People around the world look forward to Easter weekend for a variety of reasons: the beginning of spring break, the end of the great fast of Lent, the ears of a chocolate bunny and an Easter egg hunt. But in five years, Russell T. Davies has transformed Easter weekend for Great Britain. In Britain, Easter weekend means one very fun thing: a new special episode of Doctor Who.
This year, the episode has an uncanny resemblance to the holiday. For three years, David Tennant has dashed into danger, greatcoat flapping behind, as the Tenth Doctor. In poll after poll, he has been voted Britain’s favorite Doctor, beating Tom Baker’s long-beloved Fourth Doctor handily. But this Christmas, the Tenth Doctor took his final bow in battle against his own kind, the Master and the Time Lords of Gallifrey. With fans salivating for a new series, the Easter special became launch time for Ten’s resurrection as the Eleventh Doctor. Matt Smith made his debut in the iconic role in The Eleventh Hour on Holy Saturday, and American audiences will see it tonight on BBC America.
The Doctor’s growing popularity in America may be the best thing that’s happened to US entertainment in years. In our world of Jack Bauer and even Chuck, where the good guys must eventually (and sometimes gleefully) kill the bad guys to prove their worth, the very British Doctor proves time and again that there is a third way between violence and surrender. As I wrote in an earlier post on this site, America does, indeed, need a Doctor.
And so he has come to our shores. And, as always, he is enigmatic, unpredictable, and hilarious. The trick to the periodic reimagining of the Doctor comes from the show’s first season back in 1966, when William Hartnell’s health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer perform as the First Doctor. Rather than cancel the show, the writers came up with the ingenious notion that a Time Lord cheats death by regenerating. It’s a writer’s dream. Every few seasons, the show starts fresh with a new personality, a new actor, but the same establishing mythos to ground it in what advertisers love most: an established fan base.
It works; it shouldn’t. Every time one Doctor leaves, skeptics decry the loss of the beloved actor and criticize the next actor for being too young, too old, too inexperienced, too unknown. Without fail, the same thing happens when that Doctor regenerates. This recent shift is no exception. David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor took some getting used to, and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor was greeted with skepticism. Until the first episode.
When Tennant handed the role over to Smith, new series creator Russell T. Davies handed the show over to writer Steven Moffat. In both cases, it was an inspired decision. Moffat’s episodes are classic scifi, and make up the bulk of the award-winning stories for the relaunched series. Smith, a theatrical actor and the youngest to portray the Doctor in the show’s 47 year history, proves in The Eleventh Hour that he can shoulder the mantle of England’s most popular fictional character.
The Eleventh Hour premiered in Britain on the evening of the Great Vigil, and it’s an appropriate title. In Matthew, the apostle recounts the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Those the owner found standing, waiting for employment in the eleventh hour found work and wages in the vineyard. David Wilcox expanded on that theme in his song Show the Way, in which he describes the world like a play. “It looks as if the hero came too late/ He’s almost in defeat, it’s looking like the evil side will win/ So on the edge of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins/ It is love that mixed the mortar, and love who stacked these stones/ It is love that made the stage here, though it looks like we’re alone/ In this scene set in shadow like the night is here to stay, there is evil cast around us, but it’s love that wrote the play…”
That’s the magic of the Doctor. It is a modern myth so powerful it transcends the ideology of its creators. Davies writes in The Writer’s Tale that he finds it odd when religious people try to identify elements of faith or characteristics of God in Doctor Who. But his Doctor sacrificed himself to save the life of one, insignificant man at the end of Series 5 in Christmastide, and was reborn on Easter. The Doctor is defined by his mercy, which is sometimes terrifying and sometimes compassionate beyond comprehension, but always good. He lives in the midst of delight in the world that surrounds him, and everyone who spends time with him, from the shopgirl to his great enemy, is transformed into something more closely resembling himself.
Judging from the first two episodes of Series 6, the Eleventh Doctor is no exception. As always, he travels the stars, bristling with power, tempered by mercy, the lonely god of his universe. ‘