They don’t make children’s shows like they used to. No matter that this newest take on Doctor Who is ostensibly designed for young people. It comes to the States from the UK and from the past, and though updated by a writing team headed by Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk), it retains the old Who‘s oh-so-British irreverence, so it actually lives up to the appellation “kid’s show for adults.”
The premise is the same as ever: a mysterious time-skipping alien known only as the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) travels between history’s hot spots via a ‘50s-style police telephone-box-cum-time machine called TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension[s] in Space), accompanied by a group of feckless Earthly companions. Hilarity ensues. The chief difference, aside from the bigger budget (note to purists: the special effects are still ridiculous) and switch to shiny digital video, is more of a desire to connect with the culture of the present.
The first episode, “Rose,” offered a critique of consumerism in the form of an alien invasion by plastic. Attracted by the mess of pollutants in Earth’s atmosphere, a giant blob-like “Nestene Consciousness” animated London’s plastics in an attempt to get rid of all that annoying bio-matter. Naturally, the mall was the most dangerous place to be. The scene featuring hordes of eerily impassive walking mannequins wiping out London’s buying class was definitely one of the best end-of-the-world scenarios around, combining both B-movie silliness and a genuine sense of the uncanny.
The relationship between Rose (Billie Piper), the Doctor’s assistant, and her mother (Camille Coduri) exemplifies the series’ new direction. With Rose suffering from youthful anomie and her mum floating about in a post-boomer haze, they took turns parenting each other. Rose’s relationship with the Doctor is fully platonic, give or take a handholding or two. His equally non-sexual relationships with past associates could always be read as concessions to a prepubescent, socially awkward male audience: he was a mysterious recluse who wowed his beautiful female companions not with conventional sex appeal, but with superior knowledge, cleverness, and the promise of adventure.
At the end of Episode One, the Doctor coaxed Rose away from her weakling boyfriend (Noel Clarke) and into his time machine, the sci-fi nerd’s version of a red convertible. His resistance to romance then seems an admixture of pride and angst. Though Eccleston’s schizophrenic performance jumps back and forth from madcap glee to melancholy, he remains consistently nervous around the ladies.
Rose and the Doctor’s second adventure, “The End of the World,” was set up as the Worst Date Ever. Five billion years into the future, the universe’s “filthy rich” are shuttled around in a corporate-owned space station for the purpose of viewing “artistic events,” such as the demise of Earth. The episode took easy aim at the wealthy, such as the horrific Lady Cassandra O’Brien (Zoe Wanamaker). The “last pure human,” she’s had so many cosmetic surgeries that she’s reduced to an uppity, racist sheet of translucent skin. She misrepresented both her species’ physical appearance and culture (sending off Earth with a “traditional ballad” by Britney Spears), as, the episode implied, all people of wealth do.
If there was a whiff of undeath to such aristocrats, “The Unquiet Dead” gave us literal walking corpses, made so against their will. The third episode centered on bodies and their social consequences, adopting Victorian Gothic tropes. This followed on the first episode’s focus on plastic and the second’s on bodies as fashion. The third took us back to 1869 to show us that bodies are nothing but vessels, though no less valuable because of it. When Rose objected to the Doctor’s decision to allow a group of alien spirits to occupy human corpses, he replied, “Why not? It’s like recycling!” Both the empiricist skepticism of celebrity guest Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) and the pious supernaturalism of a servant girl (Eve Myles) were undercut by the revelation that the spirits were not angels or ghosts, but aliens, whose goals were completely, disturbingly understandable.
More than bodies, more than money or commodities, the submits that time is of most value. At the end of Episode Two, Rose bemoaned the fate of her planet: “We were too busy saving ourselves, no one saw it go.” Rediscovering the value of her own life is ultimately what she owes to the Doctor. The few hints we get about his terrible past (he’s the last of his species) undercut his pretense that he doesn’t have one. As someone with no personal narrative, his can base his self-worth solely on helping others find and keep theirs. Not to “save lives” (how can duration be important to a time traveler?), but to rejuvenate them by, paradoxically, revealing just how huge the sandbox really is. What in some hands would only justify nihilism is in his a meaningful measure of value.
“Everything has its time and everything dies,” said the Doctor at the end of one episode. Does the same logic apply to a Time Lord? The sprightliness and intelligence of this newest incarnation suggests that the long-running show will hang on at least a little while longer.