GeekPlanetOnline's resident Doctor Who Correspondent Martin Thompson takes a deeper look at the adventures of a mad man in a box, along with his friends, foes and fandom. With over fifty years of rubber monsters, changing faces, dented police boxes, exterminations and pointed goatees to look at, he has more than a few things to say on the subject...
The modern version of Doctor Who (can it really be called New Who any more?) turns ten years old this week. At 7pm on Saturday 26th March 2005 the episode Rose was broadcast on BBC1 and we collectively grabbed the hand of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor and ran with him into a brand new set of adventures. So how did the new show affect Doctor Who as a whole?
Russell T Davies, then one of the hottest names in British TV drama, had been trying for years to bring Doctor Who back to our screens. A chance meeting with BBC drama controller Jane Tranter at a party gave him an ally and the show started on its road back to television. Rose reintroduced us to the Doctor’s universe and made cool again a programme that, despite its iconic status, was largely seen as a shabby joke. The new show started with a classic villain, the Autons, who, whether you had seen the 1970s serials or not, were still a scary idea that would resonate with modern audiences and be a good way to introduce us to bored shop assistant Rose Tyler. Their appearance also proved to the fans that the previous 42 years would not be forgotten in this shiny new show. Before the end of the first series the Daleks would reappear, UNIT would return and a Cyberman head would be seen in a museum.
The format changed for the new audience too. Gone were the multi part stories and cliffhangers inspired by the film and radio serials of the 1930s. Box set binge culture was just about to begin and we no longer cared as much about watching week by week when we could do it all in one sitting. Inspiration taken from American sci-fi shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was essential in selling it to a new generation of viewers. The new show was lengthened to 45 minutes and quicker paced with American style quick-witted dialogue and quips. The Doctor also had a couple of devices to help him: the psychic paper which could get him past those pesky ID problems and the return of the sonic screwdriver, which has been a bugbear to many fans due to its propensity to have a setting to sort out whichever problem the Doctor has.
Doctor Who was a perfect fit for a monster of the week show, but one that also had story arcs. Unfortunately it wasn’t the best suited to them as the main character never stands still. How can you feature a recurring villain when your hero could be in 17th century France one week and Planet Zog in 2850 the next? To remedy this we have had concepts such as Bad Wolf and the crack in time haunting the Doctor throughout his travels. This type of arc had been tried before with the looser Key to Time saga in the late 1970s.
One of the biggest changes was in the central character himself. Davies introduced the Time War (which might have been with the Toclafane if the Terry Nation Estate had nixed the use of the Daleks), dispensing of the Time Lords and explaining what the Doctor had been up to in the intervening years. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he was no longer the happy-go-lucky traveller of old and in some ways it’s been to the series’ detriment that he’s become a “Lonely God”. Through Rose, the Tenth Doctor learned to love life again and also develops a more ruthless streak with his “no second chances” mantra, while his successor tired of the machinations and just wanted stop the baddies at any cost. At least he wore a smile on his face though; the latest Doctor just doesn’t seem to have any use for pleasantries full stop. A peerless performance by Christopher Eccleston put the show back on the map, while David Tennant hit the zeitgeist with his geek chic and became THE Doctor for a new generation. Matt Smith was virtually unknown but he soon made the role his own and effortlessly portrayed the Doctor’s age like no other. Peter Capaldi is already a fine actor and he’s only just getting started in the role.
One thing that Davies set out to do with his new show was to round out the companion. Rose Tyler was an ordinary 21st century shop girl with a family and a boyfriend who found an escape from her boring life. When Doctor Who began in 1963 most companions stumbled into the TARDIS by accident and it could take years for them to get back home, whereas these days they’re dropped off and picked up at will. Each companion sadly also seems to have an important, universe-shaking destiny with the latest, Clara Oswald, diving into the Doctor’s timeline to save him multiple times over. Initially we also explored the family and friends that Rose left behind; her mouthy mother Jackie and lazy boyfriend Mickey. Five years later we saw a married couple, Rory and Amy, take flight and their dual lives explored in The Power of Three. Captain Jack Harkness and River Song brought a more adult angle to the modern show. Companions these days still tend to be young, modern, women so hopefully the show has gained enough confidence by now to try someone from another time or planet who just wants to travel and have fun. At least the new companions are given more to do than scream and get into trouble but then somebody has to. The show hasn’t changed that much.
Doctor Who’s bestiary has had a lick of paint too as, series by series, the old favourites have been re-emerging: the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master and the Sontarans amongst others. Davies wasn’t shy of bringing back some of the more obscure ones like the Macra whose only story, The Macra Terror, remains lost. The show has evolved to such a point now that once feared foes have been brought into the light a little. Two of the most popular heroes today are a Sontaran and a Silurian. Sadly the modern series hasn’t inducted many truly classic new baddies into the pantheon. The Weeping Angels have perhaps become the most iconic with the Ood bringing up the rear. Others like the Silence, the gas mask zombies and the Adipose have been more one shot wonders than ongoing foes. Again, the modern show also seems to suffer due to its own sense of self-importance. Take, for example, the Master who has returned three times for ‘epic’ stories. Why can’t he (or she) pop up randomly to cause trouble as he did at various points in the 1970s and 1980s? Hopefully Missy will be more of a proper nemesis to the Twelfth Doctor.
So has the new show changed anything? Well, it’s been a worldwide hit and successfully brought Doctor Who to a new generation, some of whom (myself included) have discovered the classic series. It’s also been responsible for a new influx of British sci-fi and telefantasy shows whether it’s those bred to rival it like Primeval and Demons or to replace it while it’s on hiatus like Robin Hood, Merlin and Atlantis. In the last ten years the BBC has also brought us shows like Being Human, Life on Mars and The Fades. The show itself has also expanded its universe into the more adult Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures for children’s television, which last retained a little of the classic series with its two part half hour stories featuring cliffhangers. Doctor Who’s specials have also now become a Christmas day institution.
On a personal note, it’s surprising the amount of things that I wouldn’t have in my life if I hadn’t started watching this show. I didn’t have a very high opinion of Doctor Who in 2005 but my beloved Buffy and Angel had finished and Dead Like Me just wasn’t filling the void. Without Who, I wouldn’t have continued to pick up SFX magazine after the demise of the Whedonverse to learn more about this new show. I then wouldn’t have joined the now sadly defunct SFX forum and met the future GeekPlaneteers Matt Dillon and Dave Probert, or so many of the other great people in my life now. The modern series also persuaded me to watch the classic series that was handily being shown on UK Gold at the time.
In 2015 and about to embark on its ninth series, the modern Doctor Who is still in rude health and there’s no reason why, with staff changes every few years, that it shouldn’t continue for as long as the classic series. The one thing that it has proven above all else is that the format is so strong it can beat cancellation. Just like that first regeneration back in 1966, once its been done successfully, there’s no reason why it can’t again.