I remember watching Doctor Who when I was a little kid. It was years ago, but I still remember hiding under the quilt on the couch watching “Planet of Evil”. The red outlined antimatter creatures scared the crap out of me. Even the opening music scared me. But I’d hold my ground and watch because the stories were really great — some of the most innovative science fiction ever on the television.
Although I wouldn’t classify myself as a hardcore fan, I’ve been watching Doctor Who for a long time. It was one of the original three sci-fi shows that got me hooked on the genre (the others being “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica”). As television shows go, Doctor Who was somewhat ahead of it’s time, with strange stories about robots and aliens at a time when most fans still got their science fiction fix from cheap paperbacks and comics. The Classic Series became a cult hit after a while and ultimately played for a whopping 26 seasons.
Since I was totally into the creepy stories, I didn’t really notice at first the episodes I was watching were already some ten years old and the special effects were. . . well. . . kinda old. Lots of cheesy Chromakey stuff and guys in rubber suits. Pretty typical of British sci-fi and horror from that era I suppose.
Doctor Who had been off the air for around fifteen years and I had fairly low expectations of the new stuff, especially after seeing some of the saucy promotions. I’m not even sure why I formulated that opinion, since Russell T. Davies was responsible for the outstanding series “Queer as Folk”. Guess I figured that he was too much of a contemporary writer for sci-fi. And I must admit, another thing that crossed my mind was: Wow. Billie Piper. Kind of like a British Britney Spears. They must have hired her ’cause she’s easy on the eyes. Christopher Eccleston got my interest up though — he’s a well known, serious actor. The last thing I saw him in was “28 Days Later…”, where he did an outstanding job as the slightly crazy Major West.
Unlike the new Battlestar Galactica, which got to build up its season with a mini-series, the new Doctor Who must rely on its first episode, “Rose”, to serve as the introduction for the entire new series. In the minds of the audience, it sets the tone for the rest of the series and it will be the episode that hopefully brings in the viewers for more. And if that’s not enough, it has 26 years of previous material to live up to.
While it’s not perfect, I was surprised with just well “Rose” succeeded in introducing the new series. Pilot episodes are usually kind of boring, but “Rose” was actually quite entertaining. The storytelling is contemporary, light and fast, and it does a competent job of presenting the new versions of the main characters. The monsters in this one — it isn’t Doctor Who without monsters — are none other than the Autons, the animated mannequins featured in the classic episode “Spearhead From Space”. This tip of the hat to the classic series amused me greatly.
We now have a contemporary, modern Doctor Who. Although I don’t have a good frame of reference for it, I never got the impression that previous Doctor Who seasons really cared if they were contemporary or not. This Doctor Who is very preoccupied with being current, from the way it is shot, to the curious, peppy music, to the snappy way that dialog is delivered. This is modern television, and every attempt has been made to make it accessible to new fans, something which will no doubt anger the hardcore ones. The half-hour multi-part cliffhangers are now replaced with one hour stories (though apparently there will be multi-part ones).
Even though I suspect the producers knew it was going to be widely distributed outside of Britain, every attempt seems to have been made to deliver contemporary, almost trendy, British language and humour. North Americans like me are left to figure out the odd bit of it on our own, and that’s the way it should be. Doctor Who is a British hero, after all.
Unlike previous seasons, this new Doctor Who is a lot lighter in tone and this doesn’t come without a price. Certain technical details are overlooked in favour of this lightness, such as Rose’s inability to notice that her boyfriend is all of a sudden acting funny and looks kind of plastic. About half-way in I was reminded of “Shaun of the Dead”. Adopting this levity is to no doubt soften up the image of the show and appeal to a greater audience. Some of the humour is pretty silly, like the Doctor’s explanation that a deactivated Auton arm is now “armless”, but some of it is downright hysterical. They even fancifully explain Eccleston’s Lancashire accent:
Rose: So if you are an Alien, how come you sound like you come from the North?
Doctor: Lots of planets have a North.
Eccleston plays a more modern Doctor Who in this more modern show. Unlike Doctors before him, the Ninth Doctor has no long scarf, no funny hat, no question marks, and no velvet jacket. He’s got a black leather car-coat, Doc Martens and a buzzcut. In “Rose”, he’s energetic, almost manic. If anything, Eccleston plays it too manic. I’ll only be able to stand him saying, “Fantastic!” once per show. The Doctors before him tended to be whimsical, aloof, stiff upper lip and all that. This Doctor is in your face. He’s a man of ACTION. He doesn’t just walk places, he runs.
In fact, all of the supporting characters are a bit on the wacky side, almost like they were caricatures. On comedic characters like Rose’s useless boyfriend Mickey, or her scatty mum, this works. Mickey annoyed the hell out me, just as the writer had hoped. But for some reason I found that this didn’t translate quite as well to the Doctor himself. I wanted more from Eccleston’s performance, like he was holding back or something. You get little bits of it here or there. His frustrations with humanity’s lack of awareness brim over occasionally. He snaps at Rose: “If I did forgot some kid called Mickey it’s because I’m trying to save the life of every stupid ape blundering about on top of this planet, alright?” He insults humans a lot, actually.
And despite the manicness, every now and again there is an earnesty to Eccleston’s performance. He pleads with the Nestene Consciousness to do the right thing: “That’s not true. I should know, I was there. I fought in the War. I wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t save your world, I couldn’t save any of them!” He’s forcing it out a bit, to be sure, but I’m not cringing, either. There’s some interesting history to this character.
But the real story here is Billie Piper. Her performance as Rose is, frankly, brilliant. I expected so little from the companion character but was given so much more. Of all the characters hers is the most normal, yet the most interesting. She completely nails the twenty-year-old, directionless working girl. Her bored, post high school look barely conceals a curiosity and intelligence on par with the Doctor’s. The wackiness of the rest of the supporting cast plays well against her straightforward, honest portrayal.
Never once during the show did I not buy into her performance. When called upon, her comedic timing is right on, and her grasp of her character is clearly evident. She even gets to be smug:
Rose: You were useless in there! You’d be dead if it weren’t for me.
Doctor: Yes, I would. Thank you.
Really, Piper steals nearly every scene that she’s in. And, well. . . she is easy on the eyes, too.
So I’m thinking that the hardcore fans aren’t going to be all that impressed because the pace, the tone and the characters deviate somewhat from the classic series. But these are the same folks who filled the forums with jive when they found out that the new Starbuck in the new Battlestar Galactica was going to be a girl. But all of the basic Doctor Who elements are still there: The Doctor is still odd, the companion is still down to earth, the monsters are still weird, and the TARDIS is still bigger on the inside, than it is on the outside. So the rest of us more “casual” fans can relax and enjoy Russell T. Davies’ modern, fast, humorous and thoroughly entertaining take on a classic British science fiction series.
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