Wasn’t it exciting when we knew Doctor Who was coming back. Not Scream of the Shalka. Not Reel Time. Not Death Comes To Time. They were all very welcome but, well, they weren’t going to come close to the excitement of seeing Eccleston running down that tunnel away from the fireball, were they?
And wasn’t it exciting when it was – quite often, if not always – pretty good? Of course it was no Robots of Death or Inferno – what is? – but I’d’ve settled for it in the main. Apart from Rose. And the Aliens of London two-parter. And Boom Bloody Town. But by and large a strong start.
I edited a magazine in Liverpool and got my mate, Dave Quinn, to cast a not-we eye over it. This is what he thought.
Predictable, lazy, amoral, simple-minded garbage – this is what we are told modern mainstream telly has become. Doctor Who was pretty much the opposite.
There wasn’t a ginger bloke in a neck-brace bellowing nonsense about ‘sex wee’. There weren’t any wannabes or minor celebrities punching each other, eating maggots, stripping naked or having sex. There was no Scottish nutritionist examining anyone’s shit. And no-one bought, did-up or sold a house.
While ITV’s spring/summer schedule struggled with Celebrity Wrestling, Celebrity Love Island and Celebrity Cannibal Taxidermy Experiment (one of these is made up), the BBC, almost by accident, managed to re-energise the “family drama” genre with such simple qualities as clever writing, decent acting and bloody big alien invasions. And hooray for that.
The significance of the success of Doctor Who could just reinvigorate the schedules. We’ve been told the concept of the family gathering around the telly for a weekly series is as dead as a Dalek in this ‘multi-channel’ age. That the only television kids will watch is Channel U (try it – Sky Digital channel 467) or programmes where they can text in to have someone shot dead. Doctor Who, with up to 10 million viewers, has gone a little way to shattering the theory.
From the opening episode where wheely bins and shop dummies sprang to life, to the final regeneration of Christopher Eccleston’s grinning northern Doctor into David Tennant’s grinning Cockney one, this was about as good as it gets.
Much of it is down to the vision of Russell T Davies, who, as the creator of the all-new Doctor Who, as well as Queer as Folk and Second Coming, has surely proved himself as one of television’s most talented and valuable auteurs.
A little known fact about Davies is that he once wrote scripts for 1980s kids programme Why Don’t You?, turning a ‘try this at home’ magazine show into a slightly bizarre drama. He was also responsible for the completely forgotten Breakfast Serials (it was on telly in the morning, see?). While working on that, Davies confesses to making up random one-sentence Radio Times programme synopses, involving non-existent characters in ridiculous scenarios. Evidently no-one noticed.
Clearly Davies has come a long way since then, and notwithstanding the obvious brilliance of much of his earlier output, Doctor Who is arguably his greatest triumph.
But I would say that, wouldn’t I? You’re probably thinking I’m some kind of bearded Doctor Who fanboy who has every episode of the landmark Peter Davison series on Betamax (like the editor of this magazine, for example – that was me – PB). But I’m not. I had no particular hopes for this latest incarnation, and that’s why it was so refreshing.
OK, so some of the aforementioned fanboys have whinged about the farting in the ‘Slitheen’ episodes. Perhaps they need reminding that this is essentially children’s telly with the occasional sly gag thrown in for the enjoyment of their parents. My girlfriend’s six year-old nephew thought it was great. Perhaps the geeks should stick to watching re-runs of The X-Files and other such po-faced shite.
The only let-down was the BBC’s PR department, which managed to botch the announcement about Eccleston’s departure. It was almost certainly the intention of both Davies and Eccleston to keep the regeneration at the end of the series a secret, and imagine how great it would have been if they had. Sadly, a bit of over-zealous spin-mongery – complete with made-up Eccleston quotes for which the corporation was forced to apologise – put paid to that.
But that’s nitpicking. Here was a programme that was thrilling, entertaining, witty, clever and – gulp – cool. Bring on The Christmas Invasion.
For what it’s worth I think that’s a pretty even-handed view, though the Slitheen veer way across the line beyond ‘for children’ into ‘childish’ for me – it’s no coincidence to my mind that some of the series’ greatest driving forces always believed in this rule of thumb, and Moffat certainly appears to understand it.
But, however much I think RTD’s self-discipline; characterisation; more populist, childish and naffer instincts resulted in some of the worst Doctor Who ever made, we’ve got to be careful to observe the debt every Who fan owes to the man. He made our programme popular and successful again. I’d buy him a pint.
The image is by Will Daw. Good, eh?