Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How to Watch Doctor Who - A Five Step Program

The sixth season of the new Doctor Who reaches its midpoint finale on Saturday. It got off to a rocky start with a confusing two-part opener, but my goodness gracious, it’s fairly hit its stride now.

Now in his second year in full command of the series, Steven Moffat has brought the old warhorse to undreamed of glories. Moffat gets Doctor Who, and utilises his considerable powers as a writer and storyteller to make some very thrilling science-fiction television. The current Doctor Who is a lustrous jewel in the BBC’s starry crown.

Only thing is, if you sit down in front of your TV this Saturday night expecting to be blown away, there’s a very good chance you’ll have no idea what all the fuss is about. That’s one of the problems with TV as an art form, you see – if a series has been on air a long time, you have more than a little catching up to do.

And if the series dates back to the 1960s, as Doctor Who does – well, I mean to say. You’d need a time machine, wouldn’t you? There are 776 episodes aired and you may count on it that at least 500 aren’t much cop.

So what, then, is Doctor Who, why is it worth my while to watch and with so many episodes out there, where on earth do I begin?

It’s worth your while to watch because the age at which Doctor Who is best enjoyed, ten, is the age when you’re imagination is at its richest and the world seems full of possibility. The makers of the Star Trek movie understood this absolutely, which is why that movie was such fun, instead of a lot of po-faced sturm und drang. Best leave that to Bergman.

Steven Moffat has returned that childlike glee and wonder to Doctor Who. The BBC run Doctor Who Proms to help introduce kids to classical music, and they are currently running a competition where kids can write their own three minute episode. What’s not to love about that? Take a look at the kids' reaction to the entrance of the monsters at last year's Proms - really, if you're not charmed, you need to see another kind of doctor entirely.

Doctor Who’s origins are the derring-doers of British popular fiction, the Richard Hannays, Bulldog Drummonds and Sherlock Holmeses, mixed with the British scientific know-how that saw the Victorians conquer the world. The Doctor might be a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, but he’s as British as Marmite.

Any further attempt to explain and we turn into Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. If you’re still interested, check out these stand alone episodes from the past six years. If you like them, then perhaps a boxset of Season 3 and, who knows, maybe even some Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee from the 1970s heyday for some hardcore exposure. Enjoy.

Blink. Season 3, Episode 10. The perfect Doctor Who story, on so many levels. Every story about time travel gives rise to paradoxes, and those paradoxes particularly engage Steven Moffat, the writer of Blink. In Blink, not only does Moffat unravel a complex timey-wimey story and ties it all up again in a perfectly formed plot arc, but he does it all with the Doctor himself sidelined, and the action led by Sally Sparrow, played by the wonderful Carey Mulligan, who went on to be Oscar nominated last year. 42 minutes of sublimity. Perfect.

Human Nature/Family of Blood. Season 3, Episodes 8 and 9. A two-parter in which the Doctor becomes human to hide from his enemies. The story is set in Edwardian antebellum England, a civilisation on the eve of its doom, and features a lovely performance by wonderful, heroic and terribly under-rated Martha Jones. In a story marred by some over-writing in the second part, Martha, a medical student having to work as a maid as part of her and the Doctor’s diguise, remarks to her friend that she likes this new teacher, John Smith, because he doesn’t discrimate against Martha because she’s a Londoner. I love that line.

Amy’s Choice. Season 5, Episode 7. Doctor Who is meant to be weird, and very few episodes have been as weird as Amy’s Choice. The Doctor and his companions find the TARDIS, the Doctor’s time machine, invaded by a Dream Lord, who is messing with their heads big style. It’s marvellous, spooky and especially interesting when we find out just who the Dream Lord actually is.

The Girl in the Fireplace. Season 2, Episode 4. The Doctor as hero. Another episode written by Moffat, in which Doctor Who returns to its roots as a program that will help kids with their history. Guest star Sophia Myles makes a very beautiful and suitably tragic Madame de Pompadour.

The Doctor’s Wife. Season 6, Episode 4. A thrilling tour de force, and the best jumping off point into the long backstory of Doctor Who. Guest written by Neil Gaiman. Marvellous. Just marvellous.