Thursday, June 15, 2006

Who's First--What's in it for Trek?

by William S. Kowinski

The first season of the revived BBC series Doctor Who has recently finished its first run in the U.S., on the SCI FI channel (and will be on DVD here this month.) In the last episode, the ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, transformed into the tenth, played by David Tennant. So how did this revival do, and are there any lessons in it for Star Trek's return?

After an absence of about 15 years, the new Doctor Who was an immediate smash hit in England. With several related series and at least one spin-off, plus a pretty sophisticated web site (at least in terms of marketing), Doctor Who has quickly become a major part of the BBC TV presence. In the U.S., Doctor Who boosted Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night ratings by about 50%.

How did they do it? It appears that its creators recognized that over the years, Doctor Who has become an icon transcending its roots as a children’s show, despite its children’s-prime-time 7pm Saturday slot in England, and it could find a niche in the broad international science fiction and fantasy television market. But as an icon, it couldn’t stray too far from its known nature, nor the mythology it built over a quarter century on the air, plus another 15 years of re-runs, novels, conventions and so on.

So the new series uses digital technology for better visual effects, though at times they seem to be a bit childish and tongue-in-cheek, like the aliens with big blue doll-like eyes who take over Downing Street. (They're concealed inside the bodies of large people—perhaps suggesting that, as in the U.S. the average person in England has doubled in size.)

But the updated Daleks were meant to be menacing in today's terms (and were revealed more than ever as a direct ancestor of Star Trek's Borg Collective). Though in appearance the Dalek itself has not changed much from its essentially silly original, the Dalek armada was played for awe. By now, so many generations of British children have been delightfully frightened by Daleks that they qualify as the modern bogeyman.

That each episode is now 50 minutes or so allows for more complex stories, and principal writer Russell T. Davis has taken advantage of those possibilities. The strong individual episodes and deft two-parters also fed the forward momentum of a season that seemed designed as a unit.

Another essential achievement of this first season was to maintain the mood, the élan, of the best Doctor Who seasons (such as the Tom Baker/Douglas Adams period) while adding greater depth and dimension. A lot of the credit for that has to go to Christopher Eccelston as the ninth Doctor.

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