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April 03, 2005

  • Doctor (Who) in the House
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    Anyone who knows me knows I am a serious fan of one television program. My loyalty is immediately obvious to anyone—posters, prints and a shelf full of videos are easily visible in my apartment; even my office has a framed print of architectural plans for a prop used on this program. And, of course, a whole section of this website is dedicated to my writing related to this show.

    I am speaking, if it isn't obvious, of Doctor Who.

    Doctor Who. The exploits of an eccentric alien who travels in time and space in a strange box defeating evil. It's such a simple concept, but it's so much more than that. It's smart. It's funny. It's fun. I describe it to people who don't know it as an science fiction/fantasy/adventure series made by people who understood Monty Python. And now it's coming to Canadian television this Tuesday night at 8.

    I, for one, can't wait.

    If you grew up in North America in the 1970s and 1980s, Doctor Who was probably a part of your televisual landscape. If you belonged to a middle class family in the days when there were only dozens of channels, the electronic babysitter that was the TV was often to a public broadcasting station for The Electric Company or Polka Dot Door.  And in those enlightened days, on TV Ontario, the 7pm-8pm programming block was used to transition between educational programming for children to educational programming for adults—a family hour for British TV series, popular science and educational programs for all ages, and of course Magic Shadows with Elwy Yost. Doctor Who was, for over a decade a keystone of this strategy airing every Saturday and Thursday. Across the border, many PBS stations also used Doctor Who as part of a similar gambit, putting it in an early evening slot before the News Hour, or putting it on weekend afternoons.

    I say this to point out that for many of us, Doctor Who was part and parcel of the TV landscape just like it was for people in Britain. (Most people it seems didn't get past the theme song, though—I’ve been told repeatedly by people over the years it was so spooky they couldn't watch anything further. That's okay.) That's why the Canadian TV Guide had the confidence to put Doctor Who on their cover this week saying "New Doctor, New Series!". And that's why, I would posit, the CBC had the foresight to purchase the series as well.

    I'll never forget the first time I watched Doctor Who. It was May 1984. I fourteen years old, and home sick. I was lying on the couch in our family room, wrapped in a blanket. My then-eight year-old sister was watching something—either Square One TV or Vegetable Soup—on the Buffalo PBS station, WNED Channel 17, at 5:30 in the afternoon. She left the room partway through to do something else. Six O'Clock came, and with it Doctor Who. My best friend had been trying to get me to watch Doctor Who for ages. It was his favourite show, and he thought I'd like it. After all, I liked TV science fiction. I loved TV shows centred on time travel. I adored British television. It seemed a natural fit. I'd like to say it was his interest and those reasons that kept me from changing the channel; unfortunately, it was more likely down to a lack of energy from the flu. What I can say is that 23 minutes and 53 seconds later, as the inevitable cliffhanger occurred, I desperately wanted to see what happened next as a set of robots dressed like giant Egyptian mummies (long story…) advanced on the Doctor and and his companion Sarah.

    I love Doctor Who. For me it has all the right ingredients for a great TV show. There's an absolutely compelling central character that draws upon the best elements of the British: he's an eccentric, an amateur, a scientist, a wit, a bon vivant. Then there's the universe is set in—a dark sinister place where wit, brains and a bit of action can change things for the better. And best of all there's the approach of the program where everything is treated with utter seriousness and yet nothing is taken truly seriously. Throw in some of the funniest dialogue, some of the broadest and boldest acting, some of the most absurd ideas of any TV program ever and add a dash of playing willy-nilly with other genres and stories and you've got something delicious that serves and satisfies millions.

    Many over the years have been unkind to my beloved TV series. They have faulted the production values, which at times (though not as often as some have suggested) have dated badly and look tacky compared to American programming, but I would suggest these critics grandly missed the point. I don't deny the importance of spectacle, but I think what made Doctor Who so loved was the writing. Doctor Who is a program that lives and dies by its writing talent. With limited resources to go into the production, good writing was needed to engage the imaginations of viewers and fill in the gaps, as it were, and to do that with considerable panache. That's why the show is so well loved 41 years after it started on British television.

    The CBC is banking on similar fond memories of twenty and thirtysomethings to jumpstart the ratings I'm sure. But while nostalgia is a powerful thing, is it enough to keep them there? Will Doctor Who find a new, national, audience? More to the point, is it any good? Well, to use the last question to answer the rest, I hope it does, because it's brilliant.

    Russell T Davies, the man who created Queer As Folk and the man who wrote what is one of my favourite television dramas of the past five years, Bob and Rose, has brought Doctor Who for the 2000s. And yet, for all the fears that what would happen would be a Battlestar Galactica-styled ‘rebooting' or a bad remake (Doctor Who went through that in the 1990s), what we have on display this Tuesday night is Doctor Who at its best: it's fresh, it's funny, it's scary, it's a little bit camp and it's a little bit off-kilter. In short it's great entertainment.

    The first episode is concerned with reintroducing the central ideas of the show and wisely focuses on Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), a nice girl who lives on a council estate and botched her chance at finishing school because of a boy and has been working as a shop assistant ever since. Rose is someone who is better than her surroundings but she doesn't quite know how to be free of them, particularly her opportunistic mum and a waste-of-space boyfriend. Her days are drudgery that starts with the alarm going off at 7:30am until one night she finds something nasty in the basement of the department store where she works. And then she meets the barmy but mysterious figure called the Doctor (played to perfection by Christopher Eccleston). The rest of the story breezes along at breakneck pace as Rose's involvement with the Doctor grows—soon she's facing monsters, threats to her loved ones and an alien invasion.

    The best thing about the new series is without a doubt Christopher Eccleston's Doctor. Without resorting to hyperbole, he demonstrates that he may be the best actor to play the role in two decades, if not more. He's utterly compelling He can go from railing about the ‘stupid apes' that populate earth to innocently trumpeting the TARDIS' incongruous Police telephone box shape as ‘a disguise' in the same scene. Eccleston has the same childlike charm yet alien gravitas that made Tom Baker so well loved in the role in the 70s and 80s. He's only around for this year though, so enjoy him while you can. (Don't worry: the Doctor can change his appearance).

    The first episode has its faults, particularly its lacklustre direction and some iffy casting in the form of Rose's boyfriend. The effects are okay, but nothing to write home about (previews indicate they do improve get better), but overall it's grandly entertaining television. It's scary, hilarious and downright fun. People looking for the second coming of television or the ultimate science fiction experience on television might well be disappointed. (Sci-Fi Channel rejected it, and now it's obvious why: it's too British, too un-serious). What have instead is…well, Doctor Who. And I can't be happier.

    If you grew up with Doctor Who in your house, or ran away screaming from the theme song (which is back, bigger than ever!), then you're in for a treat. And even if you haven't, this is worth watching. Best fun on the telly this year. And I'd say that even if I wasn't a fan. Honest.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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