With the recent airing of Revolution of the Daleks, I found myself genuinely excited, in a way that I haven’t for a long time in regards to Doctor Who. Even though the episode had its faults (the force ghost at the end was bafflingly terrible) it did hark back to a simpler era of the show. Maybe it was the return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, but I had an urge to go back and experience it all again. It’s easy to dismiss the show now, especially with all the infighting and hate within the community, but the revival was a huge part of my formative years and I wanted to find out why. So I went back to Series 1 and the introduction of the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston). And the whole thing was absolutely fantastic.
Have parts of the series aged horribly? Obviously, yes. Are some of the special effects laughable? Of course. Is it painfully mid-2000s. Yes. But these were not the massive issues I’d anticipated them to be. By the time you’re on the second episode — the excellent Mark Gatiss-written The Unquiet Dead — all of these things are barely an afterthought. What you really notice is just how well written the series is, how great the science fiction concepts really are (despite a clearly limited budget), and just how perfect the main cast are.
Christopher Eccleston is The Doctor. Though only appearing for this one solitary series, he leaves his mark. Playing a slightly rougher character than you might remember from the show’s heyday, this is a Timelord that’s fought in mysterious Time War and seemingly lost everyone. Before the continuity got complicated with pocket universes and multiple Gallifreys, this was a marvellously simple premise. The last of his race, journeying about the galaxy alone. And as a reboot, it cut the character loose from 40+ years of baggage. This post-war Doctor allowed Eccleston to stretch his proper serious acting chops too. There are plenty of silly moments, but when Eccleston really has a chance to get serious he has a power that I don’t think has been matched since. When he’s shouting down the Daleks, you believe it. Maybe it’s because he only did the single series, but there is really nothing to complain about with his interpretation of the character. In fact, it’s his limited run as The Doctor (and having that knowledge on a rewatch) that makes him perhaps feel more powerful than any of his successors.
But they say The Doctor is only as good as his companions. And Eccleston has some of the best. Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler is the companion that all others have since been measured against. Perhaps the most ordinary of humans, its her excitement and thrill at travelling with The Doctor that really sells the initial episodes of the series. Like Eccleston, she’s also just a phenomenal actor. She’s able to bounce back between humour and genuine heart-breaking moments like no one else. And their relationship is wonderfully realised, with the show definitely being a double act. Neither are more important, something the later seasons definitely lost sight of.
The show also has some of the best guest stars and recurring characters. For my money, my favourite guest is Simon Callow as Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, who just completely sells that episode and has one of the most quietly tragic endings in the show’s history, for my money. But I’d be insane not to mention the very best side character in this first series; John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness. His first appearance, in the excellent two-parter The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, still feels bold and exciting, despite his numerous reappearances. Both hilarious and cool, Jack is possibly one of the all-time great sci-fi characters, up there with The Doctor themselves. Obviously, I’m a little biased because I adore Torchwood. But Jack’s charisma and likeability was completely sold in these first few episodes.
My main takeaway from the series is just how good each episode was. Obviously, some of the episodes have gone down in history as classics. The Empty Child story scarred a generation, Dalek is still considered the peak the Dalek episode, and the two-part finale is one of the best series endings the show’s done. But the others in between are still brilliant. The Slitheen-starring two-parter (Aliens of London and World War Three) surprised me by just how entertaining they were, and how smartly the criticism of the Iraq War and the WMD scandal was worked into it. Y’know, just with more farting. The same goes for the follow-up, Boom Town – an episode I had long ago written off as forgettable filler. It has some enjoyably goofy moments, but the conversation between The Doctor and Margaret (Annette Badland) was one of my favourite moments in the whole series.
If I had to recommend just one episode in this first run, it would be Father’s Day. Rose wants to travel back and be with her father at the moment of his death, at the hands of a nameless hit and run driver. Being Doctor Who, things don’t go smoothly and she accidentally brings about the end of the world thanks to her cocking up the entire space-time continuum. But it’s played in such a quiet, smart, and low-key way. The pair find themselves trapped in a church with her father, played brilliantly by Shaun Dingwall, who starts to slowly piece things together. But Rose goes into this episode with notions of her father, of his life and relationship with her mother. But these expectations are shattered when she meets him, discovering that he was just an ordinary bloke. It’s touching, well-acted, and finally heart-breaking. If I could pick one episode to show someone, to explain the appeal of this show, to demonstrate how it handles big science fiction ideas and human drama, it’d be Father’s Day.
Overall, this series lays the groundwork for what becomes one of the biggest shows of all time. A show that is often bafflingly messy, but that is mostly fantastic, with a complicated tapestry of characters and worlds and interconnected plots. But at this point, it’s refreshingly simple. The cast is brilliant, and most importantly the writing very rarely misses. Things get a bit complicated in the later eras, but here, almost each episode is top-tier science fiction.
If you’ve never watched the show, this seemingly never-ending pandemic is a good opportunity to journey to another world with fiction’s best time-traveller and their equally great companions.
Next up, I will be venturing into the David Tennant era, a series that I hold a lot of nostalgia for. Until then, stay safe.