Doctor Who: A Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Introduction

This introduction comes about a week after the new season has premiered, so is somewhat tardy on my part. Catchup reviews of the new episodes to follow over the next few days and regular recaps from there on out.

I’m going to get this out of the way right now: I am British and love Doctor Who. I have lived in Texas for over 6 years and along with Premier League Football is one of the things I go out of my way to keep up with since moving here. They are not just forms of entertainment, they are integrated parts of British culture and give me comfort and a feeling of a connection to back home. I am a man who will proudly admit to gleefully receiving a Sonic Screwdriver last Christmas.

Doctor Who is currently the longest running science-fiction program in the world, and while a part of many a childhood (and adulthood) in the UK, it has been more of a cult favorite overseas. That said, since the 2005 ‘relaunch” it has definitely gained traction and a much bigger following. Here in Austin, the Alamo Drafthouse (in concert with the BBC) often schedules screenings on Saturday afternoons to show classic Doctor Who serials. Older Who episodes frequently told a story-arc spread over several ~25 minute episodes. These ‘arcs’ are often presented in a single edit (serials) on DVD and at these screenings. That coupled with new episodes on BBC, America has really raised the profile of the show.

So, for the uninitiated, what is Doctor Who? It is the tale of an alien (The Doctor) who belongs to a race known as the Time Lords. He cast off his responsibilities and stole a sentient time machine, know as the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), and set about exploring the Universe — typically with one or more human companions, as Earth is a planet he has a particular fondness for. The TARDIS appears as a blue British police box due to a fused ‘chameleon’ circuit, which was a common sight in the UK in the 1960s when the show first aired. Danger and shenanigans ensue as the Doctor and company explore history and the future. Due to his alien physiology the Doctor is able to regenerate upon death — with this he gains a new appearance and personality quirks while retaining his previous memories. This clever plot device allows the show to reboot and refresh itself at intervals as actors move on and is almost certainly the main factor in the shows longevity. The very first Doctor back in 1963 was the older William Hartnell who approached the role in a more stern teacher/grandfatherly role (as the show was originally commissioned with educational intent). Actors since have approached the role with different angles from cosmic hobo (Two/Troughton), dashing adventurer (Three/Pertwee), nutty eccentric (Four/Baker) all the way to the current Eleventh incarnation (Smith) who combines a easily distracted youthful persona with a darker ruthless streak.

Each viewer has their own favorite Doctor, like we all have “our” James Bond, usually the one we grew up with. Mine is Seven (although I bow to the magnificence of Tom Baker as Four), portrayed cunningly with a darker side than previous incarnations by Sylvester McCoy (seen recently as Radagast the Brown in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit). This “darkness” was to allude to a deeper mystery behind the Doctors origins and was termed the Cartmel Plan, although due to dwindling ratings the show was shelved for a number of years before the story could unfold. It’s a shame as it had potential to imbue the show with more substance, which has been one of the successful aspects of the relaunched version.

Some Americans may have caught the 1996 TV Movie which, being fair, was shit. A collaborative effort between the BBC, Universal, and Fox, it was intended to reboot the show for a new generation after a 7 year hiatus. It was a muddled affair the only highlight of which was being Paul McGann’s portrayal of the Eighth Doctor (which started as a mishmash of character quirks from previous incarnations) but he grew into the role so much over 90 minutes it was sad to not see him really put a stamp on the part (BBC audio adventures aside). If this botched TV movie was your first introduction to the Doctor, please do not let it dissuade you from jumping in.

I don’t want to get bogged down discussing 50 years of history, but the era before the reboot (while lacking the polish and flow of the relaunch) still offers some genuinely great stories. “Tomb of the Cybermen,” “Terror of the Autons,” “Genesis of the Daleks,” and “City of Death” sound like trashy pulpy serials but are really great examples of Sci-Fi done right. That said, the 2005 show is more accessible to new viewers simply due to the presentation, but if you find yourself drawn in I urge you to go back and travel in the TARDIS with these earlier incarnations of the Doctor, and you will be surprised how many traits they share with the show today.

2005 saw the relaunch with a new showrunner (Russell T. Davies) and Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor. Eccleston was already a established actor and well know from his roles in Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later (and will be seen in the upcoming Thor: The Dark World). His Doctor was born out of a war and he brought a tortured intensity to the performance that was very different to what came before. His inner conflict was countered by the presence of Rose (Billie Piper), a new companion who helped him through the aftermath of what he lost. This partnership and the writing ensured the relaunch was a success, and while Davies overly relied on a Deus ex machina resolution to many stories throughout his tenure, his contribution and importance in having Who today cannot be underestimated.

Since the relaunch the budget and technical abilities have been greatly improved. A lot of classic Who was notorious for having wobbly sets along with poor effects and makeup. So now, bearing in mind how limited funding is for the show, makeup effects have been really impressive and the CGI is at times breathtaking. I find some of it reminiscent of work seen on Farscape (another amazing Sci-Fi show worth checking out) with alien vistas and spacial anomalies shown to really convey a sense of epic scale.

With the BBC being involved, the show has access to their impressive and established costume and set department. Any episodes set within a period era in the UK, such as “The Unquiet Dead,” “The Shakespeare Code,” or “Victory of the Daleks,” draw on these resources to great effect. One episode a few years ago utilized the set of the HBO/BBC Show Rome to portray Pompeii with fantastic results (turns out Mount Vesuvius exploded due to the Doctor fighting a alien race called the Pyroviles — who’d have thunk it).

I don’t have rose colored glasses — there are some bad episodes (“Fear Her” and “Love and Monsters” spring to mind) but even when not reaching great heights of storytelling and acting, Who retains a charm that makes it still an enjoyable watch. It is a show above special effects and is more about the story, the adventures, and the memories. In its 50 years it has created not just one but eleven lead characters that are special to different generations, as well as memorable monsters such as the Daleks, The Master (an evil renegade Time Lord), and the Cyberman.

It is these memories that sustain the show. Many famous people are fans and have played roles on the show, including Michael Gambon, Timothy Dalton, John Cleese, Simon Pegg, Sir Derek Jacobi Kylie Minogue, Sir Ian Mckellan, and it was just announced that this year’s 50th Anniversary special will have John Hurt. Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman have both written for the show and a book was published last year entitled “Behind the Sofa,” chronicling the memories of numerous celebrities growing up the show. The book is a fascinating read and can be bought here with all proceeds being donated to Alzheimer’s Research UK. It offers great insight into how Doctor Who permeates different backgrounds, classes, and ages. Watching as children, we all hid “Behind The Sofa” when the Daleks came on screen or the first time we see the Sea Devils rise from the ocean.

Doctor Who is quite simply a institution. In this, its 50th Anniversary year, there are a number of special events planned. The show is currently on the air with an upcoming 90 minute special episode reuniting the Eleventh Doctor with his previous incarnation to the glee of many fans. This is a tactic undertaken by the show previously on its 10th Anniversary (“The Three Doctors”) and again on its 20th (“The Five Doctors”). The thing I am most looking forward to is the release of “An Adventure in Time and Space.” Penned by Mark Gatiss, this will be a BBC drama which will show the inception of Doctor Who, how it was put together and eventually made. It will also highlight the important contributions of Verity Lambert who in 1963 was not only the youngest producer, but the only female drama producer working at the BBC and how she dealt with this situation and was critical to the success of the show.

To expand on the current state of Doctor Who, the main man in charge is Steven Moffat, probably familiar to many as the person behind the BBC series Sherlock featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. He has written for the show previously and been responsible for not only some of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who to date but also some of the finest episodes of TV ever filmed. This is not an exaggeration — anyone who can sit and not be completely bowled over by “The Empty Child,” “Blink” (featuring a fantastic turn by Carey Mulligan), and “The Girl in the Fireplace” is beyond me. With the new season, Matt Smith is still owning the role and has just gained a new companion. My upcoming reviews will touch more on this but suffice to say, we are setup for another fascinating romp through space and time.

So, where to begin if you are new to Who? Due to the nature of the show, with regenerations and new companions. A episode with a new Doctor is essentially a renewal for the show and the best place to jump in. “An Unearthly Child” back from 1963 would be a bit too hardcore for most — the First Doctor was a crotchety sort. I wouldn’t start a new viewer with classic Who so the 2005 “Rose” is probably one of the best, and while occasionally clunky the Ninth Doctor’s season is still a solid introduction. “The Christmas Invasion” with Tennants first turn as Ten is spectacularly fun and well put together, leading to his lengthy tenure and and impressive assortment of episodes. The current Doctor (Eleven), described by the showrunner as being hired due to his resemblance to a “drunk giraffe,” gives an incredibly eccentric, vibrant performance. His arrival back in 2011 in “The Eleventh Hour” together with Moffat has given the show a new lease of life again and provides an outstandingly good opening for new viewers to the show. “Fishfingers and custard” and “bowties are cool” will enter your vocabulary — that’s for sure.

In my final attempt to convince you to give Doctor Who a go, I wanted to let the show speak for itself. A few years ago, Moffat wrote two very short minisodes called “Space” and “Time”. They show the eccentricity of the Doctor (Eleven) and his interplay with his companions too as well as the plethora of charm that is the true core of this show. Give them a watch, then tell me you don’t want to hop aboard the TARDIS and see where you end up.

Previous post OZ: Sometimes Powerful, Not Quite Great
Next post Trailer Round Up: ELYSIUM and ONLY GOD FORGIVES