Dating the Doctor [WHO-50—2005]September 3rd, 2013 at 8:20
Eight years is a really, really long time. I know this, because I have an eight year old daughter, who was only a couple of months old when Doctor Who finally came back to our screens after a terribly long gap.
She has never lived in a world in which there was no new Doctor Who just around the corner.
The first season/SERIES of “New Who” arrived with splashy colours, a blonde former pop star as the companion, occasional stings of famous songs, an angsty PSTD-ridden Doctor in a (gasp!) leather jacket, and a whole bunch of modern cultural references.
Over the course of this first year, Rose failed to notice that her boyfriend was an Auton replicant, the Earth was destroyed, the Doctor was slapped by someone’s Mum, we watched aliens invade London via the TV news (just like everyone else), 10 Downing Street was blown up, the Doctor came face to face with the last Dalek, Captain Jack flirted his way into the TARDIS, Rose witnessed her own parents’ wedding and met the Dad who had died when she was a baby, everybody lived just this once, and the show acknowledged the existence (and usefulness) of not only the internet, but also mobile phones.
It was quite a year.
I often hear people talk about how looking back at Series 1 is quite hard now, because the special effects aren’t up to much in comparison with what they can do now, and it’s obvious how much cheaper it all was. But, you know. I never notice that stuff. I was raised on Classic Who, and I was never the person who pointed and laughed at the Taran Woodbeast, or the Myrka. I never particularly noticed the difference between good or bad Sontaran masks. I’ve always been in it for the characters, and the story.
The aspect of Series 1 which I think has dated the most since 2005 is probably the pop culture that infuses Rose’s world, and her point of view. The whole show is rife with jokes about soap operas, current events, music, and so on. In The End of the World, half the comedy that comes from Cassandra’s snooty ‘last human alive’ act comes from the details she gets wrong about history – that she thinks a jukebox is an iPod, for example, and refers to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” as a traditional ballad.
I am all for stories that ‘date’ – trying to do otherwise in a story set in the real world risks the generic, and I kind of love the way that watching old TV shows can feel like time travel. I rewatched the Lois and Clark pilot recently and found the technology almost as hilarious as the shoulder pads – the plot revolves around a highly advanced space colony mission, but Clark doesn’t have an excuse for ducking into the supply closet because phones aren’t mobile yet.
Buffy may have prevented some aspects of ‘dating’ because Joss Whedon was clever enough to make up slang, and because most of the pop culture references they use are proved-the-test-of-time touchstones like Spidey-sense and Scooby Gang, with only a touch of current day references to keep it real. As it turned out, the clothes did all the dating for the show anyway…
“Bad Wolf” is perhaps the most dated example of Series 1 of New Who, despite being set on a Gamestation far in Earth’s future – because the story was made at the height of the reality TV boom, and the set pieces in which our heroes are trapped are based on three massively popular TV shows of the time: The Weakest Link, Big Brother and What Not To Wear.
The games themselves work in the story without any context – they could as easily be made up space games. It’s the jokes surrounding them that feel dated, and the character reactions to them – little details like Rose repeating the words ‘Anne… Droid’ on the set of The Weakest Link, which only makes sense if you know that the AnneDroid character is based on Anne Robinson and that the real host is providing a voice cameo.
Part of the reason I know this will date is that I’d never heard of Anne Robinson when I watched this episode myself – the Australian version of the show was hosted by Morag from Home and Away. Likewise, “Davina Droid” and the cameo voice meant nothing to me, because our Big Brother was hosted by Gretel Killeen.
I’d never seen What Not To Wear at all and only discovered retrospectively that this was a real show, hosted by the same Trinny and Susannah who voiced the Droids. I’ve still never seen an episode of WNTW but I get the idea from context with this one – though I presume in the real version they don’t try to slice the faces of their fashion victims very often.
(Likewise, I know that ‘Top Shop’ is a place to buy clothes in England, but don’t have any other cultural associations beyond that, so the fact that Jack gets his jeans from there doesn’t mean anything to me. Is it a cool place to buy jeans, or not? Does it matter for the joke?)
In any case, I got the general idea. You don’t have to have watched an episode of any reality TV show to see what’s going on here, and the use of sets based on real shows gave greater credibility to the premise than if the shows had been invented from whole cloth.
The Weakest Link scenes are actually fascinating to watch, as the rapid fire questions are made up from an assortment of real facts as well as fictional futuristic facts that feel real – Rose’s amusement at first comes from the surreal nature of the questions, and her lack of cultural grounding. Every now and then a question comes through that makes sense to her and the audience, which only adds to the surreal feeling of the fake ones, and of course the tension is ratcheted up once Rose discovers the horrible stakes of the game. It’s not funny anymore, it’s that dream where your exam paper is in a different language.
So, is Series 1 dated? Absolutely. If anything, it’s more firmly dated than any other season of Doctor Who ever, because everything about it is so strongly grounded in 2005, a year with almost as much significance to the show as 1963. (This despite the fact that, with The End of Time establishing that Rose met the Doctor for the first time in 2005, the rest of the contemporary episodes from Aliens of London onwards must have been set in 2006 at the earliest…)
But that’s okay. Dating is part of life with the Doctor. You stop somewhere for a cup of coffee and suddenly your clothes are all twelve months out of style…
ELSEWHERE ON 2005:
The Walking Wounded [Tor.com]
My Two Cents: Tansy [Verity!]
Dalek: Never Trust a Man with a Soul Patch [Radio Free Skaro]
Pepper Pot [The TARDIS Tavern]
The Time Travellers [Doctor Who Book Club Podcast]
PREVIOUSLY ON WHO-50: