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TV Review: Doctor Who

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Doctor Who is a British television series about a Time Lord. This is an alien who looks totally human, but possesses two hearts and has the ability to regenerate into a different body – and therefore a different actor – when he is on the edge of death. There used to be a lot of Time Lords, but according to the current run of the television series, the Doctor is the last survivor of a terrible battle with the Daleks, a murderous race of robot-aliens. He bounces around time and space, accompanied by one or two 'companions' at a time, in an unexpectedly roomy blue telephone box called the TARDIS, averting disasters and saving the galaxy. I guess the telephone box was deemed nicely inconspicuous by the misguided soul who designed it.

The regeneration aspect is a handy one for the producers behind the series. If the actor who plays the Doctor wants to bow out, the character can be mortally wounded and regenerate. This actually happened after the first series in the new incarnation, when Christopher Eccleston decided to leave, causing 'his' Doctor to morph into David Tennant. (Tennant is still going strong and wildly popular, so don't expect him to change again soon if the producers get their way.) What adds to the fun is that the Doctor's personality is allowed to change slightly to suit the new actor. While in other series it would be a headache to have the lead leave, for Doctor Who it just allows a new dynamic and new stories.

Doctor Who was off the air for a long time, originally running from 1963 until 1989. It was revived in 2005 by Russell T. Davies of Queer as Folk fame to success beyond all expectations. The fan base of the sci-fi series rivals that of Star Trek in their fanaticism, so it was quite an achievement that Russell managed to both placate them and hook a new generation of viewers. I think he played fast and loose with some of the continuity of the previous series, but I can't be sure as there is too much material in the form of novels, radio plays, and episodes for me to wade through.

The set-up of Doctor Who allows near unlimited potential for telling stories: all of time and space are the playing ground. Believability is an issue, as the butterfly effect (small changes have major consequences) gets even more confusing when continuously jumping around in time. The current Doctor Who philosophy is that there are 'fixed' points in time, which have to remain unaltered and other points when things are more flexible and you can safely muck around a little. I am not sure how that would work temporally speaking, but mostly this logic is fitted to suit the scripts.

Davies' take on the stories is one of high adventure and big emotions, done with such infectious enthusiasm that you happily suspend disbelief. Granted, especially in the episodes he wrote himself, he really makes you work for that suspension. Major problems are solved or can't be solved because of obscure bits of technobabble, just to set up cool scenes. The rules of what can happen and what can't are often not very clear. When the resulting scenes are indeed cool enough, you won't care but sometimes when they're not, you end up rolling your eyes.

One of the biggest changes Davies made to the original concept was giving the people who join the Doctor on his travels a background and families to deal with. Previously these 'companions' mostly served as sounding boards – so the Doctor wouldn't just talk to himself – or as people to be saved. They would ride along until they started to feel old and then be written out in one quick way or another. The 'new' Doctor has already gone through three companions in the current run, each one giving the stories a new spin. With Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) there was a mutual attraction – a first in Doctor Who history, I believe; Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) crushed on the Doctor and Donna Noble (comedienne Catherine Tate) humorously clashed with him, as an equal. The way in which these companions were written out of the series – for the time being anyway – shows a definite strength of Davies: a great balance of bitter and sweet. There may be despair sometimes in the Doctor Who reality, but there is always hope. The hope sometimes veers into sappy territory, but then it is supposed to be an upbeat series also aimed at youngsters.

The aliens look silly enough to remind you of this target audience. Whether they bring to mind spiders or rhinos or Mr. Potato Heads, the ETs always look like they needed a slightly bigger special effects budget. But at least the producers have the guts to get creative and stray from the humanoid form occasionally. The Daleks – deadly robots with a little alien inside – have traditionally been the most popular of enemies for the Doctor, but I have never understood why. On the surface they look cool enough – to sell toys anyway – but as killer robots go, they seem awkward and restricted in their movements. When I see their big spaceships and lairs I can't help but wonder who did the construction on it, as they only seem to sport one spindly little gripper in front and something that looks like a toilet plunger.

In the recently aired and somewhat overstuffed finale to the fourth season, Davies wraps pretty much all of his ongoing storylines into a big bow. He will be around for four Doctor Who specials, which will be airing throughout 2009, before leaving the series. I wonder if he will be starting any new mythology or if he will make the specials self-contained, to give his successor Steven Moffat a fresh start. Moffat penned some of the most popular episodes of the new series and he previously created the UK version of the comedy series Coupling, which had some very inventive storytelling. I will be curious to see in which direction he takes the franchise.

The next episode to air will be a Christmas special in December. Before then, do yourself a favour and catch up on the 2005-and-beyond run of the series, even if you didn't like the older episodes. If not for you, then do it for your inner child.

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About Steven van Lijnden

  • Rick

    A true Doctor Who fan already knows this.

    The Police box form is a function of the Chameleon circuit. The Chameleon circuit is supposed to disguise the Tardis (which is incredibly huge inside) no matter where it lands by making it blend into it’s surroundings. After the Doctor landed in London all those years ago, the circuit broke, the Doctor never bothered to fix it, and the Tardis has looked that way ever since.

    Of course all of that is just a story cooked up to make the simple and inexpensive Tardis prop work within the series, but the whole mind boggling ‘bigger on the inside’ idea is brilliant as far as I’m concerned.

  • http://popculturejunkie.blogspot.com Steven van Lijnden

    Thank you for reminding me. To be clear, I never claimed to be a ‘true’ fan – which sounds a bit cultist – I am just an enthusiastic and regular viewer.

    But you have to admit it is pretty unlikely that The Doctor with all his brilliance never took the time to fix the damn circuit. It is just convenient because the phone box makes for a very distinct and very British icon. What I admire is how unlikelihoods like this are jokingly referenced now and then, making them a charming part of the total package. What to think of the Sonic Screwdriver, which can do pretty much anything up to and (probably) including mixing the Perfect Margherita, only failing when the writers want it to?

  • Paul

    “It’s bigger on the inside than on the outside” is the first thing his companions have always noticed. T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Yes, it was decided that using the Police Call Box, found on most street corners at the time the series was created, would be cheaper than having to build a new prop for each set if the Chameleon Circuit did function. It was one of the things that made Dr. Who fascinating to me as a child. If everything worked perfectly, then it would have been just another Star Trek clone. I might be mistaken, but I thought the Doctor said at one point that he hadn’t gotten around to fixing the Chameleon Circuit as it never really bothered him.

    The Sonic Screwdriver is only one tool from the TARDIS’s toolbox. But I think I have only seen the toolbox used only once, and that was with Tom Baker. The new series has updated the Sonic Screwdriver, and given us a glimpse of what it will/could look like in the future.

    Daleks, the remnants of the Kaled race from the planet Skarro. The shell was the design of Davros, who envisioned a way to survive after the nuclear war between the Kaleds and the Thals. But why stop at world domination when you can dominate the universe as well. The claws were an option as they primarily had a plunger cup and a disintegration gun, and they were originally limited to facilities with metal floors as they required static electricity to move around.

    Things have changed for both the Doctor and his enemies. I personally am looking forward to his adventures yet to come.

  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com Josh Lasser

    Congratulations! This article has been selected for syndication to the Advance family of websites and to Boston.com, which will allow even more readers to enjoy it.

  • Gungadin

    Thank god they got rid of Donna, been watching Who since the beginning even the first doctor in reruns. But by far Donna was an awful companion. Shes a loud mouth and kinda ugly with that mole on her chin. I tuned out all season with her. I really tried to watch but any epiosode where they gave her a lot of play I just tuned out. Also many of this years past episodes really had very little Dr in them. I noticed that right off. I am watching Dr Who for the Dr not for Donna or some other has been. Thank god the writers got rid of her!

  • http://americanidollowdown.blogspot.com/ Sherry

    If you tuned out Donna you missed a lot. At first I did not like Donna and I wondered why they decided on her as a companion. But they really ended up doing a lot with her character and I think Catherine Tate grew into the role quite well.

    I actually feel a little sad about the wrap up of her character (sad for the character, I liked it as a story element) and I kind hope there will be a little more of her in the future.

  • Who Fan

    The Doctor did try to fix the Chameleon Circuit in two episodes. In “Logopolis”, the Fourth Doctor materialized around a real police box in order to get measurements so he could take them to Logopolis to have the residents use them to repair the circuit. In “Attack of the Cybermen”, the Sixth Doctor actually did get the Tardis to change, but it changed to nonsensical items like an organ. At the end, it changed back to the Police Box, and he showed his affection for the shape.