Doctor Who Season One (2005), first half

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I've been giving some thought to the pacing of my write-ups of New Who. When I did my rewatch of Old Who, I chose to group stories in blocks of six, regardless of their overall length and number of episodes. That gave me the neat result of grouping the great Tom Baker seasons together, but was otherwise pretty arbitrary. So far I have written up one standalone spoof and four webcasts with twenty-one episodes as a group.

I think what I will try to do henceforth is to stick to watching/listening to the stories in broadcast order, but breaking at ends and beginnings of seasons, and also probably in between. I don't want to do entries writing up thirteen different stories at once; around six still feels right, but I won't adhere fanatically to that number.

For the 2005 Season One, that means a natural break point between Dalek and The Long Game, six episodes and five stories in, seven episodes and another five stories to go. (Later seasons will get more complicated.) So here goes.

Rose is a great beginning to New Who. The mistake made by other reboots was to take for granted that viewers would take an interest in the central character. Russell T Davies turns convention on its head by making this a story mainly about the Doctor's companion - with the partial exception of the first episode ever, Old Who had precisely one story which was companion-centric, The Massacre, though the Doctor-lite episode has now become a feature of New Who. Rose leads a fairly normal life - dead-end job, mum but no dad, boyfriend who is not quite on her wavelength - and the Doctor arrives to explode her workplace, break her mother's furniture and drag her across London to face militant plastic aliens. Yet we move from Clive's suspicions to the point where there can be few viewers who do not cheer Rose's joyful slow-motion run to the Tardis at the end. One can see why the bat-shippers decided that this was a show about Rose rather than the Doctor.

The two principals are great here, and Ecclestone has some brilliant moments as the damaged soldier trying to stop things going wrong again. There are some minor flaws - Jackie's seductive fumbling, the burping bin, the sequencing of the climax, the precise nature of the Nestene plans - but it is an excellent bit of television, in which almost the only elements of Who continuity are the Tardis and the Autons. In contrast to The Movie, or Scream of the Shalka (or indeed The Twin Dilemma) you end the story wanting to know what happens to these people next.

And we leap to the far future, to be precise The End of the World, an environment that manages to look like a vast space station visited by a wealth of alien life forms, rather than a Welsh civic building with some people in fancy dress, which itself is a major achievement. We learn more about the Doctor here - he is technically brilliant and saves the day, but he also flirts hilariously with the doomed Jabe. The two really scary bits are the Doctor's battle with the rotating fans and Rose's repeated problems with the solar shutters; apart from that it's enjoyable enough but not too taxing. (And the Doctor barely speaks to the Face of Boe, which is a bit problematic for later continuity, though perhaps they are nattering away off-screen.) Odd fact which I only found out writing this - the rather memorable scene with Rose and Raffalo, who is the first person to die horribly, was a late addition to make up for cutting out a lot of expensive Cassandra special effects.

There's an interesting survey to be done about the extent to which a Doctor's second story is indicative of the future. The Daleks - yes. The Highlanders - no (apart from introducing Jamie). Doctor Who and the Sliurians - maybe. The Ark in Space - yes. This isn't the strongest story of the season but it does at least scratch the sfnal itch; it's actually the furthest we get from Earth in 2005, in time and probably also in space, until New Earth (another Doctor's second story).

Though broadcast on 9 April 2005, The Unquiet Dead is very explicitly a Christmas episode, so it was rather nice to be watching it at this time of year. This feels much more solid than The End of the World somehow - it reminds me a bit of how the early Who historicals work much better on the whole than the early Who sf stories. It's well written, Piper and Ecclestone are on form, and they are supported by a very strong turn from Simon Callow as Dickens and a good start for Eve Myles (though it's difficult for me now to watch her and not expect her to be Gwen Cooper). It somehow looks better than The End of the World as well - beautifully lit, street scenes which are from a familiar genre but done very well, and excellent special effects for the Gelth. Watching it again I was also struck by the hints of character even for minor parts in the script, and the brief discussion of who and why the Doctor is. I had also forgotten how much the Time War underlies this season - as in Rose, the Doctor is here clearing up unfinished business from the conflict.

I had previously rated Aliens of London / World War Three as the low point of the season (I know that this is heresy; the weight of fan opinion is pretty clear that this honour belongs to The Long Game), but I have revised my views upwards a bit now. I still don't like the fart jokes, and the topical references have dated (and in some cases, eg Britain needing UN approval to launch a nuclear strike in self-defence, were actually wrong at the time). But here for the first time in Who history we have a companion returned to their home after being thought lost for ever, as so many other companions must have been thought lost in the past; and we have it combined with a rather different alien plot which goes to the heart of government (incidentally, this year's Autons have abandoned the strategy of replacing senior officials with duplicates, leaving that for the Slitheen). The Downing Street bits are fun rather than plausible. There are some great special effects as well - the initial spaceship crash, the Slitheen suits coming on and off; shame about the chase scenes.

Incidentally in the whole of Old Who there were only two people who appeared playing themselves - the late Kenneth Kendall and Courtney Pine. In this story alone we get the first two of many such appearances in New Who, Matt Baker of Blue Peter and political journalist Andrew Marr.

Dalek was one of the set-pieces that I most looked forward to in 2005, and delivered so well that I felt extra betrayed when later set-pieces were not as good. We wanted some kind of reimagining of the Daleks for New Who, and we got it - but also a fairly harsh light is shone on the character of the Doctor, and we wince for him at the line "You would make a good Dalek." (Though if you think of the concept of the "good orc", there may be another layer of meaning here.) When the Dalek finds a certain redemption at the end, it is a prefiguring of the Ninth Doctor's own doom (as we now know). Ecclestone and Piper again are excellent here, Piper's Rose now starting to grow up a bit and getting her turn at flirtation. I am less impressed with either Corey Johnson's Van Statten or Bruno Langley's Adam, but that's partly because they look very orange through a peculiarly chosen combination of make-up and lighting.

NB that this is the first TV Doctor Who story, but not the last, which was set in this year.

Highlights of this run: Rose and Dalek, as I expected, and also The Unquiet Dead. Low point is still Aliens of London / World War Three but not as bad as I remembered. I had forgotten both how good Piper is as Rose (memories poisoned by her return in Journey's End) and also how consistent the theme of the Time War is, to the point that I haven't even noted it in the later stories above. I had not forgotten how good Ecclestone is in the lead role.

< The Curse of Fatal Death | The Webcasts | Rose - Dalek | The Long Game - The Parting of the Ways | Comic Relief 2006 - The Girl In The Fireplace | Rise of the Cybermen - Doomsday | Everything Changes - They Keep Killing Suzie | Random Shoes - End of Days | Smith and Jones - 42 | Human Nature / The Family of Blood - Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords & The Infinite Quest | Revenge of the Slitheen - The Lost Boy & Time Crash | Voyage of the Damned - Adam | Reset - Exit Wounds

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