Adam J Purcell Ponders… Before and After the new 'Doctor Who'
Published: 28th March 2005
I sit here on the afternoon of March the 26th 2005, only a few hours until the new Doctor Who makes a debut on BBC 1. I thought it might be interesting, for me at least, to note my thoughts on the return of Doctor Who both before and after I see it tonight.
The first thing that strikes me is the hype. It's everywhere. Understandably the BBC are making quite a thing of it, this is a big budget comeback for a TV series that the public consistently say they miss (where were they in 1989?). BBC TV and radio adverts. It's certainly strange to hear an advert for Doctor Who on the respected current affairs radio breakfast programme 'Today'! Apparently the national newspapers have been quite keen to cover it too, though I don't personally read any of them (I don't like having someone else's political opinions tainting the news or telling me how to think). There are also, I'm told, billboards advertising the new series. This isn't new, I've seen many TV programmes advertised that way in the past, but it is still a slightly strange thought. I've just seen the weather bulletin on BBC 1 and the first thing the weatherman says: "It might not be just Doctor Who making you hide behind the sofa tonight - the weather's a bit scary too..." At least there aren't mini Doctor Who figures given away with breakfast cereals, yet!
1996 feels like such a long time ago and I can't remember very much about it (must have been a good year!) but I'm sure the McGann TV movie didn't attract this much attention. Yes, it had the Radio Times front cover and certainly had it's fair share of TV trailers (He's back, and it's about time!) but I don't remember the wide ranging general public interest that there appears to be this time. Why? Was it just too soon after 1989? I think that is probably part of it. Also, perhaps, the fact that it was made in America very much with an American audience in mind. Yes, Doctor Who probably did need a rest in 1989. Not so much because of the series itself (though a change at the top was certainly overdue by that time) but more because the audience needed a break. Much the same might be said for Star Trek. By all accounts the last season of Enterprise was some of the best Star Trek in a decade (arguably more). The old sayings of 'you can have too much of a good thing' and 'familiarity breeds contempt' come to mind. Star Trek was far too overdue a change in leadership for that last season to make any difference, the viewers had already gone - I doubt even JMS could have saved it. They should learn from Doctor Who's mistake and not return too soon. 5 or 6 years is too soon. 10+ years would seem like a more realistic number. In the case of Doctor Who it literally gave time for some of the old leadership to die, rather forcing the hand of the BBC to look for new talent. I doubt they would really have gone back to the old guard but they really didn't have a choice, either way.
What else has new Who got over the TV movie? I'm not sure if there is much, actor recognition-wise, between McGann and Eccleston. They are both fine actors with a certain amount of recognition going in. The companions are, perhaps, more interesting. Daphne Ashbrook was great and, like the new companion Rose, her character was no screaming airhead. Rose is _not_ a breakthrough character for Who. We've had strong willed female companions who could and would go toe to toe with the Doctor before. Obvious candidates in Liz Shaw, Sarah Jane Smith, Romana, etc. Nonetheless, the choice of Billie Piper would appear to have been a shrewd one by Russell T. Davies. I'm told she can act (which has, at times, perhaps been a little lower on the requirements than it should have been) and I don't doubt that. The appointment of Billie as the companion has, I would contend, done a lot to generate interest in the new series. It got the programme into the tabloids more than it might otherwise have done. She's the sort of person the average tabloid or Hello Magazine reader might be interested in. Was this a consideration when casting? I doubt we'll ever know. It's certainly a happy coincidence for the series! The same could be said for the whole Dalek issue. When news came through that the Daleks wouldn't be in the new series due to a rights dispute (damn silly of the Terry Nation estate - who else would pay them for the Daleks if this new series wasn't going to have them?) the tabloids, particularly tabloid-in-chief, The Sun, mounted a big campaign to get the Daleks back in. You just couldn't buy that sort of publicity. Then came the leaking of the first episode. The BBC had no less than 3 stories about this on it's vastly popular news.bbc.co.uk Internet site and ran the story on the biggest national news programme. People suggested it was leaked on purpose but that now looks unlikely given that a Canadian has, they say, been sacked over the leaking. Nonetheless, the BBC and/or Russell T. Davies have been very canny with the way they courted the press over the new series. The only thing they haven't managed to do, to really get the audience in the mood, is assassinate the American President, as famously happened the day before the original Doctor Who series aired back in November 1963. Still, I'd rather they didn't delay the start of the first episode this time around - it would mess up my TiVo recording of it!
How will it do, though? Most accounts suggest it is actually quite good. Funny, entertaining and maybe even a little bit scary for the shorter and younger amongst us. ITV are, as a welcome return to tradition, attempting to trump the Doctor's return by having the popular Ant and Dec show feature the nice but dim (and supremely popular) footballer David Beckham, starting at the same time. The bookies are running bets on which programme will win and Ant and Dec are the clear favorites. Probably they are right but I don't think that will matter. Doctor Who has 13 weeks to find it's audience and the ratings for episodes 2, 3 & 4 will be more important to the BBC's decision on if there is another set of episodes ordered. I'd be surprised if there isn't, apparently they will make a decision somewhere around episode 4. Given the investment (financially and politically) I doubt they'd kill it so soon. But how will it really do?
For a long time (before there was any talk of a new series) I've been of the opinion that a return of Doctor Who will please no one. You've got the old obsessive fans who will complain that the shows history has been ignored or twisted. You've got the parents and grandparents of today who have a false memory of how good the old series was in 'their day' - you can't win against such nostalgia. Then you've got the kids of today who'd rather be playing on their PS2s than ever watch a 'family' programme (not that I imagine most families gather around TVs of an evening anymore at all). I hope I'm wrong. Certainly the fan reaction (and the leaking of the first episode has helped a lot to gauge this) would seem to be mainly positive. Maybe I'm also wrong about the nostalgia effect, perhaps it will be so good that it will at the very least appear 'as good as it used to be'? Maybe the kids will be encouraged to watch this particular programme with the rest of the family. Time will tell.
As for me? Well, I'm officially 'Cautiously Optimistic' as I have been for a few weeks. I have my reservations about the new Doctor and the interior of the TARDIS. I expect they will both grow on me. Perhaps I'm just latching onto slightly negative things now so as not to be disappointed by getting my expectations too high. Probably. I am excited. I must not be! It's going to be strange to see a new series of Doctor Who on our screens. In a few minutes I am going to meet up with the rest of the Staggering Stories crowd and we will all watch the first episode together. Most of them I didn't know when the old series was still on the air and given the obvious Doctor Who bias on the site it will be very odd to actually be talking to them about _new_ TV Doctor Who. Very strange indeed.
Well, here I go. I will tell you what I think after this widely heralded event. I hope everyone enjoys it. It's been a long time coming...
Yes, it's back.
I've now seen the new first episode, Rose, twice. Once when it first aired, now yesterday evening, with the gang and just now for a second time 24 hours later. It was Doctor Who, it was contemporary and it was very good indeed.
It's strange just how much it emotionally affected me. Especially that last scene with Rose running into the TARDIS in slo-mo, the confirmation that the adventures are just beginning. I was in no way really disappointed by this new first episode (though calling it Rose makes it difficult to talk about by name in case people think I'm talking about the Rose Tyler character!) That's not to say there aren't things I am still unsure about but they pale into insignificance compared to my joy at seeing the good Doctor back on our screens and in a form that both I and, I believe, the general viewing public will like. At our viewing there was a 14 year old (just around the top end of the age they primarily aimed at, so we're told), a 16 year old and five 'grown ups' in the age range 30-40 (that's two boys, one woman and four not-so-grown-up men). Reaction amongst the group was universally good, better than good even. The 'awkward aged' 16 year old, who wasn't at all bothered about watching, was one of the more vocally appreciative of us. It really worked for all the age ranges present. That's an incredible achievement in the fragmented and compartmentalised entertainment industry of today. I've also heard news reports that Doctor Who solidly beat the main opposition programme (the aforementioned Ant and Dec) in ratings. Based on this first episode I'd be surprised if this trend didn't continue and see the return for a second (of should that be a twenty-eighth) season. Assuming the rest of the series is as good I'd be very disappointed if that doesn't happen.
It didn't repeat some of the mistakes of the McGann TV Movie. This was British but not that forced American view of being British. Yes, it was fast paced and had good production values but it didn't feel like a Hollywood remake. The heart was that of Doctor Who. McGann was the Doctor and I'm very sorry he didn't get the chance to develop his character but it almost felt like he was in the wrong TV Movie - the Doctor was the Doctor but everything else was subtly off key. Not so with this new series. Eccleston is the Doctor too but not quite as instantly as McGann, I feel, but perhaps that's a little unfair - he's only had one 45 minute story compared to McGann's 90 minutes (and Rose Tyler was deliberately made the central character for this first episode which further decreased Eccleston's character development). Before going in I was a little worried I wouldn't like Eccleston but I can't see that happening now. I found him instantly likable in fact, if a little too comic. I expect the next few episodes will concentrate on Rose getting to know and understand this alien better, as we will through her. I have high hopes now but I don't feel I can entirely commit to his characterisation just yet.
The pace is good and much needed by this new 45 minute format and the times in general. I did feel it lacked depth somewhat but this was a hook to get people into the series and I fully expect Russell T. and chums to give us some of the most intelligent and complex Who ever to be put on the screen. I am particularly looking forward to the two double episode stories. The single episode stories, however, should help prevent alienating the viewers who might miss it the odd week. As someone who never missed an episode of the 'old series' I'm not sure how much that might have affected viewing figures but this instantly accessible nature of most of these new stories certainly can't do any harm.
Real money has been spent on this series and it really does show. It feel authentic. The old series had a studio feel to it. The lighting and camera work tended to lack interest and it did feel quite, well, staged. It's a little hard to judge the new series at this point on some aspects of production values as we were set in modern day London (and they clearly went out of their way to scream London to the viewer). What will happen when we see space stations, aliens and futuristic costumes, props, etc.? I don't know yet. I'm confident but only time will tell. Some of the computer generated effects looked a tiny bit fake but nothing too distracting (in particular I'm thinking of the explosion of Rose's department store and the transmission from the London Eye) but it feels a little churlish to really complain - to improve the effects that tiny amount they needed would have cost significant time and money, time and money I'd rather see spent on more episodes!
I've got the new theme running around my head, particularly the wonderful new strings. Of the McGann theme I loved the piano and this one has got me with its strings! I just wish the announcer hadn't spoken over the end credits, I was straining to hear the theme music in the background. The incidental music is rather less catchy which is not really a criticism, I'm not expecting John Williams style scores here. It did, for some reason, remind me somewhat of the recent Randall and Hopkirk [Deceased] remake incidental music. It's a modern sounding action/adventure score that is clearly aimed at getting the younger audience excited, though I think it will work for most older viewers too. It's certainly not something I'd be putting onto my MP3 player, unlike the theme tune itself. It will be interesting to see if it changes style based on the location of the story. Will this modern incidental music work for a Victorian setting? Will they try to make it? Again, time will tell. For this episode, at least, it works and I personally didn't find it out of place.
My mind is addled by it all, so I'll sum up for now. No doubt the next Staggering Stories update will have rather more considered views gained after watching the first 3 or 4 episodes rather than just this first one. For now though I am a very happy fan. I didn't think it could be done. I thought Doctor Who was trapped in the past and could never regain the interest of the great unwashed British public. I think I was wrong. I can hardly see how it can be better - it _is_ Doctor Who and it has been refashioned to work in 2005. My earlier caveats aside I think we're in line for 12 more weeks of top class entertainment. Russel T. Davies, Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper and everyone else involved (and what a lot of names there are on the new credits) have done a fine job and I hope they are as proud as they undoubtedly should be. They have big thanks from me, a dormant Doctor Who fan who is waking up _into_ a dream! As for the Doctor... he's back and it really is about time.
I continue my thoughts on 2005 Doctor Who in Adam J Purcell Ponders… In the Midst of the New Doctor Who