The New Doctor Who: Continuation or Reboot?

James McDuff comments: “One request, James. Without giving anything away now, I wonder if you could mention how this season and its conclusion fits in to the overall “Dr. Who Universe” for those of us who have no prior exposure to the show, either as part of the last review or in a later post.”

How does it fit? How about “perfectly” and “not at all” at the same time?

Let me explain.

The key to Doctor Who’s longevity, in my opinion, is that it has the most flexible format in fiction. The X-Files is a story about Mulder and his search for the truth. That tale has a beginning, a middle and an end, and we knew when the show had passed the point where it should have ended. Star Trek is ostensibly a show about humanity exploring the universe, but each generation focuses on a particular set of characters, so, it’s not humanity’s exploration of the universe we’re looking at here, but Kirk’s or Picard’s. Again, these stories have beginnings, middles and ends. They’re also limited in terms of their settings. They are set in humanity’s future, and if they do a show which breaks out of that setting, it’s often seen as just a gimmick.

Doctor Who is about a wizard who travels the universe in a magical cabinet, going from adventure to adventure, and dressing up his fantasy bones in sci-fi pretences. There is no limit to what he can see or do. He can go far into the future and face fantasy monsters or sci-fi space operas or he can go back in time and get caught up in real historical events. The only consistent element is that the Doctor is a hero who firmly believes that the ends shouldn’t justify the means.

And, to top it off, the television show gives the Doctor the ability to die and come back to life as a new character, with a new appearance and a new personality. Not only is the hero now imbued with the dramatic potential of thirteen possible death scenes (and you know the writers will figure out a way to get around that twelve-regenerations-and-then-you’re-kaput limit to keep the show going if they have to), the show now has the ability to go on forever, just like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, while still providing the continuity that the latter two shows lack.

And viewers like continuity. Popular villains return, popular characters and concepts get recycled. So, over time (and the show has had forty-two years to build this up, including twenty-six years on television), Doctor Who has developed one heck of a convoluted continuity. Actually, it’s developed several. Because, to enable new viewers to get into this series, the show has periodically dumped old continuity. The Time Lords, the Doctor’s people, have been rewritten several times, changing from aloof god-like beings to a society of corrupt politicians, to cynical manipulators of history, to near-demonic beings with very devious and very nasty weaponry at their disposal.

The officially sanctioned book series produced by Virgin and then the BBC between 1991 and 2005 (producing over 350 titles making the Doctor the one character published in the the most works of fiction, leaving Sherlock Holmes in the dust) hasn’t helped matters. We have parallel universes at play. We have the Time Lords destroyed and resurrected twice. We have the convoluted history of the Daleks, etc, etc. In short, any producer who tried to bring in all of the baggage accumulated over 42 years of television and book publication (not to mention BBC-sanctioned audio plays featuring the former actors who played the Doctor) would be an idiot. And Russell T. Davies is no idiot.

This first season of the show’s revival has proceeded as a textbook case of how you build off the original series while at the same time re-introducing the series to a new generation of fans. Most of the previous continuity hasn’t been dropped, it’s just been set aside; and Russell T. Davies has been careful to explore the range of the new series, while sparingly reintroducing concepts from the old, like the TARDIS, the Autons, the Daleks and, finally, regeneration.

All of these elements have been carefully set up so that they don’t overwhelm, unlike the 1996 television movie where Sylvester McCoy’s regeneration into Paul McGann ate most of the plot and alienated most of the new audience. The Time Lords have been kept very much in the background in this revival. Most new viewers know that there is a lot of history behind what they are seeing, but they don’t need to know it. They’ve been given enough to follow along and enjoy the series at roughly the same level as established fans. It’s been brilliantly done.

But Mr. MacDuff probably wants me to be more specific. So, how does the revival relate to the original series? Let me answer some specific questions:

Q. Are the two series linked? Do they share the same continuity?

A. Most definitely yes. As far as we know, Christopher Eccleston is playing the ninth Doctor, not the first. And yet a lot of time has passed since Sylvester McCoy (seventh) walked off the screen in Survival and Paul McGann (eighth) settled down to a cup of tea in the telemovie. A lot of time and a lot of history has passed, meaning that new viewers and old fans are on the same level. The ninth Doctor has experienced a lot of things that none of us are privy to, and it has damaged him. We’re both equally cogniscant of the backstory, and thus are able to be equally invested in it.

Q. What elements of the original series have appeared in the new?

A. The Autons (see Rose) originally appeared in the early 1970s serials Spearhead from Space and Terror of the Autons. Despite how memorable their outings were, they haven’t had a big influence on the Doctor Who universe, so new viewers aren’t missing anything that old viewers are getting when the Doctor talks about the great war that destroyed the Nestene Consciousness’ home planet.

The Time Lords are the Doctor’s people, and he’s reasonably sure they’re all dead, thanks to the great Time War that’s been playing in the background of this serial (which old viewers know nothing about either).

Then there are the Daleks, who have faced every incarnation of the Doctor (even Paul McGann had an audio adventure with these monsters) at least once. All you need to know about their backstory is carefully presented in Rob Sherman’s Dalek. They are the mutated remains of a fascist race that’s engaged in a perpetual war of genocide against all other forms of life. The metal casing is a tank designed to house the creature inside. Their motives are easy to understand: kill everything — although in the hands of a good writer, they can be devious and cunning as well as brutal.

The Daleks have long had the ability to time travel, but the great Time War they fought with the Time Lords wasn’t even hinted at in the original series or the books that followed, so new viewers are on the same playing field as the old.

References to U.N.I.T. have appeared on the new series, both in the database that Mickey cracks in World War Three and in the fact that in this show’s continuity, Britain’s nuclear codes are in the hands of the Secretary General and can only be released through a unanimous vote of the U.N. Security Council. U.N.I.T. stands for United Nations Intelligence Taskforce and it was set up in the 1970s to combat the bevy of alien invasions Earth faced during that period (when the Doctor was conveniently exiled to Earth by the Time Lords).

But you don’t need to know all that. It’s enough to remember UNIT as a secretive international organization designed to protect Earth’s population from even the memory of alien attacks. If any players from UNIT, including the Doctor’s old friend, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, show up, they’ll likely be reintroduced for the benefit of new viewers.

Russell T. Davies has taken care to start the revival on a clean sheet of paper, while at the same time keeping the forty-two year history of Doctor Who in his desk drawer. In season two, concepts like the Cybermen (humans from a parallel Earth who dealt with environmental pressures by replacing their bodies and brains with cybernetic parts) or the rumoured reappearance of an old companion will likely be reintroduced carefully, with quick explanations to bring the new viewers up to speed. The result has been a new show that new viewers can quickly get into, with a depth from the old that old fans can appreciate, which conveys the sense that there is a lot to explore here.

All you need to know about Doctor Who can be summed up thus: the Doctor is a hero that fights evil anywhere and anytime, a lonely alien who takes on human companions and rails against the injustices in the universe. It’s pretty plain who his friends are and who the baddies are. Once prepped, you should enjoy the ride that follows.

Oh, and the state of play of the Time Lords and the Daleks? Both civilizations are now gone and shouldn’t bother us for a while. But the lone Dalek in Dalek managed to survive, to the Doctor’s surprise. It had no idea that the Emperor was out there, rebuilding the race. So, I think you can probably expect the Doctor to encounter one or two “old friends” from his home planet.

Here’s hoping for Elizabeth Hurley to take on the role of the Rani!

Google Earth

Oh man! You have got to be kidding me! Google’s gone too far this time!

Unfortunately, it’s only available for download for Windows XP or 2000 machines. My Windows 98 box isn’t going to cut it, though surely my borrowed Mac OsX powerbook would? Any sign of a Mac version?

Hat tip to Dead Robot.

It’s One Day After the Full Legalization of Same Sex Marriage in Canada…

…and I still love my wife.

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