooting for.

Why, then, can you catch me tuning in to Heroes on a fairly regular basis? In spite of accusations of masochism (which may not be entirely unfounded), it’s because they’re as good at casting as they are bad at telling a story that makes any sense. Starting in Season 1 with the reveal of Malcolm McDowell as an ultmate baddie, the show has larded in more characters than any three shows could handle–but they’ve gotten some of the most engaging actors around to play them. Veronica Mars love means we’ll follow Kristen Bell almost anywhere–even to Heroes. We got a kick out of the brief reunion with Level 5 villain Francis Capra (Mars‘ Weevil). Dana Davis‘ upcoming turn on Pushing Daisies reminds us that her Monica disappeared into the Heroes void to make more space for characters like Maya (sigh). Jamie Hector has brought his scary smoothness over from The Wire, and he was joined recently by former castmate and TV Bacon’s top Emmy vote-getter this year, the wonderful Andre Royo…who was promptly sucked into his own vortex just as we got to know him. Now they’ve topped themselves by introducing Robert Forster as Arthur Petrelli. This season has been a lot about the questionable family ties in the Petrelli family, and I’m guessing this means Peter isn’t really a Petrelli–Robert Forster can act.

Please, Heroes, we’re begging you–either figure out how to translate comic book grammar to the small screen, or start pulling cast from The Hills and put us out of our misery.