It’s October, which means it’s:
- one month to the release of the Doctor Who Complete “Series One” DVD box set;
- two months to the Christmas special and debut proper of David Tennant as the new Doctor Who;
- five months to series two!
BB hasn’t been this unfeasibly excited since the same time last year when, our better judgement notwithstanding, we were daring to anticipate the first series of the revival with some eagerness. How did it all go so right?
We learnt a lot over the course of thirteen episodes. We discovered what Daleks really do (they make you cry). We found that, apart from a liberal sprinkling of jokes about flatulence, you don’t need to make too many obvious concessions to a family audience. We’ve marvelled at how desperate and ultimately tragic ITV schedulers are in the face of a threat they can’t comprehend, clinging to a celebrity obsession thankfully abandoned by the rest of the Saturday night audience. And we’ve blubbed buckets: the mutated Dalek killing itself (sob, sob); Rose’s dad sacrificing himself to save the planet (boo hoo hoo); Gwyneth blowing up the Gelth even after her apparent death (wail!); little Jamie being reconciled with his mummy and everyone else being cured of gas mask-itis (sniff); and Christopher Eccleston attempting to do “zany” once more (please, make it stop!).
Russell T. Davies constructed a thoroughly entertaining series that mostly refrained from pandering to its target audiences, with a pleasing overall story arc. No, not the ultimately vaguely disappointing “Bad Wolf” conundrum, but the Doctor’s personal journey. At the start, he’s different from the resilient character we thought we knew, clearly damaged and waging a lonely campaign despite the evident risks and the stark fact that, more than ever, he needs a companion. He’s haunted by the destruction of his home planet by war, an event he can barely acknowledge. It leaves him more fallible than ever before, prone to foolish mistakes (physically overpowered by the Nestene Consciousness) or manipulation (tricked into allowing the Gelth to invade through guilt over his part in the “Time War”, causing two innocent deaths in the process), and uncharacteristically ready to accept failure and defeat (trapped by the Gelth in the cellar). Halfway through, just when you’re beginning to despair of him ever doing something right again, he faces his nemesis and, but for some hard questions from Rose that allow him to redeem himself at the last moment, almost succumbs to the urge for unthinking vengeance. From this point (“I win…how about that?”), he gradually recovers his old confidence until, in the masterful two-parter “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, he displays a surefooted mastery of the situation right the way through, culminating in a triumphant resolution that saves every single life. From here, it’s a home run right up until his last desperate, unsuccessful battle against a renewed Dalek fleet when once again, with pleasing symmetry, he is saved by his companion and in turn saves her. Back of the net!
There were weaknesses for sure, and sadly these were most often evident in Davies’s own scripts, which suffered from being a little too eager to please the kids at the price of some credible plot development - perhaps the demands on him as an executive producer caused the writing to suffer. The first episode served well enough to introduce the show to a new audience, although the Auton invasion was relegated to background context. “The End of the World” had some nice moments and great set pieces, but the actual story was insubstantial. “Aliens of London/World War Three” was a low point, a farcical concoction of fart gags and men in rubber suits that nonetheless carried more substance than any actual plot it may have possessed. “The Long Game”, while not deeply satisfying at the time, improves in hindsight once you understand that it has set up the finale. In fairness, Davies threw everything into these last two episodes, contributing a worthy closer that combined some inventive satire on reality TV with a big dose of genuine Dalek menace, some fantastic action scenes and two climaxes that were moving almost beyond words.
But it was the outside writers who really shone. Rob Shearman’s “Dalek” turned the by-now risible pepper pots inside out and neatly addressed a major design flaw: no, not the tired old stairs joke (which was already a solved problem, as any Who obsessive could tell you tirelessly and at length), but the issue of what those apparently pointless sucker arms were good for (answer: drastic facial surgery and giving small children nightmares for weeks). Mark Gatiss’s “The Unquiet Dead” had fun with Charles Dickens (a grand opportunity for Simon Callow to perform his party piece) and all the elements of the classic ghost tale, while providing the first real scares. And Paul Cornell’s “Father’s Day” was a blubfest the like of which has never previously been seen in Who history - the key setup here being the hitherto unknown involvement of a companion in deciding where the TARDIS should land next.
Stephen Moffatt’s outstanding WW2 story was sheer brilliance from start to finish. Not only was the Doctor on top form all the way through to a glorious, heartwarming resolution, but it had a compelling setting, wonderful characters, gleeful self-parody (Jack’s derision at the idea of a sonic screwdriver), an unforgettable motif in the gas mask-wearing child persistently asking for his mummy and one of the all-time Great Doctor Who Moments - in Room 802 when the tape runs out but the voice continues, and the viewer realises with dawning horror - a split-second before the Doctor - that the Empty Child is in there with them. Captain Jack was a worthy, modern addition to the crew and Florence Hoath as Nancy gave a standout performance. There was nothing to fault here - the best TV of the year. Hell, the last five years.
For it’s part, the BBC too has almost redeemed itself for the shocking treatment of the show during the eighties. Early in the planning of its return, preliminary audience research showed that kids thought it was some lame programme their parents watched and their parents thought it was some lame programme they’d grown out of; neither wanted it back. To their great credit, the Beeb did something that no television company has done in the past twenty years to our knowledge: ignored the focus groups completely and took a risk. Only some minor cock-ups that could have been overlooked entirely were it not for the seemingly wilful stupidity behind them (letting Graham Norton on BBC3 bleed - not literally, sadly - over the soundtrack of the opening five minutes in the first episode; giving away cliffhangers in the end-credits trailers) took the gloss off their otherwise awesome promotional carpet-bombing. It says something for the series that the absence of the best scene from the teaser trailer (the Doctor racing away from a huge fireball in a tunnel) went unnoticed. It was difficult to drive through any significant conurbation without pondering one of those huge posters while waiting at the traffic lights. And this may have been the first TV drama to make good use of Internet cross-promotion, with a host of carefully-designed spoof web sites linked to the stories.
Back in March, BB was faintly withering about Eccleston’s debut as the new Doctor. Subsequent episodes lessened but did not entirely remove our feeling that he was not perhaps the ideal choice for the role. When angst or angry determination was required, his undoubted skill as an actor came to the fore. But where the script called for some light comedy or humour, he usually missed the mark woefully (oddly, apart from one early scene in Rose’s flat), substituting a daft grin and silly gestures that could be embarrassingly prattish. Sometimes, he seemed to lack complete belief in the dialogue, sounding overearnest and unconvincing as he tried to emphasise the threat of a current predicament. When news of his departure and replacement leaked out, our initial shock was soon overcome by a conviction that it may be for the better. It was fortunate that his final scene played more to his strengths, which was perhaps why his farewell was ultimately sadder and more poignant than we had expected it to feel - it was, after all, not so much the death of the Doctor as the end of a beautiful friendship with Rose.
Which leaves her and us with David Tennant, the “not much of a” surprise new Doctor. BB only has four lines of dialogue and a (distinctly Bakeresque) grin to go on, but we’re already totally stoked by his arrival. In fact, going out on a limb, we’re prepared to say that we feel he has the potential to become one of the all-time great Doctors, up there with the original quartet of Hartnell/Troughton/Pertwee/Baker. This is on the grounds of a) his look; b) his outfit (so, so right and a colossal improvement on drug dealer chic); c) his self-confessed love for the original show, a blessed relief after Eccleston’s ambivalent and obtuse take on the role; and d) a production crew that, flushed with success, can only scale new heights. DT as DW will rock, FACT!
Added to which, there is huge scope now for an exploration of the meaning of identity through Rose’s struggle to adapt to this new and unexpected incarnation. When your closest friend radically alters not only their appearance, but most of their personality, can they still be the same person to you? It’s a question the old series tended to gloss over quickly after such a change, but BB expects RTD to have a lot of fun with this scenario in the new series, giving it a fresh angle.
Quite apart from that, the Cybermen are back. They were always scarier than the Daleks, even if hindsight shows that their latterday stories were often weak. In this brave new era, BB expects to have a lot of fun ourselves.
- The opening sequence, with brisk pacing, suspense, humour, a memorable introduction (“Run!”) and a bigger explosion than anything that had gone before.
- 19th Century maid Gwyneth looking into Rose’s 21st Century mind.
- The Doctor’s crazed rant to the Dalek about the destruction of its race: “I watched it happen! I MADE it happen!!”
- The Doctor storming into his “police box”, only to discover to his utter consternation that it really had turned into a plain old police box.
- “Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks, ‘oo-hoo, this could be a little more sonic’?!”
- Nancy singing the gas-masked soldier holding her captive to sleep.
- Dinner with Margaret the Slitheen and her array of wily but anticipated defences.
- The Daleks rising up outside the viewing port of the space station before Lynda-with-a-y, their lights flashing one unmistakeable phrase…
- “My head … is killing me!”
“Come here. I think you need a Doctor.”
- “Mmh, new teeth. That’s weird.”