The thing about a series like Doctor Who -- more so in the classic series, less so with the current one, but still true -- is that what makes what is essentially a children's show appeal to adults is the subtext. It's in the knowingness in an actor's eyes, in the unspoken volumes that are nevertheless palpable in the interaction between characters. Take that visual element out of the equation, and it suddenly becomes screamingly clear that, yup, Doctor Who really is a kiddie show.
Not that David Tennant and Freema Agyeman aren't giving their all here as the voices of the Doctor and Martha in this animated series, which aired on CBBC -- Children's BBC -- in the spring of 2007. They are indeed very Doctor-ish and Martha-ish, but it's the ish that makes all the difference. Little kids will get a kick out of this, and if it introduces them to Doctor Who, all the better. Casual grownup fans will be bored. Seriously and intensely geeky grownup fans will be disappointed, because we want to love all iterations of Doctor Who, and The Infinite Quest, just out from BBC Video, proves that that isn't possible.
Part of the problem, too, is that what first aired as a series of three-minute episodes that were spread out over the course of 12 weeks are here run together in one 45-minute blast. These would have been mildly diverting in that original presentation, or even as online episodes -- in fact, the animation has a feel of Flash about, gorgeously rendered imagery that gets choppy as soon as it's in motion. But as one uninterrupted story, it's all over the place. It's crammed with cool science-fictional ideas, but almost nothing that actual fans of SF won't have encountered before (good for introducing kiddies to these concepts, but not for thrilling fans steeped in the genre both in print and on the screen).
There's a baddie called Baltazar (the voice of Anthony Head, you know, from Buffy and the "School Reunion" episode ) who wants to turn Earth into diamonds. Don't ask; it's his evil plan, okay? And piled on top of that are subplots and diversions concerning space pirates and the end of oil in the universe and a giant royal insect and a legendary starship. It's all a bit Starship Troopers, a bit Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and an awful lot of recycling of snippets of dialogue from the proper Doctor Who.
Most interesting, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the bonus features, which include interviews with Tennant, Agyeman ("Me in animation was out of this world!" she enthuses), Head, and others. They play for the camera in the behind-the-scenes featurette on the cast -- "Cup of black coffee and a deep breath, that's what I do," Tennant says with a wink for us when another actor asks him for voice acting advice -- but they're playing for themselves in the video segments of the recording sessions for two of the episodes. Here, we get to watch their faces as they act out their lines. Their cartoon avatars are nowhere near as, well, animated.
MaryAnn Johanson (email me)
film reviews and TV blogging at FlickFilosopher.com