Oh boy, that was good.
It was a strangely nostalgic Saturday for me – coupled with the anticipation of there being a new Doctor Who on in the evening (I think I was slightly less excited than when I was younger, though), my housemate decided to spend the afternoon baking cookies which of course brought back memories of my mum spending those same Saturday afternoons baking cakes and the like, so there was a Proustian scent of nostaligia in the air.
Back when the BBC announced they were bringing Who back, I don’t think anyone expected it being like this. Oh sure, we hoped it would be good, and were glad that a fan like Russell T Davies was behind it all, but everyone already knew what it was like to have hopes dashed. We could all remember the TV Movie and the huge sense of disappointment that followed it, and the feeling was once bitten, twice shy.
Then they cast Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. No disrespect to Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard, or any of the other names that were being linked with the role, but that was one of the most inspired pieces of casting in British TV in a long while. His talent as an actor is to completely be the part he’s playing and make you forget that he might have been someone else in some other film or programme and from the moment he first appeared on screen he was the Doctor, a strange alien being poised halfway between fun and danger. You could see why he’d choose to spend his life wandering the universe getting into trouble and how he’d got out of all the trouble he’d run into.
And there was Billie Piper as well, of course. I’d heard Russell T Davies talking about how wonderful she was, how she was going to be a huge star and while I was already aware she was a good actress, as anyone who saw her in The Canterbury Tales could attest, there was an element of ‘well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ about it. But he was absolutely right. She could have been a typical companion, hovering in the background until it was time to step forward and receive the necessary exposition while letting Eccleston dominate the screen. Instead, she made you believe in Rose as a person, the necessary foil to the Doctor as a force of nature, someone who was stuck in a rut, but capable of so much more when given the chance.
It doesn’t matter how good the actors are though, if the script they’re working from is no good and they’re backed up by one of the two best writers in British TV at the moment (Paul Abbott being the other, of course) working at the top of his game on something he truly loves. It’s not an unconditional love, though, which meant he knew which parts to keep and which to update. It was updated, given a polish and definitely from 2005, but it was still gloriously Doctor Who, not some new show borrowing the name and heading off in a completely different direction. The reason I found Lawrence Miles’s site last night was because I was looking for this interview from 1999, where he explains it, even though his precognition skills prove to be faulty:
Eventually, there will be another TV series of Doctor Who. And it will fail horribly, because inevitably it’ll be aimed at the kind of fan-targeted SF market that didn’t even exist until Star Trek: The Next Generation came along and spoiled everything. Doctor Who only works as a family adventure series, but when it finally comes back you can bet any money you want it’ll be like Babylon 5 or something.
I don’t know whether Russell T Davies read that interview, and even if he has, I doubt it was the main influence on him, but he understands the central point: Doctor Who is a family action-adventure show that happens to be science fiction (I’ll leave aside the arguments that it can be classified as fantasy rather than sf for another time) rather than the other way around. Davies knows that if the new Who doesn’t appeal to the family audience, it’s dead in the water, no matter how much the old fans love it.
As I don’t have kids, and haven’t encountered any since the programme was on to assess their reaction, I can’t say for sure whether that’s worked. The real test probably isn’t the ratings – given the hype, they were always going to be high – but whether it grabs their imaginations. Look out over the next week for kids being too scared to put the rubbish out in case the wheelie bin eats them, or giving shop mannequins a wide berth.
We’ve already seen, thanks to JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and, most of all, The Simpsons the blurring of the boundaries between what’s supposedly for adults and what’s supposedly for children and Doctor Who is firmly in that zone, perhaps even the creator of it back in the 1960s. It’s about creating a sense of wonder, sparking off your imagination, giving the everyday that touch of strange danger and sense of risk, making you believe that at any moment you could walk down the street and see a battered old police box appear on a street corner from out of nowhere. The Doctor’s back, all’s right with the world and I know where I’m going to be at 7pm on the next twelve Saturday nights.