Who’s on first!

Couldn’t resist.  My first panel for Norwescon this year will take a look at how Series Five of Doctor Who compares to Series One through Four, and the 26 seasons that came before it. Summary: I’m not sure I’d say the new series is returning to the traditional mode, but it is a departure from the Russel T Davies years — and, in my view, a welcome one.

My sister has a theory that we tend to imprint on whichever Doctor we see first. Mine was Tom Baker, and I’ll still list my favorite stories out of Season 16 Key to Time arc. Hers was Christopher Eccleston. Further confusing things, I happened to watch Series 2 with David Tennant before I got access to Eccleston’s year.

She preferred Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, because she saw more depth to his character. I liked Tennant’s take; I saw more of the Doctor I remembered, and I saw the ninth Doctor as too much of a prick.

As time went on, though, I found the Tenth Doctor was wearing on me. And I don’t think it was him so much as Russell T Davies’ take on Doctor Who. His take was brilliant in the beginning because it took the show places it had never been before; but the longer he stayed at the helm, the less true that was.

By the time the specials came along, I had distilled the Russell T Davies years into four core principles:

  1. Everybody dies.
  2. Humans are evil.
  3. The Doctor is awesome. But tragic. But awesome.
  4. Daleks!

I will always be grateful to Steven Moffat for breaking that formula.

That said, Series Five still has much more in common with its immediate predecessor than its ancestors: There’s the pacing, the season-spanning menace, and most basically, the storytelling. The new series’ biggest departure from classic Who was its use of thirteen hourlong episodes instead of the old half-hour serials. You get both more stories and faster narratives, so characters don’t spend the middle half of every episode getting lost in corridors anymore.

I view the Russell T Davies years as kind of an artistic sugar rush. He had this incredible range of new technology and financial resources, plus creative freedom from the original series’ institutional will, so he could show all these things we could only imagine before. Like an army of flying Daleks.  Moffat’s year is about building on that new foundation that Davies built for the show — it wouldn’t exist without Davies’ re-imagining of the show, but it’s also a more mature iteration.

That sort of growth isn’t all that different from the way Doctor Who‘s mythos grew and deepened over its original 26-year run, something that was just as key to the show’s longevity as their ability to recast their lead every few years. So even if you didn’t think the show was in quite as bad a rut as I just made it look, the new show’s ability to evolve in much the same way as its predecessor is a promising sign for its future.

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