by Ricky Young
If one were to believe the online comments sections of national newspapers, the return of Doctor Who in 2005 led to more raped childhoods than any other programme except Jim’ll Fix It.
‘They’re doing it all wrong!’ was the cry. Podgy men in their thirties couldn’t wait to focus their ire upon show-runner Russell T. Davies, for perceived crimes against dim memories. That post-Tom Baker Doctor Who too-frequently resorted to rote and desperate storytelling, and more often than not consisted of helmeted men in sparse white corridors talking awkwardly about global politics (‘Thanks to you, Doctor, the resistance has triumphed! Our planet is safe again! Will you stay and lead us?’ ‘No, Commander, but I think they’ll be in good hands with you.’) didn’t stop them becoming very upset that the new production team didn’t give a hoot about what they wanted.
An unashamed populist, Davies took a moribund joke of a franchise and stripped it down to basics, making the story of a battered war-casualty and his platonic love for a toothy shop-girl a nickel-plated hit for the BBC. It was far removed from the Who that was a sniggered byword for fifteen years of single men in purple waistcoats attending conventions in Wolverhampton, content to spend hours waiting for a glimpse of Sophie Aldred’s bum.
Dissatisfaction with this approach manifested as an inescapable seam of homophobia aimed at Davies by his tenure’s end – the series’ attitude to relationships was playful yet grownup, something existing fandom most certainly wasn’t. The introduction of a defiantly omnisexual recurring character in Captain Jack could be seen as something of a provocation, but that the harping repetition of ‘there was JUST. NO. NEED for it!’ meant that there clearly was.
Self-assured and knowing, the new Doctor Who achieved nearly everything it set out to do; and while many of its best episodes may have been from other writers, including veteran farceur Steven Moffat, Davies managed to do something previously assumed impossible, and it’ll be his legacy: he got Who back on the telly.
Nothing is ever perfect, of course, and while spunkiness, sparkling dialogue, an initial lightness-of-touch and respect – rather than reverence – for the programme’s history made it the genre show to beat, the endlessly carping voices seemed gradually less mad over time. Never comfy with the tropes of sci-fi, Davies’ attempts at ‘epic’ consistently over-reached (he never met a year he couldn’t add a billion to, for instance), the bombast and reset-button endings eventually grated, and he cashed in the last of his goodwill with a series of tired, ‘will this do?’ specials.
Five years after the revival, with the cracks threatening to overwhelm Doctor Who, Steven Moffat took over, and made a series about cracks threatening to overwhelm Doctor Who.
The 2005 series was trailed with the tagline – ‘He’s back, and it’s about time’. He was back, but time wasn’t really a concern.
For a time-traveller – time-nobility, even – the Doctor’s adventures have always been remarkably linear. With a handful of exceptions, time-travel was the means to get to the start of a story, or leave at the end, but that was never going to satisfy Moffat. His previous work (Press Gang, Joking Apart, Coupling) was filled with narrative slides, viewpoint switches and timeline tweaks; now his main character owns and operates a semi-controllable time-machine, the temporal is brought to the fore.
Like the new Doctor, Series Five was quieter, cleverer, smaller and less showy. The first episode held little back in terms of coddling the audience, however, as the Eleventh Doctor arrived fully-formed – audiences got an echo of what Patrick Troughton’s arrival must have been like i.e. ‘who the fuck is this guy?’ – and for some viewers, both Smith and the new, slippery approach to time didn’t take at all. But Smith’s ability to charm and unsettle in equal measure had Tennant all but forgotten by the episode’s end. With a series-long arc that teased, delivered, and even kept some for later, Series Five was more of a time-bending serial than a set of stand-alone stories. Certainly, the return of the Daleks in a badly-executed WW2 story, two whole episodes turning the Silurians into boring Space-Jews, and the tiresome River Song exhausting her welcome could be considered glitches (the less said about Vincent Van Gogh, the better), but the return of the Weeping Angels, Toby Jones’ enigmatic villain, unexplained mysteries in James Corden’s attic and a two-part time-travel-infused finale meant Series Five remains the most solid and consistent run since the show’s return.
Telly’s only proper philosopher’s axe, few programmes respond as easily to retooling as Who. New supporting cast, new titles, new sets, new signature tune, new production team, and of course a new Doctor. Matt Smith’s anointment had led to some unease – who was this floppy young man with a face like a bag of protractors? – but if Eccleston’s doctor was a battle-scarred PTSD-victim, trying to regain a purpose, and Tennant’s was a cocky gobshite with a god-complex and a mean streak, the Eleventh Doctor is a tired and cranky old man, quietly thrilled to find himself fizzing with a young man’s energy and compassion. Less in love with his own Doctor than Davies was, Moffat isn’t afraid to show him as irascible and petulant, but it’s with an elderly twinkle rather than a strutting gleam. And let’s face it, the Tenth Doctor was a massive, massive prick. ‘In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before’ is far preferable to all the half-believed ‘I’m so, so sorry’s that prefixed yet another minor character’s unfortunate death. And when his turn came, he even had the unbelievable gall to whine about it.
The internet still runs aflame with those for whom the only true Who is the one in their heads, of course, but there’s less anger and less hysteria. Maybe people liked the new series more. Maybe Matt Smith is better than David Tennant. Maybe it really all was down to not liking poofs.
As has been consistently pointed out, it doesn’t matter.
The Doctor Is In. And he’s good for what ails ya.
The new series of “Doctor Who” premieres on BBC One on Saturday
Ricky Young is Hankinshaw in various places, regrettably.