Monday, April 18, 2005

As if the return of Doctor Who wasn't enough, I recently learned of another childhood Brit TV fave revival: Basil Brush. As a kid, during our year in New Zealand, the year that fatefully brought me into contact with Doctor Who, Blakes 7, The Tomorrow People, and Sapphire and Steel--which was so scary I couldn't watch more than the first episode--I remember watching The Basil Brush Show faithfully with my family. It was this sketch comedy show, hosted by a small fox puppet with the personality of Terry-Thomas. It was, I suppose, no Muppet Show, but Basil's pun-riddled, borderline-ribald wit had us all in hysterics. So, upon learning that there had been a revival, naturally, I bought the DVDs to catch up. (Sadly, the original is only available as a one-hour "best of" clips collection, which doesn't really do it justice.)

I've only seen one episode of the new one so far, and I'm not sure how I feel. I enjoyed it, and Basil seems very much the same character that I remember from 25 years ago. But the format has changed from a variety/sketch comedy show to a more standard sitcom setup, with a stable setting and cast of characters. (At least, that seems to be the case.) I still enjoyed it, I still laughed at Basil's jokes, but seeing him in the context of a 23-minute extended story, as just this guy interacting with the other regular characters (except he's, you know, a fox puppet) took some getting used to.

And I wonder whether you could make a variety show/sketch comedy show for kids any more. I can't think of any contemporary examples. Nickelodeon used to have some, like All That and The Amanda Show, starring the lovely Amanda Bynes, now star of the big screen and, well, the smaller screen. Maybe for a new Basil Brush show to exist, these are the changes that had to be made? And this brings us to the latest episode of Doctor Who.


In a lot of ways, this week's episode, Aliens of London represents the greatest departure from the original series. I mean, there are fans bitching about how the show's 45-minute long episodes lack the depth of plot and character of the original stories. (The original stories were usually told over the course of four 25-minute episodes, and "depth of plot and character" apparently means running around, getting locked up, and escaping multiple times.) For me, who tries not to get hung up on fiddly details, the biggest difference between Old and New Who is that, for the first time ever, the Doctor and his companion are presented as characters. By that, I mean they exist to do more than for the companion to say "Explain the story to me, Doctor," and for the Doctor to save the world. There's a difference between character and personality quirks, and that's a pretty handy example of the difference in what audiences expect from their TV shows between the 1970s (probably the last time Doctor Who was universally acclaimed) and today.

So far, the show has only hinted at the greater depth it has given its characters. In the first episode, tellingly titled Rose, after the new companion, Rose Tyler, we get a picture of her life, including her mother, home life, and boyfriend. This is to be expected; the old series usually made a token attempt at giving a background to the companions, which would be instantly ignored as soon as they went away in the TARDIS. In the second episode, however, the show introduces a device--a modified cell phone--that allows Rose to contact her mother from five billion years in the future. This is the first time I can recall where the companion's lives before meeting the Doctor were actually revisited and factored into the story. It was a touching moment, unlike anything the series had done before, and I loved it.

This week, the Doctor and Rose return to her home. It's only been a few days for Rose since she left, but on Earth, a whole year has passed. And we actually see how her mother has been dealing with the fact that her daughter has been missing without a trace for the past 12 months. Her boyfriend has been a suspect in her disappearance. For the first time ever, we get a--relatively--realistic view of what it might be like for the people who get left behind when the Doctor takes someone with him. In the context of contemporary drama, where the action and adventure stories play out against a backdrop of ongoing character interaction and development, this makes perfect sense. And it's freaked some longtime Doctor Who fans out.

I've read comments that complain about the intrusive nature of the "soap opera" elements in the latest episode. And this, from a Doctor Who critic/fan whose work I enjoy. (Also a heck of a nice guy, and a publisher of some pretty cool books.) And I haven't even bothered reading any of the messages on the forums at Outpost Gallifrey, because the subject headings are off-putting enough. To be honest, I think any fan criticism needs to be taken with this grain of salt: this is easily the most character-oriented episode of Doctor Who ever (or at least to date). As a result, this is the one that may feel to some the least like the show that they remember from anywhere from 15 to 41 years ago. And that's a long time to have loved something, and to find that it's changed... sometimes it's hard. To me, it's still a Doctor Who story, because Doctor Who has never been specifically this or not included that. It's still a show about the Doctor, and he's still fighting monsters, and, for me, at the end of the day, that's what still matters.

And it's still really, really good. I accidentally came across a photo of a pig-headed alien on the official web site, and thought it looked a bit silly. Who would have known that when I actually saw the scene involving the pig-thing, I would almost cry? Again, another first for the show. It's ironic that fans who are somehow under the impression that Doctor Who was ever aimed exclusively at adults, like it was a forerunner to the new Battlestar Galactica or something, accuse the new one of being too childish, because of burping killer trash bins or farting aliens. For my money, this version is the most emotionally mature version of Doctor Who ever.

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