About three months ago, back in the wee small hours of the summer, my friend Amber sat me down on the couch and made me watch the Eleventh Doctor’s (Matt Smith) pilot episode of Doctor Who. I knew nothing about the show except that it was British and cult-y, and really I had no interest in it… at all! But I had no choice. If I tried to get up, she yelled at me. If I started to say something about chessy special effects, she yelled at me. It was frightening. I was seriously afraid she might rescind her friendship with me if I did not like Doctor Who.
In the end, I liked it the episode well enough, but that affinity didn’t really take. I watched two more episodes and found them pleasent but silly, and went two months without a single reccomended visit to the Doctor. (Fortunately my friendship has not been rescinded on the grounds of failing my Doctor Who watching requirement).
The problem was that I wasn’t sure why I was watching exactly. There were three things that caught my attention and made me want to maybe push on:
- The pace and tone. Light as air. Not every episode, not every moment, but this show does like to cut itself down to something that is appetizing and always stops short of feeling heavy or too weighty, but, because of this, also spends too much floating around just above my head. It’s delightful… and baffling.
- Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor. Dude’s funny. With a pursed smile, a face of rubber and incredibly long legs, Matt Smith is just a funny guy to look at, especially if you add tweed and a bow tie, and, from what I saw in those three episodes, he plays the part of the Doctor delightfully as a madcap child who only lets his darkness and wisdom creep through in shocking burts of maturity. He’s good and a delight to watch.
- Karen Gillen, who plays the Doctor’s companion, Amy Pond. Because she looks like this.
Smitten does not begin to describe how I felt watching the Doctor parade around with Amy Pond. Ultimately, though, I convinced myself I was pretty much watching to ogle the pretty red-head… which was fun, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t really “getting” the show and I was coming up on a mythology heavy episdoe and so I decided to not push my luck by trying to find Doctor Who illegaly. No TARDIS for me. End of story.
Except it wasn’t. Say what you will about Netflix (Oh, what the hell, I’ll go ahead and say it for you: “Netflix, you suck for raising prices and not being able to back it up with any new content! Ametuer move, Netflix…”), but Netflix makes crossing that intital threshold on those shows or movies you’ve been wondering about for a long time… it makes it so much less painless. It’s almost effortless to just give in to a little impulse and… Click!
Episode one of the reboot of the Doctor Who franchise, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, a middle-aged looking chap, a jolly giant, all dressed up in leather with the biggest, beamingest smile you ever did see plastered on his big-eared mug. I needed a palatte-cleanser between episode’s of Buffy and Angel, and so I picked up from the beggining of the Doctor Who reboot figuring it might catch this time if I just started at the beggining and gave myself a chance to be lulled in (and if I gave myself a chance to try and watch the show without constantly wondering when the red-head was coming back, which was really getting in the way when it came to the whole understanding time travel thing.)
It almost didn’t work. Here’s how I’ll describe the first seven episodes of Season One of the Doctor Who reboot: Trying way too hard to convince me that the Doctor is even cooler in a world where the audience knows about the Internet. It is clear that the Internet was like this fun new toy that the producers really wanted play with in the Doctor’s universe, and so the first seven episodes, even the one’s that take place thousands or billions of years in the future, feel soooo 2005! And I’m not saying that because 2005 is a really long time ago. It’s not. These episodes would have felt really 2005 in 2005. Look, cell phones! The Doctor is a crazy Internet obsession! Plastic surgery is bad! Americans love war and torture too much! People believe hype more than facts! The proliferation of cable media is stifling the spirit of journalism! These episode’s have no chance of seeming timeless because they are trying so hard to prove the Doctor can exist in the digital age… though a few moments stand out:
- My introduction to the Daleks through one sad little Dalek who accidentally incorperates human feelings, accuses the Doctor of being just as bad as he is (a running theme that is), kills a bunch of soldiers in increasingly awesome and absurdly cool ways, and commits hari kari because he has polluted himself with humanity. What a cool way to introduce a new generation to that character: the last Dalek, depressed and alone, who takes out an army just because he can. (If only he’d actually been the Last Dalek. There always seems to be “a Last Dalek” in this show, until the next fleet of Daleks reveals themselves by saying, “Yeah we fell throug time, we were hiding… Exterminate!”)
- The creepy creatures from the Charles Dickens episode. I think I totally saw that them-being-evil twist coming, but I may be giving myself too much credit. It’s just that everyone is more than they seem on this show and you can never trust a first impression (with one notable gas-mask wearing exception which I’ll get to in a moment.) This was my favorite episdoe from the early episdoes of ths season, and it’s no coincidence that it was the only episode from this batch that didn’t try extra hard to prove how relevent and current it could be.
- In retrospect, I kind of like the idea of the Slitheen — an alien family business who hate humans but want the Earth for the money — but only because of a later episode which takes the time to deepen and soften the last surviving member of the family. Those layers added in in retrospect give me a begrudging respect for the scope, if not the tone, of the two part episode which sees the Slitheen, aliens in human suits (ewww), try to get the earth to nuke itself by fooling it into thinking they are being invaded by “aliens.”
Then, suddenly, the show accepted it was surviving just fine, and for a run of great episodes that seemed instantly timeless to me, the show found it’s footing and suddenly I was in the Doctor’s world. They replaced messages about the Internet and the media (because it was 2005 and they could) with heartfelt messages about the bonds that tie families (because this was great television, and they should), and I was a permanent resident of the TARDIS, not getting off until you kick me off.
“Father’s Day” was good, and it was smart of the show to confine itself to 1987, which was right around the time Doctor Who had last been popular. When Rose, the Doctor’s companion throws time into a major funk when she saves her father from death even though he was destined to die, the show did something really clever: it emphasized that all the stuff we have here in 2005 is just stuff, and it could be gone: any second our cell phones could start playing Alexander Graham Bell’s first message to us on repeat and the Internet could be gone: they weren’t there twenty years ago after all. It’s the bond between a father and his daughter that’s always been there.
This is also the episode where I realized I was never going to get Doctor Who’s brand of time travel so I should stop letting it bug me so much. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there to whom this episode makes perfect technical sense, but thinking about it beyond “Don’t save people who are destined to die and don’t touch your past self.” makes my brain boil. This episode makes no technical sense to me, but every scene between Rose, her father and her mother makes perfect emotional sense to me, which is the first time this show didn’t simply feel like a cheeky science fiction satire to me.
But even then, I wasn’t commited all the way. I now maintain that you can’t fully understand Doctor Who until you have been lights-stay-on-tonight scared out of you mind by Doctor Who. For many in a younger generation, that imprinting moment, where the two were bonded for life was “Blink,” which I have not seen yet. For many in the classic Doctor Who generation, “Exterminate!” makes their blood curdle because it raises memories of sitting on the couch in your jammies peeking through your eyes at the screen. For me, it all comes down to “The Empty Child.” It all comes down to this: “Mummy… Mummy, are you there? Mummy?!?”
EEEEEEEEEEEE!!! Just typing it hurts my psyche. “The Empty Child” is perfectly paced science fiction, and it is chilling, if somewhat defanged, horror (which is cool, I like my horror sans fang), and it is effecting drama that had me, by the end of “The Doctor Dances,” falling completely in love with the idea of a tragic Time Lord, a lonely savior from space. It introduces Captiain Jack Harkness brilliantly, and I know this is a character that endures. It captures ’40s Britain as movingly as one can on a showstring budget. Did I mention it is terrifying? It is utterly terifying. Wonderfully, utterly terrifying.
It has no real overriding theme or message. It is really about these characters. About Rose looking for a dance partner — a dude cool and graceful enough to really handle her. And it is about the Doctor searching for one win. Just one victory where everything goes right. I can’t say, when he gets it, when he sees that every single person who has died of the virus inroduced in this episode comes back to life, that some have actually regenerated limbs, that everyone gets to survive and he gets his dance with Rose… I can’t say out of experience that was earned and hard-fought after so many tragedies and dissapointments. I haven’t seen those tragedies and dissapointments. But I felt them. The way Christopher Eccleston plays that scene where he realizes that every single person has survived and for once death has not followed in his wake and a family has been reunited with no time complications, it is beautiful. The plot should have rendered that happy ending as unrealistic and unbearable. But you feel the weight on the Doctor’s bones, you feel his joy at getting his happy ending just this once, and the ending becomes… well pretty transcendent.
No other episode in the season (of the final three) reaches the hiegths of that two-parter, though no other episode dissapoints either. (The closest to a dissapoinment comes during a way-to-long montage of deadly reality TV shows like Big Brother and The Weakest Link set thousand of years in the future, because, once agin, soooo 2005, so not timeless! The closest to a transcendent moment comes when the last of the Slitheen family finds her humanity and spares a pregnant woman because, well, she’s just lost her family and understands the stakes of death. It’s a gorgeous moment, which is saying something, because the moment centers around the emotional realization of a giant green jelly bean the size and shape of a Teletubbie.) The plots never live up the genius of the child’s plague in “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances.” Which is fine, because no other plot really needed to. This show wasn’t about time travel plots for me any more. Thanks to that wonderful moment in “The Doctor Dances,” I was invested in the characters now, in the grand narrative, in the feel of the show. I’d had my gateway drug, and I could enjoy the show not for it’s plot twists or it’s monsters, but for it’s character moments, which are the things I care most about in a television show. (Go ahead, hate me: I loved the Lost finale. I didn’t need to know more about time travel and Jacob mythology. I needed those character moments of closure like I need food and water, and I got them. Those are what mattered to me.)
I look forward immensely to the Tenth Doctor, who survivies for what I understand to be three great seasons. I’ve seen a little bit of David Tennant, and while I will miss Christopher Eccleston’s jolly giant with his doofy smile, and while look forward immensely to joining back up with the spindly Matt Smith, bow tie and all, and I am eager to sit down with Tenant’s twitchy Tenth. And then, after I watch those three seasons, I get Amy Pond back! Which is great… because I’ll love her character moments now!
What? I’ll be invested in her story!
What?!? Yeah, okay, I’m a horrible liar. She’s hot. Sue me…