The return of Doctor Who

Warning: this post contains scenes of extreme geekiness and probably requires a general familiarity with Doctor Who for it to make any sense at all. You have been warned.

Woo Who![1] At last, the wait is over! It’s been a long time coming – I’d given up all hope of Doctor Who ever returning after the one-off TV movie staring Paul McGann didn’t lead to anything. So when it was announced back in 2003 that a new series was to be developed by BBC Wales[2] under the general control of the excellent Russell T Davies[4] I could hardly believe it.

After the announcement came the speculation. Quite apart from the major issue of “would it be any good” was the question of who would play the Doctor. Many names were mentioned, but like a lot of people, I was surprised when I heard that the role had been given to Christopher Eccleston. He’s a serious actor. He’s done some very good TV work, including Our Friends in the North and a modern-dress adaptation of Othello a few years back. Not the obvious choice. But he had worked with Russell before, and more to the point, he wanted the job.

Now there are a number of ways the new series could have gone:

  • It could have ended up as a completely new show with only the title in common with the original
  • It could have ended up as an imitation of the original, which would never survive in the modern TV market
  • Or it could have managed to be true to the spirit and feel of the original, while embracing more contemporary ideas and production values, which is what I was hoping for

Another warning. If you’re expecting an objective, calm, reasoned review, you’re on the wrong site :grin

Well, having seen the first episode, I’m delighted, no ecstatic, no, errr, dammit, can’t think of a word for it, but you get the general idea, err, where was I? Oh yes, I’m happy[5] to say that they seem to have got it right. Really right. About as right as it’s possible to get.

It started nicely with the title sequence. A nice “time tunnel” effect with the TARDIS moving through it – new, but recognisable as a descendant of the various versions used in the past. And the music! A reworking of the classic theme, but closer to the 1970s version than the rather naff electronic version used in the later years of the original series. Quite wonderful.

Then we meet Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper, previously best known for some icky pop songs and being married for a while to Chris Evans[6]). We get a high-speed run-through of her fairly typical day at work in a London department store[7]. At the end of the day, she goes into the basement in search of a colleague. After the traditional running around in the dark, Rose is menaced by some rather more mobile than usual shop dummies. Long-time Doctor Who fans will recognise these as Autons, who first appeared in Jon Pertwee’s first story Spearhead from Space in 1970. Rose, obviously not being a Doctor Who fan[8] assumes they’re students playing a trick on her.

Rose is rescued by a tall stranger with a disarming grin and a well-worn leather jacket: The Doctor. He briefly explains that the dummies are not in fact students, but are being controlled via a transmitter on the roof, which he intends to destroy. Rose leaves just in time to see the shop explode in suitably dramatic fashion[9].

The next day, with no job to go to, what with the Doctor having blown up the shop, Rose is sitting around at home when the Doctor arrives. He is tracing a signal, and wonders why it has led him to Rose’s flat. Cue some malarkey with a severed Auton arm doing the strangling routine only to be deactivated by the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver[10].

After being rebuffed by the Doctor, Rose researches him on the Internet[11], eventually finding a stereotypically geeky conspiracy nut who has found images of the Doctor at many points in history. While Rose is talking to him, her boyfriend, who she’d left in the car has an interesting encounter with a wheelie bin.

Soon enough, the Doctor is back, rescuing Rose from the Auton replica of her boyfriend. And at last, after a lovely double-take (Rose runs into the TARDIS, runs out, looks all around it, before finally stepping inside), we see the new TARDIS interior. Wow. Gorgeous. Big. More organic than the offspring of a gothic cathedral and a planetarium we saw in the 1996 TV movie and a lot more fun than the rather sterile and cramped (but much-loved) control room of the original series.

The usual fun and games follow, with Rose playing a crucial role in defeating the Nestene intelligence that controls the Autons. All too soon, we reach the end of the story – but it’s just the beginning, as Rose runs to join the Doctor on his travels…

Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor manages to be uniquely his but with echoes of earlier Doctors – for a start, he’s got a grin to rival Tom Baker’s. He also manages to convey a nicely alien feel – his concerns are on a much larger scale than the petty issues of individual people, making him seem a little callous to Rose’s eyes. But his impassioned plea to the Nestene to spare humanity is impressive.

There are some nice humorous touches – Rose asks the Doctor why, if he’s really from another planet, he sounds like he comes from the North. His reply is quite lovely:

Lots of planets have a north!

And of course, the TARDIS is still stuck in its old form as a 1950s Police Call Box. Rose (not being a Doctor Who fan) has never seen one before, and asks what it is. It’s obvious that the Doctor is fond of his TARDIS and probably wouldn’t change it even if he could get the Chameleon circuit[12] working. Once again, he flashes that grin and sounds a little defensive when he replies “It’s a disguise!”.

Billie Piper is actually rather good as Rose – miles away from most of the passive screamers who used to accompany the Doctor. She’s bright, funny and (unlike her boyfriend) not reduced to a gibbering wreck by her alien encounter.

Cardiff is very good as London, too. Apart from some Embankment location shots, most of the action was filmed on the streets of Cardiff – all it took was the odd red bus and some signs[13].

All in all, a strong start to the new series. The choice of the Autons as the first enemy was a good one – quite symbolic really, as they ushered in the Pertwee era and the move from black and white to colour TV all those years ago.

Of course, what we’re all looking forward to are the Daleks, who’ll be coming up later in the series :grin:

[1] Who rather than the usual Hoo, for obvious reasons
[2] Basks in reflected glory[3]
[3] I’m Welsh! I’m entitled!!!
[4] Creator of Queer as Folk, well-known Doctor Who fan and generally much respected TV writer
[5] Understatement
[6] Irritating DJ, TV presenter, etc
[7] Played by Howell’s in Cardiff
[8] That would be a little too self-referential
[9] Much to the alarm of any Cardiffians watching: they’ve blown up Howell’s!!!!
[10] Woo hoo! Apparently one of the many toys to go on sale for the Christmas market will be a replica of this. I want one, OK?
[11] As you would
[12] It’s supposed to disguise itself to match its surroundings, but sort of got stuck that way in 1963…
[13] Apparently there’s an Underground station in Queen’s Arcade, who knew?