Up-words - It's Time for Doctor Who

Up-words features the best of the articles from This way up when it was published as a print fanzine from 2002- 2010.

It’s Time for Doctor Who / John Connors / June 2005

Imagine you’re a Doctor Who fan. One day in the 1990s someone appears from the future (and, hey, he might be a bit Northern with prominent ears and a black coat, you never know) and tells you that your favourite telly show will be back on air in 2005 and not only will it be great, exciting, terrifying and epic but it will be a ratings trouncing success, the serious critics will rave and even people who previously thought it was all silly wobbly set laden kids stiff will swoon when they catch an eyeful. There will also, he adds with a twinkle in his eyes, be Daleks, millions of them. “Fantastic!”  It sounds like something that could never happen but here we are in 2005 and it has happened. It were never been like this in the old days when effects were rarely special and Daleks were mostly cardboard cut outs and fans existed in their own enclosed world. A short write up in the `Radio Times`, the odd snippet wedged in the midst of a big `Saturday night on BBC1` trailer and that was your lot in the halcyon days of the 70s. Doctor Who, however successful it was, never had the cachet it has right now.

Throughout its run, this new series was constantly placed in the top 20 shows of each week, with audience shares that remained consistently high at around 35 -40% despite fluctuating ratings and was the most watched home grown drama series of the first half of the year. More than that it saw off direct opposition with such finality that ITV eventually gave up and started showing any old film instead. With average ratings of almost 8 million there is no doubting that the series is now more commercially successful than ever before. In these days of multi channels and declining overall audiences its roughly the same as if 70s Doctor Who had been watched by 15 million people each week, which it certainly wasn’t. Yet until February 2005 there was little sense of what was to come after an 18 month production schedule that had seemed to go on forever.

Then, all of a sudden things began to lurch into gear with all the ruthlessness of an invasion. There were trailers for weeks beforehand (even `special` trailers, reserved for the most identifiable and big shows). Public billboards sat proudly overlooking roads and railway stations proclaiming simply the time and date of the new series together with an enormous photo of Chris and Billie. `Radio Times` went into overkill mode talking up the series three weeks before transmission and spoiling us with a fold out TARDIS cover in the week itself. After that, it cleared space for a feature every single week. The tabloids had already been indulging themselves since last summer, speculating on the travails of Billie Piper’s marriage and sneaking onto sets to get not particularly exciting pictures. Now the broadsheets tuned in, offering enthusiastic previews written as if they were intellectualising when you knew they were actually playing Daleks on the office chairs!  Needless to say Internet activity was legion; Outpost Gallifrey in particular logged and reported every nuance of news, gossip and speculation with feverish anticipation while the BBC themselves came up with a marvellous official site. Transmission of each episode was followed on BBC3 by Doctor Who Confidential, which mixed behind the scenes stuff with glances back at the old series. Fans, as ever, debated every morsel and millisecond of each episode; a feeding frenzy after fifteen years of meagre pickings and Rose itself was leaked onto the internet three weeks prior to transmission by a plucky Canadian fan who subsequently lost his job for his trouble. 

In the week before broadcast began, television went Doctor Who crazy! Billie was on Parkinson being very chatty while Chris E was on Jonathan Ross and seemed nervous, perhaps because he was carrying a big secret. BBC2 weighed in with a `Dr Who Night` which was actually only about two hours, but included a documentary repeat and a Doctor Who Mastermind in which the person who knew least about the series won and Chris was already talking about the show in the past tense- a big clue we missed at the time. The 60s Dalek films were shown and both a Culture Show feature and Newsnight Review spot aired in the week leading up to the start of the series. Plus, if you want undeniable proof that the other channels would dearly love to have resurrected the show themselves, check out the films on Friday 24th March – Nicholas and Alexandria featuring Tom as Rasputin on ITV and One of our Dinosaurs Is Missing with Jon Pertwee on Four. No fan can remember a time when Doctor Who was so important and so feted and so…now! There was a palpable buzz about it all, something suggesting this was far, far more than just the relaunch of a once popular telefantasy series. There was a sense that this new Doctor Who did not so much have to succeed; rather it would have to fail spectacularly. You felt that the BBC really did see it as a flagship programme, which contrasts vividly with the way they tried to bury it during the second half of the eighties. Yet at the back of our minds, there was a sense of caution; surely something would go wrong?

Watching the opening few minutes of Rose– themselves a modern stylish blur- you couldn’t help feeling a little nervous for the programme and all it meant. Yet once Rose made her run into the TARDIS the programme would never mean quite the same thing again. The popular –if inaccurate – iconography that surrounded it was reshaped forever after just 45 minutes and now Doctor Who is hip, modern and most definitely fun. The sets don’t wobble, the effects aren’t cheap and not everyone is acting in the Queen’s English. Naturally other things have been lost as well but it’s important to mention that the absolute essentials- the things that have always been there – remain. I’m not just talking about the central character, the companion and the TARDIS, rather the sense of good overcoming evil, the moral tone, the `fear factor` as the BBC website has dubbed it and, crucially, the way the series reflects it’s television surroundings. Fans shocked by the stealth and relative gloss in this new look version have not been paying attention to the way that television has developed. Whether for the better is not the matter at stake here, but if you pick any old story at random, you’ll find it, too, is of its time. In that respect it would have been more unusual if Rose had been any different to the way it was. Like football fans and paid up members of political parties, Doctor Who fans do really love being annoyed with the object of their fervour; they are possessive and each of them really feels they know best how it should be made.

By mid season, however, we’d grown acclimatised to this new style and the changes it had brought. The incidental music for example seems much more integral than it used to with something like 90% of screen time featuring some musical adornment. Whereas it used to be there to underpin danger or terror, the music is now part of the canvas and Murray Gold’s approach gradually made sense once you get used to it. There was always something odd about the programme’s music anyway; listen to how horrible all that 70s electronics sounds today. Gold produced an eloquent score, full of surprises and with an urgency to match the pace of the production. While technically good – for example the themes from Rose pop back in new forms in The Parting of the Ways – it is sumptuous to listen to and something of a triumph.

Visually things were astoundingly good; with a big budget and a new generation of technical and design people nothing seemed beyond their reach to the extent that Downing Street was blown up and the centre of Cardiff suffered an earthquake. The monsters, old and new, were excellent. Daleks and Autons have never looked better; the former given a look that really implies metallic heavyweights, while the latter had a wonderful creaking sound when moving. The new crop lived up to the series’ tradition, especially the Slitheen with their weird blinking eyes and claws. The aliens assembled for End of the World were an especially impressive collection each of whom would have merited a 4 part story of their own back in the day; in particular it was a shame that the Moxx of Balhoon was seen so little as it was a tremendous costume in every respect.

The 45 minute format shows a programme made for the dvd age where you need to see it more than once to absorb all the nuances; for example it took ages for anyone to start noticing the Bad Wolf references. Unfortunately this fast style has come to be regarded as superficial by some people but one of the key strengths of the revival has been the way it plays to multiple audiences; showering the younger viewers with action and colour, delighting the older viewers with innuendo and contemporary references and ensuring fans see enough of the essence of the show to feel at home. It was said before transmission of the series started that the family audience does not exist in 2005 and that may well have been true up till March but the biggest legacy of this series could be to revive the idea of families watching together instead of vanishing to all points of the home with their own screens.
As for the content, Russell T Davies is a writer who will not allow plot to stand in the way of character and emotion and this approach has never been used in Doctor Who before. Essentially, this new version is a love story, not just between the Doctor and Rose but also between the writer Russell T Davies and the show. His interpretation of Doctor Who may have looked radically different but it maintained the moral axis around which the series has always spun whilst adding colours to the template quite successfully. Its there in the fibre of each episode; the Doctor’s apologies to victims, his confidence boosting talks to characters and, finally, when he can’t press those levers in the last episode because of what will result. In that sense he is very much the same Doctor who dallied with the two wires in Genesis of the Daleks. By linking each episode, rather like a thirteen part epic, Davies is also able to achieve something the old series never could; a real emotional line. There was always a lot of talk about companions’ `characters` but in effect they disappeared after each new assistant’s first story. The 2005 version however actually does develop Rose Tyler’s character and she is able to influence the Doctor to some extent as well. It makes you realise how poorly previous companion figures have been written or, to be more accurate, sketched. I can’t think of any who seemed as real as Rose.

The relationship between the two lead characters starts off as Rose being a wide eyed neophyte excited by the very idea of the Doctor, clearly the most interesting person she has ever met. He shows her weird times and places but she never allows herself to be overwhelmed; she talks normally to the cleaner in End of the World and relates to Gwyneth as a real person right to the end of The Unquiet Dead. She becomes fascinated by the idea of time travel, even in something as simple as placing her foot in 1860s snow, and absorbs the wonder. By the time of the Slitheen episodes she is quite prepared to trust the Doctor even if it means her own death proving she has pulled away from her Earthbound concerns and soaked up some of the Doctor’s outlook.  The difference between her new and old life is illustrated in the comparison with her mother’s selfish concerns that the Doctor guarantees her daughter’s safety. It is in Dalek that we see Rose’s fully fledged independence when, just as the Doctor would, she stands up for the lone, humanised Dalek by confronting the Doctor himself who wants to destroy the creature because of his own past history with its race. “Its not him pointing the gun at me” points out Rose. This pivotal moment marks them out as equals from then on and the way that Rose blazes her way through subsequent adventures (some clearly off screen) and they become a team ultimately flips the relationship. The faith that both the Doctor and Rose have in each other leads to a grand finale when they both risk everything for the other. It’s also rewarding to see Davies tackling the feelings of those left behind (Mickey and Rose’s mum) and introducing a potential rival (as opposed to enemy) for the Doctor in Captain Jack. I’d say these moves are the work of superior scripting to anything we saw in the classic series.

Watching The Parting of the Ways leaves us in no doubt that Christopher Eccleston was only ever going to do a season. From the moment we meet him, the ninth Doctor is in a hurry and also a hero with something to hide. It’s interesting the way Davies has chosen to treat the Doctor; the new series seems to have harked back to the 1970s and in particular the fourth incarnation. Here was a complex interpretation of this most elusive role; this Doctor was harsh and demanding, yet he could also coax the best out of people. He wasn’t afraid to confront anything and he used flip humour to confuse and give him time to think. He grinned like a crazy man, said crazy things yet his mind was always two steps ahead of even his most dangerous enemy. The Ninth Doctor is very much in this mould; in fact at times Davies seems to literally interpret his name as time and again this Doctor heals situations. If you look at each of the episodes, it is only a couple of times that the Doctor himself does something directly to resolve the scenario. Everywhere else the situation is resolved because the Doctor has offered advice or encouragement or weedled intensions out of his enemy while someone else has been listening. Its as if this Doctor is afraid to take direct action because of what he did in the Time War; instead he coaches his companions, mingles with locals, gets his companions or even Charles Dickens to do it.

Together the Doctor and Rose are the most equal Doctor/companion team the programme has ever had. The characters enjoy a real relationship, with all that entails  - they behave like lovers and they are there for each other. Russell T Davies’ greatest accomplishment has been to add this aspect to the show without diluting all the other things that make it great. His previous TV series have shown a penchant for romantic gestures and overblown crises and the idea that this could happen on Doctor Who is thankfully no longer unthinkable. The subtle, British reserve that used to characterise emotional moments would not work now and certainly not in a pacey series like this. There always was a sort of love between the Doctor and companion of course its just that this has been brought to the front of the story this time. Look at the Doctor / Sarah farewell or the most celebrated departure sequence in The Green Death. Now compare these with the moment in Bad Wolf when the Doctor thinks Rose has been vaporised. The turmoil and music create a swirl that will have viewer’s lips quivering not because they think Rose has been killed but because we know what it means to the Doctor. After seeing his own people wiped out- and playing a part in it- Rose is the first person he has found since that he can share his life with. It means that, finally, we have got inside the Doctor’s head a little, not by endless anecdotes about it being a warm Gallifreyan night or whatever but through the beauty of a relationship. The Doctor has become more realistic than ever before.

That is also true of the series as a whole. Davies’ decision to link all the stories and have them based on Earth has been a key factor in the high ratings. There isn’t anything intrinsically different about something like Curse of Peladon, which looks at monarchy and class and The Long Game’s examination of news control except that the latter is set in Earth’s future rather than an allegorical alien planet so we can identify more readily with the characters in it. As well as this the writers of the 2005 series are interested in people and relationships whereas the 1970s writers were concerned with ideas and concepts. Davies and co are not averse to glossing over the sort of technical detail which would have taken up half an episode, they know that today’s viewers will not put up with tedium. If you look at the actual amount of plot today it’s not really much less than before; they have just cut out all the runarounds and endless people being captured. The plotting shortcuts made in this series have mostly been for the good of the narrative; the psychic paper in particular is a marvellous device to avoid all those scenes where the Doctor arrives and is captured and questioned about who he is. The sonic screwdriver is back to get round doors and do all the boring scientific bits. All the slack has been taken away and the stories have been made more linear which is a relief for anyone who sat through the over complex late 80s stories, packed with strange non sequiters and confusing scene by scene progression.

Naturally, some fans were a little more circumspect, amongst the commonly reported gripes over early episodes were the 45 minute format negating any plot depth and the `easy` way villains were despatched. It seemed that whilst the public were happy with Rose being seen entirely from the companion’s point of view, fans had trouble with it, criticising anti-plastic and suchlike. While the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, to the point of worship in some cases, there were those who felt the new format did have flaws and it is certainly the case that Russell T Davies himself was not over bothered with logical conclusions to stories at the expense of dramatic endings; his love of and reliance on deux ex machina is clear in several stories.

The proof of the pudding has little if anything to do with fans – though the new series is largely made by them – and would come with the ratings and not even the most optimistic of fans could have forseen that Rose, rather than scraping some good, strong ratings of about 5 to 6 million (which was what the BBC itself was expecting), instead nabbed 10.81million viewers, one of the largest audiences the show has enjoyed since the 70s. The episode went down extremely well with the general public and most of the media who declared it a successful rejuvenation of everything that was good about the series. Of course, the BBC were nothing short of ecstatic; after years of trying to find something a bit like Doctor Who, but not of course `telefantasy` and watching each effort flop, here’s the real thing and it’s a huge success. Well, we could have told them that…

The next few days after, it was immediately clear that something big was happening here. Something else was happening to, with its star. However optimistically Christopher Eccleston talked last year about fitting in plays between seasons it is obvious that he was unwilling to become too linked to the one role and it could be that he was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the promotional campaign, all of it dominated by his image and his acting. A private sort of actor, he must have been seized by dread when he realised that, rather than fronting something cultish like The Cure, he’d just joined U2 instead! His nervousness was visible at the Cardiff launch and on Jonathan Ross. Thus, the announcement just a few days after the transmission of Rose that there would be a second season- and a Xmas special- but that the BBC weren’t sure if their lead actor would be in them should have prepared us for the revelation just the very next day that Eccleston was quitting. There hasn’t been a more amazing week in the series’ history since the famed cancellation crisis twenty years earlier and it took everyone by surprise.

A bland statement about fear of typecasting was issued by the BBC without consulting the actor which they had to apologise for the next day but speculation as to the real reasons was then free to run riot! Theories were various; Eccleston had already been talking on the Doctor Who Mastermind as if the series was in the past for him and he went out of his way in other interviews to say how gruelling the schedule was. There were reports, too, that he had been angered by tabloid attention while some websites reported that he was unwilling to take a pay cut to do another season; the budget for the second series will reportedly be lower than that of the first due to BBC cutbacks all round; that at least is something fans are familiar with! In May, the Sunday Times suggested that Eccleston left after being offered either two whole series or just half of the second one. The truth may lie somewhere in between. It was certainly never likely that the actor would do a long run in the show and the end of the season does seem like the logical conclusion to the arc. On the other hand you could easily have ended it without the regeneration and whether the claim that it was always planned this way really is true or not, we may never know.

Whatever the real story it is suddenly difficult to imagine anyone else playing the Doctor, which shows how successful Christopher Eccleston has been. Of course, this shock announcement had fans on a roller coaster after the euphoria of the success of the first episode, which probably accounts for some of the more outrageous reactions posted onto the BBC’s website and other places. A handful even suggested they wouldn’t watch any more of the series or anything Eccleston does in the future! More reasoned fans of course did feel disappointed; after all while reaction to the new look show had been somewhat mixed inside fandom, almost everyone seemed in agreement that Eccleston was an excellent Doctor and that the chemistry with Rose was exquisite. The Rose situation is interesting because the potential by Xmas is that the companion will be much more popular and better known to the audience than the Doctor.

Unfortunately whatever the reasons, this kicked off speculation about who would take over with all the usual suspects being trotted out in the tabloids– Ken Dodd? Bill Nighy? Give it a rest please! David Tennant was hot favourite though even then, almost as if people knew something!
End of the World duly arrived as something of anticlimax, though did at last give us sight of the near mythical Moxx of Balhoon, thought to have been a made up monster name in Russell T Davies’ DWM column but actually for real! Yet despite the ratings falling to 7.28m, it turned out that all that week’s ratings were down so it was still Saturday’s most watched programme. With The Unquiet Dead getting better ratings and rumoured to have out performed the Royal Wedding as well as generating some good old fashioned controversy, the new series was on a roll that would keep its momentum for the rest of the season. David Tennant’s casting received far less publicity than anything else and it was to be the return of the Daleks that once again lit the touchpaper. A terrific trailer and a beautifully rendered `Radio Times` cover heralded the metal meanies’ return though it was all a bit misleading as people perhaps expected more than one Dalek at this point. However there is no denying that the magic of the series’ most successful enemies was worked once again

By the mid point of the series, a divide had opened up amongst fans as to the quality of Russell T Davies’ scripts against those of the other writers. Notwithstanding the fact that Davies pulled all the initial storylines together there was a feeling amongst a proportion of fan commentators that he was too quick to resort to inserting topical pot shots into scripts (eg the 45 second comment in World War Three) or spoil the tension with bad taste humour. Another big niggle was the way, as mentioned above, that the Doctor seemed to rely on other characters like Dickens, Mickey or Cathica to do the hands on sorting out at the climax of stories. His treatment of Adam in The Long Game was found to be very un Doctorish too, especially as he’d given the poor lad the unlimited credit and told him to go and explore. How much these elements really registered with the wider viewership isn’t clear but the placing of The Long Game wedged between two very popular episodes by other writers seemed to crystallise this debate; certainly that episode does play more like an old style one than either Dalek or Father’s Day. In the end of course, the full extent of Davies’ masterplan came to fruition and once you look at the series as a whole you can see it for the clever, multi layered story that it is. Some fans will never be satisfied of course, but debate and argument over the content was always part and parcel of the Doctor Who experience; hopefully the production team won’t take it too much to heart. It would be worse if people were saying very little.

There’s been controversy abounding; first came a barrage of viewer’s complaints about the Gelth appearing out of people’s mouths which led to a BBC statement that the show was unsuitable for the under 8s. Then came more fuss over Dalek concerning its use of religious imagery and also Adam being told to “canoodle” Rose! The critics loved this episode in particular, one from the Daily Mirror even going as far as to claim it was the best television programme ever! It seems Robert Shearman’s script did capture something of a little more depth, satisfying those who’d been critical of what they called the superficial nature of the previous five weeks. As many critics pointed out, Dalek had a double whammy of having something to say about how the nature of war twists people and a new take on a cultural icon. Controversy reared again a couple of weeks later in mid May when it was revealed that the second and third dvds would be given `12` certificates due to elements in both Dalek and The Empty Child that were deemed to be too scary for kids. This flew in the face of the show’s tradition of frightening children so that they hid behind the sofa and if anyone’s seen how today’s children behave it’s difficult to believe a tv show would really frighten them. The Empty Child proved to be quite controversial even before transmission, with tabloid reports of cuts and a build up that deemed it the most scary episode ever! Certainly it is debateable whether Richard Wilson’s character’s demise was too frightening to go out at 6.30pm. The fuss over the horror aspect, a distinctly low key publicity run and the altered time caused by both the FA Cup Final and the Eurovision Song Contest being staged that day clearly all contributed to the episode having the lowest rating of the season to that point, a shame given that it contained more traditional elements than any other. Towards the end of the season, the arrival of Captain Jack gave the critics something else to fuss about, especially when he delivers a full on kiss to the Doctor in the last episode.

The series was the first new tv Doctor Who to be charted by the Internet, which was still relatively new to the wider public in 1996 when the TV Movie was made. Now, redoubtable sites like Outpost Gallifrey kept fans up to date with the every nuance and development behind and in front of the cameras. The dedication of the people who do these sites is admirable. The BBC too gave the show a strong on line presence with the official site being packed with behind the scenes info, photos and interviews and included a team of young kids discussing how scary each episode was. Meanwhile, there were also several mini websites related to the series’ content; one was based on Clive’s site in Rose, whilst the UNIT website seen in World War Three also made an appearance though instead of `buffalo` the password was `bison` for some reason. What is the difference between a buffalo and a bison anyhow?

 However for fans the best teaser turned out to be Bad Wolf. In a mirror of the clear Buffy the Vampire Slayer influences at work in this season, this motif had already started to be dropped subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) into each episode. Apparently the Nestene Consciousness made the first reference though it’s anybody’s guess what it was saying really! Then the Moxx of Balhoon and Gwyneth mentioned it, graffiti was sprayed onto the TARDIS and it subsequently got a reference in several other episodes, such as Van Statten’s helicopter or the Corporation running the Games Station. Quite early on in the run it was discovered, presumably by people Googling Bad Wolf, that the BBC had registered a site called www.badwolf.co.uk which, when it went online, proved to be a teaser in itself, laying out all the clues and speculating on who Bad Wolf was. Lots of people thought they’d identified it of course with theories ranging from characters in this series like Adam or the Gelth to such old characters as Davros, the Emperor Dalek and The Master. In a move demonstrating Davies’ mastery over this sort of plotting it all turned out to be something different altogether, which we certainly weren’t even looking for!

Towards the end of the run the ratings began to slip though they did everywhere as summer began (the audience share remained very high); perhaps it might be an idea to try and start next season earlier in the year? Quite why people abandon their favourite telly in the early evening to go out in the sun remains one of life’s abiding mysteries. Or why don’t they tape it?  The huge audiences that greeted earlier episodes thus missed the jaw dropping cliffhangers at the end of both The Empty Child and Bad Wolf as well as the epic vistas that stunned viewers of The Parting of the Ways. Summer weather was blamed (the day of the last episode saw the warmest day of the year to that point) but there was a sense that towards the end the series had perhaps lapsed a little too far into pure telly sci-fi, a switch off for many. However with 41% of the audience share the last episode was still the most watched programme of the day. The BBC played up the PR till the end plastering a Days To Go banner across the homepage for the week leading up to the last episode whilst the Doctor Who page itself advised everyone to avoid the Internet fro a week to avoid having all the surprises spoiled; a bit rich considering the Beeb had already blown some of the surprises this season in their own trailers. The best PR of all came a couple of days before the last episode’s broadcast when it was confirmed that a third season had now been confirmed.

The BBC having recently initiated a policy of commissioning more than one season of successful series at a time could hardly have forgotten the year’s biggest new hit so the announcement was almost inevitable not that this stopped fans getting even more excited! Even better was the accompanying news that Billie Piper would, after all, be staying on for the whole second season, which will certainly give David Tennant a run for his money. The one thing on which every single reviewer, fan and casual watcher seems agreed on is her general wonderfulness, both in terms of acting skills and the character of Rose herself. As if all that were not enough, came the news that Graeme Harper will direct four episodes of season 2. Harper’s work created the last genuine classic of the old series in Caves of Androzani and he should certainly be able to fit in just fine with the new style programme and will no doubt relish the challenge of doing something other than motorway crashes. Oh and there’ll be Cybermen too. Not to mention that the BBC started trailing The Christmas Invasion a month before they even started making it!! It’s just getting ridiculous now of course, but in a good way.

Looking back it has been a whirl of activity and Russell T Davies and co can be proud of what they have achieved. A programme that had become a marginalized and misunderstood joke has become a ratings winning triumph that is simply good television way beyond its usual margins. Its maintained the elements that made it popular in the first place yet brought in a whole new approach. Trip of a lifetime was no exaggeration; it really is the time for Doctor Who and that is, as we all know, Fantastic!!!

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