So the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who aired on Saturday, but I thought I’d wait a bit before saying what I thought, which is good because what I thought is not what I think now…
Let me explain. A year or so ago I took my then girlfriend to see Paul McCartney play in London. I was 33, she was 23 so for me he was a rock hero with a massive catalogue of great songs, while for her he was potentially an ageing rocker who only did Mull of Kintyre and the frog thing. So I spent the whole concert wondering if she was enjoying it. By the end I thought it hadn’t been a particularly great evening, while she thought it was excellent. Listening to a CD of the tour or watching the DVD I realise I had been at one hell of a show but I was so bothered what other people were thinking, I missed it!
It was the same when I went to see Simon Rattle conduct his first Mahler 8 at the Proms in 2002, and his last Mahler 2 as head of the CBSO in Birmingham in 1998(?). So aware was I that I was present at events that people would talk about in the future that I completely forgot to enjoy them!
So this is how it was with Doctor Who. I’d been getting quite excited by all the publicity, and some of the clips I’d seen made me think it was gonna be good. But then the moment came…
It started off well but the BBC managed to cock up the first few minutes with a live broadcast by Graham Norton overlapping the soundtrack during the initial minutes, completely ruining the tension that was building up.
My first thoughts as the episode aired was that it was far too fast, with very little in the way of character development and an over-the-top perfprmance from Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. I don’t buy into the argument that today’s audiences have no attention span and will just switch over if things slow down – that’s rubbish as far as I’m concerned, and that audience, if they exist, are adequately served by the juvenile reality TV that is available on the other channel. Part of the BBC’s aim in bringing back Doctor Who was to reintroduce family drama to early evening schedules.
So I woke up the next day feeling a bit depressed. The best way I can describe it is the feeling after a first kiss. You know you’re never going to get that sense of anticipation again, the sense of excitement, and it doesn’t matter if the kiss was good or bad, or if the future is rosy – that special moment has passed. But in this case, it was like the kiss wasn’t that good and you’ve just woken up next to someone you are going to have to be polite to because you haven’t got the guts to be honest.
Am I taking this too seriously? Maybe I am…
Anyway, it wasn’t until last night, four days later, that I finally plucked up the courage to rewatch the episode and, you know what? I loved it. The criticisms are still valid: Eccleston is over the top, the incidental music is intrusive, the direction isn’t great (quite surprising as Keith Boak did a fine job on ‘NY:LON’ earlier this year), the acting from one of the central characters, Mickey, was dire and the character development was missing. BUT… it was funny, tense, exciting and, more than anything else, completely different to anything else British television (or any television for that matter) is doing at the moment. What I’d done during the first watching was I’d spotted the problems, but failed to see the good points which far outweighed them.
But let’s take the characterisation for a minute. The episode is quite brave in that it starts halfway through the story; the Doctor has, it transpires, been tracing alien activity and come up with a way of defeating them, but he needs to find their lair. This is where Rose, played rather well (surprisingly to most people) by Billie Piper, comes in. There’s no real introduction to the Doctor, we learn about him at the same time as she does. Now for someone who can remember Jon Pertwee’s Doctor from the early 70s, this grated with me but thinking again I can see how a new generation of viewers would appreciate the sense of mystery, and relate to Rose’s situation.
But the big probem is that Rose’s situation is depicted from the start as being comfortable and happy, if a little unambitious. She works in a department store, lives with her mum on a council estate, and has a boyfriend, Mickey, with whom she seems content.
At the end she ditches Mickey who turns into a snivelling coward and leaves with the Doctor. There’s no sense of a journey on her part – the idea that she’s unhappy and yearning for more isn’t made clear enough, and Mickey’s attitude to her isn’t foreshadowed. His sudden change from loving if not exciting boyfriend to selfish imbecile is too sudden and, given what his character actually goes through, almost understandable. That’s a script problem and, probably, a script editing problem more precisely. But the director should have seen it, and it isn’t helped by Noel Clarke’s acting.
The character of Clive, the conspiracy theory nutter, showed promise but – well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but let’s just say his character was wasted. But while Rose was talking to him, Mickey was being, quite literally, wasted in a wheelie-bin incident that lightened the mood a little too much, but was a great idea on paper. The problem is, the replica Mickey that then drives Rose off for pizza is so hammily made up and played that you have to wonder what was going through the director’s mind.
What really depressed me about the episode was the reaction to it from a hard core group of fans on various forums, who gave it 5 out of 5 and slagged off anyone who said anything remotely critical about it. To me they were more annoying than the other minority who slagged it off relentlessly. No critical ability – and the idea that it was perfect in every way is plainly nonsense; but seeing faults doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.
The coming episodes look a lot better, and the production team and cast have said from the start that episode one was the curtain raiser. Next week’s episode, ‘The End of the World’ looks rather cool and, according to Heat magazine’s TV reviewer who has just seen the preview tape for episode three, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ (written by mark ‘The League of Gentlemen’ Gatiss), that one raises the bar – even he was scared, he claims, and the clips I’ve seen suggest it could be a reminder of how scary the programme could be. Clips of other episodes, particularly the Dalek one, promise great things to come.
So, second thoughts are that it was a good episode. All but a few press reviews have been excellent, and 10 million people watched it, trouncing the opposition and making it likely to be the highest rated non-soap of the week. The kids forum on the BBC web site was full of praise, and it seems that the BBC succeeded in producing a programme that brought families together to watch it – something to be applauded in the current age. Some of the stories I’ve heard from parents have been great – children climbing in to their beds because they were scared, for example. But this programme has always been aimed at a larger audience (adults just make up excuses about why they watch it – the British have always dismissed sci-fi in that way, consigning Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Stargate to Sunday afternoon while in the USA they’re prime time programmes) and the new series has been mentioned in quite a few overheard conversations recently. So it’s no longer a geeky thing, or the preserve of experts and afficionados or, indeed, the costume-wearing weirdos who are always wheeled out for the cameras at times like this as representative of fans (annoyingly).
That’s also part of the depression, that now we’ve got to give the programme back to the masses. After so long, it’s going to be hard to let go…