Sunday, March 27, 2005

Okay, now that it's appeared in the UK, I feel more comfortable talking about the first episode of the new Doctor Who. A preview version had been leaked out onto the Internet, and a friend sent me a copy. Not that I wasn't trying to download it myself, but I do have some extremely mixed feelings about that.

On the one hand, I really wanted to see it. Doctor Who is, without a doubt, my favorite TV show, my favorite fictional character, of my entire life. When I was a kid, ten years old, seeing the show for the first time (Deadly Assassin part two, Robots of Death part four, and Talons of Weng-Chiang part six, for those keeping score at home; perhaps some of the best first episodes anyone could see) it made an immediate impact. Here was this hero who wasn't a typical tough guy, who wasn't a maverick stuck trying to make his own way in an established organization. He was smart, he was funny, and he always outwitted rather than outfought his enemies. As a kid who wasn't all that physical myself, easily victimized emotionally by playground bullies, a part of me saw most two-fisted action heroes as not all too far from the bigger kids who treated me badly at school. Here, though, was the sort of hero I felt like I could comfortably aspire to being.

On the other hand, though, downloading stuff, in general, is something I find it hard to encourage. I think there is a difference between making a copy of a CD or a movie for a friend, and posting it online for millions of people to download for free. I won't download movies that I can rent or buy on DVD or see on TV, and I won't download music that I can buy on iTunes or whatever. And I don't think the Doctor would approve of it at all. But there's nobody going to show the new series in the US for the time being, and I'll be getting Doctor Who Magazine every month with previews, reviews, and articles about the new episodes, and I don't want to just set those aside for the next six months or more until all the episodes come out on DVD in the UK. So, I'm compromising my morals, but I do plan on buying the DVDs to make up for it. (Besides I do want nice, crisp copies to watch on my TV the right way; I can watch the computer files on my DVD player, but they're all compressed and relatively low quality.) So Doctor Who will eventually be getting my money; I'm not using the downloaded version as a replacement for that.

And I still feel guilty.

Anyway, that aside, I have to admit, I loved the episode. This was absolutely, 100% the show I've loved all my life, and still doesn't look or feel anything like that show at all in terms of style. It's as if the producers had decided to bring back this 40+ year old TV series as if it were something they expected people to want to watch. At its heart, it's absolutely true to the spirit of the original, but it is a completely contemporary production, not spending a second openly acknowledging that it is continuing a series that started in 1963, ran for 26 years, and has been off the air for the last 15 (not counting a TV movie in 1996 which now looks like a textbook example of how to fail at bringing Doctor Who back). It's lightining-paced, without an ounce of fat on its bones, and that seems to be the biggest hump for longtime fans to get over. Christopher Eccleston is fantastic as the Doctor, and Billie Piper is every bit as good as his companion, Rose. And while the script is, indeed, fast-paced, it gives the viewer all the information he or she needs, does it in a way that doesn't feel like forced exposition, and manages to keep things funny along the way without turning it into a parody.

In a lot of ways, it's a shame that every review I've read about the show (by people whose opinions I respect, not just random fans posting on Outpost Gallifrey; more on that in a moment) is colored by the fact that the reviewer has seen Doctor Who before. As a result, as much as they try to distance themselves from it, the reviewer can't avoid comparing the new series to the old. For what it's worth, I loaned the first episode to a coworker who had never seen Doctor Who, and she loved it. She's eagerly awaiting the next episode (whenever I can get my hands on a copy), and that, to me, is the strongest possible recommendation. Because reviving a show just to appeal to the fans is a losing game right off the bat. Just ask the producers of Star Trek.

(And it would appear that the revival is something of a success, winning its time slot against heavy competition. Hopefully, that will bode well for the future.)

I had decided that I didn't want to hear what Doctor Who fandom in general, as represented on the message boards, had to say about the show, but yesterday, I risked a quick peek at the boards. As expected, most people thought it was great, a few thought it was stupid, and neither side seemed to have anything particularly meaningful to say beyond that. There are probably valid criticisms to be made of this episode--I'm obviously too close to judge--but most of them weren't being made. Instead, people complained that it was too rushed, that there wasn't enough plot (as if those don't contradict each other), that it was too childish, and on and on. Again, criticisms that, I believe, come more from loving the show's past and being unable to separate that from the new series. Yes, the story does focus on Rose meeting the Doctor, getting caught up in the wake of his fight against an invading force. But it's told from her point of view, so she only sees the bits of his struggle that involve her. Does this type of story give us a full picture of the Doctor's battle against the Nestene Consciousness? No, but then, the episode is titled "Rose," not "Doctor Who Saves the Earth from the Nestenes for the Third Time." It's a great introduction to the Doctor's world through Rose's eyes, but for the fan who has known nothing but Doctor Who stories told from the Doctor's point of view, and who has been waiting 15 years for a new one, it's going to be disappointed. There's a difference between plot holes and expectation holes, and it would be nice if fans could recognize the difference. And that's why I'm staying away.

(In a lot of ways, I think the critics of "Rose" are similar to the fans who are giving so much love to the abysmal Green Lantern: Rebirth miniseries. They love the one because it returns a beloved character back to the way he used to be, so they'll overlook the fact that it's awful. They're upset by the other because it isn't exactly as they remember, so they'll overlook that it's good.)

And, ultimately, with over ten million tuning in to this first episode in the UK alone, it doesn't really matter what a handful of people out of a few thousand fans posting on an Internet message board have to say. What's important is it's back, it's good, and I can't wait to see what happens next.

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