Okay, time for a confession: although I have a UK passport, I fail the Brit Purity Test on several counts. 1) I don’t like football. 2) I am painfully indifferent to cricket. 3) I neither love nor hate Marmite.
The most egregious, though, is this: 4) I don’t get Doctor Who.
Let me repeat that: I don’t get Doctor Who. Admittedly, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, but what I’ve seen has left me… non-plussed, I guess. Somewhat confused at what all the fuss is about.
Let’s start at the beginning. My mum, the born-and-bred Brit in the nuclear family, was never much into sci-fi, and she told me at an early age that Doctor Who was a load of rubbish. Living in a country far, far away (let’s put it like this: we can see Europe from here!), it was never on TV, at least as far as I could tell, so I was never able to catch an episode as a kid. I had some faint awareness of the series and its trappings: that weirdo blue phone box-looking thing, a ’70s guy with curly hair and a long, multicoloured scarf, and low-rent, evil R2D2-alikes going “Exterminate! Exterminate!” like so many homicidal Stephen Hawkings. But I’d never seen an episode.
Growing up, I picked up info about the series here and there – but it was only a few years ago, when Doctor Who got the Christopher Eccleston treatment that I thought perhaps I should check it out. A few years later I got a three-episode DVD set for Christmas, which had been gathering dust on a shelf until a week or two ago, when I decided that The Time Had Come. I was going to check out the series and finally get an idea of what all the fuss is about. (For the record, the three episodes I’ve seen are the first episodes featuring Eccleston as the Doctor.)
For the first two episodes (“Rose” and “The End of the World”), I simply didn’t get it at all. The acting was broad, the writing lacked wit, Billie Piper… actually, Piper, an actress I don’t usually like, was probably the best thing about it, keeping things relatively grounded. My main problem, though, was that the series seemed to be firmly aimed at kids. I understand that it’s something of a UK tradition for children to watch the series while hiding behind the sofa because it’s allegedly scary (hundreds of thousands of British kids must’ve grown up afraid of plastic trashcans…), but since so many of the people extolling the virtues of Doctor Who were in their 20s and 30s, I expected something more, well, mature? I don’t mind tongue in cheek, but the winking, isn’t-this-a-lark tone reminded me mostly of Christmas pantos. The humour mostly fell flat, and the cheesy production values didn’t feel charming so much as smugly self-satisfied, less idiosyncratic style than shtick.
I came this close to getting it, though, with the third episode, “The Unquiet Dead”, featuring Charles Dickens (acted by Simon Callow with genuine charm) and space zombies. The ingredients were the same – moderately scary villains with a sci-fi slant, tongue-in-cheek humour, Billie Piper’s mouth hanging open – but Mark Gatiss’ scriptworked, added to which the episode knew well enough to take its central conceits seriously enough. With the tone a lot less all over the place, I could see why people would take to the character and to the series’ mix of sci-fi, mild horror and British eccentricity. (In fact, I hope this Gatiss fellow finds some more writing jobs – if only there was another BBC series about an eccentric, intellectually brilliant main character with a loyal companion where the man could use his talents…)
I might end up checking out more episodes, in the hope that they are more along the lines of “The Unquiet Dead” – but I’m not sure I trust the series to balance its tone so it doesn’t come across feeling silly rather than charming and pandering rather than scary. We’re currently watching another BBC series that to my mind has similar problems with tone: Being Human. I enjoy the series well enough, but it is very hit-and-miss in how it combines high-concept, whimsical sitcom, horror clichés, Neil Gaimanesque supernatural-meets-the-mundane and character-driven drama.
In fact, both of these series have given me a new appreciation for Joss Whedon’s work on Buffy. Whedon isn’t always perfect, and when he’s bad he’s ghastly – but he is amazingly deft when it comes to juggling wildly different tones and managing to be funny, poignant and scary at the same time. While his sense of humour is also very ironic, it maintains the integrity of his characters and what they’re going through; the occasional wink to the audience is handled well enough for the audience to chortle but still take the protagonists seriously. And all of this in spite of similarly cheesy production values as in Doctor Who.
So there it is, good people. Give me Whedon instead of Time Lords in Tardises (Tardii?). The question remains: where do I hand in my passport?
P.S.: None of this would’ve happened if I had been raised on a steady diet of Doctor Who, The Ashes and Man U. But I did watch Casualty religiously for several years – shouldn’t that count for something?