New Doctor Who! Quite simply, Doctor Who is the best and most extraordinary format ever devised for television. It can go anywhere in the Universe, at any time. It can tell almost any kind of story and cover almost any genre. Because of this it is endlessly surprising and watchable so the anticipation of any new series is in some way like looking forward to Christmas Day. The potential for it to be something really special must not be disappointed. You want surprising and unexpected presents. Some that blow you away, some that make you go, ‘Oh, that’s good. Actually the more I think about it, it’s just brilliant’. On the whole you want them to be things you would never have expected but what you have really really always wanted.
As ever one or two intriguiging scenes were released early – one in particular that elicited a ‘Wooooaaah’ (a woman disintegrates into a load of cute aliens. On BBC1 on Saturday. At tea time. Oi,‘Alien’! Ha! You ain’t got nothing on this!*).
So. Episode one. ‘Partners in Crime’. Any good?
Russell T Davies has consistently written some rather breezy opening stories. They’ve been episodes that I have generally quite enjoyed but been under whelmed by. Anyone else agree? They have been scene setters for the new companion (or in the case of series two the new Doctor). A chance for the Doctor and his companion to meet each other, find they work well together and like each other because they have overcome extraordinary odds. The challenges in their relationship and its subsequent development come in the following episodes as they get to know each other and work together more. This is probably a realistic way of developing each series – that’s what we should expect from Russell T Davies who above all else knows how to write character. But I do gag for something that feels like a proper kick off. Something to make you boggle. Remember the old days? Series openers like Spearhead from Space, The Masque of Mandragora, The Leisure Hive.
What we got was the usual opener. But this time I loved it. Run around and defeat a quirky threat and imbue with plenty of comedy. Thing is with Partners in Crime it has enough depth to make you think about it for a few days afterwards and go, ‘Oh, that’s clever’. Monsters called the Adipose (look it up) – tiny cute alien babies formed from fat in overweight people (‘We’ve travelled a long way to find a country as suitable as this’!). It seems to be a win win because earthlings lose wait and the Adipose family grows in number. But something goes wrong and people literally start falling apart to create these little bubbas. RTD is interesting on the moral side of things. It ends with a memorable line. The Doc is asked if he will blow the Adipose up. ‘No, they’re babies. They can’t help where they came from.’ There’s one to ponder.
But there’s more to this than a tale of human hosts and ruthless aliens. There’s Catherine Tate. Goodness, who’d have thought it. Especially as when we first met her in the Christmas special a couple of years back her character was dreadfully irritating. I liked her then though, Tate gave a great performance and did what was on the tin: irritating one-off companion to show just what a companion can’t be. Thankfully she was changed by her encounter by the Doctor, and really wants to find him again. I like that. I mean you would wouldn’t you? She devotes her herself to being in places that the Doctor might turn up. And when they finally meet we are treated to a scene that really deserves an award. Come on there must be a gong for that one! A scary interrogation scene that is also a central piece of plot exposition is cut off for a glorious comic interchange between David Tennant and Catherine Tate – mouthed through a window. A perfect example of superb writing, pitch perfect acting, direction and music. Just glorious. And then they get spotted and its back to the plot; plenty of running away, delving into complex computer systems and saving the human race through quick thinking wit. While she may be the Marmite of companions I think I’m gonna like her. The Doc needs to be challenged. Bring it on!
There’s plenty to enjoy and each character is three dimensional, (gotta love Miss ‘Health’ and the Doctor’s reaction to her pick up attempt; very Doctor Who… ‘Ah, no. That would er contravene paragraph four subsection three. Sorry…’. Actually, I rather liked her.). The running gag with the journalist getting tied to a chair is funny (but should probably be irritating, love that. Doctor Who can be all sorts of genres at once). Miss Foster (Sarah Lancashire) is great and has a nice Mary Poppins moment just before her demise – surely they could have got an umbrella in there? Sylvester McCoy’s perhaps? Then there’s Donna’s family. When I was a boy the companion was just the companion and we knew no more about them. These days it’s all so much more real; and lovingly done. And: B.e.r.n.a.r.d C.r.i.b.b.i.n.s. how about that!
But as ever with a RTD story there were things that niggled me. It’s always little things that he puts in to move the plot along or to resolve the story. There’s a moment where the Doctor (somehow, but how??) electrifies a doorway to stun the guards. Then the Adipose are prevented from turning a million humans into alien babies because the Doctor can neutralise the signal that is causing it. It so happens Donna has the gizmo that makes this possible. Let’s flick a switch and make it all ok. That’s way too simple – it’s a real let down if a big threat is just switched off. Come on, Doctor Who has a proud history of characters fighting against the odds and cobbling together a plan from little more than wit, bravery, pieces of string and a teaspoon.
Then there was Rose. Well that was unexpected! The surprise was completely ruined by a friend who texted me after the program aired (but while I was hastening back home to watch it on video) going ‘Woah, Rose!’. So wot’s going on there then? The web forums are no doubt bursting with theories, all of which I am refusing to read. All I know is that while I get frustrated by some of RTD’s plot resolutions I do trust and admire what he does with the series overall, and especially with the characters. Let’s wait and see. Let’s have no idea whatsoever and be so stunned that we have to spend ages going on about it. Hooray!
All in all this was bright, inventive, thoughtful tv with two leads at the top of their game, a splendid supporting cast, lovingly and fearlessly put together. We know from previous years that the best is still to come and my goodness next week looks GOOD!!
* Some have wondered if Alien was inspired by the 1970s Doctor Who story The Ark in Space. I like to think it was.