I spend a lot of time watching TV. A lot. It takes something special to get me wound up ( see: Chuck, Fringe, Homicide, The Big Bang Theory, Freaks and Geeks, How I Met Your Mother). It is very rare for me to dismiss something outright and even rarer for me to ignore a phenomenon.
I grew up in Canada, a place very British in many sensibilities. I have a deep love for British comedy. You would be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of Monty Python and Fry and Laurie than me. I’ve already written about my love for British panel shows. I was built to be a life long fan of Doctor Who.
But I wasn’t.
I grew up in a Star Trek house. My dad loved TOS, and I myself was a huge geek for TNG. I would come across a occasional episode of Who on CBC as a kid, so old they were in black and white. It would be those hard to find Hartnell/Troughton episodes people clamor for now, but I found the old man creepy, and the Daleks scared the shit out of me. They looked like our pepper pot. I think they might have been our pepper pot. I have no clear memory of the stories, just the overwhelming cheesy feeling and strong emotional reaction to the monsters. I went back to Star Trek ( speaking of cheese) and relished in Tribbles, which were probably more destructive but looked cute. I never gave Who much thought as a child as a result.
So when Who returned to series in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston playing the Doctor, I rebelled against watching it, despite names like Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat being involved in the writing. I loved Davies’ work with the UK version of Queer as Folks, and Moffat’s Coupling is possibly one of my all time favorite sitcoms. But all I could think about was people in bad rubber suits and ridiculously over the top acting. Even with Eccleston, an actor I greatly admire, I could not bear myself to go there.
So, cut to 2008, when I was writing American Idol posts for EW’s old TV Fan website. I met up online with a lovely girl who called herself Rose Tyler. Equally passionate about all things pop culture, with excellent taste in music ( I must give her credit for my now deep love for My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, and Band of Skulls), she had named her online self after- I had no clue, but her avatar of choice had Billie Piper in it. I knew Piper almost exclusively for her fifteen minute long pop career, with such bouncy inane songs like ” Girlfriend”. But she was a Who fan and talked it up when she could in between Beatles posts ( side note: it is amazing how two people can bond over their unabashed love of John Lennon). After eighteen months, I caved, and I began watching the new series.
I made the mistake of starting with the special that was airing that November weekend- “Waters of Mars”, which blew my mind for its creative story, high stakes terror, and David Tennant.
David Tennant has ruined me.
I began to devour everything Who, dragging my children into a growing abyss of the Doctor and his fair companions. I went back to the beginning, kicking myself for being a snob about Who. I became invested almost immediately in Rose Tyler herself, who remains my favorite companion. I must say that Billie Piper is actually a really good actress and I’m so glad she left pop music to be a TV star. I adore her sassy faithful girl.
Even more impressive was Eccleston’s Doctor. While always a fan of his work, I never really found him to be overly charming and witty. But from the moment he stepped into the iconic role of the Doctor, I found him adorable, funny, sexy, and heroic. As I wound through the wildly amusing series one, I was drawn in by the mystery of Bad Wolf, the often smart, occasionally silly stories, the much better suited monsters, and the warm love story between the Doctor and Rose. Many complaints have been railed at Davies for making Who accessible to fangirl fantasies and fan fic obsessives. But fangirls keep sci-fi on the air longer because they are obsessed with emotional resonance. I’m not sure the current Who could survive without them.
I knew Eccleston was only the Doctor for one series and he would regenerate into Tennant. It didn’t make the one-two punch of “Bad Wolf” and ” Parting of The Ways” any less difficult. I must say that the shining moment of series one for me is “Bad Wolf” itself, a mix of social commentary ( reality shows kill) and high-minded sci-fi ideas. As we see Rose, the Doctor, and the delightfully saucy Jack Harkness ( played by John Barrowman with such gusto one can’t help but love him) work out exactly where they were and what the consequences of losing on their show would mean, and the eventual escape of two of these characters and the sudden disappearance of a third, you can’t help but get wrapped up in the emotion of the series. The show doesn’t play the Rose-Doctor relationship as the ultimate love story in this series, but it still plays out that way. We understand the great affection the two of them have for each other, and we see at turns their jealousy and dependence ( the Doctor at first doesn’t trust Jack, as much for his obvious larceny as for Rose’s crush on the handsome Time Agent from the 51st century). Rose makes the Doctor less angry with his lot, damaged as he is from the result from the Time War that ended Gallifrey and the reign of the Time Lords. The Doctor gives Rose a purpose. By the end of ” Parting of the Ways”, where Rose’s sheer determination to not accept living out a life on earth eating chips, taking the Time Vortex into her head to save the man she loves from an almost certain death at the hands of the Daleks ( still scary to me after all these years), I was devastated.
Then David Tennant came along and all bets were off.
Eccleston was charming and sexy as the Doctor, but Tennant took him to another level. I know he’s a life long Who fan himself, and his reverence for the material is clear. He plays his Doctor with the wonderment of a child who can’t quite seem to believe he is doing exactly what he always wanted to do, and the chemistry he has with Piper is palpable. Series two continues on with its mix of humor and serious themes. Whether it’s the Torchwood hints leading to the smashing finale or the dark humor of Tennant as the man who has seen too much ( actually an over arching theme of the Tennant years- he’s been around for a millenia, after all), the clear deep love that our hero and heroine have for each other that turns every decision the Doctor makes into a heart wrenching choice of love and happiness over doing the right thing, and still somehow managing to save the girl in the end- it makes the end of “Doomsday” all that more tragic. The Doctor can never truly be with anyone forever, not even the love of his life. No episode hits on this more than “School Reunion”, which brings back Sarah Jane Smith, a former companion from the seventies. He must leave them behind somewhere. He must continue on alone. He leaves the love of his life in a parallel universe, unable to reach him, for the sake of all universes. The Doctor must always sacrifice personal happiness.
I found series three uneven, as much as I enjoy many of the individual episodes. I also love Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones, who delights as the love struck companion who the Doctor likes, but not in that way. Series three contains my two favorite episodes. First is ” The Shakespeare Code”, which I love simply because it has Shakespeare in it ( I love Shakespeare, even when played by floppy haired goofball like Dean Lennox Kelly). It’s really not a crucial episode in the story, with its theme of Saxon for Prime Minister, but its charming fun. The other, my personal favorite of all, is “Blink” a truly terrifying story of the Weeping Angels, the nicest assassins you will ever meet. They simply send you back in time and let you die after living a full life. The Doctor and Martha are barely int he episode, as Carey Mulligan’s Sally Sparrow is the focus. It’s a Steven Moffat episode, deliciously dark and unusual.
I’m with most Who fans in saying the following- the series three finale episodes disappoint. The triple header ” Utopia”, ” The Sound of Drums”, and ” The Last Of The Time Lords” all have great moments in them, but overall I found the story stretched thin. The best moments all seem to belong to John Simms as the Master, and he is deliriously manic as the psychopathic Time Lord with a chip on his shoulder. And I love any reason for Jack Harkness to show up. Really.
Series four brings us to Catherine Tate. Tate first appeared in the Christmas special ” The Runaway bride” in between series two and three. Her Donna Noble was unlike Rose in every way- she wasn’t swept off her feet by the Doctor and initially turns down his offer to travel with him. But by the time we get to ” Partners in Crime”, which is easily the funniest episode of NuWho with the least frightening Monsters you will ever see ( constant question in my house: ” Mom, can we have an adipose?”), we see a different kind of Doctor-Companion relationship. Donna is in no way in love with the Doctor, and he not with her ( Rose is still alive somewhere out there in the dimensions you know), but they have a mutual respect for what the other brings to their life together. Donna’s compassion saves the Doctor from making mistakes, but he also shows her that life is full of choices that one must make, even if it means death and destruction must follow. By the time the worlds begin to collapse and Rose makes her return, it’s Donna who must save the day. As a result, she must sacrifice her happiness, and her memory of that happiness, for it.
Tennant announced in 2008 that he would leave the role after a series of specials. Those specials are varying in quality ( I really dislike “Planet of the Dead”), but it leads us to another two-part finale. “The End of Time” remains two plus hours of heart-break for me. We see the result of the Doctor’s choices- the return of the Time Lords, the return of the Master, the fact that he can’t rely on Donna, Wilf ( the incomparable Bernard Cribbins) and his ability to find the Doctor and the result of that ease. Some people found the last twenty minutes indulgent. I found it to be exactly what I wanted and yes, even needed. When Matt Smith finally appears on-screen as the Doctor, I was emotionally exhausted, but ready for whatever came next.
As I now wait for the new episodes to transmit, I can safely say that Who’s position as my favorite sci-fi show is secure. And while I shall miss Tennant’s goofy and alarmingly sexy turn as the Doctor, I can be assured that my new found fandom in this show is worth the time I have put in the last couple of months. And yes, I’m now willing to go back and watch Old Who and tell myself that yes, it is cheesy and over the top, but man, look what it wrought.