Monday, 5 April 2010

Hello. I'm The Doctor. Basically... Run.

 A brief return of our occasional feature "Gee watches a Science Fiction television programme and give his opinion on it.". This post deals with the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who, which has yet to air in the US. It is however free from spoilers. Well kinda. It's not like I've typed in big bold letters THE BUTLER DID IT or something. Oh. Wait...

Strangest thing happened the other day. On Saturday the future ex-Mrs. Davies went shopping for what she we like to call “open chequebook day”. You see it happens to be her birthday this weekend and so, as has become tradition, she goes from store to store looking for things that tickle her fancy while I trot dutifully behind her, handing over my hard earned cash when prompted (Gee Note: I should point out that this all started a couple of years ago when I completely forgot about the love of my life’s birthday and had to pull something out of my arse at the very last second . I hastily came up with “Heyyyyyy. Rather than get you something you might not like, why don’t we hit the town and you can get anything you want? No expense spared. And then we can have a slap up meal for a lunch as well? Make a day of it I mean”. Sadly that first trip was a rip-roaring success, which means that every year around this time I am resigned to spending an entire afternoon humping my tired carcass from shop to shop, while steadily being loaded with shoes and hats like I’m f***ing Buckaroo).

So anyway, we mosey on down to Swansea where upon we were quite unexpectedly greeted by a spaceship. No really. An honest to goodness spaceship. Better yet this wasn’t just any old flying saucer. Oh no siree Bob, this son of a gun was your all singing, all dancing, travel through dimension, space and time and then back home for a nice cuppa, off-world vehicle. For standing in front of us, positively glowing in the spring sunshine, was the one and only TARDIS.

For those not familiar with the TARDIS, it happens to be the chariot of choice for The Doctor, Britain’s very own home-grown icon of science fiction. The Doctor is the lead character in Doctor Who, record holder for the longest running Sci-Fi television show in the world now in it’s 47th glorious year. The good Doctor has wowed audiences for decades, thrilling generation after generation as a time travelling alien who battles the forces of evil and tries to make the universe a better place.

However 47 years is a long old time to hold everyone’s interest, and it’s not been all plain sailing for Gallifrey’s finest. In 1989 the show was cancelled after suffering diminishing viewing figures and being deemed too old fashioned for the slam bang action style television of that era. Then in 1996 a television movie was made with the hope that it would become a backdoor pilot for a new series. Sadly, for reasons only known to themselves, the producers decided to give the lead villain role to Eric Roberts of all people (Gee Note: Although to be fair I thought he was excellent in The Dark Knight. And he's also in Raptor, one of my favourite "B" Movies of all time. I mean a dude running around in a cheap dinosaur suit? A sex scene that uses just three shots and then loops them over and over again? A plot that, without any warning, shoe horns in a mad scientist just for the hell of it? What's not to love?) That coupled with an aesthetic that looked like it had been cobbled together by a drunken intern at Stan Winston’s Studio, meant that those that did tune in abruptly switched the channel after about five minutes.

And then nine years later, something truly wonderful happened. Doctor Who was given a new lease of life. Handed over to Swansea’s second favourite son Russell T. Davies (Gee Note: Yeah that’s right. I said second favourite. I mean sure, Russ has won tons of awards, made millions, and is now being paid an extortionate amount of money by FOX to help save their Friday night schedule. But has world renowned historian and werewolf expert Linda Godfrey ever called Russell T. Davies “clever”? I don‘t think so Jack. Tell you what Russell, call me when Loren Coleman says “My, that Russell T. Davies is a smart fellow.”. Then we‘ll talk.), the show was brought back in to the noughties with a modern look and attitude. It became phenomenally successful too, spawning no less than three spin-off shows as well as a merchandising juggernaught second only to Star Wars and Harry Potter this side of the pond.

Now it should be noted before we go on that I love Doctor Who. And I’m really not that ashamed to admit it either. You see often when you say something like this people start to look at you funny. For example, I’m a fan of professional wrestling. And yet I don’t tell anyone about it because I’m tired of people looking at me in all seriousness and saying “Professional wrestling? You know it’s all fake don’t you?”, as if they feel the need to broaden my horizons for me by revealing a truth my simple brain has been unable to work out. I love comic books, except I wouldn’t dare mention it to someone until after we’ve either got horrendously drunk together and are now fast friends, or I’ve saved their life from a freak boating accident or something. And yet with Doctor Who it’s a lot different.

You see my love for DW stems not from the fantastical tales of other worlds filled with weird and wonderful creatures. I mean, of course, I enjoy that aspect of it too. But really the reason why I adore DW so much is that it’s quintessentially British. Made using a budget consisting of a top hat and a large turnip, it lives and dies by being truly creative. Sharp scripts, top drawer acting, special effects created by a department well versed in the art of making a pound stretch, that‘s how it rolls. And when it works it’s phenomenal, like a real life version of The Little Engine That Could. For example I was watching an episode from the late 70’s the other day where the Doctor’s main threat was obviously, and I swear to God I‘m not making this up, some dude in a duvet that had been spray painted green, crawling along the floor. And yet somehow this genuinely came across as tense and foreboding, rather than “Um, it’s a duvet right? I mean what’s it going to do? Snuggle us to death?”. This was due to those behind and in front of the camera really excelling at making the best out of what they had.

It’s easy to fall in love with a programme like that. When you consider how polished and bloated shows like FlashForwad have become, all bells and whistles and yet almost completely devoid of a soul, then Doctor Who is like Rocky Balboa. The plucky underdog who doesn’t have the tools to match the big boys, but does it anyway through sheer wit and courage. And sometimes it can scale to heights that others can only dream of. Sometimes, just sometimes, it can make you proud to be British.

Problem is in the last couple of years Doctor Who has fallen off a cliff. In the last regular season of the show, the entire series was built towards the idea that the Doctor’s companion would die, only for a bait and switch to occur at the very last moment (Gee Note: Leaving a lot of people, myself included, pissed. Now I’m not saying that I’m a blood thirsty psychopath who would enjoy watching someone pop their clogs just for kicks. It’s just when you spend the entire sodding season referring to ominous prophecies of “one will die” and sad violin music only to renege on it in the lamest way possible, it makes you want to burn someone’s little toe off with a red hot fire poker for having wasted your time). Last year we had a collection of specials in place of a regular season, in order to allow star David Tennant time off to play Hamlet in the West End. Problem was each one became worse than the last, displaying a level of sloppy writing and self indulgence previously only known to bad fan fiction authors. I ended up reviewing the penultimate special “Waters of Mars” on this very blog, and I could barely hide my disdain. I was supposed to review the final special “End of Time” on here as well.

But I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because, believe me when I say this, the entire thing was beyond awful. You see, in the past couple of years it appeared that RTD had simply got lost in his own adulation. What had started as a smart contemporary show had dissolved in to a cacophony of bum notes. First you had the juvenile humour, such as farting aliens and the like. Then you had the jarring gay references. Now RTD is, if you don’t know, gay. Great. Good for him. Unfortunately he appears to have taken it upon himself to use Doctor Who as a launch pad for a “soft sell” of the concept of being gay to mainstream Britain. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so poorly executed. I mean I agree, there aren’t enough gay characters in mainstream British television. But in RTD’s Whoniverse almost every other secondary character was gay, to the point where it became a clich√©. And what’s worse, these characters were more often than not so ham fistedly introduced that it made one roll their eyes more than anything else. Instead of the audience going “Oh look at that, two elderly women living together in bliss and nobody bats an eyelid. What splendidly relaxed and tolerant times we live in“ you got “Aw man. Two squabbling old lesbians living in a car? They're not even funny. This blows”. Then you had the unbelievably bad plot devices, deus ex machina’s aplenty, and the above mentioned “bait and switch”.

In essence it was like watching someone kick a puppy over and over again. I hated watching it, and I hated myself for watching it. There used to be a time when I would forgive the occasional poor episode of this new Doctor Who. Hell if it was spectacularly awful, I might have even invited some friends around for dinner and had a jolly good time tearing it to pieces with them. But it was always in the knowledge that either the next episode or the one after that would set everything right again, and we’d be back to normal in no time at all. When “End of Time” had finished however, I’d realised that it had been a long time since I’d actually come anywhere near enjoying an episode of Doctor Who.

And so, when confronted with the TARDIS in the middle of my very own city centre, I simply didn’t care. Two years ago had I seen it I would have done cartwheels, before pushing a fat kid out of the way to get my picture taken with it. Now? No, not so much. What’s worse I knew the reason it was there, and still couldn’t give a toss. See that night, a new season of Doctor Who was going to kick off. This time with a new lead star in Matt Smith. Better yet Russell T. Davies had left the show all together to seek more fame and fortune in the USA, and had been replaced by the critically acclaimed Steven Moffat.

But I wasn’t all that excited about it. I mean I’d been here before with the Waters Of Mars. I remember how anxious I was to see it, but ending up feeling like I’d just given a balloon to a midget thinking it was a child only for it to get very angry and punch me in the stomach by the time it was finished. Screw Doctor Who, thought I. I’m tired of hoping against hope that it will redeem itself. I’m going to watch Glee instead and see what all the fuss is about (Gee Notes: Turns out I quite like Glee even though it stands against everything I believe to be good and true about TV. Which means I’ll either have to re-evaluate my belief system, or kill the people responsible for making Glee. And seeing as I’m already working on my first as yet unpublished book “Gareth Calls It Like It Is”, if you’re reading this and you made Glee… might wanna invest in an underground bunker. Just sayin‘).

However, a wiser person than myself once said “Boredom is the mother of discovery” (Gee Note: Probably. I mean I doubt I just came up with that without someone having said it before me. Unless I just have. In which case… Hellooooo title of second as yet to be unpublished book) and so late on Saturday having exhausted an entire weeks worth of Daily Shows and Come Dine With Me’s and with nothing else left, I booted up BBC’s iPlayer (Gee Note: Rejected slogan ideas for the iPlayer “iPlayer - putting the remains of the VHS industry out of it’s misery for good”).

I have to admit, I absolutely loved it.

The first episode of the new series is fantastic. No, scratch that, the first episode of the series of Doctor Who is perfect. It’s as if Moffat sat down and worked out exactly what was wrong with the previous incarnation and decided to wipe the slate clean.

Matt Smith is absolutely spot on as the eccentric, charming, and ever so slightly pompous Doctor. As I mentioned, I was watching Tom Baker's Doctor the other day, and there was this wonderful moment where he accidentally screwed something up. There was this brief flash of panic on his face followed by a delicious smile, as if being completely out of his depth was something he looked forward to. Smith reminds me of that, a combination of reckless abandon combined with this noughties vision of the Doctor's child like enthusiasm. Karen Gillan, the Doctor’s new companion, is not only unbelievably good looking, but seems to have worked out that a female companion can be annoyed at the doctor without resorting to nagging him. The introduction of interesting new techniques like showing the Doctor's thought process using stop motion cameras is also a major plus. And even if the whole "monster of the week" was a bit much ado about nothing, it still managed to knock spots off almost every RTD penned abortion.

Best of all though? No jarring gay references. No over reliance on the sonic screwdriver or the TARDIS. No deus ex machina. No cloying sentimentality. No juvenile humour. No David Tennant displaying his "steely determination" by SHOUTING. EVERY. SINGLE. WORD.

It was like a breath of fresh air. Like the potential of what a modern Doctor Who could and should be has finally, oh sweet Lord finally, been realized.

Of course it had it's slight niggles. Such as the ropey CGI and Moff's over reliance on the "repeated phrase in spooky voice" technique to build tension. But I don't care. I found myself laughing and clapping and actually enjoying the show for the first time in ages. Compare that to wanting to bang my head against a brick wall almost constantly throughout the RTD specials and it's like a revelation has suddenly dawned upon us.

See, I'd forgotten that this is what made me fall in love with the good Doctor to begin with. If I could pick one scene that sums it up for me it would be the rousing speech he gives to some random guy with a laptop about how in ten minutes time he will be offered any job he wants by a collection of world leaders, but before that he has to be magnificent. This is something that RTD never got to grips with, the idea that what makes the Doctor so unique isn't his intelligence or his bravery but his ability to inspire the every day person to be better than they ever dreamed they could be. Yet in one 30 second sequence Moff not only does that very thing but makes it light, funny, and quite beautiful.

And this is why Moffat’s debut is, in my mind, an absolute triumph. It's managed to make Doctor Who feel special again.

Long may it continue.

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