Tag Archives: doctor who fiftieth anniversary

Why ‘Doctor Who’ Endures (At Least for Me)

Fifty years after a pair of school teachers followed their strange pupil into a blue box in a junkyard, the Doctor is still traveling through time and space, making (and leaving behind) friends and having timey-wimey adventures.

In light of this weekend’s anniversary special you might be moved to wonder why this mad cap sci fi show is still on the air, why its fans are so rabid for more and why it’s still relevant after all these years.

There are a lot of reasons you could point to for the show’s longevity. The mere fact that the concept of regeneration allows the Doctor to be replaced over and over again as actors age and contracts expire, has allowed the to survive where others would fail trying to replace a lead. There’s a nostalgia element to it too, parents introducing kids to something they loved, makings something old new again. There’s also the fact that it’s an institution now, a tradition that just keeps passing down the generations.

But I’d argue that the magic of Doctor Who is summed up in something the 11th Doctor says in “The Eleventh Hour,” the first time Matt Smith takes on the role. Speaking to his new companion he asks: “All of time and space. Everything that ever happened or ever will – where do you want to start?”

Well, where do you want to start? The answer is, of course, anywhere. Just anywhere. When watching Doctor Who the audience can follow the man from Gallifrey wherever in this vast – and seemingly rule-less – fictional universe that the writers want to take us. And so every story becomes not just another entry in the long history of a time-traveling alien, but also an opportunity to indulge in some childlike wonder and curiosity. You can’t help but ask yourself, what will they think of next?

The first episode of the show I ever saw was actually the series one outing, “The Unquiet Dead,” in which the 9th Doctor and Rose head back to Victorian Cardiff and meet Charles Dickens, and also a bunch of incorporeal aliens who want to use corpses as their new homes.

I distinctly remember saying aloud to my father (who needed no convincing of the show’s worth), “So it’s history and sci fi? Cool!”

And it was cool, gosh darn it.

“The Unquiet Dead” is no poster child for acting or special effects. The ghost/alien/corpse monsters weren’t actually all that scary. But the combination of setting and story was so novel. And it was fun.

Doctor Who isn’t magical because it’s so well plotted or deep or smart or exciting. It often is (and sometimes isn’t) those things, but they’re beside the point.

The part of Doctor Who that I love, that keeps me coming back for more, despite setbacks and frustrations, is that incredible sense of wonder that it brings to every episode. In no other show that I’ve watched has there been this unending possibility to surprise and amaze. In a fictional universe as wide as the universe itself there are no limits on what could happen, who you could meet or where you could go.

Sure, recent adventures in convoluted plotting (see “The Wedding of River Song”) have abused this idea of limitless possibility. Even when anything can happen, it helps when what happens makes some kind of sense.

That’s why some of the Doctor’s best outings, both classic and new, thrive on complexity of concept but simplicity of execution. Take “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” from the 1st Doctor’s tenure. The title says it all: the Doctor’s nemeses invade Earth in the future. Or of course, “Blink,” where the high-concept Weeping Angels – arguably the most terrifying monsters in the Whoverse – are deployed in pursuit of a single girl. When they next appear in “Flesh and Stone,” the whole thing is so convoluted the angels aren’t as scary anymore.

Ultimately, the sense of curiosity still pervades even in stories that leave you scratching your head. And if one world or alien or idea doesn’t really click (I’m looking at you, strange absorbing alien from “Love and Monsters”) there’s so much more out there to discover, that the show never has to revisit a failed concept again.

So I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s anniversary special not just because of the throwbacks (believe me, I can’t wait for 10 and 11 to say their respective catchphrases at the same time, something like “Allon-imo!”), but also for everything new that could be stuffed in there. I mean seriously, what is the deal with John Hurt? Well, we’ll all find out tomorrow. But there’s always more to see and know.

And that’s enough to keep the show going for years and years to come.

On Watching Classic ‘Doctor Who’

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (3)

Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary is drawing closer, and so I have decided to catch up on the 26 seasons and TV movie that make up the world before the Ninth Doctor. I had always meant to do this, but I wanted to start from the very beginning, which is hard to do without spending a lot of money for the DVDs. But at last I was able to borrow/rent/beg for the episodes all the way back to season 1, and have begun my intense journey in the TARDIS.

So far I’ve got through talking about Susan Foreman’s tenure in the TARDIS. It seemed like a good stopping point in my binge, including the entire first season (minus missing serial Marco Polo), and the first two serials of the second season. Thematically, it also is a good swath of shows, not just because it’s all of Susan, but because the Doctor starts to become the Doctor we know and love, and a lot of that has to do with him shutting the TARDIS door in Susan’s face. 

Where we start with the Doctor can be jarring to a viewer who started with Eccleston, not just because the original show in black-and-white. William Hartnell’s Doctor is old, curmudgeon-y, and at times pretty clueless, as opposed to the young, charming, and nearly omnipotent Doctor I was used to. In the very first episode, after teachers Barbara and Ian force their way into the TARDIS, he outright kidnaps them so they won’t tell 1963 England about his time machine. He also doesn’t seem to know how to pilot the TARDIS very well (read: even less well than now) and embarks on a random journey with Susan, Barbara, and Ian with the pretense of trying to get Barbara and Ian home. It’s not adventure for the sake of adventure, and he’s not the great saver of worlds. As the group travels the Doctor helps people, sure, but it starts out only as a consequence of his own self-interest. Constantly they are separated from the TARDIS and the action of the plot is only driven by their desire to get back to it. He’s a lost man with a beat up car trying to get home, fixing a few flat tires along the way.

I think there were several turning points along the way that started to shape the Doctor into a more heroic figure. The first, of course, was the original appearance of the Daleks, in the second serial. Even though in that episode, the Doctor is still acting out of self-interest, the creation of an arch-nemesis for him allows him to be heroic later on. The second moment, which may seem minor, occurs in the partially missing serial “The Reign of Terror,” set in the most dangerous time of the French Revolution. The Doctor is separated from his companions and must attempt to rescue them, something he’s done before, but in order to do so he buys the regalia of a government official, which includes a many-feathered hat, and walks into a prison like he owns the place. That confidence and swagger (and inherent silliness) was something I identified with as being very Doctor-ish.

The most important moments, of course, came in Susan’s last serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” After landing in the 22nd Century and discovering the Daleks have become the totalitarian rulers of the planet, the Doctor isn’t just trying to get back to his ship anymore. When the Daleks say they are the masters of the Earth he replies, “Not for long.” And then with the help of his companions he blows the Daleks to pieces and returns the Earth to the humans. Only then does he leave.

But not before he leaves his granddaughter behind. Now the companion situation is odd in these first few serials. The Doctor, not as powerful as usual, often is playing second fiddle to the dashing Ian Chesterton, who knows a lot about combat for a high school science teacher. Barbara plays mother most of the time, taking care of many of the people they meet and constantly offering to cook (well, it was the 60s…). The Doctor’s role is often cerebral, needing to defend Ian from a murder charge on one alien planet or prove that someone was poisoning the water on another. This leaves Susan, despite being an alien like the Doctor with telepathic powers (the words “Time Lord” have yet to be spoken), with little to do except scream, cry, be kidnapped, and watch as the stronger characters save the day. She is often ill and often utterly useless, except maybe as a plot driver when she needs to be saved.

She is different from most other companions in that she is not the audience surrogate here. That’s Ian and Barbara. Susan is just as alien as the Doctor. She also has a long-standing relationship with the Doctor that is defined as familial, so the relationship doesn’t really change. The core principle is that they take care of each other, and that they don’t belong anywhere.

So when Susan finds a place where she can belong (otherwise known as a suitable husband, weren’t the 60s great?) the Doctor chooses to leave her behind instead of allowing her to make that choice herself. He literally slams the door in her face, locking her out of the TARDIS and promising to return some day (with the later Doctor’s reputation on that front, I’m going to say no, he’s not coming back for her).

It’s significant for a number of reasons. It’s the first casting change, of the many, many rotating companions and Doctors to come. It’s the first time the Doctor abandons a companion, which he’ll do many more times. Susan becomes the first in a long string of people left behind by the Doctor, some screwed up as he’ll say later, and some not. Although, it seems a little harsh to leave Susan on a war-torn Earth with a man she’s just met and only one shoe (her other broke and the Doctor took it inside the TARDIS to fix, and so when he leaves, she’s literally only got one shoe on). Well, I hear that there are a lot of job opportunities in the post-apocalypse.

But the Doctor’s moving on with one less companion, and possibly, a more heroic sensibility.