Dr. Who

Doctor Who — The Complete First Series

BBC Warner, 5-DVD Box Set, Color, NTSC, 545 minutes, $99.98.

Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

It's a toss-up as to whether it would have been better to have called this revival of Doctor Who the twenty-seventh season rather than the first series, but that distinction does not matter. What matters is that the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, is back and better than ever. This First Series, a production of BBC Wales, greatly benefits from the performance of Christopher Eccleston, perhaps the most distinguished actor ever to have played the Doctor. It is, as of May 2006, being broadcast on the Sci Fi Channel in the United States, and is announced for an extras-packed DVD release on July 4.

The television show, since its origins more than four decades ago, has often featured good scripts. This legacy has paid off, and the people who are writing for it now are those who grew up with it. This also goes for some of the actors. David Tennant, who has taken over the role of the Doctor for the Second and Third Series, has been a longtime and active fan of the series.

Forteana has an increased presence on the series. This is partly a legacy of The X-Files yet also a carryover from the earlier history of the program. The show's use of half-believed phenomena helps viewers suspend their disbelief in more unlikely things.

The first episode in the new series, "Rose," introduces the Doctor himself as a strange phenomena. Rose Tyler, a shop employee, has an unnerving encounter with some living plastic mannequins (actually alien Autons) and is saved by the Doctor. Curious about what happened and about the identity of the stranger who saved her, she hits the Internet.

She finds a website entitled "Who is Doctor Who?" (available on the real-life Internet at http://www.whoisdoctorwho.co.uk/) that examines evidences for a mysterious figure. The site reads: "Have you seen this man? Contact Clive." She visits the site's webmaster, Clive, at his home in London. Clive tells her about a man who appears through the centuries at times of disasters. Pictures and photographs place the figure (who seems to be one man but could be, he thinks, a series of fathers and sons) at occurrences like the Titanic disaster and the eruption of Krakatoa. Clive is depicted as obsessive, but his activities are tolerated by his wife and son — even if relegated to the shed out back of their house.

Clive has found traces of the mysterious "Doctor" in "political diaries, conspiracy theories, even ghost stories." His opinion of the Doctor is: "I think he's an alien from another world."

Eventually, Clive finds that his theories are all too true as he perishes at a shopping mall, attacked by an Auton.

However, knowledgeability about fringe material is also a characteristic of Rose's boyfriend Mickey. So that fictional character hosts the abovementioned real-life website after Clive leaves the scene. It is all part of BBC publicity, which also includes other "viral" websites for Doctor Who, expanding the show beyond the television realm and out onto the web. Of these websites, Mickey's is the most important, though, imitating as it does elements of real strange phenomena sites. Details connected with the broadcast episodes provide fodder for "investigations" by Mickey and his associates.

The other most important website for a Doctor Who-connected fictional organization is that for UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, http://www.unit.org.uk), which is the group that the Doctor was once attached to as scientific adviser. When visiting this website, remember the password "buffalo" and be sure not to press a certain button.

The third episode of the season, "The Unquiet Dead," is set during Christmas Eve 1869 in Cardiff and features Simon Callow as Charles Dickens. The great author's first urge is to scoff at the events unfolding before him. Resisting participation in a séance, he complains that "This is precisely the sort of cheap mummery I strive to unmask." Would that more skeptics had this Dickens' way with words.

The fourth and fifth episodes, respectively "Aliens of London" and "World War Three," tell a modern-day story which includes a living variant on a Feejee Mermaid. The Slitheen, a family of dangerous extraterrestrials abroad in London, have taken a pig, rendered it a biped, and augmented its brain with alien technology. They have fabricated this fake "alien" to distract the world from their plans to destroy the Earth — in order to sell its remnants as radioactive fuel on the interstellar black market.

They have gone so far as staging a UFO crash in London. The rumored "alien body" found within the spacecraft is that of the tricked-up pig.

To straighten this situation out, the Doctor remotely helps Mickey crack into UNIT's website because it has "all the secret information known to mankind."

The sixth episode, "Dalek," is probably the most fortean of all, as it references two favorite events. The human antagonist in the episode, Henry van Statten, owns a collection of extraterrestrial artifacts, which he houses in a bunker stronghold. One of the objects is a mileometer from the Roswell crash. A few of the others relate to the Doctor's earlier foes.

Van Statten has made use of the alien technology in important ways. What was discovered at Roswell became the basis for Van Statten's creation of the broadband Internet. What was found at a Russian crater (apparently from the 1908 Tunguska event) could cure the common cold — if Van Statten had not noticed the lack of profit in that, mentioning, "Why sell one cure when I can sell a thousand palliatives?"

Episodes like the ones previously mentioned, set on Earth in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, are those in which the fortean motherlode is most exploited. Futuristic episodes are less dependent on mysterious evidence.

That Doctor Who is more fortean these days should come as no surprise. Media in general features more speculative material. Cryptozoology-themed television documentaries are ubiquitous. Old-time Doctor Who stories might bring in repeated appearances by Yetis and one by the Loch Ness Monster, but the entities were much changed in that they were robots.

The new BBC Wales productions, on the other hand, steer a course nearer realism. Rose Tyler is not backgrounded, as were most previous companions. Instead she is fully characterized, has relationships with family and friends that are not abandoned once she has met the Doctor, and her own brand of smarts solves problems in ways the brilliant Doctor overlooks.

The uncanny is often grounded in "reality" in the new shows, requiring more use of forteana.

But have the fans of the old shows' ways been abandoned? No, there is much on offer. Those who enjoyed the episodes of Doctor Who that appeared in the 1970s, 1980s and in 1996 should be reminded that actors Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann are all still playing the Doctor — in various audio productions released on compact discs by Big Finish. The high quality of these productions is indicated by the fact that the present television series has utilized many of the writers and some of the same actors who had previously made an impact on audio. In one case, a Big Finish production entitled "Jubilee" was partially reworked into the aforementioned television episode "Dalek." In fact, the present BBC Doctor, David Tennant, appeared in a number of Big Finish Productions — but not as the Doctor. If the reader wishes to know more about an ever-growing franchise, important websites for tracking activity include the official BBC website for Doctor Who at http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/, the fansite Outpost Gallifrey at www.gallifreyone.com, and Big Finish Productions at www.doctorwho.co.uk. One shop in the U.S. that is very useful for obtaining Doctor Who material from outside the country is Doctor Who North America at http://www.whona.com.

There has probably never been so good a time for Doctor Who in all its facets. Quality productions are regularly produced in many media, spearheaded by the U.K. hit television show that has far fewer limitations than it ever had before.

As Eccleston's (Ninth) Doctor often says: "Fantastic!"

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