When Doctor Who first aired on 23 November 1963, few would have imagined that this series would become a huge cultural phenomenon that quickly enthralled its native Great Britain, as well as the rest of the world. Judging by its strong fan base, the international popular impact of Doctor Who may well be equivalent to that of Star Trek. Furthermore, because Doctor Who is clever enough to appeal to all ages, this show swiftly embraced the honor of being the longest running science fiction TV series in history. However, after 26 years, two motion pictures, and seven regenerations of the beloved Time Lord, Doctor Who was unceremoniously cancelled on 6 December 1989.
Fortunately, after an almost unbearable 15-year hiatus, and following a lackluster movie that completely failed to engage audiences, Doctor Who finally made its glorious return in 2005. Revamped for the new millennium, the ninth regeneration of the Doctor was played with lots of brio and energy by Christopher Eccleston. As history did show, his performance granted the Doctor the right mental attitude and physical attributes to captivate the imagination of modern viewers.
Juvenile, cool, energetic, and adventurous, Eccleston’s Doctor stands in stark contrast to his predecessors. Indeed, while William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, and all the others were presented as respected paternal figures, Eccleston’s Doctor felt more like an unrestrained older brother. Such a different approach to the character is also felt in the fact that the series count was reset to number one with Eccleston’s entrance.
Following the cataclysmic events that occurred during the conclusion of the first series, Eccleston’s Doctor had to undergo a new regeneration. The resulting tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, is still young looking and adventurous, but his characterization somehow feels more restrained and mature. In a sense, this new Doctor feels a bit closer to the aged and eccentric intellectual misfit that was the staple of the first Doctors. But nevertheless, the second and third series of the new Doctor Who still inherits most of the dynamism and youthfulness that characterized the Eccleston year.
The breakneck pace of the modern Doctor Who series is made evident from its main title sequence. Here the TARDIS moves at high speed into a space-time vortex, violently tumbling and rotating from one place to another. In addition, even though this sequence uses the same unforgettable musical theme that was originally composed by Ron Grainer and electronically performed by Delia Derbyshire, the new arrangement by Murray Gold features bold orchestrations with aggressive use of chords and percussions.
Equally important to note is that the episodic nature of the original series has been discarded for a more conventional structure. That is, instead of having four or five half-hour episodes telling a single story, half of the new Doctor Who adventures from the third series are made to fit into a single one hour episode. But then again, the producer’s decision to avoid an old fashioned serial structure that leaves the viewer in suspense for an entire week should not be surprising. After all, we live in a time characterized by technologies that provide users with instant gratification.
In this regard, it is worth noticing that the new Doctor Who acknowledges the rather sophisticated intertextuality possessed by modern science fiction fans. That is, the series appears to recognize that viewers have previously been exposed to a variety of fantastic text and narratives, and what their expectations may be. This is particularly evident when we look at the visual structure of the series. Indeed, the three episodes that deal with the return of the Master, for instance, bring to mind the apocalyptic dystopias in the vein of Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) and Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998). Similarly, “Gridlock” borrows most of its futuristic imagery from The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997).
To this end, some of the computer generated special effects of Doctor Who are truly eye popping, and in terms of technical quality they could rival many big budget film productions. But then again, truth be told, part of the charm of the original Doctor Who series was their extremely low budget nature, which probably motivated the entire crew of the BBC workshop to portray unearthly creatures and landscapes in truly ingenious ways.
But nevertheless, in spite of all the structural and aesthetical changes, the new Doctor continues to face old nemeses. As their title suggests, once more the Doctor encounters the indefatigable Daleks in the two-episode story arc “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks”. And the megalomaniac Master returns in the three-episode storyline “Utopia”, “The Sound of Drums”, and “The Last of the Time Lords”.
However, by far the best episode from the third series is the genuinely creepy “Blink”. Here the Doctor confronts what appears to be a bizarre trio of marble statues in the shape of weeping angels. However, later on they are revealed to be creatures from some abstract world that are “quantum locked”. That is, making reference to Heisenberg’s famous quantum mechanics principle, these monsters only exist and can only move when they are not being observed. And at any other time, they are petrified.
Thus, as people unconsciously blink, these creatures creep closer and closer to their prey. As the Doctor asserts, this uncanny behavior is used by the monsters as a rather sophisticated defense mechanism. In any event, even though the exobiology of these creatures can be proved to be evolutionary illogical and physically impossible, the quantum-lock biodefense remains an original and intriguing idea. Steve Moffat, the writer of this extraordinary episode, truly deserves a prize for showing a fertile imagination at a time when almost everybody else in the entertainment industry appears to be thinking of how to regurgitate previous plots and characters.
As expected, the Doctor is always able to use his superior intellect to defeat whatever menace he is confronted with. And quite frankly, the Doctor’s severe objection to use any type of weapon to destroy his enemies may well be what makes Doctor Who so different from most science fiction narratives. Just think about it, the characters in Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, and nearly any other film and TV show of the genre, ultimately rely on the possession of superior fire power technology. In these series, a brutal armed confrontation appears to be the only possible solution to a crisis.
But then again, this does not make the Doctor any less effective at changing the outcome of history. As a matter of fact, as explained in the series, the Doctor was segregated from the rest of the Time Lords because of his continued interference in human affairs. Interestingly, while Star Trek’s Captain Kirk was often conflicted about the reach and scope of the Prime Directive of “no intervention”, the Doctor always acts accordingly to his own sense of morality and justice, and he never justifies his actions to anybody.
Still, even though the Doctor’s justice is swift and harsh, it is also quite problematic. Consider for instance the story arc made by the two episodes, “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood”. As the first episode begins, the Doctor is fleeing across the galaxy from a group of nefarious space vampires that want to posses his body. Upon their arrival to Earth, these monsters cause havoc and a few innocent people are killed. However, as eventually revealed, the Doctor did not run away because of cowardice, but because he did not want to fight them, as he knew he would end up victorious. And indeed, as the story concludes, we see that the vampires’ punishment imposed by the Doctor is rather severe and everlasting.
It is important to note that, in spite of the Doctor’s absolute sense of intergalactic morality and justice, the political ideology of Doctor Who feels rather liberal. That is, in strong contrast to Captain Kirk, the Doctor upholds the concept of cultural relativism and he never goes preaching the value of cultural or social paradigms across the universe. Quite the contrary, Doctor Who shamelessly mocks conservative political ideologies and cultural imperialism.
A hilarious example of Doctor Who’s mischievous political attitude can be seen in “The Sound of Drums”. Here, Britain’s Prime Minister announces to the world that he has been contacted by beings from another world, and that he has been asked to serve as the ambassador to Earth. A few minutes later, the US President, barely containing his anger and frustration, complaints that he should be the leader of our planet. And later on, the PM, who seems to lack the nerve to hold his own opinion, concedes the ambassadorship to the President. A sort of punch line emerges later on, when the evil aliens blast the President as he is delivering the welcome message. Clearly, this episode appears to be poking fun at the controversial British stand on the misguided American military campaign against Iraq.
But then again, the third series of Doctor Who is the one that so far contains the most liberal ideology of the entire franchise. If you think about it, the original Doctor Who was rather conservative, as made evident by its old-fashioned racial politics. That is, in spite of the Doctor being an alien, he has always been portrayed by a white male with a prominent British accent.
In addition, because all the companions of the original Doctors were Caucasians, in strong contrast to the calculated ethnic diversity found aboard the Enterprise, we can safely conclude that the original Doctor Who was far less progressive than Star Trek. However, we have to keep in mind that the cultural landscape of 1960s Britain did not bear witness to the social unrest and civil rights movements that characterized that period of time in the US.
The racial politics of Doctor Who however, are dramatically changed during the third series. During these episodes, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) becomes the first non-white companion to the Doctor. But nevertheless, the series cannot avoid infusing a sense of “otherness” into her character. Consider, for instance, how the trailers of the show feature a split screen, featuring the right hand side of the Doctor, perfectly aligned to the left hand side of Martha Jones. This telling juxtaposition obviously highlights the racial and extraterrestrial “otherness” of both characters.
At the same time, the third series of Doctor Who adds significant sexual tension between the Doctor and Martha Jones. Clearly breaking the implied taboo that characterized the original series, forbidding any romantic relationship between the Doctor and any of his companions, Martha Jones has a blatant crush on the Time Lord. However, her feelings are not reciprocated, as the Doctor is constantly longing for Rose (Billie Piper), his previous companion.
Such complexities now can be fully appreciated thanks to the recent release of the entire third series of Doctor Who on a lavish DVD set courtesy of BBC Video. This set not only includes the 13 episodes of the series, but also the 2006 Christmas special. A couple of interesting extra features are included. Particularly interesting, “Music and Monsters”, which shows excerpts from a symphonic concert, hosted by David Tennant, that plays an eclectic selection of the music featured in the show.
By any means, Doctor Who is one of the most important science fiction narratives, and most fans of the genre are likely to already be familiar with the perilous adventures of such an enigmatic character. From a cultural perspective, even though Doctor Who has never been as ideologically sophisticated as the Star Trek franchise, the beloved British show still manages to present intriguing political subtexts. And quite frankly, as the new millennium accelerates, and the specter of war continues to haunt the entire world, the liberal attitude of the Doctor seems more palatable than the militarism of Captain Kirk.