Being an American Doctor Who fan in the ’80s meant being patient. If you wanted to see the newest episodes from England, you had three options (four, if you could afford the plane trip):
- Wait for enough episodes to be assembled into a syndication package, then convince your local PBS station–in my case, WTTW in Chicago–to purchase it.
- Find a friend in the U.K. willing to record the episodes for you, then have the videotapes converted from the PAL television system to our own NTSC.
- Join a Doctor Who club and watch grainy, seventh-generation dubs.
I do not miss those days.
Last night saw the unprecedented: a new season of Doctor Who premiering on the same day in both England and the U.S. (Note that it’s not the first time for an individual episode; last year’s Christmas special enjoyed a same-day U.S. airing, and the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors” actually screened here two days before the Brits saw it.) Finally, BBC America realized that waiting months or even weeks was an ice age in the era of file-sharing.
It’s a little bit weird to see Doctor Who featured in Entertainment Weekly ads, late-night network TV interviews and multi-day cable marathons. While it’s not the institution in the U.S. that it is on the other side of The Pond, I think it’s fair to say that Who has never been more mainstream.
That said, watching it on BBC America kinda sucks. What was announced as “limited commercial interruption” turned out to be five very long breaks. And I don’t care for the way they handled the cliffhanger, with a fade-to-black followed by a network promo rather than the traditional intruding blast of the theme music. (At least they aired the Elisabeth Sladen memorial.) Sure, it beats those seventh-generation VHS tapes, but torrenting is still looking pretty good in comparison.
What of the episode (“The Impossible Astronaut”) itself? Well, I’ll need to see it again. And, of course, then there’s next week’s conclusion. Furthermore, it’s likely that the events of this initial story will continue to influence the rest of the season.
That’s the biggest difference between nu-Who and the original series: season-long story arcs are now the norm rather than the exception. Showrunner Steven Moffat has doubled-down on that, with last year’s plot bleeding over into the 2011 run. The mysterious force that attempted to destroy the Doctor’s TARDIS and unravel the universe has been revealed as The Silence, a race of cadaverous Men in Black that disappear from memory every time they’re out of view. (“Out of sight, out of mind” made literal.)
I imagine that these guys scared the bejeesus out of the kids.
Moffat’s love of “timey-wimey” plots comes to the fore again, with events occurring out of order and the Doctor’s friends challenged to stop a terrible future. (The suggestion that Amy, Rory and River cannot change their own timeline without causing a paradox seems to fly in the face of last season’s finale, which had the Doctor comically popping backwards and forwards in history and even being released from an inescapable trap by his own future self.) It’s funny how often non-linearity figures into nu-Who; the old show almost never took that type of advantage of its time-travelling premise.
Which brings us to River Song, the Doctor’s quasi-love interest played by Alex Kingston. I have to say that I’m not nearly as fascinated by River as Moffat seems to be; I find her smug and obnoxious and just don’t care that much about her mysterious background. That said, I thought that there she had a good scene this week in which she described the awful reality of loving someone who knows her less and less every time they meet, like some form of chronological Alzheimer’s.
If all that sounds as if I’m down on the episode, that’s not my intention. Niggles aside, it was good stuff. (Bonus: cameo appearance by W. Morgan Sheppard, “Blank Reg” himself!) I’m very much looking forward to next Saturday!