October 3rd, 2013
2005 was the year everything changed.
Doctor Who was back on TV again, and it was going to be a Proper Drama. Christopher Eccleston, one of the most respected TV and film actors in Britain, was playing the Doctor, and Russell T. Davies, writer of such critically-acclaimed work as Queer As Folk and The Second Coming, was going to write the series.
The whole thing was going to be fresh, and new, and taken far more seriously. There would be no more wobbly sets or cardboard spaceships, and the fact that those things had never been there in the first place wouldn’t stop the programme-makers telling us so. It would be based in a realistic version of mid-2000s Britain, and would appeal to the same people who liked Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
The Doctor was to be ‘brought up-to-date’, by which Davies apparently meant instantly dated to the year of production rather than timeless. The Doctor suddenly spoke in early-twenty-first-century vernacular English, expunged of any vocabulary that would have been unfamiliar to the viewers. He dressed like a middle-aged bloke trying to remain cool, and his companion would be a normal working-class girl from London, not a screamer.
Much has been made of how the post-2005 show was aimed at a mainstream audience rather than a ‘cult’ or ‘geek’ audience. This isn’t actually true — apart from the scheduling, which placed the programme firmly in the family slot that it had dominated in the 60s and 70s, everything about this new series was designed to fit almost exactly into the cult series formula.
Specifically, it was designed for a post-Babylon 5 audience. It was a series controlled by a single show-runner, who plotted out “story arcs” (we no longer have stories, we have “arcs”, which are like stories but with no story to them — and indeed no arc, usually going straight from A to B in the slowest way possible), and assigned individual episodes to writers, seeding in each episode a clue or clues to the end of the arc, which would coincide with a giant season finale.
And within this formula, there was to be nothing that would scare a family audience by suggesting to them that other times or other places were in any way different from Britain in 2005. A space station tens of thousands of years in the future would have reality TV and Top Shop clothing. Social attitudes would be almost unchanged whether in the 19th century, World War II, or at the time billions of years in the future when Earth is finally destroyed.
This sounds like I’m being very harsh to the 2005 series, and I am, but that’s mainly in the light of the later excesses of the series. At the time, the 2005 series’ strengths (and there were many of them) more than made up for its weaknesses. It managed successfully to reintroduce the character of the Doctor and the main concepts of the series in ways that an audience that was unfamiliar with them could instantly understand. Eccleston, in particular, was a marvel, playing a character that was almost a remix of the original Doctor — every characteristic in his portrayal was an element of the earlier versions of the character, but in different proportions, so that he seemed totally different while still familiar.
On reflection, though, almost none of those strengths were down to Russel T. Davies’ writing, despite him being one of the two selling points of the then-new series. Certainly, none of his episodes from this series are thought of especially fondly in retrospect — or even at the time, when compared to those episodes he didn’t write. Ask anyone what their favourite episode of the 2005 series was, and they will choose either Father’s Day by Paul Cornell (who has already turned up many times in this series of essays), The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances by Steven Moffat (who we will hear more about in the future), or Dalek by Rob Shearman.
Shearman’s episode is, to my mind, far and away the best thing of the 2005 series, and probably of the revived TV series to date. Even so, it’s a shadow of its former self.
Because Dalek was originally conceived as a reworking of Shearman’s 2003 Big Finish audio Jubilee, but in the nature of these things the story changed dramatically. What had been the b-plot in the original story (Evelyn befriending a captured Dalek, the last of its kind, alone and tormented) became the main plotline of the TV version, with Rose showing humanity to the last Dalek survivor of the Time War.
Jubilee had been a sharp, satirical, comedy, with, in Shearman’s usual style, a lot of targets aimed at by allusion and juxtaposition, rather than the more normal straight allegory. Among the targets were the Queen’s golden Jubilee of 2002 (not 2006, Tat…), the way Britain’s fight against the Nazis in World War II has been taken up as propaganda for far-right political groups (the BNP used photos of Spitfires in their election material at the last election), the Dalekmania of the 60s, the way that fandom is backward-looking, prescriptivist grammarians, and basically the whole right-wing idea of a past Golden Age.
Most of this is stripped out of Dalek, along with the time-travel paradox plot which had driven Jubilee, and replaced with a far simpler linear plot, based around the central image that Davies wanted to keep from the audio story — the Doctor angrily confronting a lone, powerless, captive Dalek.
Apparently the result of many, many rewrites, the finished script is a wonderfully-done variant on the old base-under-siege theme (this time, of course, the monster is inside, a la Alien). The script has flaws, of course — the pseudo-scientific explanation about “time traveller DNA” makes absolutely no sense on any level, and the Doctor’s line “What you gonna do, throw your A-levels at him?” is horrifically misjudged for a character who up to that point had been one who valued learning for its own sake — but it’s a tight, well-made thriller, and the central performances (not only Eccleston and Billie Piper, but also Nicholas Briggs as the Dalek voice) perfectly pitched.
But it’s sad that so much nuance and subtlety had to be lost in the transferrance from audio to TV. And it’s even sadder that even after losing that much nuance and subtlety, what remains is still a more intelligent, better-written, script than anything that’s been done in the TV series since.