Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Ten Years of New Who

Doctor Who

The Doctor Is In (Again) as steven harris remembers ten years ago when the blue box landed again...

Ten years ago, on 26th March 2005, something fantastic happened. Something cosmic. Something out of his world. The BBC brought back Doctor Who and that early Spring Saturday evening saw Christopher Eccleston's debut in the title role. For those hoping for an outlandish costume befitting a Victorianist dandy or a colourblind tubster there was to be disappointment. T-shirt, leather jacket, jeans: the Ninth Doctor not only sounded Northern, he looked Northern too. Or like a U-Boat captain, as a certain John Barrowman was later to point out.

The man behind the return of Doctor Who was Russell T Davies, an excellent TV dramatist with an equally excellent CV who has retrospectively attained god status amongst some Who fans, largely because they all seem so set on berating current show runner Steven Moffat for 'making it all about the companion' or 'not having proper monsters'. Excuse my polite, attention-grabbing cough but it might be as well for them to remember that the first episode of the revamped show was entitled 'Rose'.

Yes, because Billie Piper's Rose Tyler, Eccleston's companion as well as providing continuity by staying on to make eyes at David Tennant, was the grounding point for the show. We very much saw The Doctor through Rose's eyes and in order to do this we were invited into her life as well as the lives of her mum Jackie, and boyfriend Mickey.

Monsters? The first episode saw the Autons stalk shopping malls once again, something they did a few times during Jon Pertwee's days in the Tardis. Not bad. Also not bad were the Slitheen, brought to life later in the series both by CGI and some decent rubberwear in fetching green. Often people were simply painted funny colours to depict alien-ness, however, a staple of the show from way back when.Of course there will be aliens and of course there will be monsters as well as less malevolent species; it's a science fiction show. Science fiction is not all about the creatures, though, it ought to be about the ideas and the mad traveller with a time-hopping box is the simplest yet most ingenious idea ever. Every week becomes a tabula rasa, a fresh set of circumstances, a new puzzle to solve, a fresh foe to overcome.

The Doctor's foes don't come more deadly than the Daleks and midway through the run we encountered a sole survivor of the Time War. A single pepperpot caused more fear and excitement than anything that had preceded it that season so when thousands upon thousands of the exterminatey bastards appeared to threaten humanity in the two-part series finale a nation held cushions up to their eyes, tightened sphincters and partied like 1989. And 1979. And 1969. (Go on, pedants, look up those years and tell me why I'm mostly wrong.) With the good Doctor now on his fourth incarnation since the show's return (fifth if you count John 'Grandad' Hurt) the programme is once again a fixture of Saturday tea-times. Unless Strictly is on and the Doctor Who episode has a high body count in which case it's screened around the evening snack sort of time instead.

Eccleston arguably had the hardest job of all the actors to step into the role because the series would have lived or died on his portrayal. The scripts could have been perfect (and they often were), the companion superb (she was indeed) and the special effects more special and effective than the old days but if people didn't buy into Eccleston as the Time Lord then the revival might have been the mere fluttering of a dual cardiovascular system before the idea of bringing The Doctor back for good flatlined like a dead pancake in E Space.

There are parallels with Chris E's portrayal and the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi. While David Tennant and Matt Smith may have made the character a hit with fangirls as well as the fanboys, Eccleston brought an ambiguity to his depiction which Capaldi has revitalised. I like a spiky Doctor, me. An arrogant, grumpy, genius, unpredictable Doctor. I know, my favourite of all is Tom Baker who was more maniacal than grumpy, but having educated myself to all of the Doctors since growing up and feeling the metaphorical and physical sting of increasing years, I find I have much in common with Hartnell, Eccleston and Capaldi's take on the character. Namely I don't suffer fools gladly and I frequently know I'm the cleverest man in the room (I live alone)

Some have speculated about how the show might have developed if Eccleston had stayed longer in the role but, whatever the politics and reasons behind his departure after just thirteen episodes it actually set things up perfectly for the programme as a whole because it ushered in a swift regeneration and thus enabled a whole new generation of fans to understand that this alien man can change his entire personality and face yet still be the same mad traveller in the time-hopping box.

I love Russell T Davies. He made the people happy. Or was that Bill Shankly? Both of them. But Moffat also makes me happy. The continued existence of Doctor Who makes me happy. Yes, it does mean I spend the interval between seasons kicking empty rubber johnny packets across the pavement with my hands in my pockets while whistling the high notes from the theme tune but that sort of makes me happy too.

Altogether now. Ooh wee ooh, oooooh ooooooh!


Images courtesy of the BBC

Follow steven harris on Twitter @theplanetharris

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