Doctor Who isn’t just a TV show, it’s a way of life. But mostly it’s a TV show—a breathless, knowingly campy chronicle of a droll hero fighting evil across time and space in a Police Box-camouflaged time/space machine known as the TARDIS. Not yet hip to the latest adventures of the 900-year old alien time-and-space wanderer known as the Doctor, who begins a new season on Sci-Fi Channel September 29th? You’ve still got a couple weeks to catch up; the first season of 13 episodes was recently released on DVD. This is recommended for greater appreciation of the second season, but not required for enjoyment. Nor need you be familiar with the show’s previous 26-year history in order to “get” the latest incarnation (although it is a direct continuation of the classic series, not a remake).
That said, time for a history lesson…
The Doctor’s first incarnation first aired in black-and-white on November 23, 1963 and the first master of the TARDIS was William Hartnell, whose version of the Doctor mixed grandfatherly wisdom and oddball crankiness. He played the part for three years until failing health forced his retirement, but rather than let a good thing go, producers ingeniously bestowed upon the Doctor “regeneration”—a process enabling the alien to transform both body and mind. Character actor Patrick Troughton (The Omen’s impaled Father Brennan) took over in 1966, and gave the show three years before his exit. Shortly thereafter, Who hit a classier, more “adult” stride and moved into the “colour” age with comedian Jon Pertwee’s five-year stint (ironically, Pertwee opted to play it seriously). Throughout the early ’70s, the series evolved beyond simple Saturday afternoon teatime kid’s fare and blossomed into a full-fledged British institution. Then, in 1975, Tom Baker took over as Doctor #4, and the show became a worldwide hit.
Baker’s casting was both perfect and surprising. He sported a wild mop of curly hair, a set of teeth that filled a crazy grin, and wore a 17-foot long, multicolored scarf that wrapped around his lanky frame (one would think it would’ve gotten in the way of saving the universe, but instead it often came in handy). One of the greatest descriptions I ever heard of Baker’s Doctor was of his ability “to approach an absurd situation and treat it for the absurd situation that it is.” This was certainly a radical spin on the traditional sci-fi hero, and it’s probable his performance brought the series into its own. Arguably he was also the first Doctor since Hartnell to bring an alien quality to the role. His approach seemed ideally suited to the low-budget look of the series—if Baker believed in a rubber monster, so did the viewer; if he laughed out the corner of his mouth at another, he deftly managed to take it to yet a different level of bizarre believability.
Baker was the Doctor for a mammoth (by Who standards anyway) seven years. The timing was perfect; two years after the fourth incarnation of the show debuted in the United Kingdom, Star Wars came out, stoking worldwide demand for sci-fi and fantasy throughout the next decade. Baker’s unlikely star power gave the series credibility and salability in overseas markets, many of which were experiencing the series for the first time and quite naturally thought of Baker as the only true Doctor. Of Baker’s three 1980s successorsl—Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, respectivelyl—only Davison truly clicked, thanks mainly to the producers’ realization that the franchise could not survive unless it morphed into something decidedly “un-Tom Baker-like”. During the Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) and McCoy years the program struggled to find a distinctive voice; during McCoy’s stint, Star Trek: The Next Generation launched across the pond and became the world’s most popular science-fiction series. The less flashy Who couldn’t compete, and in 1989, after 26 seasons of time-travel, the whole enterprise was mercifully given the axe.
Seven years later (an eternity in Who time!) the concept was briefly resurrected as a TV movie coproduced by the Fox Network and the BBC, starring Paul McGann (Withnail & I) as the Doctor and Eric Roberts (!) as his nemesis the Master. Despite slick production values and a fine turn by McGann (Roberts wasn’t shabby either), it ultimately failed to grab Americans or capture the feel of the original series. So the Doctor again went back into hiding, and stayed there for nine years.
Enter producer/writer Russell T Davies, a life-long Who fanatic, best known as the creator of the groundbreaking U.K. version of Queer as Folk. Though he was one of the most sought-after TV writers in England, his relationship with the BBC had reached a stalemate. Allegedly Davies made a declaration to the conglomerate: Either he was allowed to help revive Doctor Who or he’d stop working for the BBC in any capacity. Numerous other factors—including the British public’s desire to see the series return - led to the Beeb granting Davies showrunner status and near complete creative control. The results astounded the country. Davies’ Who, starring Christopher Eccleston as Doctor #9 and Billie Piper as 19-year old London shopgirl Rose Tyler, came back with a vengeance, smashing everyone’s—including Davies’—wildest expectations.
The latest Dr. Who retains the concept’s essence, but scraps its technical limitations. And what is that “essence”? Given the scope of the show’s history, that could be answered a dozen different ways, so I might as well go with a personal anecdote. I first encountered the Doctor when I was 13, and for me it was the anti-Star Trek. In lieu of a ranked crew working together, it offered up an iconoclastic renegade as its center. The Doctor is not only a sort of universal do-gooding anarchist, but he’s also shirked his own society and people, the Time Lords—pompous engineers of time travel, whose primary dictate is one of neutrality. Despite their great powers, rather than interfere and aid the less fortunate, they consider it best only to observe. (A Davison-era episode featured a villain referring to the Doctor as a Time Lord “who does nothing but interfere”.) As noted above, the original series died a slow death around the time Trek got a new lease on life. It’s ironic the tides have turned and, in the same period of months that Star Trek - gasping for fresh air - expired smack in the middle of Enterprise, the Doctor should find his second wind.
Unlike most series recapped here at the House, Doctor Who typically is rather simple fare (sometimes to a fault). The new version is designed as prime-time BBC1 family viewing, appealing to everyone in the household from 6 to 60 (the season-two finale pulled in 8.22 million viewers upon its BBC broadcast, making it the fourth most watched program of the week—and it plays on Saturday nights!) Here in the States we don’t make shows like that anymore. Everything is splintered—every age group and demographic has its own channel and its own specifically targeted fare. The only place for families to share a dramatic experience is at the movies when a Pixar or a Spider-Man movie comes out (or alternatively when they hit DVD). The weekly ritual of the American family gathering together around the tube has gradually eroded out of existence.
Not in my house, though. I turned my kid on to Doctor Who when he was 7, and over the next couple years he eagerly viewed most of its 26-year canon. Despite the fact he’s now 13, the latest Who was an easy sell. But what threw me for a loop was this past spring when his friends started getting into it. These are “cool” skater kids with long hair and raging hormones. They listen to Disturbed and The Strokes and watch Adult Swim and Entourage. Even Pink Floyd is too square for these guys (and boy have I tried…). Yet they devoured the new Doctor Who. Every weekend they wanted more. Clearly this updated version had something going for it that maybe even I was unaware of—although I suspect the appealingly curvaceous Piper may have been part of the draw.
The Sci-Fi Channel kicks off season two with a Who double feature on Friday, Sept. 29th at 8 PM (EST/PST) with “The Christmas Invasion”, the first story of the newly regenerated 10th Doctor, played by David Tennant (the deliciously evil Barty Crouch, Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Originally broadcast as a BBC special last Christmas, the episode has a one-hour running time, and Sci-Fi is fitting it into a 90-minute timeslot, so FYI, it presumably will be commercial-heavy. At 9:30, Sci Fi plays “New Earth”, the first proper episode of season two; the running times for the regular episodes are a standard 44-ish minutes in a one-hour time slot.
No opportunity to seek out the First Season prior to tuning in the Second? Earlier on the 29th—from 8 AM to 4 PM - Sci Fi will play a marathon of Episodes 6—13 from the Eccleston-starring season one. Three of the stories in the block were recently nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form): Episode 6, “Dalek”, Episode 8, “Father’s Day”, and Episodes 9 & 10, a two-parter set during the London Blitz comprised of “The Empty Child” & “The Doctor Dances” (the fourth nominee in the category was Battlestar Galactica’s “Pegasus”). The two-parter, written by Coupling creator Steven Moffat, went on to snag the award—and deservedly so as it debatably remains the new series’s crowning achievement.
The following week, on Oct. 6th, Sci Fi unveils Season Three of Battlestar Galactica, at which point the two series will air back to back on Friday nights. It’s inspired pairing to say the least…the two greatest current sci-fi series—both spawned from creaky concepts considered joke worthy—successfully re-envisioned for modern audiences. One is a light, entertaining romp and the other a dark, brooding social commentary.
Thus far I’ve been remiss in painting the show as mere adventure - it also explores emotional and humanistic themes. Season one saw the 9th Doctor introduce Rose to a life outside anything she’d ever imagined, and their adventures culminated in Rose witnessing first-hand the Doctor’s death and rebirth as a new man. In season two, she logically begins taking her new life for granted, perhaps believing stories always have happy endings and that she could have something deeper than mere friendship with the more easygoing (and easier on the eyes) 10th Doctor.
Over 14 episodes, the Doctor and Rose visit 1879 Scotland where they meet Queen Victoria and battle a werewolf; accidentally end up on a parallel Earth where technology has gone awry; find a spaceship in the year 5,000 inexplicably tied to 18th Century France; and materialize onboard Sanctuary Base - a research station on a dead planet, orbiting a black hole on the furthest edge of the universe. In between their journeys, the pair infrequently return to present day London to check in with Rose’s on-again off-again boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke) and her daffy mum Jackie (Camille Coduri), both of whom exist in various states of worried expectation over the uncertainty of Rose’s safety and well-being.
And what of Eccleston, the actor who was a major factor in all this success? What happened and why would he ditch such a high-profile role after only a season? Numerous theories have been espoused, but likely the only people who know the answer are Davies and Eccleston himself - neither of whom have been forthcoming on the issue. Eccleston was a big part of reinventing the character, and in doing so, the series as well. His Doctor was unlike any that came before: moody, defensive, vulnerable, distrusting and frightened—but mostly he was sad and lonely. As the series began, it was revealed the Time Lords had been wiped out due to a cataclysmic “Time War”, leaving the Doctor the lone survivor of his people. Then he met Rose, and she helped him see there was still good in the universe and that all hope wasn’t lost.
Tennant’s take is more in line with the classic Doctors—indeed, sharp-eyed viewers will spot him at times almost channeling Tom Baker’s Doctor (a performance Tennant admittedly holds in near godlike regard). With his regeneration, he’s again learned to view the universe through eyes of wonder and curiosity, but also sees the pitfalls of neediness and freedom in letting go. Perhaps he’s the antithesis of Eccleston’s bruised portrayal—a new Doctor with a confident belief in something bigger than the 900+ years to which he’s already been witness.