Doctor Who is back next month. True, it returns in the wake of a string of media scandals, including the unfortunate accidental release of five scripts on a public server, as well as leaked footage of the new cast in action… but this is hardly surprising. The widespread demand for scraps of what is to come only serves to demonstrate the sheer popularity of this exciting, fast-paced family show that, since its relaunch in 2005, has timelessly captured the hearts of millions; adults and children alike. Even amidst the ever-changing format of the show, the sheer importance of the Doctor and his companion remains constant.
There was almost a touch of Bond about Christopher Eccleston, who reintroduced the role of the Doctor to the British viewing public for the first time in 15 years. Though undoubtedly there was a reputation to maintain, the main priority for the pilot episode was to translate the Doctor into a modern, 21st Century setting; with a touch of leather and significant technical upgrades, Eccleston fulfilled this perfectly. His role was hugely complimented by having the young, working-class shop assistant Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) by his side. Straight out of a London council estate, this loveable, raw character, along with her mother Jackie and boyfriend Mickey, truly manifested the idea that adventures can come to anyone, anywhere. Between them, these characters made the show instantly accessible to its audience (Daleks and aliens aside).
It seemed, however, that perhaps the pressure on the production team to do justice to the show’s tremendous legacy became a little too much behind closed doors. Eccleston resigned after just one series, declaring that he resented the on-set “politics” and shameful behaviour of senior staff members towards those they managed. The first appearance of the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant, was underpinned by a host of very different pressures. The show was already hugely successful; with a BAFTA under its belt, it had singlehandedly redefined “family-orientated Saturday night drama”. Now the pressure was to do justice to the character Eccleston had created.
There were sceptics; not only was Tennant’s “look” and styling a very drastic change, but his performance of the role was perhaps a little more light-hearted and humorous in comparison to Eccleston’s. Within months, however, any cynicism had dissipated. Tennant not only managed to retain – if not amplify – the public’s love of the Doctor, but managed to do so whilst completely reshaping and tailoring the role to suit his own strengths and quirks. He evolved the Ninth Doctor’s relationship with Rose, which in turn drew out previously unseen colours in her character, keeping the role fresh. The series emphasised, for the most part, stand-alone episodes rather than a broader narrative-arc over the entire run (with the exception of the final few episodes); this made the show unpredictable, rich and multi-faceted, enticing new viewers throughout. The viewing public were sad to see Rose go, but, undoubtedly, the nice thing about both Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) was that, once again, they were strong, accessible characters, the likes of which one could meet every day. Donna also reintroduced an age variable to the companions that had been recently lacking.
When Tennant announced his departure from the show in 2008, he was quoted as saying, “If I don’t take a deep breath and move on now I never will, and you’ll be wheeling me out of the Tardis in my bath chair.” Widespread mourning ensued. At the time, the bookies seemed to anticipate big changes to the role, with Paterson Joseph, David Morrissey and John Simm amongst those most backed by Paddy Power.
And this is where, I believe, things started to go wrong.
As Matt Smith was unveiled as the Eleventh Doctor, executive producer Steven Moffat asserted that the casting directors were “[blown] away with [his] bold and brand new take on the Time Lord”. Eyebrows were raised; whereas the disparity between Eccleston and Tennant had incited scepticism before, the uncanny similarity between the latter and Smith was inciting it now. It seemed that even the BBC was not ready to let Tennant go.
The acting wasn’t hugely dissimilar either. Though Smith’s youth was emphasised as being something new, it seemed as though straws were being grasped at, and many would argue that this therefore became a little overplayed. Undoubtedly Smith is a wonderful actor and would have been a fantastic contender against Tennant for the second series, but having them appear consecutively began to draw out a touch of monotony. The screenwriting didn’t help. Since Russell T. Davies left the show, it’s as though it has been seized by screenwriters who know too muchabout Doctor Who; the internet fan-fiction type that analyses the science of every episode down into micro detail. The episodes no longer stand alone; the subplots knitting them tenuously together have become confusing even to adult viewers. As the end credits roll, only a fraction of us are left in awe; the rest of us are left frantically trying to clarify exactly what just happened.
As for companions, Amy and Rory were great. We hadn’t had a male companion around since Mickey in the first series, and the three characters complimented each other well. But Clara Oswald? She is no Rose, Martha or Donna; she is not identifiable, and even those who made it to the end of the last series remain confused as to where exactly she came from, or fits in. The fact that she is presented as entirely flawless does not help. At times it’s hard to see her as anything more than a token love-interest thrown in for the Doctor.
But finally, we are about to meet a Doctor who can perhaps bring out a side of her we haven’t seen. Peter Capaldi is certainly unlike any Doctor we have seen in the show since the relaunch. He is closer to the original vision of the character; older and wiser, more of a power figure. Finally, after the chaos of the last few series, it looks like BBC have taken to the drawing board and cast a retrospective look back at Doctor Who as it used to be when it first aired in 1963. Hopefully, it’s not too late.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One on Saturday 23rd August.