Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Doctor and Me

Sarah Jane: You're serious, aren't you?
The Doctor: About what I do, yes—not necessarily the way I do it.
(The Time Warrior, 1973)
The above exchange between the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and his latest companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)—neatly sums up the essence of Doctor Who and helps to explain why I have been a fan for over thirty years. And yes, I am about to get all nerdy fanboy here, so if you find that sort of thing annoying, you probably won't want to read any further.

I can't help it. Today is a huge day for us Doctor Who fans. It's the fiftieth anniversary of the program's first broadcast. (Think about it. How many television programs can you think of that have been around that long?) If you aren't familiar with the program—well, first of all, where have you been? Secondly, if you want to know what Doctor Who is all about, you will have to read about it elsewhere (Wikipedia is a good start), because I won't be telling you who the Doctor is, what a TARDIS is, why it looks like a police box, or what a police box is. Instead, I will be telling you about my personal relationship with one of the most extraordinary and longest-running programs in television history.

Sarah Jane: You're being childish!
The Doctor: Well, of course I'm being childish! There's no point being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes.
(Robot, 1974)

It was some time in the late 1970's when I first stumbled across Doctor Who on WTTW, Chicago's PBS station. I thought I was watching a low-budget British horror movie, complete with laboratory, mad scientist, and hunchbacked assistant. The doorbell rang, and the hunchback answered it. At the door, in the pouring rain, stood a petite brunette and a tall, curly-haired man wearing a ridiculously long scarf and holding aloft a broken umbrella. "Can you spare a glass of water?" the curly-haired man asked.

I instantly became a fan—one of that select group of Americans ("we few, we happy few") who had discovered the best worst-kept secret on public television. Doctor Who struck a chord with us that programs like Dallas or Dynasty never could.* (I strongly suspect that, like me, most "Whovians" grew up on Mary Poppins and Doctor Dolittle, and as teenagers preferred such British imports as The Avengers and The Prisoner to domestic fare.) Almost overnight, Doctor Who acquired cult status with Americans in my age group. There were comic books, fan magazines and conventions, and volunteers began showing up to answer phones at PBS telethons wearing the Fourth Doctor's trademark floppy hat and scarf.

I did not dress up like any of the Doctors or attend any conventions. I did, however, save up to buy my first VCR so that I would never miss an episode. I watched companions come and go, Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison, Peter Davison into Colin Baker. Between new seasons, KCET aired as many of the old William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee stories as were available at the time. A decade slipped by in my personal space-time continuum; Sylvester McCoy had just taken over the TARDIS when I got married and moved to Western New York. (I tried to make a fan of Loretta, but she never really took to the original series. She does, however, enjoy the new series.) It felt like losing an old friend when Buffalo's PBS station stopped carrying the program after Sylvester McCoy's first season. Sadder still, shortly thereafter the program was canceled by the BBC.

The Doctor: I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there.
(Doctor Who, 1996 TV movie)

Doctor Who fans around the world got their hopes up when there was talk in the 1990's of the program being revived—only to have those hopes cruelly dashed when the result was a single TV movie that, although it had some good moments (including a wonderful performance by Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor), did not measure up to fans' expectations or achieve decent network ratings. We were forced to admit that our favorite television series was dead, with no hope of regeneration. However, there was some consolation in the fact that Doctor Who lived on as a series of audio adventures featuring original cast members.

The Doctor: One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.
(The Dalek Invasion of Earth, 1964)

When, in 2003, the BBC announced that Welsh producer Russell T. Davies would attempt to again revive the series, I was determined not to get my hopes up. But this time I was in for a pleasant surprise. Not only was the new Doctor Who good, in many ways it surpassed the original series. While true to the original's spirit, the writing was tighter, the stories faster paced. (As the Tenth Doctor's companion, Donna, remarked, "there's an outrageous amount of running involved.") The special effects were light years beyond the cheesy rubber-suited aliens and chroma key effects of the original series, and the music—I could probably write an entire post describing Murray Gold's by turns exciting, soaring, and hauntingly beautiful Doctor Who scores.

I liked Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor; I liked David Tennant's Tenth Doctor even better. I liked the way the stories explored the relationships between the Doctor and his companions. Although a part of me resisted the idea of the Doctor becoming romantically involved with a companion (unheard of in the original series, where the Doctor's relationship with his companions had always been strictly avuncular), I had to admit that his evolving relationship with Rose moved me in a way the old series never had. In the old days, the departure of a Doctor or a companion was always poignant, but in the program's history there had never been anything like the heartbreaking departure of Rose at the end of the second season.

I'll admit it. I cried.

In fact, I found myself shedding a few tears during many episodes of the new series. There was an emotional aspect to the stories that the original series never had—which I'm sure is why it quickly became more popular than the original series ever was.

The Doctor: I am and always will be the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.
(The Almost People, 2011)

I was a little worried when Tennant and Davies both left the show at the end of the fourth season, but I needn't have been. "The Eleventh Hour"—the episode that introduced Matt Smith's Doctor and Karen Gillan as his new companion, Amy Pond—was quite simply the best introduction of a Doctor or companion I had ever seen. And as the series progressed under the leadership of Steven Moffat, it delved deeper into relationships than it had even done under Davies. By the sixth season, the Doctor had managed to acquire an entire family, comprised of Amy, Rory, and the mysterious River Song—the nature of whose relationship with the Time Lord was finally revealed by Moffat at the end of the season, three years after her character was first introduced.

Now, after three seasons in the TARDIS, Matt Smith has decided that it is time to move on. Peter Capaldi will be taking over the role, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he will bring to the character next season. But right now I'm looking forward to another ride with the Eleventh Doctor and his latest companion, Clara (who reminds me a great deal of Sarah Jane Smith). And what a ride it promises to be—at least two other Doctors (David Tennant and John Hurt), one former companion (Billie Piper as Rose Tyler), and possibly the long-awaited answer to a question that has been troubling us since the first season of the new series: how did the Doctor become the "Last of the Time Lords?"

The Day of the Doctor will air in just a few hours, simultaneously, all over the world. Check your local listings.

The Fourth Doctor and Me (Madame Tussauds, 1985)

*To my surprise, when I visited England in 1985, I discovered that Dynasty and Dallas were also more popular there than Doctor Who. There's no accounting for taste.

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