Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Mothership A new Doctor for a new era by Reece Morris-Jones

‘A new Doctor for a new era: Why the 9th Doctor deserves some respect’
Reece Morris-Jones


2005 was an important year for Doctor Who and it was an important year me too. Though no doubt many Whovians associate it with the start of a new glorious (to some hated) era of Doctor Who, to me it was more personal. It was when I found ‘My Doctor’ in Christopher Eccleston.
To those not in the know, due to the amount of changes (notably its casting of the titular Doctor) the show has gone through in its 50 years and the sheer time it’s been running, to stop pointless fan debates of which portrayal was the ‘best’, some fans have taken to calling their personal favourite regeneration ‘My Doctor’. It recognizes that it was the first time the show clicked with that particular fan and that, in a moment of self awareness far too rare in most fandom’s, nostalgia may blind that fan to that era’s particular weaknesses.
So whilst admittedly that Eccleston being ‘my Doctor’ means that I admit his run is far from perfect, this doesn’t mean the series has no merit. His era was a brand spanking new start for a show that had been mothballed for close to 16 years 1. As such it was full of a real sense of adventure, enthusiasm and a slightly rebellious attitude. Rose and The Doctor quipped back and forth like they were auditioning for a part in a Joss Whedon show. There was action and adventure on a grand scale. We had a companion, Jack, not afraid to get up in people’s faces and who fulfilled the long absent roles of the brawn and sex appeal all rolled into one, this time for both the gentlemen as well as the ladies.  You know what, there was even a hint of danger that had long departed the show, as companions and even main characters were offed left right and centre at a startling rate.

You can see a series trying to escape the boundaries of the old show, still pushing for the fringes of what could be done in the format, whilst still recognisably the same show old time fans could associate with (and which you could argue fell back on old habits in later seasons via a more traditional Doctor).

A new Doctor for a new era

At the heart of it all, was Christopher Eccleston. A Doctor of contrasts, he would be one moment likely to start a war, the next almost childlike and giddy with glee, all with a twinkle in his eye. Over everything else, your like and dislike of Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor will probably be the big decider as to if you like the series or not, with many people I know loathing his run based on just his portrayal alone.
His version was a cool, far more stripped down version of many past Doctors, lacking some of the eccentricities that had characterised past Doctors, a deliberate attempt on writers Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner's part 2.

His Doctor was ultimately one who lived for the moment, in an attempt to forget the past traumas he had gone through (which we now understand to be the Time War, but at the time was a vaguely hinted at thing with a name and not much else). More than that, whilst he was disdainful of humanity at times, it was only because those around him were failing to live up to their potential and what he knew what we were capable of.
Unlike the later series and the mopeyness of Tennant, he didn't dwell on it too much. His Doctor was very much of the present and a man of action. Sure, by other shows standards he was still a bit of a coward (and admitted as such in Parting of the Ways), but then thats always been the endearing thing about the Doctor. He's sees bravado as stupid and usually would rather out think his opponents instead.

Still, by even the old shows standards, he has more in common with the third Doctor than the sixth, rarely roused to anger but unstoppable when done so. I can think of no greater match of actor and role, to the point where if I didn’t know any better, I would say that the role was created so Eccleston could walk on set in the morning ready to go with minimum prep as he was already in character as a grumpy Time Lord with a chip on his shoulder3. But no matter how down the Doctor got, he was always seeking hope and trying to recapture that youthful glamour that evaded him after the events of Time War.

To do that, he knew he had to go back to basics.

 25th century companions

On the face of it, Billie Piper was an unusual choice for Doctor Who. A former pop star just starting a transition in an acting career, she had been mostly known for the tabloid furore surrounding her and Radio DJ Chris Evans marriage. Which made her appearance in the show even more of a revelation. To be sure, it’s not as if she was the greatest actor, but she brought to the part a real sense of a modern forward looking companion to a series with the same outlook.
It’s true that not all the scripts dealt with her character properly and reduced her to the Doctor Who staple of ‘eye candy that screams and needs rescuing by the Doctor.  But the most part she was not only capable, but by coming into the world of the Doctor and standing up to some of his greatest enemies, she proved herself his equal. Her arc from the beginning of the series showed how she became more capable, but by accepting the Doctor’s offer to travel with him and rescuing him in her first appearance, she showed that she had the seeds of that within her all along, they just needed to be nurtured.

Captain Jack...well if you are reading this blog, I’m sure you understand just what it’s like to have a crush on the hunk that is John Barrowman. Make no mistake; he made Billy Piper look like an Oscar winning actor. But what he lacked in acting chops, he more than made up in with sheer charisma and enthusiasm. This was also a glimpse of Jack as a scary mofo, a capable conman, time traveller and sexy spy all round, capable of rescuing worlds at a time if needed, all with a winning smile on his face.

Of the other companions, I think we can forget Adam, but he showed us, if nothing else, that when you join up with the Doctor, you don’t dick about on his watch. Thats something only the Doctor is allowed to do ;-). Mickey though, well I love Mickey. My god he could be a selfish prick at times and most of his development was left until season 2, but Noel Clark really captured the feel of someone completely out of his depth, but still trying to make the world a better place.
In the end what all of these companions had, and this is something Steven Moffat could learn from, was an arc. They were clearly different people by the end of the series. Rose, was a far more seasoned traveller and could no longer stand by and let events take their course. Jack had turned from a cowardly man living off other people’s misfortune to a man of action, willing to lay down his life to protect others. Mickey learnt that Rose really didn’t love him, but that he didn’t have to be defined that anymore. As for the Doctor, well...

An angry and broken man.

To me, the greatest achievement of Nu Who was creating a Doctor suffering from PTSD. There’s a fan theory that I see circling the net every now and then that each regeneration is a reaction to the prior incarnation. Where the first incarnation was a dour old man, the second was a jovial clown who hid a mind of steel that was always thinking. 
This theory makes more sense when applied to Doctors of Nu Who certainly, with each regeneration since the absence between the 8th and 9th becoming more and more jovial the further he gets from the events of the Time War (with the 11th and current regeneration being a determined response to put the angst of the 9th and 10th entirely behind him). Multiple theories even circulate to explain the so far unexplained absence between the 8th and 9th , some saying that the 9th Doctor is a new regeneration spawned at the end of the Time War in response to the 8th s actions, others that the 9th took part and ended it4.
Regardless of the truth, what is apparent is that during the 9th Doctor is haunted by something. You can see it in his eyes and his every moment. Almost too jovial at times, Eccleston’s eyes always betray him. His was a serious Doctor and one who was still on a war footing, concealing real anger at his loss to the point where he can barely even talk about it, only spilling details when forced to. To him, the trauma he went through5 in his actions was still fresh and it took him finally facing up to that in the Parting of the Ways to begin to get over those events. But here I am mentioning themes and missing out on the biggest of them all.

Nothing will ever be the same

The key theme of the new series was change and that with the passing of the Time Lords, nothing was truly safe anymore. Past series had always had a somewhat carefree attitude to them. The Doctor arrives on the scene, gets involved and leaves at the end of it with things, if not perfect, then better than before. There were few consequences for his actions and very little was a stake, as long as things wrapped up by the end of the story. That wasn’t the case anymore. If anything, the expansions in later series of the Doctor being a vengeful god were trialled here. The events of World War Three had consequences in Boom Town. The Long Game’s conclusion paved the way for the terrifying events of Bad Wolf. The message was clear: the Doctor could make mistakes now and as much as he could see the events of time, without the help of the Time Lords he was still just one person; unable to see the big picture anymore. Even events that would have been relatively safe, such as visiting ones past, was now dangerous and could potentially destroy all of time and space itself.

That element of danger, of consequences mattering now, helped suspend my disbelief over a concept that in the past hasn’t caught my attention too much. After all, where was the element of danger in the past? With the Time Lords ever present, any catastrophe could be averted if the Doctor was there or not. Now...well anything could happen. It frequently did.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the bringing back of the Daleks. Long derided through years of ever exposure to the point of being laughable tinpot dictators, the show pulled off the miracle of making them scary again. How was this feat achieved? A two pronged attack was how.

Bringing back the Daleks

First, Dalek showed us just how much carnage a single, damaged Dalek could do and how much it scared the Doctor who, until that point, had been unflappable in the face of ghosts, alien invasions and shop dummies capable of killing people. The slightly jokey, jovial Doctor we had grown used to was gone, replaced by the cold fury of a being who wished nothing but death and destruction upon the other sole survivor of the Time War, even if it damned him in the process. In a turn of phrase that summed up both his hated enemies position and his, the Doctor put it best
“Whats the point? Don’t you see? It’s all gone. Everything you were, everything you stood for”
 By exposing us to the last survivors, we got to see not only the fury that the 9th Doctor had to exercise to rid himself of the guilt of his actions, but we saw the real pain he had suffered from having to bottle all that emotion up, unleashed against a foe that, despite being deadly beyond belief, we sympathised with. We saw just how far the Doctor had gone to end the Time War and just what it had cost him.

By letting us see all of that, it left an audience hungry for more, until the reveal at the end of Bad Wolf. That moment when the Dalek fleet is revealed, you can see the Doctor’s eyes widen and he takes an involuntary step backwards. The slight quiver in his voice. The fear. If the Doctor had been furious in Dalek, he was now terrified at the sight of close to half a million of them. But the presence of Rose, of dredging up things he was ashamed of, had stirred something in him and started to make him a better person. He was no longer the same person who had consigned two species to death. He was the coward we always knew he was. And damn proud of it too, if being a coward meant that never had to commit genocide of such an unprecedented scale again.

He was finally someone at peace with who he was, because if all his actions saved the people he cared most about, that was all he could ask for, even if it meant his own death.
Christopher Eccleston’s time on the show may be clouded with controversy these days, but at the time he brought hope to many. A new generation fell in love with Doctor Who and old farts like me fell in love all over again. Sure, looking back on that series it has its faults. It was certainly a little rusty round the edges and twice as brassy.

But it wore its heart on its sleeve and introduced an audience to a more mature, grown up Who far removed from the dodgy sets and even dodgier monster stereotypes the show had been associated with in the past. It was, to quote the Doctor one last time

 “Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic”.

You can find the writer of this piece on Twitter. Reece likes comics, running and talking about his unfortunate obsession with a certain Michael Fassbender.  He’s dreamy.

All images copyright of the BBC
1 Yes, I’m aware that there were novels that ran in between the two eras of the show. But there are of questionable quality, so I discount them as they have never been acknowledged in a serious manner by anyone on the Dr Who team since the return of the show. Sorry fans, but it’s true.
2 gardner.s html
3 There may be some truth to that. Eccleston was supposedly a hard person to be around on set
5. Revealed to be having to not only destroy the entire Dalek race, but watch his own change into something he could no longer recognise, until he had to lock them away from time itself.

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