Monday, April 10, 2006

The New Doctor Who

I don’t have a very good excuse or reason for my poor working knowledge of the original Doctor Who. The show is about as big a legend as you can get in Sci Fi Television history, having an original run that lasted from 1963 to 1989. I have only vague memories of episodes aired on PBS when I was a kid. I remember the phone booth, and its crazy interior which always looked like the quintessential mad scientist’s laboratory. I remember crazy creatures, including a giant alien head suspended in fluid and encased in humungous cylinders which gave me nightmares for weeks. And of course I remember the famous stripped scarf. Still I don’t think I saw enough episodes in their entirety to get a really good idea of what the show was like.

In 2005, the BBC decided to revive the show, and has since produced two seasons to much critical acclaim. I'm not sure how much this newer version differs in concept from the original, but the idea behind Doctor Who is pretty simple and allows for a variety of plot lines. Doctor Who is an alien, the last of the Time Lords, who can manipulate time. The DR. flits around the galaxy and greater space time continum in his jaunty British telephone booth, encountering all sorts of adventure along the way. The U.S. owned Sci Fi channel started running episodes of the new series a few weeks ago, and I’ve finally had a chance to put a dent in the stash that I have saved on my TiVo.

The pilot episode “Rose” centers on Rose Tyler, a young woman who works in a department store and becomes embroiled in an attempt by plastic compounds to take over the world. Sound bizarre? It is. The introduction to this plot line entails Rose looking for her pal in the basement of the store, and being ambushed by walking mannequins or “plastics.” While creepy in concept, I wasn’t crazy about this sequence because a) the mannequin thing has been done before b) the FX were pretty bad c) aren’t mannequins made out of wood? Rose is rescued just in time by the dashing, leather jacket clad “Doctor” played by Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston gives a pleasantly cocky, constantly amused vibe to the Doctor which makes him quite charming. Rose, played by Billie Piper, a teenage British pop sensation, was sort of Vanilla, and I wish that her character had been defined and expanded a little more. I do realize that it’s only the pilot, but I don’t think they provided a good enough explanation for why Rose got on board with Dr. Who at the end of the episode. Sure she likes adventure, but she doesn’t seem significantly bored or unhappy with her London life, her mother and boyfriend certainly seem to care for her. Her tinge of malaise was not enough to convince me she would join some alien in a time traveling telephone booth. The chemistry between the DR. and Rose was OK, but to be honest, I’m am so OVER the forty two year old men running around with the twenty two year old women. Ew. I wasn’t crazy about this episode. I liked the idea that all things plastic on earth were coming to take their revenge on humans after decades of melting and molding, but the mannequin take felt stale, as did the shoddy attempts to throw in some back story for the DR.

Even though I wasn’t sold on the first episode, I was eager to give the show another chance. I liked the second episode in season one, titled “The End of the World” much better. It was able to spend less time establishing everthing, and could jump right into a more adventurous storyline. This episode picks up right where the first one left off, with Rose running inside the phone booth to join the DR. Once inside, Rose challenges the him to take her someplace really dangerous in time. The DR. decides on five billion years in the future, moments before the earth will be annhialated by the expanding sun. The DR. and Rose arrive at a sleek, futuristic space station where affluent members of the galaxy are gathering together to observe this significant event. I liked the way everything looked in this episode. The interior of the station was stark and white, like an overly sterile museum, and what the show lacks in VFX it makes up for with its creature design. I thought there were some neat looking aliens on board the station, and the designers used a nice mixture of puppets, make-up, and CGI to create a unique blend of folk. From what I hear, Doctor Who was known over the decades for its impressive array of aliens, and this new incarnation of the show seems committed to the same endeavor. There were tree people with bark like skin, blue humanoids with no hair, and the last reamaining human, who had been reduced to a stretched sheet of skin after countless surgeries. The tone of the show blossomed in this episode as it balanced and melded several themes and styles. The DR. and Rose addressed the somber and sobering fact the world does actually come to an end in their understated dialogue. We also learn that the DR. is the last of his kind, and that his planet and people were oblitterated years ago. Yet even with these serious facets the hour glides by because of all the humor and quirkiness that’s inserted throughout. Somehow the show manages to transition from a pensive look at what the future of the universe might bring, to the DR. bopping around to Soft Cell's Tainted Love blaring out of a 50’s jukebox. There’s a cheesiness at work here, but it does in fact…work. It allows for a measured equation of intelligence and humor which has pleasing effects.

I’m curious to see what the rest of the episodes are like. After a troublesome start, I think the show might turn out to hold some sixty minute sci-fi treasures after all.


Blogger Patrick A. Reed said...

Oh, believe you me, it gets better. But also worse. But then better again. It's a massively uneven series, but the good episodes are as good as anything I've seen on the telly in years.

6:03 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

The funny thing about is, its got this crazy, goofy tone, --yet underneath it you can tell there is smart writing. I can definitely see the potential in it though.

9:02 PM  

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