Saturday, April 10, 2010
The five stories on the Complete Specials DVD set constitute the last year of the new Doctor Who as created by writer-showrunner Russell T. Davies and producer Julie Gardner. They’re also the last starring David Tennant, whose four years as the Doctor turned the series into a major hit for the BBC and a billowing international success. Not only did these episodes gather major audiences in the UK, where Doctor Who is a multigenerational cultural tradition of nearly a half century, but they were the highest rated hours ever on BBC America, the cable channel that took over from Sci-Fi (now SyFy) in carrying Doctor Who in the U.S.
Children’s entertainment is often replete with sly social commentary and moral dimensions as well as cartoon dangers and humor, even when teaching letters and numbers. Social commentary is an even more obvious component of science fiction. Since Doctor Who is science fiction for children, it’s no wonder that a writer like Davies who made his reputation dealing with contemporary life would add that awareness to his stories, partly through the big change he made: he gave the Doctor’s companions (traditionally young women) real families and lives. They loved their families, but were clearly escaping the banal treadmill of their working class consumer society lives for actions with consequences, as well as adventures in time and space. (The working/middle class limits recur in other characters, too, as in the father/son relationship in 1950s London in the second season episode, “Idiot's Lantern.”)
But even the monsters the Doctor and companion faced were often empowered by hypnotic consumer products: alien diet pills, nefarious GPS systems in every auto, mind control through Bluetooth earpieces.
There was quite a bit of allegorical or at least suggestive social content in the stories set on other worlds in the future, but this was really striking in various voyages to the past. Among the pasts the Doctor visited were 1930s New York, accentuating the gap between rich and poor in the locations of the Empire State Building under construction, with a Hooverville shantytown in Central Park; the horrors in store just before World War I in an English boy's school; the child abuse hidden in 1940s wartime London, and less hidden in late 19th century child labor—seen in the first of the Specials, “The Next Doctor.”