When I was younger, we didn’t have cable. Outside of this forcing me to watch repeats of my favorite sitcoms and being able to learn every line for episodes of Growing Pains and Perfect Strangers, it also led to a lot of channel hopping. Occasionally, I actually stopped on PBS (there were very few channels and so this was natural) and caught a glimpse of—forgive me—a schlocky old science fiction show with some guy in a really long scarf and with funny hair. He would be battling humans wearing ill-fitting monster suits or generally yelling at someone and using funny words. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was watching Doctor Who.
I was more aware of what Doctor Who was when FOX aired Paul McGann’s incarnation in a failed attempt to revive the series. And, by the time I watched Coupling, I knew enough about Doctor Who to laugh at the Dalek joke about hiding behind sofas and to know that the only thing to like about Oliver was his affinity for the classic sci-fi series. Certainly, by the time Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor smiled at Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and told her to come with him if she wanted to live, I knew Doctor Who.
Some would call me a television fanatic. While I’d quibble with those people, explaining that I know people who watch oodles and oodles and oodles more television than I do, I unquestionably have an at times unhealthy relationship with the medium (but it has helped provide me with a living, so could it really be all that unhealthy?). There are shows, however, to which I find myself drawn… like The Doctor’s TARDIS is drawn to trouble.
Today, Doctor Who isn’t just on that list of shows, Doctor Who tops that list (even if I truly believe things are not currently headed in the right direction). It pains me that the seasons are so short. It pains me when they get split in two. It pains me when the episodes aren’t very good, and it pains me more when they are and I have to wait another seven days to see the next one. I miss Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Rose and Martha (Freema Agyeman) and Donna (Catherine Tate) and the Ninth Doctor (David Tennant) and the Tenth Doctor. I feel like I have gone on their journeys with them and I love opportunities to revisit the series.
Enter the reason why you’re here, and we’ll take this somewhat slowly (as if we weren’t already).
At the end of November, BBC America issued a stupendously big Doctor Who gift set. It is a 41-DVD box set with all the episodes of the new show (prior to the current season), some bonus features talking about the series which had not previously been released, a sonic screwdriver (Eleventh Doctor and therefore green), art cards, and a Doctor Who at Comic Con comic. Essentially, it’s everything you want to watch from the new series all put together in one mammoth box along with some fun odds and ends. It is a Doctor Who lover’s dream come true.
Okay, mostly. True lovers of Doctor Who will, one would think, probably already own some bits and pieces DVD-wise of the new series. This set doesn’t present them differently or put them all into one spiffy single case or even matching cases – they’re just the old sets packaged into a single box alongside the other stuff, and it’s not even an attractive box. Almost certainly, it’s not a box you’re going to keep once you’ve started pulling out all the goodies to examine them (and then put them into your wall safe… it’s an expensive set).
As for the series itself, well, my love for it is apparent, but I’ll try and explain exactly why I feel the way I do and why you should feel the way I do, too.
But, maybe you’re asking (and I applaud you for getting this far into the article if you don’t know the answer to the question), what is this Doctor Who thing? Most succinctly (but not most simply), The Doctor is an alien who looks human. He is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey and has the ability to regenerate, so when his body dies it really just turns into a new one. The new Doctor looks differently and acts differently, but is more or less the same person – he’s The Doctor. The original series ran from 1963 to 1989 and through seven Doctors, with an eighth appearing in that aforementioned TV movie. The new series begins with the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), who has been The Doctor for some unspecified time before we first meet him.
Generally on the series (old and new) The Doctor has a Companion, usually human, who accompanies him on his journeys through time and space aboard The Doctor’s ship, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). Said TARDIS, as the companions will regularly tell you, is bigger on the inside. Now, while The Doctor may intend to jaunt off to some sunny island and sit on a beach basking in the glow of his own fantastic-ness (or examining the ruins of an ancient civilization if it’s more of a serious Doctor), it doesn’t regularly work out that way (boy, what a boring show that would be). More often than not he winds up staring death in the face and being the last life form than stands between an alien entity and the end of a planet/people/galaxy/empire/universe/etc.
In its best moments, the new Doctor Who is both smart and exciting. It is a series which brilliantly rewards long-term viewers while still making the entire thing accessible to short term ones. Even better than that, however, is that it asks questions of the viewer – what would you do? Would you kill an innocent to save a planet? Would you slay an unarmed enemy fearing that they would take up arms again? Would you trade your life for someone else’s? It really isn’t just that The Doctor can answer these questions, it’s that when the show is firing on all cylinders it really does put the question on the viewer’s shoulders. Additionally, this Doctor, while he’s the hero, is not always a good guy and the series doesn’t shy away from giving us glimpses into the Time Lord that ought to scare us.
Being slightly more specific about what works on the series, one can watch the (and I’ll be using season numbers following the new show’s numbering not the old one) season one episode “Dalek” and be mesmerized at what this evil creature is, and feel for The Doctor who clearly feels more strongly about the evil the creature represents than he has for anything else all season. One can further sympathize with Rose’s position that the creature deserves a chance. Even if you’ve seen the old series, you might think that in this new world the Daleks deserve a chance – the final Dalek and the final Time Lord, maybe they should be given a go. And, beyond that, there’s a classic Cyberman head seen at the beginning of the episode, and though the Doctor doesn’t explain who the Cybermen are, he does state that it’s an old enemy which is enough for new viewers, while old ones will remember The Doctor’s past brushes with them.
That first season of the new series adheres to the old series in one way that later seasons don’t – its look. It cannot be denied that as the new show progresses the sets and costumes are more detailed, and the graphics far more realistic, but that first season lags behind the others by so much that even the second season (David Tennant’s first) appears to be a quantum leap forward. It looks as though the series’ budget rose dramatically or as though someone behind the scenes decided that maybe, just maybe, they didn’t have to adhere to the—forgive me—at times schlocky aesthetic of the original.
As for the first Tennant season, it is remarkable. Christopher Eccleston is a fun Doctor and someone who I wish had played the character for a longer time, but watching Tennant is just a wonder. He throws himself into the role so fully that it is hard to watch and not instantly think this is who The Doctor truly is and should be forever more. To some extent it is because the show looks far more current (and far less like a cheap late ’80s, early ’90s series), but more it is that the writing is more crisp, the plots more deep, and Rose Tyler really comes into her own following the Bad Wolf storyline. But, the biggest reason, is that David Tennant is just so incredibly charismatic.
When Matt Smith appears, the series undergoes another dramatic shift. Some of this no doubt is due to Russell T Davies leaving as showrunner and Steven Moffat stepping in, and some is due the new Doctor. Smith, as I’ve said before, appears less able to handle the gravitas The Doctor often needs (he is a destroyer of civilizations, including his own). That is replaced with comedy and the show loses something because of it. Additionally, the show’s tendency to go for “special” episodes rather than more “regular” ones hurts it and our understanding of The Doctor. It can’t be said that any of The Doctor’s life is regular, but losing the typical days in favor of special ones doesn’t do any favors to Smith or the series.
As is certainly clear, whatever its deficiencies, I love Doctor Who and yet the gift set wouldn’t be the perfect gift for me because I do love the show and consequently already owned some of the separate seasons included. This led to my wondering who then who this might be the right gift for, remembering that it isn’t an inexpensive investment.
Enter my wife… hereafter referred to as “my companion” (because it’s oh so much more Who-y).
My companion, mistakenly, one day suggested to someone (not knowing that this gift set was coming out) that she would watch Doctor Who but felt as though too much had already happened for her to possibly get invested in it – kind of like it being hard to jump into Lost in season five. So, what I have been able to do with the new set is sit her, as a newbie, in front of it to gauge her reaction.
For much of the first season, she sat there, vaguely intrigued, but more worried for me that I could be so excited (“It’s Captain Jack!” “Yes, ‘Dalek!,’” “Look, someone spray painted ‘Bad Wolf’ on the TARDIS!” “Harriet Jones MP for Flydale North!”). Eccleston sometimes amused her and she enjoyed Rose, but there’s that lack of polish to the first season that makes it appear far older than it is. It kept her at arm’s length, and worse, with an iPad in her hand.
A couple of episodes into Tennant’s first season, more often than not, the iPad was put down. At least some of that was unquestionably so that she could see David Tennant better, but some of it was a great appreciation for the series and its storylines. I am not convinced that she liked Matt Smith’s seasons as much, but perhaps I am putting my own opinions on the weaknesses of the show’s new direction onto her.
As for my grand question, would the series be a good gift for someone like her – someone who watches some television, and does enjoy some science fiction (like Lost)? It just might be perfect, if you have the sense that this person will more than likely enjoy the show. I, frankly, love having gotten her through these first seasons of the reborn series so that I now truly have a companion to travel with me on future journey’s in the TARDIS.
In the final summation, Doctor Who is, even when it’s not at its loftiest heights, a great science fiction series and this Limited Edition Gift Set is the perfect reminder of that. It isn’t just every episode of the new series (save for the most recent half-season), it is the behind the scenes featurettes, the lights and sound effects on the Sonic Screwdriver, the Doctor Who at Comic Con comic, and three art cards (not including the cards including in the fifth season set). It is a massive bundle of Doctor Who greatness and something that will take fans—old and new alike—of the series an incredible amount of time to dig through.
There may be a sense of sadness when you finally get to the end of the gift set, but it will be a sadness born of longing for the next adventure and the promise of what is to come.