Welcoming Who

March 17, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

For those in the United States who (a) don't live near the Canadian border, (b) don't have a region-free DVD player, or (c) don't play around in the land of bittorrents, tonight may represent a first exposure to a unique television show. At 9:00 EST, the Sci-Fi Channel is rolling out the 2-hour premiere of Doctor Who (referred to as "New Who" by longtime fans). Doctor Who is British science fiction, which means it's not as dour or serious as that with an American flavor, and it may takE a little getting used to. It's also family friendly, which means there's not a lot of "objectionable" content.

For those who have been exposed to, and didn't like, "Old Who," there are reasons to give the new series a chance. First of all, while there was not a complete re-boot of the Doctor's mythology, this is a fresh start. The stories are told at a faster pace, with almost no fat. The special effects are greatly improved. And there's a different dynamic in the Doctor/companion relationship (more on that in a moment). The "feel" of the program is a lot different than that of its earlier counterpart.

As with all TV programs, the writing is not consistent. There are good episodes, mediocre epsiodes, and bad episodes. Sadly, the introductory story, "Rose" (which comprises the first half of tonight's two-hour slot), is probably the worst (or the second worst) of the season's 13 installments. It is hampered by the need to introduce the characters, establish the relationships, and convince us we're looking at something made in 2005, not 1985. The second hour, "The End of the World," is an improvement. Visually, it's impressive, and the pace isn't as frantic. And if these two episodes don't do anything for you, at least give next Friday's installment, "The Unquiet Dead," a chance. It's the best of the series' first six episodes. If you're not hooked by then, Doctor Who may not be for you.

Of all the elements in "New Who," the one I like the best is the relationship between the Doctor and Rose. Over the years, the Doctor has had his share of young, attractive, female companions, but the relationship has been platonic and/or paternal. On only one previous occasion has there been a hint of romantic interest, and that's because the two actors were involved off-screen. (Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor and Lalla Ward's Romana.) But with the (new) Doctor and Rose, it's a different story.

It doesn't require much imagination to see the relationship between the Doctor and Rose as a romance. In the end, there's no sex, but there are heartfelt admissions of affection, lots of hand-holding, a little dancing, and a mouth-to-mouth kiss. Even in the worst written epiodes, the interaction between these two never falters. For the 900-year old Doctor, it's a new experience (falling in love), and it shows in how he relates to Rose. He wants to please her in a way he has never before wanted to please a companion. In the past, he has grudgingly accepted the admission of a new assistant into his TARDIS. Here, he invites her in and asks her where/when she wants to go. Consider this interpretation for the end of "Rose:" this is a guy asking a girl out on a date. He's persistent, and when she initially turns him down, he dangles an enticement she can't refuse.

A great deal of the credit must go to the actors. It's no surprise that Christopher Eccleston does a good job as the Doctor. He is, after all, a talented and experienced thespian. The real eye-opener, however, is Billie Piper. A former pop star, she displays both ability and likeability, and makes Rose almost instantly one of the best companions the Doctor has been paired with. (On my list, she's at #2, behind the irrepressible Sarah Jane Smith.)

My recommendation is to give Doctor Who a chance. If not for the gothic TARDIS interior, the creepy walking mannequins, the man-eating trash cans, and the otherwordly aliens, then for the simple appreciation of how two very different people can meet and become more to each other than either could have anticipated.