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A Cynic's Guide to Doctor Who

Posted: 30/07/11 01:00

2011-07-22-cap2.pngIt is about a year since my secret addiction started, a balmy Summer Saturday when, due to the sheer laziness of not wanting to reach down to the coffee table for the remote, I found myself doing something I hadn't consciously done for at least 20 years: watching an episode of Doctor Who.  I immediately sat up in my chair, intrigued by the production values and grand orchestral score of a staggering opening scene which involves a malfunctioning TARDIS crash-landing over central London. After the first scene, it had already begun to take hold.  Since then I have watched and re-watched the entire back catalogue of the rebooted series, wondering how I could have been so misguided as to have previously dismissed it as childish, nerdy, dated, sentimental, populist trash.  The funny thing is, that Doctor Who is all of those things and more, but trash, it certainly is not.

For months I kept my newfound passion a secret, I repressed it like one would a horrible fetish, but after a while, mostly at the end of drunken parties, I would have to confide in people, I could no longer keep it in, and after a while, it became obvious that I was not alone.  Now that I am an outed, proud Who fan, I have converted many others, some of which I couldn't have envisaged having a conversation about vortex manipulators and sonic screwdrivers in a million years!  There is none more pious than a convert, but you only need to look at the reception that the show's cast recently received at Comic Con, a world-wide, annual convention of all things nerdy held in San Diego, to see just how this long running British Sci-Fi show affects the brains of the less confident section of society.  But just what is it about BBC One's flagship drama that instills such unrelenting dedication in its viewers?

Now I can't answer for everyone, but I know why I personally have come to love DW.  In an age in which television is obsessed with "content" and "format", Doctor Who is, and always was, a show about ideas.  It has absolutely no parameters, which attracts an incredibly diverse cross section of writers, meaning it is completely different every week and you genuinely have no idea where the quixotic Doctor will be off to next.  This artistic freedom, coupled with the show's heritage also attracts first class writers and actors that wouldn't dream of appearing in a Saturday evening BBC One family entertainment show.  Over the last few years we've seen the likes of Michael Gambon, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, David Morrissey, Andrew Garfield, Carey Muligan, Kylie Manogue, Toby Jones, Jessica Hynes, Brian Cox, Simon Pegg, and Timothy Dalton to name a few, as well as guest writers like Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis.  OK, so there are problems too; The Chris Eccleston era was over too soon; some of the RTD episodes overly saccharine and on the nose; and you do get the occasional filler episodes (this series' opportunistic Pirate episode for example) but nobody's perfect, right?

I am certain that the majority of people who dismiss Doctor Who as I once did have never watched an episode from beginning to end, and the rest have not watched the right one for them.  The show's ever-evolving format means that there is something for everyone, so here is my genre-based cynic's guide to Doctor Who- pick your preferred category and give it a go.

Period Drama- Human Nature/ The Family of Blood. 

This is the natural starting point for any Who newbie, but for the Downton Abbey and Candleford fans especially, this two-parter from series 3 is the way to get your foot in the door.  The episode sees the Doctor forced into hiding, disguised as John Smith, a human schoolteacher in an all-boys boarding school in 1913.  With no memory of his Time Lord past, things get complicated when he begins to fall in love with the school matron, played superbly by Spaced's Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson).  It's Tennant's best performance and the dark prophetic references to the looming Great War give it a genuinely unsettling edge.  It's intelligent, poignant and heartbreaking and remains, not only one of the best Doctor Who episodes, but some of the best British television of the last 10 years.

Horror- Blink.

The one that frequently tops the fans favorite episodes lists, Steven Moffat (the showrunner since 2010) shows off his virtuosic writing skill in what has now become his trademark: tapping into our most primal fears.  His Weeping Angels, statues that can only move when nobody is watching them, are the scariest the show has ever produced, and if you're stuck in a room with one, there's only one thing to remember- don't blink!  The episode stands out for a number of reasons, mainly that the Doctor is hardly in it at all, but also because it was a new, darker side to Doctor Who that we hadn't seen since Russell T Davies revived the series in 2005.  The episode stars a pre-Hollywood Carey Mulligan, who has star quality written all over her and you'll struggle to find a better paced 45 minutes anywhere on the box.

Sci-Fi- The Doctor's Wife.

Neil Gaiman is quite simply, a genius.  Although not well known in the public consciousness, he has conquered writing in pretty much all its forms including books, comics, journalism, television and film, so it's no surprise that his episode The Doctor's Wife was easily the best of the current series.  It is science fiction in its purest form, a simple idea executed faultlessly.  The episode see's the Doctor's time machine, the TARDIS, take human form and what ensues is an ancient love story between man and machine that is played out balletically by Matt Smith and guest star Suranne Jones.  It also features a wonderful villainous turn from Michael Sheen as House.

Rom Com- The Lodger

James Cordon may be one of the most irritating people on television these days, but this episode proves that underneath the panel/chat shows, there is a terrific actor.  He finds the balance between comic oafishness and vulnerable sensitivity very well and is an utterly convincing everyman.  A classic love story of two people struggling to admit their feelings for each other drives a typical Who plot about aliens and perception filters, but never loses sight of it's central relationship. (a few Hollywood directors should take note.)  One of Smith's best.

Thriller- Midnight      

Doctor Who may contain huge sets and massive special effects set pieces, but this episode from series 4 shows that, with great writing, you don't need to have your character leave the room.  Midnight is Russell T Davis' most accomplished episode writing-wise and is immaculately paced in terms of tension and plot.  It is essentially 12 angry men in space;  a psychological thriller that takes place on a broken down bus in the middle of an inhospitable planet.  When a woman appears to be possessed, the Doctor must convince all the other passengers to spare her life.  Terrific stuff.

Comedy- The 11th Hour

The Moffat/Smith era needed to start with a bang as David Tennant's 10th Doctor was widely regarded by fans as the best ever.  Moffat had written some of the most acclaimed episodes of the RTD era, and now that he is at the helm, the show is going from strength to strength.  It all started for him, as it started for me, with the crash-landing TARDIS dropping into the garden of a 7-year-old girl.  Steven Moffat has a background in sit-coms with huge successes with shows like Coupling, and his comic writing shines through in this episode.  The early stages of Smith's regeneration are wonderfully done, and it's one of the best directed episodes of Doctor Who ever.

 

So there you have it, something for everyone, and if you take it upon yourself to give Doctor Who a try, I'd love to hear what you thought!

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