Yes, I know, I know. I'm overdue for a blog entry on books, instead of on TV. But that would give the impression that I've spent a lot of my free time lately reading. I haven't. Instead, I've been watching the new "Doctor Who" series, as unable as ever to save a few episodes up, knowing it will be a long stretch before any new ones come along. The box set arrived Wednesday, and I've already bolted down all 13 episodes.
Just what is it that makes this series so addictive? An interesting central character helps. Mind you, it's not that I'm a blind devotee of the Doctor. It's hard not to like this amiable alien, but he is contradictory to say the least. One minute, he is acting like the bodyguard of the human race and grimly blasting our enemies to kingdom come; the next he's acting as a kind of Alien Rights ambassador and appears to be deeply chocked over our lack of fellow-feeling towards other species. At one time, he's full of admiration for human endeavour and inventiveness; at another, he's doing the tiresome Superior Species Turn well-known from other sci-fi shows and seems to despise us. In one episode he shows a definite streak of cruelty, and that's fine, because after all he is an alien; only a few episodes further along the way, he does the annoying hippie-dippy no-guns-no-salutes-act. Come again? I bet The Family of Blood ("We wanted to live forever... So the Doctor made sure that we did") would welcome a nice, clean bullet through the heart just about now. However, this complexity is no bad thing. It keeps you on your toes, trying to figure out who the Doctor really is.
The new one, Matt Smith, isn't at all bad. He does the nutty professor part of the character very well and looks the part. He can't do the rattling-off-brilliant-ideas-at-the-top-of-his-head-at-lightning-speed part as well as David Tennant, but on the plus side, much of the swollen-headedness which became a problem with the Tenth Doctor is gone. By the time of the fourth series, the Doctor had become something of an insufferable know-it-all, always moral and always right and the hippie-dippy element lamentably strong. Also, Russell T Davies (the head script-writer during Tennant's time, and very good he was too) piled on the Messianic references a bit thick. The Doctor is a very nice Time Lord, but he's not the Messiah. The Eleventh Doctor seems more aware of his limitations in comparison. It doesn't stop David Tennant from being a great Doctor and a hard act to follow, but I think my favourite (and I've only watched the new series, so I only have three Docs to choose from) is Christopher Eccleston. He did the "Boo hoo I'm all alone and the last of my species" scenes with much more conviction than his successors: his was a plausibly sad and angry Doctor who was not too peace-and-lovey to charge up at one time to the (as he thought) last Dalek in the Universe and point at it with a GREAT BIG GUN.
So, complex central character, good. The sidekicks aren't bad either, and the script is continually intelligent and witty. Plus, of course, there's time travel. The Doctor meets Madame de Pompadour! And Shakespeare! And Dickens! There's also a sense of up-beatness to the series, even if some of the scenarios from the future aren't that rosy, and we know everything will go to pot three hundred billion years from now. Three hundred billion years is a long time, after all. This up-beatness and the warmth between the main characters are what's missing from the misery-laden "Torchwood", which I couldn't get through the first series of, even though it's a Doctor Who spin-off. As far as "Torchwood" is concerned, life's a bitch and then you die and then after-life's a bitch. ("There's something out there in the dark and it's moving" - because "it all goes black" wasn't depressing enough, apparently.) In "Doctor Who", by contrast, there's always a sense of hope.
Another aspect I like about "Doctor Who", and what I believe got me hooked in the first place, is the "what's wrong with this picture?" element. An adventure starts out, and everything seems fine. Then, increasingly, strange things start to happen, and the Doctor and his companion du jour have to try to figure out which peril they are facing this time. It's a kind of crime story element, similar to when a witness says "Of course... that was strange" and goes on to reveal a detail you can't at first make sense of. That's a reason why I like "introducing a companion" episodes, which start out as a day in the life of a typically gutsy girl and then get weirder and weirder, or "dystopian society" episodes, where humans trudge on and seem to live ordinary lives - adaptable as we are - in a setting which gets more sinister by the minute.
All right, enough geeky gushing, and believe me, you haven't heard half of it - as for instance why it doesn't much matter that a lot of the aliens are quite naff (the Slitheen were a real low point). Let me just finish with this memorable exchange from the Dickens episode "The Unquiet Dead".
DICKENS: My books... Will they last?
DOCTOR: Oh yes.
DICKENS: How long?
DOCTOR (beaming): Forever.
Aaah. One can't not love an alien like that.