The original Doctor Who ran on BBC from 1963-1989. The premise, if you’re somehow unfamiliar with it, is that an alien Time Lord steals a time machine, called the TARDIS (forever stuck in its camouflage as a 1960s London police box) and travels randomly through space and time with various companions. When an actor wants to retire, the Doctor “regenerates” into a new body with a slightly different personality. It was originally conceived as an educational children’s show with alternating history lessons (travels to the past) and science lessons (sf stories), but the producers quickly dropped that premise when campy adventure stories (usually involving the alien-mutant-cyborg Daleks) garnered big ratings. The show ran forever, and became iconic in the UK. As I understand it, Doctor Who in the UK is a lot like Star Trek in the US – pretty much everyone watched it at some point as a kid and gets the basic references, but fandom is considered a sure sign of extreme geekiness. From my internet experiences, I’d say that Trekkies have nothing on hardcore British Who fans.
Also, camp. The show operated on cheap BBC budgets, and us full of campy effects and overacting. This is what many people love about the show, but it’s a real challenge to any modern version. A 1996 revival coproduced by Fox tried to decampify the show and failed miserably. Their only success was hiring Paul McGann to play the Doctor. Russell T. Davies produced this 2005 revival, now past its sixth season, and he does a decent job making the show modern, integrating some of the season arc and character arc formats of Buffy for instance, while keeping some classic elements (even, occasionally, veering into embarrassing camp).
This is the first time ever that Doctor Who received a Hugo nomination. I guess that’s not all that surprising – classic Who was shown too inconsistently on PBS for the show to gain a solid US fan base, even among WorldCon types – but I’m still surprised the likes of "City of Death," a classic episode written by Douglas Adams, didn’t get a nod. Even if WorldCon hadn’t created a Short Form category, I think some episodes of the revival would have won the Dramatic Pres. Hugo. The first season of the revival, starring Christopher Eccleston, got three episodes nominated and beat out the hugely popular Battlestar Galactica.
First, the other nominated episodes: “Dalek” is the last good episode starring the Doctor’s most arch-nemesii fascist cyborgs. The premise of the new series is that the Time Lords and Daleks have wiped each other out in a massive “Time War.” In this episode, the Doctor meets the “last surviving Dalek” (so far…) in the collection of an eccentric American billionaire in 2012 (the distant future!), which makes for a fairly tense confrontation. It nicely avoids all of the excesses of many Dalek episodes and actually manages to ask some decent moral questions about how the Doctor should deal with a terrible foe that’s been laid low.
“Father’s Day” was written by Paul Cornell, a fan favorite, and it deals with the consequences of wanton timestream altering. The Doctor changes history in almost every episode, but this time his companion tries to alter her own past by saving her father in front of her own eyes and creates a wound in time. Everyone around ends up hunted by creatures in a weird time loop. The soundtrack sounds ridiculously cheap, and the monsters are some pretty bad cgi (though the design is interesting), but it’s still a very strong episode. The key is that it’s character-centered – most of the episode is taken up by characters chatting while holed up in a cathedral. It also adds a great deal of depth to the family of the Doctor’s new companion, Rose – something that the classic series never bothered with.
Finally, the two-part winner: “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” Of course, Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who episode wins a Hugo. As usual with Moffat, there’s a lot going on here; the episode introduces rogue time agent Captain Jack Harkness from the 31st century, who leads the Doctor and Rose to London during the Blitz. Once there, they meet a group of street urchins who take advantage of the blitz to find food, and they discover a weird alien plague that possesses people then makes them grow a gas mask over their face and wander around saying “are you my Mommy?” Yes, creepy. It ends with a surprisingly redemptive moment that is a nice change of pace in what’s a fairly bleak season and really pushes the episode to the best of the season.
As for the season overall, it has its ups and downs, but it’s generally pretty strong. As I mentioned, some of the cgi is dodgy, and the music can be quite awful (recorded with a lone Casio?), but the scripts are solid, and the increased character focus and inter-episode continuity are welcome improvements on the original series. As for Christopher Eccleston, I think fan consensus is that he’s not as good as his successor, but he did a great job at the time. I, on the other hand, actively dislike him. He’s probably one of my least favorite Doctors. Eccleston plays the Doctor as manic, cranky, and he wears a broad grin at odd times. Overall, these choices make the Doctor a bit edgier and more alien, which I appreciate on an intellectual level, but find off-putting in practice. I can’t say that Eccleston played the part wrong; I just didn’t particularly like it personally. And that drags the season down a bit for me.
Grades: Dalek: B+
Father’s Day: A-
Empty Child/Doctor Dances: A-
Season 1 Overall: B
And now...I'm on a break for a week or two.