This First Series of New Doctor Who
(A very special thanks to the guys at the Radio Free Skaro podcast, for "inspiring" me with the idea and, more importantly, not suing for plagiarism because they're featuring the same season on their podcast at the time this is being written)
In television terms, five years can make a great difference. Five years ago, Battlestar Galactica and Lost were into its first season. Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban were burning up the box office....and people were waiting, with trepidation, for the premiere of the revived Doctor Who series.
Now, in this time of speculation and enthusiasm about David Tennant "regenerating" into Matt Smith, and with the impending US broadcast of Torchwood: Children of Earth (which I, through my employer, came very close to handling some of their online outreach and marketing), it's hard to believe that in 2004, Doctor Who would be seen as a success. After all, the final season of the classic series seemed anticlimactic, and the 1996 TV movie did not do as well as expected...so expectations were mixed, if at all. For many, the new series would have to live up to - if not exceed - the highlights of the classic series.
Fortunately, part of what made that 2005 series of Doctor Who work was the determination of Russell T. Davies, a producer who started in children's television, and was more noted for creating cutting edge drama like Queer as Folk and The Second Coming. For Davies (who was born early enough to enjoy William Hartnell's time as the Doctor), this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - with a commitment of only 13 episodes, much like Drake Burroughs, here was an opportunity to bring Who a little further into the 21st century even if the Doctor turned out to be a "one shot hero". Advances in CGI meant that special effects could actually look less cheap - no complaints of wobbly sets or poor model work. Having a single season also meant that, within scripts, continuity references could be made in a much more clever way - unlike later seasons (of either classic or "new" Who), references to past episodes and concepts were used sparingly, making this a much more new-viewer friendly experience. (Of course, I argue with some Who fans who believe that starting with new Who prevents viewers from appreciating "classic" Who, to which I say, let them read Doctor Who: The Forgotten via IDW. They'll like it more).
The other factor that made this first season of revived Who was, in fact, Christopher Eccleston's performance as the Ninth Doctor. Although noted (at that time) for Shallow Grave, he was (and is) one of Britain's top dramatic performers. (Don't believe me - check out the Cracker episode To Be a Somebody with Robert Carlyle, or even his prior collaboration with Davies, The Second Coming). It was an unusual casting choice, admittedly, and his performance was a complete change from previous Doctors. Although he drew upon the eccentric qualities of his predecessors, Eccleston also gave the character a much needed darker streak - this is not the happy-go-lucky Time Lord that went from adventure to adventure. As the season plays out, we learn the Doctor was involved in "the last great Time War", and the (as-yet-untelevised) events of that war have left the Doctor a little jaded, a little hard-hearted, and....well, it is easy to see Eccleston as the "PTSD Doctor", struggling to regain his humanity (although Tennant would later be the "Davy-Jones-on-espresso" Doctor, flashes of the Ninth's shell-shocked nature came in, with flashes of anger, and the occasional threat).
(A bit of an aside - part of me, as a long time Who fan, kind of wishes Paul McGann had played the lead. I can see why Davies opted not to include him as a revamped Eighth Doctor - dramatically, it would have been hard to reintegrate McGann's neo-classic Doctor with Davies' modern spin. With many fans (including myself) having mixed feelings about the 1996 movie, and with the back story that was created, perhaps it's best that McGann - although he had too short a season on television - was able to portray the Doctor in Big Finish's audio line. Plus, starting in the "middle" of the Ninth Doctor's story, it helps build a great amount of mystery and speculation about adventures unseen...there's a reason there's a ton of videos on YouTube about the "Time War"...or even rumors that the pilot was "leaked" onto the Internet to build word of mouth about the show. But the threads for much new Who storytelling (and Torchwood, come to think of it) is laid within the tapestry of this first season.
What also helps, at this time, is Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, This was a really controversial move at the time, since she was known more as a pop star (think Debbie Gibson, or a more polite Britney Spears) than she was as an actress. However, in this series especially, Rose is more than just the Doctor's human half or a prompt for exposition - she easily becomes a moral compass for the Doctor. Take Dalek, where she counters an armed Doctor as he faces off against an evolving Dalek....or Father's Day, where her actions demonstrate the repercussions of tampering with history...Rose faces not only extraterrestrial menaces, but also the Doctor's contempt and self-hate. (More than once, Rose - and humanity - are called "stupid apes" by our intrepid Time Lord). This is one of those series that, in many ways, is an arc in and of itself, as it focuses on not Rose's shift in attitudes (which happens), but in the Ninth Doctor finally getting a kind of redemption via regeneration.
But what makes this series are the stories - from Rose (which uses a rarely-used enemy from the classic show to great effect) to the hallucinogenic End of the World (with one of the greatest jokes in the world) to The Unquiet Dead (which kicks off some Torchwood backdrop, as well as featuring Charles Dickens fighting zombies on Christmas). The relatively silly and disappointing Aliens of London/World War Three (well, ok, except for the last fifteen minutes of the latter) to the flat-out-brilliant Dalek (which takes the creature from one-joke to menacing in the space of 45 minutes). From The Long Game (with Simon Pegg, and the first time a companion is kicked off the TARDIS) to the triple-sided brilliance of Father's Day and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (all three of which, I assert, are as classic as any classic Who episode). Then, there's the sublime Boom Town (which is a rare exploration of the Doctor's mortality) to the two part series ender Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways (which starts so-so,but those last fifteen minutes are glorious).
This first series of new Doctor Who did more than revive a franchise that was thought dead - it injected a well-needed sense of modernism and dynamic thought. From dealing with gay-friendly themes to taking away some of the more sexist treatment of female companions, from increasing the pace of storytelling to (most importantly) making the Doctor a character worth exploring, this series set some high benchmarks. The fact that the series was once extended to not one, but two years, shows the amount of confidence that "auntie Beeb" had in the show. It's hard to believe that a show that is now considered a must-watch....started from such very tentative, and uncertain, beginnings.
Thanks again, and keep watching!
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