Twenty-six seasons spanning back to 1963. The day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, in fact. 160 episodes, if you count a made-for-TV movie. Countless books, radio programs and internet promotions. An entire slice of British popular cult culture, as ingrained to them as Monty Python and James Bond.
Yeah, I wasn’t there for any of it. Blame Star Trek.
Oh, sure, there was a part of my peripheral awareness that the phenomenon known as Doctor Who existed, and I’m sure that I even picked up one of the novels back in the day (June 19, 1989). But the premise of some goofy time traveling… something-or-another, who leaps around in a dorky police box without phasers or blasters, and does goody two-shoes stuff wasn’t enough to grab me. I somehow went on with my life, unaware that at the same time, a man known as Kyle Mares would be eating all this up like pop culture turkey. Gobble gobble.
It’s a beautiful thing that after an almost 16 year departure from TV (save for the aforementioned telemovie), Doctor Who came back and I was there to be swept up in its affably weird arms. Who would’ve thought that the BBC, long known to as producers of horribly cheap-looking sets and soap opera-style acting, would actually pump a decent budget into something like this, and then enlist some fairly brilliant writers and actors to get it off the ground?
Cue 2005, and a pseudo-reboot of the Doctor Who franchise. After a long and boring tale of legal and production woes, the BBC gave the go-ahead for a revamp of one of the Isles’ top three pop culture staples (the others being Monty Python and James Bond). The show would be cleaned up — some of the past elements would be eliminated, changed or radically updated — but the essence of Whoville would remain. Instead of calling it Doctor Who Season 27, it became Doctor Who Series One… and it blows Star Trek right out of the water.
“Rose, before I go I just wanna tell you – you were fantastic… absolutely fantastic… and d’you know what? So was I.”
It’s 2005. Roll with it. A pretty and pouty Billy Piper is a girl named Rose, who exists in a rather sub-average life in London. This all changes one day as she encounters The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), who is in the middle of battling a fiendish plot that involves animated mannequins invading London. Aliens are afoot, dear Watson!
Since Series One was designed to reintroduce Doctor Who to a new generation of fans as well as appeasing the older ones, Rose is designed to be our tour guide as we travel between normalicy and the wacky world of Time Lords and their pet sonic screwdrivers. We’re not expected to know squat about the Who universe – just to enjoy the ride while they bring us up to speed. Series One as a whole is all about bringing us up to speed.
As we find out, The Doctor is the last surviving member of an ancient and powerful alien race known as Time Lords. He somehow escapes the rest of his people’s fate with the help of his trusty TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) — a spaceship/time machine that’s both alive and takes the form of a 1950’s British police call box. His mission? To use his powers and abilities to help as many people as he can… and also to have a whole heap of fun.
By the end of the first episode, Rose is entranced with the off-kilter Doctor, and decides to abandon her boyfriend, mother and job to go off on a series of adventures with him. This triggered one of my favorite aspects of this show, and one which was completely unexpected: Doctor Who remembers its past, and the past has consequences on the future.
Let me clarify. In Star Trek, for example, there’s very little connecting Episode A with Episode B, as the original mandate for the series was that each episode would end roughly where it began. The plot would be tidied up, the characters learn some important lesson, and an anomaly that we’ll never see again would be given the boot. The past was only referenced when convenient for some plot point or amusing nostalgia, but really, any overarching story lines moved at a snail’s pace and hardly ever had anything greater to do with This Week’s Episode. While later incarnations of Trek (such as DS9 and Enterprise) would try in a halting way to create larger plot arcs, there’s still a sense that nothing they did had a real lasting impact on the world. Producers loved this, because they claimed it’s far easier to sell a show in syndication when people didn’t need to know what came the week before to understand this week’s show.
We’ve been witness to a movement away from this line of thinking in recent years, undoubtably thanks to the proliferation of DVD set packages, as well as the rabid love of shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica which treat the viewers as intelligent, thoughtful audiences that are indeed capable of keeping up with the week-to-week developments. Doctor Who takes this to an even higher level, as the 13 episodes comprising of Series One were constructed almost as a complete miniseries. Rose’s abandonment of her family and friends is not dismissed by episode 2, but comes back to hit her in the face repeatedly as we see the chain of consequences that it caused.
As the series progresses, the layers of complexity grow as the show repeatedly references itself and revisits the same locales a couple times in vastly different ways. Obviously, this was an expensive show for BBC to put on, and nobody could blame them if they wanted to reuse sets or costumes a couple times to save a quid. Yet they turned this penny-pinching exercise into a highlight of the show, running multiple plot threads in such a way that to revisit these sets becomes a pleasant surprise.
For instance, in one episode, (minor spoiler) The Doctor and Rose help the entire Earth to overthrow a vast conspiracy shackling it into unseen slavery. All seems well and good… that is, until they return and discover that somehow, their actions made things even worse, and the timeline is altered in a horrific way. There are also clues sprinkled throughout the first twelve shows that play up to something big and important in the finale.
“It’s sonic! Totally sonic! I’m sonic’d up!”
Christopher Eccleston might look like a slick record store owner, but his off the cuff Doctor mannerisms make him a delight to behold. I vastly enjoyed seeing the Doctor as a man who had a great sense of humor, a very deep understanding of the universe (his exasperation over sometimes babysitting Rose is a funny running gag), and sharp pointy teeth. Not literally, the teeth thing. But the Doctor is no Captain Picard, all diplomacy and happy-go-lucky feelings. When confronted with evil and wrongdoing, he doesn’t kowtow out of fear or hold back his withering sarcasm.
A personal favorite moment came later on in the episodes, as a dinner chat between the Doctor and an alien (in disguise, of course). The Doctor is adamant that he will be returning the alien to its home planet, where it will await trial — and most certainly death — for past wrongdoings. The alien spends the conversation weaving between appealing to the Doctor’s sense of mercy and trying to guilt the Doctor for essentially pulling the trigger himself. What I loved is that the Doctor isn’t having any of it: he forcefully reminds the alien of the lives it took on earth, the families that were left mourning, and the justice that must prevail. Perhaps this was even a stronger story in England, where the death penalty has been done away with for some time now. In any case, bravo to a man who doesn’t fall for the touchy-feely counseling sessions of Troi and company.
The other two main characters in the series — Rose and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) — are perfect counterpoints to the Doctor’s alien attitude. Rose is disturbingly quick to turn on the tears for my taste, and how little she seems to regard her (ex)boyfriend seemed quite callous, but she is the heart of the series. As much a heroine as a stock damsel in distress, by the end of the run the Doctor sees her as an essential member of his team.
Captain Jack (no, not THAT Captain Jack) is the anti-Doctor: he’s American, brash, and from the 51st century. As much as the Doctor is a thinker, Jack is a doer, the action hero we all need in part in our lives. Jack became such a beloved staple of the Who universe that the producers spun him off into his own series, Torchwood, which is an anagram for some show or another.
“You think it’ll last forever, the people and cars and concrete. But it won’t. One day it’s all gone, even the sky. My planet’s gone. It’s dead. It burned like the Earth. It’s rocks and dust before its time.”
So maybe I’m not the best person to accurately report on this reboot of Doctor Who, but since the series is in part for people like me (and probably you!), here I am. My wife – who is a dedicated Dr. Quinn and 21 Jump Street fan – got so sucked into this show that she hasn’t stopped asking me yet over when Series Two will come to DVD. Soon, I tell her, soon.
We’ve seen a renaissance of excellent science fiction shows lately, and this is another splendid addition to the roster. If you need a show that covers the gambit from spaceships to WWII, from horror to comedy, and from screwdrivers to plastic surgery… dang it, why are you still reading this article? Doctor Who, baby, that’s who.
“It won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe, and it won’t be calm. But I’ll tell you what it will be: the trip of a lifetime.”