So… I watched a whole lot of Doctor Who and need to talk about it. Specifically season 1, the soft reboot of the series after the 1996 movie didn’t do so well. This season puts a lot of distance between itself and the classic Doctor Who stories, mainly to appeal to a new generation of young fans, and to avoid being shackled by decades worth of continuity. It still exists within that continuity of the classic tales, but is very clear about trying to do things a little differently. To this end the main hook of the new nineth Doctor is that his bubbly and excentric attitude is complicated by survivors guilt, following the extinction on the timelords and daleks in what is known as the time war.
As a result the season, while still serialised in that Doctor and pals go on new adventures to new places with new monsters every episode, is also very character driven and has an overarching story. But it’s one you’re eased into; hardly there at all to begin with, to the extent where any episode can be consumed out of order as though it weren’t there at all, but so prevalent in the final couple of episodes that the finale is the exact opposite; you kind of need to have seen the rest of it to get what’s going on. I mean the plot of Daleks trying to break stuff is simple, but the character arcs go a bit bonkers here in ways that won’t feel satisfying for anyone who has only tuned into the finale without watching any other episodes.
It might sound like the overarching story is a mess therefore, but I didn’t think so, and it felt rewarding to have been so invested into the finale that the other episodes had passively been spoonfeeding me preperation for.
As for the season as a whole… it’s kind of up and down. The first episode is our introduction to Rose Tyler – fan favourite Doctor companion – and number nine himself is great, and so is the episode that follows about the natural death of planet Earth. But then there’s a streak of mundane episodes that pale in comparison to those that came before, and it isn’t towards near the end of the season that things pick up again.
A big mark against this season – and Doctor Who to this day, as well as other BBC shows – is the insistence on CGI that looks absolutely terrible. Which is why the season’s biggest strength is the character stuff, because you can overlook how awful everything is animated if you’re able to connect with the characters.
I’d say the standout episodes are Dalek and Father’s Day. Both episodes feature astoundingly awful CGI, but have such good character moments that you forgive it anyway. Dalek is about, well, a Dalek prisoner breaking free and killing folks. But the Dalek is broken in a sense, as it begins to experience feelings other than violence and anger. When it experiences compassion and beauty it’s own programming begins to kill it, and some clever writing critisises the Doctor’s character here as he becomes more like a traditional Dalek on a hunt to kill his foe, while the traditional Dalek begins acting more like the beauty-seeing Doctor. This character thread may sound familiar even if you haven’t seen this episode, because it has been repeated many, many times over the course of new Doctor Who – most notably in Peter Capaldi’s second outing as the Doctor in Into The Dalek, where they just copy and pasted the nineth Doctor’s existential crisis in this episode onto the twelth. But who knows, maybe classic Doctor Who did this well before 2005 too and I just haven’t seen it.
Father’s Day is about Rose trying to save her Dad from dying so he’ll be alive in her future. This creates a rift in time and space and monsters come through to erase everyone within that broken timeline of Earth from existence. Only by allowing her father to die can Rose reset things. And it’s all handled about as well and respectfully as that sort of heavy stuff can be. It works because the show demonstrates that it can’t only take itself seriously, but can convince you to take it seriously too. And, overall, the season strikes a good balance of innocent fun episodes versus those that are more serious.
Aside from the CGI, I think the show is wise in how it spends it’s budget this season; lots of Earth-centred stories that are as grounded as Doctor Who reasonably can be, while all the space stuff mostly occurs in dark rooms and long, easy to build corridors. At least four episodes occur on a space station orbiting Earth, and three occur on the same space station, but in different times of it’s operation. Sure, I’d have liked more variety, but I dread to think how bad it might have looked had they tried, so I’m happy with what we got.
As for Eccleston… I think he’s a really unsung Doctor. As the Doctor, he’s got all the charisma and charm of those that came before and after him, but what sets him apart is his dark edge. As the sole survivor of the time war, he’s a jaded Doctor who occasionally needs reminding by his companions that he’s not in a war anymore. He’s not a depressing presence, but you do feel as though this Doctor has a weight on his shoulders that the writers couldn’t quite get out of David Tennant or Matt Smith’s incarnations of the character afterwards.
But it would be unfair not to mention Billie Piper a little more before we wrap up. Her character, Rose Tyler, was not only just as, if not more, a defining part of Eccleston’s run, but also of the early stages of David Tenants. And many Doctor Who companions since her have repeatedly tried and failed to capture what her character represented. What that was, was normal. It sounds so obvious and cliché to say ‘they matched a normal girl with an eccentric time traveller‘, but I don’t think enough credit is given to just how committed the writers were to Rose’s normality. Her boyfriend and mother aren’t miscellaneous background characters, but fleshed out side characters with their own things going on. Her neighbourhood isn’t seen just once when she joins the Doctor and once when she leaves, but remains a key setting throughout all of her time as a companion. Rose is so normal, so human and so inherently relatable that she was loved to the point that they still try to capture parts of Rose in contemporary companions. This era of Doctor Who is just as much Billie Piper as it is Eccleston or, later, Tennant.
With that in mind I would just about recommend Doctor Who season 1. It has a good start, clunky middle, but sticks to its strengths as it approaches the end and somehow nails the landing in spite of the painfully obvious budget constraints. I wouldn’t describe this season as particularly ambitious – it’s kind of just establishing what new Doctor Who is – and yet I still feel like it’s occasionally doing more than it should. Sometimes that is a good thing, as with The Empty Child two parter, which is iconic and scary to this day. And other times, it’s a CGI nightmare.
Also Simon Pegg is the baddie in one of these and it’s weird seeing him in that role. I didn’t know where to put this in the review, so I’m leaving it here at the end.