Look, any time you are getting beaten to the punch by Entertainment Weekly, you have to relinquish a little geek cred, and I’m fine with that. The hype train that landed current Doctor Who star Matt Smith on the cover of Hollywood’s latest-to-the-punch publication picked up a lot of steam in a short time, culminating in last month’s packed Comic Con panel (inside the mammoth Hall H). The show, a British staple that has been on the air - hold on, if you’re on our site, I’m assuming that you are at least tangentially aware of Doctor Who. Let me skip past the background and just tell you why it’s worth watching.
Earlier this summer, before Who got swept formally into the zeitgeist, a group of friends and I decided to watch the new series that restarted the franchise in 2005. We were all TV nerds that counted Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and a number of others from EW’s “Top 25 Greatest Cult TV Shows” list on our Netflix queues and DVRs. Despite that, we were all pretty skeptical about whether Doctor Who could live up to all the nerd hype. I think we were all pretty happy to find out how wrong we had been.
Let’s fast forward past the days of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, who both ranged between “fun” and “excellent” in the role, and start in our present, as the seventh season/series of the new show is set to premiere later this month. It’s this newest incarnation, produced by Steven Moffat and starring Smith (the eleventh actor to play the titular role), that has really taken me by surprise.
Tackling the concept of time travel in narrative form is always a tricky proposition -- anyone who stuck with LOST through season four can attest to that. One of my earliest gripes with the revamped Who was an inability to stick to its own rules, and a constant need for the smartest character – The Doctor – to be either wrong or untruthful in order to fit the story of a given episode. It was an entertaining piece of science-fiction with occasionally stellar acting that was often being undone by its own central conceit. The best episodes in those first five seasons were often written by Moffat, including "Blink", an episode from the Tennant period often cited as the best of the reboot.
When Moffat took over the show after the departure of previous show producer Russell Davies, his masterful ability to juggle the nuances of nonlinear storytelling became a cornerstone of Who's narrative approach. Under his watch, time travel has become one of Doctor Who's greatest strengths, a device that lets the creative team withhold just enough information to keep viewers engaged without becoming completely disoriented. When they finally take those twisty-turny stories and straighten them out to show you exactly what happened, the result feels like watching the end of a heist movie as a plan comes together.
Those reveals and other cinematic moments in the two most recent seasons are bolstered by a larger budget and an energetic and youthful cast. Smith was a 26-year-old unknown when he was cast as The Doctor and co-stars Karen Gillan (24) and Arthur Darvill (30) both keep up with his spastic intensity in admirable fashion.
While I've become very invested in the show this spring and summer, I won't count myself as a raving fanboy quite yet. Some of the long-term season arcs leave a bit to be desired (both in set up and punchline). I'm also a little disappointed that the Smith era has drifted away from one of the staples of Who storytelling: using The Doctor as a catalyst to show the goodness of humanity. Fewer episodes of the current variation include the doctor meeting a stranger and that stranger eventually sparking the climactic scene. Although we always see how special and clever The Doctor can be, it was often an extraordinary act by an ordinary person that saved the day.
In return, the show has shifted focus to the theme of identity, exploring not just the character of The Doctor but his impact on the world around him. In that respect, it is closer than ever to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which topped EW's list of cult shows), an oft-cited influence on the rebirth of the series. What Who lacks in feminist ideals (not that Gillan's Amy Pond is a pushover) it makes up for with a family-friendly "fairy tale" approach, creating a sci fi show that connects with adults without being too dark or scary for children. Though the story of the show pushes that The Doctor can go anywhere in the universe in any time period, its greatest successes come when those travels are used to connect with the common human experience, whether it's a cheeky reference to a historical figure or an explanation why children are afraid of the dark.
While it took a while to find its footing (like Buffy or other cult hits) the show has reached a transcendent point with Moffat and Smith leading the way. They've been able to reach beyond a niche concept to tell relatable stories and just make good, fun television. You don't have to go back and start in 2005 to be caught up in time for season seven, but I recommend at least starting with season five (the first with this current team in front of and behind the camera).