Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why Smallville Is Not Doctor Who

It's been a while since I've watched an episode of Smallville; I haven't actually checked, because I don't care that much about the show, but I think the last episode I watched in its entirety was the third or fourth episode of Season One. But when I heard that the last episode would be airing on Friday night, I felt that there'd be a certain poetic symmetry in watching only the first(-ish) and the last episodes. Plus, given the reputation that the series has gotten over the last ten years, I figured that I'd be onto something good by skipping the ten seasons of hinting, teasing and stalling and getting straight to his transformation into Superman.

You may now laugh.

As it turned out, even the grand, huge, epic "finale" to Smallville was an exercise in drawing out the thin gruel of a story it had been subsisting on for the last decade. Everything was about not changing, about not surprising, about giving its viewers as close to the same experience as they could get without violating the show's mandate of demonstrating how Clark Kent became Superman. There were reset buttons a-plenty, retcons and reappearances, and massive dodges (I someday want to explain to television writers that legally, you're married when you sign the marriage certificate. Failure to say, "I do" means diddly-squat in the eyes of the law.) And in the end, we never really even got to see Superman; there were a few CGI sequences with the character shown from a distance, but in the end, they were driven by the need to keep things the way they'd always been. "No tights, no flights," the unbreakable rule of the series.

And then, the next night, I watched "The Doctor's Wife". And while I won't spoil anything, because the episode is very wonderful, very surprising, and many people probably haven't seen it yet, I will say that it is the epitome of everything that Doctor Who is and everything that Smallville isn't. Instead of being an "epic game-changer" that really doesn't change anything, not even really the things it's obligated to change...this was a normal, everyday, stand-alone non-arc episode that just happened to transform everything you thought you knew about forty-eight years of the series. And it did it almost casually.

Doctor Who is, and always has been like that. It's never been afraid to reinvent itself, not even after forty-eight years. It's a bold, inventive show that has no boundaries, no self-imposed rules, and no orthodoxies to uphold. That's why it attracted a writer of the caliber of Neil Gaiman, whereas Smallville has had to content itself with Geoff Johns and Jeph Loeb. That's why it's still going and why I don't think it'll ever stop. Because it's a show that can do anything...and one that will do anything.


Anonymous said...

"that just happened to transform everything you thought you knew about forty-eight years of the series"

No. Nice episode, but "transform everything you thought you knew"?

Not even close.

John Seavey said...

Absolutely yes. The idea that it was the TARDIS who stole the Doctor, rather than the other way around, is a radical reinterpretation of the text. It has been assumed, all this time, that the Doctor has been the instigator of his own actions--that the TARDIS, even if "alive", as has been assumed since the 3rd Doctor era, even if "sentient", as has been assumed since about the mid-to-late 80s, is essentially the equivalent of a faithful pet or a trusty steed. The TARDIS has been seen as KITT from 'Knight Rider', Silver from 'The Lone Ranger' accessory to the Doctor, nothing more.

Whereas Gaiman inverts the entire concept. According to IDRIS, she's been the one who has been setting the destinations, she's been the one who's set the Doctor's path through time and space. He's still a hero, of course; he decides to walk out the TARDIS doors when she lands. But Gaiman's change is a fundamental and universal one.

Anonymous said...

A slight mistake -- what you are describing is NOT the difference between Doctor Who and Smallville.

What you are describing is the difference between serious British television series and serious American television series.

Read interviews with British actors who have worked on both British series and American series, such as Hugh Lorie, and you will get a sense of the small yet deeply significant differences between the British and American approaches to dramatic series in general and to serious SF/fantasy series in particular.