Within the span of five months in 2004-2005 remakes of two “classic” science-fiction series entered their regular seasons. The first regular episode of the “re-envisioned” Battlestar Galactica aired in October of 2004. The first episode of the new Doctor Who series aired in Britain in March of 2005. Battlestar Galactica has already emerged as perhaps the best science-fiction television series ever made, and probably one of the best television dramas ever produced. Despite some missteps in the second season, BSG arguably outshines the current fare being offered on HBO; it comes close to the glory days of the Sopranos and Homicide: Life on the Streets. I consider BSG, along with the short-lived Firefly, to be part of a new “new wave” of science-fiction programming that clearly draws influence from the sensibilities of the HBO renaissance in drama that began with the Sopranos. Like the Sopranos, both BSG and Firefly adopted unapologetic attitudes towards sex, religion, and the portrayal of ambiguous ethical situations. BSG arguably represents a further evolution than Firefly on many of these counts. One could also make the case that BSG shows what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine might have been if its creative talent, including Ronald Moore, had been freed from the fetters of Star Trek conventions. Although the distance between Homicide and The Wire is less extreme than between ST:DS9 and BSG, there is something of an analogy here.
Beyond the accident of timing, both BSG and the new Doctor Who share facts of ancestry: both descend from campy forefathers. The old Doctor Who could be a good deal more than simply camp television, of course. “The Cure of Fenric,” “Remembrance of the Daleks,” “Vengeance on Varos,” “Black Orchid,” and a host of other episodes from the decades-long span of the series constituted thoughtful television. Even some of the most “campy” episodes of Doctor Who, such as the “Sunmakers,” had compelling ideas behind them. Unless one counts the whole Mormon theology angle, I can’t think of a single episode of the original Battlestar Galactica (well, maybe the rather heavy-handed “Greetings from Earth, part 1 and part 2“) that matches such fare from the original Doctor Who.
Given all this, one of the striking things about the comparison between the two shows is how much the new Doctor Who embraces its predecessor’s sensibility while the new BSG breaks from it. The new Doctor Who trucks in its predecessor’s great camp and silliness. It is, as much as anything else, a nostalgia series. With a “megatext” spanning some forty years, rather than a single season (give or take), that shouldn’t be entirely surprising. But it does feel discordant. Even at its best, the new Doctor Who feels like a relic of what science-fiction television was like before DS9, Babylon 5, and, especially, Firefly and BSG. Farscape, when it worked, managed to combine both the “old” and the “new” by embracing a kind of postmodern self-awareness of the older styles of science-fiction, but it couldn’t always pull it off.
But is it any good? The answer is, it depends. The basic problem with the new series, as many fans note, is that the single-episode format just doesn’t work very well. The joy of Doctor Who is that you never know what genre the TARDIS will land in. Historical comedy? 1950s Earth invasion flick? Gothic horror? Political drama? At times, of course, the show fixated on one of these. Overall, however, the format of Doctor Who lent itself to any number of different kinds of old-style teleplays. But this format requires time: time to establish the scene, to develop fresh supporting characters, to plant red herrings, and to generally let the plot unfold. Because most of the new Doctor Who episodes are about forty minutes long, they simply can’t draw you into a well-realized world with its own dramatic stakes. The best episode of the series so far, which managed to make the Cybermen both scary again and profoundly tragic, was a two-parter.
The format clearly works decently when the episodes focus on a small set of characters in a setting that doesn’t require a great deal of exposition, e.g., “The Girl in the Fireplace”. But the one-off episodes where the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance generally haven’t played out very well.
Moreover, the first season was far weaker (at least so far) than the second season has been. The first season had its moments–particularly “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”–but also contained the truly abysmal Aliens of London and “World War III”. The conceit of “Bad Wolf”, which centered around deadly versions of contemporary game shows, was “Vengence on Varos” reduced to a set of juvenile jokes. Only the farting aliens of the aforementioned misfires sunk lower.
The second season has also done a better job of integrating the fundamental camp of Doctor Who. “School Reunion” was not only fun, but explored themes in the relationship between the Doctor and his companions that, whatever purists may think, at least gave us some interesting character development. “Tooth and Claw” compares favorably to its stylistic counterpart in the first season, “The Unquiet Dead”. The worst episodes of the second season have still been better than the worst episodes of the first.
So I’m still giving Doctor Who a chance. It may be a throwback, but it shows signs of vitality.
Cross-posted on LGM, where there’s some discussion going on.