Back In Time: The Return Of Doctor Who

tardis

A version of this review ran in The Sunday Herald, March 20 2005

THE MOST ENCOURAGING NEWS STORY in an age broke last week, when the Advertising Standards Authority ordered that the Marmite commercial – the one with that big brown blob oozing down the highstreet – be pulled from all children’s television schedules, because kids were getting seriously freaked out by it.

Admittedly, the children reportedly affected were all under five, but, still. At a time when kids only usually make headlines when they’re murdering each other, attacking adults, weighing as much as Kendo Nagasaki or signing multi-million pound recording contracts, it’s heartening to be reminded that a lot of them are still just kids, after all, and still just as terrified as kids have always been of rampaging mounds of yeast extract.

No one mentioned whether any of the Marmite-traumatised toddlers employed the traditional, fabled manouevre, and took to hiding behind the sofa whenever the ad came on, but you suspect this might have been the case. What better time, then, for the grandaddy of all blob-monster/ hiding-behind-the-sofa TV shows to rematerialise to inspire nightmares anew?

Doctor Who, you may not have heard, especially if you’ve been locked in an isolation tank beneath Loch Ness for months, is back. And, after all the hype and internet leaks, the first thing to say is…it’s good.

It’s not that good. There are problems, not least some truly atrocious incidental music. But it’s good enough to be hopeful that it might turn out to be exactly that good once it’s up and running.

One final thought about how that bootleg of the first episode appeared online a few weeks ago: It has been speculated that the source of the leak was the BBC itself, unleashing it as an ingenious viral campaign, designed to stir up anticipation, as well as a frisson of illicit chic. If so, the gamble worked wonders. But buried within the strategy seems to be something else: the implicit reminder that, last time Dr Who was on television – I mean 1989, when Sylvester McCoy’s strange little stint grumbled to an end (it seems a shame to drag up the Americanised telemovie Paul McGann was lumbered with in 1996) – no one had even heard of the internet.

It’s been that long. Combine that gap with the series’ 40-year history and its centuries-long internal mythology, a geek lore as cluttered and arcane as Star Trek‘s, and just as jealously guarded – and lead writer Russell T Davies’s new take seems a minor miracle. It not only manages to shoulder the weight of Who history, but it moves with a spring in its step not quite seen since the early 1980s, when the first stalk of celery Peter Davison pinned to his lapel was still fresh.

Davies’s opening episode has a story, but not much of a story. Rather, its real business is clearing the ground, setting out its stall, nodding to old friends and reaching a welcoming hand out to new ones. This leaves almost every actor apart from the two leads adrift; but then, it’s the two leads we’ve come to meet.

It begins in deep space, then, as the camera drifts into the orbit of an optimistically bright blue Earth, plunges to the ground, to land in present-day, slightly postcardy London, specifically, the bedroom of Rose, the shop girl destined to be the Doctor’s new assistant (Billie Piper). It’s a lightly loaded moment: Davies’ whole thing seems to be about keeping one eye on the programme’s cosmic possibilities, while bringing it all back down to earth.

The reason Jon Pertwee’s early-1970s run as The Doctor was one of the greatest was that he was literally stuck in 20th-century Britain, lending his encounters with alien invaders the strange texture produced when the uncanny, the daft and the mundane rub against each other; a semi-surreal eeriness in the same area as the original Avengers or The Wicker Man. (Or, arguably, those Marmite ads).

That the monsters in this first episode are Autons, a return for the plastic shop window dummies that first crept to life in one of Pertwee’s most memorable adventures, is another a signal of Davies’s intent, establishing the vibe he wants to plug into, as well as a commendable desire to scare little kids senseless. These Autons aren’t half as creepy as Pertwee’s, mind you, but, when their hands flip open and they start shooting people, they’re still unsettling enough. Elsewhere, a moment when a possessed plastic wheelie bin stretches out to devour someone has just a fleeting feel of an old David Cronenberg effect. (Though it’s a shame that, when the bin eats its victim, they decide to have it burp.)

Davies is generous in this first episode with nods to the show’s heritage, as if saying to devotees, “Look, it’s okay, trust me.” At the same time, he has an affectionate dig at the fanboy contingent, and how they always tend to be boys. After Piper’s first encounter with the Doctor, she tries to find out more about him by Goolging him. Her research leads to an encounter with Mark Benton, a Trekkie-like suburban conspiracy nut who’s been cataloguing the Doctor’s history for years. When Piper turns up on his doorstep, Benton’s wife says: “A girl? A girl read your website about The Doctor?”

The point is, the new audience might even have room for girls, too, like it did back when the programme first started. A generation has now grown up without the presence of a Doctor on TV, with no associations with the show. There are potentially viewers again for whom the first sight of the inside of the Tardis will be as surprising, strange and nutty as it was when the first Earthlings stumbled through the doors of William Hartnell’s junkyard box in 1963.

Along with the Doctor, his ship, incidentally, has regenerated, too, taken on a more art nouveau, almost organic look inside; like a Jules Verne machine redesigned by HRR Geiger. Like the show as a whole, it feels old and new at once.

Outside, it’s still a police box, of course, that inspired touch more insane today than ever, now that the real things have practically vanished from our streets. It brings about the best gag in the first episode: “What’s a Police…Public Call Box?” Piper asks, staring warily at the blue thing.

“It’s a telephone booth from the 1950s,” says The Doctor, patting his machine and beaming with lunatic pride at its incongruous ingeniousness. “It’s a disguise!”

Ah, yes, The Doctor himself. He’s Christopher Eccleston, of course, and we first encounter him planting a bomb in a department store, like a distracted terrorist. Except this guerilla is fighting secretly among us to keep us safe.

He dresses down for a Doctor: where the dandy of old plumped for crushed velvet and ridiculously showy scarves, he plumps for a plain, battered black leather jacket, like an aging Joy Division fan. However, Eccleston has other trademarks in place. You sense him feeling his way into the role, just as the Doctor is feeling his way into his new body, but he already has a trace of the odd, loopy charm of Tom Baker, flashing grins at the most importune moments.

Then, at the drop of a pin, he’s irritable, unknowably cold, with the snappy, bitter frost about him that Baker, Pertwee, Troughton and Hartnell had. More than once, he refers to humans as “apes.” A hint of solitary melancholy, too, the isolation of being, as he says, the only man on earth who can feel the planet move under his feet.

Eccleston last played the modern reincarnation of Christ for Davies, and brings a similar intense, grounded alien-ness to this role. Indeed, at one point, Davies cheekily has him framed like a divine icon, the massive halo of the London eye glowing around his head. And an icon the Doctor is, a unique TV entity, breathing again.

The episode ends with Rose agreeing to accompany him on his adventures; but the really important thing about the final scene is the half-glimpsed yearning with which Eccleston invites her along, more for himself than for her, asking for company like an addict asking for a fix. He’s cosmically lonely. What’s the point of having an adventure if you’ve no one to remember it with?

Davies is aiming here not at taking Doctor Who into some stark, dark, hardcore sci-fi area, such as the feverent adult fans might want; but bringing it back to being a family show, in the sense of having a level of entry for everyone. Crucially, though, there are hints enough to suggest that it might be a family show that sometimes, often, tumbles over into genuine eeriness, spooks and even seriousness.

It’s a grand vision. Whether it comes to fruition remains to be seen, but it’ll be fun finding out. In only five Saturdays’ time, we’re going to get see a real live Dalek onscreen for the first time in a decade and a half! And then the Marmite kids will know what being frightened is all about.