I’m not much of an avid television watcher, and it’s not just because much of what’s on the idiot box these days is…well, idiotic. Usually it boils down to the fact that as a student my schedule is usually unpredictable and often too burdensome to actually make a commitment to any series. I just can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to have my ass in front of the set at a regular time each week. As a result, I’m usually very late to discovering anything new in television. One extreme example is the fact that in the past few months or so I’ve discovered a new show that I’m quite enjoying. It’s called the X-Files; perhaps you’ve heard of it, especially since it’s been off the air for almost ten years now. This is basically my relationship with television. Other than Mad Men, I simply can’t keep up and only come to a show long after it’s been aired. One advantage of this, however, is that when I get a decent block of free time, I can devour entire seasons in only a few sittings.
My most recent television discovery, and one that I’m thrilled I was finally able to make, is the new incarnation of Dr. Who, which began airing in 2005 on the BBC and has made some appearances on the CBC here in Canada. I’ve recently polished off the first season, which stars Christopher Eccleston as the ever-regenerating Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion. Simply stated, I absolutely loved it, hence the fact that I’m actually compelled to write about it.
The story is simple and hasn’t changed much from the original series. The Doctor is not human, but rather the last surviving member of a species known as the Time Lords who are able to traverse both time and space. In the Doctor’s case, this is accomplished with his trusty TARDIS, a time travel device resembling an old-style London police call box. Immediately, you know that the viewer is expected to suspend belief or rationality. And, of course, wherever the Doctor goes, trouble surely follows. That’s the basic premise, and I won’t dwell too much on details lest I spoil it for those who have not yet seen it, save to say that the adventures are decidedly over the top, ranging from invasions by flatulent species to encounters with Charles Dickens.
What’s really to love about the show, at least in my view, is it’s balance between the far fetched plotlines that one comes to expect from such a show and a strong emphasis on compelling characters and storytelling. The show, unlike many of its counterparts, is driven by novel premises. At the center of every episode is a well-written story that drives the action. Rather than being filler for action and romance, though there’s a healthy dose of both, each of the Doctor’s adventures is centered on a well crafted and creative narrative which is deftly combines humour, suspense, and action. This is a show about great stories and adventures which cut straight to one’s childlike and geek sensibilities, which is ideal since those are both significant parts of my makeup.
This balancing act allows Doctor Who to walk a fine line between pure entertainment a la Star Trek and more cerebral fare like Battlestar Galactica. The show isn’t as intense and probing of big ideas as BSG is, but still allows these matters to have a place without throwing it in the viewers face. For example, my favourite episode of the season was premised upon the Doctor taking his companion Rose back to the day when her father died. The episode subtly touches on issues like the hypothetical ethics of time travel and “playing God” without ever directly mentioning it or having the actors duke it out superficially over the issue. The episode merely raises the question in the midst of a showdown between the Doctor and the forces of time itself. In addition, there’s a great family drama at the center. Doctor Who therefore offers up an ideal combination of over the top entertainment and real creativity without asking the viewer to take it absolutely seriously.
Lastly, concerning the story element of the show, each episode essentially works from the same template, wherein the Doctor travels through time and space and is forced to save the day. Some are critical of the show for this reason, but I don’t really mind this at all. The show has a formula that works andsticks to it and its always satisfying. This was the case with another Dr. I once enjoyed, namely Dr. Gregory House. In its first couple of seasons, every episode of House was essentially the same. A patient got sick; no one knew what was wrong; a remedy was attempted unsuccessfully; House yells at his team; House takes shit from Cuddy; House visits Wilson; House saves the day. Later seasons became to invested in the characters’ personal lives and while that’s all well and good it turned me off a bit. So far, Doctor Who has yet to pull this trick.
Yet another reason to love the show is Eccleston himself as the Doctor. Much like the show’s narrative strikes a fine balance, Eccleston does so as well. Whereas past Doctors, such as Tom Baker (who is still brilliant), areextremely eccentric, Eccleston’s portrayal is a bit more human. He also brings a good deal of grit and toughness to the role, much like Daniel Craig brought to Bond, which he in turn effortlessly combines with the Doctor’s dry and sarcastic humour. Piper is also a perfect fit as Rose, the Doctor’s travelling companion, especially since her and Eccleston have such brilliant chemistry together. Once again, however, the writers don’t force feed the viewer and romantic or sexual tension between the two, instead letting it emerge on its own as the season progresses.
What I didn’t quite like, and there wasn’t much not to like here, was John Barrowman’s Captain Jack, who’s introduced in the final few episodes. I suppose the writers were going for an over the top old-school action hero with this character but I found him to be a bit of a nuisance. I only really saw him as getting in the way of the great chemistry between the Doctor and Rose and being a bit of a third wheel. He also reminds me a bit of Tom Cruise and that’s never really a good thing. Perhaps he’ll grow on me in the coming seasons.
The stories as well, being over the top as they are, sometimes force the writers to create equally far fetched solutions which even for a show like this can seem a bit ridiculous. There’s also some employment of the deus ex machina method, which allows the Doctor to concoct the perfect solution to thwart impending doom just when its required. This is a bit of a nitpick, however, as I’ve never felt unsatisfied with any of the episodes thus far.
All in all, this is a really fantastic show that I’m thrilled I’ve finally taken the time to watch. I’ll be on to the next season now, which sees David Tennant make his debut as the new incarnation of the Doctor. I’ll leave you with the original theme music from the show, which just might have the greatest bass line in the history of music. I actually am somewhat partial to it over the new theme, which is a bit more upbeat.