Pleasingly right-on "Doctor Who" write up from Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker's science fiction issue. Working hard to establish her non-fan cred, she seems not to realize that some of the sterling qualities she is ascribing to the Stephen Moffat version of the show were actually innovated by Russell Davies, whose seasons she has not seen. She ends up praising Moffat for qualities he's actually soft-peddling, in comparison with his predecessor.
Before I caught up on the last two seasons, my expectations were low. I anticipated something like the seventies-era series that I faintly remembered: a goofy, juvenile thrill ride. (I haven’t watched Davies’s version, but a fellow TV critic told me that she was so attached to his “Who” that she wasn’t watching Moffat’s.) The original “Who” dwelt on pure sci-fi obsessions, abstract questions of how society is organized and the line between humans and machines. But, as deeply as fans loved the show, its themes were rarely emotional. Instead, it jumped from Aztec civilization to Mars, as much an educational show for children as an adult narrative, with a British-colonialist view of the universe. (So many savages, so little time.) The series’ most striking feature was the Doctor himself: in contrast to “Star Trek” ’s Kirk—the Kennedyesque leader of a diverse society—the early Doctor Who was an alien iconoclast with two hearts and a universe-wide Eurail Pass. For a certain breed of viewer, this was an intoxicating ideal: the know-it-all whose streak of melancholy—or prickly rage, depending on who was Who—had to be honored, because he actually did know everything.
Though that show had its charms, I was surprised, and delighted, to find that the modern “Doctor Who” has a very different emphasis: it’s a show about relationships, in an epic and mythological vein. Certainly, the show has plenty of the classic “Doctor Who” pleasures, albeit with more sophisticated effects: there are seafaring pirates; a metallic England floating on a giant “Star Whale”; and a factory full of avatar-laborers whose faces melt off like goo. The Doctor himself is a pale, puppyish genius who shares several qualities with Moffat’s modernized Sherlock Holmes, including fashion affectations (he insists that bow ties are cool, then fezzes, then cowboy hats) and a Professor-from-“Gilligan’s Island” allure. The show’s strength, however, is not its one-off stories but its longer arcs, a structural breakthrough of “The X-Files,” which modelled the notion that episodic TV could be woven together with powerful, season-long themes, inspiring the more complex breed of modern shows, both sci-fi and regular-fi.