Thursday, July 7, 2011

Let's Talk Doctor Who Part I: A Rebirth and Rebuttal

I am a Whovian. What is the mystical, nonsensical word that I use? It's the name of a fan of the long-running British science-fiction show Doctor Who. The show began in 1963 and has been runing on and off the air to this day. I found the show back in my sophomore year of high school and I have been harboring my Whovian obsession ever since. It's funny, a lot of my tastes in movies, music, and television steams from my sophomore and junior years of high school. But moving on, back in high school I was one of the few who I knew that actually knew and watched the series either in its Classic (1963-1989) or its Revival (2005-present). Sure a lot of people were familiar with a certain image of Doctor Who.
Tom Baker, aka the man with the long scarf, curly brown hair, and the enormous big eyes and teeth. Those I did find were fans first introduced to series by the Classic Era as opposed to the Revival. It wasn't until college I met a rather large and often increasing group of fans of the series. Thus the Red-Headed Whovian rejoiced. I was just hoping to do one post but at finishing this one, I'm feeling this will have multiple posts covering different aspects of the show at different parts of it's run. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.

For those who aren't familiar with Doctor Who, I'll give an overview of the concept. The series revolves around The Doctor, an alien of the Timelord race, who has the power to travel in space and time using the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which do to circumstances is stuck in the form of a Police Call Box. The Tardis is bigger on the inside. The Doctor basically travels from past to future, world to world, with any given companion (usually an attractive girl in her 20s). A simple enough sci-fi concept, how can it last? This is where it gets good. In 1966, the lead actor at the time, William Hartnell, wanted to leave the show due to failing health. This was a point where the show could have ended and faded into obscurity, then magic happened. The writers of the show came up with a concept, at the end of a story "The Tenth Planet," The Doctor falls to the ground and a white light appears, and William Hartnell is replaced by a different actor. It wasn't a look alike or even a similar actor of the same age. The fifty-eight white-haired Edwardian grandfather was replaced by a forty-six year old mop-top sporting cosmic hobo.
Doctors One and Two

The process was known as regeneration, granted it wasn't called that until the Third Doctor's (Jon Pertwee) time. Regeneration allowed a Timelord to survive fatal experiences by healing their body but in the process their appearance changes and so does their personality while still remaining essentially the same person. This allows new takes on a character, allowing for infinite possibilities for growth and play with the role. The "Classic" series ran twenty-six years with seven actors haven taken the role of The Doctor. The most famous being the aforementioned and pictured Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker). Baker was in the role for seven year, the longest on-screen tenure of any Doctor so far, and his era contained some of the most celebrated and popular stories of the entire series. After it's cancellation in 1989, it came back as a made-for-TV movie in 1996 with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. The pilot didn't take off and Doctor Who was thought dead once more. And thus, from the ashes, The Doctor regenerated once more in the year 2005. With a brand new Doctor, Christopher Ecceleston, as the Ninth Incarnation of the famed Timelord. The show has been running five years since then, under two different head writers and three different Doctors. Right now, Doctor Eleven is Matt Smith, the youngest actor to play the role and is quite possibly becoming my favorite. But I fall in love with every Doctor.

What I love about the show is that the show can be almost anything. It can be comedic, dramatic, tragic, or a mixture of all three. Nothing is off-limits in the show. It can be horror, action-adventure, satire, and even farce. The show, much like its lead, can regenerate eleven ways to Saturday. Not every experiment works, but that's why they're experiments, because trying something new isn't always flawless. Both Classic and New series have their peaks and their valleys. I love it all the same.

I am foremost a fan of the Revived series. That's what I started with and that's what I would choose if you put a gun to my head. Chris Ecceleston holds a place in my heart, he was my first Doctor. He was raw, intense, but also had a sense of compassion and wonder about him. He immediately brought me in with this air of mystery around him. I knew nothing of the series' history when I first watched it. Who was The Doctor exactly? What are the Timelords? What happened with the Time War? What left The Doctor this scarred and unstable? All this and how can he still be fantastic? Ecceleston did all this in just thirteen episodes. It was helped by a superb writing staff led by Russell T Davies, the man responsible for the revival of the show.

Russell T Davies and a Dalek

Russell T Davies (RTD) has not been the most acclaimed head writer and executive producer of Doctor Who. He did some things that fans didn't particularly like. I am no exception. Especially near the end of his tenure, RTD did some things story wise that didn't make sense or seemed incredibly contrived. But much like Shakespeare said, "The evil men do lives long after their death/ the good oft deterred with their bones." RTD did so much good as well. He brought the mystery back into the character of The Doctor. He created a likable and instantly memorable companion. He made the series a little more epic. He added more pathos to a series often thought a little too cerebral for its own good. This doesn't mean he lobotomized the series, he was simply adding extra heart for the two-hearted time traveler's journeys. Stories like "The End of the World," "Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways," and "Army of Ghosts/Doomsday" all had brains and heart in equal measure.

Yes, he did cash in on certain pathos later on in the series but that still doesn't diminish his earlier work or in fact his later work. Stories like "Midnight," "Turn Left," and "The Waters of Mars," took very dark turns for series and rank among the best since the revival. The episodes the RTD wrote that get the most flack are his finales. "Last of the Time Lords," "Journey's End," and "The End of Time" are all highly criticized among the fan base. This is because a lot of the flaws I listed above are ever prevalent. Davies fell into this rut by trying to out-do himself. Making every finale grander than the last. For the most part, he succeeds; where he goes wrong is in his resolution. He lays out an elaborate, grandiose story with a lot of conflict and sometimes he pushes the "Easy Button." Usually its a large scale alien army or a foe with seemingly too much power that seems to be toppled all too easily or in fact said events never even happen. I cannot defend Davies in that respect. Especially since he builds these finales up so well, except for "The End of Time."

He's not an infallible writer, there is no such thing. The one thing I hate is that there are fans who wave good-bye to him as if he contributed nothing at all. This is downright fan snobbery. He helped to find and cast two of the best actors to ever take the role of the Doctor, Christopher Eccelston and David Tennant. He didn't simply revive the series, he regenerated it. He made it his own, he added satirical and introspective aspects, he brought sexuality to the forefront of the family show without making it sexual. By which I mean, he made characters gay or lesbian, or omnisexual because frankly there are such people in the world. RTD was accused of having a gay agenda by having gay characters often take supporting roles in his stories. The supposed "Gay Agenda" just seems silly and just fan outrage that the series wasn't EXACTLY like how it was in the Classic era. But that's what makes it so good, is that it is his own, especially in terms of emotionally appeal. He plucked at heartstrings with sheer amounts of character development. He even took note of recent popular Sci-Fi/Fantasy series and used it as a model. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were influential in the way that show had both seasonal arcs and stand-alone episodes. He consistently played with format, allowing episodes that don't even have the Doctor as the main focus. Episodes like "Blink" and "Turn Left" are fantastic examples of this. Granted, this trend was started with the dividing episode of "Love and Monsters." The problem with that episode is that it goes just one step too far and is a bit overly ambitious.

I think that's how I can sum up RTD as a writer, "overly-ambitious." He was a long time fan of the show, he grew up with it, and sometimes enacting everything you wanted to do with your boyhood hero doesn't pan out perfectly. He had to balance everything he wanted to do with the show with the need to bring in figures. So yes, romance was introduced to the once-platonic time-traveler and there were aliens that farted and pop culture references. Just remember without Russell T Davies, there would be no new series and without him, we wouldn't have Christopher Eccelston, we wouldn't have David Tennant, we wouldn't have Matt Smith, and we wouldn't have the new head writer Steven Moffat. Oh Moffat and Smith, I will get to those to in the next post.

Be seeing you.

1 comment:

  1. Russell T Davies is a brilliant writer. Even though the finales get a lot of criticism, I think they end the seasons on a great note. They just have this sense that the whole season's been building up to the finale, which kept me wanting more.

    I have to say my favorite so far is still Tennant, but Eccleston was a great Doctor, and had a lot of character. Same with Smith, only his episodes are a lot more fun.

    Love and Monsters is so far the only Doctor Who episode I just don't like. I thought it was really dumb. The plot, the villain, and especially the ending. (You're going to date a block of concrete? Good luck with that, buddy.)

    Looking forward to the Moffat/Smith write-up.