Sunday, March 31, 2013

TV: Doctor Who Series 1

In 2005, Russel T Davies, longtime Doctor Who fan, was successful in convincing the BBC to do something many fans had been vocally craving for fifteen years: bring Doctor Who back to the air.  This had been attempted once before, a co-production with Universal pictures, which resulted in a poorly received made-for-TV movie.  This would be completely independent of  that original attempt, and as in the past, would be a completely British production.  The show was cleared for one season, featuring veteran actor Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and English pop sensation Billie Piper as companion and star Rose Tyler. Who is back, and to celebrate, I'm going to take a look at the show so far.  This incarnation of the show, that is- it's a little more than I can do right now to review 33 seasons, and besides, the show is different enough to justify keeping them relatively separate.

That's right, I said Billie Piper was the star.  The show was named for the Doctor, but he really didn't become the central character until after Billie Piper left, and it was a gradual process.  There are several reasons for this.  From a storytelling perspective, it's common to focus the story on the character who is not a seasoned time traveler and nine hundred year old (or older) alien.  This allows the audience (who is generally neither seasoned time travelers nor nine hundred years old, although there are some exceptions) to experience things in a way that they can be eased into it and have things explained to them, without breaking the fourth wall or resulting in forced contrivances.

Secondly, Billie Piper was a star with several #1 singles in the UK.  Not only was it a great way for the pop star to live her dream of becoming an actress, it was a great opportunity for the show to introduce itself to a brand new generation that was already in love with the singer.  I assume, anyway.  I didn't learn about her until 2012, myself.  The third reason, which is kind of an extension of the first, the original incarnation of Doctor Who had the same idea: the show was about the adventures of the human companion in strange places, with the Doctor primarily functioning as a randomizing factor, bringing the stars into strange situations to experience.

At least, this idea holds until the second episode, when Rose spends half the episode having a nervous breakdown while the Doctor pretends she doesn't exist.  To be fair, I imagine that's what happens when you pick up a girl who's just had her workplace destroyed by plastic aliens and give her the opportunity to watch her entire planet die before leaving her alone to cry while you go on a date with a tree girl who just called her several synonyms for prostitute.

The Ninth Doctor is a really fascinating character.  For those unfamiliar with the series, every time the Doctor comes extremely close to death, he beats it by regenerating, which gives him a new actor and a new personality.  This is how the same character has been able to survive for 33 seasons when he started out as an old man with health problems.  The Ninth in particular is a fairly recent regeneration at the beginning of Series 1 (you can see him in the first episode examining himself in the mirror for the first time with this face), and he's the sole survivor of a massive time travel war that warped and changed the history of the universe.  The sum of the Ninth Doctor is a shell-shocked Marine who survived firing the last shot of the war, only to find himself surrounded by civilians he feels no love for, struggling with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Except for, you know, having to play superhero for the humans.

Rose... also has a lot to do, although for her it's less “healing” and more “growing up”.  The first episode (aptly titled “Rose”) sets the tone for this character perfectly, when she leaves her injured boyfriend in order to go with this strange man who's dressed as though he's having a mid-life crisis and says he can travel through time.  I disliked this character from the start and it wasn't until this season's finale, “Parting of the Ways”, that I began to develop some affection for her.

That's a good way to describe this season: Self-centered people doing only what they know, go through a transformation into something new.  Rose and the Doctor are the perfect examples of this, with the Doctor losing some of his rage and selfishness and becoming something more alike what he was in the past, with added experience, and Rose learning to care for someone other than herself and not to rely on others to act for her all the time. There are plenty of others, such as the Rastacoricofalipatorian who was ready to destroy the Earth for her own benefit gaining the opportunity to start anew by being transformed into an egg, and con artist Jack Harkness, who after helping the Doctor to save the world has his life saved in turn, twice, and transforms into a hero that would go on to star in his own spin-off, Torchwood.  Rebirths and second chances aren't a stranger to individual episodes, either; the season is peppered with them.

It's parallels like this that helps to make this a truly unique season of an already unique show.  Unusual for the normally episodic Doctor Who, this is a completely linear season.  The first two episodes largely stand on their own, and are essential to setting up who Rose and the Ninth Doctor are.  Episode three sets up a plot device that will make episode 11 possible, while the following two-parter introduces characters that would be essential to that episode.  The next episode, “Dalek” introduces the villain for the season finale, as well as leading directly into episode 7, which sets up plot elements involved in the season finale.  The 8th episode is the only episode so far not to feature into the season plot and, like the second episode, is a growth moment for Rose, building off of themes established in the previous episode.

I'm not going to keep going like this- not only do you get the picture, but the following two episodes remain to this day among my favorite Doctor Who episodes of all time.  These episodes introduce Jack Harkness, a human time traveler and con artist, who inadvertently unleashes medical nanobots unfamiliar with the proper shape of humanity onto the Earth.  This is a grim, horrific tale that started future showrunner Stephen Moffat's climb in popularity which punctuated a bleak story of war orphans with just enough humor to make it Doctor Who.

As for the downsides to this story, well, this is essentially the first season of what is essentially a new show.  This means it's still finding its voice.  As I described to you earlier, neither of our main characters are that likable to start with, and it's only through empathizing with their excitement and sympathizing with their peril that the audience is able to come to like them.  Also in trying to find its voice, Russell T Davies shot a little low for his target audience by introducing farting, laughing, fat, green aliens... that thankfully found their way into a spin-off targeting younger children (starring Doctor Who veteran Elizabeth Sladen) after their three episodes in this season.

The end result of this is a season that combines a lot of great ideas with a lot of cringe-worthy issues that are thrown in your face.  This holds the season back from being my favorite, but it doesn't keep it from being the one I admire most and the one that clearly had the most planning go into it.  Is it the best way to introduce yourself to the show?  As I mentioned, it does feature two of my favorite episodes of the show... but despite that, it might be a little healthier to get into the show after it's found its footing.

1 comment:

SQT said...

My daughter just got into Dr. Who over the last few months and she LOVES it. I believe she's almost done with the David Tennant version and is about to move on to Matt Smith-- so she's a little sad but still into it.

I'm having a hard time moving on from season 1 because I don't want to say goodbye to Ecclestone (I'm really late to the party on this show). "Dalek" is probably my favorite episode so far. But my daughter tells me it gets better and better. My son is starting to get into it too. I bought a "My Other Ride is a Tardis" decal for my car in honor of my kids. They are so cool...