"Lots of planets have norths..."

TV The new series of Doctor Who begins on the 23rd April, Easter Saturday, and after some thought I've decided that despite the parking of Behind The Sofa, I will carry on writing reviews here instead, because after six years, reviewing every newly broadcast television episode has become as much of a project as the Hamlet thing, and the museums thing and all the other things, as much a part of the process of watching Doctor Who as watching Doctor Who and I frankly wouldn't know what to do with myself for the rest of the night.

That being the case, there's a rather big itch to scratch, a niggle.  When I began writing for Behind The Sofa, it wasn't with any great intention to write about everything.  That would come later with the start of the second series.  Which means there are some episodes in that first year which were missed and I've always promised myself I would return to, fill in the gaps.  So here we are, or rather I am, being a completist, reposting the reviews from that first year and filling in the gaps.

It says a lot about how excited I was with the first episode that I managed to misquote perhaps its most iconic lines of dialogue when deciding on a title for that first post which I've replicated above.  "Lots of planets have a north..." would go on to define the Ninth Doctor and that short era, of breaking with the past with its (perceived) Edwardian frock coats and posh accents yet prepared to make fun of itself.  Besides, Sylverster McCoy was Scottish. 

Despite that, there's not much to disagree with the below assessment; even Noel Clarke would say later his first performance was wrong.  Murray Gold was still finding his feet in terms of the sound of the show and didn't yet have the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at his disposal.  We still await the unvarnished anecdotes about exactly what happened behind the scenes (what the production team euphamistically describe as "the challenges") and exactly what happened between Eccleston and Boak.

If I was writing this review now, I'd probably include some speculation as to how Clive is able to have all those pictures of Ninth when in other places he seems to have only recently regenerated.  My theory is that all of those trips happened between the moment when Rose refuses to go with the Doctor at the end and the TARDIS dematerialises and he returns to boast that it travels in time.  After jaunting alone for a bit, visiting some of Earth's disasters, he's decided he still needs someone to share it all with.

Anyway, after all of that overwritten preamble, here's the original review ...

The downloadable screensaver on the official website which until seven o'clock tonight has been counting down until the start of the new series of Doctor Who now simply says 'The Invasion Begins...' Somehow I don't think it means the brief sound bleed of Graham Norton creeping in from BBC3 just as new companion Rose was being menaced for the first time by the Autons (who oddly weren't named this time out). It was an own goal from the BBC on what is one of the most important broadcasting nights of the year. But you know what I'm willing to forgive them.

Because he's back. He's bloody back. Bless him.

To be honest considering how much has been written about the new series off and online, all the tv and radio documentaries, the actual first episode, Rose, felt beside the point. As the busy new title sequence swished by, part of my brain wondered if I was actually watching another trailer. But as Billie Piper strolled into view, and camera overcranking in Trafalgar Square during her lunch date with her boyfriend, my attention snapped back into view as I realised that it had started, I was there and nine years of wait were over.

Actually I think the plotting would have come as something of a shock for anyone who hasn't been catching the Doctor's adventures off screen in the gap. Atypically, the timelord already knew what the problem was and how to solve it even before the episode began (it was a bit like turning up for the last episode of a six parter in the old series). The Nestene Consciousness was using a transmitter (the London Eye) to control all the plastic in London in preparation for invading the Earth, with the help of shop dummies. The Doctor had a vile of anti-plastic, which he could use to destroy the Consciousness if needed to. It's exactly the sort of thing you'd find in one of the many short story anthologies (Short Trips etc) which been published in the interim.

This was clever move number one. Because just like best of the classic series, we were seeing him through the eyes of the companion, Rose Tyler -- she became our eyes and ears during the mad adventure. We needn't understand what it all meant, because she didn't really -- for her it was about going with the flow, enjoying the spectacle and the adventure -- much as it was for us. Like a prologue or opening act, it's about introducing the concepts and ideas to a new audience and reintroducing them to the old, and show what's changed to those who've never gone away. The was absolutely nothing in here which could alienate fans, well not this fan anyway.

The next clever idea was casting Christopher Eccleston. I think it was Tom Baker who said that the series is actor proof, that anyone could play it. That may be true, but its playing it well, and in a way which carries on the tradition. Eccleston's playing was just spooky; look into his eyes and you can see the other eight incarnations looking out at you. The moment on the bridge when he explains to Rose about the TARDIS moving around and says that she 'wouldn't understand' was just like grumpy old Hartnell. At the other end of the scale, as he fought the ships control panel as it melted the fake Mickey's head, McGann was back with us briefly. He's energetic, funny, sober, philosophical yet authorative when he needs to be. Standing over the the Nestene Consciousness trying to negotiate a truce using galactic law was just amazing.

Also amazing was Billie Piper. I don't think I was quite prepared for how much charisma she has, having not seen her in any of her previous acting roles. There is a real spark to her, an instant likeability. There is an edge of vulnerability in there, that kind of Alyson Hannigan (Willow in Buffy) huggability -- you really care if she gets hurt and I imagine they'll be playing that card somewhat as the series progresses. As a character, Rose Tyler is absolutely the right choice. Everything will be new to her, and there is that sense of wonder which was missing too much from in previous companions.

The tone was also just right. Some will no doubt knock on about the humour, especially in the scene when the Auton arms comes to life and attacks the Doctor without Rose noticing, or the wheelie bin burp, but that's not much better or worse than John Pertwee's cleaning lady, or any number of Jelly Baby scenes. It's an important part of the series and in the Whedon age, vital other it would all look a bit ernest and silly.

The episode's director Keith Boak hasn't 'done' sci-fi before (depending on your opinion of NY-LON) and was no doubt chosen because this is a story very much grounded on Earth, and these elements, felt quite rightly like they were intruding on the setting.

Photographer Ernest Vincze, comes from a film background and that showed. At no point did the visuals fall flat; the moment when the London Eye created a halo around The Doctor, as well as feeling like a sneaky Second Coming reference (in that Russell T Davies series Eccleston played the new Christ) offered a perspective you don't often see on tv.

And yet. It wasn't perfect. Murray Gold's music was annoying. Considering how good his work has been in Casanova, here it just feels misjudged. Some sections felt desperately late Eighties. Every now and them there would an excellent spot effect, then a drum beat would clatter in and ruin it for everyone. We can't all be Alistair Locke or Dudley Simpson (both great incidental musicians from different eras of the show), but it just felt out of place somehow. That said, his mix of the theme is very good, but Delia Derbyshire's version was perfectly fine no matter what he and Russell might say about it seeming 'a bit sad'.

Also, and I hate to single out any actor like this, but what did Noel Clarke think he was doing with that performance as Mickey. Yes, the character's a sap, he needs to be, otherwise Rose would shack up with The Doctor in the TARDIS, but why did he feel the need to play every scene as though he was auditioning to replace Craig Charles aboard Red Dwarf? Perhaps he settle down as the series progresses -- we'll be seeing more of him in later weeks as there are more re-occurring characters this time around ... oh yes ...

But if that's all I can think of then something must be very right. This isn't another Phantom Menace. I keeping asking myself why I'm so excited about a new television series when there is still lots of other really good Doctor Who going around. It's about hope. It's about the fact that if enough of the right people care about something, and enough of those people are in the right position to doing something about it, wonderful things can happen. If that doesn't make you choke up, you must be an Auton.

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