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Doctor... Who Were You Again?

It’s been a long time since I was a serious Doctor Who fan. Many years have passed since the days when I was a card-carrying member of the Prydonians of Princeton. I barely even remember the proud moment when I was published in the newsletter; I was probably complaining about how the buffoonish Sylvester McCoy was tarnishing the beautiful world of the Doctor. It’s true: Once upon a time, I had very strong feelings about who played the lead on a quirky BBC import.

Maybe in England Doctor Who fandom is more widespread, but here in America the only people who even know who the Doctor is are the nerds of the nerds. I think even chess club geeks look down on Doctor Who fans. We Prydonians of Princeton, meanwhile, felt free to sneer at fans of such lesser science fiction shows as Star Trek and didn’t even dignify the “Star Wars” movies by categorizing them as science fiction. (At best they were “science fantasy,” just plain fantasy, or, more simply, “crap.”) We did allow that Blake’s 7 was better than pretty okay, though.

So I read the newsletter and wrote letters to the core Prydonians. And I installed a special antenna in my parents’ attic so I could receive more distant PBS stations which ran different seasons of Doctor Who. And I spent most of my Saturday nights glued to WNJN, channel 50 Montclair, viewer and taxpayer supported public television, watching the new shows as they arrived.

But eventually I went to college, discovered sex with the girl who would become my wife, scared off a few roommates, and put away childish things, including an obsession with Neil Peart lyrics, buying X-Men comics, and being a Doctor Who fan. It didn’t hurt that just around this time the BBC finally cancelled the series.

Still, I didn’t forget the good Doctor. I watched the mostly cruddy American TV movie starring Paul McGann back in 1996. When I got TiVo, one of the first things I did was put “Doctor Who” and “Dr. Who” into the Wishlist, in the hopes that perhaps an episode or two would turn up.

For quite a long time, all that showed up were occasional episodes of random shows whose description read something like “Remington Steele investigates a doctor who medicates his patients with heroin.” Then one fine day, having run out of pornography, I read /. and discovered that the BBC was starting production on a new Doctor Who series. (Proving once again that, although I copyedit TeeVee, I don’t always actually read the articles.)

Naturally, although the new series began airing in Britain 26 March, 2005, no one thought it was a good idea to start airing it in the U.S. concurrently. Naturally, once the new series began airing in Britain, the new episodes showed up on the Internet. (Actually, the first episode escaped before it aired anywhere.) Naturally, despite having dropped out of the Doctor Who thing, I finagled a copy and watched it when everyone else was out of the house.

I must admit I was unsure of returning to this scene of my adolescence. I had moved on. I was afraid that the new show would be too much like the old show and that I would find that it would look stupid to a grown-up like myself. I was afraid that the new show would be too little like the old show and I’d be disappointed. Also, I was afraid that I’d like the new show too much and thus doom myself to being deported to Nerdland. To say nothing of bandwidth issues on my home DSL line.

But as I thrilled to the show’s almost-unchanged theme song, I felt that I was in the hands of professionals who respected the original Doctor Who, who loved it as I once did, and who were determined to bring the best aspects of the old while improving the worst. How I could feel this from just the opening credits I don’t know, but feel it I did.

The feeling continued right through to the closing credits. Russell T Davies and his team clearly love the old Doctor Who. It shows in the way they handle the new series: Although they may have toned down the Doctor’s costume (he now sports a battered black leather jacket), many of the old familiar elements are there. The TARDIS shaped like a police box, even though there are no police boxes in England any more. The sonic screwdriver. The comely companion. The wacky aliens. The running around from place to place as if they don’t, in fact, have access to a time machine.

And for those of you who might have been worried — from seeing the production stills online — that Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor was going to be a Guy Ritchie-inspired “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Daleks” guy, rest easy. The Doctor’s charm and eccentricity is intact. Eccleston shows a surprising (to me, at any rate) gift for comedy, both physical and verbal. You might miss the scarf or the celery pinned to the lapel — the new Doctor’s outfit is surely the most drab of all time — but Eccleston has a way with a crooked smile, a raised eyebrow, a flourish revealing an explosive device, or being strangled by a manikin’s dismembered arm.

The Doctor needs his companions, too. And Billie Piper is on hand as Rose, the most incredibly gorgeous companion since… well, most of the Doctor’s companions have been stone-cold hotties as far as I’m concerned. Piper also evinces a joy of performance palpable even at the other end of digital video.

Aside from the lead roles, the other important element of Doctor Who is the cheesy special effects. And they are also back. Now they’re done digitally, of course, but by and large they’re still pretty awful. And, at least in the first episode, no attempt was made to upgrade the Doctor’s old enemies — in this case, the relentlessly analog Autons. (For a negative example of where this can go, see the new Battlestar Galactica.)

So what else is missing besides the Doctor’s sartorial extravagance? The odd switch, common to many BBC shows, between video in the studio and film on location; the quaintly simple interior of the TARDIS; and, somewhat sadly I think, the comprehensible English accents, which were traded for more working-class, Welsh, and about half unintelligible intonations — to this reviewer, anyway. Also, the new series is done in whole 45-minute plots, instead of in several 20-minute-or-so episodes ending in cliffhangers.

Are these changes for the better or the worse? Well, you’ll have to decide for yourself (whenever the series airs in the U.S., or if you’re Canadian or live near the Canadian border, starting this week), because — apart from the new accents — I don’t have an opinion. Fifteen years ago I might have protested the desecration of the purity of the great Doctor Who, but I guess I did grow up somewhat in the intervening years. And I honestly don’t give a crap what the interior of the TARDIS looks like. Heresy!

So I like the new series so far. It’s promising. I’ll certainly be watching.

Note to any remaining Prydonians: Even if you ask, I can’t turn in my membership card, because I don’t know where it is. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have sex.


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