Monday, November 11, 2013

Why I Love Doctor Who

I had never really gotten into a TV show before. One Sunday in the March of 2012 I was sick and stayed home from church. I had seen James McGrath talk extensively about Doctor Who on his blog, so I decided to give it a try, starting from the first season of the Davies era. The first episode was ok, so I gave it a second. I loved the End of the World and by the end of the episode, I loved Rose. I was hooked. A year and a half later and I'm on my third tour through the modern series (though this time I will be skipping substantial portions of the disaster otherwise known as season 6), and, except for the recent finds, have watched all of the extant episodes for Doctors 1-3 and 6-8, as well as large chunks of 4 and 5. I'm trying to get in as much as I can prior to the 50th anniversary episode. Why am I so dedicated to the show? There are five major reasons:  the history of the show, the writing, the acting, the characters, and the ethical exploration.

As everyone knows, Doctor Who has a long history, but much like the Doctor himself, it's not just about the lifespan. A commenter named Ian made a keen observation on a post of James McGrath's. "I wonder if Doctor Who appeals to folks with a historian's soul. It is quite a unique body of work, with lost bits, early non-canonical re-imaginings, mystery and diversity of interpretation. Pretty unusual for popular media." There is the show itself and its history. Its history is fascinating in its own right. With what other tv show are people in rapt attention because episodes lost decades ago have been recovered in a remote portion of Africa? With how many tv shows are there debates over canon (hear Mark Goodacre's thoughts on the matter here - his argument on the Peter Cushing films is interesting)? Then there is also the way the show reuses and improves upon earlier concepts and episodes. It has been so enjoyable to go back and see all of the concepts that Davies, in particular, has meshed together from the classic series (one notable example is the Ood, a combination of the Sensorites and the Robots of Death). (As an aside, I encourage anyone interested in the history of the show to pick up a copy of The Vault). Doctor Who is historic, and it is historic because of the quality of the writing and acting.

This is probably controversial with some, but I feel the writing of the show has been excellent. Certainly there has been some variability. Some of the early Hartnell episodes, as well as most of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy era are shaky. The Doctor Who movie was a disaster (why is it considered canon?). However, those are exceptions, and even during the run of the sixth and seventh Doctors there are moments where the writing rises to earlier levels (to pick an episode from the maligned 26th season, I think the Curse of Fenric is very underrated and on par with the best of classic Doctor Who). Sci-fi needs to give its viewer a feeling of grandeur, and Doctor Who provided that through exotic villains and a vast universe. Many of the plots were very interesting and there was a good amount of diversity of story lines and plot features. We saw how the Doctor was responsible for the burning of Rome and we saw him return twenty seven planets that were stolen from space and time. We saw him help two empires avoid war while stifling the Master and the Daleks and save the earth in countless ways. The high point of the show is the first four seasons of the modern series under Davies, which were exquisite. I don't have the space to fully defend this, but I believe Davies is the best writer the show has ever had. His character development, use of foreshadowing, and multi-layered plots make repeated viewings a must. Great writing would fall apart without great actors, and the show has not lacked the latter.

The Doctors have all been, in my opinion, top notch actors. Each has brought their unique talents and put their own spin on the role. Even when I haven't cared for a particular portrayal, I still respect their consistency and depth. Hartnell exemplified the grandfather, both good and bad. Troughton was the eccentric genius you always had to keep an eye on. Pertwee was the dominant Doctor, with a suprisingly gentle side. No one captured the free spiritedness of the Doctor like Tom Baker. Peter Davison brought the consuming intensity one would expect of a Doctor in the prime of his life. Colin Baker showed us that justice mattered and that there was a sensitive heart underneath his calloused skin. We all thought we knew the Doctor, and then we met Sylvester McCoy, who reminded us that everyone has a dark side. Paul McGann brought revived passion and even a little romance. Christopher Eccleston showed us the impact of the Doctor's lonely life. Through David Tennant we see that you're never too old to be amazed, while Matt Smith was still a child at heart. Eleven sides, eleven portraits, one splendid Doctor. The anti-super hero. The greatest super hero.

And then there are a few Doctors who have been transcendent actors. I'm thinking of Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, and David Tennant. They were among the best actors of their era and put everything they had into the role. The primary and secondary companions (e.g., UNIT members, Rose's family) have been, for the most part, quite good as well. Yes, a few of the early companions seem a little weak to me (e.g., I don't think much of Peter Purves as Steven Taylor), but it's hard to say there if it's acting or writing. The quality of the villains and other characters who appear once or twice has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the classic series the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras were the strongest, but are nothing like the high the show is at now. Both Davies' and Moffatt's teams have done a splendid job casting; identifying top rate actors for episode after episode (though I will mention here that it was weird to see James Corden, after appearing twice as Craig, show up in the Nightmare in Silver in a different role). On the day I wrote this I watched School Reunion for probably the fourth time, and I was amazed by how bat-like Anthony Head acts throughout the whole episode. Brilliant.

From the beginning Doctor Who has been exploring political, religious, and ethical issues. This is most notable in the classic series in the way some of the villains are portrayed (e.g., the Daleks and Sontarins) or in one liners by the Doctor. In the modern series, especially under the writing of Davies the discussion of both religion and ethics became much more complex. Davies tenure was, at its core, a statement on the appropriate use of violence in combat of evil. Along the way he also treated human sexuality, racism, speciesism, consumerism, and of course several elements of Christian theology. In all of these, even when I didn't agree with his perspective (I am, after all, a Christian), I found him to be creative and often very subtle. The Messianic overtones, especially in the finale of season 3, were very thought provoking. It makes the show rewarding for those of us who love the show for more than the scary monsters.

Finally we come to the characters. As I mentioned above, I was hooked because of Rose Tyler. She is simply the best. Then came along Captain Jack. Then Mickey and even Jackie turned things around. Next season we got Martha, and then Donna... Davies had a knack for writing excellent, deep characters. They felt like real people. You became attached to them. I cried at the end of season 2 when Rose got stuck in the parallel world. I cried again when she stayed behind at the end of season 4. I felt terrible for Donna's loss of her memory. Moffat hit his home run with Rory. It's not just the main characters who have been great. Who could forget Wilfred, Craig, or Brian?

The classic series has had its fair share too. Of the non-primary companions, the Brigadier towers above them all. He had such a good heart and provided his fair share of comedy. You always knew that you could count on him. I grew attached to several of the companions too, in different ways. Ace showed how a companion could carry the show, paving the way for Rose. Her shortcomings made you love her. The way the Doctor treated her made you want to protect her. On the other end of the scale was the sweetness of someone like Jo Grant. She was the perfect sidekick for the Third Doctor. While a bit weak, over time she won your heart. The companions are so effective because they are, for the most part, so normal. They give us a gateway into the action allowing us to feel as if we are a part of things. Particularly in the case of the Davies era, I feel like that was the point, to inspire us through them to live a good life and make a difference.

So this is why I love Doctor Who. To me it has everything a show needs to be a top-notch show. I like Doctor Who because it matters. And because I believe it makes the world a better and more entertaining place.

2 comments:

  1. On the whole, I agree with most of this. I'm been watching the show from the beginning, including reconstructions of the missing episodes based on stills shot on the set. I'm about midway through season 19 at this point (just having finished The Visitation).

    I think the main reason they decided to keep the Eighth Doctor movie as canon is because it had Sylvester McCoy in it, and a lot of fans do love Paul McGann. His audio episodes have been very well received. I haven't seen that movie yet or heard any of those episodes, but that's the sense I get from the more die-hard fans who go that far into things.

    A few of your judgments surprise me, though. I was under the impression that fans generally love the last two seasons of the show (the two Ace seasons of the Seventh Doctor), so I'm not sure why you say they're derided. I've even seen The Curse of Fenric itself listed as one of the best stories of the Seventh Doctor, by people who say the show was canceled just as it was getting to be a much stronger show than it ever had been, even at the height of Tom Baker's time.

    I'm only about halfway through the sixth season of the newer episodes, but I'm not sure why you hate that season. I'm really enjoying it so far.

    I agree with you on the three best Doctors (2,4,10), although that's without having seen all of 5,7,11 and without having seen any of 6 or 8. I can't imagine why you don't like Steven, though. He was one of my favorite companions from the original series. He was intelligent and was able to contribute to adventures rather than just letting things happen to him and having to be rescued. That's only true of Ian, Barbara, and Steven (and once or twice Vicki) for the First Doctor. The others are either mostly brawn or all maidens in distress most of the time. It's a recurring problem for women. Only Zoe, Jo Grant, Romana, and Nyssa consistently broke out of that pattern (and Sarah Jane in her later seasons) up to the point I'm watching, and Steven has struck me as one of the better companions even among the male ones. He's certainly not as endearing as Jamie, but I liked him from his very first episode, which I can't say of most of the ones I did eventually come to like.

    It is a little weird for an actor to return as the same character and then play a different character, but there is a lot of history of actors returning to play different characters throughout the history of the show. It's one of the running features of the Wikipedia entries for each episode to list which actors had been in other episodes, and most stories have three or four who had been or would later be in other stories, sometimes with people who had been in three or four stories. And that continues in the new show, even with major characters (Martha, Amy, and the Twelfth Doctor all appeared earlier as other characters).

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think McCoy's presence in the movie probably is a strong reason to keep it in the canon. I hadn't thought about that before.

    I've seen the Curse of Fenric panned (couldn't tell you where anymore) and the general sense I've received from other friends who watch the show and from the book I mention above, The Vault, is that the last season in particular, and the era of the last two Doctors as a whole is viewed as being a little weaker. Colin Baker is, as far as I know, often viewed as being the worst of the Doctors. He himself didn't like the way the writers wrote his part. In fact he refused to show up on screen for his regeneration. McCoy filled in for him. I think Colin Baker is better than he's given credit for though. I strongly dislike Peri, and after she was gone I liked him more.

    McCoy's run is particularly difficult to assess. I think there are some positives, especially the way they developed the relationship between Ace and the Doctor (the episode in season 6, the God Complex falls short in many ways, and it's magnified when one compares it to the Curse of Fenric). Most of the episodes themselves just don't engage me. The Curse of Fenric, Delta and the Bannermen, The Remembrance of the Daleks, and Dragonfire are very good. Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol are awful. The rest of the episodes are fair to middling in my estimation.

    The first half of season 6 is great (except for the curse of the Black Spot). I really did not care for the second half, although the first time around I liked them more than I did on a second viewing.

    Steven got on my nerves, particularly in the Time Meddler, but maybe he was supposed to and I'm being a bit unfair. I probably should have picked Ben or Dodo. While they didn't annoy me, they were very flat characters.

    The issue for me with James Cordan is that he plays a very significant character who appears in multiple episodes. That to me gives him an identity within the universe that makes multiple appearances weird where it doesn't for the others. The closest I come to having an issue elsewhere is with the second Romana. She played a major role in the finale of the season prior to the one in which she became the Doctor's companion.

    ReplyDelete