A couple of years ago, while flipping through channels, I stumbled upon a very odd show. It had a wild-haired man in a bow tie, a sassy Scottish girl with red hair (or a “ginger” as people from the UK like to call them), a curly haired female archaeologist, and a military cleric. This group were combatting a group of statues that came to life when they weren’t looking at them. They called them the “Weeping Angels.” Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled upon the latest version of Doctor Who. And with one show, I was smitten. I mean, I was really in deep smit. It was brilliant and funny and exciting and startling. It took the ordinary things that, as children, we all used to think came to life when we weren’t looking, and reminded us of that childhood by bringing them to life! I was hooked. Instantly.
Doctor Who is a BBC science fiction (sci-fi) television show. It’s the longest running and most successful sci-fi show in television history and will celebrate its fiftieth year next year. Although there were no new shows for some time (the “classic” series started in 1963 and stopped in 1989), Doctor Who was never canceled. The latest shows started in 2005 and have been growing in popularity ever since.
I first remember Doctor Who when I was in either junior high or high school. The Doctor was played by Tom Baker and he played The Doctor longer than anyone else. He had big hair and a long scarf. By today’s standards, the special effects weren’t that special. I remember, even then, they left a lot to be desired. I mean, after watching Star Wars or Alien in the theater when they were originally released, the rubber masks and shoddy sets didn’t give the impression of someone traveling through space and encountering aliens.
There was something brilliant about the show. Something that went beyond the bad special effects and the rubber masks. It was the stories. The stories not only took one to other worlds, they also gave one hope - hope for the human race and hope for the future of the entire cosmos.
Since that time, when I was a young boy/man laying in my floor watching The Doctor, I completely lost touch with him, his companions, his police box, and their adventures. That is, until I happened upon the new shows a couple of years ago.
So, being the type of person I am, I started doing some research and found out a little bit more about Doctor Who. I discovered that The Doctor was a Time Lord - the very last one, in fact (I must have missed that bit when I was younger). This means that he was part of an ancient race of beings from another world (Gallifrey, to be precise). They have to ability to regenerate. That is, when something happens that causes a mortal wound to their current body, they can make themselves regenerate into a new one (unless they don’t have that chance, or if someone or something stops the regeneration process, then they cease to exist). This has to be one of the greatest inventions ever in the history of storytelling. When an actor gets tired of playing the character, or the contract runs out, or whatever, the writers just write out his “death” and The Doctor regenerates into the next person who will play the character. This is one of the reasons why the show can continue on for as long as it has. When the main character can change, and change in extraordinary ways, the show can go on for, well, fifty years and counting (Incidentally, Tom Baker played the fourth Doctor).
Also, his police box is called a TARDIS - Time and Relative Dimension in Space. As its name suggests, not only can The Doctor travel in space, but in time as well (since, after all, he is a Time Lord). The police box is kind of funny though. And it’s part of what makes the show not take itself too seriously. It’s a replica of a 1960s-style British police box. The police box has a phone panel so someone could contact the police. It also worked like a holding cell. If the police nabbed someone, they could place them in there temporarily. Now, that may have worked well in the 1960s, but the TARDIS still looks like a blue police box! There was a malfunction with the chameleon circuit that causes it to look the same (the chameleon circuit is supposed to get a reading of the surroundings and make itself blend in). However, The Doctor has grown fond of it and won’t change it.
Furthermore, also being the person that I am, I went back and started watching the shows before the one I had stumbled upon. Now, I didn’t go back to the “classics” (although, someday, I might). No, I started with the 2005 series with the ninth Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston). The new series started back up from a sixteen year lull with a new Doctor and a new companion, Rose Tyler, (played by Billie Piper. And, as an aside, I’ve been driving to this point and a couple of other points.) At first, Rose was a great character. It was great seeing The Doctor and his TARDIS with a new companion taking on new challenges.
As I continued to watch the shows, they turned rather sappy, especially after David Tennant became the tenth Doctor. Rather, most of them did. There were a few bright points. For the most part, however, the show became more about Rose than The Doctor. In fact, the show could have easily been called, “Rose and the Doctor” (notice the lack of a capital “T” there in the word “the”). The head writer at the time, Russell T. Davies, almost ruined the whole thing for me. He continued to bring out this romance between The Doctor and Rose that, to be honest, felt forced right from the beginning. I mean, I get it. Certainly, there would be a time when a companion “fell” for The Doctor (although, I don’t remember that happening when I was younger). But this... This was different. Everything else seemed to be a side note. Everything, and I do mean everything, seemed to be all about Rose. When she finally “left” the series as the companion, The Doctor still talked about her; sulked about her.
The next companions, Martha Jones (played by the fantastic Freema Agyeman) and Donna Noble (played by the spectacular Catherine Tate), were great companions. Martha was in university to become a doctor herself and Donna, well, Donna didn’t take crap off of anyone. She commanded respect from everyone she met - and she got it. Both of those companions lasted only one season (series, for the folks in the UK). And while they had some wonderful adventures with The Doctor, there was always this, I don’t know, “you’re not Rose so you’re not good enough” type of undercurrent that spoiled a lot of their stories. And I think it had a lot to do with Davies being the head writer. Every show he wrote, even after Rose had left The Doctor, had Rose in it somehow - a flash of her on a screen here, mention of her there. It was always about Rose. Even at the end of Tennant’s run, there was Rose, back again, almost ruining the entire thing for me (as well as other characters that I won’t mention here).
The shows took on a brilliant turn when Steven Moffat took over as head writer. Do you remember me saying there were some bright spots when Davies was head writer? Well, those were almost always Moffat stories. He took things like darkness and shadows, again, things that spooked us as children, and gave them purpose; gave us a reason for being spooked!
He also has a way of planting subtle (and some not-so-subtle) hints of things to come. For example, in the very first show with the eleventh Doctor, played perfectly by Matt Smith (of whom Moffat said, “Matt is The Doctor. Other actors just played the character.” And is the only actor nominated for a BAFTA award for playing The Doctor.), Moffat drops a line of a story that arcs through the entire season/series and on into the next - “The universe is cracked, the Pandorica will open, and silence will fall.” In between that line and the rest of the shows, there are splendid adventures and The Doctor is, as he tells his new companion Amy Pond (played by the wonderful Karen Gillan), “most definitely, a madman with a box.” But that theme, that hint, that spark, that “crack in time” is always there - waiting. That is how one builds a story! With the resurfacing of an idea, some little something to keep the people thinking, wondering, guessing, and yearning for more! Not the continued sappy “romance” of a character.
Don’t get me wrong. Moffat has similar themes. Amy has a huge crush on The Doctor. The Doctor flirts with River Song (played by the flirtatiously remarkable Alex Kingston). There’s also the love story between Amy and Rory Williams (played by the ever so cautious Arthur Darvill). But it’s never forced. Never sappy (though, there are a couple of moments in a couple of episodes). The stories themselves are just masterfully done. That’s what I think Moffat has over Davies - Moffat sees the bigger picture. He has an uncanny way of stepping back and seeing how this one scene, this one shot, this one glimpse or line or image will play out in the overall story arc he is telling. Davies, on the other hand, seemed to drop in a tie-in to a previous show from several seasons/series before without any continuation at all (“Bad Wolf” anyone?).
With all of this said, I’m so glad I stumbled upon these new Doctor Who shows. And I’m not the only one. It seems that since Steven Moffat and Matt Smith have taken over, the American audience has just skyrocketed. More and more people in the US are tuning in to watch The Doctor than every before. So, do yourself a favor and watch Doctor Who. Don’t go back to 2005 like I did (unless you just really have to). Start with Season 5 and “The Eleventh Hour.” It’s the first full episode of Matt Smith playing The Doctor and Steven Moffat as the head writer. You can thank me later.
Now, if you’ll excuse me. I think I saw something out of the corner of my eye...