Sunday, January 4, 2009

What You Should Have Been Watching: Doctor Who

To discuss this most recent addition to the list of shows you should have been watching, is only appropriate today. For four years, the reboot of Dr. Who has been wowing audiences on both sides of the pond, largely through the excellent work of series producer Russell T. Davies and star David Tennant (the 10th doctor). The show has been progressive in its portrayal of sexuality, prejudice, and other social issues. It has not ducked social commentary at any point, and has both deepened and simplified the Dr. Who mythology, making the show far more accessible to fans.

Both Davies and Tennant have announced that they are leaving the show. Davies has turned production over to one of his lieutenants, while Tennant is scheduled to appear in four special episodes this year before handing the reings over. According to BBC News, the new Doctor, Matt Smith, is a relative newcomer to television, and the youngest ever Doctor (he's just 26). The casting decision has the internet abuzz today with fans at once intrigued and confused about the decision, and wondering what Smith's casting will mean for the series's future, particularly since the Doctor is supposed to be more than 900 years old.

The series revolves around a time-traveling alien (The Doctor), whose ship (TARDIS) allows him to travel anywhere in time and space. The Doctor generally travels with a companion or two who help(s) him right wrongs, prevent disasters, and generally meddle. In this most recent incarnation of the series, The Doctor is the lone surviving member of his race (the Time Lords), and seeks out these companions to combat a powerful and overwhelming loneliness.

And Chad Orzel, over at Uncertain Principles, wonders what, exactly, the big deal is with Doctor Who,
"I've watched it on occasion since the days when PBS re-ran Tom Baker episodes, and I just don't really see the attraction. I don't hate it, mind you-- as I said, I've watched a fair number of episodes over a period of many years. But its main appeal for me is pretty much on the level of kitsch-- chuckling at the charmingly inept special effects, the character affectations, the deus ex machina endings of most of the plots, and that sort of thing. It's goofy and fun, but I have a really hard time taking it seriously."
Here, in pleading his ignorance, Orzel has hit on the exact appeal of the show. As I wrote in his comments section, "I like to think of it as a madcap romp more than anything else, and don't mind turning off my brain a little each time (okay, we're in Pompeii. okay, we're in a 41st century traffic jam. okay, we're at the end of the universe.) in the name of social commentary and good fun." Frankly, it's not supposed to be taken seriously, but taken as fun. It's a chance to get lost every episode in a different totally different world, to imagine what can or should be, and to fight a swashbuckling adventure against evil in various forms.

While the special effects of the original series, as Orzel points out, were hokey and often laughable (though, to be fair, the show aired 40 times a year at its peak and visual effects were far cruder then than they are now), the Davies reboot, however, has had sparkling visual effects. The aliens are more believable, the ships and explosions are bigger and more exciting, and the physics of the show seem far more real.

What has remained consistent throughout both incarnations of Doctor Who, however, has been the show's optimistic outlook about humanity's potential to accomplish greatness (also, its potential to be destructive), its irreverence and the banter-y kookiness of its title character. Indeed, The Doctor has always been the backbone of the show, using his wit and his genius to appeal to everyone's inner nerd, despite the fact that he's kind of a fop. And Tennant and Christopher Eccleston have both admirably lived up to the character defined by Tom Baker, Jon Pertnee, Patrick, Troughton and others while each adding a unique flair (Eccleston was goofy and affable, Tennant tragic.).

Remaining mired on BBC America and the SciFi network has insulated the show from the network meddling that will eventually derail Joss Whedon's new Fox show, Dollhouse, but has also drastically reduced the show's potential audience base. As such, many American viewers simply have not noticed the show, which is clearly and consistently funnier, more tense, more exciting, and more interesting than 90% of shows on the traditional networks. For now, you can find the first three seasons of Davies's Doctor Who online at Netflix, along with several old episodes of the original. The fourth season is currently in reruns on both SciFi and BBC America. Fortunately for you, while four seasons sounds like a lot, a British season is just 10 episodes long, so you can catch up in no time. Then you can be ready in late 2009 or early 2010 to rip on the new guy.

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