Doctor Who

Saturday, June 11, 2005 by

It didn’t sound like the most promising idea in the history of Doctor Who. And this from a series that, for this casual fan, had more or less died at the moment an enemy heavily indebted to Bertie Bassett lumbered on screen.

But bringing in John Barrowman as the libidinous Captain Jack Harkness has been an absolute masterstroke.

Plunging the Doctor and his companions into a futuristic world of killer reality television, however, was always destined to be a disaster.

The portents never looked good, right from Russell T Davies’s remark that the branding of the robotic host of Bad Wolf TV’s The Weakest Link as “Anne Droid” was “his favourite joke in the whole thing”, chortling at his own ingenuity in devising a piece of wordplay the editors of Shiver and Shake might have rejected for being too hackneyed. In 1975.

For some reason, Doctor Who has never quite managed to successfully pull off pop culture. From the TARDIS crew of the ’60s frugging to The Beatles, to the unconvincing broadcasts of BBC-3 in the ’70s, and a mugging cameo from Andrew Marr in 2005, it seems the Doctor really should have learned to steer clear of the planet Shepherd’s Bush and its solar system.

The concept of a future human race being sedated by mindless satellite transmissions is too much of a tired sci-fi chestnut to be conscripted by a writer as smart and media-savvy as Davies; likewise the plot device of reality television brought to its ultimate, homicidal conclusion has surely been done to, well, death. It’s a pity that Who‘s take on Big Brother was so ham-fisted, it didn’t even extend to bringing in the unmistakable tones of Marcus Bentley.

Moreover, it’s now impossible to escape the feeling that Davies just isn’t as funny as he thinks he is. Dismal nudging references to “President Schwarzenegger” and a futuristic adaptation of Ground Force where the losers get turned into compost reminded this viewer of an ancient 3-2-1 sketch set in outer space, in which astronaut Chris Emmett lamented that “Earth have been knocked out of the Universe Cup”. Perhaps the only decent joke this time round concerned where a naked Jack was hiding his Compact Laser Deluxe from robo-Trinny and Susannah.

Fortunately, once the Doctor had evicted himself from the Big Brother house, the episode kicked into gear with him and Jack charging around Satellite 5 in scenes destined to be recreated across the nation’s playgrounds this Monday lunchtime, Harkness’s intergalactic gung-ho spirit (“Do I look like an out-of-bounds sort of guy?”) neatly undercut by the Doctor flinging the Captain’s unfeasibly complex gun straight into the arms of the bemused network producer. The tension between the innocuous Doctor and the cocksure Jack, meanwhile, remains a congenial sideshow.

And even if Davies can’t write comedy, he can write engaging, compelling dialogue, right from informing Lynda he’d defeated the Jagrafess and been “home in time for tea” to his epic “it means no” exchange with the Dalek leader, boldly and breathtakingly expressing, in contrast to the nobler mien of his toothier predecessor, his desire to “wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky”.

This notion of an all-too-fallible Doctor, having meddled once too often and being brought face-to-face with his mistakes, is a refreshing and appreciated recurring device of Davies’s Doctor Who.

It’s also a measure of the arcane scheming behind the cameras that at least one gullible viewer briefly speculated whether Davies, having failed in his bid to regenerate the ninth Doctor with no advance warning, had permanently reduced Rose to a mound of dust and pulled another Adric on us.

Meanwhile it was a relief that, having finally reached the episode Bad Wolf, as little time as possible was expended on unravelling that particular riddle wrapped in an enigma, after all the fuss. Even if it did disappoint those of us who’d speculated it was all to do with Barrowman attempting to avenge his “missing two years” on Live & Kicking by hunting down those, ahem, bad wolves from the show’s rival, the all too appropriately-titled What’s Up Doc.

But the real truth is all too ominous, and as that awe-inspiring march of half a million Daleks towards earth begins, it’s only just beginning to sink in. There’s only one more Saturday night in the company of Christopher Eccleston to go. The ninth Doctor’s grin and “fantastic!” and his little wave (“hello!”) will surely be essayed by leather-clad superfans in home-made videos for decades to come, while Billie Piper and John Barrowman have put in such appealing performances that Russell T Davies could write a crossover episode with Celebrity Love Island and it’d still end up compelling television. Probably best if he doesn’t try, though.

It’s a testament, above all, to the fashion in which Eccleston has successfully recast the role in his own image that, with one week left and a battle to the death with the Daleks to anticipate, at least one viewer feels like it’s still 1981 with Tom Baker hanging by a cable from the Pharos Project telescope. It might be the end, but the moment has been prepared for. Better than ever.


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