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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Doctor is in

Thank goodness the Oscars are done and dusted. We can put 2007’s movies behind us and move on and consign memories of the awards season to their proper place: off in the corner of the basement of our fleeting memories. Really, after all is said and done, only one real question remains after the orgy of self-congratulation of the Academy Awards. Just how is it that Tilda Swinton was so familiar with the shape of her agent’s buttocks?

Okay, on second thought, better not to know. Anyway, the end of the awards cycle (at least I think so; were the Canadian Genies the last of it?) frees me up to talk about what I really like talking about. Do I mean Dark Shadows? Or Babylon 5? For once, no and no. Over the past few years, another television classic has ensconced itself in my personal pantheon of small screen immortality. It is, of course, Doctor Who. I have written about this series before, but there is much more to say.

As I suggested three years ago, Doctor Who was the sort of television show that was nearly tailor-made for me. And it is strange that I never got into it until a mere three years ago. It was a strange mixture of science fiction and fantasy that was right up my alley. And in its earliest incarnation, it had the same sort of low-budget production values that endeared many of us nerdy high schoolers to the even more low-budget Dark Shadows. But I lived in the wrong part of the world. While youngsters in the United Kingdom were having grand hiding-behind-the-couch moments, watching the Doctor battle every manner of alien and interstellar menace, invariably in the company of some comely companion, those of us coming of age in California didn’t even know this series existed.

Eventually, it did come to my attention, thanks to American public television stations that began running old episodes. But by then, it was too late for me—or so I thought. I looked at the backlog I would have to work through to “catch up” (one of the mental limitations of being a moderately compulsive personality) and couldn’t deal with the prospect. By the end of the 1980s, there were something like 159 multi-part stories spanning 26 seasons, dating all the way back to 1963. My mindset was such that I couldn’t start watching until I saw that very first episode and then saw all the subsequent ones in order until I caught up. That was not merely daunting. It was herculean, if not Sisyphean. And I was ostensibly a grownup by this time, with a job and responsibilities and some semblance of a social life. Besides, I didn’t even own a TV. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a period of my life (this seems laughable now) when I was somewhat anti-technology. I used a manual typewriter because an electric one would be too modern. And a television set was out of the question because it would be a terrible time waster. That, of course, changed. But by then, my life was totally consumed by the ravages of the high-tech world work ethic, and my main source of entertainment (besides movies) was reading Usenet groups.

So Doctor Who was not in the cards for me. Or so I thought. When the Doctor was reborn (or, rather, regenerated) on Easter Sunday in 2005, I still wasn’t living in the United Kingdom, but this time I was at least within range of its satellite television transmissions. Out of curiosity, I started watching and was delighted to find that exhaustive encyclopaedic knowledge of all the previous series was not a prerequisite to understand and enjoy the new series—although in hindsight I know now that such exhaustive encyclopaedic knowledge vastly enhances the experience. Taken on its own, the new series is a quirky amalgam of various scifi TV shows. As a character, the Doctor has the somewhat hammy, self-absorbed and self-righteous philosophizing-about-the-meaning-of-humanity-in-the-vast-universe persona (with a keen interest in occasional partying) of the young William Shatner in his original Star Trek days. And when he encounters extraterrestrial star ships and/or takes on alien species, it can also be a bit reminiscent of that seminal series, which first aired a full three years after the very first Doctor Who episode saw the light of cathode ray tubes. The new series also seems to owe a bit to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy although, as one who has seen precious little of the entire Doctor Who oeuvre, I cannot be sure that it is not the other way around. (The more overtly humorous Red Dwarf is another cousin.) But there is definitely something in its tongue-in-cheek, qué será será nonchalance in the face of life and death as well as a wildly absurdist appreciation of the convolutions in logic of travel through time and space and, indeed, something distinctly English that the two series share.

And, at the risk of seeing only what I want to see, I think I detect something of the overall story arc consistency that J. Michael Straczynski brought to TV scifi with his five-year Babylon 5 epic. One of the delights of the new Doctor Who has been watching for clues laid through each stand-alone episode that point to something further down the road—like the way the words “bad wolf” kept showing up during the first series or the promised prophecy of the Face of Boe in the second one. Understand that I am not trying to ascribe influences on new series creator Russell T. Davies, since I have no way of knowing where his ideas or inspirations come from. I’m just saying that the new Doctor Who shares qualities with these series that make it more enjoyable for me personally.

There have been three series (what we Yanks call seasons) of the new Doctor so far, with a fourth to debut sometime this spring. Or maybe the debut of the fourth series was the annual Christmas Day episode, in which the Doctor encountered a spaceship modelled on the Titanic, where he met Kylie Minogue. Happily, while the series originates with the BBC, it eventually airs throughout the world, including the Sci-Fi Channel in the United States.

Lately my appreciation for the Doctor has deepened because of my kid. When I ran out of warrior princess stories and cowboy stories to tell her at bedtime, I started telling her Doctor Who stories, recycling plots from the TV series. So she was actually a fan before she had ever seen the show. I was afraid to let her watch it herself because, well, it often frightened me, so I was afraid that it might traumatize her. This was despite the fact that the series is, and always has been, shown during the British equivalent of the family hour, i.e. before the 8 p.m. “watershed” after which pretty much anything is allowed on TV on the apparent premise that impressionable minds have gone to bed. Apparently, the tradition of British youngsters hiding behind a couch while watching (or not watching) the scary bits of Doctor Who goes way back.

But a couple of intermediate steps presented themselves. Davies created a spinoff, featuring one of the Doctor’s popular companions back in the 1970s: one Sarah Jane Smith. The Sarah Jane character (still played by Elisabeth Sladen) made a nostalgic return during the second season of the new series, reuniting her with the deathless Doctor, who doesn’t age because he can keep regenerating himself—allowing no fewer than ten actors to play the role over five decades. The Sarah Jane Adventures was aimed at a younger audience and complemented Ms. Sladen with several fresh-scrubbed faces young enough to be her grandchildren. This series was an instant hit with the Munchkin, and soon there was a demand for more. I emphatically did not invite her to watch the first spinoff, Torchwood, which was broadcast after the watershed and was squarely aimed at adults. Not only were the alien monsters more intense and extremely graphical medical scenes included, but I didn’t want to get into trying to explain the pansexual exploits of its main character, former time traveller Jack Harkness, who spiced up several episodes of the first season of the new Doctor Who.

The next intermediate step was the fact that one of the UK satellite channels began running old Doctor Who episodes, featuring one of the most beloved of all the Doctors, Tom Baker, accompanied by the young Sarah Jane. So the two of us began watching those until they were yanked. Then there was demand for more. So I took the plunge and started watching the new Doctor Who series from the beginning (of course, I have all the DVD sets) with her. I worried. Would the alien monsters be too intense for her? What would she make of the strange romantic triangle involving the Doctor, his teenage companion Rose and her off-and-on boyfriend in London? She ate it all up without a problem. Maybe I was hiding behind the couch, but the Munchkin was front and center. We have gotten through all the episodes starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and have started the episodes where David Tennant has taken over.

I am happy to report that the series is even better on second viewing. The experience is actually richer because of foreknowledge of what lies ahead. Thanks to the magic of DVDs, it actually is possible to simulate the TARDIS and travel back in to time to experience history first-hand. When it comes to new episodes, I just wish it didn’t take so long to travel into the future to see them.

-S.L., 6 March 2008

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