With the Twelfth Doctor’s adventures premièring in less than three weeks, I’d initially had the brilliant idea of trying to rewatch the revived Doctor Who from start to finish, since it’d been years since I saw a lot of the older episodes. This quickly proved to be a fool’s errand, what with the whole “moving across the country” bit, among other things. However, at the very least, it may prove to be a useful exercise to re-evaluate the Russell T. Davies era in light of more recent criticisms of the Steven Moffat era. Plus, it’s as good an excuse as any to simulwatch Who with Torchwood starting in series three, since I’ve never actually seen Torchwood and always figured I should fix that.
Doctor Who returned to regular television on March 26, 2005. In Canada, it aired on CBC – which co-produced the first series – on Saturday nights in lieu of Hockey Night in Canada, due to the NHL lockout. It caught my attention beforehand, but I forgot to watch until “Aliens of London.” I think missed “World War Three,” picked up with “Dalek,” and watched all the way through. I then caught the rest of the episodes on the re-air. Then when the DVD came out, I watched it probably a couple dozen times, including special features, including Confidential. I didn’t so much consume it as make it an element of the fabric of my being. Hell, when I made my first World of WarCraft character, I tried to call him “Blaidd Drwg”: Bad Wolf in Welsh. When WoW objected, I switched to “Meddyg Pwy”, Doctor Who in Welsh. Yes, I was rather stuck on that show and its first series in particular, especially given the time in my life when it aired.
So this rewatch gave me the perfect opportunity to dust off these now decade-old episodes and see just how well they held up, with the benefit of some distance and perspective. After rewatching the first five episodes (mostly; I only half-paid attention to “Rose”), I have a few scattered thoughts.
- Oh, Hello There, Mid-2000s. The very opening shot of “Rose” sees the camera careen down onto the Earth, Great Britain, London, then into a council flat, where an alarm clock goes off…and we can barely see Billie Piper for all the bloody light bloom. Was that a thing in 2005? Was it just the UK or was it here, too? I wanted to wipe the Vaseline off my screen in some scenes. Between various alien gidgets and ships and whatnot, there’s more light bloom and blue neon than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at. Oh, and the first ever SuperPhone was a Nokia, because 3/4 of everyone had those back then.
- “Special” Effects. Okay, look. I know they nuked the budget on “The End of the World.” There’s some cool stuff there, I suppose. But the close-up of the roiling Sun at the end still looked like a nastily blown-up GIF, the station looks straight out of a video game, and the chroma-key fans stood out rather blatantly. On top of that, the budgetary apocalypse meant the rest of the episodes felt several years behind the times. Two words: Bin Battle. That might be the most absurd scene in the entire revival show. And I’m including everything from “Love and Monsters” in there. Plastic Mickey, the Nestene Consciousness, CGI Slitheen (and their immobile rubber-suit counterparts), cheap ghosts using the outline tool in Photoshop, exploding aliens made out of old spaghetti and apple jelly…blimey. The production values got better in later seasons once they knew what they had on their hands, but frankly it’s hard to even find the special effects failures terribly charming. They’re in the uncanny cheesy valley. I suppose that’s truer to the old show than the millions of pounds of proper-looking effects now, though.
- National Park Levels of Camp. Beyond the hilarious effects – okay, again, Plastic Mickey, what the hell – in an episode about aliens taking over Number Ten and trying to turn the Earth into cheap rocket fuel, do we really need the tinkly wacky music for the Doctor’s escape into the lift? Why is Mickey such a butt monkey for the first two episodes he’s in before finally becoming competent in his third episode? What’s with the fan “puzzle” in “The End of the World”? GalaxyQuest made that joke six years earlier, Davies, you weren’t supposed to do it in earnest. I forgot that there was a pseudo-wacky chase through Downing Street before the straight-up wacky chase in “Love and Monsters.” What’s with the bloody munchkins on Platform One? How did I miss all of this nine years ago? Oh, and the farting aliens. Can’t forget the farting aliens.
- “Shut up.” The Doctor apparently doesn’t want to hear shit from anyone. Eleven could be short with people sometimes but not nearly to the extent that Nine was. Not an episode has gone by yet when he hasn’t told Rose, Mickey, Jackie, Charles Dickens, or the Alien of the Week to shut up. Sometimes charmingly, but most of the time just kind of being a dick. Of course, he also spent most of the first episode trying to get rid of Rose and most of the second treating her like a lost puppy, too, until he finally tells her what’s been eating him. But then by episode three, he finally starts to seem affectionate, and by episode five, he’s even momentarily uncertain about a course of action that could potentially kill her, even if it saves the world. It’s nice character development, even if it’s also the first baby steps down the road towards the train wreck that was Ten-Rose in series two. God, I hate series two just even thinking about it. I liked Rose in series one. I really did. Can I please keep finding her fundamentally likeable for a while longer? Um, where was I? Right. Nine was kind of a jerk at first, even if it’s ultimately justified and fleshed out down the road.
- Next Ti–AAAH TURN IT OFF NOW! Pre-credits trailers are maybe not the wisest thing, yeah? Especially when they so blatantly spoil the next episode’s various revelations. Then again, I guess they were still in the “OH GOD PLEASE WATCH THIS THING” phase. Still, maybe calling the next episode “Dalek,” and featuring the first Dalek in 17 years prominently in the pre-credits trailer, might spoil some of the surprise.
- Family. In thinking about it more, I think this is mostly a thing with “Aliens of London”/”World War III”, but I really liked the examination of what happens when a companion swans off, leaving their entire lives behind. “School Reunion” nibbled at the edges of that a little, but the first two-parter really looked at it head-on. Because the Doctor missed his landing by a year, Rose became a missing person (and likely a national phenomenon for a while – news editors love a missing pretty white girl), Jackie became a wreck, and Mickey became a de facto murderer, because of course the (coloured) boyfriend did it. And of course, when the Doctor says he hired Rose as his “companion,” the copper immediately thinks “escort,” and with Rose’s tearful silence on the issue, Jackie naturally assumes the worst. It’s a side of the whole adventure that the old show – and, for the most part, the new show – didn’t really explore very much. It’s usually so much about the adventures and the monsters you sort of forget that there’s people in that there TARDIS. Certainly, that’s one of the strongest criticisms of Moffat’s tenure (alongside his inability to develop said characters through other means, as well). But that first two-parter actually had some really nice moments for what was otherwise a one-dimensional character, in between all the nagging and superficiality. Jackie pleading up and down for Rose to stay, because it’s not safe, and resigning herself to the chance she might never see her little girl again (“Ten seconds.”) was actually really good. I didn’t remember there being a good Jackie Tyler episode but apparently that was it. And that’s one of the reasons I still do love the first series, for all its flaws: it at least tried to do something a bit different, be a bit more grounded with the companion. Even if, in the end, it was mostly this one episode that did it, I don’t think any other series did nearly as good of a job of making the companions feel like they were tied to the “real” world. Donna’s series was probably second, but mostly because Bernard Cribbins/Wilfred Mott is fantastic.
- Other Moments of Charm. The Doctor seemingly making Rose change clothes more as a joke than anything, since the companions almost never wore period garb again. Rose’s first steps out into history. “I’m talking to a twig.” “I love a happy medium.” “Take me to your leader.” The Cardiff jokes. Rose and Past Gwen bonding across 136 years over boys and playing hooky. Okay, most of these seem to be from “The Unquiet Dead.” There may be something to that; I was surprised how well that episode held up, relative to the others; it might be the only one that got better, or at least didn’t get worse, in my estimation relative to nine years ago.
It’s clear with hindsight that there were some growing pains for our boy the Doctor as he made his first steps back into the public eye. Series one was much sillier and much more low-budget than I remembered, at least early on. But at the same time, I also remember why I really enjoyed that series, and why I fell in love with the concept of Doctor Who. Heck, I was even reminded of why I thought Rose was endearing at first, rather than obnoxious and scene-killing as I came to regard her later. While I may not quite be able to “go home again” in the sense I’d hoped, re-experiencing those old memories with fresh eyes has still proven to be rewarding.
And now, on to the next adventure.