Relaunching the cult Sci-Fi TV series, “Doctor Who” was not necessarily a sure thing. While it certainly has it’s band of fiercely loyal fans, when the original series went off the air in the late ‘80s, it didn’t so much end as it just lamely petered out. With the exception of a limp TV movie in 1996 (made with the Fox network), it had been pretty successfully off the airwaves and mostly out of the public’s mind. Add to that the fact that when most people who knew of the show thought of it, instead of their mind bringing them images of the wonderful stories, incredible lists of great actors or even the permanent effect it had on British culture, they though of lame-ass rubber monsters, cardboard sets and so-called special effects that were laughable even in the time they first appeared. To say the property was taken less than seriously would be an understatement. Not the least of which was by its parent studio, the BBC, who blessed the original series with a budget the size of your weekly grocery list.
What was important was that new show-runner, Russell T. Davis took it seriously.
When is was announced that the show would be returning to the airwaves, the British press was suggesting that game show hosts play the Doctor. Russell went out and cast Christopher Eccleston as the lead, one of the smartest things he did. In my mind, Christopher is the best actor to have ever played the part and brought a sense of gravitas the character had never seen. Another of the smartest things Russell did was to cast Billie Piper as his companion, Rose. He knew the program had been off the air for almost twenty years and there would be a whole new audience being introduced to it. He needed a character and an actor the newbies would not only instantly relate to…but inherently like & trust. Billie gave that to us in spades. In fact, as I re-watched this first series, it was obvious that Rose was the lead character, not the Doctor. A risky and ultimately brilliant thing to do.
The chemistry between the two of them is instant and only grows as the series progresses. The best thing I can say about them is that they are having fun. And why wouldn’t they? They get to travel anywhere in the universe, at any time in history! This was a real problem the last show runner of the original series, John Nathan-Turner, had. For some reason he felt that people who, basically, didn’t want to be there should surround the Doctor. People like Tegan, Adric, Peri, etc. It was great if you got off on watching people bickering all the time. Me, not so much. Russell gets it and from the moment Rose runs into the TARDIS at the end of the first episode, beaming a smile that could launch a million ships, the two of them are a team. They’re partners who would do anything for each other, and quite often do.
The production values are like we’ve never seen for Doctor Who. Frankly, not only did Russell take it seriously but (FINALLY!!) the BBC did, too. It simply looks fantastic. And while the effects still are a little behind what we expect at the cinema in a world of “Star Wars” and “Avatar,” it is not only eons away from the original series, but also better than you’ll see on the made-for-TV movies on the SciFi channel (yes, I refuse to do the new spelling), and fits in nicely with shows produced on our side of the pond. Updates to classic icons of the series, like the interior of the TARDIS and his greatest foe, the Daleks, are also handled with respect and look amazing. The show also features many wonderful guest actors who bring not only their talents to the show, but an extra bit of class. Some are better known in Britain, like Simon Callow and Anna Maxwell Martin (but shouldn’t be…they are fantastic, look them up) while others, like Simon Pegg, are stars in their own right here in America.
Another thing Russell did right was in his hiring of writers. He got people who love the show, who had been keeping it alive writing original novels & audio adventures, or even showing their love by featuring it in their own original series, as Stephen Moffat did in an episode of “Coupling”. Speaking of Mr. Moffat, he is far & away the best writer on the show and his two-parter “The Empty Child” & “The Doctor Dances” are the highlight of the season for me, what with the most truly scary moments I had ever experienced in the show up to then, the introduction of Captain Jack who would play an ever increasing role in the series, and damn near the greatest finale the show had ever seen. This is followed closely by Paul Cornell’s “Father’s Day,” which has The Doctor taking Rose to see her father who died when she was an infant. As you can imagine, things do not go entirely well. There is also Rob Shearman’s “Dalek” which re-introduces us to the Doctor’s archenemy and takes both that baddie & the good Doctor into places we’ve never seen them go. These men are not only great fans of the good Doctor, but absolutely fantastic writers as well.
This is not to say all is sunshine & puppies within the Whoverse. While the show would not exist without Russell Davis, he is also its biggest problem. Out of the series, all of the weakest episodes are the ones he wrote and the weakest new monsters/baddies are his. The farting Slytheen got old reeeaalllly fast, which made them being the center of one of the pair of two-parters as well as showing up later in the series a bit of a slog. He also puts too much emphasis on modern pop culture (not to mention his own, personal soap box) for such a long running series. Granted, that makes it seem hip and with-it the day it broadcasts, but even five short years later, episodes that are based on “The Weakest Link” and “What Not To Wear” seem painfully dated. The original series never had to do that. Sure, it would make passing references to events of the day (The Doctor finding The Beatles on the monitor for his granddaughter), modern fashions that look just…sweet today (Dodo and Tegan leap to mind) or even be oddly prescient (the Prime Minister during the ‘80s being a woman…for episodes made in the early ‘70s) but it never had to rely on the modern & hip for their stories to work. Basically, as I re-watch the season, the shows I tend to skip over are many of Russell’s.
My other biggest problem with the first new series includes a spoiler for anyone who has no knowledge of the new series (so they should probably skip to the next paragraph). At the end of the series, Christopher’s Doctor dies and regenerates into David Tennant’s Doctor. I hate this. Christopher was absolutely wonderful in the role with a depth to the character we had never seen and I was truly looking forward to many years of him being in the role. His Doctor was a haunted Doctor, haunted by what he had done in the “Time War,” maybe even a bit recklessly suicidal, but he still had that spark of life in him, a spark that we saw Rose make brighter and brighter as the series progressed. I wanted more and I was denied and, frankly, it stings a bit.
The extras are nothing short of fantastic. There is an extra disc just for the “Doctor Who: Confidential” shows that were shown after each episode in Britain. Basically, these were little making-of docs linked to the episode you just watched, but also focusing quite often on another subject, like the monsters or companions, etc. They are all narrated by Simon Pegg, which adds another bit of fun to the mix. There are many other fun extras sprinkled about all the other discs. Each episode also includes a commentary track with a revolving set of voices, including show-runner, Russel T. Davis and Billie Piper as well as producers, writers, directors and other cast members. Sadly Christopher Eccleston is absent from all the commentaries but with his appearances among all the other extras and the quality of each commentary, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t miss him. I must say that the set is damn near worth it on the extras alone.
So, to wrap up, the good Doctor is back with us. It works beautifully not only for the old guard like me, but also for people who had never seen a single episode from its original run. “Doctor Who” now has a glamorous sheen it never had before but still with the wonderful writing, acting and quirks so many of us remembered and, frankly, loved. And I for one could not be happier.
P.S. Sorry for the overuse of the word “fantastic” in this article. It was the Doctor’s catch phrase and…well…it appears to have stuck.