The many faces of Doctor Who

It’s time for a new Doctor Who, and a new chance to get on board the Tardis

Regeneration: Doctor Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman

Regeneration: Doctor Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00

For a globally successful, ratings-sucking, cross-generational cultural behemoth, Doctor Who still means very little to a lot of people. Or if it means anything at all, it is as a hazy memory of wobbly sets and people lumbering through them in monster costumes. Or of a creepy older guy following the screams of a mini-skirted companion. Or, perhaps, despite its mass popularity, some still view it as a fortress of geekdom that they have no interest in entering.

All of which is true.

But it is also in the almost unique position of being able to reset the clock every few series, to start again. Tonight is one of those moments, when Peter Capaldi properly takes over as the new Doctor Who. If you don’t already know this, then congratulations on waking up from your year-long coma.

This allows a regeneration not just of the lead character but also of the tone, plot and design of the show. And, most importantly, it allows for a regeneration of viewers’ interest. A chance to jump into something that might previously have completely passed them by.

The chance should be taken. Doctor Who is flawed, often rushed in its plots, convenient in its endings, shallow in its characters and, thanks to horribly complex story arcs, almost impossible to watch in anything other than the correct episode order, but it is brilliant.

That brilliance comes from how it can be enjoyed in almost whatever way the viewer wants. It is horror and sci-fi and a parody of both. It is silly, deadly serious, grandiose, cheesy. Its worst episodes can contain fine moments. It is steeped in whimsy and nostalgia for the old Who but firmly planted in modern comic-book sci-fi.

You only have to see Guardians of the Galaxy to see how much lower the standard is now for movies compared to TV. A few half-decent gags and a couple of fresh characters are enough for that film to be a summer smash. Doctor Who could outpace it before its opening credits.

Doctor Who can be adult or it can be childish. In Matt Smith’s Doctor it found an actor who was both; his Time Lord was a centuries-old character in a young body, with a giddiness designed to drown out the demons. The result was the copper-fastening of the show’s greatest strength, which is that nine-year-old children can appreciate an episode just as much as their parents can.

Here, it has perhaps learned from animated movies, a genre in which the need to appeal to jumpy kids and put-upon adults has made standards brutally high.

But Doctor Who also feeds off the levels set by the less acknowledged source of television gold that is the children’s channels, where shows such as Adventure Time are wildly imaginative and expertly written. Kids growing up on that kind of diet are well used to the greatness that adults wrongly presume is a preserve of HBO or Netflix.

It explains why Doctor Who has been such a hit in the US, becoming the BBC’s most successful export. Because the show, to some extent, has managed to take all the elements that have made US television so immense in recent years – ambition, production values, long story arcs, serious acting – and wedded them with the traditional values of episodic detective shows, family-friendly violence and episodes that end with a joke. A show about a time traveller has, in effect, become timeless.

And although some people complain that there can’t be a cup of tea made on the show without the accompaniment of dramatic music, Murray Gold’s score has been exceptional series after series.

In all, then, Doctor Who thrives on its wobbliness, but not the sort it used to be famous for. Instead it is its constant balancing act and a sense that it could all fall apart at any moment.

Some feel that it has, and the more dedicated fan will be familiar with the vociferous debate about the show’s senior writer and producer, Stephen Moffat, that revolves around his alleged inability to draw rounded characters, to tease out stories, or to stand quietly for even a few moments.

It seemed to leave the show a little exhausted for much of the last series, but even then it surprised everyone by producing John Hurt as a previously unknown iteration of the Doctor, and the show was off again. It made little sense in the end yet had fun getting there nonetheless.

But that’s an argument for an internet forum. For although many of the criticisms have held true in recent years, it is regeneration time. For the Doctor but, more importantly, for the viewer. shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty

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