Doctor Who: Series 1, revisited

My eldest son, Daniel, is back from University for a last holiday before his finals. He’s spending the time with a blend of revision and watching Doctor Who. He’s making his way through Series 1 (2005), the series that launched New Who, with Chris Eccleston in the title role.

It’s really good.

I’ve watched three of the epiodes with Dan: The Unquiet Dead (episode 3), Dalek (epsisode 6) and Father’s Day (episode 8). I was interested to see whether my delight at the series back in 2005 stands up now — or whether I liked it more then than I do now, either because it had the halo of the new, or just because I’ve grown more discerning in the last 14 years. That’s relevant because I’ve been so impatient with Series 11, and I wondered if it’s just that I’ve become a grumpy old man; or maybe that I’ve seen enough Doctor Who.

Nope, it’s not either of those things. It’s that Series 1 was much, much better than Series 11. It really is.

I put that down to at least four factors

1. The Doctor. In some ways Eccleston had a very difficult task, coming in cold to a role that had been dormant for 16 years (or nine years if you count the Paul McGann film). On the other hand, you could say that he also had the benefit of a clean slate — no modern Doctors to live up to, or stay consistent with, or consciously avoid resembling too closely. Either way, he did a storming job of it, quickly and confidently establishing a character who felt like a real person but also indisputably alien.

Subsequent Doctors have had to deal with anxiety of influence: each Doctor both does and does not want to be like his or her predecessors. Tennant and Smith both did superbly at being themselves while retaining an irreducible core of Doctorishness. But for me, Capaldi never quite seemed to inhabit the character, and always seemed to be acting. (Tennant only rarely fell into this trap; Eccleston and Smith, never.) He seemed always to be trying to walk a line between William Hartnell and Tom Baker, and I think that’s why — although I was initially excited about his appointment — he never quite clicked.

And sadly, that goes double for Jodie Whittaker, who seems to very much want to be David Tennant, but can’t carry it off. Her performance is always nodding and winking to the audience, always with the subtext “Look, I’m playing The Doctor!” And because she always knows she’s in a story, she never conveys a sense that the threat is serious. Whereas Eccleston consistently does.

2. Rose Tyler. She absolutely defined what a Doctor Who companion could be. Like many of us, I deplored the casting of some silly pop singer as the companion, only to be blown away by Billie Piper’s rock solid portrayal of a companion who was resolutely an ordinary person. I’ve never been happier to be proved completely wrong about something. Every scene she’s in, she absolutely sells. Her responses to the awesome, the tragic and the everyday are raw, wide open, real. And her relationship with the Doctor both feels like a real relationship and also preserves an element of ambiguity where you’re never quite 100% sure how they feel about each other.

3. Pacing. It’s strange to think that when the 2005 series began, we all thought it was rather fast and frantic compared with the old series that ended in 1989. Now, by comparison with the 2018 version, it feels leisurely. It never wastes time, but it does stop and smell the flowers. It gives you time to understand the problem before it solves it; it gives you time to develop affection for the characters before it kills or saves them.

Most of all, taking a little more time means that that it all makes sense. When Rose gives the lone Dalek the order to kill itself, that doesn’t come out of a clear blue sky: it feels almost inevitable, because the narrative has taken the time to work itself up to that point.

4. Integrity. This one is hardest to explain, but also most important. In the 2005 series, everyone involved gives the impression that what’s happening matters. Obviously the Doctor himself and Rose are the two most important participants here, but that same sense pervades the whole show: the one-shot characters are playing their parts with conviction. (Pete Tyler is particularly superb in Father’s Day.) The way the show is directed says that this is essentially a drama, albeit an unusual one. Although the music sounds oddly old-fashioned now, nevertheless it expects us to take it seriously — so we do. The visual effects are poor by modern standards, but there is nothing remotely camp about how they are executed or how the characters react to (say) the Reapers.

I can hardly overstate how important this is. In fact, now that I come to think about it, I’ve written about this principle at least twice before in very different fields. Rainbow’s 1976 album Rising works as well as it does because — while the lyrics are kind of silly — “Dio howls them with such conviction that they convince — they genuinely intimidate. When he sings that “There’s a hole in the sky / something evil passing by”, we believe him.” And, by contrast, Roger Moore’s Bond films failed because “the constant frivolity make his films the least engaging of all the Bonds [… a film] can contain jokes, but the moment it becomes a joke, there’s no reason why we should care.“.

Chris Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler. They mean it.

It seems to me that it’s this quality of conviction, more than anything else, that’s been gradually decaying from the series since at least the end of Matt Smith’s run, arguably earlier. It’s reached its nadir in Series 11, sure, but despite my criticisms of Chibnall and Whittaker it’s not entirely their fault. The show was already on a trajectory towards a self-knowing nod-and-a-wink before they came on board. They’ve failed to halt that trajectory, but they can at least claim in mitigation that they didn’t initiate it.

What now? Well, in the short term, I guess I really do need to get on and write something about Resolution, the new year special, if only so I can come to closure in my own writing about Series 11. But the real question is what happens in Series 12?

I see from Wikipedia that the showrunner and cast are all the same as in Series 11. In particular, all three companions survive, despite how very much that dynamic didn’t work last time — or, more precisely, how much the dynamic didn’t exist. But I’m not quite ready to accept that this means Series 12 will merely be More Of The Same. What could still save the Chibnall/Whittaker era would be taking Doctor Who seriously. I don’t mean everything has to be grimdark — Series 1 certainly wasn’t. I just mean purging that sense that everything is a game and everyone involved knows it. Doctor Who has to matter.

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8 responses to “Doctor Who: Series 1, revisited

  1. Once again I am having to agree with Mike Taylor. This almost hurts.

    One thing is true. Without the brilliance of Eccleston and Russell T. Davis creating this Doctor, we would never have had Tennant and Smith being able to build on it and grow the personalities, within great stories. That is mainly what I feel is missing now, the great storytelling and arcs, now it is just too manic.
    However, Mike, we are becoming grumpy old men. J

  2. This is an interesting retrospective from someone who gave up half-way through Tennant’s Doctor and never got back into it again. I really enjoyed Ecclescake’s Doctor and thought he absolutely made it his own: I think he would’ve done so even if he’d immediately followed on from McCoy, though that is perhaps a little disingenuous of me as it would follow a series of rather weak Doctors, especially after the absolutely domineering personality of Tom Baker (whose début I still recall: I was in tears when the “gentleman and a cad” Doctor III signed off). I’m not sure how fair that is to the actors; I mean Peter Davison is a fine actor but I think he was absolutely the wrong person to follow Tom Baker, though it could be said that after what many thought of as the definitive version, anyone would be “the wrong person”. It was a bit of a poison(ed) chalice.

    Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy I’m uncertain about. I think both had the presence to be fine doctors but they suffered from often rather poor scripts and a lack of direction. As far back as the end of the Tom Baker years the programme had become a bit of a cross between “Blue Peter does Doctor Who” and a pantomime, rather than a programme which was formerly a fairly successful effort at being both a sci-fi drama and encouraging kids to be interested in science. “Do the right thing” was always its message but I feel it’s something started to become rather indelicately applied from that point onwards and it’s felt like it’s fallen into the trap of proselytising rather too often.

    Eccleston I think had the strength of personality to carry that off for the most part and to go back to where I came in, I mostly enjoyed his Doctor in spite of some of the preachiness that the programme had developed rather than because of it. Though I’m now going entirely on memory (which is not reliable, and I’d honestly no idea it had been so long) I think my only real gripe with Eccleson’s tenure other than its brevity was the seemingly relentless focus on the dreary inner-city council estate: I think it was important in that first episode to introduce Rose and establish her background, but honestly I wish they’d just moved on and jettisoned the other recurring characters.

    And that brevity, which one of the daily rags managed to spoil (cheers, you knobs) before the second episode had even aired. Tennant took over too soon and for me he seemed to downplay what made Eccleston awesome and accentuate everything that made the programme irritating. Halfway through his Doctor I quit watching and never went back. I suspect I’ve missed a lot of good stuff from his successors but I’ve never been able to make myself find out.

  3. Well, Christine, I think you would really appreciate the first Matt Smith series in particular. I’m not sure how long you’ve been reading this blog, but I wrote about it in (some would say too much) detail, and the spoiler is that I think it did pretty much everything right. Do give it a go.

  4. Thanks, Mike. As ever I trust your judgement and I had a generally good “vibe” inasmuch as I randomly picked stuff up about Matt’s Doctor here and there. For all his youth he seemed… well, very much as the Doctor is, for that matter. I should probably refrain from publicly making any more assumptions until I’ve actually watched him!

  5. I would endorse that recommendation – the reason the Eccleston series and the first Matt Smith series are both so great is probably that the showrunners had each been waiting years, if not decades to do it. And they clearly poured their souls into it.
    That’s not to say that the latter Davies or Moffat seasons are shabby but none of them have quite that same sense of urgency about them.
    And that’s what was missing for me in the most recent series – it never felt as though Chibnall wanted the show to anything like the same extent. (I still enjoyed it a lot more than, say, Tennant’s first season though, but I realise I’m in a significant minority here!)

    But that 2005 series is almost perfect. I’ve rewatched it more than anything else in the modern era (and probably more than anything from the original era too!) and it never gets old. And yes, that’s almost entirely due to Eccleston and Piper who are both absurdly good for very different reasons. It’s just fantastic.

  6. First section is confusing: surely Eccleston’s success is that he is not trying to ‘be himself’ at all but commits totally to acting the part of a shell-shocked alien time-traveller? As indeed you would expect an actor of his calibre to do.

    The problem comes when whoever is playing the Doctor doesn’t commit to acting the part but instead treats it as a performance of themselves, with a ‘nod and a wink’ to the audience. Smith is acting all the time (at least in the early series, later on he seems to get a bit bored and slips into rather robotic self-parody, which is where it goes wrong), Tennant sometimes is and sometimes isn’t, and Capaldi, well, I think he could have played a great Doctor Who if he’d been given the chance, but he never was because by that time the whole programme had given up on taking itself seriously and was being written, not in order to tell stories, but in order to generate ‘memes*’ and moments for internet fans to squal over.

    So while you seem to have identified the symptoms correctly you’ve got the cause backwards. It’s not too much acting that’s the problem, it’s too little. It’s not showing one’s own character that makes it good, it’s totally ignoring one’s own character in favour of constructing the character of Doctor Who. the moment the actor lets slip the mask and starts ‘being themselves, but the Doctor’ is the moment it all falls apart.

    Like many of us, I deplored the casting of some silly pop singer as the companion

    But surely you had seen Bella and the Boys?

    * should be pronounced ‘me-mes’ to emphasis the self-absoption

  7. Where did I say anything about Eccleston “being himself”?

    Yes, clearly what’s needed is commitment to the reality of the role; and that is indeed acting in the best sense. Its opposite is “acting”, which is what we get from Whittaker: consciously playing, executing an art-form, aware of doing it.

    I had not seen, and have never heard of, Bella and the Boys.

    BTW., I do agree that there were times late in Smith’s run when he started to slip into letting mannerisms substitute for properly inhabiting the character. Never for long, and certainly never as badly as Tennant did, but the signs were there that it made sense for him to move on before letting his portrayal decay.

  8. I think you’ve accepted a bit too much Stanislavski there.

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