October 8, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #3: Doctor Who

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren't academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.



It's possible I may have told this story before, so if I have bear with me.

It was many years ago now, over 25 at least, and I was spending a Friday night at a friend’s house. Around about 10pm or so, he flipped on the TV to the PBS channel, to a show he wanted me to watch with him. “I think you’ll like it,” he said, or words to that effect. The show was a British import, as so many of the local presentations were (and are), a science fiction series called Doctor Who. I’d seen the show listed in the TV Guide before, but hadn’t paid any attention to it. As the episode unfolded ("The Face of Evil," my episode guide informs me), my friend briefed me on the basics: the show’s hero was an alien with the ability to travel in both time and space. His space ship was a blue box, normally used by British police to phone the station, which was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. His personality was outsized, a man who met challenges with an impervious humor, and something of an Enlightenment attitude toward religion. He often traveled with attractive women, but there was no hanky-panky involved. And there was one other thing, though it wasn’t germane to this particular episode, but he thought I should know about it because Doctor Who was on twice a week – Friday and Saturday – and a different actor was playing the role on each night. That was because whenever the hero was seriously injured, on the point of death, he had the ability to regenerate into a new person, or rather the same person, but with a new body, appearance, and personality.

Right.

Watching Doctor Who was an agreeable-enough experience, although I’ve always struggled when it came to watching programs that weren’t my idea to watch, especially when I’ve been assured that it was a show I would like,* so I tolerated the show for the 90 minutes that it ran, assured my friend that I’d have to keep an eye on it, and then promptly forgot about it.

*Even though the recommendations have been right more often than you’d think, which you’d also think would tell me something. See Nero Wolfe, for example.

The quintessential Fourth Doctor
Fast-forward a few weeks, to another Friday night. In these pre-cable days (for us, at least), there weren’t many viewing choices, perhaps six or seven channels in all, so when all three versions of the 10pm news led with the same story (the Jordan child-abuse scandal, which was a staggeringly big deal in the Twin Cities), a story I was sick to death of, I stretched out my arm, desperately flipping the dial in search of the first channel to have something on besides the news, at least until they were done with the Jordan story. I landed on Channel 2, which was airing Doctor Who.

It stayed there, every Friday (and Saturday) night, for the next five years.

At first I watched it because it was fresh and new. Later, after I’d fully enveloped myself in the Doctor Who universe, I watched it because I couldn’t not watch it. It was maybe the second show that had ever had that effect on me, where I became so fully a part of the world of the show and its inhabitants. I even became a member of the local PBS station, since they were offering a Doctor Who picture-disc as the pledge-break premium.  I don’t mean to say that I ventured into the territory of the Trekkers and role players, although Doctor Who has its fair share of those.*  No, it was the desire to learn as much about the program as I could – its history and continuing storyline, the actors who’d played The Doctor, the rules governing Time Lords and time travel, the whole thing. As the BBC released more episodes from the early days of Doctor Who, dating back to the first episode in 1963, I was enthralled. To find that there were others aware of this TV show with the cult following, not typical sci-fi nerds but people such as the man who maintained the plants in the office in which I worked, was thrilling. I attended the conventions at which actors who'd played The Doctor appeared (Peter Davison, Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker, to be precise; but not, alas, my favorite - Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor).  I celebrated the show's twenty-fifth anniversary in 1988.  I even took up eating jelly babies.  And when the newest episodes came over, with only a few months’ delay, my dedication to the show was complete.

*Don't pay any attention to the 12-foot scarf I have hanging in the library at home.

I came to know and appreciate each Doctor for his own personality quirks - William Hartnell's imperiousness, Patrick Troughton's playfulness, Jon Pertwee's swashbuckling, Tom Baker's bohemian unpredictability, Peter Davison's reluctant heroism, Colin Baker's anti-hero rudeness, and Sylvester McCoy's mysterious omniscience.

The First Five (from left): Hartnell (1), Pertwee (3),
Davison (5), Troughton (2), Baker (4)
And then the BBC, after twenty-seven seasons, pulled the plug. It wasn’t cancelled, they insisted – only on hiatus – but as the years went on, the show became less and less of a presence, both on television and in my life. I still had the books, and that scarf, and as the show began to come out on video I enjoyed the episodes, but somehow it wasn’t the same, knowing that what we had was all we had and that there wouldn’t be anything more.

Until there was. Doctor Who reappeared, first in a Fox movie that briefly rekindled the hope of a regular series; and then, following years of rumors and false starts, in a revival that picked up where the old series had left off, one that’s done a remarkably good job of integrating itself with the original, so that it’s easy to believe that the eleven actors* who’ve played The Doctor have all inhabited the same universe, even though the special effects are fancier and the monsters aren’t as cheesy and the show itself is less campy and more dramatic.

*Twelve, if you include Peter Capaldi, who takes over this Christmas.

Perhaps I don’t have the same passion for Doctor Who that I once did – after all, the blaze from the spark that ignites any love affair eventually lessens, and the thrill of discovery can’t last once everything’s discovered – but my enjoyment of the series continues. I miss some of the trademarks of the old series; the new show can be a little too bleak at times, a little on the preachy side with a bit of an agenda, and for all that cheesiness of the old days there were some stories with a remarkably deep insight into the human condition.* Plus, the new Doctors seem to have a little more, well, romantic interaction with others, and there’s a sense that they’re a little more vulnerable, not quite standing above it all in the same way that the old Doctors once were.

*For example, in "Planet of the Spiders," the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) risks his life against overpowering odds because it was more important to him to confront his fears than to simply go on living, while in "The Sunmakers," Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor once reminded a group of slaves that "you're human beings, and humans always have to fight for their freedom."

But Doctor Who remains one of the few contemporary series that can capture my interest, even if the intrusion of real life has left me hopelessly behind the curve for now, and some of the new episodes ("Silence in the Library," for example) have been true classics. And there's no question that David Tennant's Tenth Doctor not only turned the show into a genuine mainstream favorite, he proved to be an absolutely convincing successor to the Doctors of the original run.

It’s a show that I can look back on with affection, one that I’m not embarrassed at having watched when I was younger, as well as one I can continue to enjoy today. In November Doctor Who will celebrate 50 years on television, and even if those 50 years haven’t been continuous, the show you see today has a clear and ever-present legacy that stretches all the way back to the very beginning. Doctor Who’s almost as old as I am, and I should hope I’ve aged as well. No list of my favorite television shows could ever exist without it.

Next week: If you liked World War II, you'll love these guys
Last week: The Prisoner

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