Man, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? This pesky “life” thing has interfered with me fleshing out some notes I’ve written out months ago. I promised a Doctor Who-related post in April, and I shall make good on that. It’s long, but honestly, you should have expected that I wouldn’t write out a short entry.
Another successful season of “Doctor Who” recently wrapped up, with this year being especially memorable due to it coinciding with the show’s 50th anniversary. As we get closer to the actual anniversary date of November 23, you’ll undoubtedly be encountering tons of words discussing the five-decade phenomenon that is this show, with many of them detailing the cultural and personal impact “Doctor Who” has made on England–and, since its relaunch in 2005, the United States. The authors will certainly talk about how they grew up with the Doctor, how they hid behind the couch when they got scared, how they cried when “their” Doctor regenerated, and so on. The inevitable comparisons will be made in order to find which Doctor out of the 111 is the most popular. Perhaps the authors will darken the mood a bit by mentioning how they fell out with the show (most likely during its mid-late 1980s spell), or how hard it was to move on with their lives when the original series was canceled in 1989. The articles will end with the authors’ remembrance that yes, this is a celebration commemorating 50 years of arguably the most successful sci-fi/fantasty show of all time, so we will be treated to a stirring conclusion in which times and lives may change, but the Doctor endures in spite of it all. Save this post for now, and come back to it around mid-November when the anniversary pieces will be gushing like a spring waterfall–I guarantee you’ll have found some worthy examples that match my predictions.
Instead of writing a piece that would get lost in the deluge of anniversary tributes, I will pretend as if I’m auditioning to write for Slate2. The focus here won’t be on how the Doctor endures in the face of all the changes that have happened over the last 50 years, but rather on how I’ve changed with relation to this show in both its original run (1963-1989 & 1996) and current incarnation (2005-present). Many of these changes have been ones I have recognized, but I have not given them any real form or structure. Visiting two conventions this spring served as catalysts for me to give proper recognition to my thoughts.
I attended the Saint Louis branch of Wizard World in March, as well as C2E2 in Chicago at the end of April. Both conventions have lots of overlap when it comes to its subject matter: comics, sci-fi, fantasy, movies, and geek culture in general. C2E2 has a larger grip on comics, whereas Wizard World has expanded to be more inclusive of everything else mentioned above. Doctor Who, partially due to the program’s 50th anniversary, had prominent displays at both Wizard World and C2E2. More to the point was the cosplay on display; if you somehow didn’t make your way over to the displays, you couldn’t help but miss the attendees that were dressed as various incarnations of the Doctor. At Wizard World, I saw nothing but incarnations from the current series; Matt Smith’s Doctor was more popular than David Tennant’s, and I don’t recall seeing Christopher Eccleston’s interpretation3. At C2E2, versions from the original series shared floor space with those from the current series, as seen below:
One person who did not stand still long enough for me to photograph at Wizard Word was a guy roughly my age, wearing a blue t-shirt that had the following slogan on it (written in the typeface of the program’s credits): “I was a Whovian before Doctor Who was cool.” A quick look online did not bring up the t-shirt as being on sale anywhere, so it’s possible that he commissioned this bit of clothing for himself. Regardless of whether he bought the shirt or had it made, that slogan got my brain thinking, with my first thoughts being none too charitable toward him. What did he hope to gain by wearing this t-shirt at a convention with other fans of the show? Was he hoping to convince some of the people who may have been dressed along the lines of the above photos that they weren’t “real” fans of the show, unlike himself?
After a few minutes of disliking this guy’s very existence, my harshness toward him softened as I realized that he and I probably had a fair amount in common with regards to our personal histories with “Doctor Who.” We probably started watching the show at similar times in our lives, with my first exposure happening in my freshman year of high school4. The PBS station in Chicago, WTTW, had a block of programming on Sunday nights that served as a love letter to England: “Masterpiece Theatre” at 9 PM; “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” at 10 PM (or sometimes “Fawlty Towers”); “Dave Allen At Large” at 10:30ish5; “Doctor Who” at 11 PM; and finally, “The Two Ronnies” at either 12:15 AM or 12:35 AM. I never could stay awake to watch “The Two Ronnies,” and I never spent any time watching “Masterpiece Theatre,” but watching the other three programs? Most certainly. I lost a fair amount of sleep on Sunday nights, but as the Fourth Doctor once said, sleep is for turtles. WTTW has had a long-running relationship with airing “Doctor Who,” going all the way back to 19756, so they were often one of the first US stations to air episodes that had recently been broadcast in England. They aired the Doctors in chronological order, so during my times in high school and college summers, I saw the full runs of Doctors 1-4, a little of 5, and all of 6 & 7. With the exception of Peter Davison, I know my history of the show because I have seen most of the existing episodes of its original run (more on why I missed out on Davison’s Doctor later).
Getting back to my snide friend in the t-shirt: had we actually talked and shared our respective histories of our time with “Doctor Who,” I may have come around to understanding why he has beef with the revived series. The fans of NewWho are aware of the original series (aka OldWho), but that’s often where it stops. The TV world has changed significantly since the original show’s end in December 1989 and its revival in March 2005, so while it’s easy for fans of the original series to enjoy the current version of “Doctor Who,” it’s much harder for the reverse to occur. The pacing on the older shows does not match what TV viewers today expect from their programs, and the special effects of the show in the 1970s are the stuff of legends (but not good legends, mind you). What kept OldWho running for 26 years was the quality of its writing and the character of the Doctor himself, which current viewers could enjoy if they were to put aside the very real drawbacks mentioned earlier. Since that doesn’t seem to be happening, some fans of the OldWho perceive that the fans of NewWho view the original series as largely irrelevant to the revival, thereby rendering the fans of the older version irrelevant as well. When that chip gets put on the shoulders of guys like my t-shirt friend, the results become visible in terms of attitude and attire.
Another revelation that came to me after thinking about the OldWho fan in his t-shirt is that, a few years ago, I really could have been him. Please note that most of the following dives deep into the show’s history, so if you’re not interested…tant pis. One large dividing line between OldWho and NewWho is the relationship the Doctor has with his companions. The original show would see the Doctor, depending on the version, be dismissive, patronizing, fatherly, professorial, or friendly toward his traveling companion. Apart from a cursory introduction, very little would be known about the companion’s life prior to meeting the Doctor; he or she was more or less an accessory to the Time Lord. One notable exception happened at the very end of OldWho, when the Seventh Doctor7 took a young woman nicknamed Ace under his wing. During her time with Seven, the viewing audience learned a lot about Ace’s own background as well as that of her family’s own history. Ace, unlike many of the other companions, grew as a character, and became almost as important to the stories as the Doctor himself. The revived show has carried forth the Seven/Ace relationship and applied it to every major companion that has joined the Doctor with his travels.
While this in and of itself isn’t bad–I’d say it’s a positive development in the show’s long-running history–it’s the other aspect that continues to cause consternation among OldWho fans: romance. Ever since the mid-90s TV movie, there has been a romantic link between the Doctor and most of his traveling companions, which some OldWho fans view as a wholly unnecessary form of character development. Having a romantic link, whether unrequited or reciprocated, has pretty much locked the companion role into that of a young female. A distinct pattern develops with the companion’s story arc, as she becomes amazed and enraptured by the seemingly god-like powers that the Doctor possesses. Whether or not the Doctor has feelings toward this companion is irrelevant, as the romantic angle hangs over their interactions. OldWho fans generally don’t care for the romance, while the NewWho fans come onboard primarily because of the romance. I’m more or less in the former camp, though lately I’ve become indifferent to the romance angle and it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to do. So what has changed? Ownership, and knowing when to let it go. It’s no longer “my” show and it may never have been, but that won’t stop me from enjoying the show’s current run.
The transformation of how I viewed “Doctor Who” began when I re-watched the episodes featuring David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. I really disliked his character the first time round, primiarly because I rather enjoyed his predecessor and I suffered from the inevitable sadness of watching an unknown commodity replace someone well-known. Tennant’s portrayal of the Doctor was like a hyperactive, pop-trivia obsessed schoolboy trying way too hard to get you to like him, and it grated upon me. I didn’t care for his relationship with Rose, nor did I like how he essentially drove away Martha because she was Not Rose. Even his tangles with the revived Master turned out to be anticlimactic, and I was about to write off the show at the end of Season 3. In Season 4, his new companion, Donna, was simply that: a companion–no love interest, no heavily-convoluted back story (though we did get to learn a lot about Donna’s family, and her grandfather in particular). She held up her own end of the Doctor/companion relationship, and also held his mania in check. When she departed, and the Tenth Doctor was alone, he showcased parts of his personality that he had merely hinted at earlier: manipulative, megalomaniac, self-centered, callous. To see his persona change so drastically made me wonder how many other hints of this development had I missed, so once Ten became Eleven, I spent some time rewatching Tennant’s run as the Doctor. What I came out of it with was the following:
- The hints of Ten’s darker, manipulative side were there right after he regenerated, and
- The new Who is perfectly made for its time, and I should enjoy that for what it is instead of wishing it were 1974 again.
To drag up some older Who history, I also rewatched the episodes I have of the oft-maligned Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker. Many more words have been written about how the other Baker (as opposed to the incredibly popular Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker) was the symbol of OldWho in steep decline. You can find those words elsewhere, but the too-short version has it that Colin’s portrayal was just one of many things wrong with the show in the mid-1980s: garish costumes, cartoonish characters, cartoonish violence, poorly-written stories, and a title character that worked really hard at alienating sympathy. I often refer to Six as being either like the TV character Basil Fawlty, or like the characters portrayed on TV and film by Dabney Coleman; in either case, they’re both anything but heroic. It’s a hard feat to pull off having a protagonist be someone who doesn’t garner sympathy or who can be likable, but if done well, it can be memorable8. Sadly, my review of the old episodes confirmed that the idea of an anti-hero Doctor wasn’t bad, but its execution by Six was. While re-watching episodes of the Tenth Doctor, I kept encountering similarities between him and Six–whereas Six would be outwardly extravagant, wild, haughty, callous, and imperious, the Tenth Doctor would let flashes of those same characteristics peek out every now and then. In some cases, those traits would show themselves explicitly, such as when dealing with Harriet Jones, or the Family of Blood, or the Rancoss, and especially during the time when he would be without a companion. In other words, Ten is Six done right, and I didn’t catch that while watching the show the first time around because I was distracted by the love story…which leads to the next point.
When I watched “Doctor Who” back in the mid-1980s on WTTW, it would be episodes from the past. Most of what I watched was from the Tom Baker era, and there was no disguising the fact that these shows were from a different time period. Hairstyles, fashions, special effects (or lack thereof) all worked together to say, “Yep, this is old–to you.” But it’s easy to forget, as I did, that the shows were a reflection of their time in more ways than just how long Tom Baker’s sideburns would be, or how wide suit lapels would get. It was rather jarring to jump directly from Tom Baker (1974-81) to Colin Baker (1984-86), as I would then be presented with episodes that were surprisingly contemporary and relevant in terms of fashions, effects, and so on. WTTW’s decision to leap from one Baker to another forced a realization onto me that this show was a going concern, and that it interacted with largely the same world that I inhabited. Unfortunately for the later-era original Who, those interactions weren’t going well for it, particularly when seen in comparison with other sci-fi shows of that era. Sure, “Doctor Who” may have held up somewhat shakily against the original “Star Trek,” but comparing “Doctor Who” to “Star Trek: The Next Generation?” No contest–Picard’s crew wins handily over the Gallifreyan.
As for the revived show, it has benefited from its heritage while starting anew in an aggressively contemporary England. References to current events in Earth history and pop culture abound in NewWho to the point where dates in the show coincide with the actual date that they originally aired on the BBC. The audience is not only treated as a spectator but also as a participant due to the this-is-happening- NOW ethos. Furthermore, the audience has been given a significant amount of respect and knowledge by the revived show, as they have benefited from so many developments in storytelling during the interregnum when “Doctor Who” was off the air. With the popularity of Hary Potter, Lord Of The Rings, “Babylon 5,” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” audiences have become accustomed to following not just how plotlines twist and turn, but also how characters grow and develop in the process. As the main protagonists in Harry Potter matured during the story’s long run, so too has the audience for “Doctor Who.” They can handle the idea that the companions have lives of their own besides traveling with the Doctor, and that these same people have feelings of loss, happiness, and even love. It’s not a surprise that the Doctor now expresses more of these same human-like emotions; after all, with the rest of the Time Lords gone and his home planet destroyed, humanity is pretty much all the family he has left.
Because the show has grown so as to meet its audience, there’s no way “Doctor Who” would ever return back to an exact duplicate of its past. What worked for the audiences in 1973 or 1983 won’t work in 2013. Unlike my friend in the t-shirt, I enjoy the show for what it is today as I live in today. I’m not always happy with how the new show unfolds its plots or character development, but as the mid-1980s period illustrates, such events happened back during the show’s original run. If I were to talk with the guy in that t-shirt, I’d tell him that he will need to accept that time can be rewritten in the show, but not outside of it, and that he should look at the show from today’s perspective and not that of its past. Or, if he can’t do so, he should move on and watch his old videotapes from OldWho. I can make copies of my Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy episodes, if he’s interested.
Third of a six-part series.
1. The last episode of Season 7, “The Name Of The Doctor,” introduced a version of the Doctor heretofore unknown to us. This version of the Doctor, portrayed by veteran actor John Hurt, appears to slide in between the Eighth Doctor (portrayed by Paul McGann in the mid-1990s TV movie) and the Ninth Doctor (portrayed by Christopher Eccleston, who kicked off the revival of the show in 2005). Therefore, it is believed that every known incarnation of the Doctor after McGann will have to add one to his number: Eccleston now becomes the Tenth Doctor, Tennant the Eleventh, and Smith the Twelfth. With Smith leaving the role at the end of 2013, the search is on for the Thirteenth Doctor, but as Hurt’s incarnation has not officially been slotted, I’m going to continue the known numbering of Doctors. If you’re reading this after November 23, 2013, and what I had said turns out to be true, you should just mentally add one to the Doctors after McGann, and it’ll all make sense. Confused? Good.↩
2.The online magazine “Slate” has a well-deserved reputation for offering up inflammatory contrarian arguments to generate page views. It’s a well-worn stereotype at this point. One day, an article will be written with the title, “Want To End The Obesity Problem? Support Cannibalism!” It’ll most likely be on Slate or the Onion, and my money’s on the former.↩
3. I really enjoyed Eccleston’s portrayal of the Ninth Doctor. Sadly, I haven’t enjoyed Eccleston’s attitude toward the show, as he acts as if it were the source of a malignant odor drifting through his house. The entire scenario described in footnote 1 with John Hurt came about because Eccleston declined participation in the 50th anniversary episode–in effect, the Doctor’s history is being rewritten around him. “Time can be rewritten,” indeed.↩
4. John Barrowman, who portrayed the popular character Captain Jack Harkness on “Doctor Who” and its “Torchwood” spinoff, spent the first seven years of his life in Scotland. He and his family moved to the Chicagoland area during the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, and they would all watch and/or videotape the Sunday night shows on WTTW as a reminder of home. There’s something quite gratifying with the knowledge that he and I had the same routines during our respective times in high school.↩
5. Dave Allen has been described as a “sit-down, stand-up comedian.” He would appear on a bare stage, sitting on a chair that had large armrests. On one armrest would be his cigarettes (during the time when he smoked), on the other would be a tumbler of whiskey. From his chair, he’d tell a series of stories and jokes that were interspersed with sketches. While the sketches were more than a little Pythonesque, his stories would often touch upon his roots in Ireland, and like a fair amount of creative Irish people, he had a gift for gab. Dave was a professional raconteur, and I still think to this day that that would be a wonderful job to have.↩
6. See WTTW’s Chronology↩
7. If I were to answer the question that led to footnote 1, that is, “Which Doctor is my favorite?” I’d have to break the list apart as OldWho and NewWho. I’d also have to break up Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal of the Seventh Doctor, as I loathed his initial appearance on the show with his companion Mel, but when Ace came onboard, he and the show made a remarkable transformation, albeit one that was too little, too late to stave off cancellation at the end of 1989. The latter part of Seven’s run would rank very close to the top of my favorite OldWho Doctors.↩
8. “Absolutely Fabulous” and “House” immediately come to mind as shows starring an unlikable protagonist.↩