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The Three ‘Doctor Who’ Pilots
Two worked wonderfully. One did not.
Two Doctor Who pilots led into long-running series, the latter of which will continue this fall. However, another Doctor Who pilot failed, despite some redeeming qualities.
I did something similar with X-Men cartoons a few months ago, but now it’s time for the Doctor to teach us what works and doesn’t work in sci-fi television pilots.
Had this one failed, virtually no one would remember or care about Doctor Who today. The episode, titled “An Unearthly Child,” provides a brilliant, low-key introduction to the series, intriguing us without overloading us.
The pilot centers on a mystery that leads us into the Doctor’s life. The Doctor isn’t the protagonist yet; he’s more like the antagonist. He’s part of the mystery that slowly unfolds over the half hour.
Two high school teachers, Barbara and Ian, serve as our viewpoint characters. They discuss a peculiar student of theirs, Susan Foreman, who’s incredibly brilliant in certain ways and yet completely ignorant in some basic areas. Stranger still, her home address is a junkyard.
Unable to resist their curiosity, Ian and Barbara follow Susan into this junkyard after school one day, and there they encounter a crusty old man who keeps trying to get rid of them. His efforts, of course, only further arouse the teachers’ suspicions—and their concern for their student. They had seen Susan enter an old police box, and they fear this old man has trapped her inside.
This is how we meet the Doctor, a character who has endured for over 60 years. Thanks to William Hartnell’s excellent performance, which contains just the right amount of playfulness, we quickly get the sense that there’s much more to this man than meets the eye. Wisely, the episode only hints at what that “more” might be.
Ian and Barbara force their way into the police box and thereby bring the viewer inside the TARDIS for the first time. We learn that Susan and her grandfather, the Doctor, are visitors from a more advanced time and a more advanced world, and that they’re somehow cut off from that world.
But we do not learn where exactly they came from, or when exactly, or even why they ever left in the first place. There would be plenty of time for all that later, because this pilot episode succeeded in hooking an audience.
In this short first episode, we don’t need a ton of exposition, backstory, or lore. The writers and producers made the right call tabling all of that for now.
Unfortunately, the 1996 relaunch chose a different approach.
The original series went off the air in 1989, and the first attempt at a relaunch occurred not too long afterward, with the TV movie/pilot Doctor Who: The Movie.
They got the casting right. Paul McGann is an excellent Doctor, and if he had more screen time, he might have become my favorite. He represents a nice middle ground between the original series and the next one, giving us a Doctor who’s heroic and off-kilter but not overly quirky. I’ve listened to some of the Big Finish audio dramas that feature McGann as the Doctor, and he’s a natural in the part.
But unlike the wonderful 1963 pilot, the 1996 version weighs us down with lore and backstory right from the start. The movie opens with voice-over exposition—never a promising sign. We meet the Doctor right away, but he’s not played by McGann yet. He’s an entirely different man.
Fans of the original series would recognize Sylvester McCoy, who played the Doctor in the show’s final seasons. It’s a nice, respectful nod to continuity, but now is not the time for that. To the uninitiated, McCoy’s presence in the TARDIS likely raised some questions, but in a way that was more confusing than intriguing.
The regeneration of McCoy’s Doctor into McGann’s is one of the stronger parts of the movie. McCoy’s Doctor is shot and taken to a hospital, where he dies on the operating table because the surgeons don’t know anything about his alien physiology. They inflict further pain and suffering while attempting to save his life. The Doctor never had a chance in a human hospital, and he later regenerates in the morgue.
The entire sequence (including before and after the above clip) carries traces of a Tim Burton influence as well as hints of The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the movie handles it well—but it’s completely wrong for a relaunch.
Doctor Who owes much of its longevity to the regeneration concept. It’s provided a reliable excuse for periodically recasting the lead, and it removes any expectation for each new actor to imitate his or her predecessor.
As I previously described it:
When the Doctor regenerates, he or she remains fundamentally the same person, but in a new stage of life. It works as a metaphor for how we change over the course of our lives. We develop new interests along the way. We pick up some new quirks while shedding others. We might mellow out in later years or perhaps become more irritable. We even adjust our fashion sense. We age, we learn, we grow. But at our core, we’re still us—building on what came before.
While it’s an indispensable tool for maintaining the series, it should not be used to introduce the series. Traditionally, each regeneration occurs at the end of a storyline. We get a quick cameo of the new Doctor, and then the next storyline provides a proper introduction and good jumping-on point for new fans.
In a pilot, a regeneration is clunky, and it suggests that the audience will have to put in some work to keep the mythology straight, to which a number of viewers may respond, “No thank you.”
Doctor Who: The Movie also includes the revelation that the Doctor is half-human. While the movie/pilot avoids delving into the specifics, it still comes across as distracting information. What does it mean for him to be half-human? We barely know what it means for him to be Gallifreyan at this point. Thankfully, this development was quietly ignored the next time around.
Given that it’s now 2023 and new episodes of Doctor Who are just around the corner, we can safely call the 2005 pilot a success. Sure, ratings faltered in recent years, but other than an occasional temporary hiatus, the show hasn’t been canceled since this reboot. In fact, the pilot’s writer and showrunner, Russell T. Davies, was rehired to helm the show for its upcoming season.
This pilot introduces a very different Doctor than the one we met in 1963, but it takes a cue from “An Unearthly Child” by positioning a human character as the protagonist and letting us gradually meet the Doctor through her eyes. The episode is titled “Rose” with good reason—Rose (Billie Piper) ushers us into this exciting new universe while anchoring the whole thing in humanity.
We’re at Rose’s side when we first encounter the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), and later in the episode, we accompany her as we enter the TARDIS for the first time. When we first see the TARDIS dematerialize, we watch it from the outside with her.
The regeneration concept is merely hinted at in a throwaway line when the Doctor observes his face in a mirror, like he’s seeing himself for the first time. “Ah ... could have been worse. But look at the ears,” he says. For new viewers, it’s a quick, quirky moment that’s easily forgotten as the plot barrels onward. For preexisting fans, it’s confirmation that, yes, regeneration is still a thing and we’ll be getting to it eventually. History remains. It’s such an efficient way of balancing the needs of old and new fans.
Plus, whereas the 1996 version went straight to using the Master as the villain, the 2005 pilot opts for a routine set of Doctor Who monsters—mannequins that come to life and start killing people. They require far less development and exposition than the Master and therefore serve the pilot much better (like the Sentinels in the X-Men’s successful animated pilot).
This pilot could have delved into the Time War and revealed how the Doctor is now the last of the Time Lords. It could have depicted an origin story of the Doctor stealing the TARDIS and running away from Gallifrey. It could have told us so much. Instead, it zeroed in on the essentials and showed us the basics of who the Doctor is.
Take this exchange for example:
Rose: Really though, Doctor. Tell me. Who are you?
The Doctor: Do you know like we were saying, about the earth revolving? It’s like when you’re a kid, the first time they tell you that the world is turning and you just can’t quite believe it ’cause everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it...
[He takes her hand.]
The Doctor: The turn of the earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour. And I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world. And, if we let go...
[He releases her hand.]
The Doctor: That’s who I am. Now forget me, Rose Tyler. Go home.
That reveals so much more than any dissertation on Gallifrey ever could. And so does this shorter, more lighthearted exchange:
Rose: If you are an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the North?
The Doctor: Lots of planets have a North!
Science fiction series often have plenty of ground to cover—too much ground for any single episode. A TV series, unlike a movie, offers ample opportunities to explore everything over time—so long as the pilot episode demonstrates sufficient patience and restraint.
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