I watched the new Doctor Who on Sunday night (thanks to
I probably enjoyed it more than anyone coming to it objectively would. Doctor Who appeared in my childhood at the precise right time for me to be terrified by the plastic monsters and fascinated by the mysterious background (a time-traveling telephone box? What does that mean, mum?). I also got to see some Tom Baker episodes, read some comics (much later, American editions), and I even see I’ve got a bunch of novelizations in my pile of books to finally get rid of – The Tenth Planet (adapting the episode where, for the first time, the Doctor
regenerated into another actor) and a couple of Dalek-related ones. So I was, well, stoked.
Does this explain why I was shrieking along with the chase scene music while bouncing up and down?
Err, probably not. I certainly wouldn’t have done that if there was anyone else in the apartment.
Anyway, this first episode (Rose) is a self-contained introduction to the basic set-up. Specifically, it introduces us to Rose, the Doctor’s companion (the Doctor needs a foil to astound and exasperate, he’s that sort of character), a London shop assistant who serves as our viewpoint character as she stumbles across an alien invasion, runs into the Doctor (whose fighting to stop it) and gets swept up into his adventures.
Rose, played by Billie Piper, a former pop singer with looks that were fairly described as a
Yoplait-mutant version of Claire Danes, comes across as strong, sympathetic and believable. She’s an everyman heroine that reminds me a lot of the original idea behind Buffy, where Joss Whedon asked “what if the only person who could save the world was the gum-chewing, blonde, bit-of-fluff you see in the background of most teen films?” Or, in the British version, the shop girl with an accent that obscures her words more than any gum could do and “No A-levels, no job, no future”.
Suzie used to remark how in “English” TV and movies, it always seems like these are real people, not actors “acting” (like in most American productions). Piper definitely pulls off that effortless naturalism, as do most of the supporting characters.
Apropos naturalism, I couldn’t help but reflect that in an American production (1) the heroine’s boyfriend wouldn’t be black or (2) if he was black, they wouldn’t dare make him such a jerk.
Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor gives a much less stable performance, fluctuating between moods, here manic and cheerfully rushing into danger, here looking at the ignorant humanity he’s fighting to save with bitter cynicism, there melodramatically raphsodizing with genuine and painfully sentimental love for the human race. Over all, he’s a great deal of fun, strutting confidently with a broad-stepped Keanu Reeves walk and a great big grin on his smug geek face, the trademark sonic screwdriver tucked in a stylish leather jacket.
Trying to pinpoint why the damn thing worked for me, I think the Eccleston’s Doctor is a key point: he’s completely different in looks and personality than Tom Baker’s portrayal (my favorite and the only Doctor I really know), but he’s clearly and unmistakably playing the same character, without retaining any but the most basic identifying features: The TARDIS, the gadgets, the core character’s values (mysterious, eccentric, brilliant, humorous and passionately, hopelessly dedicated to saving and protecting intelligent life). Doctor Who has a massive history behind it, and here it’s touched upon very lightly, they don’t have to wave continuity in your face or explain background, because the key idea, the main gimmicks, are simple and evocative. The show gains a lot power not only from having all this history and background, but specifically for the delicateness in which that backstory is deployed.
In many ways, this reminds me of The Batman: there’s a world of Batman mythology, but you only need to get a few fundemental points to understand and enjoy a Batman story.
Another thing worth mentioning is the Sci-Fi elements themselves, which are weird and surreal, in fine British TV SF tradition: from animated store mannequins to someone being devoured by a dustbin to a cthulhoid plastic souffle. This both lives up to the main role of visual Science Fiction, which is to blow our minds with bizzare images, and shows that Doctor Who isn’t worried about taking itself too seriously. Like people keep pointing out, it’s also a kids’ show. Although, judging by contemporary SF shows (Xena, Buffy, Crusade, some X-Files), silliness is cool again.
Now, while the new Doctor Who seems to have been updated in perfect sync with modern TV SF trends, one thing I’m a bit sorry it’s seemed to have picked up is the self-contained episode. My strongest emotional memory from the first time I ever saw the series is the (dramatically-lit but shoddy) monster lunging towards the camera, scary music picking up and … cut to theme music, credits and continued next week…