Science fiction has the potential to be the most thought-provoking genre of all fiction. While fantasy deals with what is not, and many other genres deal with what is, science fiction sets itself in what could be. The best sci-fi writers use this tool to explore thought-provoking questions about the human condition, and about how the choices we make affect us and our futures. (The worst ones simply wallow in all the cool gadgets.)
I bring this up because I’ve just finished watching the first season of the rebooted Doctor Who, and praise all things: it’s one of the better kind.
A brief history lesson. In 2005, ten years after the last incarnation of Doctor Who and fifteen years after the last incarnation that lasted longer than a single movie, BBC brought back the old science fiction show and gave it a facelift. They had the help of Russell T. Davies, who singlehandedly wrote and produced a large chunk of the new season; Davies more or less defined the tone of the good Doctor for a new generation of viewers. One change he made was to move from a “serial” storytelling format, in which story arcs could last anywhere from two to eight episodes, to a more traditional single-parter or double-parter format. As a result, while 26 seasons preceded the reboot, new seasons are referred to as “series”; thus, season one of the reboot is called “series one”. (As with many reboot numbering systems, it’s more complicated than it should be.)
The story of Doctor Who goes like this. Rose (Billie Piper), moody teenager and professional normal person, is one day attacked by aliens masquerading as mannequins. A mysterious man calling himself the Doctor (here played by Christopher Eccleston) saves her; he has a time travelling police box, and he asks her to go on adventures with him. Accepting his offer, Rose leaves her normal life behind, and thus the frame narrative is set up for a show that veers wildly between genres. There is historical fiction, futuristic sci-fi, cautionary dystopia, time travel paradoxes, and gripping horror, but you can bet that somehow Doctor Who will bring aliens into the mix. It’s always aliens. Most amusing is how the show can engineer situations where two members of completely different species can have a conversation at a dinner table while both appear human. It’s a trick that allows Doctor Who to focus on the emotions and ideas, rather than the special effects.
Because let’s face it, if you’re going into Doctor Who for the effects, you will be disappointed. We’ve moved beyond rubber suits — most of the time — but the CGI looks pretty fake, too. Even something relatively simple, like a space station (in an episode with few other effects) can look pretty out of place. The technology improves over the course of the series, but it’s never good enough to rival movie standards.
Doctor Who cheerfully acknowledges its camp and sort of rolls with it. The first episode has an early sequence in which Rose and the Doctor run down a hallway, and the scene is shot from a lot of different angles to make the simple choreography look more exciting. It’s a cheap, cheesy trick, and the early episodes have a lot of moments like that, especially when it looks like the characters are seconds from death. That can be frustrating from a production angle, but on the flip side, some of the camp is really charming. One set of villains are a race of green lizard people that hide inside the bodies of extremely fat humans, and fart all the time due to their suits not quite fitting right. You’d never expect fart jokes in a scifi series to be comedy gold, but they are.
There’s a pervading sense of joy in the early episodes particularly, coupled hand-in-hand with a sense of newness. Eccleston’s Doctor starts the series like he’s a kid in a toy store, always excited to see new places and times with his companion(s). As the series continues, there’s a shift. The Doctor loses some of his naivete in the face of ethical conundrums and true horrors, both of which are hallmarks of solid science fiction writing. We come to learn about the Doctor’s history, which involves the apparent death of two species, including his own, and thus discover a lot of emotional baggage that he’s carrying. Sometimes the Doctor is truly scary, like when he faces down the last of a hateful, exterminating race called the Daleks, and becomes just as hateful towards it.
And then there’s Rose — happy to escape her old life for months at a time, even if it means leaving behind the people who love her, to the degree where they’ll call her out on it eventually. Really, the adventure and camp from the series’ beginning is eventually brought down to earth, and the emotional stakes get a lot higher. This is at the same time as a new character, Jack Harkness, is introduced, and he steals every scene he’s in, so the show is never entirely somber, but by the time you’re about halfway through the series, there’s a good chance you’ll really care about the characters and their fates. This, along with the complex sci-fi issues dealt with, is where Doctor Who will draw you in; it’s not just fun and games (although that is some of it).
The episodes range in quality, but surprisingly, the series has a pretty well-defined three-act structure. This may be because Davies wrote eight of the thirteen episodes, but even the episodes he didn’t write come together pretty nicely. The first five episodes are about Rose’s departure from her home; she feels significant ties to it until the end of the first two-parter. The next three episodes break down the optimism of the Doctor as the humans he travels with fail him again and again. The last few of the season continue to address Rose’s complete departure from reality, and bring the Doctor’s past back to haunt him. A lot of continuity is brought back in the last few episodes, as the lizard-people make a reappearance, along with two Big Bads from previous stories.
There are two episodes that don’t really fit into the overall character arcs, a two-parter set in World War II, and they are written by none other than Steven Moffat. They’re also the best episodes of the season, really digging into the horror genre and providing the show’s best ending. (Yes, even better than the season finale.) Watch Steven Moffat, he’s going places. Hell, he may even be running the whole damn show a few seasons from now.
Does the show have flaws? Of course. Take Rose’s supporting cast, consisting of her boyfriend and her mother. I like their role early on; they can’t come with Rose (or don’t want to), but they provide her with a sense of normalcy when she does come home, or they remind her what happens when she leaves home for an extended period of time without telling anyone. But later, after these characters have more or less accepted that Rose will only be on Earth infrequently, I dislike their roles. They whine, and selfishly want Rose back, and often fail to support her when she needs them. Rose has a selfish streak, too, but once each set of characters has accepted the new status quo, I’d expect them to move on.
And some episodes are weaker than others. The nadir, unfortunately, is the time paradox episode, which I was greatly looking forward to. It’s nice for the Doctor’s characterization, because Rose screws up massively upon having access to time travel. She successfully saves her father from death, unleashing aliens who start erasing things on sight (I told you Doctor Who could bring aliens into anything); and even when Rose sees the devastation she’s caused, she doesn’t want to give him up, and the Doctor sees her as a dangerous asset. But the tone of the episode is often heavy-handed; the background music leans heavily on the strings, and everything is overly romanticized in a show that’s usually very snappy and often funny. It sticks out like a sore thumb.
But ultimately, these flaws are not enough to keep Doctor Who from greatness. Of all the cult shows (Firefly, Arrested Development, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — actually, half of them seem to be written by Joss Whedon), Doctor Who may have the biggest fanbase. There are so many different things to like about it (great characters, variety of genres, humor and drama and romance) that chances are you’ll find something in this show that appeals to you. The writing is thoughtful and character-driven and it all ties together quite neatly by the end of the season, and most importantly, the adventures are always fun. Doctor Who started as a children’s show, but it’s evolved into something that’s compelling for viewers of all ages.