Thursday, June 13, 2013

Watching Doctor Who at Fifty

I will start off by saying that this post is not a retrospective about the series. I simply lack the context to provide that, having as I do virtually no familiarity with Doctor Who during its first twenty-six years. Instead it is a consideration of the show in its current form, which is frankly all I really know firsthand.

My first encounter with Dr. Who, after all, was in the American-made TV movie that aired on FOX in 1996. I remember little of it except what seemed to be the titular character's wandering a hospital without his memory for most of its running time. Needless to say, it left little impression on me, and I'd thought, on anyone else, and was later surprised to find that it was regarded as canon, with Paul McGann officially counted as the Eighth Doctor. Recently reading a summary of that movie it struck me that this may have been because I came to the film totally unfamiliar with the character's history (I'd never so much as heard of The Master), and that I might have had a more favorable impression if I came to it as a longtime fan - but in any event, I did not encounter the franchise again until Syfy Channel aired series one of the revival in early 2006.1

Once again, I didn't know what to make of the franchise.2 For one thing it seemed rather light on concept, lacking the density of world-building or intellectual play I found in shows like Babylon 5 or Lexx. Much of what the show did present seemed to me very old-fashioned (the Daleks something out of a '50s B movie), while other ideas appeared just plain silly (like the Autons the Doctor confronted in the first episode of the revival, "Rose"). For another, the Doctor's four-dimensional tourism seemed aimless and casual next to the more purposeful sagas I was used to - and surprisingly Earthbound, the hero of this space opera doing much of anything off-world for just four of season one's thirteen episodes. Instead he spent a lot of time in contemporary Britain, and when traveling to other times, tended to stick with British drama's most conventional choices (e.g. the Victorian era, World War II), which seemed rather limiting.3 Even on a visual level the production left me underwhelmed, neither lavish enough nor exotic enough to stand out from the then rather thick crowd of TV space operas.4

Still, I was a fan by the end of the first season. I suppose it just took a while for me to catch its wavelength: its penchant for Douglas Adams-like zaniness and whimsy, its faithfulness to its inheritance, its Britain-centricness.5 (I'd watched a lot of British television before, but little of it genre television, and while I suppose I'm rather more up on British history than most on this side of the Atlantic, once in a while there was a reference to something I didn't fully get, or wasn't familiar with from before.6) It took a while, too, to get to know the protagonist (who would be intolerably Mary Sue-like if he were not a nine hundred year old alien of exceptional charm and generosity), and the dynamic between Doctor and Companion, and the rhythms of the story arcs. The stories got bigger, the visuals better. And while still regarding it as intellectually and dramatically lighter stuff than many past favorites, and packed with implausibilities and dissonances best not examined too closely, every so often it offered a clever idea (as in "Blink"), or a genuinely moving moment (as in "Vincent and the Doctor"), while presenting its humanism with rather more conviction than the later Trek series' managed, and maintaining a cheerfulness that is downright refreshing in this age of dark-and-gritty-everything-with-a-side-of-still-more-dark-and-gritty. It has all made for an appealing enough combination that I find myself looking forward to season eight in a way I would not be to the announcement of an anemic new small screen Trek, or yet another clone of the Galactica reboot.

1. As indicated by the lengthy article devoted to it on Wikipedia, and its 5.9 score over at the Internet Movie Data Base, others responded rather more favorably.
2. It is worth remembering that I had long since read a large portion of the genre's print classics (a fair amount of newer stuff included), and taken in such shows as the famously idiosyncratic Lexx, so that this was not simply a case of a viewer being confused about what to make of a show simply because it "was not Star Trek."
3. Of course, series four of Lexx was set on contemporary Earth - but that followed three seasons of outer-space adventure.
4. For nearly two decades, from the late 1980s to the late 2000s, there was always at least one first-run North American space opera in production, and around the turn of the century, often a half dozen. However, no such show has been on the air since the cancellation of Stargate: Universe.
5. Interestingly, Adams was to be a direct influence on the show's course in a number of ways, not least his writing a number of episodes.
6. Case in point: in the second series episode "The Idiot's Lantern," the plot hinges on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth being a milestone in the history of television, something of which I had not previously been aware. Prior to that, in "The Doctor Dances," when the Doctor followed up "beat the Germans, save the world" with "don't forget the welfare state!" I had been less than certain of the connection implied between the former and the latter - not having yet read Angus Calder's outstanding history of the era, The People's War.

My Posts on Battlestar Galactica
My Posts on Star Trek
My Posts on Lexx

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