Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Doctor Who Week: Day 1 - I Heart Doctor Who

With Doctor Who’s new season premiering in the United States this Saturday, I thought it was high time to pay tribute to one of my lifelong nerd passions. I will spend this whole week discussing, reflecting on and just generally worshipping the best thing to come out of the United Kingdom since the Mayflower.

Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith – who is actually the thirty-fifth actor to portray the Doctor, the twenty-fourth to do so on screen; largely thanks to a tremendous parody called The Curse of Fatal Death - begins his journeys (well, technically continues – he first showed up to replace David Tennant at the conclusion of last year’s amazing The End of Time [And actually, he began his journeys two weeks ago in the U.K., we’re getting the premier two weeks later. This would be a record in getting episodes across the pond if not for the premier of The Five Doctors in the United States back in 1983. But we’ll get to that later. You should probably re-read this paragraph now.]) in what is being extremely confusingly referred to as Series 1. This is confusing because it is actually the sixth series of the revival of Doctor Who that began in 2005, but technically the fifth series since the specials of 2009 were coded as fourth series; but chronologically the thirty-third season of the show – unless you don’t count the eighth Doctor’s telemovie. In which case this is the thirty-second season. Or the thirty-first. 

Understand? No? Me either.

I first came across Doctor Who way back in 1983. It was the aforementioned 20th Anniversary special, The Five Doctors. Not only did I not have any idea what I was looking at; being seven years old, I also had no idea what a big deal it was that the United States was getting the episode two days before the BBC would broadcast it to the United Kingdom. This has only happened one other time – the U.S. produced Doctor Who telemovie of 1996.

What I saw on the screen entranced me. Magic, killer robots, futuristic civilizations, exotic aliens; it all reminded me so much of the movie that HBO had recently been showing an awful lot of and I was watching every chance I got – Flash Gordon. The Five Doctors was playing relatively late at night, but I stuck with it to the end; from behind the sofa - a viewing practice I now know I shared with millions of Brits. “Behind the sofa” is a British colloquialism long associated with the viewing of the Doctor’s adventures, due to the terrifying (to a seven-year-old) monsters he frequently encountered.

It was a year or so later before I rediscovered Doctor Who. PBS notoriously ran the episodes somewhat out-of-sequence and certainly a few years behind, so the Tom Baker episodes were running when I tuned back in, despite Baker preceding Peter Davison who was the current Doctor at the time of The Five Doctors.

Perhaps now would be a good time for a bit of explanation for the uninitiated – which I’ll assume some of you are. The Doctor is a renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He is not actually referred to as “Doctor Who” except as an in-joke. He travels through Time And Relative Dimensions In Space in his craft, the TARDIS (get it?). The standard TARDIS is equipped with a chameleon circuit so that it can blend into the surrounding environment – appearing as a clock, a tree, a statue, etc. – but the Doctor’s TARDIS has a faulty circuit, hence it being stuck with the appearance of a 1960’s British police call box.

You’ll notice above that I reference multiple actors as portraying the Doctor. This is due to a handy plot device that allows Time Lords twelve regenerations over the course of a natural lifetime. This means that when an actor is ready to depart the role, the show can go on. What happens, you may ask, when they hit thirteen actors (which they are nearing, as Matt Smith is number eleven)? Showing a remarkable amount of foresight, the man who wrote The Five Doctors introduced the concept that a Time Lord may be granted a whole new regeneration cycle. So you can expect to see a story revolving around that concept a few years from now if the series keeps going strong. Myself, I’m hoping they beat the original run’s twenty-six years.

The Time Lords have a strict non-intervention rule regarding travel through time and space. One that the Doctor blatantly disregards when the good of a species, planet or – frequently – entire universe is at stake.

And that’s pretty much the show.

The Doctor also has companions – “common folk”, if you will; that we can relate to and that provide perspective to the audience on the Doctor’s adventures. A point that is touched on by the show occasionally is that along with the Doctor’s longevity (he is over nine hundred years old now) comes a certain loneliness. He combats this by inviting people he meets that he deems interesting enough to come along in the TARDIS for awhile. One way or another, they always depart and the Doctor is left alone again; but never for long.

The first episode of Doctor Who - An Unearthly Child - was broadcast in 1963 and starred William Hartnell as the titular character. His companion was a young lady named Susan that referred to him as “Grandfather”. For a time there was some confusion as to whether this was an affectation or a statement of fact; the people in charge of such things have decided that Susan is indeed related in blood and a Time Lord.

The BBC broadcast format of the 1963-1989 run was serialized episodes. A story would consist of between two and six twenty-four minute episodes. When these stories were shown on PBS in the United States, they were combined into one lengthier episode.

The show was originally intended as somewhat of a children’s educational program. The Doctor’s early adventures often involved visiting one of Earth’s ancient civilizations; with episodes such as The Aztecs and The Romans. Over time, however, the producers noticed that the shows with heavier suspense and science fiction elements tended to garner higher ratings. I have never actually seen one of Hartnell’s episodes, but thanks to Netflix I will be able to rectify that soon.

Eventually Hartnell was ready to move on, and I believe this is where the plot device of regenerations was first introduced; though I’m not sure the specific number of regenerations was mentioned yet. In 1966 Patrick Troughton was introduced as the first regeneration of the Doctor and brought with him a new, more action-oriented direction for the show. I’ve seen two of Troughton’s serials – The Abominable Snowmen and The Wheel In Space – as well as his appearances in The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors and The Two Doctors and I do like his portrayal of the Time Lord. His quirkiness and irascibility has remained with the character to one degree or another right up to the current run.

When Troughton left, he was replaced by Jon Pertwee (father of Sean Pertwee - a somewhat well-known actor who has pursued the role of the Doctor since the 2005 revival). Pertwee brought the most refined interpretation of the Doctor. Serving from 1970 to 1974, he did not display as much of our hero’s now-characteristic seat-of-the-pants, not quite in control but on top of things nonetheless mania. Not to say he wasn’t a fun Doctor. Despite being referred to as other incarnations and even companions as “the dandy”, Pertwee’s Doctor could kick some ass. He displayed a mastery of martial arts on several occasions, sometimes taking on multiple opponents at once in an amazingly Batman-like manner. As far as I know these skills have not been displayed by any other Doctor, with most leaning more towards physical pacifism. For this, Pertwee fucking rules. If you can kick ass while wearing a velvet jacket and a frilly shirt, you are obviously The Man. I’ve seen several of Pertwee’s episodes and have enjoyed them for the most part, though some seem overly long. The Green Death is an excellent example of not only the third doctor’s combat prowess, but also a story being about half an hour too long.

After Jon Pertwee came the man who is probably most often associated with the classic Doctor Who. Tom Baker – “all teeth and curls” – with his scarf and decidedly Bohemian appearance would probably be the one Doctor that just about anybody with the least bit of sci-fi knowledge would recognize. As the fourth Doctor, Baker not only had the most exciting and well-received run; but also the longest. Portraying the iconic Time Lord from 1974 to 1981 in a total of 41 broadcasted stories and one that remains unaired (excepting its use in The Five Doctors to include Baker, who did not care to return so soon to the role), Tom Baker’s length of time playing the Doctor will likely never be equaled, much less surpassed.
The British have a term – “My Doctor”, as in, “Peter Davison is my Doctor”. This is the Doctor you grew up with. Due to the lag time between broadcasts in the U.K. and the U.S., Tom Baker is my Doctor. If I had been raised across the pond it would likely have been Peter Davison or, God forbid, Colin Baker.

I have joined the fourth Doctor on most of his adventures at this point. I would say there aren’t more than twelve or so of Baker’s stories that I haven’t seen (likely the reason I tried to get out of church as often as I did. Late Saturday nights are not easily followed by early Sunday mornings, especially when services were typically a bit less exciting than an episode of Doctor Who), and I have yet to see a bad one. Not only were the fourth Doctor’s stories strong, he also had some of the best companions. Not the least of which was the savage warrior-woman, Leela – the Official Phantom Troublemaker Hottest Companion of All Time.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Tom Baker departing Doctor Who ranks right up there with GI Joe halting its syndicated run and the realization that there weren’t going to be any more Star Wars movies (as far as we knew) on my “Shit That Bummed Me Out As A Kid” scale. I vividly remember being terribly upset when he fell off of that walkway and his face started that blurring. We had no way of knowing back then that the end was near. Despite the fact that it had happened years ago in the U.K., there was no internet to spoil endings or, in this case, ease the blow. There was no clue that this was coming.

Tom Baker’s visage blurred into that of Peter Davison, who would spend the next twenty-six months as the infamous Time Lord. Davison managed to avoid being hated by a younger me for replacing My Doctor because of two things: 1) the Doctor’s nemesis – the Master – was a big factor in the events surrounding that fourth regeneration and still had to be stopped, and 2) Castrovalva, Davison’s first full episode, took place in a somewhat medieval society. I was a big nerd for medieval things at the time, so this one got a pass. I’m glad it did, because Davison was a very good Doctor. It would have been easy to try and ape Baker’s manic glee, but Davison carved out his own personality for the Doctor.

Peter Davison’s truncated run was followed by the man I like to refer to as The Big Clown. Colin Baker, as the sixth incarnation of the Doctor, is the reason I stopped watching for a time and never really viewed consistently again, even after he left. I don’t feel as harshly about him now as I did back then, but he is still my least favorite of the Doctors I have watched (and Hartnell is the only one I have yet to see). We’ll get into my problems with the second (no relation) Baker to portray the good Doctor later in the week. For now, let’s just note that part of his redemption in my eyes came years later when he returned to host special features for the DVDs and just generally display more enthusiasm for the role than any other actor.

When Colin Baker’s run came to an end, he went out in a blaze of fucking glory. PBS showed the entire final season of Baker’s run on one Saturday night during one of their trademark telethons. We’ll discuss it further later on, but it is truly one of the Doctor’s grandest adventures and served to soften me a bit towards the visual atrocity that was the sixth Doctor (as of this writing, my opinion has even changed to the point that I have ordered an action figure of the guy, though clothed in retconned blue garments rather than the headache-inducing fashion disaster pictured above).

At the end of Trial of A Time Lord, we got the seventh Doctor and probably my second-favorite of the original series: Sylvester McCoy. McCoy would adopt a much more acceptable, yet still distinctive, wardrobe. He also had the most natural gravitas of any of the Doctors, possibly only to be outdone by Christopher Eccleston. As the seventh Doctor’s time went on, things took on a slightly darker tone. By the time the original series ended in 1989, the show had developed a decidedly political slant. This went unnoticed by me at the time (I think the U.S. was only a few months behind at that point), but is glaringly obvious when you watch the later episodes now. Regardless, I can still overlook it and thoroughly enjoy McCoy’s fine work as the Doctor.

The BBC unofficially cancelled Doctor Who after the serial Survival (which I have not actually seen, though its predecessor The Curse of Fenric is one of my favorites), sending the show on a hiatus for seven years.

In 1996, FOX and the BBC co-produced a telemovie simply titled Doctor Who. It was meant to kick off either a new series or a run of telemovies. As you can tell from the complete absence of new Doctor Who from 1997 to 2004, this didn’t work out. Sylvester McCoy returned to pass the torch to the eighth Doctor, Paul McGann. I have only seen it twice, but don’t remember it being bad. I think it seemed a bit off, as an American production of a British property almost certainly would; but I’d like to watch again with a little more perspective and a lot less blind optimism. I still remember the nerd chills that went up my spine when this one was announced. There is no way I watched it with any sort of objectivity.

In 2005, when the show returned, McGann did not. The show opened on a young lady named Rose Tyler. We followed this hot little piece of soon-to-be companion through what seemed like a normal day until Autons started attacking and fucking up everybody’s shit. Enter Doctor number nine, Christopher Eccleston. Charming, extremely dry and driven; Eccleston’s portrayal of the doctor was so solid that the series was an instant hit. Thanks in no small part to Billie Piper’s Rose, the first companion to feel more like a co-star than a supporting actor. Rose’s story became just as important to us as the Doctor’s.

As the first season (series 1) neared its end, news came from the U.K. that Eccleston was leaving. In what would become a recurring theme for this new run of Doctor Who, Mrs. Troublemaker swore off the show.

Eccleston may have left to be the invisible man on a not-yet-shitty Heroes and Destro in the fantastic GI Joe movie, but Piper stuck around to welcome the tenth – and arguably most popular to date – Doctor, David Tennant.

For the last three years we’ve watched Tennant’s characterization of the Doctor in some of the grandest and most exciting adventures yet. Since I’ll be touching on the big ones throughout the week, I’ll refrain from going into too much detail, but here are some key points:
  • At the end of Tennant’s first season (series 2), Rose left (sort of). Mrs. Troublemaker swore off the show. 
  • At the beginning of Tennant’s second season (series 3), we were introduced to new companion Martha Jones – a relative of a young woman who died at the end of series 2 (played by the same actress, Freema Agyeman). Martha is so cute and charming and sassy that viewers grudgingly forgive the loss of Rose Tyler. Even Mrs. Troublemaker. 
  • At the end of the tenth Doctor’s second season (series 3), Martha left (sort of). Mrs. Troublemaker swore off the show. 
  • Right after the end of Doctor number ten’s second season (series 3), we are introduced to bitchy old broad Donna Noble. She is not yet a companion, but Mrs. Troublemaker states that if she is she is swearing off the show. We missed a few episodes in between, but Noble is and the Missus does.

Once all was said and done and I caught up on Tennant’s third season (series 4) I decided Donna was okay and I understood why she was necessary. Series 4 was one of the strongest of the entire run of Doctor Who (perhaps even over Key To Time and Trial Of A Time Lord) and I am incredibly glad I didn’t let Donna Noble put me off it.

After Series 4 concluded, it was announced that David Tennant would be leaving the show. This broke pretty much everybody’s heart. Tennant was a wonderful Doctor and raised the bar for all future incarnations. Things had gotten decidedly grimmer towards the end of Series 4 – much like McCoy’s run – and they didn’t change with the four specials that technically ended Series 4 but felt more like a season unto themselves. It almost seemed like Tennant went out on a downer so we wouldn’t feel as bad to see him go. For the record, Tennant’s tenth Doctor marks the first time the Time Lord has been aware of his impending regeneration for any length of time. This led to not only a lot of melancholy reflection on the nature of life, the universe (and everything), but also some further insight into the process of regeneration. According to the doctor, it is like dying. Despite the fact a Time Lord retains all of the memories of the previous incarnations, they lose the personality facets that make them who they are at the time. The tenth Doctor does, in effect, die. But not before we get yet another heart-wrenching segment as he visits all of his companions since the start of the revival to say goodbye.

And that brings us to where we are today. At the end of the final Tennant episode, we got our first look at the new guy, Matt Smith, in the Doctor’s shoes. I’m referring to him as “The Emo Kid”, but I hear good things. Along with Smith comes a brand new, super-hot companion; Karen Gillan as Amy Pond. Smith is the youngest to play the role (he’s 28; Peter Davison was before at 29), but Gillan looks so young I get Dirty Old Man feelings for thinking she’s hot. She’s a mere 22, so I kind of should.

The first episode of the new series (series 1 for some reason) is called The Eleventh Hour. I have no idea what it is about and that is fine by me. I fucking hate spoilers.

So there you go. That’s a brief history of Doctor Who. Now we can carry on with our week of celebration and prepare for (hopefully) new awesomeness on Saturday night. Except for the fact that I’m going to be at work, so I’ll be watching when I get home Sunday morning. 


Doctor Who Link of the Day:


  1. awesome.
    i'm debating subscribing to BBC america just for this, but so far, they've offered them all up on on demand. so fingers crossed this series will be available too!

  2. im sorri if i offend anyone when i say that the 11th doctor looks to be about my age and if you think that he is cute you obviously havnt seen david tennant he was the best guy to play the doctor he was energetic and fun to watch

  3. I'm not going to debate the cuteness of Matt Smith versus David Tennant when Jon Pertwee is clearly the sexiest Doctor of all time.