Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Spoilers: Yes? If you’ve never heard about regeneration, go watch the show first. Seriously, it’s worth it.
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Let Me Tell You About My TARDIS Socks
Yep, we’re going there. I would normally assume I don’t have to give this series an introduction, but considering my mother thought for a long time that it was a police procedural, let’s start with the basics. Doctor Who is one of the big nerd properties alongside series like Star Trek, Marvel and DC comics, and Star Wars. A sci-fi series mainly concerned with time-travel and aliens, Doctor Who has been going pretty on and off for the last fifty years or so. While well-known and widely adored, it’s far more along the lines of Star Trek than most other big nerd properties, kind of a cult phenomenon that the general populace may recognize, but not have personal familiarity with. Its popularity has increased, particularly in the United States, with the revived series, which brings big names and a budget to the franchise, and it appropriately has a rabid fanbase devoted to making Dalek-shaped cupcakes and sexy TARDIS cosplay. Dig through Tumblr (or what remains of it) for just a few minutes and you’ll have a hard time avoiding Doctor Who gifs and fanart.
What I’m trying to say through all of this is that Doctor Who exists in a strange nether-state of middle-tier fandoms — ridiculously expansive once you scratch the surface, but seemingly minor if you don’t. Its influence is bigger on the inside, if you will (and I absolutely will).
So what is this series, really? To some extent, it defies genre. It’s a sci-fi series, obviously, but that’s often just the outward aesthetic. The show is highly episodic, with a few throughlines to connect a general narrative, but only minor buildup to bombastic season finales. Because of this, and the series’ long run, individual episodes vary wildly in tone and focus. Many of them are technically horror stories, and a few have genuinely frightening concepts. Some are more dramatic, some have a softer sci-fi or even fantasy lean, and a few are action-oriented (for some reason). Zombie apocalypse, spy thriller, Lovecraftian horror, ghost romance, space opera — you name a genre, and this series has probably covered it at least a little. For the most part, though, I would call it a comedy, because that is its most consistent tone. A horror-comedy perhaps, but much more comedic than anything else.
The basic framework for the show hasn’t changed since its inception: an alien (who is definitely an alien, not a human — he has two hearts and everything) travels around in a time-machine/space-ship disguised as an old-fashioned blue police box encountering strange creatures and stopping them from wreaking havoc. He (or, with the latest version, she) usually has one or two companions, often humans, who serve as the audience vectors. The show has a few famous recurring monsters and fun little props that fans go bananas over (and I’m not throwing shade here — if you think I don’t have a Dalek hat, and plushie, and TARDIS robe, and sonic screwdriver, and about a bucketload of other Doctor Who kitsch, you’re clearly not thinking hard enough), but otherwise, each episode stands on its own.
Episodes usually follow a monster-of-the-week format, creatures often introduced ominously and expanded as the episode continues. The series is fond of twist endings, and the protagonist’s compassion for living things often leads to a more cathartic conclusion than other monster-of-the-week shows, like The X-Files. As is common for the format, Doctor Who‘s narrative strength varies considerably from episode to episode and tends to concentrate in individual gems. Many — perhaps even most — of the episodes are fodder to keep viewers watching the show, which I want to say is a dying format in the wake of narrative epics being pushed for the streaming world, but I don’t think it really is. Series like Game of Thrones wander along tangential side plots as they wait for their budgets to balloon enough for them to deliver desired spectacle, while series like Doctor Who tend to isolate that same fluff to individual episodes. Neither system is especially ideal, but the episodic format does at least make it easy to skip through content you don’t care about. Interested parties can trudge through searching for small references or jokes, but outside of episodes that lead into the finale, most of them require and provide no external context.
Part Two: Fear the Trash Can
Okay, enough about the show as a whole; let’s get to that first season.
The first season of the revived series of Doctor Who has a lot on its plate, and for the most part, I think it manages it admirably. The biggest issue it has to face is merging the classic series with a newer format and effects, as well as a new audience. See, classic Who (which I’ve unfortunately not seen enough of to offer an adequate review of it here) was canceled in the 1980s due to low viewership numbers, with only a brief foray into the world of film before mostly falling off the face of the earth until 2005. There were still fans throughout the 90s, keeping interest in the series alive, but there were a good fifteen or twenty years where the franchise petered off. The revived series was therefore a somewhat small affair compared to the franchise reboots we have now, but it still couldn’t just pick up where it left off. To fuel interest in the series, the BBC pushed for more of an American audience (whereas the original series was more of a cult phenomenon outside of the U.K.), and made the series more effects- and action-driven. This latter decision was… shall we call it an overestimation?
Until its most recent seasons, Doctor Who has never been effects-driven. Distinctly so, in fact. The series is campy, as any niche sci-fi series should be, and the appeal of many of its characters and creatures comes down to highly visible budget constraints. You can truss up a Dalek all you want, at its heart, it’s still a trash can with a plunger and an eggbeater on the front. Classic Who makes classic Trek look like Game of Thrones.
Yet, despite a clear jump in effects fidelity from 1989 to 2005, the first season of the revived series still manages a familiar “not quite there” effects aesthetic. Largely, this is due to the show having questionable effects, even for 2005 sci-fi television series. Upon my first watch, I was unimpressed, not being familiar with the older series and not knowing what to expect. Since then, I’ve found the bad effects to be charming. They’re different from the older series, certainly, but they give the revived one a stylistic feel in line with its predecessor.
However, the series also has to define its narrative focus, both for the old guard and a new audience. I think it does this pretty well. It sticks to a basic format — one Doctor one companion — and has them explore first the future in space, then the past on earth, and then a mix of situations from there. All with aliens, naturally.
This does lead to a bit of a strange season, though, and the effects don’t help much if you’re new to the series. I was wholly unimpressed by the first episode, which is hokey and low-rent, and not nearly as exciting as some of the later episodes of the season. Plenty of people new to the series skip over the first season entirely, and while I can understand why, I don’t think that’s necessary. Later seasons have the same sensibility, they just have more action and setpieces. The first season has plenty to offer, including introductions to characters and concepts that later seasons struggle to address as effectively. The lower budget puts more pressure on the writing, and while that doesn’t always pan out, it does lead to a season that’s far more lighthearted than most of the later ones. Viewed as a continuation of classic Who, it’s impressive how the show manages to capture just enough of the feel of 70s and 80s Doctors to keep it fairly consistent.
The show, despite its many monsters (and at times, because of them), is outright goofy. This series has an odd sense of humor that speaks to me deeply, and mainly concerns random nouns and tangential dialogue bandied about while something likewise ridiculous but wholly unrelated is happening to the characters. I love it. It’s “British” humor, but a specifically childish sort. It has at least a few layers most of the time, many of them pun-based, but the humor doesn’t tend to cut deep. Jokes depend heavily on references to past episodes as well as the main character’s personality and voice, both of which have to be distinct in order for the humor to land. This season does that quite well, and while it’s easily the silliest of the revived series, it’s also one of the funniest.
The season isn’t bereft of serious moments, either. To streamline the lore of the classic series, which by the end of its run had hundreds of established enemies and dozens of recurring characters, not to mention locations that were prominent parts of certain seasons, the revived series cuts most references to old lore. It kept the skeleton of the series, but started to flesh it out with its own recurring locations and characters. This wasn’t a new trend, as seasons in the old series weren’t always concerned with continuity, but the revived series made special note of it. Even the Doctor’s home planet, a thriving metropolis in the classic series, is cut out from the revived series, at least at the start. The revived series does gradually introduce elements of the old show, first in hinting at the new paradigm with the Doctor being the last of his kind, and then with cameos by classic characters and monsters, like the Daleks. Over-reliance on nostalgic references are difficult for this particular series because of its age, but it’s interesting to see how it merges the disparate styles of the many decades of the show.
Changes from the old series to the new that are addressed in the show lead to a lot of grief and angst, which goes along with the show’s dark undertones. While I stand by my claim that this is a comedy first, it’s still a series where the goofy monsters eat and disintegrate people. There are a few episodes that take unusually philosophical approaches to the show’s sci-fi, like when companion character Rose wants to go back in time and see her father, who died when she was a kid. How well the series handles its darker material varies, but this season opts for subtlety, and I think that works pretty well. It’s not an especially deep series, and it’s important to keep in mind that it’s aimed for a younger audience. It’s not really a kids’ series by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a reason that its fanbase largely consists of nerdy teenagers and adults who were formerly nerdy teenagers (hello).
Part Three: The Doctor’s in the House
The single most important part of the narrative, and arguably the main thing that holds this series together, is it titular protagonist. Functionally, the Doctor is the eccentric genius character whose personality and skill is meant to impress the audience and endear them to him. You see this same archetype all over the place — Sherlock Holmes, House, Bones. Sometimes they’re written to be empathetic so that the audience relates to their struggles, but most often they’re given a Watson-type character who is the heart to their cold, distant logic. The Doctor leans more toward the well-rounded side of things, generally presenting as a highly knowledgeable alien being who is nonetheless often clumsy or oblivious. In most versions, he’s also portrayed as compassionate, sensitive, and a bit impatient.
Of course, the character’s specific features and personality depend largely on the actor depicting him. Like James Bond and other long-running or oft-rebooted series, the Doctor has been played by many actors over the years. The revived series selected Christopher Eccleston, and he brings a more witty, detached presence to the character. His version of the Doctor (the ninth Doctor, specifically) favors snark in his interactions with the other characters, occasionally verging into bitterness, particularly when the humans do something stupid (as, you know, we’re wont to do).
I think the ninth Doctor has a bit of a reputation for being mean, particularly compared to the fun-loving later versions of the revived series, but as many first season apologists will point out, he’s also one of the more genuine. The character’s responses tend to be more measured than later versions’; he’s less prone to act on his anger, and in the serious moments of the first season, he’s often gentle. We see the character act scared on a few occasions, though it’s hard for the audience to buy the circumstances as the rest of the season is on the sillier side of things. That said, Eccleston manages one particular expression that I quite like for the character. You can see this most effectively when he’s shocked by something and goes quiet. It normally takes a lot to get this character to shut up, but for the ninth Doctor, it’s believable. Rather than emotional outbursts like later renditions, the ninth Doctor freezes up, confused, but unwilling or unable to voice that confusion. This acting choice works effectively when paired with the unique transitional nature of the first season of the revived series. Even more pertinent is that the revived series decided to make the off-screen destruction of the main character’s homeland a driving feature of the Doctor’s character for the revived series. You see plenty of traces of that decision in the ninth Doctor’s character throughout the season.
And if you want to take the older versions of the character into account, many of which are quite sassy, the ninth Doctor is a good transition into the new series. The heavier narrative focus of the revived series requires a more dramatic character, especially since it’s aiming for a broader audience and British humor works better as an aside than as core appeal, particularly in the U.S.
Somehow I managed to get through the entire first season without hearing about regeneration first, which made the transition between the first and second seasons of the revived series an interesting experience. I’d honestly recommend this sort of viewing if at all possible, in part because it’s kind of structured like a plot twist, and also because it offers a unique solution to a problem many long-running series face. Essentially, the series works out an in-story explanation for the different actors playing the lead role. The protagonist, being an alien, can turn into a new person when he dies, meaning the rest of the story can continue while also acknowledging significant changes to the direction of the show based on the quirks of the new lead actor. I quite like this solution; it ensures continuity but gives the audience an adjustment period for the new character. I’ll probably discuss the idea more in the next season’s review.
Of course, no discussion of the Doctor would be complete without a look at his companions. The first season of the revived series gives the character two main companions (four if you count Mickey and that guy who travelled with them for about an episode and a half): Rose and Captain Jack Harkness.
Jack first, because he is a marvelous piece of pure chiseled omnisexuality. Jack is a human con artist from the far future who causes problems in 1940s London during a mid-season episode. After redeeming himself, he’s rescued by the main crew and travels with them for a few episodes before dying tragically. Oh don’t worry, he comes back through space magic. The character would actually later go on to star in the spinoff series Torchwood, which follows a supernatural procedural format, and pops back into the main series from time to time. While I’ve not encountered many Torchwood fans (mostly because it’s not very good…), Jack Harkness is a highly likable character and widely adored.
Rose is a more complicated matter. As reboots directed at a younger, broader audience are won’t to do, new Who plays up the drama by introducing its first main companion character as a love interest for the Doctor. This is not entirely unprecedented, but it is a bit of an odd choice considering many of the classic companions were distinctly not written as love interests of any sort. That said, Rose is not the worst character in the world. Many of the fan complaints about her (and, it seems, every modern Doctor Who companion) concern her being annoying and poorly written. Considering I’ve never met two Doctor Who fans who can agree on whether the same group of companions was good or bad, I take these criticisms with a grain of salt. Put simply, Rose is a underachieving twenty-something who comes from a fairly poor family and longs for a more interesting life. In travelling with the Doctor, she gets to see spectacular sights and starts to become accustomed to the life, but as a squishy human, she’s in constant peril even when she doesn’t realize it. The end of the first season has the Doctor sacrifice himself to save her, resulting in him regenerating and Rose having to question her familiarity with the world she’s found herself in.
Rose continues as the main companion in the second season, so I won’t talk about the totality of her character arc yet, but in general, I don’t mind her. She’s not an especially complex character, but she’s compelling if you consider her more than just a romance toy for the main character. She screws up occasionally, sometimes in substantial ways, but I don’t think Rose’s actions are exceptionally annoying. The cynic in me suspects that some fans point to Rose in particular as annoying because of broad aspects of her role as a love interest, rather than specific faults in her actor or the delivery of her character. Female characters tend to come under more scrutiny than male characters, so mediocre ones are more likely to be perceived as weak. That’s less of a fault in Rose than in fan biases, and given some of the more toxic aspects of the Doctor Who fandom and sci-fi fandoms in general, I wouldn’t overlook it.
That said, Rose is still a pretty baseline bland character. Most of the characters in Doctor Who are, even the Doctor much of the time. The highly episodic nature of the show means that a character’s attributes vary somewhat from episode to episode, especially when a guest writer or director steps in. And that’s not to say that more directed criticism is unjustified; Rose is occasionally framed as the One True Companion for the Doctor, and at times, faces alarmingly little difficulty overcoming obstacles. The series has a problem with giving its companions undue admiration for their alien friend, and throughout the early revived series, the Doctor has mutual fascination with Rose. This is an issue because while the Doctor can regenerate, the companions usually can’t, so if the show gets overly attached to one of them, the others actively struggle to hold a candle to them. Rose’s mere adequacy of a character makes it difficult for her to stand in that position, especially when later companions are just as if not more actively competent than she is.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if it didn’t leave fans squabbling over the quality of various companions.