Friday, 3 August 2007

Just how good is the new Doctor Who?

Warning: Post contains some minor plot and casting spoilers

According to Loren Rosson on The Busybody, the New Doctor Who is as good as it gets. James McGrath on Exploring our Matrix is enjoying it too. For those unfamiliar with the show, here's a quick summary from an earlier post of mine on the NT Gateway blog:

American readers will be less familiar with Doctor Who than British readers. Very briefly, it is the longest running science fiction TV series of all time, from 1964 to the present; it is produced by the BBC and is about a time-travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey called The Doctor. He travels in a blue 1960s police box called the TARDIS and has a companion, usually female. He is able to change his appearance when he regenerates, and has done this nine times. The series was cancelled by the BBC in 1989; it re-emerged briefly in 1996 for a TVM; it returned triumphantly in 2005 when it had been transformed almost out of recognition from what we were brought up with, under Russell T. Davies. The current series is the third of these new Doctor Whos, with David Tennant playing the tenth doctor.
I was a big fan of Doctor Who as a kid. Jon Pertwee, the third doctor, was "my doctor" and they say that everyone thinks of their first doctor as the doctor. I spent much more time, though, watching the fourth and most famous Doctor, Tom Baker (1974-81), though, and this tends to be the doctor to those Americans who have heard of Doctor Who, apparently because the show was often on PBS at the time. When the Doctor appears briefly in The Simpsons, its Tom Baker's doctor we see.

Doctor Who was something of a Saturday night institution in the UK. I remember sitting down for Saturday night telly, the best of the week; the Midlands sports news used to go on for an age and then, finally, we would get Basil Brush, and then Doctor Who; the cliffhangers used to make you ache for the next week's episode. As I got into adolescence, and as Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Monday and Tuesday nights, and as Peter Davison took over from Tom Baker, my interest began to drop off, though I kept going with it for most of the time, out of loyalty as much as anything else. I never liked the sixth doctor, Colin Baker, I am afraid, and I was at university by this time and although Doctor Who was back on Saturday nights, I often missed it. I do remember thinking, all the same, how good "Trial of a Time Lord" was when I caught it. I began to tap back into the show again with the seventh doctor, Sylvester McCoy, partly because a new friend called Matthew, a close friend to this day, was something of a Doctor Who geek, who built Daleks, made animated films and so on. By the time it was cancelled, in 1989, I was pretty disappointed to see it go.

The Doctor Who that came back in 2005 was a complete re-imagining of the original, loyal to the show's mythology, in continuity with its story and charm, but brought right into the twenty-first century, with decent budgets, good special effects, great scripts, fine acting, and lots more emotion. I used to say after every episode of the first series of the new Doctor Who, "I think I've died and gone to TV heaven!" Much of the success was due to the appointment of Russell T. Davies as the head script writer, one of the finest TV writers around today. It's alleged that he said to the BBC, over a period of years, that the only think that would lure him to the BBC would be the return of Doctor Who. And that's one of the keys to the success of the re-imagining -- it is done by Doctor Who fans. Paul Cornell, the writer of three of the best episodes of new Doctor Who, "Father's Day" in Season 1 and "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood" in Season 3, graduated from writing fan fiction, to writing Doctor Who novels, and eventually to the new series. Similarly, Steven Moffatt, writer of perhaps the best episode ever, "Blink", in Season 3, as well as earlier gems like "Girl in the Fireplace" in Season 2, was also a Doctor Who fan in his youth, and was responsible for the superb Comic Relief special in 1999, featuring a range of actors playing the Doctor, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Grant, Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant and Jim Broadbent. In the most recent series of Doctor Who Confidential, David Tennant directed an episode that was a celebration of how fans of the show had become its producers, writers and actors, and it included a trip around the old BBC studios where it was filmed.

Unlike Loren, I very much like the way that the new stories, in Seasons 1 and 2, are grounded in a run down estate in present day London, with Rose's Mum Jacky and boyfriend Micky as recurring characters. But if anything, I enjoyed watching the doctor's new companion for the third season, Martha Jones, even more than Rose, though my kids disagree. I enjoyed every minute of this third season. It finished recently in the UK and we were delighted to be in the UK to watch the last two episodes "live", as it were. As soon as it finished in the UK, it began airing in the US, and we are watching them all again each week. Currently, we are on episode 5. The second half of the season, though, is much stronger than the first half. The two dalek episodes (4 and 5, "Daleks in Manhattan" and "Evolotion of the Daleks") were perfectly fine, but easily the weakest in the season. Episode 7, "42", was also not one of my favourites -- I am never a big fan of too much tramping around a space station. But the second half of the season was sublime, all the more so given the casting -- Jessica Hynes, Derek Jacobi, John Simm -- and some great stories.

Just how good is Doctor Who at the moment? It is difficult to imagine how it could get any better, and a huge part of that is down to David Tennant, who is now my favourite doctor by a country mile, and it seems that the majority agree (recent poll). His acting abilities in the role are taken to new heights in "Human Nature" / "Family of Blood". Rumours abound now that he is leaving in the fourth season, but a report that his replacement will be James Nesbitt has been categorically denied by Steven Moffatt, who is tipped to take over from Russell T. Davies as the executive producer / story editor. That would be a fantastic move, and he would be the ideal new head honcho. There is talk that the recent BBC1 series Jekyll, written by Moffatt and starring Nesbitt, is something of a preparation for Moffatt to take on Doctor Who Season 5. We have watched the first episode of Jekyll and are looking forward to the rest. It starts on BBC America tomorrow, good news for us since it is usually a six month wait before things arrive there. And speaking of BBC America, the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood is now scheduled to begin on September 8. Very well worth watching -- we loved it -- and will certainly be watching again now it's arrived here.

I've been gushing about Doctor Who for long enough for the time being. But it won't be the last time. The new Doctor Who has successfully turned me from a part time fan into a proper nerd who buys the magazine, downloads the podcasts (Doctor Who Podshock) and would even buy the t-shirt.

If you haven't watched the new Doctor Who yet, you are much more likely to be one of my American readers than one of my British ones. If that's the case, you can dip into the first season (2005) on PBS channels all over the country at the moment. The second season (2006) has reached the BBC America stage. The third season (2007) is currently showing on SciFi Channel. Or just buy the DVDs. For those of us who are up to date, it's a case of waiting for Christmas Day, and the Doctor and Kylie aboard the Titanic, which should be a lot of fun.

Update (13.49): I have adjusted the text above to alter my comments on The Sun's speculation about James Nesbitt as the new doctor, which has been categorically denied by Steven Moffatt himself over on a forum at Outpost Gallifrey today:
"The James Nesbitt story is a total fabrication. Made up. A fantasy. Just a guy sitting at a desk and just inventing stuff.

I wasn't going to say anything, but I'm getting embarrassed for the deeply wonderful Jimmy Nesbitt. So tell everyone please, cos it's getting very silly."
Of course what this refutation shows is that Moffatt is in a position to be able to deny the story, which suggests that there is some truth to the rumour that he is to take over from Russell T. Davies after Series 4.


Loren Rosson III said...

Nice show, Mark. I still say Tom Baker is the best incarnation of the Doctor, though David Tennant is a close second. By the time I reach the end of season three, I'm sure he'll be even closer.

James F. McGrath said...

Hi Marc! I am still not sure why you'd want to keep your Doctor Who blogging separate from your Biblical studies and religion blogging. For me, they are closely connected! :)

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi Loren. I like Tom Baker too and there is always going to be that part of me that thinks of him as the real doctor, just behind Jon Pertwee who is "my" doctor. :)

Hi James. Well, I'll discuss it on the NT Gateway Weblog when it has NT related themes that I want to discuss in that context, but I don't want to chat about it in general there because it will turn many of my readers and will dilute that blog, which has its own particular niche. But very much appreciated your posts, and the close connections :)
(It's Mark, by the way).

Anonymous said...

Very much a Doctor Who fan since the new ones have been coming out. I agree totally that David Tennant is the best one yet.