A Casual TV Fan's Guide
Doctor Who: Series One, part one
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 2005
By Dan Toland
27 March 2008 — Believe it or not, the forests of British Columbia are not the only place quality science fiction can be filmed. When a television show from the UK is purchased or licensed by an American network, chances are excellent it's going to be pretty good; we can make our own crap for much less money, so for a network to take a chance on an import, that's generally a telltale sign of quality. However, chances are also much higher that the DVD of said TV show is going to be crazy expensive. Seriously, if an American DVD set goes for $40, a British DVD with comparable content will cost at least $80. Even a diehard fan will pause at a price tag like that. Ergo, here's something you can shove into your Netflix queue while still being able to eat tomorrow.
Doctor Who: The Complete First Series
Episodes / DVDs: 13 episodes on four DVDs (with an additional DVD of bonus material)
Starring: Christopher Eccleston as Doctor Who and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler
Featuring: Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler, Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith, Bruno Langley as Adam Mitchell and John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness
So, an American's perspective. While I had been aware of the series since I was a small child (my local PBS station aired it after Sesame Street for about a thousand years), I became a fan of the extremely long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who in high school. A creature of habit from way back, I used to watch reruns of Cheers late at night. The station that ran the show also carried Red Sox games back then, and on this particular night, the Sox were on the West Coast, meaning the time zone system conspired against me; and for that matter, the Sox were already down something like 9-0 in the fourth inning. So, seeing no need to put myself through the agony of watching them lose again, I started flipping across channels, which I had to do, because the TV Guide was way on the other side of the room.
I found myself drawn to a crude, cheaply made, videotaped British series on PBS. The sets were ugly, the staging was slow and when they attempted any special effects, the result was pitiable. However, the show had a lot going for it. It was really well-written, and had a tremendously charismatic leading man — with a huge afro and a smile with about 68 teeth in it, as well as a scarf that trailed the ground on both ends despite having wrapped it around himself twice. It also had an imagination and a sense of scale like no American series I'd ever seen. The show looked like it had been made for $35 and a promise from the producer to help everyone move their furniture. But even so, they were trying to bring some truly cosmic, epic concepts to television that fired up my imagination like nothing I'd ever seen before. So I found myself willing to play along, to fill in the blanks as they popped up, to agree that the man in the ill-fitting rubber suit was, in fact, a terrifying space monster. It was smart, fun, witty and charming. And the theme song kicked serious amounts of ass.
(I'm not going to go into too much detail about the history of the show; there's a really good Doctor Who article written by Christopher Brosnahan elsewhere on this site. Read it.)
So when the first episode ended on a cliffhanger, to be continued the following night, my interest had been captured. So I gave it another shot. And another. And another.
Being an American Doctor Who fan in the 1990s was a lonely place. We were the fanboys that Trekkies looked down on. And no one else knew what the hell show you were going on about. And other than a TV movie that aired in 1996, there were no new episodes being made from the time it went off the air in 1989, until Russell T. Davies brought the show back — kicking and screaming — in 2005.
Unlike The Flash, these DVDs do have special features. Every episode has a commentary track by various cast and production members, and they're of varying degrees of interest. However, again, what I'm interested in here are the episodes themselves. If you like 'em enough to listen to the tracks, go to town.
Writer: Russell T. Davies
The Plot: A girl meets a man who blows up her workplace, saves her from some department store mannequins and lives in a blue wooden box that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
Good Stuff: This is a running theme throughout the season, but I'll mention it here because this is where we see it first: Christopher Eccleston is freaking outstanding! He can swing from goggle-eyed insanity to bad jokes to suave flirting to shaking with rage in nanoseconds, and it's always perfectly believable. It's a dark character, wallpapered over with flippancy, and it's absolute genius at work.
The TARDIS (The Doctor's ship: Time and Relative Dimension in Space) has been given an epic design whose alien interior is totally belied by its mundane exterior. It looks amazing.
Davies writes some incredible, quotable lines.
A good job is done in a very short amount of time filling in just enough blanks about the Doctor to give you an idea about the scale — and danger — of his world, whilst simultaneously leaving enough of them alone to preserve his mystery.
The way the episode is structured is unusual and very effective: we don't come in until about halfway through whatever adventure the Doctor is on. Thus, this is as much of an introduction for us as it is for Rose. A lot of the monster-of-the-week's history is never actually told, but that's not important; this episode is about Rose and this bizarre situation she's stumbled backwards into.
Oh, and one of the best character introductions ever:
"I'm the Doctor, by the way. What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Rose." He grins maniacally while waving a bomb at her. "Run for your life."
Not So Good Stuff: The show is created for a family audience, and some things (such as the monsters, which are a little cheesy, even if they are a classic series holdover) are used or thrown in with little kids in mind. Which is fine. When I first watched this, I watched it with my son Joe, who was nine at the time. Stuff that made me cringe either had him laughing his ass off, or scared, whichever was the appropriate response the episode was going for. But an adult will have a tough time with a few things here and there.
Clive sucks. A bit. Set up as a conspiracy theorist obsessed with the Doctor, he's a ham-fisted poke at over-obsessive fandom, which is really too easy a target.
Some of the special effects are kinda crappy. Oh, it's ILM compared to the old series, but compared to other shows on now, some of the effects — Mickey's struggle with a plastic trash bin being the biggest offender — look cheap, rushed and substandard. They're clearly learning as they go. (They get a lot better.)
Random Observations: This episode screams "pilot." Eccleston is clearly still figuring out the character of the Doctor, and plays him here with a much lighter touch than he will at any point for the rest of the season.
Overall: As a pilot, it's a success that handles its tasks of introducing a set of classic characters and situations without alienating either new viewers or old fans. It does this well. As an episode, it's fair to middling. It has too much to do to really tell a proper story. It's very much worth your time, though, for Eccleston's performance: 6 out of 10.
The End of the World
Writer: Russell T. Davies
The Plot: The Doctor decides to impress his new friend by taking her to watch her planet explode.
Good Stuff: There's a lot to look at in this one. This is the big "look what we can do" episode, and Davies is throwing everything at the screen. No less than a dozen alien species, monsters in the ductwork, whirling fan blades, the last human, cell phones that call across the millennia, psychic paper, psychic phone boxes and the end of the world. No one can claim they didn't get their 45 minutes' worth.
Speaking of (among other things) the last human, Cassandra is a really interesting and original idea, if not 100% successful in the special effects department. However, her portrayal by Zoe Wanamaker gives her a lot of personality.
Billie Piper does a good job in demonstrating just how freaked out someone would be at all this. No matter how much you prepare yourself for the idea of going to the year five billion and meeting a roomful of aliens, the reality would have to be a huge culture shock.
Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" plays at one point, and the Doctor busts a move, instantly turning him into your half-drunk dorky uncle at a wedding for an all-too-brief instant.
Not So Good Stuff: The Doctor might be the worst first date ever. Who is so oblivious that it doesn't occur to them that no one wants to watch their planet explode?
The Britney Spears song really shouldn't be here.
Overall: Last week set up the characters, this week really sets the tone for the series as a whole. It's exciting, funny and absolutely crammed with stuff. Fun, so it gets an 8 out of 10.
The Unquiet Dead
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Guest starring: Simon Callow as Charles Dickens
The Plot: The recently deceased are wandering around Cardiff, Christmas Eve 1869, while Charles Dickens is in town on a reading tour.
Good Stuff: No one does the Victorian era like the BBC.
Billie Piper has a really good handle on Rose in this one. A trip to 1869 isn't going to be the overwhelming culture shock that a trip billions of years into the future is going to be. And instead of the total freak-out she had last episode, Rose fully embraces the experience this time around.
Simon Callow has made a second career of playing Charles Dickens, and he does so expertly here. He captures a successful, powerful man near the end of his life who's trapped by success and regret. He's intelligent and imaginative enough to understand that things are going on that cannot be explained, but old and obstinate enough to refuse to believe it. It's one of the best performances of the entire series.
The Doctor makes a lame pun and is positively gleeful at how awful it is. It's really quite amusing.
Not So Good Stuff: Not much. The corpses walking around are pretty creepy for a while, but towards the end they just get to shuffling into walls and reaching for people. "Rarrgh. I'm a monster. Aargh."
Random Observations: Gwyneth, the undertaker's housekeeper, is played by Eve Myles, who will go on to play the similarly named Gwen Cooper on the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Some speculation has been raised about two characters with similar names being played by the same actress; however, Russell T. Davies has a tendency to use the same actors and character names over and over again, so it may be as easily explained as that.
Overall: An early season highlight that showcases everything the series is capable of, such as ghost stories, historical fiction, interdimensional beings and Welsh people. This one scores an 8.5 out of 10.
Disc one is very solid. The pilot is really the only episode I'd be less than totally enthusiastic to recommend, and even that has a lot going for it.
Aliens of London and World War Three
Writer: Russell T. Davies
The Plot: In the first two-part story of the season, a flying saucer crashes in the Thames River in full view of the world, and all is not right at 10 Downing Street.
Good Stuff: So, here we address what happens to the families of the people the Doctor takes with him. He takes people away, sometimes for years at a time, with little to no acknowledgement that they have a life they're leaving behind.
This also leads us into the next point, touched upon in the last episode, which is that the Doctor isn't actually always totally successful at steering the TARDIS.
Annette Badland, as Margaret Blaine, the only female villain, does a good job. She brings some menace to her character, but it's of the schoolyard bully variety, which is an interesting read.
This episode brings back Mickey Smith, Rose's boyfriend, who we last saw in "Rose" in a less than totally positive light. He redeems himself here somewhat, but not before the Doctor spends some time treating him like a simple child.
Not So Good Stuff: The Slitheen are a take-'em-or-leave-'em kind of monster: giant rubber babies that won't stop farting. Now again (see "Rose"), when we first watched this episode, Joe (the boy) just about fell off his chair laughing at all the fart jokes. I, on the other hand, did not.
Random Observations: As the first multipart story, this is the first time in the new series they make use of the cliffhanger ending which was such a staple of the original.
This episode features an appearance by Naoko Mori as Doctor Sato, who will become a regular on Torchwood.
Overall: The first disappointment of the season. This really didn't need to be two episodes, and the Slitheen are just hopeless if you're an adult. They're just too aimed at kids. It's a shame, really, because the "next time" trailer at the end of the last episode really looked good: 4.5 out of 10.
Writer: Rob Shearman
The Plot: In a secret underground base in Utah, the Doctor's oldest and most dangerous enemy is free — and totally unstoppable.
Background Note: Okay, I've gone out of my way not to go into the old series for this piece, but here it's unavoidable. The Daleks were the first returning monster on the original show, appearing for the first time in the fifth episode back in 1963. Insanely popular in their native Britain, they look like salt shakers with a plunger stuck on it. They can't climb stairs or see behind them. Seriously. If you stick a hat on their eyestalk they go blind. They get by largely because they've always been around. I've never understood their appeal.
Good Stuff: Shearman changed all that. There's only one Dalek in this episode, and it's fucking badass. It glides up and down the corridors, easily killing everyone in its path, without so much as getting its paint chipped by anything the army throws at it. And the script cleverly manages to address every snide comment anyone could have ever made about the Daleks; the first time someone sees the plunger, he almost finishes making fun of it before the Dalek uses it to gruesomely crush his skull. But first and foremost, the menace is made clear when the Doctor realizes he's in the room with a Dalek, and immediately throws himself against the door, screaming and panicking, pleading to be let out.
Which brings me to Eccleston. Again, this holds true for every episode, but this episode is a 45-minute highlight reel. The Doctor's fear and rage brings him to the point of madness, and Eccleston just transfixes.
Not So Good Stuff: The American characters, especially Corey Johnson as Henry van Statten, are a little stilted. That's a very minor quibble.
Random Observations: This episode marks the first appearance of short-lived companion Adam Mitchell.
Overall: A tremendous episode that has pretty much everything going for it: 9 out of 10.
Disc two is a tough one. It has the eminently skippable "Aliens of London" and "World War Three" two-parter, but "Dalek" is totally worth your time.
There have been a lot of good episodes, but some truly classic ones are coming up. See you next week!