February 09, 2007

F5 #2: The Doctor

My first impression of Doctor Who was not a favourable one.

TV Ontario, the provincial public/educational channel, used to run episodes of the program on weeknights. Unfortunately, I don't think the editor who created their promo spots was a big fan. For some reason, they concentrated exclusively on scenes from the story "The Deadly Assassin." Now, I like "The Deadly Assassin" just fine; in fact, it's one of my favourites. But it contains a number of fantasy sequences which are somewhat surreal even in context - as isolated clips, it's downright weird. So as a ten-year-old, I wasn't the stereotypical kid hiding behind the sofa at the scary parts. I just didn't see the appeal of a show featuring samurais in spooky masks throwing people over cliffs.

Two things changed that.

First, I later discovered that the PBS station provided by our cable company ran Doctor Who stories in their entirety (i.e. the four or so serials spliced together into a single, two-hour-long program). I came across one of these accidentally one afternoon and, not realizing what it was at first, thought it was an enjoyable (if somewhat overly British) science-fiction movie of some kind. Of course, it wasn't long before I realized what I was watching. Second, two friends of mine in school were working on a class project of some kind: something about futurism in Doctor Who, focusing on programs that showed future humanity doing something halfway plausible, such as living on Pluto under an artificial sun (OK, halfway plausible to two twelve-year-olds, at least). Through them I was exposed to a few of the better Who serials that I hadn't yet seen on TV. So between these two influences, I decided (rather suddenly) to give Doctor Who a fair shake. And I'm glad I did, because in hindsight it's become my favourite television program.1

Lest I get ahead of myself: The basic premise of the program is that the Doctor (not "Dr. Who," which is the name of the program) is a renegade Time Lord, an alien who, having become tired of the apathy of his own people, stole a time machine called the TARDIS - which is much bigger on the inside than the outside and perpetually disguised as a British police call box, because the circuitry that is supposed to blend it in with its environment got stuck - and, together with a generally lovely-but-helpless-or-naïve female companion, travels throughout space and time righting wrongs, but as often as not rescuing Earth from the alien menace.

The program in its original incarnation ran from 1963-89. Because of the longevity of the program, it's not surprising that cast members come and go, including the show's star. When the original Doctor, William Hartnell, resigned after three years due to illness, the show's writers quickly came up with the explanation that Time Lords are capable of "regenerating" - that is, after suffering mortal injury, their bodies are capable of repairing themselves, but replacing their original appearance and personality with a new one. To date ten actors have played the part - seven in the show's original run, one for a TV movie made in 1996, and two for the new series in production since 2005. As with James Bond actors, every fan has a strong preference for one actor over the rest.

It's said that everyone's favourite Doctor is the one they saw first. That's certainly true in my case: I started watching the program when episodes featuring Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor, were airing in Canada. Baker, with his off-the-cuff humour, impossibly long scarf, and, when it was called for, dead seriousness, best captured the protagonist's character. (The rest of the first seven Doctors were, in order, too crusty, too clownish, too Earthbound, too excitable, too weird, and too cryptic.) In addition, Baker had the best stories: the first part of his tenure had a distinct Gothic-horror flavour reminiscent of old monster movies such as Frankenstein. In my opinion, it was also the latter part of his period and that of Peter Davison, his successor, in which Doctor Who did its best science fiction as well.

Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989 and remained off the air for about 16 years, not counting reruns - though in North America, networks like TVO and PBS stopped showing those in the early 90s, too). If it weren't for the magic of home video, I would have sorely missed the program. Naturally, I was ecstatic when the BBC brought the show back to life ("regenerated" it?) in 2005. New Who has the same humour, recurring villains, and overall cheesiness of the show's original incarnation, but in typical 21st-century fashion, it frequently ironically deconstructs the conventions of the old show. For example, the past Doctors' trademark eccentric costumes are gone; the Doctor's quirkiness comes through his character rather than his wardrobe. He has also become more of an antihero: instead of having carte blanche to come in and meddle whenever he pleases, in one recent episode Queen Victoria actually declared him an enemy of the state and set up the Torchwood Institute to defend the British Empire against alien menace including the Doctor. The writers have also begun to experiment with the contemporary SF fashion of having season-long plot arcs over and above each individual episodes. But despite the changes, it's still the same old Doctor Who, and I'm glad to say I get the same thrill watching David Tennant play the role today as I did with Tom Baker in 1980.

Footnotes

1 The Last, Best Footnote for Peace: Though Babylon 5 gives it a run for its money.