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Scott Larson

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The Doctor: pure gold

These are a couple of days rich in golden anniversaries. Of course, the most significant one is that of the murder of John F. Kennedy fifty years ago today in Dallas, Texas. If you want to read my thoughts on that, you can go to my other blog.

Today is also the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of the writers Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity). Presumably, their fans have long since gotten used to their names being overlooked on this date each year.

But on this page, this is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that one day after America’s worst day of the 20th century, the British were introduced to a new television show that would still be delighting fans with new episodes well into the 21st century. Tomorrow marks fifty years since the first episode of Doctor Who was aired.

A nice little BBC made-for-TV movie, which was broadcast last night, made it clear how close Doctor Who came to not surviving its first run. Called An Adventure in Space and Time, the flick starred an unrecognizable Brian Cox (the actor, not the science guy) as programming head Sydney Newman, Jessica Raine as producer Verity Lambert, Sacha Dhawan as director Waris Hussein and David Bradley (Filch in the Harry Potter movies) as William Hartnell. Not only were the young and green Lambert and Hussein fighting low budgets, Beeb politics and a lead actor who was old before his time, but their big premiere was overshadowed by the JFK assassination. In the end it was the introduction of the Daleks, an element that Lambert had to seriously fight for, which made the show popular and assured its survival.

Fifty years of Doctor Who. Think about that. That was three years before Americans first got to see Star Trek. Since then there have been a total of 798 episodes of Doctor Who, including one movie. (This doesn’t count the non-canon Peter Cushing flicks.) In the past half-century there have been only 14 years in which there was no new episode or movie. By comparison, in the past 47 years there have been 715 live-action episodes and/or movies in the Star Trek universe, and there have been 19 years in which we saw no new episode or movie.

Beyond their longevity and respective devoted fan bases, it is questionable how much comparison between the two shows/franchises is worthwhile. They both get labeled as “science fiction,” but Doctor Who is really more of a fantasy. Despite its liberal use of sci-fi terms and concepts (read mumbo jumbo), it does not conform at all rigidly to any set of known laws of physics or cosmology. The Doctor’s vessel, a TARDIS locked in a disguise as a blue police phone box, has properties that are indistinguishable from magic—even taking into account Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law. Doctor Who’s writers clearly make it all up as they go along. Of course, Star Trek’s writers have always done that too, but at least they go through the motions of trying to make it look like it conforms to what is theoretically possible.

Personally, I have followed Star Trek more or less from the beginning, consuming each episode and movie as it was released. In contrast, I came to Doctor Who rather late. At some point in the 1980s I became aware of its existence and that it was broadcast in America on PBS. And I knew that it was something that was right up my alley. Not only have I always been fascinated by the notion of time travel, I have always loved British TV programs. But having a fairly compulsive personality, I was only interested in taking it up if I could start at the beginning. But I was aware that, by that point, hundreds of episodes had already been broadcast. The real deal killer, though, was that for most of the 1980s I did not own a television set.

By the end of the 1980s, the series had apparently died anyway. But a new opportunity to jump in presented itself in 1996 when a new movie was made and broadcast on the BBC in the UK and on Fox in the US. But somehow between my journeys to and from Seattle and Ireland I managed to miss it. Finally, the BBC organized a major revival in 2005, and I took my chance. I wasn’t too sure about it at first though. The Doctor (then played by respected actor Christopher Eccleston) seemed to do a fair amount of agonizing and moralizing not unlike, well, Capt. Kirk in Star Trek. But by the end of the first series, I was won over—even if Eccleston wasn’t. When the marvelous David Tennant took over the role, the deal was sealed. He was marvelous. With time I did a fair amount of catching up on the previous iterations and backstories. At the same time I impressed my young daughter by fashioning the show’s plotlines into bedtime stories until she was old enough to be watching the show with me.

I know there are die-hard fans out there who judge everything by the standards and conventions of the episodes that aired prior to 1989 or even earlier. But the fact is that the episodes since 2005 are really much, much better than what came before. Maybe I feel that way because they are the first ones I saw and others will feel differently because they saw other ones first. But the newer ones benefit from faster pacing and better special effects. More importantly, though, the storylines created by Russell T. Davis (2005-2009) and Stephen Moffat are simply pure genius. And a lot of what makes them so good is the seriousness and respect they show for everything that happened through 1996. For a while in 2005 it was not clear if the new show was a reboot in the sense that it did not share continuity with the older series. But with time the new showrunners have unequivocally embraced and meshed with the show’s history. Never has this been so clear as with the teases for the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, airing tomorrow night.

First, we learned at the end of the last series in May, in an episode titled “The Name of the Doctor,” that we would be meeting another (previously unknown?) incarnation of the Doctor, played by the wonderful John Hurt. Speculation immediately erupted about whether he was the Valeyard, a dark future incarnation of the Doctor who (played by Michael Jayston) prosecuted Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor in a 1986 multi-part story called “The Trial of a Time Lord.” (See? I told you I had caught up.) At the same time, rumors came forth that he was a sort of in-between incarnation from the gap between Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor and Eccleston’s ninth. This was spectacularly confirmed recently by a surprise web mini-episode called “The Night of the Doctor,” in which we actually get to see McGann regenerate into Hurt. This means we are most certainly going to finally get a look at the oft mentioned cataclysmic Time War that supposedly wiped out the Time Lords and the Daleks.

Beyond the excitement of seeing loose strands from various Doctor Who stories at long last becoming strung together, “The Night of the Doctor” whetted our appetite for what other surprises may lie in store. After the end of the last regular series (well, as regular as Doctor Who series ever get), there was a certain amount of carping as we heard about who was and supposedly was not participating in the 50th anniversaries. The tradition on these occasions has always been for the current Doctor to meet himself in his past incarnations. This happened at the ten-year mark with “The Three Doctors” and at twenty years with “The Five Doctors.” (The 25th anniversary got a fairly low-key observance with the Cybermen adventure “Silver Nemesis,” and the 30th went uncelebrated because Doctor Who was then off the air.) But all we kept hearing was about actors not invited to participate. We knew that Tennant and Billie Piper would be back, but the word was that Eccleston wanted nothing ever to do with Doctor Who ever again. Among the presumed uninvited was McGann, so when he showed up in the mini-episode it got us to thinking, were the stories of no-shows really a red herring? The anticipation mounts.

It was particularly good to see McGann, if only briefly, because he represents a missed opportunity for the franchise. He actually made quite an appealing Doctor, which made it a shame that he only got to play the role once. (He has, though, contributed voice work for the eighth Doctor’s adventures in audio format.) In our house, his nickname is “one-off guy.”

We have silly nicknames for all the Doctors. It is the only way we latecomers can keep them all straight. Since you didn’t ask, here they all are: 1) William Hartnell: old guy, 2) Patrick Troughton: the little fellow, 3) Jon Pertwee: twee guy; 4) Tom Baker: puffy hair guy; 5) Peter Davison: celery guy, 6) Colin Baker: curly hair guy, 7) Sylvester McCoy: magician guy, 8) Paul McGann: one-off guy; 9) Christopher Eccleston: northern guy, 10) David Tennant: tennis shoes guy, and 11) Matt Smith: fez guy. If you’ve been paying attention for the past half-century, those all may make sense to you.

It’s definitely going to be a great weekend. And you know the absolute best thing about Doctor Who? J.J. Abrams hasn’t gotten his hands on it yet!

-S.L., 22 November 2013

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