Regenerating A Legacy

THIS WAS AN ORIGINAL PIECE WRITTEN EXCLUSIVELY FOR THIS BLOG.

The Trip of a Lifetime. (© 2005, BBC)

“D’ya wanna come with me?”, he asked in his broad Salford tone. Of course, I did, but would everyone? Could this big eared bloke in a leather jacket really be the face of a relaunched sci-fi classic, and actually make it a success? It had been nine years since Paul McGann donned a foppish wig and a fancy dress costume to battle Eric Roberts scenery-chomping Master in a big budget American pilot. The pilot was cunningly rebranded as a tv movie when it became clear the Yanks just didn’t quite get Doctor Who, putting the series back into limbo. It had been seven years before that when, after deliberately rescheduling the series against Coronation Street, and refusing to up the budget to compete with the swanky new sci-fi imports, the BBC put the series officially on hiatus. Determined to rid themselves of a clearly unwanted child, they closed the production office – abruptly ending Sylvester McCoy’s tenure as the seventh incarnation of the popular Timelord just as the series was beginning to regain its former glory, after a run of vastly impressive stories that really deserve widespread reappraisal.

So when Russell T. Davies announced that he would be bringing back Doctor Who, fandom had every right to be sceptical. British fantasy television had been stung by a series of recent disappointments, from the vastly overblown mess that was Invasion: Earth, to the enjoyable, but ultimately neglected reworking of Randall & Hopkirk {deceased} with Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer. While American networks had their runaway successes, from the multiple incarnations of Star Trek and Stargate to the powerhouse, mainstream smash hits that were The X-Files and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, British science fiction had descended into a laughing stock of low budget tat, vastly over-expensive cgi messes with poor acting and even poorer scripts, or the occasional children’s drama serial that nobody really watched anyway.

Russell T. Davies (© 2005, BBC)

But Davies, still riding the crest of goodwill that Queer As Folk had provided, had recently made a stunning piece of drama for ITV (I know – who would believe ITV could make great drama today?), entitled The Second Coming. In it, Christopher Eccleston’s 30-something nobody, rejected by society and miserable on a failed night out, suddenly discovered he was the son of God. After performing a couple of miracles for the tv cameras, he challenged mankind to come up with a Third Testament or face their doom. It was a brilliant piece of work from a talented writer, who was constantly pushing back the envelope – garnering critical acclaim and massive viewing figures to boot. If anyone could bring back Doctor Who, it was he.

And so, on March 26th 2005, over 9 million people settled down to watch the first episode of the revived series, after a massive promotional campaign that saw billboards put up on almost every street corner, massive magazine and newspaper coverage and a glossy tv advert that tantalisingly offered us not a single shred of actual footage from the series. Instead,this suddenly Mancunian Timelord persuading us to go with him and face the trip of a lifetime. 45 minutes later, and former pop star turned actress Billie Piper was running into the TARDIS as Rose Tyler, shop worker with a mother and a boyfriend, determined to find out there was more to life than eating chips and watching telly. And so it began.

Somehow, Davies had managed to strike the perfect balance – here was a mainstream series that had pop culture references, real life, potential romance and above all else, humour – but combined that with thrill packed adventure of a kind rarely seen on British television. This was a show made for a global market, a series that could instantly stand up and be counted with the American greats we were constantly being forcefed. And somehow, he managed to include enough knowing winks to the established fanbase to keep the majority happy. This was no reboot. Batman and James Bond may have successfully relaunched from scratch in the ‘Noughties’, but not Doctor Who. Christopher Eccleston was the ninth Doctor. Here was the same man audiences had been following for over 40 years, now battle scarred and as we soon discovered, all alone after an enormous, all-encompassing war in which, we were told, “everyone lost”.

The first episode, Rose, was an enjoyable pilot, but it was with the second episode, The End Of The World, that the series truly felt as if it could run and run. The Doctor, determined to impress his new friend, took Rose to the year “5,000,000,000 / apple / 26” , to show her the day the Sun expands and destroys planet Earth. A posse of uber-rich aliens had descended upon Platform One to watch the fireworks, alongside the last human – a stretched out piece of skin with a face, known as Cassandra O’Brien. Suddenly, we had a bitchy social commentary running in tandem with the sci-fi elements, and it became clear that Davies was determined not to alienate casual viewers with alien elements, a notion further solidified when Cassandra wheeled out a jukebox she claimed was an i-Pod, which played traditional Earth ballads like Tainted Love by Soft Cell and Toxic by Britney Spears. Here was a series that could offer a reflection on our own lives via comparisons with fantastical events in the distant future or the far-flung past, and knowing winks to the audience became a staple of the series under Davies’ tenure. After a bit of a generic runaround, the day saved by The Doctor and his friends, he and Rose returned to present day England, and he explained his stance as the last of the Timelords, and offered to take Rose home. She opted to stay, but first, she wanted chips – the partnership was secured, and the viewers were hooked.

The Lone Dalek (© 2005, BBC)

Throughout the course of the first season, further elements from the shows history were reintroduced alongside new faces and alien threats to overcome. Despite initial negative reactions, the Slitheen have become hardy perennials, even if their methane-tainted macinations tend to be relegated to the spin-off children’s series The Sarah Jane Adventures (more on that later…). In Captain Jack Harkness, Davies and Steven Moffat (again, more on him later…) created a character that would run and run, returning to the series several times after his initial departure, and even garnering his own spin-off project, Torchwood, (again, more on that later…). But the big bad of the season, fittingly, were the Daleks. First seen five weeks into the original series run back in December 1963, the pepperpot nightmares had battled the various Doctors numerous times throughout the years, culminating in their last screen appearance back in 1988. Their return to the new series, however, w
as in doubt – the rights to the Daleks image is owned by the BBC, but it was their creator Terry Nation (or rather, his estate), that gained copyright of the characters themselves. Back-up scripts were prepared which replaced the Daleks with a brand new menace, but in the end, Nation’s estate relented and Davies was allowed to return the villains to glory.

The first Dalek we see, however, was as far removed from their usual appearance as could be. After years of becomming the butt of crap jokes (the most notorious being about them being unable to climb stairs, even though they had done exactly that in the late 80s!), the Daleks needed a refresh – audiences had to become afraid of them once again. Davies’ solution, culled from the Big Finish produced Doctor Who audio plays, came courtesy of episode writer Robert Shearman. One Dalek survived the fabled Time War and crash-landed in Nevada. Here, an eccentric billionaire, who had already amassed a variety of alien artifacts, held the creature in an underground base as his one living specimen. Unable to recieve orders from its now-dead masters, chained up, extensively damaged and tortured, this Dalek was confused and disorientated, and Rose took pity on it – only for her time-travel-altered dna to regenerate the creature to its status as a super-shiny, plunger wielding killing machine. In fact, possibly the finest moment of this sequence comes when a character looks at the Dalek’s “plunger” and mocks it with the question: “What are you gonna do? Sucker me to death?” – only for the plunger to suddenly grab his face and squeeze. Genius.

Within minutes, it had brutally exterminated almost everyone on the base – but in drawing power from Rose it also inherited some of her humanity, and in a bold move by the production team, as the Doctor lost his cool – torn apart by the fact that one shred of the evil which had destroyed his people survived – the Dalek too, struggled to cope with its existence. As an unpure specimen, it went against the very core of its own being, and demanded that its creator, Rose, ordered its own destruction. Suddenly, in one swift move, Davies and Shearman made audiences nationwide feel sympathy for the very thing it was so scared of, and a legend was reborn. The way these creatures made the Doctor behave, so brilliantly played by Christopher Eccleston – right down to the slight twitches in his cheeks as it rebuked his arguments – made audiences uneasy. Nothing phased the Doctor, here was a man in control, even when the chips were stacked against him – but in the Daleks, there was something he was very afraid of, and that fear was passed onto the audience, in particular the millions of children now enthralled by the adventures of the time travelling duo. The End Of The World might have proved the show could work in the 21st century, but Dalek cemented its place in the hearts of the nation.

Rose Tyler, The 9th Doctor & Captain Jack Harkness in “The Empty Child” (© 2005, BBC)

And the show was not afraid to play with the established formula either. Rose’s family were increasingly given prominent positions in the show, with her mother Jackie (Camille Coduri), boyfriend Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) and even her deceased father Pete (Shaun Dingwall) getting their moments in the spotlight – all three would continue to play a part in future episodes, with Mickey in particular rising to the challenge as a fully-fledged companion in the second series. Speaking of companions, the Dalek episode introduced Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langely), who joined the TARDIS crew at the end of the story and was dumped back home by the Doctor for unreasonable behaviour at the end of the next episode. A few weeks later, we were introduced to inter-galactic, pansexual conman Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who drags the Doctor and Rose back to 1940s Britain. En route to the potential scam, he accidentally causes an epidemic of gas-mask-enhanced zombies, who then proceed to maraude around Blitz-battered London uttering the immortal phrase: “Are you my mummy?”, in what is still one of the standout stories not just of the RTD years, but of Doctor Who as a whole.

Beyond the Comic Relief sketch spoof, The Curse Of Fatal Death, this two-part story also marked Steven Moffat’s debut on the series – and was notably darker in tone than the majority of the other episodes, yet also laced with razor-sharp wit and infinitely quotable lines. Plus, as with all of his stories to date (though this must surely change when he takes the reigns for the next series), nobody actually dies because of the alien threat… as the Doctor gloriously announces at the climax of the story: “Just this once… everyone lives!”. And in Harkness, the pair created a revelation – the first openly sexual companion in the show’s history, Captain Jack was a welcome breath of fresh air, and Barrowman bounced off Eccleston and Piper magnificently. It’s a great shame the trio’s adventures were so short lived, and also that Noel Clarke was underused as Mickey Smith, as the sight of the four of them together in Boom Town was a treat.

Throughout the season, Davies and his team were challenging preconceptions, keeping audiences old and new alike on their toes, constantly wrong-footing expectations to keep viewers tuning in. And nowhere was this more obvious than in the series finale- a two part tale comprising the episodes Bad Wolf and The Parting Of The Ways. Previous episodes had introduced celebrity cameos (Aliens Of London featured Blue Peter presenter Matt Baker and BBC News correspondent Andrew Marr as themselves), and even featured big name guest stars as famous faces from the past (Mark Gatiss’ brilliant The Unquiet Dead featured Simon Callow as Charles Dickens) – but Bad Wolf blew these previous appearances out of the water, as the Doctor, Rose and Jack were transported into futuristic versions of 21st century reality tv favourites – Jack found himself face to face with robot fashion experts Trine-E and Zu-Zana, Rose was a contestant on The Weakest Link, hosted by the wonderfully named Anne-Droid, and The Doctor was thrust into the Big Brother house, with his only outside communication coming from the Davina-Droid – each robot voiced by their real-life counterparts. Post modern: yes? Quick to date: hell yes! But right there, right then, in 2005, this was pitch perfect – keeping a mainstream audience interested and entertained at the point when they could have quickly lost interest as the summer heatwave started to kick in and people had better things to do on a Saturday evening than sit in watching Doctor Who

The Ninth Doctor’s hologram message to Rose… “Have a fantastic life…” (© 2005, BBC)

Earlier in the season, the Doctor had defeated the Slitheen in their plot to blow up the Earth and sell it off as fuel – and in the process destroyed all but one of the family. She returned in the episode Boom Town, planning to continue the destruction in Cardiff. It was a cost-cutting low-budget episode, which focused on character development, and part of its continued appeal lies in the fact that, for the first time really in the show’s history, the Doctor is made to really question his actions. Of course, die-hards will tell you the fourth Doctor agonised over the possibility of destroying the Daleks before their very creation back in G
enesis of the Daleks.
They’ll also tell you how the seventh Doctor offered Davros a chance of redemption before destroying Skaaro in Remembrace of the Daleks, but such instances were few and far between in the classic series. Suddenly, the Doctor had no choice but to stop and think – does he always make the right decision?

This notion was further explored in The Parting Of The Ways. After escaping the deadly gameshows, seemingly at the cost of Rose’s life (and at the time, audiences genuinely had no idea she would be returning in the next series – making her apparent demise a genuine shocker), the Doctor discovers the Daleks are responsible. They are holding Rose captive, and are manipulating Earth’s population into inaction in preparation for their harvesting. As the Doctor rescued Rose and prepared to battle his enemies one final time, he had no choice but to send Jack into battle and, fearing that he would lose the fight, sent Rose home to Mickey and Jackie. The Doctor was correct – Jack was killed alongside every other remaining human on the satellite, and soon the Timelord was surrounded and facing extermination. He had turned his friends into mere target practise, and, it was revealed, he was forced to kill his own people to destroy the Daleks at the end of the Timewar. Somehow, they survived, and it would take the death of half of Earth’s population to stop them – deaths the Doctor simply couldn’t have on his conscience.

Thankfully, Miss Tyler returned in a pitch perfect example of deus ex machina, having stared into “the heart of the TARDIS” and gained super powers into the bargain. She destroyed the Daleks, restored Jack to life and could see the whole of creation – but the power was eating her alive, and the Doctor was forced to snog the energy out of her. As she passes out, he takes her into his TARDIS, leaving Jack behind, and says his goodbyes to his friend – telling her in no uncertain terms: “You were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And d’ya know what? So was I…” – then bursting open in a shower of golden energy and re-emerging a literally changed man.

“New teeth. That’s weird.”

Suddenly, audiences were faced with a new Doctor. Thanks to tabloid probing and BBC press department cock-ups, audienced had known it was coming since a few days after Rose had aired, but now here he was – a wide-eyed, spiky-haired ball of energy who would lead the program to new levels of success and international acclaim. The Doctor was dead. Long live the Doctor…

The Doctor & Rose (© 2005, BBC)

The first series was, in retrospect, far from perfect. But few first series ever are. The learning curve for the production team was steep – one look at the enormous discrepancies between the fast moving, CGI produced Slitheen on the hunt, and the wobbling latex suits worn on set is all you need to see that. Also, for some reason Davies decided to base the entire season around the planet Earth, with every episode either set on the planet, or directly above it on space stations. It was a clever ploy to reuse previous locations like Satellite Five later in the run, and to base two episodes in Cardiff – as this vastly reduced costs, but at times, the result does look cheap. Nevertheless, as with all Doctor Who, these little niggles can be overlooked if the story is so entertaining – and the new series had something the original run could rarely claim – emotion. You cared for the Doctor. You cared for Rose. You cared for Jack, Mickey, Jackie, Pete – hell, you cared for one-off characters like Jabe, Nancy, Lynda, Charles Dickens – even villains like Blon/”Margaret” and the lone Dalek were portrayed sympathetically. You laughed with these characters, never at them.

Russell T. Davies and his team had cut to the core of these characters, and invested them with a level of believability rarely seen in science fiction, and that is why these episodes will continue to be relevant long after the pop culture references can no longer be fully understood by a casual audience. Christopher Eccleston was a Doctor like no other before him, his brooding misfortune at carrying the weight of the universe upon his shoulders tempered by his determination to rediscover what he adored about travelling through time and space, and the sheer enjoyment he drew from his new friend Rose. Billie Piper brought a lot to this relationship too – and perhaps worked better with Eccleston than she ever did with his successor. Here was a young girl with no clear future, suddenly offered the trip of a lifetime – and you wanted her to make the most of it. John Barrowman, as ever, lit up the screen whenever he appeared, and after a wobbly start (by his own admission), Noel Clark soon settled into his supporting role as Mickey Smith and became a character audiences loved. And Camille Coduri owned Jackie Tyler instantly – a valuable ally who brought a much needed grounding to the show over the course of its five years under Davies. Without these five, the brilliant scripts, the high production values and glossy cgi would all have amounted to nothing. They were the connection for casual audiences, and they are the real reason we’re able to look back on 2005 with fondness.

It’s a great shame that Christopher Eccleston decided early on he would only make one series, as his Doctor had great potential to go further – but nevertheless, Davies managed to give him the send-off he deserved, rounding off the story of the wounded survivor with great aplomb. And luckily, there was somebody waiting in the wings who would take the show to new heights of popularity. A little known actor from Paisley had been making waves in critically appraised dramas and powerhouse stage performances for a while now, and suddenly, he was ready to take on the world as the Tenth Doctor.

Doctor Who was back, and as the ninth Doctor would have put it, it was fantastic.

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About Paul Holmes

Editor of The Velvet Onion since 2010, I also work in arts marketing and digital content producing, writer for a few things, listen to a lot of vinyl and watch lots and lots of Doctor Who.

Posted on June 25, 2011, in Articles. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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