It’s hard to explain how deeply Doctor Who is bedded into the British psyche, or why its resurrection this year was greeted with such enormous goodwill, but the following story may help. In the first episode of the British Queer as Folk (1999) we’ve followed Vince, one of the protagonists, on a night out in Manchester’s Canal Street. While his friends very visibly get lucky, Vince returns home with a fat and, uh, not conventionally attractive older man. They spend a few minutes in Vince’s flat, small-talking about gay porn and looking at his shelves of anonymous videotapes. Then the older man takes off his T-shirt; at the sight of his mountainous gut, Vince finally balks, cobbles together an excuse (“My mother’s in hospital”), and shows the man out. When, later on, Vince returns home, he pulls down one of the videos from the shelf, puts it in the player, and sits down for—we assume—some solitary gratification. But the screen lights up not with gay porn but with Episode 1 of the Doctor Who story "The Pyramids of Mars" (1975), which Vince clearly knows so well that he lip-synchs along with the dialogue. End credits.
Russell T. Davies, the author of Queer as Folk, was playing on a number of things here. Firstly, the shared knowledge of Doctor Who as an element of British culture: over its original BBC run (1963-89), mostly on early Saturday evenings in autumn and winter, there can hardly have been a child in the country who didn’t experience its creaky charm and thoroughly English eccentricity. But secondly, a sense that after its cancellation in 1989, Doctor Who fandom had become increasingly inward-looking and prone to fetishising the past. The programme became a kind of joke—as perhaps it had been in the latter days of its TV run—whose devotees were characterised as overwhelmingly male, under-social-skilled obsessives. So Davies’s point is that it’s less embarrassing to say that you have gay porn on your shelves than Doctor Who videos: perhaps only being a Marillion fan would be more shameful. But the joke plays these two points off against each other, gambling that shared affection for the show will enable viewers to see Vince as a character who’s sympathetic rather than sad.
That the joke does work reflects the effectiveness of Doctor Who’s underlying ideas, and the frequent peaks it reached despite crippling constraints of time and money. As a premise—as an engine for generating stories—the show is clearly a creation of genius. The Doctor is an exiled Time Lord, travelling the universe in the TARDIS, his time machine stuck in its disguise as a London police box. He tends to travel with one or more companions, usually human, always including at least one young woman. Some enemies might recur, such as the Daleks, whose success after their appearance in the show’s second story was the earliest guarantee of its future. The stories would be told across a number of episodes, typically four or six twenty-five-minute blocks with a cliff-hanger at the end of each. And, crucially, the Doctor is able periodically to regenerate his form: seven actors played him over the course of the original BBC run, each time with a marked shift in tone.
So it was all the sadder that by the mid-'80s, for a variety of reasons, the show was becoming increasingly marginalised. The BBC treated it with barely veiled embarrassment; an audience whose benchmark was Star Wars grew impatient with the production’s limitations; and the creative regime behind the show tackled the problem by an ever more fan-indulgent appeal to the series’s past.
Admittedly, after the 1989 cancellation in the middle of Sylvester McCoy’s tenure as the Seventh Doctor, a couple of things did happen. Firstly, there was a series of “New Adventure” books that interestingly darkened and complicated the McCoy persona. They were written by young authors who have since gone on to greater fame in the U.K., including Paul Cornell (Something More), Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen) and, indeed, a pre-Queer as Folk Russell T. Davies. There was also a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann, partly funded by Universal Television, which tends to be regarded as an honourable failure and too weighted down by the demands of the U.S. networks. (As Vince says more than once, testing his boyfriends to recite the actors who played the Doctor, Paul McGann “doesn’t count”.) The TV movie never led to the hoped-for series revival, and the following years were littered dispiritingly with announcements for Doctor Who projects that never quite took flight.
So the 2003 decision that the BBC would fund a 13-episode revival of Doctor Who, to be broadcast in 2005, written and coexecutive-produced by Russell T. Davies, was clearly a huge risk. In hindsight, it’s apparent that a number of early interdependent choices were made about the revival that conditioned the kind of show it would be. It was to have a budget high enough for a significant number of decent effects, including CGI work—which, of course, hadn’t been available in 1989. It was to be broadcast in a high-profile slot (Saturday, 7pm) that the BBC had long been struggling to fill. It was to be an attempt to reconstruct a family audience that had arguably disintegrated as British broadcasting became a multichannel environment over the previous decade or so. It’s in this sense, I think, that attempts to compare the new Doctor Who with, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, are missing the point. Doctor Who needed to appeal to both kids and their parents, as well as to the demographic in between. Its stories therefore had to be accessible in a wide range of ways—a problem that Buffy (shunted away on the minority channel BBC2, and perfectly happy there) never had.
There were a couple of other structural decisions taken early on that had major implications—and here, we start to get into spoiler territory. The casting of the Manchester-born Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor marked a decisive break from his very middle-class predecessors. Similarly, Eccleston’s costume of leather jacket, sweater, and black jeans made the Doctor look far more informal and contemporary than he ever had. The most debatable choice was Davies’s axiom, as spelled out in his pitch document, that “If the Zogs on planet Zog are having trouble with the Zog-monster ... who gives a toss? ... Every story, somehow, should come back to Earth, to humanity, its ancestors and its descendents.” As a result, every episode of the new series was set either on or in orbit around Earth – a much more limited scope than the old series usually had. The stories were to be told over one or two 45-minute episodes. Finally, Davies seemed committed to providing strong and interesting female characters throughout, in particular pushing the idea of the companion as our viewpoint to an extent that hadn’t been done before.
So the first episode, the Davies-scripted “Rose”, opened not on the Doctor but on Rose Tyler, his companion-to-be, played by Billie Piper. Again, this looked like a huge risk; Piper was previously known as a not incredibly distinguished pop star with minimal acting experience. But, by common consent, she was one of the best things about the first series, utterly believable as a young woman from a council estate who progressively grew into an equal for the Doctor. Eccleston also made a striking impact in this episode, his manic grin and bursts of enthusiasm reminiscent of Tom Baker’s long-running Doctor but his spontaneity and doubt entirely new. Admittedly, Davies stacked the deck by using as villains in “Rose” the Autons, whose debut in "Spearhead from Space" (1970) embodied the single best hook the series ever had: plastic shop dummies coming to life, bursting out of their windows, and killing passers-by. The sudden, violent eruption of the fantastic into the mundane (on Ealing Broadway, no less) helped secure the show’s future at a time when the BBC was by no means convinced it had one, and was now called on to do so again. “Rose” remade this sequence faithfully, though set it at night and employed what was evidently a much larger budget. It’s debatable whether the 45-minute format is right for Doctor Who, and whether it causes too much rushing through the plot, but one thing about “Rose” isn’t debatable: it worked. An audience of 10.8 million, exceeding even the BBC’s wildest expectations, was followed within days by the news that a second series had been commissioned. Less happily, the sudden media focus on the show forced out the news that Eccleston would leave after the first series’s 13 episodes.
The rest of the series could have played out as something of an anticlimax, with the ending—a presumed regeneration—already known. Episode 2, “The End of the World”, showed off the strengths and costs of the Davies approach almost perfectly. The central premise, of a sabotaged space station watching the earth being destroyed as the sun goes nova, was straightforward. In particular, the mystery of who was doing the sabotaging was almost trivial. But Davies packed it with brilliant dialogue and incident (a '50s-era jukebox was wheeled on at one point, for all the assembled posthumans to refer to reverently as an iPod), so that one almost didn’t notice the flimsy plot. And the final scene, when the Doctor returns Rose to her own time to reflect on how transient and precious it is, struck a note that you can only get from science fiction. I have no idea if Davies has read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), or whether he knew he was cribbing its conclusion here, but to have that gesture—a sense of wonder at the mundane—on primetime Saturday night television was an extraordinary and moving moment.
In retrospect, the two pivots of the series for the Doctor and Rose respectively were Episode 6, Robert Shearman’s “Dalek”, and Episode 8, Paul Cornell’s “Father’s Day.” The first gave the Doctor a confrontation with a single Dalek, fallen to earth and imprisoned in a billionaire’s museum of alien artefacts. The striking thing about it was not particularly the redesigned Dalek or its merciless cunning, but the sense that the script was pushing forwards an argument – about who the Doctor is, what a Dalek is, and how redemption might be possible for terrible deeds. The show has featured moral dilemmas before, for instance in “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975), in which the Doctor has, and rejects, the chance to destroy the Daleks at birth. But it’s not often that they’ve seemed so personal, so able to change the characters we’ve known.
“Father’s Day”, by contrast, was a small-scale story, taking Rose back to meet her father, killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1987. Her intervention to save him sparks a time paradox, with the only possible resolution being his sacrifice—this time, willingly and knowingly—in the same accident. It’s a premise that teeters on the edge of sentimentality, and Piper’s refusal to be indulgent in the scenes with her father (Shaun Dingwall) only made it more powerful.
The two-part story in Episodes 9 and 10, “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances” by Stephen Moffat, was set in London during the Blitz. It was haunted by nightmarish images of gas-masked zombies haunting hospital wards and asking unceasingly, “Are you my mummy?” It also introduced the character of Captain Jack, a supposed intergalactic con man, played by John Barrowman, and in doing so raised an issue that had never been foregrounded before. Captain Jack comes from a future where, as the Doctor observes, sexual versatility is the norm. The question then arises, as Rose asks, of who the Doctor (as it were) dances with. This is, by Doctor Who standards, dancing on the edge of a volcano. An unspoken axiom of the earlier TV incarnation was that the Doctor was effectively asexual, and the 1996 TV movie’s attempts to move away from this were clumsy and tentative. But with Jack in the TARDIS, flirting with everything that had a pulse, one could feel the tectonic plates shifting. The question of who the Doctor loves has never been difficult to answer: he loves everything that’s worth loving, and that’s his defining characteristic. But the question of whether he has a sexuality was suddenly up for grabs. The Moffat story concluded on a note of joy so thoroughly earned, with the Doctor and Rose dancing round the TARDIS to the strains of Glenn Miller, that one hardly noticed that the question hadn’t been answered.
As the series came to a close, there was a sense that the stronger or at least the more distinctive episodes were the ones not written by Davies. Certainly, his “Aliens of London” invasion story had headed off into silliness too readily, and the media satire of “The Long Game” again concealed a relatively facile premise. Unlike the Moffat and Cornell stories, which had thoroughly thought-through SF conceits at their core, there was a sense that Davies was brilliant at dialogue but couldn’t weld it to a structure that fully justified the brilliant moments he kept throwing off. (There was also a certain amount of fan muttering about whether he was trying to bring a “gay agenda” to the show—which is a lot like Catholics muttering about the new Pope bringing a “wearing robes” agenda to the Church.) The final two-parter, written by Davies, seemed at first to continue the media satire: the Doctor, Rose, and Jack are sucked into future facsimiles of present-day game shows, and only gradually escape to discover that they are aboard the space station from “The Long Game”, a century further on. The station has, it’s evident, been a nexus for illicit transmissions and the disappearance of game show contestants to a point on the edge of the solar system. As the episode ends, it’s revealed that a huge Dalek fleet is concealed there, and that they have Rose captive. The episode ends with Eccleston delivering a speech—probably the most stirring in forty years of the show—in which he asserts his right to change things: to rescue Rose, to save the Earth from imminent invasion, and to blow the Dalek fleet out of the sky: “Rose, I’m coming to get you.”
So Episode 13, “The Parting of the Ways”, was screened with as much anticipation as I can remember a British science fiction programme having. Rose’s rescue by the TARDIS takes place in its first few minutes, before the real meat of the story—the defence of the space station against the Daleks. The Doctor decides to build a device to generate a “delta wave” that will destroy every living thing and thus halt the invasion. But first, he tricks Rose into the TARDIS and sends her back home with a recorded message saying that, since he’s almost certainly about to die, she should not try to return but should abandon the TARDIS and try to live a “fantastic life” for him. Here, again, one had the sense that Davies was rigging what his SF props would do in order to provide the emotional moments he wanted. Rose, of course, decides to return to the Doctor and, by looking into the heart of the TARDIS, becomes a literal deus ex machina who saves the Doctor from the consequences of his own, equally rigged, character-defining decision—that he won’t use the delta wave since it would destroy humanity as well as the Daleks. Absorbing the “power of the time vortex”, though, is killing Rose and the Doctor relieves her of this with a kiss, thus saving her and triggering his own regeneration.
Summarised like that, the skeleton of “The Parting of the Ways” looks almost like an algorithm, a mechanism for giving characters defining moments and a dire parable about what happens if you think too much about “arcs” and “beats”. That it palpably worked on screen is, I think, principally down to the actors, and Eccleston in particular. His performance is both valedictory and exultant, thrilled with the possibilities of life, but weighed down by the knowledge he bears. The Doctor’s recorded message to Rose is a cue here, I think, to the deepest level of the series, and a strange one for an SF story: celebration of the mundane. There’s a scene in “Father’s Day” in which the Doctor talks to a couple and hears how they met: a late-night taxi ride home, a series of lifelike coincidences, and here they are in church expecting a baby and waiting to get married. They expect the Doctor to dismiss them as unimportant, but he does the reverse. He says that he’s “never had a life like that”; despite all the extraordinary things he’s done, there’s nothing more important than the everyday. It’s striking, too, how often in this series the Doctor has not been the one to take the world-saving action: in the first episode, it’s Rose; in Mark Gatiss’s Victorian romp “The Unquiet Dead,” it’s the girl Gwyneth; and in “The Empty Child,” it’s the single mother Nancy. As Davies has said, this is the real message of the series: “Doctors make people better.”
To take one last left turn, though, there’s a theory whose origin I can’t remember that some works of literature can usefully be viewed as arranged around a single word—Othello, for instance, around “honest”, or the Alice books around “curious”. You can make a case that this new series of Doctor Who has spent thirteen weeks circling the word “fantastic”. Not just because it was the Doctor’s perpetual exclamation whenever danger threatened. And not just, also, because the dying Eccleston’s last words were a reflection on how “fantastic” Rose has been as a companion—and, indeed, on how fantastic he has been too. And not just because so many of the stories set up a contrast between the science fictional and the mundane, arguing for the thrill and delight of the Doctor’s and Rose’s explorations. (The contrast is set out visually, between the grey council estate Rose comes from and the saturated colour look established for the future in “The End of the World” and carried on from there.) You can see the loop that the series is taking Rose on—the same loop as Sam Gamgee's. She starts as someone so thoroughly immersed in the mundane that she thinks the stories she’s told are impossible dreams that she’ll never experience. She then goes on a journey and has some extraordinary experiences, becoming adept in her own way at dealing with them, and enabling us to share her wonder at the sights she’s granted. One day, maybe, she’ll come home and see that leading a fantastic life is something that can only be done, that has to be done, in and with and for the world we’re given.
Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K., and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, and Interzone.