Bit of a shout out to Mr W here, who has an unusually wide-ranging brief as Special Advisor on Matters Televisual and also as Friend With Whom to Discuss Those Lengthy Literary Series That No One Else Reads (I have lured him into reading The Forsyte Chronicles, mwah ha ha ha ha). I got to know Mr W when were both training for the 2005 Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk. When you spend week after week walking for between two and five hours with someone, friendships are forged pretty swiftly. The first week takes care of the ‘Lovely weather/How’s work?/Where are you from?’ conversations and soon you are deep into past relationships, parentally induced childhood traumas, your hopes, dreams, ambitions and other such soul-baring stuff.
And also into matters televisual: we discovered a shared fondness for Buffy; I was led on to watch and enjoy Veronica Mars; and finally, here I am, watching the new series of Dr Who. Now, despite the fact that I was just as nerdy a child as I am an adult, I did not grow up watching Dr Who. Nevertheless, because it is part of the national consciousness, there were factors that I was aware of: time travel, blue telephone box, had dog called K-9 of which a miniature version was briefly popular as a Christmas toy, Daleks, rickety sets, dodgy special effects. That’s about it. I believe an early experience with the Daleks scared the daylights out of me and after that, although I would occasionally see bits of episodes while flicking channels (all the way from 1 to 3 and back again!), I was never a confirmed viewer. Doctors came and went, all on the periphery, and then apparently the series died. For a while the (surely ‘the’, not ‘a’) Tardis was on the lawn in front of Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum. And then one day it wasn’t, and I didn’t think anything about it – perhaps it was recalled for active duty?
As a direct result of Mr W’s recommendations, which by now are tried and trusted, and the Netflix delivery system (slightly less reliable), I settled down with disk 1. To be honest, I was still a little apprehensive. Like all good nerds I had done some background research and had read positive reviews of Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper. But, I mean, Billie Piper! Mostly famous for being a teenage one-hit wonder and then marrying and, thankfully, divorcing horrible Chris Evans. As for Chris Eccleston, he’d been in that show, you know, the one with that other guy who was in that series with that woman from the other series about the couple. You know.
Well, I can definitely say that I am hooked. I totally get it. I expected the series to deliver some fun and laughs, but what I didn’t expect was the powerful emotional wallop that would accompany many of the episodes. I’m still trying to figure out how the writers do that. In slightly less than 45 minutes, despite sets that are sometimes clearly a BBC studio, and even while part of my brain is thinking ‘Well, that monster is completely unrealistic’, I’m still tense, or scared or on the verge of tears and it’s all down to the writing and acting. In a very astute move, the BBC has chosen not to bother spending millions of pounds on sets and Special FX. This means that everyone wears jeans and a t-shirt, regardless of whether it’s 2005 or 3692; the Doctor ends up constructing a delta wave thingumawhatsit out of whatever Blue Peter had left over; and none of it matters in the slightest.
I’m finding the series very endearing, and I think one reason is its underlying humanity. The Doctor is the man with the knowledge and the answers, but he’s rarely the hero of an individual episode; rather, his presence is the catalyst for a crisis that is then resolved by ordinary people drawing on reserves they didn’t know they had. There’s a strong emphasis on the effectiveness of individual action to change a situation, whether by questioning the status quo, by taking up arms in a doomed struggle, or, on one occasion, by calmly stepping outside to certain death. And since each episode centres on the crisis moment, the ordinary characters are seen wavering, hesitating, uncertain before they make their decision. They’ve weighed up what they have to lose and with shaking hand they line up to face humankind’s worst enemy, armed only with an unrealistic weapon that, deep down, they know isn’t going to work. There’s no glory, but a certain grim dignity and readiness, so that although Dr Who is disguised as a spot of light entertainment, it can in fact cross the boundary into genuine tragedy.
Now that’s good television.