While all of my friends and LJ contacts (or so it sometimes seems) wax lyrical about Joss Whedon and Firefly, I decided to step ahead into what’s new in SF. I got the opportunity to watch the new season of Doctor Who, the classic camp SF show from the BBC. For those of you who don’t know what Doctor Who is, it’s a story about a Timelord known solely as the Doctor. The Doctor is from a planet called Gallifrey, and I’m not clear on whether all the inhabitants are Timelords or merely some of them, but the Doctor is a bit of a renegade. The Timelords are supposed to protect time from being changed and are generally sticks-in-the-mud. The Doctor, on the other hand, runs through time in his TARDIS, accompanied by one or more companions, at least one of whom is usually a human. They travel back and forth across the reaches of space and time, saving the universe and putting right wrongs, opposed by a regular lineup of foes such as the Daleks, the Cybermen, and arch-nemesis The Master.
Where somebody at the BBC got brilliant, back in the Sixties when the Doctor first appeared on the screen, was with the concept of regeneration. Under certain circumstances (such as death, but it can be forced by other factors), a Timelord can regenerate. What this meant practically is that the BBC could easily replace the main actor at any time, because the Doctor regenerated. They gave Timelords 13 regenerations, thinking that would probably be more than enough. Over the years, though, there have been a succession of Doctors. The show finally went off the air in 1989 after 26 seasons and seven Doctors. Some Doctors were beloved, some were not, but the show had become a not-so-underground cult classic. Books, magazines, audio episodes, and more kept the Doctor alive. There was a single American made-for-TV movie with an Eight Doctor that was not well received; it was too American to please the regular fans and too British for the average American viewer to understand.
Finally, though, BBC Wales brought back the show by casting Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion Rose. So how is it?
Those of you who have seen any of this season will understand what I’m about to say: Fantastic!
Although the campy special effects and often weak characterization have been left behind, this show cuts to the heart of classic Doctor Who and revitalizes it for modern viewers. The stories are much more character-based; the writers have some spectacular material they’re using. Eccleston and Piper shine with the wonderful scripts they’ve got to work with — even the episodes I’ve liked least have been good shows — and the look of the show is stunning. This Doctor has been around the block a few more times than when we last saw him, and his emotional armor is a bit thinner. He’s more vulnerable and more brittle, more in need of a smart and confident companion to backstop him and confront him. Rose is that companion. Their onscreen chemistry is undeniable and the characters are clearly comfortable together even as the exact nature of their relationship (900 year old male Timelord and a 19 year old female human) remains undefined through the season’s journeys. They clearly care for each other, but it’s not a shallow romantic interest; they’ve recognized in each other a kindred spirit and grow to a deep friendship throughout the season.
I’ve not watched the last episode yet, as Steph hasn’t caught up with me. We’re saving the last one to watch together. I can already tell you I’m not looking forward to it, as Eccleston will not be returning for the second season of the new show. After turning in a performance regarded by many (including myself) as the best Doctor yet, the second season will open with a regeneration into the Tenth Doctor. Regenerations have always been a difficult time for the show; the Doctor’s character usually changes dramatically, giving the new actor room to establish himself. I like Eccleston’s Doctor; he has Tom Baker’s good cheer and joy in life, Peter Davison’s innocence, combined with hints of an unbearable weariness and emotional trauma that we’d expect a 900 year old exile with a tarnished past to have. Several of the episodes have brought tears to my eyes (Episode 8, “Father’s Day,” is a particularly good one) as the writers focus more on tying together the events of the season to show us how these characters are affected by the events of their time-hopping lifestyle.
In short, this is some of the best SF being made today. Doctor Who has grown up. I am scared of yet hopeful for the Tenth Doctor and the necessary changes he will bring, but I’m confident that the producers and writers will be able to do as marvelous job with the new season as they did with this one. Watch this show.