Doctor Doctor Who Guide

As one of the hallowed band who watched the very first ‘Dr. Who’ episode - 'An Unearthly Child' - as a school kid back in 1963, I came to the new series with high expectations. My taste has always run to escapist/adventure TV. Whilst I personally rated ‘Dr. Who’ below shows like 'The Avengers' (Diana Rigg era) 'The Invaders' and the early series of 'Buffy' I've long been a Who fan. I felt there was a big void in British TV drama without the doctor. Admittedly, my interest in the show waned through the 80s. After the peak of Tom Baker I felt Peter Davidson was a little bland, Colin Baker unlikeable and Sylvester McCoy just silly. But the re-emergence of the show with Christopher Eccleston at the helm augured well.

Alas, the Eccleston series is proving no better than McCoy’s; indeed they seem to be repeating the same mistakes: an ineffectual doctor lacking gravitas over-shadowed by a feisty young sidekick, and stories that are not taken seriously, and don’t deserve to be. Has the show ever hit a lower point in 42 years than the farting jokes of ‘Aliens of London’? Whilst earlier series were derided for wobbly sets and bubble-wrap special effects at least the scripts tried for quality.

I was hoping Eccleston (who has proved himself an excellent actor in other productions) would bring a combination of freshness and a dark, brooding edge to the role. Instead the scripts give him nothing to do except play comic sidekick to Billie Piper. His trademark grin is rapidly becoming tiresome. Who says the show has to be played for laughs all the time? ‘Dr. Who’ is drama; the laughs are incidental. Even in the most promising episode so far – the Charles Dickens one – the mystery is solved by Dickens and most of the decisive action taken by Dickens and Rose. The Rose character is more interesting than the doctor but she’s got to develop beyond moaning about boyfriends, doing her ‘A’ levels etc. and exhorting the doctor to become more touchy-feely.

I agree with other commentators that the show doesn’t work in a single-episode format, for all the reasons they give – there’s insufficient time to set the scene, develop character, add plot twists, build tension etc. ‘Dr. Who’ was always a direct descendant of the ‘Flash Gordon’-type serials and really needs a cliff-hanger to work towards.

But the main problem has to be the scripts, and particularly those of Russell T. Davies. I’m not familiar with his other work but if he’s the best writer in British T.V. drama then God help us! With ‘Dr. Who’ he seems to be attempting to ape ‘Buffy’ but has so far failed to match any of the wit or style of that show at its best. Davies seems more at home with the soap opera aspects of his scripts; in ‘The End of the World’ there was a lapse into quite mawkish sentimentality for example. His excursions into sci-fi feel like add-ons or parodies, attempts at a genre he isn’t comfortable with or can’t take seriously. And that’s the point.

Watch the best of this kind of stuff – early ‘Buffy’, the Rigg-period ‘Avengers’, the best of ‘Dr. Who’ such as ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ - and see how seriously all concerned take it. The premise may have been absurd, it was only escapism and yet the cast played it like it was Shakespeare. So disbelief was suspended, however crackers the plot. In contrast Davies seems to be the first to be mocking his own stories.

This is a fairly negative review and I hope things improve, although replacing Eccleston with David Tennant seems more likely to reinforce the weaknesses of the present series. But if anyone thinks I’m being too harsh, I’d ask them to compare the Davies episodes shown so far with ‘The Unearthly Child’. Nothing illustrates more clearly how dumbed-down and derivative British TV drama has become than contrasting the present series with the very first show back in 1963.

‘The Unearthly Child’ was – and 42 years on, still is - challenging television. In no way does it dumb down for its young audience. The doctor (as portrayed by William Hartnell) is an interesting but difficult and complex character and the script is far more layered and intelligent than anything we’ve seen in 2005. Acting and direction are better too!

If I was in charge of the show I’d have Anthony Head as the doctor and Alyson Hannigan and Nicholas Brendon as his sidekicks. I’d ditch the single episode format, bring back the cliff-hanger endings, and draft in some American scriptwriters and directors to give the show the wit, pace and depth it presently lacks. In the meantime I’ll keep watching the old ones!

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