As a fan of classic Doctor Who, I put off watching the new series for too many reasons. There was just no going back to the Tom Baker days, and with rumors of a new postmodern tone and soap-opera “tear-jerk” factor, I wanted to keep my distance. But curiosity finally won out, and last week I bought the first two seasons on DVD and watched them over the course of five days. I’m now in the middle of the third season. All I can say is… wow. Special effects are one thing (the laughable effects in classic Doctor Who were actually part of its charm), but fresh ideas and raw emotion are what really take the show to new heights.
Rose Tyler is the one for emotion. She has to be the best TARDIS companion ever — even topping my all-time favorite Sarah Jane Smith — and had me in tears some of the time. Soap-opera this isn’t (it takes a lot to make a cold-hearted guy like me cry), so don’t listen to the purists. And as for the Time Lord himself, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant are superb as the ninth and tenth incarnations, especially the latter. In my opinion Tennant comes close to rivaling Tom Baker (the fourth incarnation), and many fans think he already has. Baker was a Lord Byron/Oscar Wilde/Sherlock Holmes all in one, and Tennant is similar, though he’s warmer and (like Eccleston) acutely lonely. For Gallifrey is no more, having been destroyed by the Daleks in the mysterious Time War. So he’s the last of the time lords, with no home other than his TARDIS (considerably upgraded since we saw it last in the 80s), and as a result, he becomes attached to Rose more than any previous companion. And vice-versa. Her departure at the end of season two is sad.
Mark Goodacre is a Who-fan too. Back in May he wrote about the tenth Doctor’s kenosis, or emptying of his Time Lord powers to become human, and more recently about messianic ideas in the new series. Mind you, this injection of Christian themes was another factor making me apprehensive; classic Who avoided that stuff like the plague. But again my fears were groundless. The Doctor even confronts Satan, and that turned out to be my favorite story of season two. Trust atheist scriptwriters (Russell Davies and co.) to make good use of Christian myths in a science fiction context.
The story settings are as varied as ever, and those taking place in the past are as good as those in the future. I couldn’t have asked for a better return of the Daleks, first with the lone captive forming a strange bond with Rose (talk about a weird “E.T.” moment), and then season one’s apocalyptic finale which brought on zillions of them along with (wait for it) the Dalek God. They’re more fanatical than ever for having found religion. Repeated cries of “DO NOT BLASPHEME! WORSHIP HIM!” are as jarring as the “EXTERMINATE!” mantra. The return of the Cybermen also surpassed my expectations. But for the most part the Doctor is tackling new foes: the undead Gelth (with the aid of Charles Dickens), alien witches (Shakespeare by his side this time), Satan (on a planet perched perilously close to a black hole), and a werewolf (while travelling with the Queen of England). He takes Rose to see the end of the world in the year 5 billion (when the sun finally explodes), and then a season later to New Earth created in memory. Rose screws with the laws of time at one point — and the Doctor nearly disowns her — in the heartbreaking “Father’s Day”. TARDIS-travel has never been this good!
This isn’t to say I have no complaints; I’m too picky for that. Of the ten or eleven stories per season (some being two-parters), there are a few mediocre duds. But most of the stories are really good. My chief complaint is the frequent appearance of Rose’s irritating mother and boyfriend. And somtimes the humor goes a bit overboard. I confess, however, that the aliens’ repeated farting in “Aliens of London”/”World War Three” had me laughing until it hurt. The juvenile humor enraged a lot of fans, but flatulence is quite funny, even if it made the story more like a South Park sideshow with Terrence and Philip.
The bottom line is that if you were a fan of Doctor Who in the 70s/80s but have been afraid of the new series, fear no more. Hop in the TARDIS and tour the universe, as I will be getting back to doing tonight. Season Three hasn’t been the same without Rose, but it’s still top-notch.
UPDATE: Read Mark Goodacre’s commentary on the new series, which he describes as “a complete re-imagining of the original, loyal to the show’s mythology, in continuity with its story and charm, but brought right into the twenty-first century, with decent budgets, good special effects, great scripts, fine acting, and lots more emotion. I used to say after every episode of the first series of the new Doctor Who, ‘I think I’ve died and gone to TV heaven!'”