I was really impressed with the current version of “Doctor Who” when it started airing on the Sci Fi channel. It’s funny to read about just how huge it is in the UK, since it came as a total surprise to me that I’d enjoy it at all, much less think of it as must-see television. I already knew a ton of trivia about the show, but only through that mysterious process of nerd diffusion, the same process that means I can tell you character names and major plot lines from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” even though I’ve never made a point of watching the show.
But the new series started out amazing. It was like looking into a world that until now, only the most obsessive fans had been able to see. Ah, here‘s the amazing show people were talking about, when I was only able to see cheap sets and terrible costumes and interminably dull “action” sequences. Finally I could see the potential of the premise and the characters. And not only that, but they frequently had single-story episodes that rank among the best television ever made — fighting zombies with Charles Dickens! Weird gas-mask wearing children in London during the Blitz! A spaceship with mirrors that lead to 18th Century France! And even the DOOM rip-off had a genius opening, with a bunch of demon-like aliens attacking our heroes chanting, “We must feed…”
The show started to wear thin, going from an excellent series punctuated by brilliant episodes, to a good series with the occasional very good episode, to about what you’d expect from “Doctor Who” but with very clever moments throughout. (And it seemed like there was some weird quota for every single episode to emphasize how much they embrace alternative lifestyles in the more enlightened future. We get it, already, Mr. Davies). It reminds me of “The X-Files” in around the end of the third season — there was still the occasional flash of genius, especially when Darin Morgan wrote an episode, but it had stopped being appointment TV and started being obligation TV. If the Doctor or Martha ever start droning on about their cancer, I’ll know it’s time to jump ship.
All that preamble was just for this: the episode that aired tonight in the US, “Blink”, is easily one of the top 10 best episodes of a television series I’ve ever seen. The kind that excites every nerd molecule in my body and makes me run to the computer to say, “Hey internet, did you just see that?”
I’m blissfully ignorant of all the fan stuff surrounding the series, but it feels like this is the UK equivalent of a “clip show.” It’s designed to let the Doctor & Martha appear very infrequently, but ends up using that to tell a story you just wouldn’t be able to get from the “normal” show. It helps a lot that it’s carried by an astoundingly beautiful and charming (and pretty young) actress; I was hoping through most of it that they were planning another spin-off based around her.
But the real appeal is the story, and the fact that they did everything right during production to make the story work. The show prides itself on being scary, and there’ve been several creepy and tense moments throughout the entire series, but this is the first one that I thought genuinely scared me when it was supposed to.
As for the story itself, all the components are familiar if you’ve read any time-travel stories, or played a Mario game. But it all just works: even when you’re sure you know what’s going on, and even when you’re right, it’s paced so well and presented so well that you dutifully suspend and restart your disbelief at all the right moments. The script is just a marvel, a suspense/horror/mystery story that unfolds through time. It does all the things I’ve always wanted time travel stories to do, but I’d never seen one pull it all off successfully.
And the most impressive thing about the script is how it uses a suspense/horror/mystery story, apparently done without the benefit of the series’ stars, to say exactly the message the series has been trying to convey for the past couple of years. The show frequently has the Doctor making a comment about his fascination with humans, and the value of human life. But it never seems to have all that much weight in the context of their usual stories (the previous episode, where the Doctor disguises himself as a human in the years just before WWI, did a pretty good job with it, although it was a little stretched out and maudlin).
This episode drives the message home as part of the horror-that’s-not-really-so-horrible. And then it all comes together by the end, when you realize that the message is in the double entendre of the title, saying “Blink and you’ll miss it.”
I grew up on Doctor Who, specifically Tom Baker as the Doctor. I lived out in the sticks, and didn’t get cable…but I did get PBS, and every afternoon they would air an episode. I was in my twenties before I realized those shows were filmed in the 70s. At age 10 you think everything is filmed and aired just for you. Needless to say, I was hooked. But, I’ve rarely liked a Doctor other than Mr. Baker.
That is, until I saw a few of the episodes on tv from the new series. Some stared Christopher Eccleston, and some David Tennant. I actually liked both. I haven’t seen a complete series yet, and seem to always forget to buy them when I’m out, or put them on my Netflix. Hell, the first one I saw had Simon Peg as the villain! Shows like this are right up my alley, so I should just bite the bullet and buy everything. So thanks for the reminder that the show even exists, and re-affirming that it’s actually good.
Yeah, I’d recommend all the episodes I linked to. (Two are in the Christopher Eccleston first season, two are in the David Tennant second season, and my favorite so far is “Blink”, which is in season 3). Like I said, I was never a Doctor Who fan growing up. But you can tell that everybody involved in making the show was, because it just feels like one of those labor-of-love things.
That means you see more repeats of past stuff (Daleks-apoppin’), but it also means that you get people who take everything they loved about the old series and turn it up to 11. For instance, from the little I saw of the show on PBS, I never realized that it thought of as a kids’ show, or that it was supposed to be scary. But the new version seems like it’s aimed at people who watched it as kids — still family-friendly, but I think the “core” audience is supposed to be older. And some of the stuff, especially in “The Empty Child” and “Blink” is really, genuinely scary!
I read a rumor online that Steven Moffat, the guy who wrote those two episodes, is slated to take over as show-runner once the current guy leaves. I’d love to see that.
I was one of those kids that grew up watching Tom Baker on channel 54 in the 1980’s, and as you commented, I liked concepts and ideas on the show but the BBC z-grade production values always made me wince.
When the new series launched several years ago I eagerly (ahem) downloaded the lot and have been a fan since. The recent Tennant season has been a bit clunky (and I don’t think it has anything to do with Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones) as a lot of disgruntled fans have muttered), but “Blink” is just brilliant. The lead characters barely even show up and yet it still fits wonderfully into the Who-verse. It’s like a slick Night Gallery episode.
All in all I’ve enjoyed the epic scale of the recent seasons, although I do think they might be jumping the TARDIS a bit soon (Kylie Minogue on the Titanic in the upcoming Christmas special? groan…). You might want to check out the spin-off series Torchwood for an interesting X-Files/Whedon-esque take on Who.