Doctor Who 50th anniversary
Old Doctor Who v New Who: which is best?
On the eve of its 50th anniversary, two die-hard Doctor Who fans/experts argue it out – which was better, the original Who or the post-2005 reboot Who? Who knows? David Miller and Stuff’s Stephen Graves do…
Stephen Graves I love Doctor Who – all of it, even the ones where Colin Baker was dressed as Ronald McDonald – but the show’s never been as successful, or as widely-loved, as it is now. Since its return in 2005, it’s been embraced by a whole new generation – and the reason for that is simple: it’s evolved to suit the times, as it always did.
David Miller That’s the true magic of Doctor Who. It can be anything it likes – it’s been everything from alien invasion saga to murder mystery to ecological parable. I think the show nowadays could experiment more! One of the amazing things about Doctor Who was how it pushed technology forward. Pioneering developments in electronic music created the haunting theme music that has terrified generations, the video effects of the early 1970s helped along the green-screen work used today. And with regard to its incredible success, don’t forget that Tom Baker was one of the best-known faces of the 1970s after Eric Morecambe and the Prime Minister!
SG The old stuff, entertaining as it is, is achingly slow-paced by modern standards, though. Where it once took 25 minutes to trundle to the first cliffhanger of a story, now the show sketches in a world and plunges the Doctor into danger in the three minutes before each episode’s credits sequence. And the endless cycle of capture-escape-capture-escape-to-danger that padded out many 1970s stories has been excised – the show’s leaner and tighter than it ever was.
DM The creeping atmosphere of the old series was one of its greatest strengths. The TARDIS arrives on an unfamiliar planet and the Doctor goes exploring. There was a real sense of mystery and otherworldliness, even if you knew that the location for the planet was a slate quarry. There’s much more appeal in waiting for a monster to leap out at you than having it leap out at the beginning.
SG The other big change is that the Doctor has a character now. Back in the day, he was an identikit hero – a cipher who changed to suit the needs of each individual story, with the lead actors adding their tics and characterisation on top. Now, though, he’s been given an emotional core – the Lonely God, Last of the Time Lords, wracked by survivor’s guilt – and living, breathing companions with character arcs of their own. Compare, say, Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler with the companions of the old series – she has vastly more depth (and she doesn’t sprain her ankle once).
DM I think there’s something iconic about the Doctor and the companions which becomes slightly pretentious if you try to impose ‘real’ human emotions. I mean, it’s never going to be completely realistic, is it? Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks, once told Alan Wicker: “I don’t like my monsters to have Oedipus complexes.” He had a point. Tell a good adventure story, if you want human drama, try Eastenders. (Though you’ll be lucky if you get it there.) Doctor Who is all about the monsters, and the new series has created few truly memorable foes – the Weeping Angels are a notable exception. But the new series has revisited the classic creations of the old days – the mighty Daleks, the Cybermen, the Silurians and the Ice Warriors.
SG To be fair, the old show took 40-odd years to create all of those memorable villains; the new series has only been running for eight years. Give it a chance! More important than iconic monsters, I think, is that the show’s more layered than before. Russell T Davies added depth of character to the show when he took over as executive producer, and brought a whole new audience to it. His replacement Steven Moffat has honed Doctor Who into a densely-plotted show that demands and rewards rewatching; perfectly-tailored for this DVD-Netflix age.
DM True, but the early years had some hard-edged stories with subjects like the massacre of the Huguenots, the French Revolution and the Crusades. The recent return of two missing Who stories, lost for more than 40 years, gave older fans the chance to prove what all the fuss was about – few could have anticipated the immediate chart-topping success on iTunes of these two black-and-white television serials from 1968. One of the most marvellous things about the early Doctor Whos is the boundless spirit of creativity. The old series was constantly reinventing itself, new writers, directors, producers even, in its most miraculous conceit, the complete transformation of the central character.
SG That’s the great strength of Doctor Who – it regenerates. Compare two episodes from five years apart, and they could be from completely different shows. As it hits its 50th anniversary and Peter Capaldi prepares to step into the shoes of the Doctor, let’s hope it never stops changing.
Stephen Graves is online deputy editor of Stuff.tv
David Miller writes for Stuff magazine and is the author of Peter Cushing: A Life in Film
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