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In the early 2000s Russell T. Davies was well-respected in television circles as the writer of acclaimed dramas like Queer as Folk and The Second Coming. However, Davies had a guilty secret. He’d grown up an avid Doctor Who fan. Indeed, since the show had left the airwaves in 1989, he’d been one of the many contributors to the spin-off media – comics, audio adventures, novels – that’d proliferated so that fans could get their continuing fix of the show. Now that he carried weight within the BBC, what Davies wanted more than anything was to bring the show back to television.
In 2005 Davies got his wish and a new-look Doctor Who was launched with him as show-runner and chief scriptwriter. I have mixed feelings about what Davies did, but his basic approach was sensible. Aware that he needed to craft a show that appealed not just to old-time fans – most of whom had acquired some grey hairs by then – but to new viewers and especially to kids, he introduced the main human character first, Rose Tyler, and told the story through her eyes. (Playing Rose was former pop singer Billie Piper, who despite many people’s low expectations turned out to have acting talent.) As Rose got to know the mysterious Doctor, his character was gradually sketched in. Thus, Davies avoided dumping too much back-story on his audiences too quickly, which had been the undoing of the Paul McGann TV movie nine years earlier.
In fact, Davies reduced that back-story by getting rid of the Time Lords. It transpired that they’d fought a cataclysmic ‘Time War’ against the Daleks, which had ended with both species’ destruction. Predictably, though, the Doctor and Rose soon discovered that not all the Daleks were extinct. Meanwhile, the show’s other old monsters and enemies, such as the Cybermen and the Master, were brought back only gradually and were given a 21st-century makeover. In the case of the Master, he became a manic villain in the style of Batman’s Joker, who wasn’t averse to torturing the Doctor whilst playing, loudly, songs by the Scissor Sisters – the bastard.
To play the Doctor, Davies brought in Christopher Ecclestone, who’d been in The Second Coming and in a number of films, including Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, in which he’d appeared alongside the future Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan Macgregor. (If a little kid ever asks you the question, “If Doctor Who had a fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi, who would win?” you could show him or her the last ten minutes of Shallow Grave. Actually, on second thoughts, don’t. It’s a bit unpleasant.) This new Doctor, the ninth one, was psychologically scarred by Time War survivor’s guilt, something Ecclestone wore well on his normal acting persona, which is pretty intense and morose. In fact, speaking with his natural, working-class Salford accent, Ecclestone’s Doctor could be described as the Ken Loach Doctor. He certainly seemed to have been through the wringer as much as the average hero of a Loach movie.
I was less enamoured with some of Davies’s other decisions, especially his insistence on peppering his scripts with silly touches, such as farting aliens, talking pavement slabs, burping wheelie-bins and general slapstick. No doubt he was aiming for a Roald Dahl-type humour that would keep kids entertained, though too often that humour tipped over into daftness. The sometimes-juvenile tone of Davis’s scripts, which made up the bulk of the early stories of Nu-Who’s first season, might have been one reason why Ecclestone quickly announced that he’d be leaving the show at that season’s conclusion. I suspect another reason was that Ecclestone wondered why a seasoned film actor like himself should have to put up with the BBC’s gruelling and non-stop shooting schedules.
But Ecclestone may have regretted his early decision to quit Nu-Who because it soon became clear that the revived show was a hit. Restored to its traditional Saturday teatime slot, it triumphed in the ratings. Also, in its later stories, it became good. Particularly strong was the Rob Shearman-scripted Dalek, in which the Doctor becomes the prisoner of an American billionaire living in a bunker beneath the Utah Desert who collects alien artefacts. Not only does he want to add the last of the Time Lords to his collection, but he’s already acquired another alien creature. Damaged, but capable of repairing itself, this creature turns out to be – surprise! – the last of the Daleks.
Meanwhile, the two-part story The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances was written by Steven Moffat, another writer who, like Davies, had won acclaim for his previous work but had a secret Doctor-Who-fan skeleton lurking in his closet. Reviving the body-horror trope that the show had done so well in the 1970s, it has a time-travelling swarm of medical nanobots arrive by accident in blitzed World War II London, where they promptly ‘fix’ a dying child, not aware that the gas-mask he’s wearing isn’t part of his natural anatomy. Then they start carrying out the same repair-programme on every human they encounter, inadvertently creating an army of zombies with gas-masks grotesquely fused to their faces. It’s a dark and frightening premise but Moffat manages to resolve the story with an uplifting and optimistic ending. He won that year’s Hugo award for best dramatic presentation / short form – the first of four he would lift for the show.
With Ecclestone gone, Davies hired as the next Doctor 35-year-old Scottish actor David Tennant. Like Davies, I have mixed feelings about Tennant, and at times I’ve regarded him as the Roger Moore of Doctor Who. As with Moore’s version of James Bond, I wasn’t happy with Tennant’s portrayal of the character; but, just as Moore’s 1979 Bond flick Moonraker was the most successful one to date, I can’t deny that he made the show massively popular. The young, slim and telegenic Tennant proved especially popular with female viewers, i.e. teenaged girls and their mums. Correspondingly, Davis cranked up the film’s romance factor, to the point where it seemed Tennant was incapable of getting through an episode without snogging, or at least making puppy-eyes at, whatever nubile young actress was in the guest cast that week. Meanwhile, the relationship between Tennant and Billie Piper – who’d worked well with Ecclestone – became annoyingly lovey-dovey too.
Tennant is, however, a far better actor than Roger Moore and at times he managed to fashion a character whose human traits were convincingly balanced with his alien ones. At other times, however, his Doctor was an irritating blur of tics, gimmicks and catchphrases. Whereas Ecclestone had used his native north-of England accent, Tennant for some reason wasn’t allowed to sound Scottish and he opted instead for a grating ‘Mockney’ that made him sound like a fast-talking London street trader trying to sell a cache of dodgy watches. Also, later, he grew increasingly self-pitying, whining about being the last of the Time Lords and about how much he missed Rose – just before the two characters could declare their love for each other, Billie Piper fell into a parallel universe at the end of Nu-Who’s second season, never to see her beloved Doctor again; or at least, not until Davies could think of a way to bring her back. Small wonder that fans began to dub the Tennant Doctor ‘Doctor Emo’.
By Nu-Who’s third season – Tennant’s second – the Doctor had a new travelling companion, Martha, played by the underrated Freema Agyleman, who projected some spirit and intellect. Sadly, though, the writers cheapened her character by having her fall in love with and then pine over the unattainable Tennant. It was during this period that the show featured the best story of its revival, Blink, which earned writer Steven Moffat another Hugo. It introduced Nu-Who’s smartest monsters, the Weeping Angels, creatures who exist as stone statues – in the disconcerting form of vampire-faced angels – when people are looking at them. When nobody’s looking at them, they can come to life, move, hunt and kill. The not-being-seen period that enables them to move can be very short indeed, even while somebody blinks or when a light-bulb flickers. This allows Moffat to insert sequences where people see a Weeping Angel statue, blink, and then wonder why the statue seems to have edged a little closer towards them. It was the show’s creepiest story since the Tom Baker days.
Next, Tennant acquired another travelling companion, Donna, played by Catherine Tate, who wasn’t trying to win his heart but who simply treated him as a chum. One wonders if this was because of the fact that Tate was visibly a few years older than Tennant. Meanwhile, during his last year or two in the role, the stories became ever-more bombastic. Davies created ever-greater threats to the universe and the doctor came up with increasing convoluted scientific (i.e. ‘magic’ + ‘technobabble’) solutions to them. The Daleks returned (again) with a ridiculously destructive weapon called the ‘reality bomb’, capable of destroying everything in this universe and in any other universe. Then the Time Lords – who, it was now clear, had become as ruthless as the Daleks towards the end of the Time War – devised an ingenious (i.e. ludicrous) plan involving the Master, and humanity, to survive the final day of the Time War by escaping through time to present-day earth. Playing the tyrannical leader of the Time Lords, incidentally, was none other than Timothy Dalton, James Bond IV, which led to some excited fan-geek speculation on the Internet that James Bond was also a Time Lord. (He has, after all, had half-a-dozen different incarnations of his own.)
To be fair to Davies, he did script a couple of late-Tenant era Doctor Who stories that were very effective because they tapped into the show’s long tradition of gothic horror. Midnight is claustrophobically set inside a small, single-chambered vessel that’s crashed on the surface of an alien planet, where a mysterious unseen ‘thing’ first stalks around outside and then stalks through the heads of the trapped passengers inside. Waters of Mars, meanwhile, has the crew of a future base on Mars discover a water source that is in fact a sentient organism. They get infected by it, one by one, and transform into cracked-faced ‘water-zombies’ while the creature tries to transport itself to a more conducive, watery environment – earth.
By this time, 2009, it was announced that David Tennant was leaving the show and his replacement, Matt Smith, was unveiled. My expectations were not great at this point because, at 26 years old, Smith was even younger than Peter Davison, my least favourite Doctor, when he’d taken on the role; and Smith’s costume was to be a bow tie / tweed jacket combo that made him look like a Hooray Henry. This eleventh Doctor, it seemed, was going to be a mixture of Boris Johnson and Stewie-the-talking-baby in Family Guy.
However, I was pleasantly surprised because Matt Smith’s Doctor proved to be a delight. He was an endearing creature that was ungainly and child-like, compassionate and yet plausibly alien. Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped him greatly, as did his decision to base some of his mannerisms on Patrick Troughton, the actor considered by many to be the greatest Doctor of all.
Departing from the show at the same time as Tenant was Russell T. Davies and he was replaced as show-runner by the revived show’s best writer, Steven Moffat. Moffat’s tenure at the helm of Doctor Who has proved controversial and he’s even abandoned Twitter because he got fed up with the hectoring he was receiving from fans. One criticism has been that he’s made the show unnecessarily complicated through the use of tangled, season-long story arcs. Smith’s second season, for example, began with him apparently being killed. Then the season devoted itself to showing, through plot-twists and instances of time travel (which were either ingenious or torturous, depending on your point of view), how he managed to avoid being killed.
Another bone of contention has been Moffat’s handling of female characters. Firstly, he introduced as the Doctor’s new travelling companion Amy Pond, played by the flame-haired Invernessian actress Karen Gillan. Bolshy, mercurial and contradictory, as maddening as she was lovable, Amy Pond was in other words typically Scottish – Moffat, incidentally, is also a Scot – which some fans south of the border found hard to fathom. He also brought in River Song, a mysterious woman who eventually turned out to be an artificially created Time Lord. Played by the sultry Alex Kingston, River Song was by turns arrogant, enigmatic, all-knowing and never short of a witty answer. She was, basically, a female version of the Doctor, which old-school fans seemed to have trouble accepting. She was also the one female character to have a more-than-Platonic relationship with Smith’s Doctor, who generally eschewed the flirting and snogging of his predecessor. It says a lot for the acting abilities of Smith and Kingston (who’s two decades older than Smith) that they’ve managed to carry the relationship off without sparking a media outcry, led by the Daily Mail, about the BBC encouraging young, impressionable men to get off with older ladies.
Actually, I think that negative reactions to the show under Moffat have come from a sense of disappointment. Fans assumed that because Moffat had written some brilliant episodes in the past, the show was now going to be brilliant every week, which it wasn’t – the Smith era has seen some notable clunkers, such as Vampires of Venice, Curse of the Black Spot and the dreadful Nightmare in Silver, which was written by Neil Gaiman. (Shame on you, Neil.) However, I still prefer the show under Moffat to how it was under Davies – mainly because, as show-runner, Moffat’s now writing a lot of the scripts and he’s a stronger writer than Davies. Moffat’s stories tend to be ingenious, witty and fast-moving – so fast-moving that you need to keep your wits about you to follow what’s going on. Unfortunately, such is their break-neck pace that pieces of plot and logic sometimes get lost along the way. Also, the show now looks the best it’s ever looked, helped by some cinematic direction by the BBC’s best directors and some exotic location filming. (This was a show, remember, once notorious for shooting all its alien-planet sequences in the same old quarry.)
Now the revived show’s biggest problem is that, just as the original show did, it’s built up a tremendous amount of mythology, which threatens to make it as impenetrable to new viewers as it was in the 1980s. Since 2005, the copious new plot-elements, back-story references and recurrent characters have included Bad Wolf, Captain Jack Harkness, Torchwood, the Oncoming Storm, River Song, the Silence, the Fields of Trenzalore and the War Doctor. The last of these, the War Doctor, is a hidden incarnation of the Doctor who occurred between the eighth and official ninth Doctors, during the Time War: a dark version of himself that the Doctor has erased from his history like a family locking a mad relative in the attic. Played by John Hurt, it becomes clear that the War Doctor ended the Time War with an act of genocide, using a super-weapon to wipe out the Daleks and the Time Lords before their conflict destroyed any more of the universe around them.
Hurt’s Doctor formed the basis of the 50th-anniversary story that aired a week ago. It ends with Moffat cheekily retconning Davies’s original concept of the Time Lords being destroyed at the end of the Time War. He has all the Doctor’s incarnations travelling through time to shunt the planet of the Time Lords into a hidden ‘pocket universe’, so that it only looks like they were destroyed in the Time War. This also sets the Doctor up with a new mission for his next few seasons – to find his home planet again.
It was announced a while ago that Matt Smith, after three years in the role, is moving on too. His replacement will be Peter Capaldi – the same Peter Capaldi who, as a Glaswegian youngster, tried unsuccessfully to seize control of the official Doctor Who fan club back in the early 1970s. Capaldi is now 55 years old, the age William Hartnell was when he started playing the Doctor in 1963. However, with Capaldi being a regular marathon runner and having just spent the past few years playing the ferociously adrenalized and stunningly foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in the political-satire TV series The Thick of It, I imagine his Doctor will be anything but the cantankerous old gentleman played by the role’s original actor.
I’ll be sad to see Matt Smith leave the show, which will happen in its next instalment, to be broadcast on Christmas Day, because I reckon he was the best actor to play the Doctor for a very long time. It would have been nice to see him continue in the role for another season or two. On the other hand, however, I can’t wait to see him regenerate into Malcolm Tucker: “F**k off, you wee spastic-voiced, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot knob-end c**ts!”