No, But Really, Who Are You?
Doctor Who (2005): Series 1
I've been meaning to write about Doctor Who on the site for a while now. We've covered two of the biggest Sci-Fi franchises in history, Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. and Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same., but we've been missing the third pillar of the genre, the one other media property that could rival those two storied franchises when it comes to fan-base as well as the size of its entertainment hours. Doctor Who is a massive franchise, a series that ran for 26 seasons back in the day, and then coming back in 2005 to basically run again ever since (13 seasons and counting, plus a bunch of extra movies/specials). We can't not talk about it on Asteroid G.
When the show was taken off the air in 1986 it was fans, and various side outlets, that kept the franchise alive. Audio dramas sprang up, comics adapted some tales, novels were written, a movie was made to try and relaunch the franchise (we'll get to that production a little later). Doctor Who, though, really came back with a vengeance when Russel T. Davies came on as show-runner and worked to reinvent the series just enough to update it for modern audiences. It wasn't that anything drastically changed about the show (well, beyond the runtime of episodes, taking them from 30 minute stories that stitched together to create longer arcs, to nearly hour-long tales that were often self-contained). No, what Davies brought was adventure, a modern sense of excitement and fun that made the series feel fresh and new all over again.
I'll give Davies some shade down the road as his run drags on and some of his worst tropes come out, but here, in this first season of the relaunched show (or, if you prefer something faster to say, Who '05) Davies has a sense of lightness, of fun, that keeps the whole operation really working. Much of the credit is due to the show-runner, having a clear vision for what he wanted the show to be and making sure everything fired off and fly right. Taking a show with this much history and relaunching it is no small undertaking -- how much of continuity do you keep, how much do you get rid of, and what will the fans say about everything that's missing -- but there's an assured quality to this first season that really showed what the relaunched Who could do.
Although the 1996 TV movie tried to reboot some stuff (with some details, like the Eighth Doctor being half-human, a fact that was ignored ever since) this new series keeps everything that came before... it just sets a lot of it aside. See, between the times of the Eighth and Ninth Doctors (and this first season is all about the Ninth) there was a Time War. This Time War destroyed a lot of the universe, remade some of time, and left everything we knew about Doctor Who in the past. No more Daleks (well, for a time) or Cybermen (again, for a time) or any of the other baddies we expected. No going to Gallifrey, the Time Lord home-world, as that was gone as well. Everything we might have known as fans was gone, wiped away in a war we missed, a shocking opening salvo for the show but one that also gave the series a fresh start.
Remember, the show had been off the air for nearly 20 years. There was a whole generation that had grown up without Doctor Who and all that past continuity -- the old worlds, the old enemies, the old stories -- wouldn't have been known to new audiences. So while the show didn't reboot itself entirely as the Doctor made mention of details from time to time, this first season was largely free of the constraints of that continuity, allowed to chart its own course and find it's own way to introduce fans to the series fresh and new.
In that regard the actor chosen for the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, was a perfect choice. The actor already had a long career, largely in British TV and films, and that allowed him to add a light, but powerful, gravitas to the role as the Doctor. Eccleston found facets to the character -- humor, wisdom, anger, strength -- but through it all the core of the character never wavers. There was always something behind his eyes, tragedy and regret, that stemmed from his time in the Time War, and it was clear that Eccleston took all that back-story and put it into his character. This Doctor has a past that he regrets but he also knows that he has to move forward and try again with his new life (literally).
That was, of course, one of the big things preserved in this relaunch: the Doctor regenerating. We don't see the Eighth Doctor become the Ninth at the opening of the show (as was tradition in the past). Hell, as we'd learn years later, the Eighth actually didn't become the direct Ninth as there was someone in the middle, but we do eventually, at the end of the season, see the Ninth become the Tenth, and we also have plenty of comments from the Doctor about his long life, the things he's seen, the people he's been. The show knew how to dole out little tidbits about the alien at the center of the show without ever overloading the audience.
Of course, the show also provided Number Nine with audience surrogate required to sell the whole concept: the companion. This first season gave us possible the most famous companion in the series, the one that casts a shadow over the show even now (as she has continued showing up, in some form, even in later specials): Rose (Billie Piper). Rose was the first person the new Doctor ever met as he helped her escape living plastic people (it's a silly story) and the two bonded over that adventure and then all the adventures to come. As an audience surrogate Rose did her job really well, but if there's one issue I had (and I think a lot of fans had) it was that Rose became too much to the show (and to the Doctor).
The Doctor is an ancient being and not at all human. While there were many things the Doctor would do with his friends, his companions, the one thing he never did was fall in love. Rose, though, was shoved down the audiences throats as "special", someone the Doctor could have a "special" bond with (and, with the next Doctor, she kind of did). Rose wasn't just a companion, she eventually grew into a kind of lover, jealous at times. She wasn't just the audience surrogate, she got to let (some of) them live vicariously through her. That's the part of her legacy that gets tiresome for me because the show often become less about the adventures the heroes were on and more about the "will they or won't they" between human and gallifreyan.
Of course, there was a second companion introduced in the show, John Barrowman's Jack Harkness, a time-traveling rogue and semi-criminal, and when he joined the "crew" he added his own fun and lightness. He got in the way of that "special bond" that was forming between Rose and the Doctor and helped to muck it up for a time, letting us settle back into fun adventures without all the mucky stuff. Jack was only on the TARDIS as a companion for part of this season and then left at the end (for other spin-off shows), and even the Doctor would leave at the end of the season, leaving Rose as our only character to continue forward as the show reinvented itself for the second season.
It actually leaves me of two minds about this season. On the one hand I really liked what Davies did relaunching the show, and I also really appreciated the character Eccleston brought to the Doctor. At the same time, Rose quickly grows tiresome (although some of that is applying her later stories that I remember against her first season here), and then Eccleston leaves and the show feels different (arguably better) after this season. I wanted more time with Eccleston and I didn't get it and that leave him as a blip in the continuity, the Doctor with the shortest tenure on the series (even if his leaving was due to conflicts on set with Davies, which is understandable).
I like this first season but what I really liked was the potential for where it could have gone. I also like the later seasons, but for different reasons, and this first season stands out as something different and not altogether like what the show could become.
The Best Episode of Series 1
The interesting thing about this season is that while I like the characters and the overall vibe of the series, I actually don't have many individual episodes I like. That may be yet another reason I don't rate this season as highly as I'd like: it's individual stories are uneven. I do rather like "Dalek", though, a creepy, and strong, episode that let Eccleston play the war-ravaged Doctor perfectly while also giving us the first sight of one of Who's classic villains, the Daleks. Really a strong showing from this first season.
The Worst Episode of Series 1
Meanwhile the weakest episode is, not surprisingly, it's most Rose-focused. "Father's Day" sees Rose and the Doctor go back in time so Rose can see the man who was her father (who died before she ever really got to know him). But instead of just observing Rose interfere in time, causing a paradox and a time loop, and then time starts getting eaten by parasitic creatures, and there's bonding a emotions and... ugh. Like, in concept I can understand what this episode was going for, but in practice very little of this episode has consequences and the whole thing feels like a writing exercise in, "what, and?" The worst thing, though, is that it makes both Rose and the Doctor look and act stupid and it's just a drain on the energy of the season. This is the one episode I skip any time I go back to watch this first season because it just sucks.