In the late ‘90s, the Doctor Who television landscape seemed at its most barren. The lackluster showing of the 1996 TV movie left most fans unsatisfied and, again, the future of the franchise was up in the air. Would there ever be a Ninth Doctor?
In 1999, five different actors, starting with Rowan Atkinson, played the Doctor in the charity special spoof “The Curse of the Fatal Death,” written by Steven Moffat. Later in 2003, a six-part adventure made using Flash animation called “The Scream of the Shalka” starred Richard E. Grant as an unofficial Ninth Doctor. Both are interesting and fun to watch, but neither are honest-to-Rassilon Who. Probably, it seemed, there’d never be another proper series.
But elsewhere in the UK, the beginnings of a plan were hatching… (I thought I’d go mysterious for a second. Is it working? No? Okay)
During the late ‘90s, TV writer Russell T. Davies lobbied hard to bring the series back properly. As the creator of the groundbreaking series, “Queer as Folk,” Davies had garnered a large amount of sway in the British television world, and had twice pitched bringing back Doctor Who to the screen. In 2003, he pitched a version of the show that, while a continuation, would shake things up a bit. For starters, each story would be a single 45 minute episode with a few being two-parters, much like most modern dramas. Second, he would keep only the very important things about the show’s long continuity, like the Doctor, the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, etc, and leave out all the stuff about Gallifrey and the Time Lords. The show, he thought, should be more about the companion with the Doctor acting as a guide to new worlds, not dissimilar to the very first era of the show with Ian and Barbara essentially being the lead characters and the Doctor more of the mysterious stranger who instigates the action.
To play the Ninth Doctor, Davies hired his friend, character actor Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston was best known, to me anyway, for his work with Danny Boyle in “Shallow Grave” and “28 Days Later.” As the show’s heroine, Davies hired former teen pop star Billie Piper, who was relatively new to the acting game at the time, but has since gone on to greater success. It was important that Davies and Eccleston create the right characterization of the Ninth Doctor, since he would be the first incarnation of the Doctor many young children would meet and would need to be accessible enough for viewers of all ages.
The Ninth Doctor’s jovial, goofy exterior hides a dark and troubled soul. He is, to the best of his knowledge, the only survivor of the Last Great Time War, and he has a mad case of survivor’s guilt. The war has hardened him, and he’s often quick to condemn humans for their faults, often calling them “stupid apes.” Still, it’s his interaction with humanity, and specifically Rose, that helps him cope with the loneliness of being the last of his kind.
A self-professed coward, the Ninth Doctor never shied away from sacrificing himself for the good of Earth, humans, and that one blonde chick. The Ninth Doctor wore a black leather jacket, black trousers, and various dark-colored frocks. What exactly makes frocks different from shirts is anyone’s guess. He was often heard saying, “Fantastic!” whenever anything warranting such an outburst occurred.
As for the stories, I suggest you just watch the whole season, since it’s on Netflix Instant right this very minute, but I’ll talk about the significant episodes, or ones I like, as always. Each story is a single 45 minute episode unless otherwise noted.
Story 157 – Rose
Written by Russell T. Davies
In an average borough of London, a shop girl, Rose Tyler, goes about her daily routine. Everything is as it always is, until it isn’t anymore. In the empty department store one evening, Rose is attacked by living shop window dummies and is nearly destroyed when out of nowhere a man appears and tells her to run. Just before he blows up the store, he introduces himself as “the Doctor.” The next day, Rose digs into who this mysterious man might be and finds a lot more than she bargained for and begins an adventure of gargantuan proportions.
This is absolutely important because, well, it’s the first New Who episode ever. It introduced the world to Rose Tyler and through her we got to meet the Doctor, the TARDIS, alien menaces, and boundless adventure. Boundless, I tell you! I also love that the first villains used were Autons, who hadn’t been seen since 1971. It adds to the many ways “Rose” is like the Third Doctor’s first serial “Spearhead From Space,” in that they both depict a brand knew Doctor, companion, decade, format, etc. That all being said, if not for the fact that it was first, it’d be a pretty forgettable episode. The story in it is pretty lame and it even attempts a fair amount of slapstick humor, which really doesn’t pay off. It has an Auton garbage can burping after eating a guy. I just rolled my eyes typing that. Don’t judge the entire series on this one episode; it does get a lot better.
Story 159 – The Unquiet Dead
Written by Mark Gatiss
Meaning to end up in Naples in 1860, the Doctor actually takes Rose to Cardiff in 1869. Christmastime, though, and the travelers decide to make the most of it. Elsewhere at a local funeral parlor, a dead old woman gets possessed by a blue vapor and kills her grieving son. Sneed, the proprietor of the funeral parlor, and his servant girl Gwyneth have become all too familiar with this occurrence and chase the dead woman to a theatre where Charles Dickens is giving a public reading. The blue vapor leaves the old lady’s body and escapes into the gas pipes, scaring everyone and drawing the attention of the Doctor and Rose. When Rose confronts Sneed about what has happened, he chloroforms and kidnaps her and it’s up to the Doctor and Dickens to save her and get to the bottom of the strange goings-on.
An excellent pseudo-historical, complete with celebrity guest (Simon Callow) playing a celebrity guest (Charles Dickens). This story takes place in Cardiff and we get the first mention of the Cardiff Rift, which becomes a huge part of later stories and is the setting for the spinoff series Torchwood. This is the first episode to mention the phrase “Time War,” and it’s also depicted as being a catastrophic event even for beings who weren’t directly involved.
You know why else this episode is great? It’s got zombies in it! Real reanimated corpses looking all creepy and scary and so on. This story re-established Doctor Who’s horror side, which had been such a major part of the‘70s era.
Story 161 – Dalek
Written by Robert Shearman
Landing in some large underground bunker in Utah in the near future, the Doctor and Rose discover that it actually a museum for alien artifacts, and the Doctor laments when he finds, in a display case, the head of a Cyberman. They have been called to this location via a very weak distress signal and the pair is soon set upon by soldiers who take them to the owner of the museum, billionaire Henry Van Statten, who shows little regard for the pieces he has collected other than his own greed and desire to possess them. He also makes mention that he has one living specimen, and the Doctor is aghast when he finds they’ve been torturing it to try to make it talk. Clearly, this is the creature that has been signaling for help, so the Doctor, under Van Statten’s close supervision, goes to speak to it. The Doctor, of course, knows what this creature is, and it just might be the death of everyone in the base, and maybe the world.
An absolutely brilliant story. It not only reintroduces the Doctor’s oldest foe, but gives us a heap more information about the Time War than ever we’d gotten previously. It’s still, to this day, the best use of the Daleks in New Who. It is here we discover that the Time War which wiped out the Doctor’s race was against the Daleks, and that the Doctor himself was forced to end the war. War does terrible things to a psyche and in this episode we truly see the awful effect the Time War has had, on both sides. It’s also interesting how a creature created in the 1960s can still be effectively scary when used 42 years later. This story also introduces Adam, one of Van Statten’s technicians, who becomes a companion, the first male companion since Turlough left in 1984. Unfortunately, Adam is rubbish, and departs on bad terms in the very next episode.
Story 163 – Father’s Day
Written by Paul Cornell
Rose’s father died when she was but an infant and her mother often spoke of him as a wonderful man and loving husband and father. Now, with an alien time machine pretty much at her command, she asks the Doctor if they could go see her father as he dies, by being hit by a car on the way to a friend’s wedding. No one was around when it happened and she doesn’t want to think of her father dying alone. I still think it’s morbid, but we’ll go with it. They see it happen, but Rose is unable to run and her father dies.
Once she recovers, Rose asks if they can do it again, which the Doctor hesitantly agrees to. He tells her she has to wait for their earlier selves to depart before running over, lest they cause a paradox. In the moment, though, Rose runs over and prevents her father’s death, causing their earlier selves to vanish. The Doctor is furious, but Rose brushes it off and goes with her father to the wedding. The ramifications of Rose’s actions prove to be massive as large, winged creatures, known as Reapers, appear and begin to devour things and people. Rose has to deal with the fact that her father might not have been the perfect guy she always imagined and that for things to get back to normal, he might still have to die.
One day a few years ago, I happened to be bored one afternoon and as I flipped passed BBC America, I saw that Doctor Who was about to start. Now, I hadn’t seen Doctor Who since I was a very small child and was scared of Tom Baker on PBS, but I knew it had returned in 2005 and thought, somewhat skeptically, this might be as good a time as any to see what it was like. It was this episode, Father’s Day, and though I didn’t know who the characters were, Doctor excluded, I was surprisingly enthralled. I almost immediately put aside the fact that it didn’t look very good and got caught up in the brilliant storytelling and moving performances.
At its best, the show is about how amazing concepts affect real people and this episode is a perfect depiction of that. After watching the episode, after a couple days of deliberation with myself, I decided to give the series a go, since it was on Netflix Instant, planning only to watch the Eccleston season and no more. Cut to 18 months later and I’ve seen just about every episode available since 1963 and I write about it for an awesome website. The power of Who.
Story 164 – The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
Written by Steven Moffat
The TARDIS is chasing a large metal cylinder marked dangerous through the time vortex. The cylinder skips out of the vortex to somewhere in London, sometime in the past. The TARDIS materializes within a month of it landing, in the middle of the Blitz. Rose spots a young boy wearing a gas mask on top of a building and tries to help him. The Doctor is puzzled when the prop phone on the exterior of the TARDIS begins to ring. A young woman appears and tells him not answer, though he does anyway, only to hear a child’s voice asking for his mummy. The Doctor turns back to the young woman to find she’s run off to raid a nearby house during the air raid. She brings a number of homeless children into the house to feast while the family it belongs to is in the shelter. The Doctor decides to introduce himself and finds that the woman’s name is Nancy and that she and the children sustain themselves like this every air raid.
Soon, there is a knock on the door and the boy in the gas mask appears outside, again calling for his mother. The Doctor wants to help and is surprised to find that Nancy and the children are terrified of this little boy. Nancy tells the Doctor the boy is empty. Elsewhere, Rose has found herself dangling from a barrage balloon. She is saved, however, by a suave American airman on loan to the British…saved in his invisible spaceship. The man is Capt. Jack Harkness, 51st Century time agent. He immediately assumes, given her severely non-period clothing, that Rose is also a time agent and that he’s prepared to sell the metal cylinder, a Chula warship, to her. She says she has a partner they must find before she can authorize such a trade. The Doctor, meanwhile, has come across a physician who is treating a number of people who appear to be in coma’s wearing gasmasks. It turns out, the masks aren’t on their faces, they ARE their faces and the patients soon sit up at once. Rose and Jack appear just as every patient and the physician stand up and march toward them chanting, “Are you my mummy?”
Hands down the best story of the season, respect of course to Mr. Cornell and Mr. Shearman. That Steven Moffat is something else, isn’t he? For the first four seasons, Moffat wrote one story and three out of four times he won the Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation. Moffat has a knack for at the same time being very dark and yet very hopeful and this story is wrought with both. This episode introduces new companion Jack Harkness who, unlike Adam, is a much more interesting character and, yes, would eventually go on to be the star in the spinoff series Torchwood, for good or ill. The episode is Christopher Eccleston’s best moment as the Doctor, and he really sinks his teeth into the material here. Excellent stuff.
Story 166 – Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways
By Russell T. Davies
The Doctor, Rose, and Jack, find themselves separately involved in futuristic versions of popular reality/game shows (The Doctor in “Big Brother,” Rose in “The Weakest Link,” and Jack in “What Not to Wear”) but with a much darker side. The losers on each of these shows are disintegrated. The Doctor ain’t having this and, along with a young female contestant named Lynda, escapes the Big Brother house to find that they’re on Satellite 5, the massive media space station seen in an earlier episode. The station is now under the control of the Badwolf Corporation. The Doctor meets up with Jack and they go to rescue Rose just as she is disintegrated. They get arrested and find a cybernetic being called The Controller who is a prisoner who gets orders from unseen masters. She informs the grieving friends that losers are not indeed disintegrated, but are transmitted to an empty point in space. Scanning for that empty point, Jack and The Doctor are horrified to see hundreds of Dalek ships.
This is the culmination of the season’s mysterious Bad Wolf story arc, which still doesn’t make 100% sense to me. Still, this is RTD’s first huge end-of-series spectacular and it’s a doozy. Wall-to-wall Dalek action propels the second part of the story and Rose proves herself as one of the most capable and compassionate companions ever to ride in the TARDIS. The action culminates with the Ninth Doctor meeting his tragic and heroic end as he saves Rose after she saves him.
At the end of the episode, Christopher Eccleston regenerates into David Tennant, something Rose was not expecting, but sadly, most of the viewers were. Even before the second episode of the series was broadcast, the news leaked that Eccleston would leave after the 13 episodes were shot. It’s not entirely clear as to why he wanted to leave, many various reports have it being a plan from the start or a skirmish between him and RTD, but in a recent interview, the actor said he wasn’t happy with the atmosphere he was working in. That being said, you’d never know in his performance that he was unhappy. Eccleston was a consummate professional who in just a short period of time made an indelible mark on the role and the show as a whole. Without him, it’s doubtful Doctor Who would have made it to where it is today.
Next time we go diving through Tennant waters, which may be the grossest sentence I’ve ever typed, and check out what I’m sure many of you will say is your favorite period of the show.