, which ran in the UK from 1963 to 1989, was re-launched in 2005 and has become a phenomenal success in the UK (like it once was in the 1970s). I never watched the first incarnation but I love the new version.
The show has a couple of ingenious conceits. One is that the Doctor (who has been played by ten different actors so far) is a Time Lord – one member of a race of people who mastered time and space travel. He has a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) machine which he “disguises” as a British 1950s police telephone box. In the TARDIS he travels through space and time, usually with one or two human companions, having daffy, scary, and occasionally tragic adventures. The most brilliant conceit of the show is that the reason he can be played by ten different actors over forty-some years is because every time he dies (which is usually when an actor wants to leave the show) he “regenerates” into a new version of himself.
The new Doctor Who
, which launched in 2005, owes a lot to Buffy the Vampire Slayer
in its blend of humor, overarching love stories, monsters, and occasional philosophy. What makes it different, though, is the enormous history that the show has in the UK and how the Doctor so often embodies British ideals and British history.
A shot from an episode set in 1913 England.
In the first series of the new Doctor Who
, the Doctor was played by Christopher Eccleston as a somewhat tortured and morose man (in the new Who
, the Doctor is the last existing Time Lord – his home planet was consumed in a war, so this adds to his angst sometimes). In the first episode he picks up a teenage traveling companion, Rose Tyler. Rose lives in a council flat with her mother, has a nice but static relationship with her boyfriend Mickey, and works as a sales girl. She is also tremendously bored with her life. Then she meets the Doctor, of course, and is suddenly crisscrossing the universe on a regular basis. The first series is mostly about how Rose abandons her old life and family for the Doctor, while the Doctor comes to rely on her as a friend. At the end of series one, Eccleston left the show and the Doctor regenerated into a new version of himself played by David Tennant.
Tennant’s Doctor quickly become a big favorite in the UK. It’s easy to see why. His Doctor is full of humor, quirks, and silliness – but at the same time he can be steely and authoritative. He has no respect for rules and while he often suffers losses – he rarely wallows. He’s also pretty suave and able to solve almost any problem. He’s kind of like James Bond if James Bond were also the geeky class clown. The show was all right with Eccleston, but it really gets going when David Tennant shows up.
I have to admit to really loving his version of the Doctor. I feel about him the way I imagine most British kids feel – that here is a guy you’d follow anywhere. He’s pure fun and unlike most superheroes he tries desperately not to kill anyone or anything (even the things that are often trying to kill him). There’s also something very comforting about the Doctor in that what he admires most is curiosity, compassion, and intelligence – and he often recognizes these qualities in the people society dismisses. I wish I could have watched this show as a kid because it’s tailor made for outcasts and misanthropes.
Here’s a clip of the Doctor being Doctorish in front of his second companion, Martha Jones:
Tennant’s Doctor began as a relatively angst-free, happy guy, but over the years he’s become lonelier and more isolated. In series two he had a romantic relationship with Rose which ended with her trapped in a parallel universe (as can happen). In the third series, the Doctor became a bit flintier and often treated his new companion Martha Jones (played by the lovely Freema Ageman) cavalierly (Martha fell in love with the Doctor and pined over him while he took her for granted).
In the fourth series the Doctor got his best companion yet in Donna Noble (sketch comedienne Catherine Tate). Donna appeared earlier in a one-off episode as woman hell bent on living an aspirational life – she read celebrity gossip magazines, worked as a clerical temp, and desired more than anything to get married. Of course during her first adventure with the Doctor Donna’s priorities changed and when we see her again all she wants is a life filled with exploration and meaning. Donna is not only the most poignant companion, she's also the funniest. Here’s the beginning of an episode where Donna and the Doctor solve a wonderfully silly murder mystery with Agatha Christie:
Donna is the first companion in the new series who wants to travel with the Doctor not because she loves him (they have a very cute bickering friendship) but because she wants to make her life about something bigger. Donna is my favorite character on Doctor Who because I really relate to her. She’s spent her life in one dead-end job after another, she’s completely unfulfilled, and she has a huge self-esteem problem. There are a couple of heartbreaking episodes near the end of series four which demonstrate how Donna views herself and they are some of the best stories the show has ever done. The tragedy of Donna is that she thinks she’s “nothing” and depends on the Doctor to make her life interesting and special. She solves a lot of problems, but each time the Doctor admires her brilliance, she negates it. Her story doesn’t end well, but hopefully she’ll appear again somewhere down the road.
Right now, in the real world, David Tennant has announced that he’s leaving the show at the end of the year. This year, there’s not a full series of episodes, but just five specials (so far two specials have been shown and the last three will be aired in the fall and at Christmas time). The Doctor, after losing all his companions, is now traveling solo and in each special has a new celebrity companion. The remaining specials will concern his last adventure and will end in his “death” so he can regenerate into a new actor (Matt Smith). It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles all of this. As legions of British fans freak out about David Tennant’s departure, I’ve got to say that I’m right there with them. But even if the show can’t recover after he leaves, it’s been a great run.