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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

November 26, 2006

The New Doctor Who...
...cosmic James Bond...or Peter Pan?

This week, because I have nothing else to write about, I'm going to offer a few comments about the recent revival of the British science fiction series, Doctor Who.

In its original incarnation, Doctor Who was the longest running science fiction series -- well, ever. It ran from 1963 to 1987, a generally half hour series in which movie length adventures were serialized over multiple episodes. After it was cancelled, there was a TV movie that tried (and failed) to re-ignite interest, as well as successful books and audio dramas (the latter I might discuss at a later date).

Finally, last year it came back to TV -- this time in a more conventional, hour long format, and with a lot more money than the original series had (once notorious for its cardboard sets and wobbly spaceships), a respected, mainstream producer (and avowed Who-fan) Russell Davies, and a quasi-star lead in Christopher Eccleston -- the ninth actor to play the part (canonically, at least). And the revival was a hit, being a top rated show in its native England and shown on a major network in Canada and elsewhere -- in the U.S., it airs to a smaller audience on the specialty Sci-Fi channel. Eccleston only stayed for a season, before handing it over to the lesser known David Tennant, who is the current Doctor. (The premise of the series is the Doctor, an alien, periodically regenerates into a new form with new personality quirks -- in other words, the various actors aren't supposed to look like each other).

The revived series has been pretty good and I'm liking it. Eccelston was enjoyable in the part but, I'll admit, never fully seemed comfortable in the role, sometimes struggling to personify the character's mercurial temperament (as currently written -- the role being open to a range of interpretations by its different actors over the years). Of course, often Who actors take a few episodes to settle into the part. But Tennant -- well, Tennant seems to have hit the ground running. Perhaps the first actor to take on the role who freely admits to having been a fan of the series -- and, indeed, claiming it was an earlier Who, Tom Baker, that inspired him to become an actor -- Tennant may well be the first actor almost literally born to play the part and is quickly leaping into the upper ranks of my favourite Doctor Whos.

But just to be ornery, I'm going to comment on some of the things I don't like as much about the series. And there are some kind of central reinterpretations that I'll get to.

First, I miss the half hour/serial format. It meant that Doctor Who seemed a little different from other (American) series by its very format. The self-contained hour long show means it seems a little more...conventional (though it still does a number of two-parters). There's also a more American feel to it -- faster, louder, and lacking a certain British eruditeness, as well as missing stiff upper lips and eccentric bit players that seemed as though they might've taken a wrong turn out of a Dickens' novel. The theme music, while retaining the basic melody, is also faster, louder, lacking the haunting, ethereal weirdness of the original. There's still a kind of sloppiness to the storytelling that has plagued it all along -- plot points that don't quite follow logically, action scenes that aren't well choreographed. It's slicker and more expensive than it used to be, but still a bit unpolished. I'm also not fond of the redesigned interior of the Tardis -- the doctor's time machine. It's ugly and uninviting when it should be a comforting a safe haven.

The new series has been a little too earth bound -- and time bound, with too many adventures taking place in similar locations. The new season is stretching out a bit, though, with a little more diversity in time period and location.

The new series also seems to reflect the kind of self-consciousness that mars too much modern sci-fi, a fear of looking silly. We've seen it in discussions of the new Battlestar Galactica where when detractors question why an alien civilization would dress in modern earth fashions, fans of the series attack them for being juvenile sci-fi dweebs. Likewise, the Doctor used to dress rather eccentrically, whereas now, not so much (Tennant is a little quirky, dressing something like a British private school teacher). Obviously, the thinking is, having the Doctor dress eccentrically would just be childish and alienate mainstream audiences. But really, I used to think it made perfect sense -- after all, what is "normal" dress except a reflection of contemporary, cultural fashion mores? But the Doctor is a homeless traveller through time and space -- so it would stand to reason the Doctor would just dress however the heck he wanted, because no style he picked would ever really suit all eras and worlds. In fact, I thought they could've introduced into the mythos that the way that you could identify Time Lords was by their garish fashion sense -- see a man walking down the street in a poncho, a kilt, and fuzzy slippers? He must be a Time Lord.

I have mixed feelings about the emphasis on the companion Rose (played by Billie Piper) -- at times the show seems more like it's about Rose and her sidekick, The Doctor, than the other way around. Part of this is deliberate, as they want to tell the stories from the point of view of the outsider, the character who is the audience's avatar and who can be amazed by the Doctor's reality. The problem is, it reminds me of the claim that in Star Trek fan fiction there's a whole sub-genre dubbed "Mary Jane" stories, in which a character, obviously a surrogate for the author/fan, is introduced to the characters and their world. Rose just seems a little too self-conscious to me, like series producer Russell Davies is living out his own childhood fan fantasies on screen.

And that brings me to my next qualm. There's a feeling the new series is trying to turn the Doctor into a super hero. Yes, the Doctor was a hero -- well, not always. When first introduced, he was a crumdgeon of sometimes pragmatic morals. But he quickly evolved into a righter of wrongs and a defender of the defenceless. But it wasn't like that was his job, per se. He was basically a cosmic hobo, hitting the universal highways and bi-ways, seeing what lay beyond the next star cluster. When faced with injustice, he would seek to thwart it. But there are times in the new series where it's almost as if he's supposed to be actively seeking out villainy, where when faced with some evil alien, he imperiously proclaims "I'm the Doctor!" as if he's announcing "I'm Zorro!" and expects the villains to wilt at the invocation of his iconic name.

Sure, there was an aspect of that in the old series -- recurring alien nemeses like the Daleks and the Cybermen certainly developed a healthy wariness of the Doctor. And there was always the "cool" factor that the Doctor looked human, so there could be the revelation scene where he reveals he's actually not a "primitive" earth man, but a vaunted Time Lord of Gallifrey! But still, the modern series threatens to seem a little cartoony, and self-reflective -- P&D founder Jeffrey Blair Latta once wrote an editorial pointing out that, realistically, most people don't want to face grisly death and destruction every day -- that it makes adventure fiction a little unrealistic if the hero wants to have an adventure.

Still, it's more a nuance than anything.

The decision to introduce a (vaguely hinted at) backstory that the Time Lords were all killed off and the Doctor is now the last of his kind also doesn't sit well with me. For one thing, the Doctor was supposed to be a bit of a rebel -- a loose cannon among his people. A moot point if he's now the only one! It also just seems needlessly dark and unpleasant, part of the whole dark n' gritty movement in modern fiction (to which I alluded here) and, again, makes the series just a little bit more...conventional. (Besides, for a guy who travels to various time periods -- surely there're always eras where his people still live).

An admirable aspect of the new series is a greater attempt at adding character depth and angst to the Doctor and his companions -- a modern style sophistication. Not that the old Doctors didn't get their fair share of emoting and "character" scenes, and even the companions did, too, occasionally -- but it's definitely been amped up (although it really just follows the lead of the Doctor and Ace from the final seasons of the original series, which also emphasized characterization and their relationship).

However, what that leads into is the series' decision to hint at sexual tension between the Doctor and Rose. David Tennant is one of the youngest and best looking actors to play the part, so perhaps it's understandable, but the Doctor, often played by middle aged actors or older (the first Doctor was an old man and one of the characters he travelled with was supposed to be his granddaughter) usually had an avuncular relationship with his (mainly female) companions. Oh, sure, there were occasional moments of a kind of chaste romanticism, and certainly when the Doctor was travelling with his fellow Time Lord, Romana, there was obviously a kind of sexual undercurrent but, generally, not. The new series even acknowledged that in a joke where a character who has possessed the Doctor's body remarks that everything works, but some parts have hardly been used -- a reference, one assumes, to the Doctor's celibacy. But by injecting a kind of sexual tension, it feels as though they're moving away from the core premise -- particularly when, young and good looking though Tennant may be, the character is still 900 years old -- talk about robbing the cradle!

And it's particularly awkward when they start back dating the concept.

In a recent episode, the Doctor reunited with former companion Sarah Jane Smith (played by the eerily well-preserved Elisabeth Sladen), and the subtext was of reuniting with an ex-lover, as Sarah and Rose eye each other warily, each jealous -- Sarah to know she was replaced, Rose to realize she wasn't the Doctor's first travelling companion. But I don't recall there being any romantic sub-text to Sarah Jane's earlier adventures.

Which then brings me to my final observation -- and the source of this editorial's title.

In that same episode, there is tension between the Doctor and Sarah because Sarah feels she was abandoned by the Doctor, that she had spent the last thirty years hoping, in vain, for his return. In the light of a sexual subtext, it casts the Doctor as a kind of cosmic James Bond, whisking damsels off their feet, then dumping them when he gets bored. And, of course, you can understand the creative impulse that drove Russell Davies and his people to write that story -- after all, what fan couldn't watch Doctor Who and think: if you were the Doctor's companion, seeing the wonders of the universe, how could you possibly readjust to your mundane life again?

But you know, I used to see the Doctor as something else.

I used to think you could see him as analogous to Peter Pan -- the boy who never grew up, who whisks through the bedroom window and carries Wendy and her brothers along on marvellous adventures until, finally, they have to grow up. Metaphorically, of course, since the Doctor's companions are generally adults, or young adults. I don't recall specifically how the Doctor and Sarah Jane parted all those years ago, but I do know most of the Doctor's companions leave him, not the other way around. Usually they fall in love -- the ultimate "growing up" -- and decide to stay put with their lover, sometimes they find a cause they want to commit to. Often, if memory serves, there is a certain coldness to the parting, an aloofness -- no tear filled embraces but a simple, reserved, "good by, doctor" -- as the companion looks at the Doctor with a newly discovered maturity, like a child who suddenly no longer wants to play dolls with her friends. And the Doctor is left alone in his time machine, rather like Puff the Magic Dragon who realizes Jackie Paper isn't coming back to play anymore.

Maybe I'm remembering wrong, but that's how I recall it. For those of us who've enjoyed the Doctor's adventures for years, we don't have any more intention of "growing up" than does the Doctor himself. But I always thought it made an intriguing -- even literary -- subtext.

So is the Doctor James Bond -- or Peter Pan? I know which version I subscribe to.

D.K. Latta, editor

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