16 years had elapsed since "Survival," the last episode of the original series was broadcasted; 9 years after the TV movie. There had been attempts to bring back Doctor Who in the interim, such as the failed attempt to do a big screen film The Dark Dimension. However, in 2004 the BBC gave the green light to uber-fan Russell T. Davies to bring Who back to Saturday nights.
Previously Davies had written two series for BBC Children’s television in the late 80’s which garnered him much attention. Dark Season about an insane computer buried beneath an ordinary school in present day London and Century Falls about a village in Wales that kept a Celtic God imprisoned. Both, along with Davies New Adventure novel Damaged Goods, served as templates for his pitch to revive the series. Strong teenage, early adult leads using contemporary settings underlying alien otherworldly threats. And like Cartmell back in the last seasons of the Seventh Doctor, Davies opted to expand on companion backgrounds – by giving them real family ties and how, in the case of Rose Tyler, her travels with the Doctor would affect her life and those around her too such as her mother Jackie and boyfriend Mickey.
When "Rose" aired in March 2005, I had mixed feelings about the new approach. Gone were the Time Lords; later revealed to be victims of a Time War, with the Doctor the last Time Lord standing. The Tardis was thankfully still a Police Box, but what had they done to the lovely white console room? It was a mess! Worse, teenage pop star sensation Billie Piper playing Rose Tyler who as the initial 13 episodes unfolded had a bit of a crush on a 735 year old man who could have been her grandfather several scores over! And as for Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor wearing his black leather jacket and red pullover grinning like an insane idiot, over relying on his trusty new sonic screwdriver (a plot device which still persists today) saying “fantastic!” a lot – well it grated that this was not the program that I’d grown up with. Sure, they gave tips to the past such as including the Neston Consciousness and recreating the Autos smashing out of shop windows in London as shown in Jon Pertwee’s opening story "Spearhead from Space" (1971) – except now it was Cardiff doubling as London.
Part of me wanted to give new Who a chance. It was a caffeine fix I’d missed for too long and yet it continued to be lacking as things continued. Okay a lot of new monsters turned up in "End of the World" showcasing Who’s new use of computer generated imagery, but it was let down by the fact the antagonist holding the delegates on Platform 1 hostage was an extortionist who needed money for face-lifts! How contemporary! Worse was "Aliens of London," which should have been left locked up in a safe at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Farting aliens from Raxacoricofallapatorius - give me a break!
Therefore, as you can expect, I was on the verge of actually giving up on the series I’d loved as a child. Therefore, off I went on Holiday to Malta (again) not really bothered about the series. As such, I got a major slap in the face when two weeks later I learned things had improved vastly! Dalek started the ball rolling with the revelation that the Doctor’s old adversaries had been the race to exterminate the Time Lords – a great episode with one lone Dalek proving to be more deadly than a multitude. "Father’s Day" – a great story about time, death and paradoxes with Rose persuading the Doctor to reluctantly take her to the day her Father died in a hit and run accident, only for Rose to save him. It had a surreal aspect to it with the brilliant Reapers who repair breaks in time.
"The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" penned by one Steven Moffat displayed his future talent for time-twisting tales with nice sci-fi trappings; great humour and genuine horror with the gas-masked kid wanting to find his mummy. It also introduced Captain Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman, who later went onto appear in Torchwood. The final stories,"Bad Wolf" with its pastiche on Big Brother and other Brit game shows followed by the season finale "Parting of the Ways" with the return of the Daleks en-masse, closed the Bad Wolf arc with an unexpected twist.
Eccleston – despite his grinning - had evolved into a Doctor who carried great emotional baggage: the loss of his people, wanting company and choosing it in the form of Rose Tyler and in the end prepared to give up his life for her. In reality, Eccleston has opted out of renewing his contract on the grounds he had not wanted to be typecast – so in came David Tennant – Scottish, former Casanova (another Davies production), and as it turned ou,t the best thing since Tom Baker.
Tennant – even now on the eve of his return in Day of the Doctor – remains the poster boy for the modern Time Lord. Wise cracking humour, larger than life side-burns with a quiff that matched his successor poking his nose into everyone’s affairs on a universal scale, yet underneath a lingering sadness that he was the last of his kind. One thing that unfortunately did carry on was his deep affection verging on full-blown love for Rose Tyler. Although to be fair blame lies with writer Matthew Jacobs for insisting Paul McGann’s Eighth kissed Grace Holloway in the TV Movie! Gone were the days companions just accompanied the Doctor to see the wonders and dangers of the universe and scream a lot. Now they had to show their true feelings in ways someone like Sarah Jane Smith or Jo Grant would never do outright. They had to be romantically inclined to travel with him. Yet in later stories such as "School Reunion" where Sarah Jane returned to the series – and it was wonderful to see her back – we get the other side of the coin as to why the Doctor hates having companions too long; he hates goodbyes. That by living for a long time, knowing if he settled down with any one of them he would see those he cares for wither and die.
The dynamic was explored to its ultimate extension in "Human Nature," one of Tennant’s best stories – an adaption of the New Adventure novel by Paul Cornell. Tennant – on the run from the Family of Blood, becomes human thanks to a “chameleon arch”; storing his Time Lord essence inside a fob watch. Becoming a teacher called John Smith, it’s up to his then companion Martha Jones to make sure he remains safe – except of course he falls in love with fellow schoolteacher Joan. It was a great story deserving its Hugo Award nomination in 2008.
Tennant had a good innings with Davies and other authors writing a number of great stories for his Doctor. Not only did we get the joy of seeing the Daleks battle Cybermen in "Doomsday," battling the Devil in "The Impossible Planet" or facing a new Master in "Utopia," the nation and the world adopted him as their new Who Icon. Yet not everything was superb. Out of all the stories Tennant did, one stands out as the very worse Who story ever transmitted. "Love & Monsters" – ironically a Doctor-lite story following the day-to-day investigation of human Elton Pope wanting to find the Time Lord after a terrifying experience as a child. Not only did it feature the Abzorbaloff – a cousin to the ever-dreadful Slitheen ("Aliens of London") it became one of the most complained stories since the late 70’s, not so much due to the toilet humour, but primarily due to its aim to mock the very fabric of Who fan lore into dreadful parody. Some took it far too seriously. I wasn’t one of them!
After a further full season with Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble and four specials, Tennant had decided to move on. His last stories were generally impressive – such as Steven Moffat’s "Silence in the Library" which introduced River Song who became a prominent figure in future seasons – to the exceptional "Waters of Mars" where the brilliant Flood were upstaged by the more diabolical concept – the Time Lord Victorious. Tennant ended his run with "The End of Time" in 2009, not only featuring the return of the Time Lords but may also set the ball rolling with the upcoming 50th Special. Although a good finale – it wasn’t a great finale for the Tenth Doctor suffering from too many multiple farewells, which had also hindered Return of the King. I’m looking forward to Tennant’s return immensely alongside present Doctor, Matt Smith.
Smith too has been a wonderful revelation over the last 4 years – even though at 26 years old when he began many thought he was “too young” for the role. Smith established his persona on Patrick Troughton – complete with his fetish for bow ties, weird hats and fish fingers and custard. New head writer Steve Moffat opted to bring in more complex plot lines with the opening Crack in Time arc – inextricably tied to the lifetime of new companion Amelia Pond whose life would be influenced by the Doctor as her childhood imaginary friend the Raggedy Man.
From the opening credits of "The Eleventh Hour," Smith presented his credentials. Okay he had a new catchphrase which was equally jarring as Eccleston’s, but after the breakfast scene, his Doctor begins to evolve into a quirky, fast moving, sometimes sloppy drunken giraffe Doctor who echoes the Second, keeping the childish attributes of the Fourth and yet also showing the darker “achieve victory by whatever means necessary” as echoed by the Seventh. A reminder to everyone including Amy that he isn’t human comes in "The Beast Below" when knowing he must kill the space whale in order to save it he shouts that after today being a healer is something no one will be able to call him – again an echo of his afterlife as the War Doctor.
With the arrival of Amy’s soon to be husband Rory, thankfully after "Vampires of Venice" – the love dynamic that had blighted the series since 2005 evaporated – replaced by an even more intriguing concept – the Doctor as a married man! Since her initial appearance, River Song has become an icon in her own right brilliantly portrayed by Alex Kingston. Right at the start fans wanted to know who she was – parting the covers of the little blue book revealing the spoilers inside. I have to say when the big reveal came in "A Good Man Goes to War" that she was the daughter of Amy and Rory, half human, half Time Lord I wasn’t particularly surprised because even though Moffat has done his best to keep the premise on a twisting turning road , I figured it out several episodes beforehand. River has been a great foil for the Eleventh, and even though her appearance in "The Name of the Doctor" could be a possible coda – I have a gut feeling we’ve not seen the last of her as she claims she’s met other Doctors – including the one that eventually realizes her time of death at the Library is approaching.
That particular premise could well be on the horizon. In a few days The Day of the Doctor airs – a breathtaking yet game-changing episode that will set the scene not only for the next 50 years Who, but leads towards the final episode for Matt Smith at Christmas. After that – we have a new Doctor. Peter Capaldi will be a bit of a culture shock for the newer generation of Who fans – but for me it’s going full circle. I began with Jon Pertwee and although Peter doesn’t have white hair he is a return to the elder gentleman’s Doctor, a traditional Doctor who I expect will have a darker edge than his predecessors will. It will be going back to the beginning and yet everything will be fresh and new once more. How many other programs can safely say they’ve been around the block 12 times and still going strong? Long may the Tardis travel in time and space. I’m sure I’ll be watching and many will share the journey with me.
Fan art via From A Hat Facebook: