Themes of the Russell T Davies era: Series 1
Guest contributor James Robertson takes a trip back to 2005 to explore the themes of the revival.
Firstly, I’d like to establish the great respect I have for RTD (as he’s affectionately known). He’s not only the man responsible for introducing me and countless others to Doctor Who when he revived it way back in 2005, but under his tenure the show reached new levels of critical and ratings success. This lies in part, I feel, in the great number of themes explored not only in the episodes he wrote, but in the work of every writer for the show. In this article, I hope to provoke a bit of thought about such a variety of themes, from love and war to politics and the media; these elements simply add to the adventure stories we tune in for each week.
The first series of revived Doctor Who is arguably the most consistent in tone and theme, coincidentally or not because RTD wrote the majority of the episodes. After a great introduction to the Doctor, the TARDIS and our titular companion in Rose, the adventure really begins in The End of the World. It’s a classic scenario and one that introduces new viewers effectively but thematically it’s interesting too as it is establishes one of RTD’s main themes, the survival of the human race. In today’s world, with the risk of economic and political instability, global warming and terrorism, it’s a refreshing sight that in five billion years, the Earth is still spinning round the Sun, the Doctor recognises this himself.
It’s an optimistic message with a cynical edge however, as the only human in attendance, apart from Rose of course, is Cassandra, who has lost any humanity she may have once had. Obsessed with her health and her image, Cassandra is just a flapping trampoline of skin after many operations; the vanity of humankind is another recurring theme in later series. The episode also begins what is commonly dubbed as the New Earth ‘trilogy’, charting the journey of the human race in the far future.
The Unquiet Dead is our first adventure in the past but this does not mean it is tame or particularly lacklustre. Written by Mark Gatiss, it’s a classic ghost story that draws on the Victorian fascination with the supernatural. It’s rather fitting and ironic that the Gelth’s first appearance is at a reading of A Christmas Carol, well known for its appearance of Marley’s ghost to Scrooge, who eventually sees the error of his ways and embraces his family and friends, much like Dickens after his encounter with the Gelth. The main theme seems to be the conflict between the supernatural and the natural in a time where science is rationalising spirituality and belief.
Let’s look at the first two-part episode of the series, Aliens in London/World War Three, which is also a classic alien invasion story, as the family Slitheen from Raxicoricofallapatorius infiltrate the highest levels of government in a bid to annihilate the Earth and sell its resources in a galactic scrap sale. Of course, a spaceship crashing through Big Ben is going to generate a worldwide crisis and this is reflected in the media. A noticeable aspect of RTD’s invasion stories were these regular news updates and the recurrence of minor characters, such as American newsreader Trinity Wells, which gives a sense of continuity in the Whoniverse. The infiltration of the government is notable too; the Slitheen make the claim about weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed in 45-seconds which draws an interesting parallel with the invasion of Iraq just two years previously. The fact that the Prime Minister and his closest associates are a family of large, green and flatulent aliens is a rather amusing satire of the government and politicians in the modern world.
Following this two-part episode is Dalek, which brings the Doctor’s most iconic enemy into the 21st century, with the episode set in the then not-so-distant-future of 2012, a setting I like as it is grounded in reality and it feels as if these kind of events could be happening right now. Henry van Statten is an archetype, he represents greed and the darker aspects of humankind, to own, dominate and control; Van Statten claims to have discovered the cure for the common cold but keeps it under lock and key for the sole reason of making a profit. His sensibility is not too far from the monstrosity he keeps caged up, he tries to manipulate and control the world to his own design.
Now we have three episodes connected with the strong theme of parental love, Paul Cornell’s Father’s Day and Steven Moffat’s superb two part episode, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.
Father’s Day is a truly great episode, featuring not only a strong message about the consequences of changing your past but a lot of character development for Rose. She goes back in time to make sure her father Pete does not die alone but ends up saving his life, changing history and releasing the Reapers onto the world. Shaun Dingwall turns in a great performance as Pete, he’s a bit of a lad but he cares about his family more than anything and makes the ultimate sacrifice and accepts his fate to save his daughter, his wife Jackie and the whole world. Although the Doctor soon feels as close as a family member to Rose, she still needs her family and this is no more apparent than in this episode.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is arguably the best two-part episode of the revived series, with a creepy ‘villain’ in the form of the Child and one of the most enduring themes of humanity: love. Whilst the Child converts others into its iconic gas mask wearing form with one touch, fundamentally it is just a small child looking for its mummy, a privilege that his real mother Nancy denies him of out of fear and the prejudice of 1940s Britain, even at the height of the Blitz. The conclusion of the story, in which the Nanogenes which first converted the little boy bring him back to life along with everyone else, is a great celebration of parental love as Nancy embraces her little boy.
Whilst it may not be the most popular episode of the series, The Long Game is probably the most significant in the themes it conveys. The Doctor, Rose and Adam land on Satellite Five in the year 200,000 to find a society that is seemingly being influenced by a higher power; the absence of alien life and the technology aboard the satellite worries the Doctor. Satellite Five makes and broadcasts the news, shaping the society of the planet; it transpires however that everyone on the station and Earth is being controlled by The Editor, played brilliantly by Simon Pegg, and the mighty Jagrafess, for not much of a reason other than to enslave humanity. It seems fitting that humanity’s enslavement is their weakness of consuming media and the ability to allow the media to become such a fundamental aspect that society effectively collapses when Cathica and the Doctor defeat the Jagrafess, the effect of this is revisited and is the essential plot for the two-part finale Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways.
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways succeeds in a number of ways; it brings the Bad Wolf motif to a conclusion and provides us with the Ninth Doctor’s sacrifice to save Rose, but it also follows on from the events of The Long Game. 100 years on, the Game Station as it is now known broadcasts game shows and reality television to an Earth polluted and crippled by the downfall of media, politics and civilised society. People are chosen at random to participate and losers are apparently disintegrated on live television. The Bad Wolf Corporation is discovered to have been controlled by the Daleks, who silently watch over the Earth and instated the Jagrafess to control the population, secretly transporting participants in the Games to be converted into Daleks. It is interesting to see how the human race is controlled with reality television and draws a parallel to the popularity of reality shows in the early 21st century and the desire of many to find fame on television; this is embodied by the character of Roderick, who still only cares about his prize money whilst the Station is in crisis.
The first series of Doctor Who effectively brought the show into the 21st century not simply by creating great adventure stories, but by exploring the themes that are fundamental in society today. Our reliance to the media and television is satirised in The Long Game and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways and the global influence of the media and political satire can be found in Aliens of London/World War Three. More human themes about the expression of love and family also appeal to our emotions but also provide lessons for the younger audience that Doctor Who attracts, about forming relationships with friends and family and how important your family is, no matter how independent you try to be.