Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Ninth Doctor


As year by year passed after the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie, the likelihood of new Doctor Who (at least in my mind) seemed to diminish—even more rapidly than it had diminished between the end of the original series and the TV Movie. It seemed to me that they had tried a comeback and it had failed. Thus, the coffin was sealed. As I mentioned last week, these next several years became the years that I was least connected to Doctor Who. It wasn’t gone from my life; there were just other, newer things to focus on for the time being.

In the summer of 2002, I left Montreal and returned to London for a couple of months while I searched for new work in Toronto. I then moved to Toronto that September and began a new chapter of my own life, little realizing that efforts were under way for a new chapter of Doctor Who as well. My first year in Toronto was very much a time of establishing myself and making sure I could pay the bills month to month (Toronto is an expensive city to live in; my first apartment here cost more than my one in Montreal and was only about a quarter the size). At some point along the way (either that year or the following year), I acquired my first-ever DVD player and the first-ever DVDs I bought were the complete “Key to Time” season of Doctor Who.

Apart from the very slow change-over of VHS tapes to DVD, however, there was very little Doctor Who going on in my life. I wasn’t paying much, if any, attention to the wider world of Doctor Who fandom and rarely even bothering to check up on the latest news. What news there was, was generally of a kind that either didn’t effect me or just frustrated me: new book releases that never showed up in any local stores, or audio adventures that I couldn’t afford to buy. There seemed little point to following the world of Doctor Who news. Nonetheless, I still checked up on news from time to time and looked at the occasional Doctor Who messageboard. After all, there might occasionally be something to interest me.

Then, in September 2003, something extraordinary happened, and I just happened to be paying attention to Doctor Who news that day. The BBC announced that Doctor Who would be returning to television. There wasn’t a lot of information available at the time as it was still early days, but it didn’t matter. I was ecstatic! It was wholly unexpected, yet the most wonderful news I could have read. At the moment I first read about the announcement, I was chatting with a friend on MSN Messenger (yeah, that was popular at the time). I immediately told him about it, and he refused to believe it would happen. He reminded me about how often television shows and movies are planned, but never actually end up happening. I reminded him that he was looking at things from a North American perspective and that British TV worked differently. Of course, I was probably talking nonsense. Deep down, I was just as sceptical as he was, but I was too giddy to care. As much as Doctor Who had stopped being a constant, conscious factor in my life, it still held a huge place in my heart. I was willing to grab at any chance. And besides, this wasn’t just a rumour of a return. This was an official announcement. Even if the chances of an actual return were still small, this had taken the chances from zero to non-zero. That was significant. And of course, as we all know now, Doctor Who did indeed return.

One of the few details in the original announcement was that Russell T Davies would be in charge of the new show. I had never heard of him before, but I had heard of Queer as Folk, one of the shows he was listed as having been responsible for. I had never seen Queer as Folk either, but I knew it was highly acclaimed. Over the following days and months, I began to learn a lot more about Russell T Davies, eager to know exactly who would be running my beloved show. Because, excited as I was about Doctor Who coming back, I was also concerned that it would be terrible. I had had similar fears before the Paul McGann TV Movie, but they were slightly more pronounced this time around. It wasn’t because I was reacting in any way negatively to news that was being released, unlike some fans, but instead just a deep-seated fear.

When Christopher Eccleston was announced as playing the new Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion, my reaction was quite neutral. To be honest, I had never heard of either of them, so I had no preconceived notions of what they might be like. However, I did see the fan reactions on-line, and my reaction to some of those reactions was one of disgust.

With the news of Doctor Who’s imminent return, I had started following the on-line fan scene more closely again. The days of rec.arts.doctorwho were gone, replaced now by messageboards like Outpost Gallifrey (now also gone), but the general bickering was the same as I remembered it. And naturally, there were some very vocal fans decrying everything about the new series. Pop stars had no place on shows like Doctor Who. Christopher Eccleston’s costume was not Doctor-y enough. His accent was not Doctor-y enough. And on and on. Throughout it all, I sat back (never commenting myself), just shaking my head. I actually saw potential in Eccleston’s costume from day one. His accent? What difference did it make? And Billie Piper was hardly the first entertainer to switch from one kind of entertainment to another. Sure, many of them did it badly, but some were great in their new field. Why not just wait and see?

It was still a fairly lengthy wait. It would be another full year and a half after the announcement before the new series actually started. But it was an exciting time, despite my frustration with some elements of fandom. One thing that didn’t really sink in at the time, but I realize now upon looking back, is that this was the first time I was ever actually on top of news about the series. Growing up, I had always learned about things after the fact—often long after the fact. I had first learnt of Peter Davison near the end of his time. I didn’t learn about the 1985 hiatus until after it was over. Even when I was buying Doctor Who Magazine (something I stopped doing when I moved to Montreal), my news was usually out-of-date as it took one to two months after publication for each issue to actually arrive on North American shelves. Suddenly, I was aware of things pretty much as they happened, and oddly, I never really noticed the change. I suppose I was just too preoccupied with what was actually happening.

As a Canadian viewer, one of the most exciting bits of news to come out about the new series was that it was going to be shown on CBC in Canada. I had pretty much expected it to go to Space (although Space had actually dropped the original series after only briefly showing it in the late 90’s). CBC had a much wider viewing range than Space, which meant the potential for a larger audience. But then we learnt that CBC wasn’t going to just broadcast Doctor Who; it was also a production partner. It was rather exciting to know that Doctor Who was going to be part Canadian now (well, in a way, it always had been since Sydney Newman, the show’s creator, was Canadian, but this was a much more overt Canadian connection).

CBC really went out of its way to promote the show in its first season, too. There were ads in newspapers and on subway trains, which was something I never would have dreamed I would ever see back in the time of the original series. Just before the première, Doctor Who made the cover of the Canadian edition of TV Guide. I stumbled across that by seeing it on the shelves of a convenience store that I had popped into for a snack. I never bought TV Guide, but I grabbed that issue immediately. Doctor Who never made the cover of anything in Canada—not that I had ever seen anyway—so to be on the cover of something as widely circulated as TV Guide was stunning. Just last year, Doctor Who made the cover of the American edition, and a big deal was made in the press about it. I saw a lot of articles in newspapers and on-line that declared it the first time in North America, and felt a little saddened that everyone had forgotten that Canadian edition (if they ever knew about it in the first place). Alas, we Canadians have come to accept that Canada never counts when the international media talks about North America. At any rate, I still have my copy of that TV Guide with Christopher Eccleston on the cover instead of Matt Smith, the only issue of TV Guide I have ever bought.

Of course, the excitement of the announcement of new Doctor Who and the build-up to its première could in no way outdo the excitement of the première itself. On 26 March, 2005, Doctor Who finally returned to television screens. But I couldn’t watch it then. It wouldn’t start on CBC until a week and a half later. That week and a half was excruciating. I had to do my best to avoid spoilers. Indeed, for the entirety of Series I, I had to pretty much avoid looking at all those Doctor Who news sites and messageboards I had been religiously following for that past year and a half. Really, all things considered, a week and a half was not all that bad. For years on TVO, they were two years behind. A week and a half was nothing compared to that. Nevertheless, I had gotten used to the more rapid nature of modern life, and avoiding spoilers was difficult. There were more than a few I stumbled upon completely accidentally—mainly due to the fact that non-Doctor Who sites were unprecedentedly mentioning the show now.

On 5 April at 8:00 p.m., Doctor Who finally hit Canadian televisions with “Rose” and I was watching with huge anticipation and also some fear. Initial reviews had been good, but nonetheless I was still a little worried that I wouldn’t like it. But I loved it. I loved every moment of it. It was fun and it was engaging. It also made none of the mistakes of the ‘96 TV Movie. Of course, it was different than the old show. It was more energetic and faster-paced, but that was fine with me. It also had a greater focus on character than the old series usually had, but I felt that was something Doctor Who desperately needed. But despite the differences, this was still recognizably Doctor Who. It worked for me better than I had imagined it would.

And perhaps most surprising of all, it was popular. By that, I don’t just mean popular in the U.K. It was popular where I lived—something I had never experienced before. Sure, it hadn’t yet reached the heights of popularity it’s now enjoying, but suddenly, it was something that casual television viewers were mentioning. People who didn’t consider themselves fans were actually aware of it and commented on it from time to time. I didn’t have to feel any embarrassment to admit to watching it (not that that had ever stopped me). The following October, I actually saw a young girl (about 10 or so) dressed up as Rose for Hallowe’en! Miracles never ceased.

Alas, amidst the excitement of the show’s return came the almost immediate and disappointing news that Christopher Eccleston was leaving at the end of the first series. There had been too many short-lived Doctors in my opinion: Colin Baker and Paul McGann. Sylvester McCoy had had three seasons, but they had been short ones, so he was like a short-lived Doctor too. Now Eccleston was doing only one season. The thing is, I really liked his Doctor too. He managed to put a completely new spin on the Doctor whilst still maintaining that quintessential quality that makes the character the Doctor. A lot of the later actors playing the Doctor have often been influenced—at least in part—by one of the earlier Doctors (generally Patrick Troughton’s), but Eccleston didn’t do that. He created a new Doctor entirely, and it was a memorable one. His Doctor successfully led the show into a new era, and I think sometimes he’s too quickly forgotten despite that.

Disappointment at the news he was leaving didn’t stop me enjoying the rest of the first series, however. There was more to like about it than just Eccleston’s Doctor. The writing was excellent. Characters were real people who developed. In the second series, Rose would start to grate on me a bit, but in this first series, I really liked her character, and I liked that she grew as a person—something that had so rarely happened on the original series (Ace being about the only major example of it). When the first series came to an end, I was on the edge of my seat and eager for more, ready to experience the tenth Doctor.

Doctor Who was truly back!

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