Davies and the Debut of New Who.
Very recently, I wrote about my anticipation of Doctor Who’s much maligned (and short-lived) resurrection in 1996 with the “Doctor Who: TV Movie,” starring the talented Paul McGann as the Doctor. While that attempt to bring the Doctor back to the airwaves ultimately wasn’t successful, it did manage to light the path for a new Doctor Who series to follow; some of the TV-movie’s mistakes were heeded, and producer Russell T. Davies, along with his trusted executive producer Julie Gardner, finally unveiled their all-new Who in 2005 with the debut of “Rose” on the BBC.
Living in the United States, I wouldn’t see “Rose” until sometime in 2006, when the new series later aired on the SyFy channel (later it’d jump tracks to its current US home on BBC-America). The premiere had much of the ‘modernness’ of the 1996 TV movie, but with none of the awkwardness. The continuity flowed easily with the original series, though the new show boasted far better production value both for its time and BBC resources. “Rose” was my wife’s first exposure to Doctor Who, and she absolutely fell in love with it. Much of that credit goes to Christopher Eccleston’s dynamic, intense interpretation of the Doctor (like Tom Baker, but dialed up to 11), as well as the unexpected earnestness of pop singer Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, the new Doctor’s shop girl companion, who happened to have some mad (and very handy) gymnastics skills. These two were an instant hit with fans, including myself.
“Rose” resurrected the Autons (the animated store mannequins seen in the classic series) as this new Doctor’s first nemesis, just as they’d been used to usher in the era of the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) in 1969. Davies’ knew exactly how to bring the Doctor back to modern audiences, and his affection for the show’s history and source material permeated every minute, not to mention his inclusionary casting; the openly gay showrunner introduced black companion (and Rose’s sometime boyfriend) Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) and it would later introduce us to the ridiculously handsome, pansexual, time-traveling rogue Captain Jack Harkness (fan favorite John Barrowman), who would return to great fanfare in later years of the renewed series, as well as his own spinoff series, “Torchwood” (2006-2011).
Unfortunately, star Christopher Eccleston would have a legendary falling out with the BBC’s powers-that-be, and he would leave the white hot series after its first year. However, his replacement, David Tennant, would step in seamlessly–bringing a somewhat lighter (and wonderfully geeky) new take on the Doctor. Tennant could also become suddenly dark without warning–giving us a Doctor who could be light and seemingly carefree one moment, and deeply wrathful and even dangerous in the next. This was something he held over beautifully from Eccleston’s own pained interpretation of the Doctor.
David Tennant’s Doctor would have three companions; Rose Tyler, followed by young MD Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and later by directionless temp worker (and future savior of the universe) Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). While Rose was always the ‘special’ one (the one the Doctor actually fell in love with), the other two companions had their respective attributes as well. Martha was beautiful, smart and adaptable; sadly, the writers saddled her with an unrequited schoolgirl crush on the 900 plus-year old Time Lord, and it hobbled her character.
Donna had more of a feisty, platonic relationship with the Doctor; coming off more like a bossy older sister than a doe-eyed, lovestruck shop girl. Their utterly unique relationship (which admittedly took a while for me to get used to) really paid off in the end–as the Doctor was forced to remove all of Donna’s memories of their time together in order to save her very life. Don’t even get me started on the tear-jerkingly beautiful acting of Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s grandfather, Wilfred Mott…
Note: Cribbins also played a companion to Peter Cushing’s cinematic Doctor in “Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D” (1966); the second of two non-canonical movies featuring Cushing as an all-too human (not Time Lord) inventor named (literally) Doctor Who, who builds a backyard TARDIS to take his daughter and granddaughter on various adventures. The movies debuted in 1965 with “Doctor Who and the Daleks” (1965), which was an adaptation of 1963’s “The Mutants/The Daleks” story. “Invasion Earth 2150” was a similarly-condensed version of 1964’s “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” arc. Cribbins played Tom Campbell, a delirious London cop who mistook Who’s TARDIS for a genuine police box.
All good things end, and since change is part of the very DNA of Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies would eventually step aside as showrunner, and leave the keys to the TARDIS in the capable hands of series writer Steven Moffat (“The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace”, “Blink”), who wrote a 1999 “Children In Need” TV special called “Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death,” which featured Rowan Atkinson (“Mr. Bean”) as the Doctor in a parodic fundraiser special. The special mocked many of the classic series’ cliches, while also giving the writer/producer a bit of cred for his future gig.
Under Moffat, the show peaked. Three year Doctor David Tennant would bow out gracefully to the younger Matt Smith (yes, another Smith–as in Mickey Smith, and the Doctor’s own alias of John Smith). Smith would energize younger viewers as never before; with unprecedented numbers of new fans here in the US, as well (my own niece among them). Crashing to Earth, the Doctor would befriend fiery Scottish redhead Amy Pond (future Marvel star Karen Gillan) and her ever-loyal beau Rory (Arthur Darvill). Their adventures together brought a cozy, though sometimes awkward “Friends” dynamic to the show, with River Song (Alex Kingston), a returnee from the Davies-era, coming to add even more combustibility to the ensemble.
River’s past with the Doctor would be thoroughly explored under Moffat, culminating in their marriage (!). Amy and Rory would ultimately by sentenced to living out the remainder of their lives in New York City’s past by the time-stealing Weeping Angels (a terrifying new Gothic foe then-writer Moffat first introduced in the Tennant-era modern classic, “Blink” from 2006). The farewell to Amy and Rory is another in a seemingly never-ending line of tragic companion goodbyes…a staple of the resurrected series. Enter new companion and girl-who-died, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman).
Moffat’s era would extend to the next Doctor (Peter Capaldi), an older-looking Doctor whose relationship to Clara would be tested as he meddled in her personal life, acting almost as protective father-figure in her relationship to former soldier-now-teacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). Young Clara and “House”-ish Doctor #12 were an ill-fit. Their relationship would end tragically, with Danny later turned into a Cyberman and Clara now forced to live her final seconds forever–a human Schroedinger’s Cat, both alive and dead.
The end of the Moffat era would closeout in grim fashion with “Twice Upon a Time,” a Two-Doctors’ holiday special with saw the Doctor and the First Doctor (David Bradley) and new, openly gay black companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), who would also see a horrific exit at the hands of the Cybermen. The World War 1-set tale would also see an end to Moffat’s resurrected Master, Missy (Michelle Gomez–arguably the best Master since Roger Delgado). Moffat’s reign of the show would be the longest of any showrunner since its 2005 resurrection, and would bring many new (and demographically desired) younger fans to the fold.
Note: Moffat would also produce the wildly successful new adaptation of BBC’s “Sherlock” (2010-2017) which would catapult stars Benedict Cumberbatch (“Imitation Game,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Doctor Strange”) and Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit”) into superstardom. He would also oversee popular modern-day resurrections of classics such as “Jekyll” (2008) and “Dracula” (2020).
Enter Chris Chibnall.
With Moffat’s departure, the way was clear for new showrunner Chris Chibnall (“Broadchurch”) to put his own stamp on the now long-running Doctor Who machine. One of his first moves was to cast a woman Doctor, in the guise of actress Jodie Whittaker. Chibnall would also bring a great more diversity to the casting of the show, with an extended “TARDIS fam” that included Muslim police officer Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) and Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), a young black man slowly warming up to his white granddad Graham (Bradley Walsh), following the deaths of his mother and beloved grandmother. Nice diversity, and a potentially solid ensemble cast, but…
….while I greatly welcomed the long overdue idea of a female Doctor (ground already broken with the villainous “Missy” during the Moffat years), Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor was kept at the same sort of flighty, superficial level of the earliest Matt Smith episodes–which I wasn’t a particular fan of, either (see: 2010’s “A Christmas Carol”—yikes). We only fleetingly saw her ancient Doctor’s range, and as a result, I had a hard time reconciling her Doctor with the now 2,000 plus-year old Time Lord we’ve known for the six decades of Doctor Who. The 13th Doctor’s episodes (many written by Chibnall himself) hit a creative dead-end as well, with predictable, unremarkable reuse of the Cybermen and the Daleks–those old villainy staples–along with a newly resurrected Master (Sacha Dhawan–at 36, he’s the youngest actor to play the role to date). Attempts to create new monsters were more miss than hit, and the new, larger TARDIS family felt unwieldy at times, with Ryan in particular feeling underused and poorly developed.
Despite the general ‘been-there, done-that’ feeling of Chibnall’s era to date, there’ve been some highlights as well, including “Rosa” (a heartfelt ode to real-life Civil Rights activist/hero, Rosa Parks) as well as “Fugitive of the Judoon” which almost felt like a backdoor audition for a new permanent Doctor, as we learn of a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor, played to perfection by a commanding Jo Martin. In the two episodes we’ve seen with Martin, her Doctor blew Whittaker’s right out of the time stream. Jo Martin’s instant authority and gravitas made her feel more at home in the old-style TARDIS control room than Whittaker ever could–never mind the fact that there’d never been a black woman Doctor in prior (onscreen) Who lore.
Note: Apparently, in Russell T. Davies’ novelization of “Rose,” he describes one of the Doctor’s prior incarnations as a black woman. An idea worth revisiting in years ahead…?
With the door now opened to a much wider past for the Doctor, a whole new mythology was written for the character; the Doctor is no longer just a renegade Time Lord who stole a TARDIS. The Doctor now began life as a young alien girl brought to Gallifrey, and whose native power of regeneration was distilled for a select few within the Gallifreyan population, creating the new class of “Time Lords,” thus mass-producing the girl’s gift of immortality for the Gallifreyan elite.
Whatever happened to that runaway rogue Time Lord who just loved to meddle…?
With ratings dwindling and measurable audience fall-off (my wife among those who lost interest), Doctor Who is, once again, in need of a regeneration. Re-enter Russell T. Davies, whose prior resurrection of the series gave it a whole new lease on life that it arguably would’ve never enjoyed. Yes, other producers no doubt have attempted to bring the series back (see: “Doctor Who: The TV-Movie”), but Davies really knew how to make it work. Davies, with his Bad Wolf Production company (love the name) will oversee the next 60th anniversary special in 2023, and the next full season.
While there is no official word on casting just yet, it’s assumed that Jodie Whittaker will be allowed a graceful exit in keeping with the precedent of the series’ long-running history of regenerations (something first seen in 1966’s “The Tenth Planet,” in order to relieve ailing star William Hartnell). If wishes were horses, I’d love to see Jo Martin become the renewed Doctor. Martin’s already proven that she has the chops to do the role justice.
Note: Jo Martin’s ‘future’ resurrection could be easily explained since we know that, at some far-off point, the Doctor will once again wear the familiar face of an aged Tom Baker as “the Curator” (from 2013’s “Day of the Doctor”).
Or perhaps an all-new Doctor should remain a total surprise–in race, gender and look. Such casting would conclusively prove that the Doctor can be any race or gender or sexuality. The role of the Doctor–as the character has said before–is a promise.
At the risk of an unforgivable pun, Who knows?
Where To Watch.
Modern “Doctor Who” (2005-present) is available for streaming on both BBC’s i-Player in the UK and HBOMax in the US, as well as in hard media formats such as BluRay/DVD (prices vary). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 691,000 as of this writing and over 4.5 million deaths worldwide, so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones. Take care.