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When Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper became the face of ‘Doctor Who’ during the course of 2005 the viewing public, the media and the upper echelons of the BBC took the series into their hearts with such a passion that many a seasoned fan was lost for words. This amazement was understandable. Barring Philip Segal’s ill-starred 1996 effort, the years between 1989 and 2005 saw ‘Doctor Who’ largely reduced to a series of paper-based appearances in the local book shop and newsagents, a growing library of BBC Videos living off of the show’s colossal back catalogue, and some leftover toys and sundries mainly found in the dusty dens of specialist merchandise dealers. Of course, we must not forget that Big Finish Productions kept the torch burning with its excellent – and ongoing – audio collection of new classic series adventures. What is more, a variety of fanzines and online efforts gave the fans a range of outlets to discharge their opinions and trigger discussions. In the mind of Joe Public, however, ‘Doctor Who’ belonged to another era. More, since the series’ cancellation a host of science fiction substitutes had blazed a trail across film and television, leaving Gallifrey’s maverick Time Lord and his unpredictable time machine confined to the world of yesterday.

Series One changed all that. The Doctor and his TARDIS, the faithful companion and the bug-eyed monster were all returned to televisual life in what quickly became a veritable renaissance. No longer was ‘Doctor Who’ the exclusive province of the diehard fan and his or hers hard won collection of memorabilia. No longer was it confined to a cycle of endless repeats, broadcast at some obscure time of the day on satellite television. Instead, school playgrounds once more resounded to the order “exterminate”, Saturday evenings rang out to the sound of the TARDIS’ iconic VWORP VWORP and the space behind the family sofa was returned to its rightful status as a place of refuge. In achieving this remarkable feat it is hard to find serious fault in the thirteen forty-five minute episodes which, between them, delivered up ten brand new adventures and an all new Doctor-companion team. Plus, two returning classic series monsters, a liberal helping of first-time menaces and a radically re-designed TARDIS console room. Indeed, Series One was in every sense the vehicle which re-launched ‘Doctor Who’ – unarguably the single biggest present for which a fan could wish.

Helmed by producer Phil Collinson, head writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies and Head of Drama for BBC Wales Julie Gardner, Series One smacked of endless enthusiasm right from the outset. Each and every moment was charged with a sense of crispness and vitality which blew away the cobwebs of sixteen years on the shelf. It seemed appropriate, then, that the series’ débuting Ninth Doctor, portrayed with such a tremendous sense of energy by Christopher Eccleston, should use the word “fantastic” as his catchphrase. Fantastic pretty much summed it all up.

Re-packaging ‘Doctor Who’ for the twenty-first century viewer was probably the most delicate part of planning and producing the new series. It entailed nothing less than a carefully managed blending of tradition and innovation; an act which involved no small degree of hard thinking. One of the clearest – and most contentious – developments was the re-balancing of the Doctor-companion relationship, so as to give the companion a more central role. This in turn allowed the Doctor to occasionally take a step back from the action and behave how you might expect a third party to the unraveling of time – in other words a Time Lord – to behave. From the very beginning this new slant was evident. Consider, for example, the opening scene of the first episode, in which the viewer is given a world’s eye view, only to rapidly zoom in on the bedroom of one Rose Tyler. When Rose awakes to the sound of her insistent alarm clock it is strikingly clear that the unfolding adventure hinges upon her life and her story. For this approach to work in the slightest it needed an artist who could stand toe-to-toe with the lead actor and be convincing. In Billie Piper the production team struck pure gold. Scene after scene Piper demonstrated all the qualities of the girl-next-door, appealing to old and young alike with her infectious enthusiasm and wide-eyed amazement. However, whenever it was needed she could change gear and show a gutsy, determined young woman who, in spite of being caught up in the not inconsiderable wake of a Time Lord, was more than a match for many a lurking nasty. That this state of affairs became a trend throughout Series One sent some members of fandom running for the hills. It was a stroke of genius insofar as the casual viewer was concerned.

Which brings us to Christopher Eccleston. Resurrecting ‘Doctor Who’ required a plethora of pieces to fit together, but without a darn good lead the whole endeavour would have been finished before it started. Eccleston’s passionate, gritty approach was just the tonic for re-booting ‘Doctor Who’ for a new generation. Certainly, the Edwardian gentleman has his place in the series, but in March 2005 a tough incarnation with an abrasive personality and a heart of gold gave the public a Doctor who meant business and who had no plans to come second. And don’t forget the no-nonsense wardrobe – quite possibly the most functional example of Time Lord tailoring there will ever be. Eccleston’s decision to leave at the close of Series One was a disappointment to many fans, but on the bright side it perfectly matched his incarnation’s quick-fire approach to life, leaving behind a frenetic legacy which lost none of its momentum over the course of his thirteen energy-packed episodes.

Aside from introducing a new Doctor and a new companion, the opening episode of Series One also set the ground rules for story pacing. Battling the Autons in present-day Earth was a speedy affair in which the newly anointed Ninth Doctor – all fervour and frenzy – indelibly imprinted himself upon the viewer’s mind in a whirlwind of action. A single fast-paced line served to explain events on a vast scale, and at once reflected the speed-wagon style of the Doctor’s latest persona. Long time fans may have been pleased to see a classic monster in the guise of the Nestene Consciousness, but the high-velocity approach led some to draw the conclusion that the programme had been sold out to the fast-food television culture which the newly titled ‘classic series’ had managed to avoid, in spite of all manner of competition being thrown at it from both sides of the Atlantic.

Whether the story pacing was at issue or not, Series One served up one dynamic adventure after another, generating such considerable impetus that it ultimately proved irresistible in attracting a new generation of eager young fans. After a double helping of Davies-written scripts (‘Rose’ and ‘The End of the World’) Mark Gatiss weighed in with a ghoulish case of body snatching in ‘The Unquiet Dead’. Crisp dialogue and a wonderful set of guest cast performances lent this episode a gloss which, in retrospect, planted Eccleston’s interpretation of the Time Lord in the hearts and minds of fandom – or at least those members flexible enough to countenance a new style of ‘Who’. However, on a more critical note Gatiss’ script did nothing to quell criticisms over the series’ forty-five minute episode format, as evidenced by his story’s rapid conclusion. This sort of express train climax was also evident in ‘The End of the World’ and ‘Boom Town’: each single episode tales which were forced to condense their narratives into around three quarters of an hour screen time. Interestingly, a one-off instalment which avoided squeezing too much telling into too little time was Paul Cornell’s ‘Father’s Day’, but more of that later.

One element of Series One which was certainly allowed to ferment was the “Bad Wolf” story arc. This mystifying subplot was meticulously laid out from a single line uttered in ‘The End of the World’, through a series of visual and audio clues until its dramatic resolution in the concluding moments of the last episode, ‘The Parting of the Ways’. Let us not forget, however, that the classic series had its fair share of themes and motifs, but they tended to be either quite obvious (e.g. ‘The Key To Time’ and ‘The Trial of a Time Lord) or purely a backdrop to fuel story lines (e.g. UNIT). In stark contrast “Bad Wolf” was rooted in understatement and cryptic comments, potent forces in the hands of a good writer. Its benefits were, at the very least, two-fold: first, it allowed the viewer to dip into its mystery without weighing down the episodes in which it appeared; second, it was substantial enough to create an uncommon, neigh unfathomable conundrum which stimulated untold theories and ideas. Interestingly, this style of finely balanced subtlety owed more to the carefully woven story threads of US exports such as ‘The X Files’ and ‘Lost’ than to the past efforts of classic ‘Who’, marking off yet another distinction between the new series and its precursor.

As the “Bad Wolf” theme was steadily unraveled, the arrival of the flatulence-inclined Family Slitheen saw the first two-part adventure, and thus the first glimpse of a new series tale with a little more meat on the bone. The skin-snatching Slitheen gave the fans the iconic monster-in-a-human-disguise routine, but in typical new series fashion the use of a zip to allow the Slitheen to remove their human skin-suits mixed the alien with the ordinary. The Doctor watching a possible alien invasion on a television news bulletin was another equally inspired moment, and it was touches like these that gave Series One a shape and style all of its own.

Another winning factor signposted in this particular adventure, also evident throughout Series One, was the discarding of a much used classic series tool: the re-set button. In writing jargon, the re-set button enables each story to begin as though the events in the previous tale did not take place. This allows any hangovers from the previous outing to be wiped away before the subsequent instalment begins. Series One firmly put the re-set button on hold, and Rose’s return to the Powell Estate at the beginning of ‘Aliens of London’ was a case in point. Her sudden arrival after a year’s absence – a missing person for all intents and purposes – came as a bombshell to her family and friends, causing a commotion the likes of which was rarely if ever seen in the classic series. More, without the re-set button the Doctor was forced to confront the consequences of his actions with no holds barred, signalling a much wider territory to be explored in his actions and motives.

Still, not every aspect of ‘Aliens of London’ and its concluding part ‘World War Three’ was faultless. The Family Slitheen’s regular bouts of farting gave some fans the distinct impression that they were watching a poor – and unoriginal – example of a children’s comedy show, and the plot resolution was formulaic and disappointing – particularly so given the largely excellent opening half. It is worth noting, however, that when the sole surviving member of the Family Slitheen re-surfaced a few episodes later in ‘Boom Town’ the fart gag was all but nonexistent – an indication, perhaps, that the new series production team was quick to learn from its mistakes.

In the event the dispatching of the Slitheen turned out to be a mere starter course in comparison to the classic series returnee that raised its malignant sink plunger in the next episode. Robert Shearman’s script ‘Dalek’ was a tightly packed affair which witnessed the return of Skaro’s exterminator extraordinaire alongside a convincing new villain in the form of Henry van Statten. In an unexpected twist Shearman’s story also managed to provoke feelings of sympathy towards the Dalek in question, as well as allowing the Time War-weary Ninth Doctor to finally step out of the shadow of his dark past and to stand in the sun once more – a point literally reflected in his arch enemy’s final living wish to feel sunlight upon its bare flesh.

Crucially, ‘Dalek’ became the pivot around which Series One rotated its thirteen pieces. Pre-‘Dalek’ the series had yet to punch its weight and the jury was still out on whether it could match its illustrious twentieth century forebear. Post-‘Dalek’ the judgement was returned and the answer was in the affirmative. Not every devotee of Time Lords past agreed with this answer, but in the eyes of the viewing public the verdict was more than justified.

Shearman’s script also introduced the ultimately witless Adam Mitchell, a short-lived companion who proved useful in illustrating an intriguing time travel question: If you could travel in time, would you dip into the future and use that knowledge to influence your present? This dangerous lure was placed before Adam in the course of ‘The Long Game’, a chilling adventure which quietly set the scene for the series finale. In the event Adam could not resist the chance to use his knowledge of the future – specifically the development of the computer – and became unstuck in a fairly serious way. Interestingly, the Doctor was content for Adam to learn the lesson of his mistake in no uncertain terms, demonstrating a hard edge to his ninth persona which no amount of Dalek-based catharsis could wash away. Such carefully guided characterisation was evident throughout Series One – a point clearly demonstrated by the depth given to Adam in the space of just two episodes. Before 2005 the notion of a well realised companion coming and going in the space of barely ninety minutes would have been laughed out of fandom. After 2005 the rules on character development had been rewritten, due in the main to two greatly expanded commodities: time and money.

In similar fashion Paul Cornell gave us an insightful piece of character-driven writing in ‘Father’s Day’, the story which, after the mini epic of ‘Dalek’ and the more traditional monster-fest of ‘The Long Game’ returned the viewer’s attention to the ongoing narrative of Rose. In spending time on another temptation of time travel – whether to deliberately cross one’s own time line and change the past – Cornell delved into the nuts and bolts of the Tyler family with a temporal flourish, thus giving the new wave of ‘Doctor Who’ followers the chance to consider an important time travel conundrum. In short, less action and more thought furnished this episode with a considered, unhurried feel, further hiking up Cornell’s already sizable standing within fandom in the process.

The arrival of Steven Moffat’s first ‘Doctor Who’ script brought with it the second two-part tale of the series: ‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances’. In spite of a horde of gas-masked zombies, and more dark shadows than you could shake a Dalek at, Moffat’s story telling was a finely crafted work propelled by mishap rather than monster. A set of mistaken – for want of a better word – nanogenes re-writing human DNA made for an original slice of science fiction which, coupled with the début of Captain Jack Harkness, had just about every ingredient in the box to make it one of the best examples of new ‘Who’.

The next self-contained effort, and another penned by Davies, was ‘Boom Town’, the story which saw the return of Blon Slitheen and a further spin on the Ninth Doctor’s edgier persona. In spite of an effects-laden time rift opening up in present-day Cardiff, and the odd mini chase sequence, the focus of the story involved a moral clashing of swords between the Time Lord and his Slitheen prisoner on the sobering subject of capital punishment. Although Davies’ resorting to a deus ex machina ending rather spoilt an otherwise solid plot, the dinner discourse between the Doctor and Blon was a polished mini-masterpiece and provided yet more character-driven food for thought. Importantly, this powerful scene was yet another nail in the coffin of the claim that the new series’ format was simply too rushed to offer much in the way of serious dialogue and character development. In point of fact, ‘Boom Town’ presented a moral debate as good as any in the classic series, and one which served a vital function in revealing a Doctor who must confront the results of his actions.

One of the marks of a good piece of story telling is a satisfying finish which wraps up any loose ends and yet still leaves us wanting more. Series One managed exactly that in an explosive two-part finale which saw the “Bad Wolf” theme explained, a set piece battle sequence involving countless levitating Daleks, a god-like Dalek Emperor intent on re-fashioning the Dalek race, and a brave and impetuous Rose absorbing the Time Vortex. On top of which the Earth was saved, Rose was rescued and the Doctor regenerated in a blaze of fiery energy which was enough to take your breath away.

And there we have it. In the course of barely three months Series One transformed ‘Doctor Who’ from a relic of the past into a cutting edge twenty-first century venture. Of course, the most ardent of fans was quite sure of this point all along. However, persuading Joe Public of the fact required something a little more convincing than a good dose of nostalgia and a visit to the ‘Doctor Who’ exhibition in Blackpool. Through the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler ‘Doctor Who’ was re-sold to the masses, demonstrating beyond doubt that Sydney Newman’s brainchild was as relevant to 2005 as it was to a dark November teatime in 1963. And, moreover, their continuing legacy has helped to spawn a marketing boom and two largely well received spin-off series – which is not to mention the BBC’s recent statement of commitment to ‘Doctor Who’ for some years to come. Indeed, fantastic really does sum it all up.

© Copyright Jez Strickley & Doctor Who Online, 2011.
 Page Last Updated: 16/3/2011

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