Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Doctor Who: season review

Before I get started, I should point out that I am not a long-time Doctor Who fan, although I watched it as a child. As a result, this review does not compare new to old, but rather holds this show up against the many other science fiction shows out there atm.


Viewing figures
I think I approached the new Doctor Who with trepidation. Returning to a cult classic is always a risky business. you may create something that hits the right notes with a new generation, but risk alienating the fans who have campaigned for years to bring the show back.

With this new show, it would appear that the makers have succeeded in keeping both groups happy. While there has been a drop-off in viewing figures (from 10.8 million in ep 1 to just over 6m in ep 13), the average is still very good for a saturday night show and clearly seems to have hit the right notes with the family audience it was aimed at. However, I would air a note of concern at the final eps low ratings. Often final eps on both side of the atlantic tend to see a ratings boost because of their prominence. This did not occur here. This probably points to the split in viewers. While there is probably a key majority who will watch every episode, there may be a fair percentage that see the show as something they can 'take or leave', resulting in fluctuating viewing figures.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in my concern about Billie Piper taking up the role of the Doctors companion. Well, after 13 episodes I can honestly say the concern was very much misplaced. From the first episode the show was clearly more about Rose Tyler and her role in life, than it was about the Doctors. Pipers performances rarely faltered, even when the dialogue, plot and other actors seemed to conspire against her. Her recurring trips back to her Eastenders-esque existence worked well against the drama of life travelling with the Doctor.

Meanwhile, Christoper Ecclestone rarely disappointed. His upbeat assessment of every situation cleverly masked a tortured soul. As the season progressed we saw his guard slip to reveal a man full of hate, fear and vengeance, predominantly focussed at the infamous Daleks.

While his quirky style was occasionally annoying, I was saddened to learn he was leaving after season 1. I feel we had only scratched the surface of a tremendously complex character, one that would have surely grown even more in season 2. I do feel that David Tennant will have his work cut out to emerge from the daunting shadow cast by his predecessor.

The remaining cast were predominantly forgetful. Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) wasn't really given enough development, although he did get a few good one-liners. The hideous super kid (Adam) who lasted all of two episodes (Dalek and The Long Game) was pretty unrealistic and it was good to see him go. There were one or two superb guest stars, most notably Simon Callow playing Charles Dickens in what was one of the strongest episode (The Unquiet Dead).


I've been trying to get out of the habit of giving stuff a rating out of 10, but I just couldn't help myself. On the whole, I felt the season was seriously pegged back by the writing. While there were some very well written eps, there was probably a similar number of poor ones.

Rose: written by Russell T Davies
A very average start. Piper and Ecclestone put in good debuts which set the tone for the season. Unfortunately, they were let down by a very poor script and some unrealistic performances by the characters around them. Many American shows get feature length pilot eps and I feel that this episode was probably in need of more time to set things up. There was just too much to cover in 45 minutes and it came across as tremendously disjointed.

The End of the World: written by Russell T Davies
A reasonable ep which saw Rose transported to a truly alien future. This really gave Ecclestone a chance to shine and gave us our first glimpse of the many colourful characters in the Doctor Who universe. Let down in the last third by some laughable plot devices and a weak conclusion, it was still a massive improvement on the opener.

The Unquiet Dead: written by Mark Gatiss
Really strong sci-fi ep, which draws on thriller, period drama and even a bit of horror to keep the viewer glued. Not that I remember much about Doctor Who from my childhood, but this is what I've told myself it was like. Fun, freaky and scary enough to make a child hide behind the duvet. Ecclestone and Piper are strong again, but the show is completely stolen by Simon Callow, as Charles Dickens. Only just bettered by 'The Empty Child'.

Aliens of London: written by Russell T Davies
Oh dear. When I reviewed this on a forum I believe I used the words 'screaming pile of dog turd' to describe it. Battlelines were certainly drawn over 'Aliens of London' and to this day I honestly can't see why, because it was so not worth expending that much effort on it. For me, this was the worst episode in the season. It was hard to understand how a show could slip from such a high the week before to this. The opening minutes, which offer a rather intriguing setup, are the only thing that prevents this ep from getting one out of ten!

World War Three: written by Russell T Davies
Part two of the 'Slitheen invasion' story was always going to struggle to climb from the gutter that part one had left it in. To their credit, the actors did try. There were some good moments involving Mickey and the Doctor, but these brief scenes could not escape the appalling plot that had me in hysterics for all the wrong reasons. A few of us had a bit of an argument about whether it is ok to have dumbass storylines cause it was aimed at children. I've gotta say it certainly isn't. A story aimed at children, can still be intelligent, witty and compelling, even for adults. This one was not.

Dalek: written by Rob Shearman
Oh thank god for the Daleks. This episode of a captured Dalek struggling with it's new found emotions was compelling predominantly for Ecclestones gripping performance. He was so full of hate it actually shocked me. The story was quite unoriginal but this did not detract from just how moving it became in the final third.

The Long Game: written by Russell T Davies
I don't think it helped that I was quite optimistic about this ep after learning that Simon Pegg (of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead fame) was appearing. In the end, Pegg is pretty wooden as the villainous henchman, while too much time is taken up with ill-fated side-kick Adam and his quest to have a hole drilled in his head. This ep had its moments, but they were far too few.

Father's Day: written by Paul Cornell
Like 'Aliens of London', this episode had a really compelling setup involving Rose wanting to return to see her father on the day he died. Unfortunately, like 'Aliens of London' it also descended quicker than a stone off a tall building. This time it was the cliche-driven hollywood-isms that just had me wincing in my seat. Each character felt like a caricature of 1980s London. While some people may have found this endearing, it put across a very skewed perspective of the World imo. The final scenes (which should have had us reaching for the hankies) involved some of the most intense melodrama I've seen in recent years. It wasn't emotional, it was like bad Eastenders.

The Empty Child: written by Steven Moffat
Probably the best episode of the season and like 'The Unquiet Dead' draws brilliantly on the audiences fears. Ecclestone seems in his element when all hell is breaking loose and it shows. Florence Hoath is superb as the homeless guardian of dozens of children in wartime London. The ep also contains some of the best special effects in the season as the Luftwaffe relentlessly bomb the capital.

The Doctor Dances: written by Steven Moffat
Luckily the second part manages to live up to first as scary dead people run amok determined to find their mommy! The cliffhanger from the previous ep is dealt with a little quickly but in such a funny fashion that I can let it go. This ep sees Captain Jack Harkness join the Tardis, and he's a significant improvement on the irritating Adam. Sadly his character is often underused which is a shame.

Boom Town: written by Russell T Davies
Finally, an episode by the series head honcho that delivers something. It's ironic that it should be the return of the 'Slitheen' from 'Aliens of London' that sees Davies post a good ep. The episode is relatively low on action as the Doctor and his team are forced to face up to the moral choices they make. It is a decent story with some superb scenes between the Doctor and Margaret (Annette Badland). The b-plot lets the ep down though as the Mickey/Rose relationship takes on a rather inconsistent direction.

Bad Wolf: written by Russell T Davies
The big two-part ending is sadly little more than a damp squib as Davies again returns to what he seems to do best (or should that be worst?); cliched plots driven by stereotypical characters, with a liberal sprinking of referential humour. Get past the first 15 minutes and the ep isn't too bad. The mystery surrounding 'Bad Wolf' is pretty interesting, as is the cliffhanger. However, the final morale boosting speech from Ecclestone is just too long and seems forced.

The Parting of the Ways: written by Russell T Davies
The followup to Bad Wolf, failed to deliver a fitting finale imo. It had some reasonable moments, but was again let down by the almost incessant use of Hollywood cliches. It is rescued by the final 10 minutes which, for me, offer a pretty deep insight into humanity. Some may think I'm reading too much into Roses actions, but for me it helped redeem the ep. Ecclestones departure is also quite poignant and laced with humour. What the future holds, though, is anyones guess.

Episode average: 5.4/10

The numbers aren't exactly glowing, yet while I know a lot of my friends will undoubtedly disagree, I feel I've given an honest assessment from the POV of a guy who loves and watches a helluva lot of sci-fi.

I think this season of Doctor Who is pretty average and probably quite in keeping with many first seasons of TV sci-fi. It's probably on par with the first seasons of Dark Angel or ST:Voyager (shows that I quite enjoyed but often infuriated me by their lack of consistency).

Ironically, when I look back I feel that the thing most hampering the show is actually the person responsible for bringing the show back to life; Russell T Davies. Only once in the 5 eps that Davies did not write did the story feel too cliched and formulaic. (Fathers Day). The remaining 4 eps were easily the best of the season and stood out from the whole show. If I look at the 8 eps written by Davies, 6 of them are littered with cliche-driven plots, stereotypical characters and inconsistent storytelling. Of course this is only a matter of opinion, and I realise that a lot of people out there may like those eps, but for me I felt Davies' writing was carried by Ecclestones and Pipers performances on far too many occasions.

Which brings me to the future. I said I'd give Doctor Who a try, and I have. I'll certainly give season 2 a go also, but I need a marked improvement in the writing to keep me watching. The most sensible thing, would be for Davies to concentrate more on his role as Exec Producer (a job I think he is doing well) and cut down on the writing. However, I gather this is unlikely.

Of course, it is very likely that I am not a key demograph for the makers. I am neither a fan of the earlier shows nor a child, so it's highly plausible. However, I still feel that a show aimed at a younger audience can be scripted in an intelligent and funny way. Some might say that if the family audiences love the more puerile episodes then Doctor Who is a success. That's true, however Doctor Who has the advantage of mainstream appeal and thus has the opportunity to tell powerful stories to a wide range of people, rather than to stoop to lowest common denominator storytelling.

I still love Roald Dahl books, and their film adaptations, while I think that the Lemony Snicket stuff is some of the most intelligent and witty storytelling aimed at children in years. It can be done, and eps like 'The Unquiet Dead' and 'The Empty Child' prove it, but there needs to be more like this.

In summary, if you're a kid or a fan, you'll probably love Doctor Who season 1. Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper are superb, while the tone of the overall series is well structured and quite compelling. About 5 or 6 of the eps offer some quite exciting stories which should appeal to everyone. The remainder of the season offer little if you are over the age of 14 or a non-fan. There is definite potential, but for me Doctor Who must improve in season 2 and hopefully it will.

UPDATED 21st June, 11:21pm
Pretty surprised to hear that Doctor Who season 1 cost a whopping £1.2m per episode! This is only a few million less than a season of Trek (which is heavily overpriced anyway) and far more than shows like Galactica and Firefly. I've gotta admit, that despite my enjoyment of a number of eps, I don't feel that the show was worth this much money. The sets, costumes and effects are not that spectacular when compared with much cheaper shows and you've gotta wonder where all that money went.


Anonymous said...

Ecclestone was great. Wasn't that impressed with the Dalek one. It was too much of a rip-off of the Borg one from Trek. I think that Dr Who has done well to appeal to young kids (remember it's not aimed at you Nige), but there is a danger of doing that too much and dumbing it down.

- Phil

Anonymous said...

Nige, Nige, Nige... this season was awesome. Sure it may not have appealed to you, but it kicked the crud out of shitty McGann and yawno McCoy.

Anonymous said...

Gotta admit, that aside from the Doctor and Rose I couldn't find much to love about this new show. Although I loved the inside of the TARDIS.

Sometimes it felt like RTD was actually trying to make the show look cheap, like the old stuff.

Oh and nigel? Are you EVER gonna put new stuff on your site? :p

Anonymous said...

I think your review is fair. I've defended many of the things you've been disappointed with over the course of the season, but then as a long-time Doctor Who fan, I recognise that I was never going to be impartial.

I think that the viewing figures aren't the cause for concern that you seem to think. Audience share actually increased towards the end of the season. A lot of fans were worried that starting the season in March would lead to a reduction in viewers towards the end, and those fears do appear to have been realised, but I don't think that those viewers won't come back. The Christmas special could challenge Rose for viewing figures given when it's on and the probable marketing blitz.

As for the characters, I loved both Eccleston and Piper. I also though Jack showed a lot of promise. I think the lighter episodes will be much improved with him around (just look how well the first section of Boom Town worked), so I hope he's not missing for too much of season 2.

Adam, I think, was supposed to be annoying. He was there to demonstrate that not everyone is suited to the responsibility of travel through time and that The Doctor won't just take anyone with him. Given his unusual situation at the end of The Long Game I wonder if they'll be tempted to bring him back (perhaps as a villain - he could become a twisted evil genius type perhaps, although this all sounds a bit Buffy-esque come to think of it)

As far as Aliens of London and World War Three go, I've come to the conclusion that those episodes would work much better in a less realistic environment. The storyline is intentionally silly, it's supposed to make you laugh, so placing it in a realistic and familiar setting sets it up to disappoint, because we know that some of the more absurd things that happen wouldn't happen. This is one weakness of the policy of staying on Earth which we've seen this season. I'm glad we'll be heading to other planets next year.

I was surprised that out of all the people that were there when we watched Father's Day I was the only person who actually enjoyed it. I loved the fact that The Doctor was totally out of his depth (and that he can't even call on the timelords to save him when that happens anymore) and I did find the ending moving. It was a bit soapy in places (though I'd cite the bit where The Doctor and Rose 'break up' rather than the ending) but I found it enjoyable nonetheless.

On the matter of the final part I find our opinions diverge quite heavily. I really liked it up until the ending that was a bit of a disappointing conclusion to the up-to-then intriguing Bad Wolf sub-plot.

I'll try and find the time to write my own season review some time soon.