Monday, 10 August 2015

Doctor Who Returns – recollections from a fan

Part 1 - Rose

Can it really be ten years since it has returned? How has the Doctor warped time so that ten years ago doesn’t seem much more than a fortnight ago? To a Time Lord of course such tricks are trivial but it astonishes this Earth bound fan that the new series (we still call it new, whether it be new Who, nuWho or other alternatives) has been with us now for so long. In classic terms, it’s the equivalent of 1973 and a trip with the Brigadier and UNIT chums to Cromer, or the anti-matter universe as the Doctor insists on calling it.
After so many years of Who’s absence, it was with stunned amazement that the first announcements of its return were received.  As breathless, insistent fans we were tantalised with somewhat cryptic photos of props and sets.  Christopher Eccleston’s casting was greeted with general praise and a certain puzzlement. The BBC were throwing their gauntlet down; they weren’t going to be playing to type with this new version of the Time Lord. This was perhaps the first real shock about the returning vision for Doctor Who.  As wonderful an actor as he is, it was difficult to see Chris as the Edwardian gentleman scholar we were expecting.

After the cancellation of the classic series in 1989, the audience had of course grown older. New fans appeared to be sure, and they are to be thanked and blessed, but in essence as with any show that comes to an end, enjoyment of the show turned more and more into nostalgia for what had been.  As this process continued, a residual concept of what Doctor Who was, it’s style and look, became more prominent.  With no more new episodes to rein in an already very imaginative audience in, an abstraction developed, based on all the years of the series coupled with fan’s desire for what the series should be.

The 1996 Television Movie had encapsulated this somewhat automatic conception of how Doctor Who ought to be revived.  He would be a rather dashing but slightly diffident dandy, dressed in a Victorian or Edwardian costume and the general setting, at least as far as the Time Lord and his TARDIS were concerned, would be a fabulous gothic with whiffs of steampunk.  The gothic meme weighed heavily on the Doctor, combining with the vistas of H.G. Wells and Jules Vernes.  The Eighth Doctor and his TARDIS in 1996 beautifully and perfectly portrayed this approach to the Doctor.

Doctor Who has always been, fundamentally, a family show principally aimed at children at junior school.  Yet after the cancellation and as the audience grew older, the needs of its audience changed and any revitalisation would, we as fans implicitly felt, be aimed at the much older audience that had grown up with the series.

And in a way, the first proper trailer for the new series appeared to pick up on the idea of an older, more adult series.  It’s a very powerful, effective trailer.  The first shot is a dank, crumbling tunnel seemingly deep underground with a sinister off yellow tint to it. This isn’t glamorous Victoriana. It’s a real looking location that has an almost dystopian feel to it.  There’s an explosion, but it’s not some weird outlandish science fiction blowing up. It’s a genuine, matter of fact looking blast and happening as it does down a tunnel it seems shockingly true to life and terrifying.

In quick succession there is then a double cut of Chris’ Doctor raising his face to look into the camera.  These are intercut with a shot of the Doctor’s booted feet as he runs down the tunnel.

Shooting feet like this is evocative stuff as the mind goes into overdrive trying to imagine the rest of the person, adding to the tension. We are teased with a glimpse around the wonderful new design of the TARDIS console, just enough to make us salivate for more. It’s not steampunk, it’s not gothic. It’s far more exciting. Something new.

A forced zoom down the tunnel adds to the real life quality of the footage. Chris’ Doctor then, in slow motion, climbs steps up to the new TARDIS console.  The distinctively assertive, confident nature of the Doctor’s movement is matched by his style of speaking, giving the striking impression of being in the presence of someone dynamic and powerful. Of course to many in the audience the fact that he speaks with a northern English accent put him immediately at odds with all our expectations of how the Doctor should talk.  Subverting stereotypes in this way broke the series into new territory.   This isn’t the audience’s party anymore; it is the Doctor’s and, as he suggests in the trailer, you are lucky to be invited.

This was a stunningly different way to present Doctor Who. The cumulative effect of the intercutting edit, Chris’ spell binding performance and the design and visuals all work to suggest a show that is very modern with a sophisticated, non-linear style.  The lonely figure of the ninth Doctor running down that exploding tunnel suggested more a sixties era character always on the edge of real world danger – a Danger Man or Steed from the Avengers – rather than Tom Baker offering a bag of jelly babies to an adversary.  It was a very exciting trailer and like many fans I watched it a lot in the build up to Rose.  I was full of admiration for the team working on the new series as they seemed to be aiming for something different and unexpected for Doctor Who.

Of course, trailers are always in danger of creating in the imagination of the intended audience a programme or series that is totally different from the final, full product and in retrospect there seemed to be something of that going on with the first episode of the new series, Rose.

I will never forget sitting down that Saturday evening with a gang of friends to watch it.  Obviously the over-expectation was enormous.  The ninth Doctor was as revelatory as expected but the episode as a whole left me somewhat deflated.  This was purely due to my implicit need as a viewer to have the show be for me, an adult.  Lots of episodes of the new series are more adult in content than others so I would go into be delighted with so many episodes.

Yet Rose was in retrospect a proper family friendly, child targeted episode and the wise people at the BBC, especially that national treasure Russell T. Davies, wanted it that way. The Autons are frightening. We see them killing people in a busy shopping street, with all its implications for domestic horror especially as by implication it is clear that children are in the danger zone.  But it’s family drama style frights, not 28 Days Later. The humour is funny and much of it at the proper level for children as well.  In hindsight, I admire and love the episode as much as any other. It is just that we were at the start of a fairly lengthy journey of rediscovering what family or mass audience fantasy and adventure programmes were like.

The scene on the street near the TARDIS where the Doctor describes to Rose how he can feel the cosmic interplay around them is breathtaking and wonderfully laid down markers for further explorations of the Doctor and his new history, particularly in the following episode End of the World.

So my expectations as a long term fan coupled with my over eager interpretation of the Trip of a Lifetime trailer had lead me to require Rose to be a certain thing and when it wasn’t, it felt like a bit of an anti-climax.  It has to be remembered that when the new Doctor Who started, the national habit of watching this sort of programme had been neglected for many years.  Doctor Who’s success prompted other fantasy shows such as the surprisingly good Primeval  and the BBC’s Merlin, Robin Hood and Atlantis.  Perhaps in a similar way to Harry Potter’s revival of children’s literature, the new Doctor Who has brought a lot of fantasy and imagination to a whole new generation of children.

It didn’t help of course that the broadcast of Rose was famously affected by a “leak” from the studio where Graham Norton was presumably engaged in some post-show banter with his audience.  This really irritated me as due to the very different style of the show I was finding it hard enough to engage with Rose.  Looking back, it just seems a rather funny anecdote for fans to mention when discussing their show.

This though, was only the beginning..



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