Thursday, June 15, 2006

Eccelston is a skilled contemporary actor, who played the Doctor as emotionally present. His Doctor was quirky, moving from morose and moody to larky and a bit daft in an instant. We saw his anger and glimpsed internal conflicts and violence, and we saw him paralyzed with grief. There was a manic-depressive quality that got very edgy at times, and it was riveting to watch. But besides Eccelston’s masterful acting,what made all this work was portraying this Doctor as "northern" (from northern UK industrial areas like Liverpool and Birmingham and working class. ( These apparently were Eccelston’s own roots.)

The BBC code for this is “real,” but for Americans, it’s a blow to the stereotype of the aristocratic or high middle class Britisher. This Doctor seems the son of the 1950’s playwright John Osborne “Angry Young Men” era, a close cousin to the 1980s punks, the Joe Orton/Sex Pistols era. He had the look, the attitude, the edge of darkness. He still had the old Time Lord arrogance (plus a hint of a Time Lord's torment), but in his first encounter with a Dalek, you could see his panic, and his vengefulness. And a bit of the working class inferiority feeling that often gets expressed as aggression and machismo, but can change instantly to a glowering self-doubt.

But the working class element wasn't all Eccleston did: he played the alienness of the Doctor and his sense of power and authority, as other actors have in the part, but in his own way. He was especially mesmerizing in the decisive moments when the Doctor's confidence seems total. When he tells the Daleks that he’s going to rescue Rose, save the earth and destroy them, it may be tactical but it’s also exuberant.

The working class theme was extended in Rose, his companion (played by Billie Piper.) She escaped her working class life and by the season's final episode, found she couldn’t go back. (After leaving the Tardis, she’s seen eating with her mother and boyfriend, who are talking about a new pizza place. “What do they have?” “Pizza.”) It wasn’t going to all the amazing places in the universe, she said, but that the Doctor did things that meant something, and he never gave up. This extra layer of social context and character refreshed the Doctor Who ethos. Yet the Doctor was still the Doctor, with the same values. He was for justice, for life, and in the end, could not kill the innocent for an arguably greater good (reminding us perhaps that an earlier Doctor had the chance to destroy the Dalek race but couldn’t bring himself to commit genocide. Some standards have apparently changed.)

The working class affect, the emotional complexity, wouldn’t be enough to make this a convincing Doctor Who. It needed the his excitement, his love of life and love of lives. What really made this Doctor work was Eccleston’s otherworldly smile, his joy. “Everybody lives! Just this once, everybody lives!” he exulted, with his whole body, and you suddenly got another window into the mind and heart of a time traveler who sees so much death and destruction.

Thanks largely to Eccleston (though Billie Piper and the other actors were generally first rate as well), the producers and writers were able to establish the character of the new Doctor Who series. They wrote some subtle social commentary and fairly outrageous satire (especially in the game shows and reality programs as a Dalek plot to keep the earth in bondage), that the impatience of Eccleston’s Doctor helped to sell. But they could also experiment with various emotional colors (and sexual tensions), which Eccleston could play convincingly.

Fearing being typecast, Eccleston apparently insisted on a one-year only deal from the start, which the BBC erroneously announced just as the series started airing. We only had a moment of David Tennant so far, but judging from publicity stills and his own statements, he’s going to be closer to the Oxbridge-madcap Tom Baker mold. I can imagine that working, too. In the midst of its second season in England, Doctor Who has already begun work on a third.

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