Monday, October 23, 2006

Doctor. Doctor. Glad I'm not sick.

Spoilers for the latest episode of "Doctor Who," plus some brief heretical thoughts on a bit of vintage "Who" coming right up...

So, on the recommendation of people here and elsewhere, I Netflix'ed the Tom Baker-era "City of Death" to see an example of the original series at its height. But what it mostly accomplished was to remind me of how terrific the modern series is.

Don't get me wrong: Tom Baker is a riot as The Doctor, and an obvious inspiration for David Tennant's performance, and with a pseudonymous Douglas Adams on the script, the dialogue is absurd and absurdly witty. (My favorite moment: when the dumb lug of a private eye smashes the sonic screwdriver into functionality, and The Doctor asks if the guy wants to be his scientific advisor.)

But I had a hell of a time trying to get past just how cheap the old show looked, not even the special effects, but the low-quality videotape, the minimalist sets and, most of all, the clumsy blocking. The modern show may not have the slickest production values, but it moves, you know?

Now, I understand that the old show had to operate on a shoestring budget, and in the context of both that and the era in which it was produced, I understand why the whole endeavor resembles a cross between a live TV show from the '50s, public access, and a Saturday morning puppet show. But having seen the Eccleston/Tennant version, I've been spoiled. And if I got so frustrated sitting through what many have claimed is the height of classic "Who," I don't know that I'll have the patience to go back and watch more. And I say that as someone with a healthy appreciation for old movies and TV shows that are even stagier than this. Sorry.

For me, "City of Death" stood in especially awkward contrast to Friday night's "The Girl in the Fireplace," which also had The Doctor dealing with historical figures, paradoxes and malevolent aliens. Even though I don't believe The Doctor would be dumb enough to not remember the different rates time passes on each side of the fireplace, his unconsummated love story with Madame de Pompadour moved me at least as much as last week's reunion with Sarah Jane.

I know it's not fair to compare an emotionally heavy episode to a four-part light romp, but I'm more engaged on every level -- including the comic -- by the newer series. If I had started watching the original as a kid, I would no doubt feel differently, would let nostalgia allow me to ignore the clumsiness of it all the same way I like to go back and re-read fairly primitive superhero comics from the early '80s. But like The Doctor and Reinette, I can't go back and rewrite my own past. It is what it is.


Toby O'B said...

I started out in the late 70s with the Tom Baker episodes and I used to feel the same way going back from there to the even earlier years with even worse production values. So I can see your point as one coming to the series with Eccleston and Tennant, and then making the attempt to go back to how it used to be.

I even expressed my fears about this to some friends, that new viewers wouldn't be able to go back and enjoy the old series once they were spoiled (and that was my term too!)by the new version.

I'm still catching up on many of the old adventures that I missed, some even from the post-Baker years and it can be hard to accept the look, the dialogue, the pace once you've wallowed in the new production. But I look past that and let it all focus down to the portrayal of the Doctor. And there I find something enjoyable from every one of them.

For the record, Patrick Troughton is my favorite version of the Doctor, but his stories are sometimes pathetic. (Even worse - most of them were destroyed long ago by the short-sighted BBC, trying to save money on tapes!)

It's probably the best sci-fi gimmick that ever came out of TV - the regeneration of the character which doesn't have to depend on the characteristics of the previous actor.

Perhaps one day you'll be able to look beyond the shoddy production values for the earlier years and see the show for what's most important - the Doctor himself. Because he has a rich history and it'd be a shame not to get all the background which can help towards the enjoyment of what we get today.

(For example - the use of "James MacKrimmon" as an alias when he met Queen Victoria. For those who know the history, that brought a smile of recognition, I'm sure. It did for me.)

All in all a fair assessment of your particular viewpoint and I'm sure there are plenty of others out there who feel the same. I'm just glad that it seems enough people like the new version, so it can stick around for a while and add even more to the history.

Taleena said...

I love Dr. Who and this is one of my favorite episodes of the season. David Tennent became my favorite Doctor at the end of this season, with the conclusion of Rose as the Doctor's companion.
He does a fabulous job of portraying the Doctor's ultimate loneliness.

Anonymous said...

Odd -- I guess my earlier comment didn't make it. But: You're right. It hasn't aged well. Even considering that the originals were made to be viewed as 22 minute eps, even with nostalgia factored in, the old show crawls and looks like crap.

Davies brought, among other things, a late-20th-century sense of pacing and the character arc. Not quite fire and the wheel, but perhaps a Trivection oven and a self-parking Lexus.

But I still have fond memories of watching those old shows on PBS. And I still have my scarf, somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I am glad I watched classic Dr who as an impressionable teen and nerdgirl in her 20s. It did creak at times, but I was able to overlook it. And Baker made that easy.

Personally, I LOVED the Girl in the Fireplace and the reunion with Sarah Jane and K9 (even though Sarah Jane was my least favorite companion back in the day -- she's sure toned down the overacting).

I thought the Mme de Pompadour ep had just the right balance of humor and heart. It was nearly as good as the Empty CHild 2 parter of last season, which was the new era's high point to date.

I am still frustrated with the silly, thin plots that the current show tries to paper over with cheeky dialogue. I love Tennant as the Doctor, but when story and dialogue and his performance all are at the top of their game, that's when it's magic.

I wish we'd get a return visit from the Master or a meaty ongoing plot as in the Baker-era Key To Time story.

OK, I just outed myself as the biggest nerd ever. (anyone else remember Adric? My first TV crush.)

Anonymous said...

>>Adric? My first TV crush

And Lalla Ward was one of mine.

Didn't The Master run out of regenerations or come down with EricRobertsitis or something?

Ross Ruediger said...

Boo!!!! (Who?)

For whatever it's worth Alan, CITY OF DEATH has plenty of detractors amongst WHO fandom (granted, they're not people with whom ~I'd~ associate...but that's neither here nor there).

Don't give up entirely, though. I'd think it'd be quite jarring to go from the new to the old, especially when the new is just so damn watchable. Maybe when the current season draws to a close, if you're gettin' itchy for some WHO, you can try another one.

(Still reeling at the idea of Adric being someone's first TV crush. I can honestly say, in all my years of DW dealing, that was a first, Mo.)

Anonymous said...

>>>Didn't The Master run out of regenerations or come down with EricRobertsitis or something?

Waaaaay back in an untold story after the Delgado Master. Remember the skeleton Master? Then he took over Nyssa's fathers body and was Anthony Ainley for the 80's. The he was a snake in the TV Movie.

And tonights Cybermen...ugh Lets hope the 'real' universe has better looking and sounding ones. the new series has been good, but it's still a bit bumpy for an old Who fan. Drop Rose's mother entirely, I assume she's gone in the third season...