“I’m a Time Lord. I’m the last of the Time Lords. They’re all gone. I’m the only survivor. I’m left traveling on my own, ‘cause there’s no one else.” —The Doctor
The original “Doctor Who” ran on the BBC for 26 consecutive years, accumulating over 700 episodes from 1963 to 1989. The series is so old that many of its earliest episodes have been lost, victims of the BBC’s policy of “junking” during the 1970s, in which old footage was wiped and the tapes reused or destroyed. The BBC has only managed to recover about half of the episodes from the show’s first six seasons, relying in part on homemade 8mm films of the television screen. Steampunk TiVo.
The show’s original run finally bowed out in 1989, after putting essentially every record related to a show’s longevity well out of any challenger’s reach. Other than a failed attempt to restart the show with a television movie in 1996, it stayed off the air until Russell T. Davies resurrected it in the spring of 2005. A bit of a Britishism, along with torches, fags, and tossers: a “season” in America is a “series” in the UK. So what the civilized world calls season one, season two, is series one, series two in Londontown.
The series begins by introducing Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), a London shop girl confronted with an uprising by her store’s suddenly murderous mannequins. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) arrives in a whirlwind of action and words, telling Rose to run for her life, and blows up the entire building. Rose and her soon to be erstwhile boyfriend Mickey uncover evidence of the Doctor’s presence throughout history, photos of him on the Titanic and such. Adventure ensues, explosions, saving the world. The Doctor offers Rose a place by his side, traveling in time and space. The shopgirl becomes something more.
The Doctor and Rose anchor the first series, their relationship evolving over the course of the 13 episodes from simple companionship, to something close to romantic, to that easy camaraderie of those who have fought side by side. “Doctor Who” tends to have only very loose season-long plots, allowing each individual episode (or pair of episodes in the case of two-parters) to function as more or less stand-alone stories. The over-arching story of the first series is the growth of Rose from something of a tourist tagging along with the mysterious Doctor into a full actor in the great events. The genius of the character development is that Rose does not become more powerful, or blessed with some macguffin of plot relevance. Her evolution is in realizing that she matters just as she is. Simple shopgirls can not only save the world, they are the only ones who ever do so.
That simple celebration and appreciation of what it means to be human, to be normal, is the heart of “Doctor Who,” an almost oxymoronic theme for a show that explores just how unimaginably vast the universe truly is. Time and again, it is the small things that matter. The series is interspersed with small tragedies and triumphs, grounding the stories in a more human context than the grandiose tales of the end of the world that it also features. Captain Jack tells the desperate volunteers to aim for the Daleks’ eyes to give them hope, though he knows full well that nothing they do will have any effect. A Dalek opens its murderous steel body so that it feels the sun on its withered body before dieing. The Doctor tweaks Rose’s cell phone so that she can call her mother, no matter where or when she happens to be. Rose saves the life of her father, killed by a car when she was very young, sees him for the man he was, not the hero but the small schemer, the cheater, sees him redeemed by dieing to prevent the paradox from ripping apart the world. That focus on the miniscule, even in the midst of the enormous, gives the lives of the characters a wrenching urgency. Common people caught up in a great storm.
The series exults in the hugeness of the universe, not stripping it down like so much science fiction does to its own fault. Infinite life and variety scattered over millions upon millions of years. It is a show that thinks big, holding up the vastness of time and space not to emphasize our particular insignificance so much as to chide our small-mindedness when such immensity waits to be explored. The appreciation of vastness is wrapped up with the show’s dedication to the Doctor as the scientist. He’s not mystical or magical, and while the show ofttimes relies a bit much on the technobabble, it is centered on the idea that the Doctor’s power comes from knowledge, from rational tinkering with the way things work. He’s the pinnacle of science, the point at which there are no more dark gaps left in which superstition can hide.
Rose and the Doctor form a dichotomy, the two sides playing off each other as a complementary pair. Finite vs. infinite, young vs. old, common vs. otherworldly. It works in both directions, avoiding the trap of the one way street. Rather than worshipping the Doctor as the adored solution to every problem, or letting Rose provide the down home wisdom that saves the day, the series focuses on the opposite interplay. The Doctor is obsessed with the common everyday world of small mortals, whilst being almost blind to the wonders of his travel. Rose cannot see the value of the common while she falls in love with adventure in time and space. Instead of the two characters arguing for their own perspective, the story allows each to prove the other’s worth. The finale brings that dichotomy full circle: Rose sees the turn of the universe, the Doctor tastes mortality.
The other characters are fantastic, to borrow the Doctor’s favorite exclamation. Camille Coduri plays Rose’s mother Jackie as a wonderfully dysfunctional wannabe cougar, who is nonetheless almost psychotically protective of her daughter. Noel Clarke’s Mickey grows over the course of two series from a boy too scared to travel with the Doctor to a universe-hopping soldier. John Barrowman revels in the spectacularly grandiose Captain Jack Harkness for almost half the season. He’s all id, an irrepressibly joyous font of sex and violence, who (as is later noted on his spin off “Torchwood”) is neither gay nor straight but will “shag anything if it’s gorgeous enough.” And with those well constructed characters, humor emerges amongst the tragedies organically as with the best fiction of Whedon and Gilliam.
The nuanced nobility of the Doctor slowly is drawn out over the course of the series. He is terribly sad, clutching a darkness that won’t be dispelled, more than willing to kill if absolutely necessary, though a quiet reluctance underlies even his vicious moments. There’s a disbelieving joy in Eccleston’s performance when things go right, as if he no longer believes victory is possible without gut wrenching lost: “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once! Everybody lives!”
We learn of the Time War gradually, in references and bits of half-heard dialog, in the reverent awe accorded the Doctor by those who know his story. Picture a war fought between good and evil using time travel across all of time and space. Entire civilizations snuffed out before they evolved past microbes. Picture the power and grief of a man who single-handedly wins such a war, but in doing so destroys his own side as well as the enemy. All his friends and family dead. Everything that ever existed of his civilization gone. A man who can live forever, can travel anywhere in time or space. Anywhere but home.
Home can be a simple shopgirl.
“You know what they call me in the ancient legends of the Dalek homeworld? The Oncoming Storm. You might have removed all your emotions, but I reckon right down deep in your DNA there’s one little spark left. And that’s fear. Doesn’t it just burn when you face me?” — The Doctor
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.