I have a theory with Doctor Who. You can break down Doctor Who series fairly evenly into a 30:30:30 split by my reckoning: 30 per cent great; 30 per cent mediocre; 30 per cent utterly awful.
This is something I’ve come to believe particularly since the advent of the new series, which can send me in raptures, fury or a doze over three consecutive weeks.
Distance and nostalgia lends the classic series a different aura. It’s more difficult to critically assess because it’s more familiar, but you also need to bear in mind that some of it was intended to be broadcast exactly once.
There are periods of the series where lack of cash or instability among the production team clearly show and there are certain peculiarities of the era that you need to bear in mind.
With the new series, by which I mean since 2005, there are a whole new set of considerations, but budget isn’t really one of them. Nor can it be argued that these new episodes have not been made in a DVD, Youtube and Sky+ era.
Certain rumours suggest that, once again (as of 2011), Doctor Who is again beset by production difficulties. But let’s forget about that. For now this is all about season one.
I bring my own prejudices and preferences to the new series, so I thought I’d ask a gang of friends to bring their own set of prejudices to the news series. There’s a good mix of people. People who dislike much of the news series. People ambivalent to much of it. People who love it pretty much unreservedly. People who enjoyed Russell T Davies’ take on the series, but not Moffatt’s and vice versa.
Some watch with their other half; some with the kids. Some love the old series and will always be loyal to it; some are unimpressed by it/ambivalent to it or believe the new iteration vastly superior to the new.
There is one common strand: We were all Doctor Who fans prior to the new series starting.
I asked them which new episodes they actually liked. No ratings, no reviews, no caveats. Just which ones they liked.
We’re starting with season one (or season 27 if you prefer); something that seems like a long time ago now. Eccleston, Billie, RTD, Slitheen, Daleks, Autons, Reapers, Keith Boak.
Are you my mummy? Run for your life! Do you wanna come with me?
Oh yes, we were willin’.
Season one – results
NB. The ones in bold are my selections
An unsurprising winner is The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, by far the stand-out story of the first year for me – and the start of fandom’s erstwhile love affair with the Moff. Be careful what you wish for, eh?
Second is Dalek, an oddity in the new series for me. Rob Shearman really does inject something back into the Daleks though, with a number of iconic scenes and a lovely prologue where the DOctor comes face-to-face with an Invasion-era Cyberman head. Why Shearman has not written again for the series is a mystery to me.
Third is The Unquiet Dead, Mark Gatiss’ only decent story by my reckoning. It was a clear nod to the glory days of Holmes and Hinchcliffe, the kind of story that has disappeared from the new series for some reason, and a good effort at that. Who’s first effort of the new series of doing frightening – surely the very raison d’etre of Who – does a very good job indeed.
Fourth was the end of season two-parter, Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways. Watching Bad Wolf recently I thought it very good, but the second part has so many elements that became emblematic of everything I disliked about the new series. It’s ‘chips and work’ mise-en-scene, its ‘love saves the day’ conclusion and its deification of Rose, a character I never really cared for, even though Billie Piper was great.
Rose, The End of the World and Father’s Day got six votes each. The first two are interesting for me, as they’re both very clearly RTD scripts. I hated the former – and I don’t believe it would have received many votes at all if not the first of the new series – but I thought End of the World witty, touching and exciting.
Father’s Day is another first series oddity – one not without its problems but one that brought a bit of a New Adventures tone to the new series, something I was bound to enjoy.
Boom Town is next, an episode that is fun and then fascinating and then utterly fucking awful in its three acts, for me. Aliens of London/World War Three – a spiritual cousin to Rose – and The Long Game, a story I’d charitably refer to as filler get one vote each.
As for my 30-30-30 (good; forgettable; shit) notion, I can split them as follows:
Here’s what the Geek Clique had to say about some of the episodes and the reboot on the whole:
[Rose] changed everything about the show while keeping it all just the same, reached parts of the world, and myself, that it never had before, thus making this discussion even possible, had numerous excellent set pieces and passages of dialogue, introduced numerous inspired ideas and likeable characters, all of which hit the ground running, not least of which were the Ninth Doctor and Rose themselves, who were absolutely fucking great. IMO. And it had an utterly brilliant scene with a wheely bin.
[Rose] may not be best suited to repeat viewing or the kind of close reading fans like ourselves bring to it but by the end of Rose anyone who had tuned in would know what the show was and wasn’t about and most of them would be coming back next week and be asking for a Christopher Eccleston action figure for Christmas. I’ll forgive a ropey CGI wheely bin and Noel Clarke thinking he’s in the Chuckle Brothers for that.
[Rose is] a bit panto but that’s partly down to Keith Boak and partly because – at least according to Shearman – there was a genuine fear at the time that the BBC would not allow onscreen deaths in that timeslot, so they had to do a massacre scene in which nobody was seen to die. Nevertheless it does a far better job of setting out the show’s stall than the TVM did, and for all its flaws I remain very fond of it because it managed the impossible task of bringing back a series which most people had come to despise in such a way as to make it credible again and yet still feel like “Doctor Who”. That’s one heck of an achievement.
The problem I have with Rose is that it goes so all out to be loved it’s waaaay out there. It’s really, really stupid. It’s like the aggressively pink fizzy pop we all used to drink full of e-numbers that sent us loopy. It laid down a marker for how Doctor Who was made for the next five years and it’s visible in most of the worst bits of the next five years. It didn’t have to be anywhere near as dumb as it was.
[Aliens of London/World War Three is] so damn leaden! I really struggled to get through the first episode.
The last third of Aliens of London was the cliffhanger, wasn’t it? Dear God, that was the most drawn-out cliffhanger in the show’s history.
First third involves Jackie being upset that her daughter has been away for a year – only she hasn’t, from her perspective and from the viewers’ perspective. SO the emotion is all pretty meaningless. Second third involved the spaceship crashing, and the Doctor watching it on telly. The Doctor gets upset that they killed a pig. Last third involves large farty people about to do something a bit wicked. World war three involves them still being about to do something a bit bad, whilst the Doctor is fretting that Rose might get hurt.
I actually think AoL/WW3 might be quite good if Keith Boak wasn’t directing it. I really like Aliens of London.
Eccleston doing funny was dire. (On Aliens/World)
Good writers edit for brevity, and brevity was painfully unapparent in either Aliens of London or the much worse Boom Town. Doctor Who isn’t a place for experiments into character. It’s a place where narrative drive dictates and personalities have to be cleverly and concisely fitted in between the plot.
Badland’s great throughout, and her and Eccleston’s restaurant scene is a step above. [I] share the ennui with the Mickey / Rose situation, the time rift stuff looks tacked on for the sake of some supposed excitement and the way the TARDIS sorts everything out fails to convince. (on Boomtown)
[Boom Town] was shit. False moral dilemma. Rubbish Slitheen. Unbelievable premise. And Captain Jack has an unflattering outfit.
…if I’m being totally honest I will enjoy a Doctor Who episode with a good Doctor far more than a Doctor Who episode with a shite Doctor regardless of the relative merits of the stories – and Eccleston was a great Doctor.
The thing this whole ‘which do you actually like?’ thing has really brought home to me is just much ‘mission creep’ there was in the RTD years. I think his great strength was realising that continuity was bad. Then he became part of continuity and he didn’t realise that was problematic.
I would suggest that RTD requires the larger apologia for what happened after Season 1. He had no idea how to react to the hit he had on his hands and no long term plan. He panicked and started writing by the seat of his pants, leading to a very shallow series of episodes and seasons that relied too heavily on set-pieces strung together with no internal consistency, merely gooey clumps of pathos. What’s worse is that, as a writer, RTD was so much better than that: look at Midnight. He’d have been much better off if he hadn’t been showrunner. He needed someone standing over him (possibly with a two by four) and acting as a moderating influence on him.
RTD’s target audience was 13 year-old girls rather than 8 year-old boys.
Brilliant showrunner, great dialogue, excellent characters, but tended to push the limits until they broke. Without checking, I suspect if you look at how we have all voted, RTDs episodes will get a lower average than the majority.
As a side note, the Geek Clique tends to hold the first season in high regard. 58 votes were cast, giving the series an average score of 5.8. That figure reflects the number of votes cast, so without knowing how many people participated it’s hardly a scientific rating, nor one that makes much sense in isolation.
On the assumption that ten people voted on each season, however, season one received the second-most votes of all six NuWho seasons.
Tune in at a later date to see which one has the current highest score – and vote for your favourites below.