Adventures with Netflix: Doctor Who Series One

I am laughably behind the times when it comes to movies and TV series. So with the advent of Netflix in my life I intend on this changing. I’ll be sharing some of the things I come across on Netflix. Unfortunately, the version of Netflix on this side of the Atlantic is considerably more limited than in the USA.

The Ninth Doctor and pal (via BBC.co.uk)

The Ninth Doctor and pal (via BBC.co.uk)

Anyone who uses Pinterest, the time-sucking noticeboard of the internet, will have noticed the massive popularity of Doctor Who, especially in the US. It seems to breed obsession and endless discussion among fans. Not bad for something that’s almost as old as The Late Late Show.

Doctor Who chilled and thrilled British (and Irish) children from 1963 until 1989. It then went into hibernation, apart from a TV movie, until 2005. It returned under the stewardship of Russell T Davies and became beloved of adults, much more than children.

So what’s the big deal? In a nutshell, the Doctor is a Time Lord, an ancient alien who travels around space and time in a blue police box, aka the Tardis. (There is one of these in Earls Court in London, the last one outside the BBC studios). He solves mysteries and stops the forces of evil alongside his female companion.

I did see some of Series One the first time around. Irish channel TV3 broadcast the pilot and around two subsequent episodes before abruptly stopping. Irish channels have a bit of a track record for this; RTE recently began to show Sherlock only to give up at the end of series one. So I missed most of the new Doctor Who; I had the Beeb in college but I never seemed to be around Sunday night and I am too chronically lazy to watch things after the event.

Like the first season of anything, the debut season of the revived Doctor Who is patchy and uneven at times. However, despite that, it’s still extremely enjoyable and absorbing.

The main problem is one of tone. It aims for knockabout cBeebies fun mixed with the darker, more adult stuff that has gained the show such a cult following.

Take the pilot episode, ‘Rose’. In it, mannequins begin to come alive and attack humans. Some of the best horror comes out of the most ordinary things- ask Stephen King- but the mannequins here are more comic than creepy. There’s the much-derided bit where Rose’s boyfriend Mickey gets turned into one himself and gets his head ripped off. It is all quite reminiscent of BBC productions of my youth such as The Demon Headmaster and The Queen’s Nose. Aimed squarely at children, they won’t thrill even the most nostalgic of adults.

It’s the same with the Slitheen (which sounds very like the Irish term sleveen, a weasly and untrustworthy person). These aliens infiltrate the highest echelons of the British government and bring the country to the brink of nuclear war. However, on learning they explode at the first sniff of vinegar, it’s hard to feel like they’re even the remotest threat. There are some very enjoyable aspects of the ‘Aliens in London/World War Three’ double header. The reaction of humankind to the fact that aliens exist seem spot on. First they are terrified, then accepting, then they switch the channel and get on with life. The Doctor’s concern for the unfortunate test-pilot pig is another nice moment.

The Tardis out and about (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Tardis out and about (via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the Slitheen look like baby-headed lizards and their constant farting gets old very fast. Despite this, they are revived later on in Series One as the one surviving Slitheen, Margaret Blaine gets elected Mayor of Cardiff in an episode which serves no real purpose except reveal information about the Tardis which saves the day in the series finale. Any dramatic tension evaporates very early in this episode as the Doctor, Captain Jack and Rose capture Margaret almost instantly and save the Welsh capital from annihilation. (And yet, there’s no vinegar on the Tardis.) Another irritating aspect of the Russell T Davies episodes is his rather frequent use of the term British Isles in a totally inappropriate geopolitical sense (hey I’m Irish, it’s always inappropriate). I must say I couldn’t take Harriet Jones seriously as British Prime Minister if she doesn’t even know where she’s in charge of.

But away from nitpicking. There are plenty of things to enjoy about Series One, not least Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of the Ninth Doctor. Not conventionally handsome, he does imbue the Doctor with a sense of otherness befitting a 900-year-old extraterrestial. He does angry and dark very well; witness his taking home of the idiotic Adam following his actions on Satellite 5. Despite initial fears that he was not a comic actor, I think he handles the silly, enthusiastic facet of the Doctor’s character well.

He also gives the character a sense of empathy with the ordinary people (and aliens) he comes across. Nowhere is this more visible than in the fantastically creepy ‘The Empty Child’, the first episode written by Steven Moffatt, who would eventually succeed Davies as the show’s executive producer. It’s London, 1941, and not only is the city being terrorised by Nazi bombs, but there’s a little child walking around with a gas mask, asking ‘are you my mummy?’. Gas masks are creepy at the best of times (to quote sci-fi writer Philip K Dick, “this was not a human being at all“). But gas masks teamed with an undead child who can turn you into a shell like him ensures plenty of sleepless nights. I loved this episode and spent most of it behind the sofa, apart from of course, the debut appearance of Captain Jack Harkness, which caught my full attention.

The ultra-flexible 51st century reformed conman has since starred in his own spin-off show, Torchwood, where the campness and polysexuality got turned up to 11. Here though, he just gets to spin Rose some cheesy lines and flirt with everything that moves. I’m sure I’m far from the only gal, guy or extra-terrestial blushing on the other side of the screen.

‘The Doctor Dances’, the second part of the two header, resolves the gas mask horror happily. Here is some futuristic technology gone awry; sentinent atoms called nanogenes, used to heal people in the future, have mistakenly copied the DNA of a dead boy called Jamie and assumed that this was the default position of all humankind. All Jamie needs, as it turns out, is his mummy, in order to override the error and return people back to normal.

The happy ending where the Doctor shouts “everybody lives” in glee struck me as rather unfortunate, considering it’s 1941 and there’s still four more years of the world’s bloodiest war to go, but we know to tamper with fate is to change the world in unforeseen ways. The Doctor doesn’t interfere with what has already happened; instead he fixes anomalies that should not have occurred. This is illustrated in the understated episode ‘Father’s Day’ where Rose demands that the Doctor takes her back to the day her father died in a hit-and-run.

Rose learns the hard way that her father was meant to die and that to change his fate is to risk the world. By messing with time she has left the world open to destruction by beings that don’t like chaos. (The idea that there are entities who exist solely to mop up humanity’s messes is found frequently in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and more recently, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at The End of the Lane). Anyone who has ever lost someone would find their heart breaking at this episode. Let’s face it, if most of us had access to a time machine, many of us would go back and right our past wrongs (I’d probably change my CAO form, for a start). However, as Rose and her father learn, time cannot be changed or stopped.

Daleks on a pirate ship. Because, that's why. (via hdwallpapers).

Daleks on a pirate ship. Because, that’s why. (via hdwallpapers).

The series finale, another two-header, is highly enjoyable, mostly because it features armies of Daleks. I kind of find Daleks cute and so even when they are “EXTERMINATE-ing” all around them they are hardly scary.

There’s some quality mid-2000s satire in the nightmarish game world the trio find themselves in; the Anne-Droid (Anne Robinson) doesn’t just give her failed contestants a tongue-lashing, she blasts them into atoms. And being evicted on Big Brother doesn’t mean a dodgy DJ career, it means death. Of course, these are all under the auspices of our friends the Daleks.

In case you haven’t seen it, I won’t give away too much of the ending, just to say it is the highlight of Billie Piper’s role as Rose in Series One. We gain a beautiful insight into just what time and space- all of it- means. As the Doctor regenerates (Eccleston left after just one series) into the Tenth Doctor, I have to say I was sorry to see Eccleston go. There were a fair few bum notes in Series One, but when it was good, it was very good indeed.

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