Doctor Who: Eccleston Era Overview
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 328
Now that the 2005 season of Doctor Who is finished (or, to be slightly more precise, now that the Eccleston era has ended), it is worth taking a step back to reflect on what the new series has contributed, what sort of changes have been made, and what the overall impact has been. We will thus finish our look at the reintroduction of Doctor Who with a brief overview of the state of the programme today.
The most immediate, and obvious, question to pose of the new series is whether or not it is a break from the programme's past. The short answer to this question is that, whatever it may seem at first glance, it is actually very much in keeping with what has gone before. Although a lot of the press coverage of the new series has fallen into the somewhat simplistic equation of "old series = ropy effects, new series = top-drawer effects," this is actually rather misleading. For the bulk of its run, the old series employed effects which where at least the industry standard for television at the time, and, in a few cases, actually cutting-edge (for instance the use of Scene-Sync in "Meglos" and "Warriors' Gate"). However, often these effects come across as cheap to modern audiences simply because of the relatively primitive nature of the technology available at the time compared to modern computer animation. The problem is that the programme has been off the air for sixteen years, meaning that, rather than a seamless glide through the technical improvements of the 1990s, we have a massive gap between a programme made in 1989 and a programme made in 2005 (with the 1996 telemovie being too brief a reappearance to really give evidence of a trend). While the present format of 45-minute standalone stories may be seen as a departure from the traditional 25-to-30-minute serial, it has to be said that the latter format was the standard for telefantasy programmes at the time the series was created and for most of its run (see, for instance, the 1950s Quatermass, Timeslip and the 1981 adaptation of The Day of the Triffids), and so the change can be seen as simply an adaptation to the new standard of 45-minute "arc-story" standalones combined with the occasional 90-minute two-parter (see, for instance, Farscape, Lexx and the more recent Star Trek spinoffs). Like the old series, the new series is employing techniques and formats which are the industry standard for British television in its era, as well as some more innovative practices, to produce a decent programme.
The portrayal of the Doctor, while deviating strongly from some eras of the programme, is also not without precedent. Eccleston's Doctor is dangerous and a bit dark, with a bad side which he has to overcome, and, in this, is not a million miles from the frequently selfish, negligent and unpredictable version played by William Hartnell, or the somewhat abortive attempt to turn Sylvester McCoy into the "Dark Doctor", or even Tom Baker, whose Doctor was more than capable of doing some quite nasty things very casually. As in those eras, too, the companion or companions tend to provide the moral and emotional focus of the series, questioning the rightness of the Doctor's actions and steering him back on track; Rose's role in "humanising" the Doctor is not a million miles from that of Ian and Barbara, Ace or Sarah Jane. While it's fair to say that Eccleston's is the first Doctor to be explicitly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, early production notes indicate that the production team of the Hartnell era were working to the idea that the Doctor had some kind of tragic event in his recent backstory which prevented him and Susan from going home (indeed, one version had the event in question being a cataclysmic war), which is not too dissimilar from the Time War concept running through the most recent season. The portrayal of the Daleks as characters rather than mere signifiers for evil is also less of a radical departure from their roots, being largely a return from the Davros-centric stories of recent years to the 1960s era of clever, Mephistophelian creatures with a culture and political system of their own.
At the same time, however, the series cannot be said to be "like the original" in the sense of being a nostalgia trip simply for the sake of it. The producers of the new series are visibly not trying to pastiche Doctor Who as it was in earlier times, or to clog the series with references to the past; the destruction of Gallifrey, for instance, not only suggests that significant events have been occurring during the series' time off the air, but gets rid of some cumbersome backstory and returns an aspect of mystery to the Doctor Who universe. What this series does do is, like earlier seasons, take a versatile premise-- an alien and his companion(s) who can go anywhere in time and space and get mixed up in anything-- and giving us a season of diverse science-fiction and/or fantasy series based on it. Many of these stories focus on themes which are explicitly those of the present day, such as terrorism, big business, reality television and the rightness of the death penalty; however, Doctor Who has always dealt with the current issues of the time, from anxieties about scientific progress in the 1960s to Cold War revisionism in the late 1980s. For the most part, also, the new series has not let the issues get in the way of the story (with the unfortunate exception of "Aliens of London/World War Three"). The programme carries on the work of earlier seasons by sticking to the spirit, rather than the letter, of the Doctor Who canon.
The treatment of sex and sexuality is also, whatever outraged letter-writers from Tunbridge Wells and prurient tabloid hacks may say, not very dissimilar from what has gone before. Whatever John Nathan-Turner may have famously said on the subject, sex was always present in Doctor Who-- not explicitly, but in such a way that adult and adolescent viewers can perceive an extra layer of meaning in certain scenes and relationships which goes over the heads of younger children. Companions of both sexes have flirted and been flirted with, and shown attraction to each other (consider, for instance, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill's are-they-or-aren't-they portrayal of Ian and Barbara); the Doctor himself occasionally has a foray into romantic territory (the Ninth Doctor's flirtation with Jabe the Tree in "The End of the World" being easily comparable to the First's with Cameca in "The Aztecs"). Ironically, the JN-T era was one which saw some of the most explicit sexualisation of the leading characters, with Tegan and Peri's assets continually thrust to the fore and Turlough wandering around in a school uniform, suggesting that JN-T's insistence that sex had no place in the Tardis simply caused it to find other outlets. Even the idea of mutual attraction between the Doctor and his companion is not unprecedented, as the real-life relationship between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward periodically lent a romantic hint to the banter between the Doctor and Romana. Gay characters and themes have also appeared over the years, and not only as a source of humour, as witness the mature and sensible way in which the lesbian subtext is handled in "The Stones of Blood". While the treatment of sexuality is more explicit and less subtextual in the modern programme, we do live in the post-AIDS era in which the public are, on the whole, more used to the open expression of sexuality; children and teenagers who have grown up with the portrayal of sexuality seen on Neighbours and Buffy the Vampire Slayer would likely be alienated were Doctor Who to take a more conservative approach. In some ways, JN-T's remarks on the subject of sex have a lot to answer for, in that they have caused some people to develop the idea that Doctor Who is traditionally a repressed, buttoned-up programme in which sex never features, which is far from the case.
The portrayal of sexuality does, however, provide one of the major differences between the old series and the new, in the form of Captain Jack and his open bisexuality. Far too often in the media, gay people have been portrayed either as ineffectual, camp comedy figures (e.g. Mr Humphries on Are You Being Served) or as evil and/or mentally damaged predators (e.g. the various neurotic women seen in The Killing of Sister George). Bisexuals have, if anything, been subject to an even worse press, with their willingness to approach both sexes being taken as a sign of sinister unreliability (e.g. Krantor in Blake's 7). For the most part, too, the alternative has been to portray gays and/or bisexuals as oppressed paragons of virtue (e.g. Andy Lippincott of Doonesbury, although, to be fair, he has been succeeded by the somewhat better-developed Mark and Chase). As such, it is great to see Doctor Who featuring a character who is not only bisexual and heroic, but well-rounded-- while generally a good man, Jack is also a self-confessed con artist who is not above using his sexuality to get what he wants. Captain Jack is allowed to have his faults, but not to be reduced to a comedy figure or stereotype (positive or negative) because of his orientation, which is a significant step forward for Doctor Who, and indeed for television in general.
On a similar note, the series has also made positive strides in terms of the portrayal of class and regional origin. The new series, and in particular the blatant lack of received pronunciation displayed by Rose and the Doctor, has shown some commentators at their worst in terms of prejudice against working-class and/or Northern people. Particular venom seems to have been reserved for Christopher Eccleston, with many insulting stereotypes of Northerners as ignorant thugs being deployed, and some commentators even saying that it is actually somehow physically wrong for the Doctor to have an accent which isn't middle-class and Home Counties (the most extreme example we have found so far said that since the Doctor is a Time Lord, he should look and sound like a member of the British aristocracy-- which he never has done). There is, however, no reason why this should be the case; "received pronunciation" is not somehow better than any other accent in the British Isles, but simply the one favoured by the group which has been most recently dominant in the country. It is also worth noting that, with the overwhelming number of regional accents on television today, many modern viewers tend to find the insistence on received pronunciation in 1970s television strange if not outright alienating, meaning that the series might have had less resonance with the public had the character not been Northern. Finally, there is no reason within the series itself for the Doctor to speak pure RP; the Seventh Doctor had a pronounced Scottish accent, and the Third had a lisp, neither of which are innately any stranger than a Northern accent. In fact, having a Northern character who is intelligent, cultured and, ultimately, a positive character, is in some ways as much a blow to stereotypes as is the introduction of Captain Jack. A side point, but a related one, is the fact that this is a series which manages to pull off the difficult trick of being explicitly multiethnic without seeming like it is ticking boxes on a set of equal-opportunities guidelines; there is no narrative reason for Mickey or Cathica to be black, or the doctor at Albion Hospital to be Japanese, but they are, and they are also well-rounded characters rather than stereotypes. The series has also gone some way towards challenging regional, class and ethnic stereotypes.
The most distinctive difference between the earlier and present series, however, has been the linking of all the stories within it in an "arc," both implicitly and explicitly. Earlier so-called "arcs" in Doctor Who have generally not been as comprehensive or thorough: "The Key to Time" season can easily be viewed as standalone stories, and, while it can be fun to trace the thematic links running through Season 18, what you see in "Warriors' Gate" doesn't make you go back and reevaluate "The Leisure Hive". In the case of this season, however, the events of later stories have an influence on how one interprets the earlier ones: the reason behind the title of "The Long Game" is not revealed, or even hinted at, in the story itself, but only falls into place when one has seen "Bad Wolf" (the title of "The Long Game" is also a wonderful piece of misdirection, suggesting as it does that this will be a story about games and game shows; however, this misdirection only works if it is followed up by "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting of the Ways"). Seen on its own, the death of Cassandra could suggest that this is a series advocating vigilante justice; seen in the context of "Dalek", "Boom Town" and "The Parting of the Ways", it becomes part of the development of the Doctor. Uniquely, then, this series is best viewed as a whole, rather than as standalone stories.
Finally, the issue of Christopher Eccleston's departure. It has to be said that, despite some problems in the more superficial stories, Eccleston's performance has been strong overall, and he will be much missed. However, at the same time, the way in which the character developed over the arc means that the regeneration occurred at precisely the right moment in the story: the Doctor begins the series as a PTSD sufferer out for vengeance, but visibly looking to do better and to come to terms with the past; he gradually makes steps in this direction over the course of the series; finally, he commits a true act of redemption in sacrificing himself for Rose. Any actions he could perform after that point would have been somewhat anticlimactic; however, if he regenerates, he wipes the narrative slate clean for a new approach and a new set of problems and issues. As to what these will be, that remains to be seen in next year's season.
The new series thus manages to break new ground while at the same time staying in line with the ideas and practices that made the original such a strong series to begin with. Whatever happens in the future, Russell T. Davies and the whole acting and production team deserve to be commended for managing to pull off this difficult feat.