Written by Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, Robert Sherman, Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat, starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper
Something about a box that’s bigger on the inside. Weird kind-of pepper-pot monsters that can’t go up stairs. A man who can change his face. Doctor Who was, to all intents and purposes, dead, and it lived on only through select ideas that had permeated themselves into British pop culture. Quite what possessed the BBC to bring it back, we’ll never know, but I think all parties are glad they did, especially considering that doddery old ’60s show now makes up 10% of the BBC’s worldwide profits.
You suspect that, perhaps, the key factor in the decision was the passion of new showrunner Russell T Davies. The Welshman had dreamt of working on the show since he was a kid, and his love and affection for the program pours through in every scene. However, the real genius of Davies’ work was to strike a balance. It had to hit new audiences- both kids and those who didn’t previously love the show, and rekindle those who fell out of love with the show during the wilderness years. The tone is struck early on, with debut episode Rose looking at the Doctor from an alien point of view; it establishes a real world populated with real people then slowly unravels it through use of the iconography previously mentioned (Only replace ‘pepper pots’ with ‘shop window dummies’). It’s a really, really top-draw piece of writing on Davies’ behalf, and deserves all the credit in the multitude of worlds the episode introduces us to.
It’s from the second episode that the pace begins to hit us. This is a show about moving on, about seeing the next thing. The End of The World and The Unquiet Dead play against each other quite nicely. One is a bombastic, futuristic romp, the other an underplayed horror-influenced thriller, written by novice of all things spooky, Mark Gatiss. By this point, watching it for the first time as a kid, I was already totally enthralled in the universe of Who and had myself trying to find out about the classic series and what exactly these pepper pot things were. That’s the impact this show has, and that’s how impressive the first three episodes are. They’d set up a life-long compulsion and devotion. Try telling me that isn’t remarkable television.
So much of the credit must go to Christopher Eccleston’s performance as the Doctor. More brooding and serious than previous incarnations, he had a chip on his shoulder and wasn’t afraid to let the universe know it. He played against the tone of lighter episodes such as the fart-powered Aliens Of London, creating a richer show. He’s a believable hero, and someone you’d be willing to trust with your life. Likewise, word must go out to Billie Piper as companion Rose Tyler, in her first ‘proper’ acting job after a career as a teenage pop idol. She carries the first episode and squares up to Eccleston’s performances blow for blow. Her turns in Father’s Day and The Parting of the Ways are particularly special.
In fact, the acting is generally fantastic. The nature of the program sees a huge turnover of cast every episode, so to keep the standard this high is really impressive. Even the real ‘lesser’ episode, The Long Game, is all but saved by a stand-out turn by Simon Pegg as the villain. It’s a shame we see him die at the end, as I for one would’ve loved to have seen Pegg come back and play opposite other Doctors; he’s clearly having a lot of fun, and it’s a similar feeling to watch him. The other stand-out guest spot is a role originally written for Pegg, in the form of Rose’s dad, Peter. Shaun Dingwell brings real emotional graft to a fantastic script by Paul Cornell in Father’s Day, crafting one of the stand-out episodes. The re-occurring cast are also a treat: Camile Caduri is perfect as mummsy Jackie Tyler, while Noel Clarke’s underplayed performances as Mickey Smith never seem to get the plaudits they deserve. John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness stops just short of the camp TV host he’s gone on to become, and is all-part the action hero, a contrast from the Doctor in many ways, which are explored with a subtlety rarely seen in ‘kids’ television.
This subtlety is best displayed in future head writer’s first episodes for the show, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances. The two-parter is a dark, thematic exploration, punctuated in that very Doctor Who way with laugh-out-loud funny lines (Moffat’s background was in writing sitcoms). However, it’s also absolutely terrifying. Watching The Empty Child as a kid is about the most scared I’ve ever been watching a screen. And that is such a good thing. Watch out for the moment involving the gas mask and the mouth. Ooooh it’s good.
When those pepper pots did get their chance, they didn’t shaft the responsibility. Dalek is about the best Dalek story Doctor Who has thrown out to date. It centres on the damage one Dalek alone can do, and really strikes fear into the viewer as to the awesome destructive power of the creatures. To see the Doctor break his pretense and appear scared is delightful drama.
The real stand-out, however, is the grand two-part finale, Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways. Bad Wolf has an air of romp about it, but Davies carefully wrenches the stakes higher and higher throughout the episode until we reach a point at which, without us realising it, this seems to be the most important fight of the Doctor’s life. The steady approach is admirable, and really allows the cliffhanger to be simultaneously the most exciting and the most moving piece of television imaginable. That is, until the next episode. The Parting of the Ways is a tour de force. Tears will flow, trust me. The infamous ‘hologram’ scene causes me to cry floods every time. And it all leads up to the grand regeneration. It’s now a defining moment in modern British television, seeing Eccleston explode and turn into David Tennant. Which is amazing, really. Just three months previous, it’d been a doddery old show about some kind of a blue box and some pepper pots. An irrelevance of pop culture. Now, Doctor Who was the biggest show in Britain and preparing to take over the world. Exactly where it should be.
8 farting aliens out of 10