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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Doctor Who 

I recently had the opportunity to watch "Rose," the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, written by Russell T Davies. It was good.

Perhaps you wanted more information than that? Well, the first thing they did correctly was in not taking the show too seriously. There's a strong thread of humor running through the episode, which makes the dramatic and scary moments that much more effective. Take the choice of villains for the premiere: the Autons. Evil alien gestalt capable of mentally remote-controlling anything made of plastic. And they exercise this ability most frequently by bringing mannequins to life. It's on the surface a very silly concept, store dummies going on a murderous rampage. But just below that surface is the acknowledgement that such a thing happening is a fundamental violation of everything we know about how the world works, and so there's good potential for fright there.

For a long time fan of the show, it feels both familiar and new. It's a bit early to say that Christopher Eccleston has made the character of the Doctor his own now. In this first episode he's manic, irritable, kind, uncaring, rude, sympathetic and above all just a little bit alien to those around him. It's an amalgam of traits we've seen in various incarnations of the Doctor before, and Eccleston plays the role so enthusiastically it works. There's a moment, near the end of the episode, where Eccleston precisely captures the essential loneliness of the Doctor, that is perfectly played. Billie Piper I'd seen in other shows prior to this, and I was less than enthusiastic about seeing her on the show, but she puts in an appealing performance that disarmed me. Her Rose is both bored with her life and clearly longing for something more to do than just show up at her job five days a week and then go home to the council flat she shares with her mother. She's no Ace, but then she's no Peri either, and in a welcome change from the show's formula, she gets to be the one to save the Doctor instead of the other way around.

Production wise, the show looks good, comparable to many other recent BBC shows, and the digital video doesn't look cheap as I feared. Yes, some of the CGI is a bit dodgy, but it's BBC budget dodgy, not "I am a cinematic genius for having the ground-breaking idea of filming actors against a blue screen" dodgy. The script by Davies is, as I mentioned, funny and dramatic, and more than a little knowing at times, which I suspect is the element most specifically thrown in to please existing Who fans. My only exposure to Davies has been his Doctor Who novels, so I was pleased to find that he's actually a good script-writer as well. (I, perhaps unfairly, have never been willing to watch the UK version of Queer As Folk, as one episode of the US version convinced me that the concept of the show was a waste of my time.) The music was a bit irritating, and the title sequence was painfully dull, but some rumors suggest that the final versions of both won't be seen until broadcast.

There have been some criticisms of the show on-line, and in fact the Sci-Fi Channel apparently passed on it because they didn't feel the show met their high standards for programming. As far as that goes, that's probably a good thing for Doctor Who. The Sci-Fi Channel is increasingly narrowcasting to an audience of nostalgic geeks that puts the comfort of the old above quality or originality. And primarily, and this is probably why the show is getting the critiques it is receiving, this version of Doctor Who is not a sci-fi show. It's a family adventure show, a general audience show, with science-fiction elements. This is not a show for people who have every cast-list for the first season of Star Trek memorized. This is a show for people who want an entertaining, sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, sometimes scary show, and who don't mind some nonsense about time-traveling aliens in blue boxes giving that to them.


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