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really like the new Doctor Who, and I’m not just saying that because if I don’t, legions of rabid devotees will kick my ass into an alternate universe. The good Doctor, as you may know from its original British sci-fi incarnation, is a do-gooding time traveler driven by a tragic past: his planet destroyed in an epic intergalactic war, he is the last of his race — and a high-tech hero devoted to preventing other civilizations from destruction. (You’d be surprised how often this comes up in history, not to mention the future.) The original series ran from 1963 to 1989 — a mere blip for the Doctor himself, who’s known to hop across billions of years in his time machine disguised as a police phone booth — but long enough, in TV years, to become a geek institution with a Trek-like following. And now, the remade version of the series shown last year in England has made its debut on the Sci-Fi channel (Fridays at 9).
I remember Doctor Who from childhood on PBS, the only network I was allowed to watch at the time. But only dimly. What I remember more clearly is the guy in college, who went around every single day with floppy brown hair and a long knit scarf exactly like the Doctor Who played by Tom Baker (the Doctor was “regenerated” several times by a total of eight actors), but who, as far as I could tell, never time-traveled out of New Haven. (That, or he was there to protect us from Cambridge.)
Unlike this fellow, I am not a university-level Doctor Who scholar. Which I believe places me in an excellent position to be objective — and to explain to the uninitiated why the new version, written and produced by Queer as Folk‘s Russell T. Davies and starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and former Brit pop star Billie Piper as his sidekick, is worth a peek.
There are those who suggest that Davies’ Doctor Who could prove a worthy successor to Joss Whedon. Now, I consider Buffy and Firefly exceedingly tough acts to follow, but I see what these fans mean. For one thing, there’s an appealing Firefly-style space-cowboy factor to the show’s style and its dialogue. “Nice to meet you, Rose Tyler,” says the Doctor when he arrives to dispatch an army of marauding department-store mannequins. “Now run for your life.”
The Buffy-style stories are also full of gentle, astute allegories for society’s timeless habit of trying to destroy itself. Why have the mannequins come to life? They’re the footsoldiers of a huge evil ravenous vat of alien melted plastic that, its homeland food supply depleted, has come to Earth to feast on our all-you-can-eat buffet of oil and hydrocarbons. “What has it got against us?” asks Rose. “Nothing,” says the Doctor. “It loves you. You’ve got such a good planet. Lots of smoke and oil, plenty of toxins and dioxins in the air. Perfect.”
Likewise, the bad guy in episode two — which takes place on another planet five billion years in the future — is Cassandra, “the last surviving Earthling.” She’s
“The planet will explode,” she purrs. “At least it will be quick, just like my fifth husband.”
a cautionary tale about the extremest of makeovers: merely a flat piece of skin with a face, stretched across a rectangular frame and wheeled around by two attendants who keep her moisturized with her with some sort of atomized Oil of Olay. (At least she hasn’t lost her sense of humor: “The planet will explode,” she purrs. “At least it will be quick, just like my fifth husband.”)
Also in the Whedon spirit, Doctor Who is very much anti-The Man, pro the outsider. After the near-disastrous denouement of the third episode, which takes us back in time to nineteenth-century Cardiff (which, judging from the jokes, seems to be London’s equivalent of New Jersey), Rose muses sadly, “She saved the world — a servant girl. And no one will ever know.”
The one element of the show that could stand a bit of a Whedon makeover is Rose. Like Buffy (and her neo-noir successor, Veronica Mars), she’s cute, principled and funny: “I’m gonna have a quick word with Michael Jackson over there,” she says of the evil skin lady, to whom she exclaims, “It’s better to die than live like you, you bitchy trampoline!” But so far, her back story seems lacking. Why did she run off with Doctor Who? Basically, to escape the tedium of her daily life: dippy mom, dopey
Being from the fifty-first century, this James Bond character is naturally omnisexual.
boyfriend, dull job. To me, that’s a good reason to take off for some travel — just not a great one. Buffy and Veronica are up against some hardcore inner demons and outer injustices; I want Rose, like them, to have some built-in torment, some driving conflict, some deeper agenda. I’ll have to trust that as the story arc develops, she will.
Elsewhere, here’s what not to look for: First, you will not get the complexity of The X-Files; that’s just not what Who is out to do. (Grownup allegorical undercurrent notwithstanding, it’s always been conceived of as a “family” show.) Also, MacGyver this ain’t. How does Doctor Who stop the evil plastic? With a vial of a blue liquid called “anti-plastic.” Just go with it.
And finally, there’s not so much sex. Innuendo, yes, along with, in later episodes, an intergalactic James Bond character who, being from the fifty-first century, is naturally omnisexual. This leads to a flirtation triangle with Rose and the Doctor (who does not discourage him). But Doctor Who and Rose are not going to hook up, though I’m sure there’s plenty of online fan-fic that goes there. (It’d be a bit of a May-December affair, anyway, considering that she’s twenty-one and he’s technically over 1,000.) Just enjoy their Mulder and Scully more-than-friends magnetism, and leave it at that. n°
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Lynn Harris is author of the satirical novel Death By Chick Lit and its prequel, Miss Media, as well as co-creator of the award-winning website BreakupGirl.net. A regular contributor to Glamour, Salon, The New York Times, Babble and many others, she also writes the "Rabbi’s Wife" column for Nextbook.org. Visit her at LynnHarris.net.