Monday, 22 October 2012

Airhead From Space

Doctor Who
Series One, Episode One

After a nearly sixteen-year absence from the telly, Doctor Who’s glorious return is… well, “glorious” isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

Still, at least you don't see Paul McGann get murdered.
It’s got a lot to do, setting up the Doctor, the TARDIS, space monsters, and the all-important audience proxy, Rose.  And all that’s got to be done in style, to convince sci-fi-curious newcomers that Doctor Who isn’t the daft, dusty old embarrassment their parents think they remember.  It’s got to be fast, funny and exciting.  It is often all of those things.  There’s even a swanky old/new themetune and a host of nostalgic references to keep the fans happy.  It’s a busy, busy episode, more a mission statement than a story.

The writing is sharp, confident and inyerface witty, which seems to be more important than the plotting.  The Doctor and Rose learn about each other as expediently as possible; everything is expedient, starting with a camera-dive from outer space to Rose’s alarm clock that could kill you if it was in 3D.  But then there’s a flowery speech about the turn of the Earth, which allows Christopher Eccleston to take things very seriously and metaphorically for a moment, to remind you there’s more going on here than just silly monsters and snappy repartee.  Russell T Davies has a talent for putting emotional notes in all of a sudden, and this scene, stretching the Doctor from swagger to ultra-serious speechifying, epitomises the new take on the character: emotionally, he turns on a sixpence.  The pace isn’t anything like old Doctor Who, but then the times are changin’.

As a reinvention – sitting, I add gratefully, in the same chronological universe as the old show – it’s bold.  I remember watching the first five minutes on an acquaintance’s laptop (back when it leaked – big news in 2005), and feeling dizzy.  Part of that was due to the state of my acquaintance’s bedroom, but more importantly, the pace of this thing is frantic.  We meet Rose, her boyfriend, her mum, the Doctor and the Monster Of The Week (killer shop dummies controlled by the alien Nestenes) in the time it takes most TV shows do a slow pan of the crime scene.  As the pilot to a series, things certainly start as they mean to go on.

Those were the days!
That goes for the humour as well, mixing the camply ludicrous with grim horror and not breaking step.  The burping wheelie bin is a bit broad, but maybe that’s the price we pay for killer shop dummies.  This brand new Who has to escape all those memories of wobbly sets and cheesy monsters, so it can’t do something ludicrous without acknowledging the ludicrousness.  It ensures that we laugh with the guys-in-rubber-suits and the silly science and not at them, so… burp the thing must.  There are worse bodily functions.  I'm happy just to get the killer wheelie bin: a neat idea that's simultaneously silly, scary in an everyday sort of way, and harks right back to the killer armchairs and murderous toys seen during the Nestenes' last appearance.  (1971!)

However this, plus Rose’s boyfriend Mickey being transformed into a stuttering, rampaging robot, goes rather awkwardly with Wilson the janitor (killed off screen) and Clive, the Doctor-obsessive gunned down in front of his family.  Davies obviously feels that silliness makes the horror more horrific.  He’s partly right.  Trouble is, it also makes the horror feel a bit random.  That turning-on-a-sixpence stuff makes for a varied and exciting style, but it also jars, putting you at arm's length from any emotions it tries to sell you on elsewhere.

Probably the most important thing in this is the new Doctor.  Well, Christopher Eccleston makes a huge impression.  Long-term fans will recognise the heroism and the irreverence, but this Doctor is gruffer than the rest, and rather callous.  Spying a possible companion in Rose, and obviously needing one, he’s only too happy to sideline her idiot boyfriend and vampish mother, looking rather nasty in the process.  (Noel Clarke and Camilla Coduri are made to seem buffoonish and one-note in the ep’s quest to push the Doctor and Rose together, and to will us to want the same.  It’s not their fault, but yikes, they’re tiresome.)  Still, it’s all decent character development for a guy in his ninth incarnation, not to mention a man we’re keen to learn more about, and hopefully warm to in time.

The setup of the Doctor as a long-running character, via some adorably bad Photoshopping and a line drawing, works surprisingly well.  Personally I’ve always disliked Clive’s line of reasoning – that the Doctor is always there when trouble’s afoot, therefore he’s partly responsible for it.  By that logic, firemen are pyromaniacs and doctors are only in it for the maiming.  But he’s right about the trouble, and it’s a good way into the character.

"He's that one there.  That one.  THAT ONE."
Billie Piper’s a hit as well, asking some smart questions but also standing on her own two feet, and thus making for a pretty good companion.  She’s not faultless – she fails to spot her boyfriend turning a completely different colour when he’s an Auton, and happily ditches said boyfriend at the end when he fails to measure up to the mysterious newcomer.  But Davies isn’t interested in perfect people, and clearly wants these two to learn from each other.  Real work has gone into her needing the Doctor as well as vice versa.  (Though the Doctor blowing up her day-job is prone to a bit of psychoanalysis on just how desperate he is for company...)  That approach works really well for a pilot; so well, in fact, that Davies basically repeated it for Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

What else works?  Well, the Autons are as creepy as ever, particularly the little ones.  And the TARDIS looks absolutely astonishing: it’s always been bigger on the inside, and now it’s huge on the inside.  Murray Gold’s music gets a lot of ire, but I rather like it here, helping to put Russell and co.’s stamp on this new era.  It’s brash and confident, like the rest of it.

It’s not a complicated story, relying more on general ideas and handwaving than intricate details.  (See the Doctor’s explosive thingummy at the start, plus his “anti-plastic”, and the baddies somehow sneaking the TARDIS off to their underground lair.  In what, a plastic lorry?)  There, unfortunately, it is also starting as the show means to go on.  But that’s another rant.

As an episode in itself, apart from a few neatly written exchanges and some impressive-for-Doctor-Who visuals, it’s almost too flimsy and silly to dwell on.  As a first episode, it’s confident enough that the show’s still on seven years later.  It has a certain charm, an adorable eagerness to please, and an obvious hope that you won’t look too closely if it all moves fast enough.  It’ll do.

No comments:

Post a Comment