By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
Like millions of other Doctor Who fans I was delighted to hear Doctor Who was coming back, revamped and reimagined by Russell T Davies. I knew he was a long-time fan from his Queer As Folk series where he placed a Doctor Who fan as a living breathing normal person rather than the saddo nerd depicted by numerous shows and news reports that hunted young nerds being choked by their 30 foot Tom Baker scarf.
Rumours gathered like storm clouds; Billie Piper as the companion, shock horror, is this going to be a musical version or hadn’t they the money for a real actor? The Daleks were in, then they were out then they were in again. The Tardis was going to be radically different and not a police box at all. But it was. Who would play him? And slowly, everything fell into place. Photos of Christopher Eccleston in his jumper and leather jacket leaning up against the Tardis, the fireball trailers and huge billboards plastered everywhere.
Secrecy was paramount and the feeling was the BBC that had once let their biggest money spinner die like a neglected dog were now 100% behind this new version but the question still remained? Was this going to be Doctor Who or something Who in name only?
I watched it with the wife and remember I am a long-time fan; in my mind there is no other programme that will ever compare to it and as the end credits rolled my first words were, “I hope they can do better than that.” I disliked it immensely. What was Davies thinking? He had gone on record as saying he had been influenced by the likes of Buffy and Angel with story arcs and action packed 45 minute episodes. And yet we got burping bins, sloppy characterisation in the Auton Mickey scenes, a classic villain that was woefully underused, a lost opportunity to include old Doctors in the Clive scenes and poor incidental music that jarred the ear. Yes there were good points like Jackie, the new Tardis and the Time War reveal but it was a disaster. And the next episode didn’t do anything else but reinforce my initial reaction. God this is poor. Eccleston bopping to Britney was embarrassing to say the least and my guts were sinking with every scene. This new version was not good at all for me.
But then came the Unquiet Dead. Now we were talking, the Doctor was back. Everything was perfect and my hopes were raised and from this point in I grabbed it with every fibre of my being. I loved the triple cliffhanger in Aliens of London, the gas mask zombies in The Empty Child and the brilliant reinvention of the Daleks, making them the war machines they should always have been. And in the climatic Parting of the Ways when the Emperor is revealed and we get a glimpse of the Time War, those words “Rose, I’m coming to get you!” made me sit up and cheers and within thirteen weeks we had a new Doctor who was fascinated by his new teeth and I was fully back as a fan.
Yes there were a couple of dodgy episodes, Boomtown and the Long Game which felt forced into the overall arc but these paled in comparison to “Are you my mummy and the uplifting climax of this story with the Doctor and Rose dancing. And I have to disagree with those that said the show finally found a reality by introducing housing estates and how tired the show had become. Bandwagon jumpers piss me off because they don’t think and say what they feel, they think and say what they think others want to hear. In Sylvester McCoy’s final two years, the show churned out more classics than are ever given credit for. McCoy was the first to face flying Daleks, he was the first to use a housing estate background to plant alien threats and Ace had the most detailed background and characterisation of any companion previously, an arc that would have been resolved in the aborted 27th season. Ace was not his companion; she was an equal partner just as Rose was so if anything, Davies looked at this and used this era as his template for the new era. Indeed in his only Doctor Who novel, Damaged Goods, he again uses the council estate as the backdrop to an alien invasion and stating that the Doctor can enter royal courts and mix with kings and queens but he can’t get through a simple PVC door.
With the introduction of the tenth Doctor things took a huge leap in confidence. The Cybermen came back as did Davros, the Master and the Sontarans, all updated for a new generation while pleasing the old one. Although I don’t agree with the love story between Rose and the Doctor, it served some fantastic stories using new aliens and historical figures such as Tooth and Claw which gave us Queen Victoria versus a werewolf. The writing was sharp, the characterisations spot on with the semi-regular characters such as Mickey growing believably before our eyes. In School Reunion we finally brideged the old and the new much like Star Trek the Next Generation when Spock came back. However the Doctor Who team did it so much better. Sarah Jane Smith along with K9 returned and the moment the tenth Doctor met Sarah n the darkened school was the moment David Tennant became the Doctor for real. Here the characters were deepened immensely, dealing with the issues of what life with the Doctor actually meant for his companions. Even Rose’s mother Jackie in Love and Monsters got this treatment as we saw the effect on her while Rose was travelling with the Doctor. Alone and lonely, she was easy prey for anyone that saw her as a vulnerable widow looking for some form of relief to make her dull life exciting again. We had already seen Rose reported as a missing person and now we saw just how traumatic Sarah’s departure from the Tardis had been for her. And to this point for me, the Doctor became even more real as faced with the consequences of his actions, he became more caring and less dismissive of his friends. This led to characters recurring after they left him ala Martha Jones and Jack Harkness, to being forced to wipe Donna Noble’s mind after she absorbed a Time Lord consciousness. He even met up again with third Doctor companion Jo Grant in the Sarah Jane Adventures. This had the greater effect of the Doctor isolating himself again, a trait that recently saw him in the Matt Smith incarnation let Amy and Rory think he was dead in order to protect them from him and give them a normal life again especially since they lost their baby because of his actions. And I think this is the greatest achievement of this new era of the show. Actions matter and have consequences. Companions leave but are still connected to the Doctor’s life and as Davros showed him in the episode Journey’s End, he changes people into soldiers, corrupting their innocence of what life is like but in fact we as the viewer see, he opens their eyes and become by default his eyes and ears in defending the Earth. As Harriet Jones said the Doctor wouldn’t be there to save them all the time as shown in Torchwood Children of Earth, Sarah Jane Adventures The Death of the Doctor which name checked a host of companions still fighting the good fight in the Doctor’s name and Turn Left where Earth history is completely changed when he is killed in The Runaway Bride while fighting the Racnoss. What Russell T Davies had created more than anyone else was making us care to a degree much deeper than ever before. Even those passing acquaintances play a larger role such as Harriet Jones and Mr Copper from Voyage of the Damned.
Stephen Moffat has continued this tradition by making the series even more serialised with the introduction of river Song and the mystery of her identity. In a Good Man Goes to War, which remains for me the single most perfect episode of drama, not sci fi, but drama of the year. Everything from the misdirection sing the Doctor’s crib to Matt Smith’s reaction to her identity made me smile and it didn’t matter people knew who she was. It was perfect. Matt’s Doctor is more than the other two the most faithful incarnation to the old Doctors. He is mad, mischievous, happy and dark with his mannerisms so Doctor like that it’s obvious he was born to play the role. Along with the return of the classic revamped monsters, we have a host of new ones that stand alongside the Daleks and Cybermen such as the Silents, the Weeping Angels and the nameless entity that almost got the Doctor killed by a murderous mob in the classic Midnight, a true tour de force in good writing and drama.
And on top of that one off characters that offer a glimpse of a whole world of unseen adventures like the Silurian warrior living in Victorian London and the Sontaran that became a nurse and Lorna Bucket, a girl that met the Doctor for thirty seconds and joined an army just to see him again.
It is no wonder then that the new Who is such a success and makes people wonder why the BBC ever let it die. It has everything a viewer can want, not a fan but a viewer, the people you want to come back week after week because the fans will always be there, viewers will desert you in a second if they don’t like what they see.
And the new Who has done that in leaps and bounds through good writing, characterisation and moments that make you laugh and cry. Like the classic show it has its odd wobbly effect and slow story but also like the classic it has built a whole new universe populated with memorable characters. No one cares the Skaresen in Terror of the Zygons is awful because the story is so good nor do people care when a door opens for no reason in Image of the Fendahl because the Doctor needs to escape for plot purposes. It’s the structure that keeps us there and by the way, isn’t it bizarre that we only see the Daleks sucked back into the void at the climax of Doomsday and no Cybermen or that Jack at the climax of Torchwood season 1 is in his office when the Tardis materializes yet next time we see him he is racing down a street, fully dressed with the Doctor’s hand in a backpack in Utopia. And not to mention the scene in School Reunion where the kids locked into the computers by their headphones suddenly lose them all in one second, running out of the room at Mickey’s insistence with smiles on their faces rather than terror.
See? Some things never change and that’s exactly why we love Doctor Who so.Owen Quinn is the author of the acclaimed Time Warriors series of books.