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.“.
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.