Doctor Who: End of an era

David Tennant in Doctor Who: Planet Of The DeadAs the Doctor bids Lou and Carmen farewell at the end of Planet Of The Dead, he’s taken aback by Carmen’s warning: “Your song is ending, sir.” Her psychic powers, trumpeted regularly over the previous hour, suddenly don’t look so impressive. With the very public unveiling of Matt Smith back in January, is there anyone alive who doesn’t know that the 10th Doctor’s days are numbered?

With David Tennant, the longest-serving Doctor since Tom Baker, getting ready to vacate the TARDIS, and executive producer and general mastermind Russell T Davies soon to turn the series in for adoption, Doctor Who is at a crossroads right now.

Its semi-gap year, with just four hour-long specials replacing the usual 13-part series (14 if you count the regular Christmas special), seems to have slowed the show’s momentum, which feels odd with a regeneration looming. After the disappointing Planet Of The Dead, the next three specials need to be special if Tennant is to get the send-off that his Doctor deserves.

Whatever happens, it’s been an enthralling four years for a show that, in the wrong hands, could have ended up as a dark, brooding series aimed at a cult audience, rather than the cross-generational crowd-pleaser that it is. For a whole week in March 2005, I wondered whether I might have preferred such an approach as I wasn’t sold on the first story, Rose, with its jarring moments of slapstick and cartoonish portrayal of Mickey. (Noel Clarke told Doctor Who Magazine in 2006 that he was unhappy with his early performances in the show. “A lot of it was over the top,” he admitted. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but my head wasn’t where it should have been. I just wasn’t ‘there’.”). But the following Saturday I sat down to watch the second episode, The End Of The World, and something unexpected happened: it moved me. Then I was sold.

Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in Doctor Who: The End Of The WorldThe final scenes of this story, with Rose tearfully watching the Earth burn in the far future before the Doctor whisks her off to 2005 where human life is carrying on as normal, perfectly showcase one of modern Doctor Who’s greatest strengths: its ability to start me sniffling.

When I first felt watery-eyed watching the show, I linked it to my childhood adoration for the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras. It was, I assumed, pressing buttons attached to those patented ‘happiest days of my life’. I figured I was pining for my lost youth, the safety of my mum’s cuddle, my 20p pocket money, simpler days when Saturday teatime meant something. But then I looked over at my wife and realised that she had something in her eye too, even though Doctor Who was little more than an occasional watch for her back in the ’70s. So how was the show doing this, and how did it achieve it so quickly?

The answer, I believe, lies with the series’ secret weapon, composer Murray Gold, whose music has been soundtracking the Doctor’s adventures since 2005. The themes that Gold creates for the show’s characters and situations lift the emotional content of certain scenes so high that resistance is useless.

Doctor Who: Original Television Soundtrack by Murray GoldVery quickly, I developed a Pavlovian reaction to his work. The first few notes of Rose’s Theme, even played out of context, are enough to set me sniffling. The series’ soundtrack albums – of which three have been released – are among my favourite records of recent years, from any genre. Warm, eclectic and memorable, the music they contain is a dazzling listen in its own right, and a neat way to re-experience Doctor Who’s emotional peaks and valleys away from the TV set.

Of course, all this doe-eyed stuff is setting me up for a ‘love is blind’-style rebuke, and that’s okay – on the above evidence, I deserve it. Rest assured, though, I can see the series’ faults: the stories that resolve unsatisfactorily, certain actors’ wooden performances, the overuse of doomy prophecies, and characters who can’t seem to leave the show without taking a curtain call or two. I find the latter in particular a bugbear, as it diminishes the impact of the characters’ original, often tragic and poetic, endings. In this respect, the Tennant/Davies era is starting to look a bit tired.

David Tennant in Doctor Who: The Stolen EarthIn spite of these gripes, though, Doctor Who is the TV show that’s given me more pleasure than any other that I can recall. At its best, it’s an exciting, unpredictable and unafraid series that’s surprised me in ways that television had stopped doing. Even when it’s tried to fool me, like it did at the end of The Stolen Earth, I’ve been taken aback by its audacity.

When it feels like anything can happen, rather than a set of universally accepted plot devices, I’m putty in the screenwriters’ hands. The fact that the show’s fiercest critics are often those offended by its liberal outlook – particularly the so-called ‘gay agenda’ – suggests that the series has political worth too. My admiration for what Russell T Davies has achieved with Doctor Who is huge.

As I get ready to say goodbye to the 10th Doctor and welcome the 11th, I’m hopeful for the future of the series. Its new executive producer, Steven Moffat, has an impressive pedigree, having already authored some of the series’ best stories – gems such as The Empty Child, The Girl In The Fireplace and Blink.

With fatigue starting to set in over certain aspects of the show, I’m excited about its reboot next year, though I’m not looking forward to David Tennant’s departure. He’s been a joy to watch, embracing the role so fully that when he says his final goodbyes and Murray Gold whooshes in to wring out my tear ducts, I’m sure I’ll be blubbing for the actor as much as the character. He’s the young fan that grew up to be the Doctor: my Doctor. And his ‘song’ was a belter.

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