Jeremy Butler reviews Russell T Davies' Doctor Who (BBC1)
Five episodes into the second series of the new Doctor Who and it is still going from strength to strength. The show is consistently pulling in viewing figures of more than seven million, the Cybermen are on the front cover of the Radio Times and reviews of each episode have become a staple fixture in every newspaper and magazine, from The Times to the News of the World (whose reviewer, Ian Hyland, offers the incisive comment that the Cybermen are "a bit gay"). Most significantly, the programme has become an accepted topic of conversation in pubs, workplaces and school playgrounds.
Its success is a pleasant surprise. Although I was never much of a Whovian (I was rather young when the first, somewhat tired version was pulled in 1989, having run for 35 years), I proudly self-identify as a geek (geekhood being defined as much by avid consumption of sci-fi, fantasy and comics as it is by the mild social exclusion that invariably accompanies said pursuits).
Yet the past few years have seen an upsurge in the acceptability of a genre that has traditionally been the purview of social misfits. The best indicator of geekiness having become cool will surely come when Tony Blair announces that, when he was not watching Newcastle United, he spent his childhood playing 'Dungeons and dragons'.
Part of the reason for Doctor Who's popularity is that the show is very good. Gone are the days of papier mà¢ché monsters, abandoned quarries doubling as alien landscapes, lacklustre plots and miserly and unsympathetic executives. The Beeb has invested a lot in the new series, which is reflected not only in the higher standard of special effects, but also in the quality of the writing and acting.
The man who deserves much of the credit is Russell T Davies, who is Who's producer and sometime writer. Davies was behind the groundbreaking Queer as folk, the controversial The second coming (which starred the ninth Doctor, Christopher Ecclestone) and Casanova (starring the current, 10th Doctor, David Tennant). Davies is an inspired choice to head the project.
He has been bold enough to take the series into new territory, such as the inclusion of the bisexual Captain Jack in the last series, leading to the first same-sex kiss in the series' history, and has openly considered having a woman play the next Doctor. It is almost a shame that Mary Whitehouse, who repeatedly criticised the much tamer Doctor Who of yesteryear, is not around to express her puritanical indignation at the new series.
Yet at the same time, Davies has managed to create a show suitable for all the family, secured the admiration of old fans and introduced a whole new audience to the Doctor Who experience. And, while exploring different directions, the new version of the show demonstrates a genuine affection for the earlier series. This is no doubt helped by the fact that many of the cast and crew, including the current Doctor, David Tennant, were fans when they were children.
Another reason for the show's success is, as I have written, that science-fiction is very much part of the Zeitgeist. Although the popularity and the quality of the genre has ebbed and flowed over the years, it has always had an immense inherent potential for creativity. Freed from the constraints of trying to reflect mundane reality, sci-fi provides the possibility both of escapism and of exploring real issues from a different perspective.
Doctor Who is no exception: while it can, of course, be enjoyed as a thrilling adventure yarn set against a backdrop of exotic locations and alien races, it has always explored deeper issues. This is done both overtly (the Daleks in the last series were recast as religious fundamentalists) and also more thoughtfully.
In the current series exploring lost love and past relationships has been a recurrent theme. The Doctor with his unnaturally long life has left a lot of people behind. In 'School reunion' we saw him meet up with Sarah Jane, a former companion, and his robotic dog, K9, with his current companion, Rose, realising that she too will be left behind in time; and in 'The girl in the fireplace' the Doctor falls in love with a woman whom he meets at points throughout her life, who lives and dies in the course of the episode.
The series as a whole is a rich source for analysis. One particularly contemporary theme is that of the concept of Britishness. Doctor Who (both the series and the character) is a quintessentially British creation.
By way of comparison, sci-fi produced in the US is often big-budget and overtly militaristic, presenting a simplistic 'morality' and featuring professional, square-jawed heroes. Doctor Who, however, emphasises individuality and muddling amateurism - part of the appeal of the series is that it is somewhat kitsch and self-deprecating.
The Doctor blunders from one adventure to the next. He constantly meddles in the machinations of tyrants who would crush the rebellious individuality that he represents, and triumphs through a combination of luck and wit. The Doctor is in the mould of the gentleman adventurer, the explorer, the eccentric, the visionary. It is, of course, no less of a mythological creation than that of Britishness being synonymous with that suave imperialist killer, James Bond, or the jingoistic thuggishness promoted by the BNP, but it is a less reactionary national stereotype.
The latest rip-roaring episode, 'Rise of the Cybermen', ended on a cliff-hanger. The Doctor has crash-landed in a 'parallel' Britain, where would-be dictator John Lumic (played by leftwinger Roger Lloyd-Pack, best known as Trigger in Only fools and horses) has created the Cybermen in a bid to take over the country (bwa-ha-ha). The Cybermen have been made out of homeless people who were lured to their doom by the promise of food, and stripped of their humanity and plated in steel. As the episode ended, the Doctor and his companions are surrounded by the menacing cyborgs.
Tune in to the next episode, 'The age of steel', to see if he can escape and foil their nefarious scheme!