Adam J Purcell Ponders… In the Midst of the New 'Doctor Who'
Published: 25th April 2005
What a ride it has been - and we're only four weeks in!
Literally three days after my previous piece (Before and After the new 'Doctor Who') it was announced Christopher Eccleston was hanging up his cosmic leather jacket and leaving the series after just one season (or 'series', if you don't mind overloading the term). It was a big shock and, I must admit, I was rather angry for a day or so. After all his talk of being the Doctor for this generation of kids he disappears off, apparently citing 'typecasting' concerns. All this only a few days after the massive success of the broadcast of Rose (the first episode, that is). How dare he damage this fledgling series so soon? What will this do to the credibility and popularity of the remaining 12 episodes that he had apparently disowned? As I'd said at the end of my last piece, by this time I still wasn't sure what to make of his new Doctor and this really did nothing to make me any more comfortable with the portrayal.
That feeling didn't last too long, I'm happy to say, though. Certainly by the next Saturday, the day that brought us the premier (for real this time - no Internet leaks!) of the second episode, my thoughts had changed slightly. This was before the BBC's apology to Eccleston which came the following Tuesday. At this time it was all rather confused, Eccelston was in hiding after an absolute mauling by fans and the press in general. I still didn't know what to make of the situation but I was convinced this was no rushed decision on his part, I was sure he'd already decided to go before the first episode has actually aired. I made a point of rewatching the Mastermind Doctor Who special that was shown a week or so before the series started where Eccleston showed up at the end to give a prize to the saddest (er, I mean, most knowledgeable) fan. Throughout the short 2 minute conversation with the presenter, John Humphries, Eccleston spoke always about the series in the past tense and made comment to how tough the shooting schedule was. At the time I put that past tense down to the fact that they had finished filming and were waiting for a yes or no on a second series. Humphries also made some comment about him being the Doctor now and in some years to come. Eccleston said "We'll see." Maybe I was reading too much into it but rewatching it after the announcement of his departure it all seemed so obvious! A blatant clue! Well, perhaps, perhaps not. Nonetheless, I was at this point (and still am) of the opinion that his departure from the series might actually be a rather good thing. Not because of any ill feeling toward Eccelston himself but rather because the idea of Eccelston getting too entrenched in the role and in 3 or 4 years leaving could cause real problems for the series. By that time people will be so used to his Doctor and he would be so tied in with the successful return of the series that I wondered how easily the public would accept another actor taking over. Eccleston was the man, at least to the viewers, who had brought back the series from the dead. His departure would have raised questions on whether anyone else could keep it going. With his departure announced so soon that nightmare scenario (however unlikely) was suddenly not going to happen. There was also the question of would Eccelston have left at the same time as Russell T Davies? That would have been an even worse scenario. Eccleston's swift departure also gave the new viewers of the series a chance to experience a regeneration, something which (for whatever reason) always seems to stick in young viewers minds.
As for the second episode itself, 'The End of the World', I have to admit I was a little disappointed by my first viewing. It didn't help that my TiVo was in the process of dying at the time (a nasty hard drive failure that took all the recently saved Doctor Who related programmes with it). Billie Piper was, again, surprisingly good as Rose Tyler. I didn't really have any preconceptions about her, I'd never seen her in anything or knew much about her Pop Music career, but the combination of her portrayal and the good scripts really makes her character more 'real' than any previous companion, I feel. How many others have had a scene where you can really see their fear at suddenly being in an alien environment. How many others have had moments where they worry for their safety because they realise they're trapped with a strange 'man' (really an alien) they know nothing about and have no reason to trust? There have been token gestures toward this type of thing in the past but nothing that feels anything like as authentic as this. It really was a very wise move by Russell T Davies to make Rose the central character at first and slowly give the Doctor time to reveal who he is to both Rose and the audience. "The aliens, they're so alien! You look at them and they're... alien!" That's one thing that didn't work so well for me - the aliens looked, for the most part, like Doctor Who aliens of the past! They weren't "so alien" - they looked like men with silly heads on! I did have a fear at how well they'd do 'outer space'. It's easy to make things look expensive and dynamic when you're setting things in modern day England (or Wales!) but it's quite another to keep up those production values when you have to build everything from scratch. I think this second episode did suffer a little from that. After the fast paced and glitzy looking first episode I did rather feel someone jammed on the brake for the second. It all seemed so much flatter somehow. Still, difficult second episode syndrome and an earlier quote (pre quitting debacle) from Eccleston suggesting they really find their feet in the third episode. My opinion of the second episode actually went up considerably on second viewing (thanks to BBC3 and no thanks to my TiVo!) I still consider it the weakest of the first three episodes, all that I have so far seen.
Between the second and third episodes came the latest press release from the BBC about the series. "The BBC regrets not speaking to Christopher before it responded to the press questions on Wednesday 30 March. The BBC further regrets that it falsely attributed a statement to Christopher and apologises to him." According to Outpost Gallifrey "A BBC spokesman said a mutual agreement was made between the corporation and Eccleston in January that the fact he was not making a second series would not be made public. But after journalists questioned the press office, the news was confirmed." All in all there is still a great deal of confusion about on the matter and I doubt the full truth will become available for a few years, if ever. One thing that does now appear clear, however, is that Russell T Davies knew well in advance of filming "The Parting of the Ways" that Eccleston will be leaving and no doubt the end is written for that scenario. Some have even quoted Russell T Davies as this having been the plan all along but they'd intended to keep it secret until the end of the first season so it will be a surprise. Personally I suspect a little bit of Stalinist revisionism in that. For one thing I can't believe anyone could ever really think they'd be able to keep it secret that long (for one thing Eccleston might by that time be booked up for something else that would clash with season 2).
If nothing else this drama offscreen has helped keep Doctor Who in the news and keep viewers interested in the drama onscreen. The ratings for the second episode were inevitably down somewhat but not when you look at audience share. It still healthily beat Ant and Dec (where, apparently, 'Little Ant and Dec', a couple of kids, interviewed current British Prime Minister Tony Blair). The changing of the clocks from GMT to BST (British Summer Time) gave everyone an extra hour of light that evening and the weather was surprisingly good - the probable reason viewership was down across the board for TV that night. I can't help but question the wisdom of putting Doctor Who on in the Spring, the more traditional Autumn with its nights drawing in might be a better time. It will be interesting to see how the Christmas special does and where they put the second season. I would guess it will be a Spring release again. They are currently beginning work on the next season. Just today the BBC has announced that David Tennant is the 10th Doctor and apparently Russell T Davies is already writing the first story (presumably the Christmas Special). That gives them about a year (depending on if they start Easter weekend again or sometime thereabouts) to get the first of the new season proper in the can. Rather less than that for the Christmas Special. If they can get that Christmas Special out on time then the extra 3 months until the next story, hopefully, with be enough time. It will be tight. Eight months of filming, a couple of months either side for pre and post production and there isn't much wriggle room. I'm sure it can be done, though, particularly given the parallel nature of the production.
I'm getting off-track, however. Last Saturday saw the transmission of the third episode 'The Unquiet Dead'. This is the first of this new series not to be written by Russell T Davies himself, instead penned by Mark Gatiss of League of Gentlemen fame. Unlike the second episode I didn't need to rewatch this one to like it. In fact of the three this was instantly my favourite. For me it looked good, was well paced, had a decent atmosphere and, well, I can't really think of anything to fault it. Again, for me, this was Doctor Who at its best. A small but perfect cast, more memorably good character moments with Rose (for instance her excitement of stepping out into the snow of 1869) and another good body count left in the Doctor's wake! What more can you want? There were also a healthy number of complaints to the BBC over it being too scary for children and, again, the BBC publicity machine made all it could out of this by first announcing that children under 8 shouldn't be allowed to watch Doctor Who and then later withdrawing that in another press release! I even heard an interview with writer Mark Gatiss on the Radio 4 end of afternoon current affairs programme 'PM' in which he said he was 'Quietly thrilled' by the reaction! So he should be. There was also an email from a listener, that was read out to Gatiss, where the listener said he thought Gatiss's episode was the best yet. It wasn't me but I have to agree whole heartedly. The general reaction to the claim it was too scary would seem to be along the lines of 'it should be scary and kids enjoy being scared in this safe way, don't change it.' Again, I couldn't agree more.
Viewing figures were up a million or so over episode two and Doctor Who appears to be maintaining a very healthy audience level. More than the BBC, or us old fans, could really have hoped for. Ant and Dec were beaten for a third week running. Minor quibbles about episode 2 aside the quality of the production has certainly been maintained and the audience are obviously hungry for a return to story based entertainment for early Saturday evening. Former BBC1 Controller, Lorraine Heggessey, clearly saw a gap in the market and was very shrewd indeed to bring back Doctor Who to fill it. It could have all gone wrong, and as I mentioned last time, I would have expected it to but it hasn't. This new series of Doctor Who really does work for pretty much everyone, it seems. I thought it would take until episode 3 or 4 until we really knew how it was doing and only then would the BBC commit to a second season. Well, they committed a lot sooner than I expected (a few days after the first story) and the public reaction has been better and longer lived than I would have expected, even after my upbeat assessment post-Rose. I wonder what would have come of a new series based on a successful McGann TV movie (i.e. where it wasn't up against an important episode of Roseanne)? Would it have been as well received as this? Would it have been as good as this? Probably pointless to speculate but I can't help but feel we may actually be better off with the TV Movie failing as it did, if only to have a true fan (and a British fan, at that) running the series (and one soon to be staring as the new Doctor).
Well, episode 4, 'Aliens of London', is soon to air. I'll make a few more comments tomorrow after tonights Doctor Who has settled in!
It's now actually over a week later and I have seen not only 'Aliens of London' but also 'World War 3'. Together these two make one story and, as the first two parter, gave us the first cliffhanger for the new series. As cliffhangers go it was fairly standard Doctor Who fair, if a little enhanced by 'our heroes' being split up into three parties and all facing certain death at the same time!
The story as a whole, however, was slightly disappointing for me. I'm not sure I can put my finger on why exactly but I didn't feel it was up to the standard of Gatiss' 'The Unquiet Dead'. Much like Russell T Davies' second episode, 'The End of the World', I felt it lacked energy and atmosphere. It was also a little needlessly childish - yes, this series is made for those 8-14 years olds in mind but do we really need to stoop to fart jokes to keep them entertained? I think Gatiss has proved that we don't. A good fast paced roller coaster ride with tension created as we ratchet up and the thrills as we speed down will keep anyone, especially the kids, entertained. That's 3 out of 4 Russell T Davies stories that have felt a little flat to me and I'm beginning to find myself back in the position of trying to defend Doctor Who to several people. That's not good. After 'Aliens of London' I told these people to be patient, it was only part one of a two parter it should pick up next week. Now I'm sure I'm going to have to tell them to tune in next week for 'Dalek' as that, by all accounts, is going to be an excellent story...
I also fear what will happen with the ratings. 'Aliens of London' appeared to do a fair bit of harm, for the first time we were beaten by Ant and Dec and Doctor Who scored a preliminary viewer rating of 6.98 million overnight, for the first time below that psychologically significant 7 million mark. Perhaps I'm worrying over nothing - Ant and Dec has now finished, hopefully Doctor Who will pick up a good few of their old viewers rather than lose more to the replacement Celebrity Mud Wrestling or whatever pap ITV has come up with. We've gotten our second season, perhaps I should stop worrying and let the new production team settle in a bit more. I just so hate to be disappointed and even more hate to hear that others were disappointed by it. I fear the positive buzz that was surrounding the series might not only fade but might actually turn into a backlash.
Maybe it's too early to be saying this but I do wonder if it might not be better for the series if Russell T Davies sticks as Executive Producer rather than getting too involved in the script writing. He can come up with the story arc and the premises for each individual story but not do the actual day to day writing. Perhaps his script editors aren't able to really polish his scripts as they would any other writer as he is the big wig Executive Producer who brought the series back? Hopefully his episodes will become a bit more engaging as we ramp up the arc toward the end of the season. Time will tell.
Don't take any of that as me thinking any of the new series has been bad. It's not that I've actually disliked any of these new stories, much less been tempted to turn off. It's just I feel that some could be, should be, a little better. More along the lines of the excellent 'The Unquiet Dead', or even 'Rose' will do just fine!
As ever with anything on Staggering Stories, especially opinion pieces like this, please feel free to give us your views on our Forum.
Bring on the Dalek...
I conclude my thoughts on 2005 Doctor Who in Adam J Purcell Ponders… Doctor Who Series Two, Season One