Doctor Why,
or the hazards of being an academic with nothing to analyze

Recently a friend goaded me into watching Doctor Who. Since I was deprived of the british childhood I so clearly deserved, I haven't seen it since it came on PBS in the eighties, and I half-remember it as mildly entertaining. However, rather than start with the First Doctor (William Hartnell) and move forward, I started with the BBC's 2005 renovation of the franchise, with the Ninth Doctor (the incredible Christopher Eccleston).

This was, as that incarnation of The Doctor might say, a "fantastic" idea. The new series is clever and well-written, and has cracking special effects that make a pile of living plastic believable, for starters. I watched them all—the Slytheen episodes, the Chula medship that turns everyone into gas-mask zombies, the Daleks (and then more Daleks!)—and loved them. However, since Netflix has decided to postpone releasing Series 2 (perhaps they think Scotsmen are less engaging than Northerners), I had a brand-new obsession and nothing to fill it with. So, naturally, given a show with a forty-three year history, I ordered more episodes from Netflix, this time starting at the beginning.

Bad move.

First of all, like a good number of things at the BBC, the old series was filmed in video, giving it that "soap opera actors have invaded London in pepperpots" feel. As such, I personally have a hard time accepting this as fiction; I had the same trouble with Red Dwarf a few years ago. [1] Hurrah, then, that the BBC seem largely to have given up that feel with the advent of digital technology.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that these shows are awful. Now, before I get screaming letters,[2] let me say that the ideas aren't generally bad. What's bad, though, is the writing; George Lucas could out-write some of these people on a bad day with a hangover. Remember Science Fiction in the Sixties? Remember why MST3K made a decade's worth of episodes out of Science Fiction from the Sixties? That's the old Doctor Who, right up to Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor) [the sixth and seventh were kind of awful for other reasons, most of them having to do with the Eighties].

In his book Strange TV, M. Keith Booker writes that SF television had a rough patch between the mid 1970's and the late 1980's; he argues that Roddenberry's decision to relaunch Star Trek as a television program was the jumping-off point for nearly 15 years' worth of sold SF television. Since I don't have the book in front of me,[3] I'm paraphrasing, and I don't recall whether he also said this: what separates these modern shows from the old SF—the stuff we now see as "camp"—is the writing. Not the effects, though those have gotten better; not the ideas, since those were always good. It's the writing that makes the difference.

Television is now in its fourth generation, and, despite the challenges this nebulous "digital age" presents, it will likely remain with us for a while yet. As such, it's grown as a storytelling medium. Now, with shows like The Sopranos or The Venture Brothers or Rome, we expect top-notch stories that make us care about the characters; in short, we expect television to give us the same quality of story that we get from film, or novels, or drama. The fact that the new series of Doctor Who delivers on a level that the old series did not is a sign that the medium has begun to mature—and that's a good thing, because if humanity needs anything else, it's another quality medium in which to tell stories.

Of course, all this may change with the next series. Hurry up, Netflix, you bastards! [4]
[1] Other shows filmed in this way:
Are You Being Served?, 'Allo, 'Allo!, Mr Bean, Blackadder. I have problems with the former two because they're inane drivel, but for some reason it works for things with Rowan Atkinson in.
[2] Please post your howlers to . . . (Eee! Book Seven comes out in July! And it'll suck! eee!)
[3] But you should. By the blood that Mahund bled, it's a good book. His prose is
clear—a rare thing in academic books—and he's funny, too. Amazon; Half; WorldCat
[4] Things I am also waiting on from Netflix: the first series of
A Bit of Fry and Laurie, the second series of Rome, the third series of House, and, ironically, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

I suspect the compulsory lists are because I've been reading
High Fidelity again. It's nice to have books that make me think but don't automatically shift me into analytical mode.

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