Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Comparing the two Doctor Whos by their Christmas specials

It's a good time to be a Doctor Who fan. In 1963 a character was created that erupted onto Britain's pop culture map. He started out as a wily grandfather but, with each incarnation, Doctor Who becomes a markedly different show. In his first incarnation, the Doctor was a wily grandfather type. Then he became more of a wacky uncle. Eleven incarnations and almost 40 years later (minus the hiatus in late 80s through to the 90s), the Doctor has been there on British television screens to whisk his audience away on adventure. But for some reason, it has taken Doctor Who almost 40 years to really build an American audience. Sure the old series used to run on PBS, but it was only during the most recent regeneration that the show has really gained a foothold in the states. Maybe it's Eleven's bow tie that finally made him mainstream in America.

Bow ties certainly helped Tucker Carlson's popularity.

With eleven incarnations, everybody has their own Doctor. I admit, it was during David Tennant's run that I originally started watching Doctor Who. I have always been a fan of time travel stories since I was little (I once tried to make my own time machine out of waffle blocks, a skateboard and a clock taped to my vehicle). And while I was aware of the older Doctor Who series, it wasn't until the new series premiering in 2005 that I really had a chance to watch it. Produced by Russel T. Davies and starring Christopher Eccleston, the revamped Doctor Who proved popular enough to continue past the first series. But it wasn't until Tennant took over the role that it really found its voice.

Tennant really was wonderful in the role.

And so the show continued, with Davies showrunning and Tennant starring. Doctor Who continued to be a success, but it was very campy and pulpy. Yes the series has always been tongue-in-cheek, however Doctor Who as a series never seemed to live up to its potential. With limitless storytelling opportunities at their disposal, having all of time and space to work with, series two, three and four just seemed to tell the same stories repeatedly. Let's look at the Christmas specials for simplicities sake.

Consider this my late Christmas post.

You see, Doctor Who has a tradition of running a special, a mostly standalone, extended episode around Christmas. During the Davies years, they have all been defined by giant invasions of tragedies. Just like most of the normal episodes, there was high stakes and high drama to be had by all. Whether it's an alien invasion, Victorian Cybermen or a futuristic Titanic disaster, Davies always struggled to tell huge stories with lots of sacrifice and action. These qualities define Davies' time as showrunner, with the world always in peril every week and the Doctor always there to save it. The Doctor became a messianic figure under Davies, and there is nothing fun about a messianic figure.

Sorry Jesus, happy birthday though.

When Davies left and Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, the show gained a new life and, with it a new following. Moffat infused a new sense of adventure that was lost in the RTD era. With Matthew Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, there was an energy to the show that has allowed it to finally become popular in America. While yes there was a niche audience of American fans before, now the ratings have never been better. Moffat brings a level of maturity to what is basically considered a kids program. For Moffat, the world doesn't need to be at peril every Christmas. Yes he has only produced two specials so far, but those two specials are head and shoulders above all the ones by Davies.

Series five and six feel completely different from the previous series, in a good way.

Both this year and last year, Moffat has crafted personal little tales about individuals in need to help. And not just sonic screwdriver help, but emotional help. The Doctor doesn't just save them from peril, but helps them become better people. The Earth being in danger is played out in science fiction, leaving the threat hollow, especially for a show like Doctor Who. But for the past few years it wasn't the Earth on the line, but instead the soul of a grumpy old man or the strength of a wounded mother. By focusing on real people instead of abstract threats of doomsday weapons, Moffat has allowed for real emotion to seep into the series. We are no longer told to follow our imagination and go on adventure, we are instead wrapped up in it.

Sidebar: Imagine if Terry Gilliam ever got his hands on Doctor Who? It would be awesome.

Davies used Doctor Who to play off our fears as children of monsters in our closet. But we needn't worry, because David Tennant will than show up in his blue box and save us all. Moffat instead humanizes those monsters. It's really quite funny, the past few series have been the darkest Who has been, but it still carries with it this childlike wonderment that you can't force or fake. Between Moffat's writing and Smith's acting, we have a Doctor that is both relatable and alien. The show is really a strange amalgam of themes but oddly it works brilliantly. Doctor Who could never gestate anywhere else but England. If Doctor Who was developed in America it could of never grown into its weirdness (for other weird but charming British shows, just check out Mighty Boosh), it would of instead compromised itself and been cancelled after a season. But instead we have a completely charming series that I enjoy watching. So, while I started watching with Tennant, I have no problem saying that Smith is my Doctor. He does a damn fine job.

Ignore the giant eyeball and just listen to the speech.