It's a simple idea. Show a bunch of Doctor Who stories to a Japanese person (Tomoko) who'd never even heard of the show before and observe the results. So far we've been swapping between black-and-white stories and the Eccleston era, although she also caught some 2007 Tennant episodes on BBC1. Having just staggered through to the end of The Parting of the Ways, this seemed like a good time to summarise what she thought of that opening 2005 season.
The first thing to say is that these episodes are hard for language learners. Admittedly they could hardly be worse than the impenetrable UNIT era, with its double whammy of technobabble and military jargon. The Invasion literally sent her to sleep and there aren't many Pertwee stories that I could even consider, but on the other hand it's immeasurably harder than the early Hartnell era with its crisp BBC accents. There's a startling difference between even the Hartnell and Troughton eras in how much naturalism the BBC permitted. However the Eccleston era takes that to a whole new level. Colloquialism, sloppy diction, broken sentences and regional accents... and that's just the Doctor! Hitherto I'd never really registered Eccleston's Northern accent, but this time I've found myself having to explain exactly what he's doing with the vowels in "funny" and "money".
And that's without mentioning the universe's ultimate evil: the Daleks. Forget their love of conquest and genocide. No, what makes the Daleks so terrible is their voices. Nicholas Briggs is at his worst in these stories, incidentally. Even I found myself struggling from time to time, whereas Tomoko initially failed to realise that those sounds were meant to be speech. She's been doing everything she can to get to grips with them: replaying their scenes, turning on the subtitles and consulting the script book. Nothing helps. They squawk everything in disjointed syllables. In contrast at least Cybermen talk in recognisable English rhythms. Tomoko hates the Daleks... and yet on the other hand she loves them. She loathes the sounds they make, but she adores their appearance and wants to watch their stories. They're cute! As during Dalekmania in the 1960s, the Daleks are Doctor Who's greatest selling point. She enjoyed 'The Daleks' (Hartnell: Serial B), but the real killer was 'Dalek' (Eccleston: 6th episode). Remember all that Dalek porn? It worked. Flying Daleks! How cool is that? The correct answer, you'll be happy to know, is "exceedingly".
Oh, and apparently "exterminate" sounds a bit like the Japanese for "I want to eat ice cream".
Tomoko's other favourite episode was The End of the World, simply for its sheer visual opulence. It looks like a feature film, but it's a weekly TV show. That was an eye-opener, especially given that Japanese TV would be incapable of producing anything like it. That's not the only such example, incidentally... the BBC's use of Channel 4's Big Brother for Bad Wolf also startled her. I get the impression that Japanese TV is a bit more hidebound about things like that. Episodes she was less fond of include The Unquiet Dead (she doesn't like zombie films) and in particular The Long Game (which just wasn't very interesting for her, although the finger-clicking was funny).
From a language point of view, the easiest episode to understand was Father's Day. 'Rose' is also comparatively straightforward, albeit with more SF elements. However those episodes aside, I've generally had to explain some or all of the plot afterwards.
Overall, Tomoko likes Doctor Who and was even recommending it to a Japanese friend of hers. Watching old and new episodes side-by-side has definitely made it more interesting, too. It's great fun to go from the BBC's flagship 21st century show, dripping with CGI, to a creaky televisual antique with laugh-out-loud production values. Crap monsters are a comedy highlight. When selling the show to that aforementioned Japanese friend, we followed up an Eccleston episode with bits of The Web Planet and the pantomime bear from The Androids of Tara. She's also tickled by loony fans who'll do things like buying Davison's celery for £5,500 on Ebay for Children in Need, or buying a full-size Dalek from This Planet Earth for £2,395. Doctor Who's deliberate retro stylings (e.g. the low-tech bits on the TARDIS console) also struck her at the beginning as something that would need explaining to Japanese people, who'd perhaps expect SF to look more futuristic. She got over that pretty quickly, though.
It's been a worthwhile experiment and one that's still ongoing. If anyone else finds themselves in a similar position and wondering which DVDs to show a language learner, I'd suggest alternating New Who with:
- HARTNELL - An Unearthly Child, 'The Daleks', The Edge of Destruction. 'The Daleks' will be fiendishly difficult, but worth it. Meanwhile the cavemen are easier to understand than you'd think, despite the grunting, since their dialogue isn't exactly Oscar Wilde.
- TROUGHTON - Tomb of the Cybermen, The Mind Robber. Under no circumstances even consider The Invasion.
- PERTWEE - The Three Doctors, Carnival of Monsters. Restricted choice. Even Carnival of Monsters is full of difficult Holmesian dialogue, but at least it's colourful and lively enough that you'll know what's going on anyway.
- TOM BAKER - Season 12, omitting Robot.
- DAVISON - Earthshock, Arc of Infinity, The Five Doctors. I've yet to check the technobabble levels in Earthshock, but the language in Arc of Infinity is surprisingly accessible and it brings back Omega from The Three Doctors.
- COLIN BAKER - Vengeance on Varos, The Two Doctors.
- MCCOY - The Curse of Fenric, Survival, the TVM.
Steer clear of Master stories if you can, since technobabble and/or elevated dialogue seems to follow the character around. That's why you'll want to avoid both Robert Holmes and Pip & Jane Baker, which might be the only time you'll see those writers bracketed together. The Davros arc is complete on DVD if you're watching with a Dalek fan, but don't expect it to be easy. And have fun!