Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dr Who

BBC1, Saturday May 13 Doctor who: rise of the cybermen
BBC1, Saturday May 20 Doctor who: the age of steel

Five episodes in to the second series of the new Doctor who, and it is still going from strength to strength. The series is consistently pulling in viewing figures of over 7 million, the cybermen are on the front cover of the Radio times and reviews of each episode have become a staple fixture in every newspaper and magazine from the Times to the News of the world (whose reviewer Ian Hyland offers the incisive criticism that the cybermen are “a bit gay”). Most significantly, the show has become an accepted topic of conversation in pubs, workplaces and school playgrounds. The shows success is a pleasant surprise. Although I was never much of a whovian (I was rather young when the show was cancelled in 1989, when it was already somewhat tired after having run for 35 years); I proudly self-identify as a geek (geekhood being defined as much by avid consumption of sci-fi, fantasy and comics as it is by the mild social exclusion that invariably accompanies said pursuits). Yet the past few years have seen an upsurge in the acceptability of a genre that has traditionally been the purview of social misfits. The best indicator of geekiness having become cool will surely come when Tony Blair announces that when he wasn’t watching Newcastle united, he spent his childhood playing Dungeons & dragons.

Part of the reason for Doctor who’s popularity is that the show is very good. Gone are the days of papier mache monsters, abandoned quarries doubling as alien landscapes, lacklustre plots and miserly and unsympathetic executives. The beeb have invested a lot in the new series, reflected not only in the higher standard of special effects, but also in the quality of the writing and acting. The man who deserves much of the credit is Russell T Davies, who is who’s producer and sometime writer. Davies was behind the groundbreaking Queer as folk, the controversial The second coming (which starred ninth doctor Christopher Ecclestone) and Casanova (starring the current, tenth doctor David Tennant). Davies is an inspired choice to head the project. He has been bold enough to take the series into new territory, such as the inclusion of the bisexual Captain Jack in the last series, leading to the first same-sex kiss in the series’ history and has openly considered having a woman play the next doctor. It is almost a shame that Mary Whitehouse, who repeatedly criticised the much tamer Doctor who of yesteryear, is not around to express her puritanical indignation at the new series. Yet at the same time, Davies has managed to create a show suitable for all the family, secured the adoration of old fans and introduced a whole new audience to the Doctor who experience. And, while exploring different directions, the new version of the show demonstrates a genuine affection for the earlier series. This is no doubt helped by the fact that many of the cast and crew, including the current doctor, David Tenant, were fans when they were children.

Another reason for the show’s success is, as I’ve written, that science-fiction is very much part of the zeitgeist. Although the popularity and the quality of the genre has ebbed and flowed over the years, it has always had an immense inherent potential for creativity. Freed from the constraints of trying to reflect mundane reality, sci-fi provides both the possibility of escapism and the possibility of exploring very real issues from a different perspective.

Doctor who is no exception: while it can of course be enjoyed as thrilling adventure yarn set against a backdrop of exotic locations and alien races, it has always explored deeper issues as well. This is done both overtly (the daleks in the last series were recast as religious fundamentalists) and also more thoughtfully. In the current series there has been a recurrent theme exploring lost love and past relationships. The doctor with his unnaturally long life has left a lot of people behind. In School reunion we saw him meet up with Sarah Jane, a former companion and his robotic dog K9, with his current companion Rose realising that she too will be left behind in time, and in The girl in the fireplace the doctor falls in love with a woman who he meets at points throughout her life, who lives and dies in the course of the episode.

The series as a whole is a rich source for analysis. One particularly contemporary theme present in Doctor who is that of the concept of britishness. Doctor who, both the series and the character, is of course a quintessentially british creation. By way of comparison sci-fi produced in the US is often big-budget and overtly militaristic, it presents simplistic morality and its protagonists are often professional, square-jawed heroes. Doctor who, and british sci-fi more generally, however emphasises individuality and amateurism. Part of the appeal of the series is that it is somewhat kitsch and self-deprecating. The doctor blunders from one adventure to the next. He constantly meddles in the machinations of tyrants who would crush the rebellious individuality that he represents, and triumphs through a combination of luck and wit. The doctor is in the mold of the gentleman adventurer, the explorer, the eccentric, the visionary. It is of course no less of a mythological creation than that of britishness being synonymous with the suave killer that is James Bond or the jingoistic thuggishness promoted by the BNP, but it is a far more progressive national stereotype.

The latest rip-roaring episode, Rise of the cybermen ended on a cliffhanger. The doctor has crash-landed in an alternative Britain, where would-be dictator John Lumic (played by left-winger Roger Lloyd-Pack, best known as Trigger in Only fools and horses) has created the cybermen in a bid to take over the country (bwa-ha-ha). The cybermen have been made out of homeless people who were lured to their doom by the promise of food, and stripped of their humanity and plated in steel. As the episode ended the doctor and his companions are surrounded by the menacing cyborgs. Tune in to the next episode, The age of steel, to see if he can escape and foil their nefarious scheme!

An edited version of this review can also be read in the communist party of great britain's paper, the weekly worker, which is available online at:

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