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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Doctor Who

With yet another Doctor Who special on the books for this Christmas, I thought that, as with my comments on Star Trek, a little context might be called for.

As I’ve said before, there are three franchises that set the style for popular science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Of the three, Doctor Who is the oldest, starting on the BBC in 1963. Two schoolteachers, curious about the uncanny knowledge of one of their pupils, follow her to her home, which turns out to be a police telephone booth. Or so it seems. Within, it is in fact an enormous, impossibly advanced machine, able to travel instantly through space and time, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). And its master is an eccentric scientist known only as the Doctor.


From top left: 1. William Hartnell 2. Patrick Troughton 3. Jon Pertwee 4. Tom Baker 5. Peter Davison 6. Colin Baker 7. Sylvester McCoy 8.Paul McGann 9. Christopher Eccleston 10. David Tennant 11. Matt Smith…12. Peter Capaldi still pending

Over time, we learned that the Doctor is in fact an alien; a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a freethinking, good-hearted (and also two-hearted) voluntary exile from a society once described as ‘dusty old senators,’ with an offbeat intellect and strong sense of right and wrong. He’s regularly accompanied by at least one or two, usually younger, female companions whom he can explain things to, and thus to the audience. He has a recurring rogue’s gallery: the genocidal Daleks, the implacable Cybermen, and his dark counterpart, renegade Time Lord the Master.

This was, and is, the most basic formula of the show. Not much else about it is constant. Doctor Who in its original form was a really long-runner, from 1963 to 1989. William Hartnell, known ever since as the First Doctor, was nearing the end of his career (and, sadly, his life) when he started the role. When he left in 1966, it was revealed (that is, invented) that Time Lords had multiple (later specified to 13) lives. At the end of each, he would ‘regenerate,’ altering his appearance and the balance of his personality. Altogether, there were seven Doctors in the original run of the series.

It’s difficult, given its scale, to encapsulate what Doctor Who is. As I said in my Day of the Doctor article, it was basically a scenario upon which a great diversity of stories could be grafted, but it lacked the explicit mission statement of Star Trek. It was a lot more flexible because it wasn’t designed specifically to showcase an idealism or vision of any sort.

Which isn’t to say it couldn’t do that. The 3rd Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” could almost have been a Star Trek episode. And while it looked campy as heck even in the late 80s, the anti-Thatcher and pro-gay rights subtext of the 7th Doctor’s “The Happiness Patrol” was, I thought, quite impressive.

The usual framework was, and remains: the TARDIS appears somewhere, the Doctor finds out that the people who live there have a problem, with mysterious disappearances/alien attacks/whatever. The Doctor investigates, his companion in tow, finds a solution that either sets things right or, perhaps more often, clears the way for the locals to do it themselves, and then he moves on.

After that, each story is probably best appreciated on its own merits. I’ve seen at least some episodes of Doctors 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11, and there’s something to be said for all of them. They can range from drama (“The Curse of Peladon”) to comedy (“The Sun Makers”) to horror (“Blink”). Still, I think a lot of people would agree that the heyday of the classic series was the period from 1971 to 1984, the tenures of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

The first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton seem less thoroughly remembered. They lacked the distinctive costumes of their successors, a lot of the mythology hadn’t evolved yet; their episodes haven’t held up as well because they’re in black and white; and, indeed a number of their serials were destroyed in a BBC archives purge. Happily, though, a number of them have since been recovered or reconstructed. Troughton did become a big hit on the convention circuit once it began. He was actually at one when he died.

Pertwee was the first Doctor to become iconic in the role to the point of typecasting (luckily, he loved being the Doctor) and his tenure is defined by a strong focus on his character and many benchmark moments for him, including the introduction of his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It also spent some time with him grounded on Earth and working with the special ops group UNIT, which framed a lot of somewhat politically loaded stories concerning military responses, human fallibility and interpersonal drama.

Baker captured the darkly comedic, countercultural side of the character with his off-the-cuff lunacy, insanely long scarf and tendency to offer a candy to any passing monstrosity. For a long time, if you asked most people to think of Doctor Who, they’d picture him. He ultimately held the post the longest, at seven years, and his serials contained a greater variety in content, setting and themes than Pertwee’s. Incidentally, it was during this period that Douglas Adams spent time as the series’ writer and script editor.

Davison was a younger, more big-brotherly Doctor, and arguably one of the first attempts to make him a genuinely conflicted character. Baker had his melancholy, even disturbing side, but Davison’s Doctor could sometimes be excessively soft-hearted and naive. Also he wore a celery stalk on his lapel for some reason.

An eccentricity that may have been a bit ominous, because, it is generally agreed, the low point for the series came with the advent of Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) as the Sixth Doctor. This was through no fault of his, I should say, but of assorted political and creative wranglings in the BBC and an ongoing effort to re-tool and ‘brand’ the series. The Doctor now had a dreadfully loud technicolour outfit, a lot of villains and plot elements from previous Doctors started getting recycled, sometimes to excess, and the use of companions as sexy fanservice had markedly increased. The Doctor could exhibit deeply unsettling outbursts and his serials became very dark and violent. Baker only lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (or Radagast the Brown, as he’s known these days).

The branding efforts continued, notably with a costume festooned in question marks. The dark side was rolled back, though not eliminated. It regained some thoughtful depth (sometimes at the cost of coherence) and was also the first to dabble in mythology arcs. Ultimately, the series ended in 1989, returning briefly to introduce an 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for a TV movie in 1996.

We shall never know where any of the hints dropped in McCoy’s day might have led, and in any case to try and establish a continuity for Doctor Who at that late stage seems a bit pointless. So many hands contributed to it over so long that which mythology additions and story elements stuck and which got retconned out of existence was pretty much a crapshoot. The rules of time travel were whatever the current serial’s plot required, and the Doctor could utterly defeat, say, the Daleks or Cybermen a hundred times and still run into them again. The purely episodic style meant that cast changes, be it the Doctor or his companions, are often abrupt and seem rather dismissive.

Go through the whole series and count how many aliens left racial memories or secret plans for their return on Earth; “the Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Image of the Fendahl,” “City of Death,” “the Stones of Blood,” “Battlefield,” “the Satan Pit.” That hair guy on Ancient Aliens never had it so good. While the show often professed a respect for science and reason over tyranny and violence, it was at best dodgy on hard scientific or historical accuracy.

Among the few points that stuck were the 12-regeneration limit (“Keeper of Traken”) the fact that they have two hearts (“the Daemons”) and the origin story for the Daleks. That is, their second origin story, in “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Probably what will put a lot of people off it today is the special effects, which are limited and crude by today’s standards, as can be the overacting that goes on in reaction to them. I like the creativity of them, myself. I may not look at them as say “oh, that’s realistic,” but I do tend to say, “oh that’s a very clever way to do that.” I think that in those days, TV had more in common with theatre than, as now, with movies. They ask, as Shakespeare did, for you to ‘eke out [their] performance with your mind.’

The lack of a rigid mythology is frustrating, but also liberating in a show this long. The fans can indulge, relish the scraps of mythology that they find personally compelling. It can be, and is, many things to many people.

In 2005 Russel T. Davies achieved a dream of his, to bring Doctor Who back afresh, and he did this while attempting to marry the old traditions and the new. The Doctor was the wandering adventurer, with a companion or two in tow, finding all manner of alien menaces and saving people and planets, usually Earth.

He also began to build a clearer continuity, something expected of television series in the new century; now the Doctor was the last Time Lord, having wiped out both his own people and the Daleks in a last-ditch attempt to halt a terrible war. So far we’ve seen a Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor each going through quite compelling phases of coping with that experience. It lent the series a new emotional punch, something which Tennant seemed to capture particularly well, along with reflecting a lot of the best of the eccentric comic Doctors. With the advent of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Davies handed the torch off to his writer, Steven Moffat.

The new series has distinguished itself with a regard for the effect of big cosmic events on the little people, examining the consequences – not always positive – of the Doctor’s impact in the long term, and his adventures’ impact on him. Eccleston’s (9th) high point was in “The Doctor Dances” when he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s further exemplified in Smith’s premier episode, when he says “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” It also explores the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, who are often his moral compass and foil, as well as exposition conduits.

Having said that, the new series is attracting its share of criticism, especially since Moffat took over. A lot of them, I feel, can be traced to the attempt to make a cohesive long-term story arc and mythology, because after having burst in shining colours in every direction for 26 years, trying to get Doctor Who to turn into a unified laser beam of a story causes a lot of collateral damage.

There’s been a creeping tendency throughout the new series that got really bad late in Tennant’s run for the Doctor to exhibit a sort of machismo about his status as the hero of the piece. Similarly, his sidekicks have gotten increasingly worshipful of him. In a way, this makes sense, given the cumulative effect of his adventures, but in “Day of the Doctor” we can see that it’s getting the better of storytelling.

This seeps over into an increasingly violent show: gunplay has been introduced, albeit often not the Doctor doing it, in ways that make it cool and heroic (“Time of Angels,” “A Town Called Mercy”) whereas when Eccleston picked up a gun (“Dalek”) it was a clear sign there was something wrong with him. A shocking deviation from, as Tennant so excellently put it, “a man who never would.”

And, much like in the late 80s, the series is beginning to repeat itself a fair bit. One of the things that cooled me on the show was that the seasonal arcs, always promising something dreadful and profound happening, fell into a pattern of the entire Earth/Universe being menaced by a monster. You start to wonder how the Doctor gets any sleep without the cosmos imploding. The recycling of monsters themselves was getting wearisome.

Especially the Daleks. For perspective, consider: the 4th Doctor, in 7 years, fought the Daleks twice. Doctors 9-11, in the same span, have fought them eight times. And this is after they were supposedly wiped out in the Time War and, seemingly, wiped out again in “Bad Wolf” and then again in “The Stolen Earth.” Obviously this was common practice in the old days (but even then), but back then we weren’t trying to build a consistent story arc.

The stakes oftentimes felt a bit toothless anyway because of the prevalance of excuse-by-technobabble and Deus Ex Machina devices (several of them at once in some cases). Look at the sonic screwdriver. Believe it or not, the Doctor actually used it to undo screws once in while in the old days. Now it’s a magic wand that abuses suspension of disbelief beyond all tolerance.

The point where I finally quit watching was “the Hungry Earth” which re-introduces the Silurians and the 11th Doctor’s efforts to avert a war between them and humanity. We already saw this! The Third Doctor did this (twice, if you count “the Sea Devils”), and did it well, no matter how bad the special effects were! It indicates both a dearth of ideas and, despite the enthusiasm of the writers in general, is a bit disrespectful of the character’s heritage.

Strangest of all, to me at least, has been the use of romantic tension. The character of River Song, teased along as the Doctor’s destined wife, was prefaced by companion Martha’s torch for him, and even earlier by an unfulfilled mutual attraction between the Doctor and Rose.

The BBC during the 70s and 80s forbade such teases because it was considered family entertainment (albeit with companions like Leela and Peri who dressed “for the dads” as they described it) so it was deemed improper for there to be any suggestion of “hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Thus has it been that the Doctor was an asexual character, which was sometimes used to underscore his alienness. In principle I don’t object to this content (except to the stupid phallic humour around the sonic screwdriver), but I have to ask: why did this need to be here? Do romance subplots have to be put in everything? Why wasn’t the Doctor as friend, teacher and enigma good enough?

River Song’s especially irritating because the way she upstages the Doctor left me, in “Time of Angels” feeling like I was watching the show that Moffat wanted to be making, instead of Doctor Who! Even in the old days, the companions, male or female, could be at least basically intelligent, decent people. Moffat’s women are, infamously, cardboard cutouts, and the way the Doctor and other men behave around them reflects a dunderheaded Mars/Venus sitcom dynamic. I knew we were in trouble when River said of the trademark TARDIS sound, “It’s not supposed to make that noise: YOU leave the brakes on!” This is Doctor Who, not How I Met Your Mother!

He also has a tendency (done three times now) to have the Doctor meet his companions as children, make a deep impression on them, and then meet them again after they’ve grown up, inevitably as highly sexualized adults, deftly upgrading from absurd to creepy.

So Doctor Who is in trouble: the writing quality is suffering, partly from being marketed to what marketing people think of as 20-somethings, partly from excessive enthusiasm and flat-out bad writing. The long arcs became attempts to disguise vagueness as profundity, and often conflict with the, occasionally rather distasteful, short-run gags and gimmicks in certain episodes. The CG effects are generic and tiresome, and so, increasingly, are the stories. The attempts to build huge epics while at the same time trying to tell the unconstrained-by-canon stories of the classic series, are causing more clutter than coherence, even to the point that the number of Doctors is suddenly up in the air. The attempts to brand the series with two very similar, young Doctors while at the same time fetishizing the Doctor out of proportion to his actual (considerable) appeal are a combination of new vices and the ones that afflicted it in the late 80s. I also fear that it causes even fans to dismiss the storytelling, creativity and performances of the classic series because it’s ‘old,’ while neglecting their great merits.

But it need not be past saving. No Doctor hasn’t had at least one good adventure. I have hopes that the new, older Doctor will sober things down a bit, and help recapture the older traditions.

Doctor Who is, and has always been, a show with near infinite possibilities, a male lead who (usually) stands out for his intellect and nonviolent ways, in contrast to many such leads in fiction, and, I might add, the most epic theme song ever created.

Merry Christmas

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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television


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Day of the Doctor: A Day of Disservice

It probably speaks volumes about the 1960s, the number of intellectual properties having 50th anniversaries these days. James Bond just had one, Star Trek’s is a few years off. And speaking of Star Trek, we’ve just rung in 50 years of Trek’s counterpart from across the pond, Doctor Who, celebrated by way of the television special “Day of the Doctor.”


Mr. Hurt, always a pleasure to see you, but how did you get in here?

Since the 2005 reboot of the classic British sci-fi adventure series, the series has been operating under an overarching backstory: the Doctor is the sole survivor of his people, the Time Lords, having been forced to resort to drastic means to defeat their enemies in the Great Time War, the Daleks, defeating them (although heaven knows that hasn’t slowed them down any) but taking the Time Lords with them. The Doctor’s character arc across his last three (four?) incarnations has been driven in part by trying to come to terms with and atone for that act.

Now we flash back to that moment. When the Doctor is preparing the intelligent weapon of mass destruction to do the deed, he is invited by the weapon’s consciousness to encounter two of his future selves (the two most recent Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith) to help him learn the impact on himself of this action.

The other two Doctors are each engaged in their own adventures. Eleven and his companion Clara are studying a mysterious painting that depicts his lost homeworld of Gallifrey. Ten is romancing Queen Elizabeth I, who he suspects (partly correctly) of being an alien impostor.

The three Doctors are thrown together, and have to fight a plot by the Zygons, a long-ago enemy of the Doctor whose world was collateral damage in the Time War, to seize the Earth by invading it through time travel, and capture the 21st Century British government’s stash of dangerous alien salvage.

At the end of it, the three Doctors return to the moment of the end of the Time War, and come up with a new solution to preserve Gallifrey, albeit at the cost of making it vanish to places unknown, with the combined effort of all the Doctors, past, present and future, and letting the war-era Doctor rediscover who he is, was, and will be. The Doctor has a new quest to rediscover his homeworld, and new hope after long years of loneliness.

“Day of the Doctor” was played up as being a supreme, game-changing moment for the character, and for the show under the stewardship of Steven Moffat, formerly a principle writer for the show and also creator of Sherlock.

Now, full disclosure, I followed the series up til the first few episodes of Smith’s run, and much else that I’ve learned about the show on Moffat’s watch is second-hand from friends and critics, and what I can extrapolate from the Russell T. Davies’ era and episodes written by Moffat during that time. That said, “Day of the Doctor” regrettably seems to confirm a lot of the objections raised about the show under Moffat’s tenure.

If my plot summary above seems a bit vague and jumbled, it’s reflective of my own attempts to follow what’s going on. The great motto of modern Doctor Who is ‘wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey,’ for the occasions when the mental acrobatics of keeping track of time travel begin to get hard to process. Actually, in fairness, the plot isn’t that intricate. It’s more a case of being unable to see the trees for the forest, you might say.

Modern Who was, naturally, brought about and fostered by fans. That in itself is no indictment, but it does carry an element of risk: that the creators’ adoration for their source material will override their good judgement with regards to storytelling. This is, after all, where the stereotypical low-grade image of fanfiction springs from.

And unfortunately this impulse, poorly-restrained, is evident here, and I’ve noticed in places during Tennant’s run, and increasingly through what I’ve seen of Smith: the characters don’t talk like people speaking to other people. They talk like all the dialogue – all of it – was written as potential material for trailers.

Ten at one point runs across what he thinks is an alien in disguise (it turns out to be a harmless bunny rabbit) and declares himself thusly:

“Whatever you’ve got planned, forget it. I’m The Doctor. I’m 904 years-old. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m The Oncoming Storm, the Bringer Of Darkness…”

I know this was meant as a comedic aside, but really, who talks like that? Certainly not the Doctor I know.

Over the course of episodes I’ve seen prior to this, the Doctor has become increasingly boastful about his own epicness, when other characters aren’t proselytizing it instead. John Hurt, as the inexplicable ‘War Doctor’ ends with speaking to his future selves as ‘great men,’ and as charming as they are, I feel like the writer’s opinion of them is a lot higher than their portrayal justifies. It may just be that an elder and venerable actor like John Hurt speaking with such breathtaken admiration to two actors decades younger than himself cannot ring true. While the crossover episodes have a tradition of comic banter between Doctors, I felt like too much time was spent with the three of them sniping at each other at the expense of stuff actually happening.

Don’t get me wrong, Tennant and Smith are great actors and excellent Doctors. Not for no reason did Tennant supplant Tom Baker as everybody’s default image of Doctor Who. But as my Dad observed, a lot of the show seems to be trading on the character’s history to make Tennant and Smith look like the thing the Doctor was always destined to be, which comes across as a bit pompous – something Smith’s first episode did as well, actually.

That said, I do like that the writers make an effort to honour the heritage of the series – contrast to J.J. Abrams’ rendition of Star Trek which spends most of its time making fun of its heritage. This would have been a lot more successful perhaps if the involvement of other Doctors besides Smith, Tennant and Hurt wasn’t so slapdash. Given the short featurette “Night of the Doctor” that preceded it, clearly Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor, who was the one in the Time War) was available. Eccleston (9th) wasn’t, and Tom Baker (4th) appears (which caused me no small amount of glee, since he’s my favourite), and 1-3 are all dead of course, but the others get thrown in somewhat offhandedly, I thought.

And of course the number of them has been causing no end of confusion. This is the thing that really gets on my nerves: Classic Doctor Who, much like the Original Star Trek, was basically a set of characters and a scenario on which you could hang any story that could be adapted to them. The new series has been trying to make it into the kind of multi-episode plot arcs that are expected of television shows today. Which is fine, in principle. Where it runs into trouble, though, is that to run a story like that, especially a sci-fi/fantasy one, you need a canon. Rules. Limits. Doctor Who in its original format had a couple of them, one of which, established as far back as 1980 (Baker’s second-to-last serial the “Keeper of Traken,” if you’re interested) is that Time Lords like the Doctor regenerate 12 times, adding up to 13 lives, and we’ve somehow had another one squeezed in with no acknowledgement of this tradition, and quite of a lot of waffling from the creators about where they’re going with this. But then again, they waffle about where they’re going with everything!

The new series also established that the Time War is ‘time-locked’ making it virtually impossible to time travel into it. And yet, one convenient gadget and some timey-wimey dialogue and poof, suddenly the rules evaporate…

John Hurt is one of my favourite actors, and performs marvelously here, but there’s no reason for him to be here in the first place. Paul McGann would have made more sense, and this way the canon is thrown into disorder for no particular reason, although one suspects it’s because too much money is being made by this series to bear the thought of letting it have an endpoint or closure of any kind. And as thrilled as I was to see Tom Baker again, how did he get there?

Furthermore, the sudden evaporation of the time lock and the conjuration of not one, but two Deus Ex Machina (Machinae? Machinas?) to get around the terrible choice that has, I repeat, informed the Doctor’s character for this entire series, is just careless messing around, not taking the storytelling seriously in the name of making the Doctor look cool.

It’s often joked about Steven Moffat that he keeps killing characters off and then bringing them back again. Now he’s done that with the whole of Gallifrey. How can a series maintain its dramatic tension, its thematic backbone, when a quick burst of technobabble and a convenient gadget put an end to hard choices, to consequences?

I had fun watching “Day of the Doctor:” I’m as attracted to the idea of the Doctor, as moved to hope and joy by that wheezy old lurching sound the TARDIS makes as any other fan. I squealed like a little girl when I heard Tom’s voice, and it was nifty to see the Zygons again. But the series has become the very worst of fanfiction: fawning over the character takes priority over a good or even coherent story, engaging characters, or strong themes.

The finale – the Doctor being given a new direction, a redemption, and an ultimate purpose – is a compelling one, but it’s brought about carelessly. The dialogue is the characters addressing the audience more than each other, the hazy clues and foreshadowing are more frustrating than interesting, and the storytelling is neglected in the interest of inducing as many shallow squees as possible.

A lot of this seems to be representative of the decay of the series at large. Unlike Star Trek, however, I wouldn’t argue that it has expended itself and should be wrapped up. The formula is a lot more open-ended than Trek’s, with endless possibilities. It’s just a pity that it seems to have limited its horizons to showing off and goofing around, under a curtain of constant hype.

Doctor Who has done much to deserve such a long history as it has enjoyed, and I hold out hope for its future.

Or past. This timey-wimey stuff is pretty hard to fathom.

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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Television


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Saturday Supplemental: the Old Ways of Great Documentaries

It’s been a while since I watched television with any constancy, but I’ve nevertheless been well-aware of the recent outcry about the decline of Discovery Channel, as represented by it kicking off its annual staple, Shark Week, with a completely fabricated documentary about the possible survival of the long-extinct shark Megalodon.

Speculative documentaries are not a new thing, but this was arguably the first time Discovery had aired such a work that was clearly designed to lie to its audience.

I grew up with the old school National Geographic/BBC style documentary where you watched the natural world and listened to a calm voice taking you through parts of life and the world new to you. It certainly characterized my first Shark Week (or Shark Bowl ‘92 as it was called back then) and the pleasant, low-budget programs about Canadian wildlife I used to start my days with as a schoolboy.

In more recent years, television documentaries began to emphasize an element of spectacle and a more forceful, frenetic presentation style. That in itself isn’t a bad thing. However goofy or over-the-top, Mythbusters, for example, is still about bringing science to the people. But it’s like diarrhea, it could just mean you ate something too rich, or it could mean you have amoebic dysentery, you have to investigate further to find out.

The decay of educational television is something I’ve been observing since I was 12. When I was a kid, TLC showed programs like Beakman’s World, PaleoWorld, Body Atlas and Archaeology. The History Channel, likewise, aired such things as War and Civilization.

My first warning sign was when TLC started airing an anomalous number of shows about nights in the Emergency Room – this was in the late 90s when the drama series ER was in vogue. Then shows like A Baby Story and home improvement programs started to creep in as well. Now, TLC’s flagship product is the voyeuristic and vapid Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, a title that makes me feel sick even typing it out.

The History Channel, meanwhile, has gone for the over-the-top presentation in shows like Dogfights and Greatest Tank Battles, which do at least redeem themselves by A) actually concerning themselves with history and information, B) remembering that countries other than the USA have permission to win famous battles in World War II and C) including firsthand interviews with real veterans from both sides. But they’ve sunk badly since they’re now best known for the irresponsible spewage and inexcusable hairstyling of shows like Ancient Aliens.

Despite its own good quality, Discovery’s start of darkness began with Mythbusters because suddenly every show had to be like it, except with just the superficial elements. This affected the History Channel and others as well. Discovery Channel also had I Shouldn’t Be Alive, Canada’s Worst Driver and semi-reality shows about gold-panning and piloting in the arctic which at best upheld the letter but not the spirit of their mandate. However with Shark Week and Animal Planet’s Mermaid show they’ve completely abandoned any pretense of integrity.

Anyway, there’s not much I can say about this that hasn’t been said already, many times and better. So rather than continue to rant on and on, I’d like to raise a positive flag instead and list my top 10 favourites of the classic style of documentaries that are easily available through YouTube and your local library system. Some are old, some are new, but then again it shows that this trend is not dead and worth upholding.

10. Walking with… Series

Justly famous, its first instalment, Walking with Dinosaurs, is what you’d get if Weta Workshop made shows like this. A tour of the Mesozoic Era, it uses puppetry, animatronics and CGI to effectively and imaginatively bring Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures to life and tell their stories. Originally narrated by Kenneth Branagh, the American version with Avery Brooks is equally enthralling. The other two main series, Walking with Beasts (about the age of Mammals) and Walking with Monsters (about the life before the Dinosaurs) are good but not as good. I don’t like the use of the term ‘Monsters’ for one thing and the speculations about ancient life start to seem increasingly arbitrary and slapdash. Various spinoffs like the Ballad of Big Al also exist. The series is already becoming dated, as these things do (none of the theropods have feathers, for instance) and its determination to cover large areas of time means you tend to learn broad or vague facts about any one time or creature, but it’s a great refresher for a paleontology fan or a great introduction to the subject.

9. Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking

Written and presented by famous physicist Stephen Hawking, most of the narration is actually read by his proxy, actor Benedict Cumberbatch. In four parts, Hawking takes viewers on a tour of the Universe. He speculates on the nature of space and time and whether time travel would be possible, and whether there are aliens out there and what they would be like. Finally, he muses on the concept of God and what the evidence says about the idea in the Universe and in our minds. Very much a successor to Cosmos (see below), Hawking’s famous charm and intellect are on full display as well as his uplifting love of the Universe and the scope of his imagination. Couple that with gorgeous CG imagery and it’s a lovely show.

8. David Attenborough’s First Life

Opabinia, one of the many weird prehistoric critters you’ll meet in “First Life”

This two-part BBC production seems to be a case of Sir David Attenborough saying “Right, I’ve been telling you about the natural world for decades now, so where did it all come from?” Sir David takes us around the world and hundreds of millions of years back into time to learn how life as we know it got started. From Britain to Canada to Australia, we meet some of the oldest fossils of the first big animals to exist on this planet, brought to life in beautiful CGI. A moving retrospective on our very beginnings and living things, presented by the greatest veteran of documentary filmmaking alive today, a must-watch!


7. Egypt: Uncovered

A modest little series from the BBC, each episode is a topical coverage of a different aspect of Ancient Egyptian history or culture, including the role of the Pharaoh, the gods of Egypt, their pyramid-building days or their imperial period. Very much in the tradition of the low-key BBC-style narrated documentary with talking heads, it is both hauntingly beautiful with its music, camerawork and writing, as well as informative. I made great use of it as a high school student and as I built on that in my studies in university, I can vouch for its accuracy. Although it is a brief survey (each episode only half an hour long) it is as thorough and stirring as you could ask for.

6. World War I in Colour

There are so many World War II documentaries out there I could make a list of them alone. World War I on the other hand is far less well-served. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh once again, the centrepiece of the series is the computer-colorized footage of WWI action and political events. Each episode covers different aspects; the trenches, the air, the sea, the Eastern Front. Each makes heavy use of the diaries and speeches of the politicians, soldiers and officers of the day. The series is very Britain-centric and spares little time for the Canadian forces and none at all for theatres in Asia or Africa – even T.E. Lawrence‘s exploits don‘t warrant a mention. It makes up for it with interviews with (as of the year 2003) the last surviving British veterans of the war, including Harry Patch who died in 2009 at the age of 111 as the last trench veteran in the world. A deeply moving and straightforward portrayal of this decidedly un-heroic age.

5. Rome: Power and Glory


A sample of the series setpieces

A sort of unofficial counterpart to Egypt: Uncovered, Rome: Power and Glory surveys the major themes of Roman history: its army, its politics, its decadence, its achievements and its decline. An American production, it uses modern American politics and culture as a recurring analogy, but in a responsible and helpful, not boastful way. Narrated by actor and perennial narrator Peter Coyote, it makes great use of the Ken Burns Effect (see below) to animate the statues and friezes, as well as short, artistic dramatizations and set pieces. Enthralling and informative, its commentary on Rome’s echoes in the modern age are thought-provoking indeed.

4. Connections and the Day the Universe Changed


James Burke in action

A classic, Connections existed in few incarnations on BBC and TLC between the 70s and the 90s. James Burke, a British science journalist whose early career included coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, takes viewers on a mind-knotting meander through history to see how something we take for granted in the modern world, like photography, plastic wrap or computer technology, only came about because some seemingly unrelated development in, say, the Middle Ages, started a train of causality that brought about all the little details that had to happen in order for that modern item to exist. The Day the Universe Changed, also on TLC in the 90s, had the same format but tracked the change in ideas – our life’s strucutre, how we see the world, scientific principles – rather than concrete objects, inventions or products. A remarkable revelation of the intricacy of modernity and history, presented with Burke’s famous dry wit and kindly British snark, it holds up well and stands up to rewatching, if only to make sure you followed it properly!

3. Jazz

If you’re interested in American history from a sobre and even-handed perspective, you can’t go wrong with Ken Burns. A perennial favourite at PBS, Burns has set the style for documentary filmmaking, including codifying the Ken Burns Effect (slow pans and zooms on buildings, documents and photos to bring them to life for the viewer) in making series about American History. The Civil War, Mark Twain, and Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery are among his works, but for my money his magnum opus is his epic ten-part series, originally aired in 2001, Jazz. Following the footsteps of Jazz elder statesmen Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Jazz explores the music from its birth in post-Civil War New Orleans through its evolution throughout America to the present day. Not only does it cover the music, but the personalities that shaped it: Armstrong and Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and many others. More than that, Jazz’s cultural impact is explored, through the Depression, the World Wars and the evolution of the Civil Rights movement. Lavished with the music whose story it tells, narrated by Keith David (formerly of Gargoyles and Mass Effect) and with the writings of journalists, musicians and commentators of the age read by such actors as Samuel L. Jackson, David Ogden Stiers and Derek Jacobi, Jazz will fascinate and enrich, and is a great introduction to wonderful music.

2. Planet series

The famous Planet Earth series by the BBC is actually one part of a larger sequence. Planet Earth itself surveys the many different biomes of the Earth; Jungles, the Polar Regions, the Ocean Deep, Deserts, Grasslands and (my personal favourite) Caves, to name a few. Blue Planet follows a similar format but is entirely focused on the oceans and the various sub-environments within them. Frozen Planet, of course, is entirely focused on the poles, following the tribulations of penguins, seals, polar bears and whales. Each brings you honest and exhilarating stories of life and death in these places. Frozen Planet also dedicates time to what it’s like for humans who live in these environments. All are excellent, although Planet Earth’s Polar episode and its supplementary episodes about conservation, living in the age of Climate Change as we do, are, for me, too gut-wrenching to watch. Frozen Planet, mercifully, is informative without being maudlin. Narrated, yet again, by everybody’s favourite naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, the British original version is the best. For some reason the USA seems to think Alec Baldwin and Sigourney Weaver are more palatable than Sir David, so just ignore them until they go away…

1. Cosmos: A Personal Journey


Carl Sagan taking us around the Solar System

Other than the first incarnation of Connections, this is the oldest production on my list. Airing in 1980 on PBS, Cosmos was the brainchild of Cornell physicist and educator Carl Sagan. A 13-part series, Sagan personally walks us through the history of the Universe, life on Earth, and how we as humans have evolved and what we’ve made of it all, and what possibilities await us in what he calls the ‘Cosmic Ocean.’
Cosmos was once described by Sir Terry Pratchett as “the best piece of popular science that there has ever been.” And, as usual, Sir Terry is absolutely right. Carl Sagan’s great opus combines a huge range of subject matter into an informative, hugely uplifting and cautionary tale about the Universe and about us. It captures the profound joy of discovery and learning and simple satisfaction of watching the stars. Using the quaint but effective special effects of the time with art by the likes of Rick Sternbach and Adolf Schaller and the beautiful music of Vangelis, William Jeffery Boydstun and more Classical artists than I can remember, it’s an intensely emotional experience which hopes and fears for humanity’s future. The most remarkable thing about it is that, in terms of both the artistic assets and the scientific accuracy, it has aged ludicrously well, and is just about as good a teaching tool and entertainment experience as it was 30 years ago. Moreso than any other documentary on this list, this one is a must-see and is easily found on YouTube. Indeed, a lot of modern science documentaries can be seen clearly to descend from it in one way or another.

There are others I could list, the Battlefield World War II series, the Ancient Warrior series and the speculative documentaries the Future is Wild, Life After People and Alien Planet among them, but these are my favourites in the old style. Most of the older ones are on YouTube and the rest available in your average library system. So, as Prof. Hawking says in his introduction to Into the Universe, “Check it out.”

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television


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