Ah, Saturday night telly. Safe, secure home of talent show, hospital drama, old film. And of course, also the place to go for head-mangling, multi-level, wildly self-referential and furiously uncompromising science fiction.
That would be Doctor Who, which always stuck out of the Saturday night schedules like a Sontaran at the dinner table. Gleefully absurd, cheap and cheerful, dark at heart yet always somehow comforting. Effects straight out of the Blue Peter school of sticky-back plastic. Acting straight out of regional theatre.
Yeah. Not any more. Not for a long time. Under Russell T. Davis and more recently Stephen Moffat, Doctor Who is now the best-looking, best acted show on the box, and one of the most contradictory. Ostensibly still a kid’s programme, at least when you look at the extensive BBC website and all the associated mercy, Doctor Who is at the same time deeply complex and terrifyingly adult. It not only refuses to talk down to it’s audience, but launches off in all directions at once and dares the viewer to keep up.
This season, Moffat’s second as show-runner, has been made with money from BBC America, and was supposed to be the moment when the show would break in the States. You would expect, then, a couple of episodes in which a new audience could be eased gently into the story. Something entry-level, with a decent dose of explanation about who the guy in the blue box that’s bigger on the outside than the inside is.
Nope. Sorry. Within ten minutes of the opening titles, the Doctor had been killed, and then reappeared as a version from an earlier timeline. There was something about Scream-faced monsters that you forgot about as soon as you looked away from them. And where the hell did the red-headed broad from E.R. come from? Also, when the heck did the show with the monsters made out of bubble wrap get so goddamn scary?
Since the reboot, Doctor Who has been in the hands of writers who not only get the Doctor and all his dichotomies, but were responsible for keeping the flame lit during the wilderness years. The Paul McGann TV movie aside, the period between the end of Sylvester McCoy’s time in the Tardis and Christopher Eccleston shrugging on the leather jacket was one of furious invention and true high concept adventure. In books, audio and comics, writers like Davis, Moffat and Paul Cornell could carve out stories that didn’t have to be concerned with budget or kid-friendly attitude. They could bring a Doctor to life that had rarely been seen in the shows, a Doctor filled with moral ambiguity, a Machiavellian manipulator. More importantly, a Doctor that instils fear. The Doctor that can turn armies around at the very mention of his name came out of this free and fertile period.
Today’s Doctor Who is a very different programme to the one I grew up with, the one that scared me behind the sofa for two seasons running. The pace, of course, has sharpened, as stories are fitted into forty-five minute slots instead of the two-hour four parter format. Although it’s good to see more two-part cliffhangers, giving the characters a little more room to breathe. It’s also more overtly scary, as Moffat creates adversaries designed to exploit our all too human weaknesses, the flaws in our perception of the world. Creatures that attack in a blink, or hide in the shadows.
And all of a sudden, more adult fears are also being exploited. Constant, unexplained surveillance. The doppelganger, the enemy with your face. Or the terror of a mother losing her child. All tied into a narrative that has no problems with skipping hundreds of years and light years in a single jump cut. It’s epic, demanding and yes, exhausting work. To be honest, I tend to watch the show on catchup, when I feel ready for it. That also gives me the rewind option for those reel “huh?” moments.
But Moffat’s refusal to compromise hasn’t lost him viewers. Considering what else is on around the same time, it’s not a surprise that anyone with the taste for big, brash but thoughtful action would be all over this show. I have niggles with the way the show has so tightly interwoven with it’s backstory, but these are only niggles. Doctor Who is far and away the best thing on British telly at the moment. It’s fearless, tough and when it hits the big notes, a sheer and utter joy. It lures high end names and the best writers in the business. When I realised it was going on break until the autumn, I yelled in disbelief. Although the big reveal wasn’t that huge a surprise, it’s wonderful to finally have River Song’s place set in stone. And with these six episodes, the set up for something extraordinary to come rolling out of the gates in September is well and truly in place.
Now all I need is one of those damned time machines so I can see those episodes now!