Friday, 24 October 2014

The Four Doctors (Doctor Who 2005 - 2014)

A long-term fan of Doctor Who since childhood, (Peter Davison was my Doctor) I was genuinely both surprised and pleased when it was announced it was returning in 2005. At the time I didn't know what to make of the casting choice. Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor? I knew Eccleston best from 'Shallow Grave' in which he turned from an innocent bespectacled nerd into an outright remorseless murdering psychopath. How could he be 'The Doctor'? Also, on the night the first episode 'Rose' was broadcast, the early moments of tension were ruined by an open mike from Graham Norton on some other show. (Norton is a longstanding Irish presenter who does very well in Britain but is no Terry Wogan.) My conclusion: The BBC had messed up and it was going to be cancelled. How wrong I was...

Just days after the first episode achieved record ratings the BBC announced 'Doctor Who' was renewed for another two seasons and Eccleston was leaving at the end of the first series. The end of the first series? Why? Whatever the reasons for his departure, announcing it after just one episode meant I really couldn’t invest in him as ‘The Doctor’, not when I knew he was going so soon. Only Paul McGann had spent less time in the role and that was not by choice. At any rate I still watched it over the next twelve weeks and was pleasantly surprised by the scope of the new series. The death of the Doctor’s planet Gallifrey by his own hand, alien invasions, new monsters – it all reminded me of what Doctor Who should be like before low budgets strangled its last few classic seasons. As for Eccleston himself, he was arrogant, he gurned, he displayed anger and pain in equal measure – all new to the portrayal of The Doctor whose inner emotional state had always been unreadable. Eccleston was attempting to play The Doctor like a real person, I say attempting, because there was still the gurning, some acting choices which were obviously a performance. In his short tenure he never really made me believe he was The Doctor, but if had been around longer, I think he would have succeeded. He didn’t give himself that chance.

David Tennant took over, and at first he seems like an exuberant happy chap, the complete opposite of his predecessor. After his companion Rose departs this soon changes, as if she was buoying him up. His exuberance becomes an act and there are moments of dark stillness, a ruthlessness and power that comes from making decisions that willfully sacrifice the lives of others. David Tennant had four years to build this performance, and what comes across is a man battling his demons and guilt and hiding behind a fraying veneer of jokey cheerfulness. He comes across as doomed, and knowing that he is doomed, relishing what time he has and fighting as hard as he can. He saves people if he can, but there is also a string of broken promises and of corpses in his wake. He may save a world, but he loses people. This is all well and good, and there are a lot of interesting stories, some complex, some that require better plotting. This era more than any other is about spectacle, about making things bigger. There is an epic quality that was lacking in Doctor Who before. Tennant gives a great performance, and sometimes his Doctor is not even likeable, but true. There are times though when I think his performance becomes repetitive, a snort here, a movement there, as if he is locked into the same nuances and can’t get out of them. In my opinion he left at the right time, because there didn’t seem to be anything else left for him to do.

Then came Matt Smith, an almost complete unknown, and with nothing to compare him to, he became the Doctor almost instantly. Wilder and madder than Tennant, with traces of Patrick Troughton, there were no moments of dark stillness. This was a Doctor who had forgiven himself for the destruction of his people and was getting on with straightforward adventuring. I say straightforward, the storylines under a new producer were becoming ever more complex and in need of repeated viewing. Shortcuts in storytelling were used on a weekly basis to speed up storytelling and it was not to everyone’s taste. In retrospect I enjoyed it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it so much at the time. It was a jarring change from the previous era, and viewing figures did go down, but the show, well it was different. Better? No, different, and Matt Smith, I liked him more quickly than any other Doctor because there was a sense that he was always having so much mischievous fun. With the 50th Anniversary stories resurrecting Gallifrey and clearing the Doctor of ever destroying it, the series and the central character changed again.

Now we have Peter Capaldi, an actor in his fifties who I remember more from the film ‘Local Hero’ than anything else. He is unashamedly ‘Scottish’ in that some viewers find him hard to understand. Personally I can understand him just fine. He is angry and arrogant but in a gentler way than Eccleston. Eccleston did this with an imposing physicality which Capaldi does not bring. Capaldi is more the crotchety Grandfather, having adventures not because he enjoys them but because he must. He is a driven man, driven to understand what is going on at all times. It is this need to understand that overcomes everything else. He cares little for those around him, or for the collateral damage. The universe is vast, he is ancient, and while he tries to save those around him, it is only as an afterthought. He should do it, but he doesn’t do it because he wants to. Only time will tell how Capaldi develops this further.

As for the stories this season, they have been darker, but also have embraced what the TARDIS can do. The Doctor can flit from place to place, time to time, at a moment’s notice. Where in previous stories he would arrive at a location and then return to the TARDIS at the end, in the most recent stories, The TARDIS is always present - The Doctor’s home and fortress. Things are progressing nicely.

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