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Doctor Who: Season One (2005)
Executive Producer: Russell T. Davies
reviews by Patrick Hudson
Regenerating Doctor Who for the 21st century was never going to be an easy task. While he might have fought off Daleks, Cybermen and even the Loch Ness Monster, the fickle viewer of modern TV was always going to be one of his greatest enemies. We now live in the age of the instant repeat, a time when ephemerality has been replaced with saturation. When I watched Doctor Who as a child, you were limited to 30 never-to-be-repeated minutes of satori; if you missed it then it was gone forever, you would never see it. As well as making us more anxious not miss it; this made us a less critical audience. We didn't have time to notice creaky effects, poor acting, or longueurs in the script, because every moment disappeared forever as we watched. After the cliffhanger, we were left with only our memories with which to relive those magical minutes, and memory being what it is could only lend those moments gloss and glamour.
In contrast to the sparse offerings of TV when I was growing up, there is a plethora of options open to today's TV viewer, and BBC-1 no longer represents a third of all potential viewing. The fragmentation of the viewing audience has led fantasy TV - perhaps all genre drama broadcasting, in fact - to change enormously in form and content since the heydays of Doctor Who. Star Trek led the way, unintentionally at first, by producing a series of franchise shows that took the broad appeal of the original Star Trek, and boiled it down into something only Trekkies could love. With audiences fragmenting anyway, the producers concentrated on building a smaller, dedicated following rather than mass audiences that the original series enjoyed, and so Star Trek became a show about itself rather than about the outside world.
Other genre shows have followed this pattern - The X-Files, Farscape, Stargate: SG 1 and, most deliberately, Buffy The Vampire Slayer all created deep universes that bring the background into the foreground. Characters have gained complex back-stories and tortuous development arcs, rather than being the unchanging ciphers of a previous era. Their universes are now dynamic, open to change and development, ruled by a serial paradigm rather than the one-off nature of the fantasy shows of an earlier era. Of the big fantasy shows of the 1990s, only Xena - Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys seemed happy to stick with the old format, and neither of them have had the longevity or the ongoing appeal of their rivals.
On top of challenges caused by changes in the form and medium, Doctor Who does not exist in the vacuum of a new show. As well as the childhood memories of millions, there is an active and idiosyncratic fandom that brings its own expectations to any new Doctor Who project. This is not such a new phenomenon, and Star Trek had to face its own vocal fans when it was revived with Star Trek: The Next Generation. There is now 20 years worth of books and audio recordings of further Doctor Who adventures, some of which take the franchise well into unexplored territory, sometimes dealing with adult subject matter in an adult manner. This makes it difficult for some of those who seek a return of Doctor Who most urgently to be able to accept it for what it once was, a children's series of thrilling fantasy adventure.
The first attempt to revive Doctor Who was a single TV movie in 1996, at the time rather hopefully labelled a 'pilot', and dependent on American backing to ensure its continuation. It was not, it must be said, an exceptional piece of genre TV. The plot was gappy, the transplant to America felt wrong and over-reliance on stunts and chase scenes made the whole thing a little tedious. However, Paul McGann was good in the role of the Doctor, Eric Roberts did a nice job with the Master and Daphne Ashbrook showed some promise as an assistant. Given a series, it may well have developed into a vital, new franchise.
But, of course, it wasn't given a series. So, the BBC did the right thing when they commissioned an entire series for the latest revival. On its own, the first episode, Rose, would not have been sufficient to convince that the Doctor was back and strong. What it did do, however, was lay down a few ground rules that give every reason to be very hopeful.
First and foremost - and a personal bêete noire of mine - the Doctor is not a posh luvvie in a frock coat. The posh Doctor in the funny outfit is not really a core part of the series, but became an overdone cliché before Paul McGann glammed it up in 1996. Notice the captains in the various Star Trek series: rather than stick to Shatneroids (a scary concept) they wisely made each an individual. Eccleston is excellent as the Doctor, playing it totally straight and giving the character real depth rather than relying on annoying surface eccentricity. We're only keeping him for one season though, as we now know, and at the first sign of a RADA accent or a frock coat, I'll start a bombing campaign.
The second good mark was way it managed to keep the true to the premise and history of Doctor Who without leaning on continuity to prop it up. This series required no previous experience of the earlier shows and quickly established the familiar essentials. At the same time it picked over the rich past and plucked bits and pieces as it needed them, in particular with the return of the Daleks. I am reliably informed that there are plot elements and casual asides that include even the New Adventures and Big Finish audio products. This clever balancing act between the past and future has won over both old fans and new viewers, an achievement that was crucial to the show's success.
The third point in favour of the series is the change of format from half hour episodes, to 45-minute slots. This America-friendly format has helped the show sell in overseas. I suppose it's a reflection of our times that a populist genre show has to make money if it is to be deemed successful and worth continuing.
Curmudgeonliness aside, 45 minutes is an excellent episode length, the same as two old episodes put together. There are signs that the creative team has struggled to find the pacing the format demands, and some stories suffered from slack - such as the long, long finale in Dalek or the bathetic presence of The Editor in The Long Game. When the series hits its stride, however, it is used masterfully to ratchet up the tension and suspense. When you unpick it, though, the structure is very similar to the old show. The Aliens Over London and World War Three two-parter definitely felt like a four-episode story from the old days, and even had a cliffhanger in the middle of each part.
One innovation, though, has been to 'shuffle' episodes throughout the series: if you took Dalek, The Long Game, Bad Wolf and A Parting Of The Ways they would make a good old six-parter, with Adam being an early supporting-cast death. It's subtle stuff like that this that shows the expertise and experience at work in the new series: these aren't just Doctor Who fans, they are savvy TV professionals doing what they do best.
The series is a considered mix of one-offs and two-parters, forming a good overall rhythm, and it is only gradually that the longer story arc becomes clear. Maybe it's a bit of an exaggeration to call it an 'arc' as it only really affects a few of the earlier episodes in very minor ways, but the hints build into a fantastic climax that left me hungry for the Christmas special.
As the title Rose suggests, the opening episode very much belonged to Billie Piper as the Doctor's new assistant. She made a good viewpoint character, leading the viewer through the wild crazy world of the Doctor, and we shared her sense of discovery and wonder. Piper does a good job with the part, which has more dramatic content than the typical ask-questions-and-get-menaced-by-monsters assistant of days gone by, although those things still seem to be a big part of the role. She's a young and relatively untested performer, despite being in the public eye for so long, so her acting was a little shaky in the beginning, when the forced 'cocker-ney' accent seemed to be getting between her and a good performance. When she found the voice, though, she was utterly convincing and dynamic, proactive character.
The plot of this episode was very thin, and much went unexplained, expecting the viewers to fill in the gaps of the invasion story while concentrating on the running around. The climax was particularly weak, with the Doctor spending too much time reasoning with the monster and then struggling with the Autons when we all knew he was going to have to resort to blue liquid of death he pulled from his pocket at the last minute. On the whole, however, it was a successful introduction to the concepts of Doctor Who and the intentions of the programme makers.
The second episode, The End Of The World, takes us far into the future where the Doctor and Rose foil an attempt to sabotage a party being held to witness the destruction of the Earth by the Sun as it expands into red giant phase. This wasn't the strong second episode the show needed, relying too much on some sub-Hitchhiker's Guide drollery and a somewhat contrived murder-conspiracy plot, but it did demonstrate an intention not to shy away from the weirder side of things. It also expanded slightly on the Doctor's origins, throwing out hints about a traumatic 'time war' in the Doctor's past.
The third episode The Unquiet Dead is, despite it's dreadful title, the best so far. Set in Victorian Cardiff, it combines three great British flavours to great effect - costume drama, Hammer-style gothic and a Quatermass-influenced alien. There are moments of real horror here that were missing from the first couple of episodes. It's true that the 'twist' is kind of predictable, but even so it is enjoyably deployed and the action is nicely paced. Simon Callow did his Charles Dickens routine with considerable aplomb, and the part was a vital part of the story rather than a costume drama namecheck. Wouldn't Dickens have made a brilliant companion?
Episode four Aliens Over London is the first of a two-parter, and the first where I felt myself to be in truly familiar territory. The alien invasion plot is pleasingly cheesy, and the episode emphasises a fast-moving plot, some good scares and a more than a few fart jokes. We also regrettably, see the return of dodgy special effects, as the aliens - the Slitheen - look stagey in both CGI and full-size costumed version, but good photography and editing made up a little for the unconvincing effects. A very pleasant surprise was a neat Alan Moore-ish take on the Doctor and assistant relationship with the return of Rose's family and boyfriend from episode one, and a look at their reactions to her new time-travelling lifestyle. This episode ran relentlessly to its cliffhanger climax and left me with a real feeling of anticipation as the final credits rolled.
World War Three completes the story at, if anything, an even more hectic pace. The Doctor races through a few tense set-pieces before finding himself trapped in a room in the middle of 10 Downing Street with Rose and the earnest MP from the previous episode. The 'topical' gags grate a little and Mickey saves the day through a particularly bogus piece of Internet-fu under instruction from the Doctor over a mobile phone. It was a great finale to an exciting first part, but its impact was a little overshadowed by the trailer following the original broadcast episode, which featured a familiar silhouette and a single repeated word: "Exterminate! Exterminate!"
Episode six sees the highly anticipated return of an old foe in the eponymous Dalek. In this episode the creative team confronted the spectre of old Who face-to-face! What could there be to say about the Daleks that's new? Well, there was a lot of publicity that (gasp!) the Daleks could now fly up stairs (an ability they first demonstrated in Remembrance Of The Daleks in 1988, in fact) but the writers had more than chase scenes in stairwells in mind. Admittedly, there is a chase in stairwell and it's fair to say I think that the whole flying thing was rather overdone, but much more rewarding was the clever storyline. Rather than a bug-eyed death machine, the Dalek here is played for smarts - there's a brain in there, after all, and they're even scarier when they start thinking. I won't give away anything more about this one, but it is very well conceived and clever re-introduction for the Daleks, even if the finale is a little drawn out.
This episode also sees the introduction of Adam, who joins Rose and the Doctor, then passes through the next episode in a subplot as a sort of short-term companion. One of the things I like about this new series is the way that the producers have extended the definition of 'companion' by allowing some continuity between episodes, and introducing Mickey and Rose's mother Jackie. Rose is the 'core' companion, while Mickey and Jackie are around to help (or get into trouble) in the Earth-based stories, and others come and go as required. I suppose Jackie and Mickey are the UNIT of Eccleston's Doctor, and my inner curmudgeon wonders if it's a sign of the times that the upper-middle class world of the elite military has been replaced with a working class family?
Maybe it's an extension of the supporting cast in the previous version of the show, as those six-episode stories had very well developed supporting casts. Adam and Jack aren't really companions in the same way that Rose is, but they are more than supporting cast like Lynda-with-a-Y from Bad Wolf and A Parting Of The Ways, which adds a level of drama to the series that wasn't really possible before.
After that, expectations were high, but I was somewhat disappointed by The Long Game. Simon Pegg guest stars as a dictator in a hi-tech media tyranny in the year 200,000 AD, where the Doctor and Rose come to have a look around. The Doctor senses something wrong, and it's quickly apparent that that the human race has been manipulated from outside of time. This story doesn't quite work - the villain's plan is maybe a little too nefarious and insufficiently visceral, and Simon Pegg (a terrific actor) doesn't have much to do as The Editor except rant and rave - I'd liked to have seen him messing it up with the Doctor much earlier. Although this is one of the weaker squibs in the Doctor Who cracker box, it sets up some important stuff that's yet to come.
After this, however, the series really hit its stride with three knockout episodes in a row. Father's Day has Rose going back in time to the 1980s to be with her father on the day he died when she was just a little baby. She, of course, cannot resist saving his life and which causes hideous time monsters that feed on the anomaly in the timeline and begin eating up the damaged reality. How the Earth is saved is at once sad and inevitable - you'll see it coming, but that's not the point, is it? While we might have asked for a little more monster and a little less kitchen sink, this story has real emotional clout that demonstrates how fantasy can be used to tell stories of ordinary emotions and everyday life.
The series' second two-parter is set in London during the blitz. In the opening episode The Empty Child, the Doctor leaves the TARDIS on the trail of a UFO, instructing Rose to keep out of trouble. Soon she's hanging by a rope from a barrage balloon hundreds of feet over London during a German air raid, so no surprises there. The first part introduces Nancy, a teenage girl caring for various waifs and strays living on the streets while the bombs fall, who is haunted by the ghost of a young boy asking for its mother. More importantly, we are introduced the Captain Jack Harkness, a charismatic rogure from the 25th century, who joins the Doctor and Rose at the end of the episode when his own time-ship is destroyed. Part two, The Doctor Dances provides a scientific - or at least science fictional - explanation for the spooky goings-on and ends with a brilliant and touching climax. This two-parter is the highlight of the series, a superb mix of creepiness, heart and spectacle.
It's a hard act to follow and Boomtown doesn't try too hard. This single episode sees the return of the Slitheen from Aliens Over London and World War Three. One of them has survived, it seems, and has dark designs on Cardiff, which has been weakened as a consequence of the events in The Unquiet Dead. We see some more development in the romantic subplot between Rose and Mickey, and something of a macho rivalry between the Doctor and Captain Jack. The character play keeps things moving, although the plot is somewhat uninspiring. The what's-her-name actress is pleasingly snakelike as the manipulating Slitheen, but it's hard to take her threat very seriously. However, this episode is just the lead-in for what's to come.
It's at this point that the Doctor and Rose make overt reference to 'Bad Wolf', a phrase that has followed them throughout the series in hints and asides. In a strange, fourth-wall breaking interlude they soliloquise to camera: what is Bad Wolf? Having dropped hints throughout the series, the last two episodes are set up to deliver on the aura of menace and mystery associated with the name.
Bad Wolf begins with the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack each waking up in the midst of well-known reality shows. The Doctor finds himself a tenant of the Big Brother house, Rose is a contestant on The Weakest Link, and Captain Jack undergoes a What Not To Wear makeover from Trinny and Susannah. However, these futuristic versions are hosted robotic versions of the familiar presenters, voiced by the originals themselves, with fatal consequences for the losers. This is less funny than it sounds, and will date fast, but I suppose Doctor Who has always been of its time, so why not? The show doesn't dwell too much on TV satire before the protagonists begin plotting ways out, and Captain Jack's escape from Trinny and Susannah is particularly satisfying. However, it soon becomes clear that there is something else going on, and the Bad Wolf comes out again in the shape of the Bad Wolf Broadcasting Corporation.
To talk about the rest of the series, I must reveal things that will spoil the show for you if you haven't already seen it, more even than I have done already. If you haven't watched the whole series yet, I suggest you stop reading this review and do so.
I'm serious. A huge part of the pleasure of watching this series unfold has been the cliffhangers and suspense, the tastiest ingredients of the old recipe. It's unavoidable to reveal that the Doctor somehow averts disaster each time, but that is stating the obvious. Equally obvious is that Christopher Eccleston regenerates into David Tennant, as I'm sure every TV fantasy fan already knows. On the most basic level, Rose survives until the end of the series and so all those seemingly fatal traps somehow end up with her escaping, but it's the 'how' that's interesting not the what. In the finale, however, the 'what' becomes interesting again. The title A Parting Of The Ways suggests big changes in the series, and how you react to them will colour your experience of the whole thing.
In a way, I think the entire series was planned as a one-off with an opening for more, if it was well received. It was something of a gamble, after all, and the precedent set in 1996 wasn't especially good. If it had bombed, and there had been no second series, it would stand alone as a complete cycle, if you like, encompassing (in abbreviated form) the entire career of on Doctor and a series of companions. In fact, the BBC is publishing a series of novels outlining the 'lost' adventures of the Doctor and Rose, including more material on Adam and Captain Jack, and I'm sure David Tennant would have appeared in future novels and audio books, as Paul McGann did, even if a second and third series hadn't been commissioned.
So, stop here and, if you haven't already, go watch the series to the end. Come back and then you can compare your own experiences to mine. Is that clear? Because after this the gloves are off and it's all spoilers all the time...
The big enemy is the Daleks. The Emperor survived the time war by hiding out in 'dark space' behind reality, or something, and has been using the contestants beamed out of the game shows to make more Daleks. The end of episode sees Rose kidnapped by a huge army of half a million Daleks parked off the side of the moon, and the Doctor swearing vengeance.
This is another superb cliffhanger that led me to avoid the Internet for a week on the chance that I'd read something that gave the game away. The BBC showed special trailers, different on each day of the week and I avoided them, too. The tabloids had puff-pieces and stills from the episodes and I avoided looking at them over the shoulders of other commuters on the train.
When the episode finally arrived, after a week of almost schoolboy-ish anticipation, it more than repaid my puritanical efforts. The end is exciting, dramatic and touching, and leads nicely into the new incarnation of the Doctor. This moving and exciting finale is a fantastic swan song for Eccleston. It completes an interesting character arc for the Doctor exploring his hatred for the Daleks and survivor's guilt from the Time War. When given the choice of destroying the Earth or letting the Daleks live, his love for humanity overcomes his hatred for the Daleks and he can't destroy Earth.
At this moment of redemptive epiphany, a god, quite literally steps out of the machine and saves the day in a flagrant and outrageous deus ex machina. While it's easy to dismiss the 'Tardis saves the day!' climax, it is pre-figured in Boomtown and hard won by Rose, which creates a natural and moving ending.
This is an excellent revival of Doctor Who. Some brave decisions have been made and carried through with confidence and aplomb. The producers have managed to navigate the line of 'family viewing', which is too often a euphemism for 'unsuitable for anyone over the age of ten' and created a show that works for all ages, if a little scary for the wee ones. While there is the odd rough patch, it is easily the equal of its predecessor, both technically and dramatically. If they can keep up this level of quality as David Tennant takes over we will have a new Doctor Who that will fascinate and terrify youngsters for a few more generations.
Doctor Who: season 1
DVD boxset released
21 November 2005
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