A friend recently told me that I was a renaissance man when it came to geek culture. I know a little bit about everything, but not a ton about most things (the exceptions being Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). “No”, I happily replied, I was not a dabbler in all things geek: I had never watched an episode of famed, cult British sci-fi epic Doctor Who.
Fast forward one week. Hurricane Irene is threatening to sequester my whole family in our house for the foreseeable future, and we want to take full advantage of the fact that we still have power. But Netflix accidentally sent us Human Target rather than the most recent season of Chuck, and as per usual for Sunday mornings, nothing particularly good is on television. And so we scan hopelessly through the selection of instant titles, and despite somewhat fervent searching, only one name keeps coming up as a guaranteed crowd pleaser: the good Doctor Who.
Now as any avid consumer of popular (geek) culture would have to confess, I knew a couple of things about Doctor Who going in: I sort of knew who David Tennant was (Barty Crouch Jr.) and that he was eventually replaced by an equally British-looking brunette named Matt Smith. I didn’t know if this was a Bond thing, or a Dax thing, or a mother-on-The-Fresh-Prince thing. I also sort of thought that there was maybe time travel involved, but I wasn’t really sure about that.
Imagine the surprise, then, when the first episode featured around a woman named Rose, who runs into the mysterious Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston. Who was this man and why wasn’t he Barty Crouch Jr.? Who is this Rose chick, with her awkwardly dyed hair and cockney accent? And where was the time travel? All I saw was a depressed, low-fi version of some magical place called Cardiff and weird mannequins coming to life.
It took a few episodes to settle in. I’m not going to explain away my misconceptions, since if you’re lucky enough not to know the plot of Doctor Who yet, I think it’s better to let you puzzle your way out of it the way I did. But after those first few episodes, I began to feel immensely comfortable in the world of a solo Time Lord and his human companion. The chemistry between Eccleston and Rose (played by Billie Piper) was fascinating, bordering on both vaguely fraternal and flirtatious, and the storylines were just on this side of case-of-the-week goofy. The aesthetics looked pretty much like a cross between the low-tech cheesy-ness of the original Star Trek and the Saturday morning CGI of the 90s incarnations of Xena and Hercules, which was amusing and occasionally embarrassing. Your show probably shouldn’t look like it was shot in the early 90s if you shot it in 2005.
What really pulls you into the series is the increasingly sharp writing staff. By the end of Season One, I was laughing out loud through most of the episodes. Plus, along the way, the show had started to develop a pretty intriguing mythology, while cloaking itself in the language of Monsters of the Week. And the non-Doctor and Rose characters, especially Captain Jack (John Barrowman, who I also knew because he once engaged in a “Big Gay Battle” with Neil Patrick Harris), started to develop personality and life apart from being foils for Rose and the Doctor.
And then you finish the season. And if you paid attention at the beginning of my review, you might see the following coming, but SPOILERS just in case you don’t. The Doctor (Eccleston) sacrifices himself to kind of save Rose. And then, in the same kind of so-quick-it-almost-negates-the-death turnaround that led to Angel popping out of the ground all naked and feral right after Buffy ran a sword through him, The Doctor reappears in the guise of David Tennant (HA! I KNEW I DIDN’T MAKE HIM UP!).
I’m about three episodes into Season Two now, and I have to say, the show benefited by the changes. It’s hard to tell if Tennant is actually better than Eccleston (who was often the best thing about Season One, in the clunkier episodes) or if the obvious uptick in both budget and time-spent-per-script just nudged it past story-of-the-week good into season-long-great, but either way, color me firmly implanted in the Doctor Who nerd camp.
*Well at least I still don’t know anything about… Babylon Five? That’s a nerd thing, right?