The New "Who" (Part One)

July 29, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

The BBC Science Fiction TV series "Doctor Who" first came to the United States in 1978, fifteen years after its debut in the U.K. (There were isolated instances of the program being shown pre-'78, but that was the year when Time-Life purchased four seasons and packaged them for syndication.) From a global perspective, the late 1970s and early 1980s represented the height of the Doctor's popularity. Actors from the series (both past and present) were in demand at conventions, ratings were up, and PBS stations all across the United States were buying the episodes at an amazing pace.

By 1989, "Doctor Who" was dead - the victim of horrendous stories and a dwindling viewership that had lost all hope. It's almost painful to consider the quality of writing during the show's last five seasons. Even at its best, "Doctor Who" was cheesy, but it mixed in wit, intelligence, allegory, and human drama. Alas, from 1985-1989, the cheese had virtually nudged out everything else. (Yes, there were a few enjoyable stories during those last five short seasons, but a lot was unwatchable.)

But, like "Star Trek," cancellation couldn't keep "Doctor Who" down. After leaving the air in 1989, it continued to live on - in novels, comic books, and "audio adventures" (stories acted out on cassette and CD featuring many of the original actors). In 1995, a TV movie version of "Doctor Who" was announced, to be co-produced by the BBC and the U.S.'s FOX-TV. It was viewed as a potential pilot. If the ratings were sufficient, "Doctor Who" would be reborn for the 1996-97 TV season. However, the movie, shown on FOX in the middle of the 1995 May sweeps period, had an abysmal viewership, and the show returned to dormancy.

The 1996 TV movie suffered from an identity crisis. While it's true that it was not well written, that wasn't the primary reason why few watched it and fewer liked it. For die-hard "Doctor Who" fans, this wasn't their series. It was an "Americanized" hybrid that removed much of what made "Doctor Who" unique. For non-"Who" fans, it was a weird, British thing that didn't meet their expectations of what science fiction was supposed to be. But one important lesson was learned - if "Doctor Who" was ever to return, it would have to be a British series with a British flavor. And if the Americans didn't like it, too bad.

"Doctor Who" celebrated its 40th anniversary in November 2003 amidst growing rumors that the series would be returning. The official announcement came not long after. The new "Doctor Who" would be produced by BBC Wales under the auspices of Russell T. Davies (The "Queer as Folk" guy), and would debut in its home country in March 2005. Viewers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other places bought and scheduled the show. But there was no United States outlet, and, at least to date, there are no plans to broadcast the new "Doctor Who" in the U.S.

It almost happened, but, as things are wont to do, the deal fell apart at the last minute. The Sci-Fi Channel was on board until they read the small print in the contract. Not only would they be buying the rights to the new 13 episodes, they would be buying the rights to all of the previous 26 seasons. But Sci-Fi didn't want that - they only wanted the new stuff, and didn't want to pay for something they didn't intend to use. The BBC would not relent, so there was no deal. The best chance U.S. audiences have to see "Doctor Who" on television probably rests with BBC America - but they cannot currently afford the program. (Yes, BBC America has to pay the BBC for programming, although I presume it's at a discount rate.)

Season One of the new "Doctor Who" was not viewed as a re-boot, but a modernized continuation of the series. Davies wanted to maintain the series' general continuity, although he was unconcerned about specifics. For reasons I will never quite understand, this irked some fans. Special effects, always the Doctor's beloved Achilles heel, were intended to be upgraded. The role of the companion was to change as well. In the original series, she had three functions: look attractive, scream as well as Fay Wray, and ask the Doctor for explanations. Now, she was intended to be on an equal footing with the Time Lord, a kind-of Buffy in Space. (In terms of things coming full circle, Buffy's creator, Joss Whedon, is an admitted "Doctor Who" fan, and occasionally borrowed elements from the original "Doctor Who" for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Now, Davies was returning the favor.)

Respected actor Christopher Eccleston was hired to play the Ninth Doctor and pop starlet-turned-actress Billie Piper signed to play the companion, Rose. The first season featured the return of the TARDIS (in its familiar blue Police Call Box shape), the sonic screwdriver, the Daleks (after a lengthy series of negotiations with the estate of their late creator, Terry Nation), and the familiar theme song (only slightly upgraded). After the airing of several episodes, "Doctor Who" was considered a hit, and the BBC renewed it for two more seasons. Then came the news that Eccleston was departing, to be replaced by David Tennant. Billie Piper would stay, although presumably for more money.

Eccleston's one-and-done term is understandable. Davies wanted an internationally known, respected actor to re-launch the series, but it's not reasonable to assume that Eccleston would want to be lumbered with a nine-month-a-year TV job for more than a short period. Rumor has it that Davies wanted Tennant for the role from the beginning, but was savvy enough to recognize that it would be better to start with Eccleston for one year, then make the transition. If that's how it happened, I agree with the approach - as long as Tennant has been locked up for more than one year. It will be disconcerting to see a new Doctor every year.

Now, what did I think of the episodes? That's for Saturday…