Thursday, 20 August 2009

DOCTOR WHO: The Complete First Series (2005)

Thursday, 20 August 2009
Four years after a successful restoration, Doctor Who is bigger than at any time in its 43-year history. Even during the heyday of its classic run (Tom Baker, mid-'70s), it was never as mainstream and globally-successful as its modern incarnation has become. As showrunner Russell T. Davies' final credits appear on the horizon, I thought it might be interesting to look back at that trailblazing first series...

What strikes you about 2005's reintroduction to this enduring TV institution is how much the show feels like an affectionate parody. It's also pitched so squarely at children that most episodes make The Sarah Jane Adventures look like The Wire -- although there are a handful of exceptions that feel like almost incongruous in their ambition. I enjoyed series 1 when it first aired, but didn't love it, and hindsight has magnified its teething problems...

At the time, I think Who dilettantes attached themselves to the buoyant leads (appealing Christopher Eccleston as the Time Lord, likeable ex-popstar Billie Piper as his chav consort), its visual richness, and fell in step with the massive hype; while older fans daren't judge it harshly because they were just pleased Who was back on TV.

But we've come a long way in three years. The show is now so beloved that it's impervious to any criticism, lest the outspoken be branded killjoys. Fortunately, Who evolves and improves its formula every series, all within the parameters of what Russell T. Davies established in this all-important comeback year. That said, series 1 feels quite trivial most of the time -- what with its flatulent aliens and burping wheelie-bins...

1.1 - "Rose" A naïve shop girl called Rose (Piper) is rescued from her dead-end job and council estate mundanity to accompany a lonely, eccentric, time-travelling alien known as The Doctor (Eccleston) through the Space/Time continuum inside his rickety phone-box TARDIS. In this debut adventure of the revived classic, old foes The Autons (mannequins brought to life), are the boogiemen for Russell T. Davies' brisk but facile premiere. As a launch-pad, this is uninspired and leaden frivolity that leans on cultural familiarity and gratitude that Who is back after 16 years in the BBC wilderness. Whovians put up with cheapo charity sketches in the '90s, so a full episode that takes itself half-seriously felt like nirvana, but compared to episodes produced very soon after, "Rose" is trivial and weightless. That it contains one of the show's most embarrassing images (someone being "eaten" by a burping wheelie-bin) makes Who's ultimate success all the more startling. An inauspicious start, to put it mildly. w: Russell T. Davies / d: Keith Boak

1.2 - "The End Of The World" The Doctor takes Rose five billion years into Earth's future, to witness the destruction of planet Earth from a nearby space station populated by alien voyeurs that include "last human" Cassandra (now just facial skin stretched across a frame.) A saboteur provides a mystery to solve, in an episode pitched at a child's sense of wonder at dress-up and CGI. There are hints of a darker underbelly to the series -- like when The Doctor refuses to prevent an alien's gooey death ("everything has its time") -- but they're outweighed by clichés like a treacherous gantry to cross (did nobody see Galaxy Quest?), and creative headslaps like Britney Spears' "Toxic" sounding out the Apocalypse. w: Russell T. Davies / d: Euros Lyn

1.3 - "The Unquiet Dead" Things perk up for Mark Gatiss' Victorian ghost story, possibly because Who's on firmer footing when its stories are sutured to history. Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) himself assists The Doctor and Rose in defeating gaseous aliens that want to inhabit human corpses, in a well-constructed story with a wintry ambience, some literary in-jokes, and sparkling dialogue. It also includes the first mention of mytharc lynchpin "The Time War", and co-stars Eve Myles (presumably playing a descendant of the character she'd eventually play in the spin-off Torchwood.) w: Mark Gatiss / d: Euros Lyn

1.4 & 1.5 - "Aliens Of London" & "World War Three" Our first two-part episode finds baby-faced, farting aliens called Slitheen posing as humans inside zippable flesh-suits, to smuggle themselves into Downing Street for reasons of global destruction. There's a memorable UFO crash into Big Ben (arguably the first time The Mill's FX work loosened jaws), and the first wholly agreeable performance from Piper, but this is ultimately another script that aims to entertain kiddywinks and cause anyone over voting age to squirm at its ridiculous, awkward and campy tone. And the least said about that "pig in a space-suit" sequence, the better. w: Russell T. Davies / d: Keith Boak

1.6 - "Dalek" The long-awaited return of The Doctor's famous enemy, "Dalek" owes something to Star Trek The Next Generation's "I, Borg" in its attempt to humanize a genocidal automaton. Chained up underground as part of an American billionaire's collection of extra-terrestrial artifacts (spot the Cyberman head!), the titular Dalek soon escapes and demonstrates to a new generation of kids why they should be afraid of irascible pepperpots (They dissolve bullets! They fly! They suck your face with plungers!) While a lot of the peripheral material is goofy nonsense (bastardized from Shearman's own audio-play "Jubilee"), Eccleston and the Dalek are magnificent as the lonely survivors of a temporal war that annihilated their respective species. The script remains one of Who's best efforts in putting a fresh slant on these beloved menaces, too. It's just a shame the sense of threat re-established with the Daleks never fed into the rest of the series, as they quickly devolved back into screeching hordes of incompetent tin cans. w: Robert Shearman / d: Joe Ahearne

1.7 - "The Long Game" Another unimaginably distant future, another depressingly low-rent space station. Yawn. The TARDIS touches down aboard "Satellite 5", a celestial hub broadcasting news across the galaxy. Simon Pegg guest-stars as The Editor (a frostbitten baddie taking orders from a razor-toothed ceiling turd) in a story where his minions are being killed after they're promoted to work on the infamous Floor 500. A statement on the class system? Well, vaguely. This plays like reheated '80s-era Who; so while there's fun to be had from Pegg's curt performance, it all feels inconsequential and dull. w: Russell T. Davies / d: Bryan Grant

1.8 - "Father's Day" An all too rare investigation of time paradoxes, as Rose changes the course of history by preventing her dad's death in a car accident. Winged beasties duly descend to repair damage to the timeline (don't ask...), meaning The Doctor, Rose and her parents who don't recognize their unborn daughter, are forced to take refuge in a church and find a way to set things right. Cornell's script is heartfelt and touching (albeit illogical – why doesn't Rose's mum remember these events?), but it's just nice to follow a story with actual human drama behind it. Of all this season's episodes, this is the one where a box of Kleenex would be handy... w: Paul Cornell / d: Joe Ahearne

1.9 & 1.10 - "The Empty Child" & "The Doctor Dances" The first episode to find equilibrium between daft whimsy and creepy sci-fi, future-showrunner Steven Moffat makes his Who debut to pen an atmospheric and intelligent horror story set during WWII. A gas-masked street urchin stalks the streets of London during the Blitz ("are you my mummy?") scaring homeless kids, while The Doctor searches for a mysterious cylinder lost in time, and Rose encounters a dandy time-traveler from the 51st-century called Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, later rewarded his own spin-off.) It's disquieting, inventive, has a story grown-ups can sink their teeth into, and totally justifies its two-part format. Bravo! w: Stephen Moffat / d: James Hawes

1.11 - "Boom Town" An unwelcome quasi-sequel to the earlier Slitheen two-parter, The Doctor makes a pit-stop at Cardiff Bay to refuel the TARDIS using the "time-rift" he sealed in "The Unquiet Dead". While there, it becomes clear that a surviving Slitheen (Annette Badland) has become Mayor, intending to leave the planet by harnessing a nuclear power plant's energy. More of a character piece than usual (there's a great scene between Eccleston and Badland's villain in a restaurant), it's just a shame it's all hung on another asinine plot. w: Russell T. Davies / d: Joe Ahearne

1.12 - "Bad Wolf" Has there ever been a more dreadful teaser than seeing The Doctor slump down in Big Brother's Diary Room chair? No doubt inspired by Davies' love of reality TV, we're back aboard another budget-saving space station and asked to believe The Weakest Link will still be on on-air (hosted by "Anne Droid", geddit?) thousands of years into the future. It's all silly nonsense that reeked of mothballs the day it aired, and only the final reveal of a Dalek threat rescues it from total failure. w: Russell T. Davies / d: Joe Ahearne

1.13 - "The Parting Of The Ways" A huge leap forward in ambition and scale, the finale of Who's faltering return is the first of many en masse encounters with the Daleks. The Doctor, Rose and Jack must protect the people of the "Game Station" from, ironically, a flying CGI assault of thousands of Daleks, led by a baritone Emperor version. Some enjoyable moments and ratcheting tension pulls you through clunking moments, while the story even manages to make hazy sense of the "Bad Wolf" motif secreted in many of this year's episodes. The real highlight is, of course, the last-minute regeneration of Eccleston into a grinning David Tennant -- hindsight proving that Eccleston's tenure was something of an expensive dry-run. w: Russell T. Davies / d: Joe Ahearne

It was a pity Eccleston's premature departure was spoiled by the tabloids (BBC Wales would learn to keep its secrets in future), as his regeneration would have sent everyone into frantic meltdown. Regardless, it was still a brave decision to replace Eccleston with an unknown Scot just when the show had pulled off a triumphant comeback year, but history shows that giving David Tennant the keys to the TARDIS was Davies' greatest masterstroke. For, as much as I appreciated elements of Eccleston's interpretation (his brooding intellect, say), he never looked entirely comfortable doing Cheshire Cat grins. His partnership with Piper was tinged with an odd vibe, too. The age-gap between the actors gave their "romance" a mildly creepy air sometimes, which is perhaps one reason why is wasn't attempted during the classic run. The age-gaps were far bigger back then, but the parental role of The Doctor was duly increased.

Armchair shrinks will perhaps wonder if The Doctor was everything the other men in Rose's life weren't (a father-figure she never had, but also an exotic boyfriend with brains.) I also wonder if Davies cast Piper because her own life contained parallels with Rose's -- both naïve youngsters whose heads were turned by mature men (Chris Evans in Piper's case) who took them on a horizon-broadening adventure (marriage and pub crawls with Evans, battling Daleks with Eccleston.) I don't know which is more frightening...

A part of me remains disappointed Eccleston never got the chance to sink his teeth into the riper material his successor was given, though. Imagine the naturally intense Eccleston facing off against John Simm's impish Master or Julian Bleach's pithy Davros -- those scenes would have been a whole different kettle of fish. As it was, series 1 threw Eccleston into fantasy vaudeville masquerading as "proper" sci-fi too often, which he had to literally grin and bear until his contract expired and he vanished in an eruption of golden light...

Overall, the renegerated Doctor Who's first series is a mixed bag that managed to overcome uneven scripts, and its pandering to the very young, through the strength of its lead actors and a general vibe that could charm the coldest of hearts. There are moments and episodes that still rank amongst nu-Who's best, but it definitely contains more dead-weight than the later, leaner series. But in looking back, it's still a great example of how to relaunch a series for a new generation without alienating an existing fanbase.