Trail of a Time Lord

Ten years ago today, a much-loved, oft-maligned and thoroughly-cancelled television programme returned to the BBC. Join the writers of MostlyFilm as we trace the new history of Doctor Who…

Not Now Paul
A hangover from someone else’s big night.

 

Generation
25th March 2005 onwards. (Emma Street)

When Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005, the show had been away from the screen for an awfully long time. It had been nine years since the one-off ‘movie’ where wonderfully cast Paul McGann did the best he could with a story that disappointingly felt far more X-Files than Who. It had been sixteen years since Doctor Who had been regular weekend teatime television.

There was a massive amount of expectation surrounding its return. Would Russell T Davies be man enough for the task of bringing Doctor Who back to its former glory? Geeks, Whovians other Doctor Who obsessives tuned in to find out. As possibly did some children. (Children also seemed to be drawn to this show for some reason.)

My daughter was eight years old when Doctor Who returned and for the next few years both of us were obsessed with all things Who-ish. The amount of money I spent on Doctor Who-related comics, action figures and Panini stickers was roughly equivalent to the economic output of a small planet (Like, say,  Raxacoricofallapatorius or Clom.) Inevitably my daughter grew up and found better things to do with her time than twat on endlessly about a television programme with her mother but they were good times while they lasted.

Our interest in Doctor Who started the moment that first rebooted Who episode did. It felt fresh and new and utterly cool while still acknowledging almost 40 years worth of Who-related history. I love the sense of fun that leads to this exchange between the episode’s central characters:

“Who are you?”

“I’m the Doctor.”

“Doctor what?”

And I adore Rose’s first encounter with the Tardis. I will never get tired of people discovering the whole “It’s bigger on the inside” thing. (In ‘The Runaway Bride’ a few years later, the situation was approached from a different angle when Catherine Tate’s character materialised inside the Tardis. Her WTF moment happened when she exited the thing. So it was more of a “It’s smaller on the outside” moment.)

Of course, everyone already knows that the Tardis is bigger on the inside. Except maybe not every single person watching that first episode back in 2005 did know. There were children watching, remember? Children who weren’t even born last time Doctor Who was on television. Maybe some of them hadn’t been spoilered by their parents. Imagine how their little tiny fragile minds must have exploded like kernels of popcorn.

And that’s what Doctor Who has always been about, really. Fucking with the minds of children. In a good way.

Reintroduction
Rose. 25th March 2005. (Emma Street)

Nine Rose
Strange meeting.

 

The episode begins in the vastness  of outer space and then zooms in hurtling towards a familiar-looking blue-green planet, then closer still as the British Isles come into view, finally settling an extreme close-up on Rose Tyler’s alarm clock.

Sure the whole zooming into earth thing has been done before. But usually the zooming heads towards a completely different continent. The unapologetic Britishness of Doctor Who is one of its many pleasures. Anyway, that zooming in thing is always exciting. I still get excited when Google Earth does it because that’s exactly the sort of thing I always imagined Computers Of The Future doing. And now they do! I love living in the future. Especially as it turns out that skin tight silver bodysuits are not compulsory.

Rose Tyler, brilliantly played by Billie Piper (and that was a surprise, right there. Who knew the former teen pop sensation had it in her?) goes about her everyday life in a less-than-two minute montage which is all as London-y as can be while still looking more like actual London than the sort of touristy London we’re used to seeing when Americans try to depict it. She gets up, she kisses her mum, she gets the bus, she goes to work at surprising-similar-to-Harrods-looking store ‘Henriks’, she has a flirty lunch date with her boyfriend. We now know enough about Rose to care about what happens next.

After her shift finishes, Rose goes to the department store basement to hand over lottery money. The tone changes and there is a sudden unmistakable sense that Things are Not Right. What with spooky noises, doors mysteriously locking and shop dummies inexplicably moving about. Especially that last one. No one needs that. Just as things look bad for our heroine, a man in a leather jacket grabs her hand and says “Run!” Ah, Doctor. We’ve been expecting you.

Eccleston is wonderful in the role. It’s a shame he didn’t stick around. The Doctor flips from flippant to deadly serious in a heartbeat. He’s great at comedy. When he turns up unexpectedly at Rose’s house in pursuit of the alien menace (their previous encounter having come to an abrupt end when he blew up Henrik’s), he flips through Heat magazine. “That won’t last.” he remarks. “He’s gay and she’s an alien.” Then he peers into a mirror. “Could have been worse,” he says. “Look at the ears.” Wait a minute, has he only just regenerated? Cool.

Then suddenly the Doctor will deliver a line like “Wilson’s dead” or “They want to overthrow the human race” with a terrifying level of intensity.

“Rose”  contains one of the best bits of dialogue in all of Doctor Who. Or anywhere, ever, probably.

“If you’re an alien how come you sound like you’re from the North?”

“Lots of planets have a North!”

The Autons – the alien threat in this episode – are utterly ridiculous. All plastic becomes living plastic, right? So why does it only seem to affect shop dummies? (With the exception of the silly burping wheelie bin that swallows Rose’s boyfriend Mickey.) Where on earth do the bullets for the dummies’ (literal) handguns come from?  If the living plastic can change shape at will (as it does with headless Massive-Paddle-Hands Mickey) then why doesn’t it do that all the time rather than sticking with comically inefficient shop dummies?

Oh, who cares? This episode wasn’t really about the Autons.

It was about re-introducing the Doctor, providing a companion worthy of his invitation to travel across space and time and establishing that Doctor Who rather than being a bit of a joke, was a cool, fresh idea that was that we could all properly enjoy at teatime on Saturdays. And in that regard it delivered handsomely. It was, in the words of Ninth Doctor in the episode at the opposite end of his one and only series: “Absolutely fantastic.”

Division
Love and Monsters. 17th June 2006. (Ricky Young)

abzorbaloff
A child’s prize.

 

The annual ‘Doctor-Lite’ episode, in which ultra-tight production schedules require one show per series to feature limited screen-time for the lead actor, can lead to joys such as Turn Left, Flatline and Bl*nk. But I’m picking as Marmite-y an episode as NuWho has ever broadcast, Russell T. Davies’ ‘Love & Monsters’. Combining an extended love-letter to (and gentle ribbing of) the friends and enemies to be found in obsessive fandom with a startlingly bleak study of loss and grief, ‘Love & Monsters’ got an immediate kicking when it aired. A lot of this was down to the Blue Peter competition-designed alien costume, the lack of Tennant cheekbones on show, and whether you got on with Peter Kay’s admittedly mannered performance as the villain. But look past this, and you’ll find a heart-breaking tale of misfits, weirdos and outsiders who manage to tentatively come together once a week to bond over a mysterious figure called The Doctor, just like millions and millions of us do and have always done. And for an episode criticised for being ‘silly’, there’s very few laughs to be had by the time the credits roll. The Ninth Doctor might have been happy when everyone lived that time, but The Tenth Doctor always came with a thick slice of Everyone Gets Killed.

Or worse. The first question he asked himself, post-regeneration was what sort of a man he was. As it turned out, the answer ended up being ‘incredibly dangerous to everyone around him’. Oh, that’s always been the way, of course, but the Tenth Doctor seemed to *know* it, and far worse, he never seemed to care – until he did, and by then it was too late.

There was plenty of love on show in ‘Love and Monsters’, but the real monster was the strutting prick in the brown suit. Watch this, then stay the fuck away from him. This episode was the series’ starkest illustration of that, wrapped in a fuzzy ELO fade-out. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Imperium
Human Nature/The Family of Blood. 26th May 2007. (Gareth Negus)

I wear a bowtie now
They call him MISTER Smith.

 

In 1989, the BBC finally dropped Doctor Who, and it passed into the hands of the fans.  This was a good thing, because these fans were (mostly) not of the spoddy, easily-mocked variety  – the sort we had seen in thinly-disguised form, played by Gian Sammarco, in the TV episode The Greatest Show in the Galaxy a year earlier – but the interesting, creative versions for whom Doctor Who was only one interest among many.

During the 1990s, The New Adventures novels (which continued on from the TV series) and the Big Finish audio plays (which featured past Doctors) allowed a number of budding writers to practise their craft. They weren’t all perfect by any means – the book writers seemed to divide between fans who had always wanted to be writers, and fans who had always wanted to be Doctor Who writers, which isn’t the same thing – but it kept them busy until they could get their hands on the real thing.

All but one of the writers of the Christopher Ecclestone season, including Russell T Davies, had some background in the New Adventures and/or Big Finish; in an alternate universe where Press Gang was never commissioned, it’s a safe bet that Stephen Moffat would have been added to their number.  But the only one to be explicitly adapted for the series was Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, and that’s because it is a fantastic book.

The story concerns the Doctor making himself human, posing as a teacher in a pre-World War I English boarding school while his companion looks after his Time Lord essence.  A group of aliens turn up, seeking a dose of bottled Gallifreyan.  The motives are a bit different, but the plot is broadly the same, centring on the question of what the Doctor would be like if he were human.

The set up is introduced in a breathless pre-credits sequence, after which the pace slows down and we are introduced to John Smith, a diffident teacher who is experiencing weird dreams, and embarking on a romance with the school Matron (Jessica Hynes).  Hanging over the apparently idyllic setting is the menace of the First World War, where we – and Martha – know many of these privileged schoolboys are destined to die.

David Tennant is terrific as John Smith, a caring teacher who is nevertheless a man of his time – the episode’s biggest shock comes when he casually authorises a beating of one of the boys.  It’s a reminder – which was very welcome at the time – of how good an actor Tennant can be when he dials it down a bit (sadly, the shouting and big stares make their return in the second half).  The only element which doesn’t work particularly well are the scarecrows, animated by the Family of Blood to serve as soldiers.  Included at Davies’ insistence to ensure the story included a monster, they look ominous when silhouetted against the sky, but in a group their movements are unthreatening.

It’s the perfect illustration of how good Davies’ Doctor Who was when everything was working in harmony.  The story is fantasy, yet works emotionally.  It offers characters  you can care about, and maybe recognise, as well as monsters.  It gives child viewers an introduction to a period of history they may as yet know nothing about.  It’s dark, but offers faith in humanity. Really, the only reason it isn’t seen as the best Who story ever is because Blink was on the following week.

Perihelion
Planet of the Ood. 19th April 2008. (Thom Willis)

Planet of the fudging ood
The end of the song.

 

The Ood. The fucking Ood. Russell T Davies’ only serious attempt to create a new monster for his run of Who (The Slitheen were a joke, the Judoon too derivative, the Abzorbaloff literally the work of a tiny child) was almost successful but for the actual execution. Intended to recall the horrors of Lovecraft’s imagination, they ended up looking like Gregg Wallace messily enjoying a plate of spag bol. Still, their introduction in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit is some kind of high water mark for RTD’s era and their eerily calm menace was a big part of that. So much so that the joke of fearsome monsters offering the Doctor light refreshments was pilfered wholesale for the thin-beer Moffat-era story Victory of the Daleks.

Their return, then, wasn’t exactly met with universal jubilance. Oh, one may have said when The Planet of the Ood was trailed, those guys again. Yeah.

Nu Who was on a roll at this point. Catherine Tate’s Donna had been set up as the new full-time companion and would, over the course of a single series, set a standard that frankly no other modern companion has met. Tennant was firmly at the top of his Doctoring game, making the headlong plunge of the following series of specials all the more bone-rattling. Davies was fully in control of his (re)creation, with only a handful of duff episodes in the series. It was a good time to give the Ood another go.

Where The Impossible Planet tried to treat the Ood humanely even as it turned them into monsters, Keith Temple’s only Doctor Who script fizzes with indignation at the treatment of the “slave race”. None-too-subtle parallels are drawn between the the British Empire’s casual attitude to those under its rule, with the dehumanising ruthlessness of slave-owning whites in pre-Civil War America and, less convincingly, with the clinical cruelty of animal testing laboratories. The Doctor is uneasy with the treatment of these creatures from the start, having encountered them before, and by the climax his fury is complete – when Tim McInnerny’s villainous boss is gloppily transformed into Oodkind, the Doctor does nothing but look on dispassionately. Sure it’s a grotesque fate, but it offers redemption in a way not offered to the brutal head of security Kess, say.

The backstory of the Ood is fleshed out a little, painting them as gentle, spiritual creatures sadly ripe for exploitation. The principle aim of this part of the story is to set them up as soothsayers, portending the doom of Tennant’s incarnation. Their haunting song is seemingly on Ten’s back for his entire journey, but the truth of the matter is that there’s this and there’s The Waters of Mars and that’s pretty much it. With that and the innocuous first mention of “The DoctorDonna”, it’s an effective move in a long game that Davies plays here, and pays off more satisfyingly than some nonsense about the Doctor having to get married in one reality and then murdered in another but he’s a tiny Doctor in a big robot and Winston Churchill is there for some reason.

It’s ironic that the story that sets the Ood free, that gives them agency as a species, is also the last in which they are prominently featured. Clearly their non-monstrous nature didn’t give them enough heft to push them into Moffat’s era, where they make a single, desultory appearance in The Doctor’s Wife. When the tenth Doctor’s song ended so too did the song of the Ood, but given their trials they probably enjoy the silence.

Regeneration
The Eleventh Hour. 3rd April 2010. (Jim Eaton-Terry)

now whose bowtie is cool
A new paradigm.

 

“Reboot” and “Repilot” aren’t terms that mean much to Dr Who, with its gnarled fifty year history of pauses, regenerations, cancellations and overhauls. But the Eleventh Hour, opening episode of the seventh season, represents (another) complete break with the past.

After five years under Russell T Davies, Who had become a BBC juggernaut, sitting alongside Top Gear and The Apprentice in the rotation of Radio Times covers. It was also starting to fall apart under the weight of its own prestige, becoming a succession of TV movies with David Tennant reaching the very end of his rock star Jesus Doctor act

So when the show returned with an unknown 24 year old time lord the stakes seemed unusually high. Jettisoning everything except the idea of a madman in a box, Steven Moffat laid out his vision of Doctor Who in maybe the most confident and entertaining episode since the show’s return. Everything that makes Moffat the best writer of Who episodes this century is clearly here; a twisty, smartly structured plot, combining emotional depths with snappy wit and sharp character definitions, along with some brilliant casting decisions; it’s hard to know whether the first act, in which Matt Smith hilariously redefines the Doctor as the perfect imaginary friend, or the second in which Karen Gillan establishes Amy Pond as one of the great TV heroines, is the most dazzlingly star making performance in the show’s history, but one of them is. Of course, all the weaknesses that lead people to relentlessly mock Moffat on Twitter are also present in embryo; the smug showboating of “basically, run”, the use of archive footage to embed the show in its history – one of Davies’ smartest move was to realise that appealing to the fans” is a hiding to nothing, as Doctor Who has to be aimed at smart 10 year olds to work – and the use of Karen Gillan’s legs whenever the energy flagged.

The Eleventh Hour still stands as the opening act of probably the most entertaining run in the 50 years of Doctor Who.

Stagnation
The Doctor’s Wife. 14th May 2011. (Blake Backlash)

Doctor's Wife
A box in a madwoman.

 

Not a title to conjure with. The Doctor’s Wife sounds like the title of rather stuffy theatrical comedy from 1951. And it isn’t quite right for the story we see. When the Doctor starts to spar with Idris (who, spoilers, has the soul of the TARDIS inside her) they don’t seem like a married couple. You certainly can’t imagine her thinking or speaking of herself as his wife. The Doctor’s Companion seems closer to being right – and there’s a nice ambiguity there about who that might refer to.

That’s not even the only thing that’s wrong with this episode. It was on telly just when the shine was coming off the Matt Smith era: it had started to feel like we were going out with a boy who was cute, passionate, funny, serious when he needed to be – everything we thought we wanted. But we had started to get the feeling that something just wasn’t right. And the look of the episode – a kind of tatty Victoriana, was overused in the Moffat era.

But, but, but… it feels like one of the few episodes since Russ left  that say  something about what it is  like to be alive. Neil Gaiman wrote it, and I know him best from the Sandman comics. I started reading them when I was 15, finished with them when I was 18. Looking back now, I think they told me comforting lies, dressed up like hard-won wisdom: but that’s OK, that’s what all fairy-tales do. I remember a line in one, a girl waking up on a plane, complaining about not being able to remember her dream. Morpheus tells her ‘When you dream, you always remember, when you wake up you always forget’. That’s an evocative phrase, one that makes being alive seem like mysterious adventure – and I can’t help feeling it’s almost certainly gibberish.

For me, the most memorable line in this episode is lightly thrown away by Suranne Jones (who is great). Idris, who is grasping for dear life onto the pain and beauty of being alive says to The Doctor ‘Are all people like this? So much bigger on the inside?’ That’s an evocative phrase, one that makes being alive seem like a mysterious adventure – and I can’t help feeling it’s almost certainly true. How wonderful to think that being alive for just a moment might rival being able to go anywhere in space and time. How heartbreaking to think that everyone you might love has worlds inside them that you will never know. And when we die, the worlds are gone forever.

A Whole New Regeneration Cycle
Into the Dalek. 30th August 2014. (Thom Willis)

wpid-wp-1427330944285.png
An unusual perspective.

 

In 2005, a new audience first encountered a Dalek. Alone, chained, injured, it called out for help and what it got was a Doctor. Battle-scarred and screaming, the Doctor wanted only to destroy it. In the end it destroyed itself, remarking on the way that the Doctor would make a good Dalek. Nine years later in our time, a millennium in the life of the Time Lord, its words sound more like a prophecy than a jibe.

In 2014 we encountered another Dalek. Alone, chained, injured, it called out for a doctor and what it got was…

By this time we were used to Daleks again. They turned up on a suspiciously regular basis, almost as if contractually obliged to do so. We had seen their empire rise and fall before the might of the Bad Wolf, seen them hijack the Earth to destroy reality. We had seen them fuse with humans and we had seen them reject their debased forms and reform as nattily colour-coded giants. We had literally seen every type of Dalek ever shown on-screen. Daleks were no longer news.

Into the Dalek, though, promises something we’ve never seen before – a good Dalek. But how do we define “good” here? “Genocidal in a different direction” is a curious way to look at goodness, and it is never once questioned in the episode. Even Clara, the Doctor’s external conscience storage unit, fails to notice that “A good Dalek” is only one wishing to kill for the other side. It’s not a moral stance, it’s a combat decision. Beyond that, though, it also offers us a look inside a Dalek.

This may seem familiar territory. The first series episode Dalek tackled similar ideas, but it did so in a way that was very much of its era. The supporting cast are varying degrees of ham. The sets are large-scale but lit like a Saturday night TV drama. The riveting performances of Eccleston and Piper aside, it is played way too broad to be taken too seriously.

This episode firmly rejects that aesthetic. This isn’t Saturday prime-time family fun, it says. We have a real director, an older Doctor with a harder attitude, we have better sets, better lighting, we have themes to explore. The boyish adventuring of the previous Doctors has been shelved. See how our Doctor doesn’t even try to save the hapless grunt destroyed by the Dalek’s antibodies? Doesn’t even say he’s so, so sorry. At one point in the episode, the Doctor asks Clara if he is a good man and she is unable to answer. The Dalek answers his question later, telling him that he is a good Dalek. Can he possibly be a good Doctor?

You might not like this Doctor but in the end he is the Doctor. If someone, anyone, calls out for a Doctor, he answers. The same man who grabbed Rose’s hand ten years ago and started us all running. Through rebooting, retooling and retconning, no matter who runs the show, we are there still, keeping up. And if we have the legs for it we can all keep running for as long as he can.

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About Mr Moth

Mr Moth writes - mainly about pop music, videogames and other trivial nonsense - for Mostlyfilm dot com. He also writes poetry, short stories and personal waffle for his own site mothinabutterfly.net (and has even done a book). Known weaknesses: Strontium-232, electro-pop.

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