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Doctor Who (1st season, 2005)

The original Doctor Who ran on BBC from 1963-1989. As a kid and young man, I saw random moments and episodes, but never developed any fondness for it.

BBC brought Doctor Who back in 2005, in the hands of a longtime fan, Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, Casanova). They gave it a better budget, so it no longer looks fake, and Davies gave it better writing, so it no longer feels fake. Another big change: the original show was aimed at kids, but the revival is not. 

Quoting the show itself, "So there's this man. He has a time machine. Up and down history he goes, zip zip zip zip zip, getting into scrapes."

The Doctor is a "Time Lord" from the planet Gallifrey, but he looks like an Earthman (specifically, Christopher Eccleston). His time machine is a small blue box that's much larger inside. Usually he travels with a human companion, and usually she's a pretty woman, but there's no hanky-panky. You never know where they're going, but there'll be danger when they get there.

It's a delightful show when it's done right, and it's never been done better than the first five seasons of the revived show. I've rewatched it frequently, and for this, my seventh or ninth rewatch, I'm bringing you with me:

S01E01: "Rose"

New and improved Doctor Who launches with snappy instrumental rock music over a gorgeous montage of downtown London, as we meet Rose, a worker at a department store, whose life is about to be changed by meeting The Doctor.

This episode is mildly slapstick and silly, with unimpressive visual effects and a rather hackneyed story of mannequins-come-to-life, but it's a workable re-introduction to The Doctor, with a taste of the comedy and tragedy to come.

"I'm the Doctor, by the way. What's your name?"

"Rose."

"Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!"

It introduces Rose's boyfriend Mickey, and her mother Jackie, both of whom will be back in several more episodes. They're interesting, likable characters, and their existence in itself is a departure for the show, because all through its 1960s-80s run, The Doctor's companions weren't given backstories or lives of their own.

Rose keeps asking The Doctor who he is, where he's from, and what the heck, but he sidesteps such questions. "Call me the Doctor," is all he'll say, because the Doctor always remains enigmatic.

At the end of this first episode, he invites Rose to accompany him for more adventures in the blue box, and she hesitates, but eventually smiles and runs toward him.

That's Doctor Who's second most magical moment — an invitation to go with The Doctor and get away from the heckhole that is Planet Earth? I'd say yes without any of Rose's momentary hesitation. 

S01E02: "The End of the World"

This takes place in a distant future, as a menagerie of space aliens gather to watch Earth's sun explode, destroying our solar system. Fittingly, the end of our world has become a tourist attraction.

We see a dozen weird aliens, all well-visualized, and some cool mechanical spiders. The Doctor still refuses to answer Rose's questions about who he is and where he's from, but at the end of the episode, he relents and tells her briefly about his tragic past.

This is solid science fiction that also has some laughs, and it has power and poignancy at the end. This was the episode where I started to know that Doctor Who is more than merely Lost in Space with an accent.

This is also where we first see heroism from someone other than The Doctor and Rose. That's a recurring element that helps make the modern Doctor Who so rewarding to watch — in many or most episodes, there's an ordinary person we'll never see again, who sees that something must be done in a crisis, and maybe does it, or just as often but more sadly, decides not to do it.

That's the whole point of the program: All of us see something that must be done now and then, and what we do in that moment defines us. In this episode, because it's Doctor Who, the background character whose decision impacts everything is a walking tree.

S01E03: "The Unquiet Dead"

This one's less to my taste, as it's basically a ghost story. I have my standards — I can believe in time travel, but not in ghosts.

They're not really ghosts, though; they're the dead, inhabited by aliens called the Gelth. Despite its ghost story structure, it's a smart episode. Charles Dickens says, "What the Shakespeare is going on?", and every time I rewatch it it's better than I'd remembered. 

S01E04: "Aliens of London"
and E05: "World War Three"

Here we go slightly slapstick again, with a two-parter about the Slitheen, aliens that look like pigs. They impersonate Britain's leadership, but the process of taking over their bodies renders them perpetually farty.

S01E06: "Dalek"

The Doctor stumbles into an American millionaire's vast collection of alien artifacts, including meteorites, the mileometer from the Roswell spaceship, the head of a Cyberman, and a single Dalek, in chains. 

Daleks, of course, are Doctor Who's most famous monsters, encased in bumpy pepperpot-shaped metal armor. You probably know what a Dalek is, even if you've never seen Doctor Who.

In my very minority opinion, a Dalek is sillier than scary, so to be effective Daleks need a well-written episode, and this is that. Best episode so far, and one of the greats.

S01E07: "The Long Game"

Simon Pegg guest stars as a news editor collaborating with the Jagrafess, an enormous slug-like monster that lives on the 500th floor of a giant space station. There's a computer connecting everyone's minds for data storage, and this time there are three background characters who each must choose whether to side with good or with evil. Another quite good episode. 

"We all know what happens to nonentities. They get promoted."

S01E08: "Father's Day"

Rose's father was killed in a car accident when she was very young, and she doesn't remember him at all. She knows when and where it happened, and knows that he died alone, so she asks The Doctor to take her back to that day, so she can hold her father's hand as he dies.

When they go back, though, Rose rushes into the street, and shoves her father out of the way of a speeding car, saving his life. This will have big repercussions.

As The Doctor explains, "There's a man alive in the world who wasn't alive before. An ordinary man, and that's the most important thing in creation. The whole world's different because he's alive," and indeed, our reality is threatened.

Some very goosebump-inducing flying time monsters called the Reapers flap their scary wings, and rage against this wound in the fabric of What Should Be.

Obviously, the Reapers are ridiculous, and the story violates some of the show's ordinary rules, but Doctor Who isn't big on consistency.

And screw the rules anyway, because "Father's Day" is thrilling, and tells a very emotionally involving story in the midst of all its sci-fi nuttiness. It's a tale bigger than one man's life and death, and if you didn't care about Rose before this episode, you'll have to care now.

A personal story: My wife had seen the 1970s Doctor Who when she was a kid, and hated it, and had no interest in the revived series. For years she playfully teased me for watching "that silly show," but eventually she gave in, and we watched the first season together.

That lady was always stubborn, and even watching the first several episodes, the best she'd say was, "Well, that didn't suck." At "Father's Day," though, she cried, same as I always do at the end, and she said, "I can't believe it, but I'm starting to really like this stupid show."

S01E09: "The Empty Child"
and E10: "The Doctor Dances"

We're in London during the blitz of World War II, and an unknown epidemic is mutating humans into ghastly gas-masked creatures incapable of thought.

This two-parter has it all — mystery, creepiness, and a masterfully written story that keeps you unsure where it's going or how to unravel it, and then pays off with a beautiful conclusion. 

It also introduces lovable space rogue Jack Harkness, a free-lance bisexual time traveler and con-man who becomes a series semi-regular.

S01E11: "Boom Town"

The Slitheen from episodes 4 and 5 were barely interesting enough for their first two parter, and now they're back for a third episode.

This one's better, though. One of the Slitheen has been disguised herself as the Mayor of Cardiff, and she's planning to build a nuclear power plant directly over the city's famous time-space continuum fault line.

She's a monster by definition, but presented so sympathetically you'd consider rooting for her. There are lots of clever conversation, laughs, "dinner in bondage," and questions about the ethics of the death penalty. Another excellent episode.

E01E12 "Bad Wolf"
and E13: "The Parting of the Ways"

The Doctor and Rose are snatched and find themselves prisoners in a far-future reality television super-studio. Rose is forced to compete on The Weakest Link, still hosted by Anne Robinson but now she's an anne-droid, and the rules have been changed a bit — "You are the weakest link, goodbye," gets you disintegrated.

It's a wise satire of such silly television, with a lot of laughs — for a while, until the Daleks show up, now numbering millions. This time the character who faces the big decision, what to do in a crisis, is Rose, as well as her mom and her ex-boyfriend.

The season ends with this episode, and it's truly moving. It's art, on television — imagine that. The last 33 minutes is perfect Doctor Who, and every time I re-watch the first season, I re-re-watch the last episode, and then re-re-re-watch the last episode's last 33 minutes once or twice more.

"It was a better life. I don't mean all the traveling and seeing aliens and spaceships and things; that don't matter. The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You know, he showed you too — that you don't just give up, you don't just let things happen, you make a stand, you say no, you have the guts to do what's right when everyone else just runs away."

Billie Piper was a pop star as a teenager, but her hits had ebbed away, and Davies thought she could play a working class girl in outer space. Smokes alive, she nailed it, as Rose Tyler, the doctor's companion.

Lead actor Eccleston decided he didn't like the grind and working conditions on the show, so The Doctor dies, but "Time Lords have this little trick, sort of a way of cheating death."

And it's a brilliant trick: When the Doctor dies on Doctor Who, he 'regenerates' into a new actor, playing the same chacter. "It's a bit dodgy, this process," Eccleston explains on his way out. "You never know what you're going to end up with." 

It's a Gallifrey thing, and it's corny, but the Doctor regenerating with a different face is the show's biggest magic moment, re-starting not merely the role but the whole series.

This time, the new Doctor is David Tenant, but I've seen it over and over, but still I'm looking forward to what he'll bring to the show.

Next on Doctor Who:
the 2nd season

 8/14/2023  

2 comments:

  1. I started Doctor Who right here. I was hooked right away, though I did fall off after the first Capaldi episode. I can't say why, it's just what happened.

    I never cared much for Billie Piper as Rose. She was fine. But I agree with what you said / implied in the last Who post - I prefer new Who to any Trek. I might search out a stream and start again, or maybe start with Capaldi.

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  2. Well, the first Capaldi episode was kinda lame. Dinosaurs in London...

    Capaldi was bogged down by an uninteresting companion for his first few years, but several of his eps are complete classics, and later on he got the terrific Bill as companion.

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