State of the Who-nion

I’m going to be honest right off the bat: I am not a lifelong Doctor Who fan. (Gasp!) Well, I grew up in the Eighties in the U.S., where, before the Golden Age of Cable, the only station that played Who reruns was a semi-local PBS station that was barely watchable through all of the static. And, (WARNING: Further honesty ahead!) the only things that I can say with any certainty that I have been a lifelong fan of are Star Wars, Spider-Man, Batman, and Scooby-Doo. Are you still with me? Okay, good. Let’s do this thing.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I stumbled upon the Doctor Who revival completely unprepared. I knew of the good Doctor, as anyone who considers themselves a fan of science-fiction probably should–hey, if you’re a baseball fan, you probably know who the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers are even if both teams headed west before you were born. I was also fortunate to have a friend in grade school who was really into Doctor Who (he was also really into Star Trek, comics, and Monty Python…so, if anyone other than myself can be blamed for my current state of affairs, it’s him). It was under his watchful eye that I learned about the Doctor, K-9, sonic screwdrivers, the Master, Daleks, Cybermen, and the TARDIS.

So, when I heard that the BBC (do people still call it “the Beeb”?) was going to do a whole new Who series, I was all about checking it out. I’m always on the hunt for good sci-fi on TV, and will usually check anything out once if it looks even half-way decent. Well, the new Doctor Who was a hell of a lot more than “half-way decent.” In “Rose” (the first of the new batch of Who episodes), we’re introduced to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor. Eccleston’s Doctor was brilliant. His maniacal grin and that mad gleam in his eyes told you that being the sole survivor of the Time War had left some deep scars in this immortal rogue’s psyche. Watching Eccleston–especially in the episodes when he comes face-to-face with his old enemies, the Daleks–you just knew a day would come when a blood vessel was going to burst in his brain-box if he kept up that level of seething intensity. So, it came as no surprise when I found out that Eccleston was only going to last as long as the first season.

Shit! What’s a show to do when its star pulls out after one season? Easy there, Binky. Put that replica of Boba Fett’s blaster rifle down. No need to do anything rash. The Doctor is a Time Lord, remember? Time Lords have the ability, upon death, to regenerate twelve times. Eccleston’s Doctor was only the character’s ninth incarnation, we’ve got plenty of Who left.

Enter David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. Tennant’s Doctor (first appearing at the end of season one’s “The Parting of the Ways”) is younger than Eccleston’s. He favors tweedy, three-piece suits and Converse sneakers over his predecessors black leather duster. While Eccleston’s Doctor looks like he’d be a bit player in a Guy Ritchie movie, the Tenth Doctor looks as though he should be an office clerk or a teacher at a turn of the century prep school (a role the Doctor actually filled in the “Human Nature”/ “The Family of Blood” two-parter). And, although he still carries the burden of being the last of his kind, the Tenth Doctor seems to be a bit removed from the Time War, allowing Tennant’s portrayal to be a little lighter, a bit goofier. This doesn’t mean that Tennant’s Doctor can’t be a terrifying bad-ass when the need arises. In fact, when he does it actually seems to carry more weight than Eccleston’s usually broody and fatalistic Ninth Doctor.

I adapted much easier to a new Doctor in the second season than I did to the new companion in the third. Every Doctor had at least one companion, usually a comely young woman–hey, if you were a nigh immortal time-traveler, you’d choose a comely young woman to be your traveling companion, too. In the first two seasons, the Doctor was joined by Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper), a young girl from London and, occasionally, her boyfriend Mickey Smith (okay, okay, yes…there was also Captain Jack Harkness, but let’s keep things simpler, okay?). I’ll admit that part of Rose’s appeal was that Ms. Piper is more than a little easy on the eyes. But, Rose also had the kind of strength and resolve that you usually find in characters from a working-class background. When Rose was sent to live on a parallel Earth at the end of “Doomsday”, the role of the Doctor’s companion was filled by medical student Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman).

I’ve divided fictional characters into four categories: those you love from the start (Wash, Doyle, House); those you hate from the get-go (Glory, Jool); those who grow on you over time (Dawn, Simon); and those you don’t really miss until they’re gone (Tara, Zhaan). Rose Tyler falls into the last category. I never really noticed her, she was always just there. But, then she was gone. Her replacement, Martha, is in the second category. I admit it was a good idea to juxtapose the working-class Rose with the better-educated Martha. Plus, Martha being a woman of color (Agyeman is of Ghanaian and Iranian heritage) added an interesting new dimension to the show whenever the pair would travel to “less enlightened” time periods, like the Elizabethan ( “The Shakespeare Code”) or Edwardian ( “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”) periods. However, it took me more than half of the season for Martha to finally grow on me–partly, I think, due to a pseudo-romantic subplot that ran through the season (honestly…can’t a man and a woman travel through time and space fighting aliens without things getting all groiny?)–and, when I was finally starting to like Martha, she went away, too.

This brings us to a new season (the fourth) and a new companion (the third). Tennant’s Doctor is an emotional wreck. He’s lost Rose, whom he cared deeply for. He’s been through an emotional roller-coaster with Martha, as well. And, after believing that he’s the last of the Time Lords, he learns there was another survivor all along: his arch-nemesis, the Master. But, now he’s gone, too. The Doctor has prepared himself for a solo existence of broodily traveling through time and space for the rest of his lives. When he runs into Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), whom he last met in “The Runaway Bride”, the Doctor realizes that it’s no fun being able to go anywhere (or anywhen) without a mate along for the ride (the Doctor’s use of the word “mate” led to a fun bit of banter between the pair when Donna misinterpreted his platonic intent). I have a feeling that it’s going to take me a while to get used to Donna, whose grating, antagonistic personality seems like it would be a better fit on a show like The Office or Fawlty Towers. Of course, I’ve never been one to deny my fear of change.

What I’m not afraid of is finding out what this season’s story arc is going to be. Back in the day, Doctor Who was a serial; however, the revival is written along the lines of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with stand-alone episodes that lead up to the reveal of a Big Bad (Bad Wolf, the Dalek-Cybermen Invasion, the return of the Master). With only two episodes aired States-side, it’s too early for me to even hazard a guess at what this season’s Big Bad is going to be–however, hints in this week’s “The Fires of Pompeii” could be taken to mean that it has something to do with the Doctor himself, and “his true name.” I don’t know about you, but I know I’ll be there when this season’s big villain is revealed. Why? Well, because as the Doctor would say, this show is fantastic!

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2 responses to “State of the Who-nion

  1. I’ve been holding back responding to this post since I know next-to-nothing about Doctor Who. I’ve been hearing great things though about the new series, so….do you think I should give it a try despite my initial reactions to seeing bits of the series in the ’80s and thinking it looked too hokey to invest in?

  2. I never saw much of the original, but the revamp isn’t that hokey. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek at times, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    The leads are really good, the writing is usually top-notch and Russell T. Davis is frequently called the “Joss Whedon of the UK.”

    You should at least check out the first few episodes of the first season and then decide for yourself.

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