Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Season with the Doctor

As a nerd with a long-standing interest in science fiction, and a lazy person with a long-standing interest in television, it may seem surprising that I never watched Doctor Who. I was certainly aware of the iconic show, but, like other lauded series (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer (another recently-rectified mistake, thanks to Netflix)), I had let it pass me by. My father would watch an occasional episode in the early 1980s, mostly after I had left for college, but I never sat down with him to watch an episode.

I suspect that the combination of two things dampened my interest: first, the sheer magnitude of the task was daunting. Twenty-six seasons of the show, albeit shorter seasons than a typical U.S. television series (though I didn't know this at the time), would make for a time-consuming and likely prohibitively expensive education. As with many serials, later episodes build on the past to create a comprehensive universe. Jumping in in the middle seemed like a recipe for confusion.

Second, the Doctors of the 1970s and 1980s, the ones I would see in glimpses on PBS and in advertisements, seemed all too...well, alien in their British eccentricity. The wild-haired Tom Baker, for example, with his odd manner of dress and queer grin, made me think of Gene Wilder's portrayal of Willy Wonka, and I didn't warm to the prospect of journeying through space and time with such an oddball.

As time passed, however, and virtual friends would sing the praises of the show, eagerly anticipating new episodes and new seasons, I realized I needed to see what the fuss was about. Doing a little research, it seemed as though the 2005 revival of the series, which had been cancelled in 1989, was a logical stepping-off point. Restarting the series meant that the writers needed to draw in a new audience that was not aware of the conventions developed in the earlier long history of the show. I could start anew, with only 6 1/2 short seasons plus a handful of specials to catch up on. The three actors who have played the Doctor in the revival (Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith) each have their own odd sartorial style, but look less like stereotypical British eccentrics than earlier Doctors, another point in favor of starting in '05.

I did a small amount of poking about on the Aetherwebs to see if I needed to know more of the show's history to understand the new episodes, and I listened to the first episode of the Dirty WHOers podcast, with Second Life alumnae/i Fuschia Begonia, Oolong Sputnik, Terry Lightfoot, and Mr. Sen, but otherwise went into the project cold.

I'll get the suspense out of the way: I liked Season 1 very much and have already queued up Season 2. Eccleston's Ninth Doctor was an intriguing character, seemingly blasé and carefree at times and passionate and angry at others (and I loved how he would frequently say "Fantastic!" in that accent of his). I was disappointed that he didn't stay on for more than one season. While the conceit of the show - the Doctor doesn't die but regenerates into a different form - allows for smooth transitions from actor to actor, one season of 13 episodes doesn't seem long enough to get to know this Doctor.

The other part of the show that leaves me uneasy is the reliance on the deus ex machina. To be fair, all fiction does this to some extent for dramatic effect, and TV dramas are especially prone to the use of the device, in part because of the need to fit the plot into a tight time constraint and in part because of lazy writing. Yet in Doctor Who the rules seem to be made up as they go along. Maybe these rules were laid down in the earlier incarnation of the show, but too often it seemed as though an episode would get to minute 42 and the writers would need to get the Doctor out of a tight spot, so they'd introduce a new feature of the TARDIS, or have the Doctor mumble something about time healing itself. (In fairness, some of the best episodes set up the important plot device earlier in the episode or earlier in the season. For example, in the season finale, the "heart of the TARDIS" plays an important role, but an earlier episode introduced the concept.)

The Doctor travels with one or more companions - that's one of the few factoids I knew going in. The companion serves as least two dramatic purposes: first, she or he is the audience's entry into the Doctor's world. We learn about the TARDIS, or the Time Lords, or events on Earth millennia in the future through the device of the Doctor explaining things to his companion. Second, the companion humanizes the Doctor, providing him someone to care for, or yell at, or otherwise be involved with. (Third, it's hard to write dialogue without two characters. The companion makes life easier for the writers.)

I have mixed feelings about Rose, the Doctor's companion for Series 1. (A certain Pixie has no mixed feelings - both thumbs down.) She's frequently annoying, dithering about her boyfriend, Micky, squabbling with her (truly annoying) mother, and crying a lot. On the other hand, she grows in emotional maturity a great deal over the season, from running way from plastic men in "Rose" to figuring out how to override the Doctor's instructions and operate the TARDIS in "The Parting of the Ways."

I'd prefer less emphasis placed on stock villains - this season had two episodes with Daleks, with more promised in subsequent seasons - and, for a guy who has all of space at his disposal, he spends an inordinate amount of time on Earth (budget control for the producers, I realize, but still...) Nonetheless, I can see why the series has such a devoted set of fans.

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