Dr. Wow!

I’ve just started catching up on the first season of the new Doctor Who–a.k.a the ninth doctor–via the Sci Fi Channel and other sources the MPAA would prefer I not have access to. I used to be a big Doctor Who fan back in the day; but after the sixth and seventh doctors, the unimpressive TV movie, a fifteen year hiatus, and a wife who found the whole Dr. Who series to be pretty much unwatchable, I’d lost touch with the good doctor. However, Russell Davies (Queer as Folk) seemed like a really bold choice for a new producer so when the SciFi channel picked up the U.S. rights I tuned in.

What I saw nearly blew me out of my seat. Even my Who-hating wife agreed. This is a great show.

I’m sure this is all old news to U.K. viewers, but this series is astonishing. It’s faster paced, more exciting, and has far superior production values to anything we’ve ever seen before. The whole series is vastly edgier and more compelling than it ever was. While we used to get episodes about the stupidity of war or the stupidity of pacifism (depending on who was writing that week) now we get episodes about prime ministers who lie to the public about nonexistent “massive weapons of destruction” to launch wars in order to fill their own pocketbooks. (Where did they ever get that idea? :-))

Christopher Eccleston is a wonderful choice to play the doctor. He’s got just the right level of mania for the part. And while he still maintains the humor that always characterized the previous doctors at their best, he’s got a new deeply tortured side as well. This is a doctor who experiences the full gamut of human emotions. Most importantly this is a doctor who’s exoperienced failure in way the other doctors never did. They could be clownish and silly but always intelligent and powerful. They could be alone but never lonely. They never evinced fear or hate or sadness. They were peeved but not angry, annoyed but not spiteful. Eccleston’s doctor is for the first time ever a character with some real problems. He’s moving a million miles an hour to keep his past from catching up with him. The previous eight doctors did interesting things. This is perhaps the first doctor who is an interesting person.

Following along those lines, the new series is a far more adult show than it’s ever been before. I can imagine Tom Baker delivering a line like “It’ll never last. He’s gay and she’s an alien”; but the BBC would never have broadcast that before. While there’s still plenty of straight-through excitement for the kiddies, the deeper themes are very grown-up: war, genocide, racism, ethnic cleansing. Class is front and center in this series, from his companion Rose (Billie Piper) who has all the signifiers of modern Britain’s lower class, to the hotel workers in The End of the World, to the maid in The Unquiet Dead, the backbenchers in World War III, even the Bill Gates-type in Dalek. This show reeks of modern British class anxiety in a way that’s unfortunately likely to confuse and befuddle American audiences.

Most importantly all these issues seem to be treated with the darkness they deserve: not the cartoonish “War is bad” platitudes found in most children’s programming. Watching the Doctor express his almost irrational, visceral hatred for the Daleks in episode 6 is truly disturbing. Maybe events yet to be revealed will explain why the Doctor is now simultaneously both deeply afraid of and intensely hateful of the Daleks. Still it’s a total shift from his more rational approach in previous series. He used to treat the daleks much as one might treat a rabid dog: you put it down because you have to, but you certainly don’t take pleasure in doing so. This episode definitely makes you rethink the whole-Doctor-Dalek relationship over the years. (By the way: if more is revealed about just what’s going on here after episode 6, please don’t spoil it in the comments. I’m still working my way through the series.)

Which brings us to another point: with the partial exception of the key to time series, Doctor Who has always been a relatively self-contained set of stories. Each story was aplit over two to six episodes, but it didn’t really matter what order you watched the stories in. Companions came and went, and the Doctor regenerated; but otherwise what happened in one story didn’t much affect what happened later. The new series moves away from that in both directions. The individual episodes are now about twice as long, but they usually tell a complete story. Extended stories seem to last two episodes at most, and usually take only one This makes the show much faster paced and more exciting than it used to be. In hindsight, a lot of the old four-episode stories could have been compressed to 45 minutes, and would have been better off for it. However, on the longer side, there’s now an ongoing plot that extends over multiple stories. Most importantly, what the heck was the Time War? Presumably more will be revealed in seasons two and three.

The one downside is plotting. In just the first six episodes, I think I’ve encountered almost every science fiction cliche imaginable. The End of the World managed to rip off the worst parts of The Phantom Menace, Star Trek, and Galaxy Quest! at the same time! The scene with the big spinning tear drops was so bad I can almost believe it was deliberate satire, but if so it didn’t work. Even five billion years in the future, nobody, but nobody, is going to hide the emrgency reset switch for a space station behind a long corridor of spinning clubs! The number of magic technobabble dei ex machina in this series would embarass Rick Berman.

But I’m quibbling here. Plot and hard SF have never been the strong point of any Doctor Who series. It’s always been about the characters and the wild, almost psychedelic experience of the show. The Daleks may not move as fast as Darth Maul, or have flaming swords and incredible command of kendo; but somehow they’ve always conveyed more menace. Doctor Who has always been about atmosphere, character, and humor; and on those fronts the new series more than delivers. At the same time it ramps up the sheer excitement to new heights. Maybe a fifteen year hiatus was just what the doctor ordered.

One Response to “Dr. Wow!”

  1. Curt Cox Says:

    “punch up 7438000WHI12127272911E8EX4111309115 and then see what happens.”
    – Hand of Fear

    Twenty years ago I knew some guys who had memorized the TARDIS expansion factor. The coordinates of Gallifrey are relatively well known by comparision.

Leave a Reply