There’s a Steely Dan song – Doctor Wu. As is typical of Steely Dan songs, it’s about drugs, though it could also be about romance, or about something else entirely; The lyrics are elliptical, yet evocative. It makes you wonder what story is being told.
Are you with me Doctor Wu?
Are you really just a shadow of the man that I once knew?
Are you crazy? Are you high? Or just an ordinary guy?
Have you done all you can do?
Are you with me Doctor?
But my brother Ian and I didn’t sing it the way Donald Fagan wrote it. Because when we heard it, we heard it as “Are you with me Doctor Who?“, Much like John Barrowman’s take-off on The Wizard and I, which he sang as The Doctor and I.
Doctor Who has a way of creeping into other cultural areas. Even Shriekback has a reference to Daleks in a song called Hammerheads (“Our time has come, age of the hammerhead – This is our mission, to be the Daleks of God”).
The why of this is somewhat difficult to explain, if you didn’t grow up with The Doctor. The british, I suspect, understand this, but us yanks don’t, for the most part.
In america, Doctor Who is remembered as a bizarre, campy british show that we used to run across late at night on PBS stations. Primarily, we remember the iconic Tom Baker; wild eyes, wild hair, seventeen-foot-long scarf. Baker’s portrayal is relentlessly loopy, yet with a dark and gloomy level just below; he had a sort of whimsical grandeur, a mad-scientist air that balanced funny with steely-eyed serious.
It was a show that was easy to laugh at or hate. It was cheaply made, with effects that already looked ridiculous by the time it made a dent in the american consciousness in the late seventies. It was un-even in terms of writing and acting, and most of the dialog was so full of jargon and technobabble that it sometimes felt like it was in a foreign language. It also rarely made any logic sense, outside the universe of the show.
But it was also lovable. There’s something so cleverly inventive and goofy about it that it was hard not to be drawn in. And once you were in, if you were lucky enough to start with one of the better story lines, you tended to stick. Because while the writing was uneven, the show was always creative. It was always intelligent; thick with inventive settings, bizarre creatures, and whimsical characters.
One of the most interesting things about it was the depth of it’s mythology. By the late seventies, when PBS began showing the Tom Bakar Doctor (the ‘fouth doctor‘ in the show’s parlance), it had already been on for some fourteen or fifteen years in Britain. There were recurring villains, long-running partners (‘Companions‘), and The Doctor had already changed actors several times (using one of the show’s cleverest devices, ‘regeneration‘; a handy plot device when the the first actor left the show, which went on to become a key element of the character and ongoing story).
One of the things that differentiates rich, enduring sci-fi or fantasy is depth of background; the story behind the story. Lord of the Rings benefitted from Tolkien’s vast linguistic and historic work that never it page within the novel; Star Wars and Star Trek developed into cults based on universes built within, and then outside the narrative.
Doctor Who worked for the same reason; it’s body of myth supports it, even when it’s out on a limb in terms of content. Even when the dialog was terrible and the plots didn’t make sense, you knew you were in the middle of something that was building to mythic proportion.
All that said, I was never a huge fan of the original show. I loved it’s concept; I loved the wackiness and cleverness. But I couldn’t ever get past it’s carefree attitude towards logical plotting; its complete disregard for the inherent paradox of time travel. I also couldn’t get past its uneven scripting (I have, as you may know, and incredibly low tolerance for poor writing). I watched it, primarily, because my brother was absolutely hooked. Often I’d find him in the middle of a multi-episode marathon on a saturday night, and I’d watch while he explained the details I’d missed.
He remained a dedicated fan for years; watching through Bakar’s regeneration into Peter Davisdon, and then delving back into the older John Pertwee and Patrick Troughton eras (and this was before video rentals were available; he tracked the show across PBS stations and watched it it the middle of the night, if he had to). I was aware of the show, until I moved out of my parents house; it was a constant on our tv.
And then I lost track. It went on, though, running through three more regenerations and eight more years, before it finally died a quiet death in 1989, a victim of passing time and it’s own declining quality. I think it lost it’s ability to be relevant in an era of CGI and action blockbusters, and tried to make up for this by getting sillier and sillier.
I was wholly unaware of of a 1996 attempt to bring it back (with Paul McGann as the eighth doctor). My brother died that same year, or I think he would have noticed and told me. And I was equally unaware of the 2005 revival, featuring Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor.
It wasn’t until April 2007 that I noticed it, and then, only because my mother called me one day to tell me about a new show called Torchwood; a spin-off of the re-born Doctor Who. I think she’d forgotten that it was Ian who was the Doctor Who fan, not me. Still, I set my Tivo to record Torchwood; and loved it, when I saw it.
Only when I looked up Torchwood on Wikipedia did I realize that there was a whole new, re-born Doctor Who; but I ignored it, remembering the classic and not feeling any need to go back. I figured it was the same thing with new faces.
I missed out on something major, which isn’t all that unusual for me with great TV shows (I can barely think of one I picked up from the beginning; I always come in later with DVD rentals).
When Russell T Davies decided to bring back Doctor who after a a sixteen year hiatus, it’s very clear that he wanted to make a different kind of show.
I think in the years between the show’s demise and rebirth, it had become a bit of a joke. It certainly had here in the sates. So the fear was, I think, than a new version would be ignored or dismissed. I reacted that vvery way, and I think the producers who decided to bring it back feared audiences would react that same way. But Doctor Who is a british cultural icon in england, something several generations have grown up with. It’s a mythology they all know, fans or not. So what they bought back wasn’t doctor who as it had been; it was a child that surpassed the parent.
Whenever you delve back into the past for fodder for films or tv shows, you set yourself in a mine field. Sometimes we get attempts to bring something back just as it was, such as the first Star Trek films, which expanded on the original series without significantly altering it in tone or content. Sometimes film makers approach subjects with camp and satire; scooby doo, brady bunch, starsky and hutch. And sometimes they completely reboot as with the recent Star Trek, or with Mission Impossible. Some of those work incredibly well, some not at all, and most make little impact either way.
What’s hard though – and here, I’m trying to come up with another example – is to bring something back in a way that’s both true to the original, and better than the original. The only other examples I can think of are comic books; Alan Moore’s brilliant re-imagining of Swamp Thing, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Chris Claremont’s 1970s X-Men.
Davies and company did it. They brought The Doctor into the 21st century. They brought it back intact, with all the mythos of forty years, with all it’s history, with all it’s sense of whimsy and melodrama. But they had tools the original never had; budget, and technology, and perhaps most important, a clear, focused artistic vision. For the first time, the aliens look cool, the TARDIS looks mysterious, ancient, and alien, and the other planets and spaceships look like, well, like other planets and spaceships. Sure, there’s still that vague edge of silliness to them, but here, that’s because they’re supposed to be a bit silly.
But the real difference isn’t effects, or a modern look and feel. The real difference is that Russell T Davis is a brilliant writer, and a brilliant show runner.
There are those people out there who can take a concept – no matter hod odd, unlikely, or silly – and make it sing. I can think of no better example than Joss Whedon; on the surface, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed one of the dumbest show ideas ever. But Joss wove it into something transcendent; dark, mythic; tragic destiny and romance, an almost operatic storyline, told with cheerleaders and wry humor. What Joss did should be impossible.
Russell T Davis and Joss Whedon seem to be some sort of soul brothers. Because what Joss did with Buffy, Davis has done with that absurd old warhorse, Doctor Who. He took the bits and pieces of something silly and moribund, and fashioned it into true art.
The very first moment Christopher Eccleston walks on screen, you know this Doctor is different. One of the things the old Doctors had in common were a variety of whimsical, archaic (and occasionally absurd) costumes. They were typically older, rather professorial men, with the air of mad scientists or eccentric wizards. Not so Eccleston; he runs on screen in dark, urban clothing, heavy shoes and a U-boat commander’s leather deck coat. With his craggy Manchester features, buzz cut hair and rough clothing, he looks more like a thug; like a british gangster from a Guy Ritchie film. This ain’t your parents Doctor, his look says. This is something else.
I watched the first episode – Rose – because my daughter’s best friend was obsessed. I wanted to know what captured her ten-year-old mind, and if it was more or less than than what I remembered. I was sucked in from the first scene, but that meant little, because the show opens with Billie Piper waking up, bed-headed and groggy. I was in love with her from the very first moment of the show. Billie Piper as Rose Tyler is one of those women who gets directly into my heart; some magical combination of actress and role that make up a person so real, you miss them when they’re gone, miss them like an ex-girlfriend or absent lover.
But it’s when Eccleston walks in with his thug’s appearance and his northern accent and says “I’m the Doctor, by the way – run for your life!” that I decided I wasn’t just in love with Billie Piper, but that I really liked this new version of Doctor Who.
I was not, however, instantly converted. I didn’t watch episodes in order; I walked in and out, watching bits and pieces of episodes as my kids and their friends showed me favorite scenes and explained in loving (and often incoherent) detail what was going on and who was doing what to whom.
It seemed a bit silly; I loved that they were watching it, but I never quite bought into the idea.
It wasn’t until the last couples of months that I went back and watched it all, in order. And I found, first, that one has to watch it in order, and second, that it’s incredibly good. Hell, not good, great.
Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who isn’t just a series. It’s a story arc that runs across four years of TV. Two Doctors, a half dozen Companions, a love story, far too many deaths, and the world saved countless times. But it’s ONE GODDAMNED STORY. Every episode is full of foreshadow, back-reference, and internal continuity. IT’s full of clues you won’t recognize until a second or third watching. Every small story along the way builds on what came before, and every relationship is defined by, or defines, other relationships. Some of the episodes are funny, some are deadly serious; but they form one continuous, romantic, tragic tale. And that’s the key to all of it, understanding that you’re not watching single episodes, you’re watching something on operatic scale. The story’s told with with humor; but like Whedon’s work, it’s gallows humor, characters laughing when they know everything is coming down around them sooner or later. This Doctor is has a dark, haunted, injured look to him; not just goofy and bizarre, but tragic. He knows he’s alone, knows he’s ultimately doomed, you can see it in his eyes.
The casting is uniformly great; not just the major parts (Eccelston for some season, then David Tennant for three) but the smaller ones as well. And like HBO and Showtime shows in the US, Davis and his group of writers and directors get absolutely phenomenal work out of the actors by giving them terrific scripts, and then giving them room to really act. Tennant is a truly gifted performer, with range beyond what anyone could imagine and a shakespearean sense of timing (He gets more out of the word “…Well…” than most actors get out of a whole script). But actors like Catherine Tate, John Barrowman and Freema Agyeman also turn in performances that always seem more than one would ever expect.
To be sure, the show isn’t perfect. It’s inherently somewhat silly; it requires a vast suspension of disbelief. Any story based on time travel sets itself difficult territory; time travel is a mine-field of paradox and logic flaw. Doctor Who solves this by applying a few in-show ‘laws’ about interfering with time-streams and and ‘fixed points in time’ that can’t be changed. But primarily, they solve it by simply ignoring the issue (to the point where the almost break the third wall, characters saying “because it’s more fun this way!” when asked the hard questions about why they have to solve a problem the way they do).
It’s also somewhat uneven. There are many writers and directors involved, some of who stand out in terms of brilliance, and some not. They push boundaries in terms of story telling, and sometimes get out on thin ice in terms of believability or character behavior; but even the weakest episodes feature superior acting, and (usually) clever dialog. Even when they get somewhat absurd, they’re still incredibly well written. And every single episode moves the greater story along in significant ways.
I’ve now seen the entirety of seasons 1 through 4; the key story arc is over, in all it’s dark, tragic, romantic glory. Davis era as show runner is over, as is David Tennat’s tour as the doctor. The only thing left me are the four ‘special’ episodes (technically still season four, but really, they’re a mini-season, like the 3rd Torchwood series). When I finish those, I’m done with it. And it feels not unlike when I finished Sandman; that same sense of admiration and loss. Sandman, of course, came (to me) with years of popular admiration, so I expected it to be all it is. This, however, caught me entirely by surprise. Because I’d grown up with the old, and seen plenty of the new; I’d watch two seasons of Torchwood. I thought I knew what this show was, what it was all about. I knew Daleks and Cybermen and The Master. What I didn’t know, though, was Russell T Davis. Because he’s what makes this different.
There’s a new series coming; but it’s almost entirely new. New show runner (Stephen Moffat, writer of some of the new Dooctor’s best episodes, like Empty Child/Doctor Dances, and Blink), a new doctor (Matt Smith), a new Companion (Amy Pond); there’s even a new logo. But it’s not, in any significant way, the same show. It’s a whole new thing, a rebirth not just for the Doctor, but for the story, for the entire show.
One can only hope that, like the character himself, the show can be re-born yet again to be new, and the same.