In homage to the upcoming 50th anniversary special episode of Doctor Who, to be broadcast on BBC (and BBC America) today, Saturday, 23 November, I decided to take a walk down memory lane with my favorite Time Lord.
The beginning…in a junkyard?
Fifty years ago, on 22 November 1963, the world was shocked by the assassination of President John F Kennedy. What many Americans don’t realize is this was huge news throughout the world not just here, and especially among America’s closet allies, including Great Britain. As in the U.S., Britain’s BBC had extensive and almost unrelenting news coverage, both on the day of the assassination (which was already in the early evening for them), and throughout the next day.
There was debate and controversy over whether the BBC should go ahead with the premier episode broadcast of their new science fiction TV serial program, Doctor Who. In the end, they decided to go ahead, with the rationale being, ‘The news across the pond is so awful — people, and especially the children — could use a break.‘
Indeed, the show as originally written was intended to be somewhat light for adults, accessible for children, and although scary at times, hopefully not too much.
Due to both power outages (caused by coal strikes) and extended news coverage of the JFK assassination, on 23 November 1963 the inaugural episode of Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child,” was delayed by 80 seconds.
Who is the Doctor? And why is he messing with a police call box?
As the story opens, two teachers from Coal Hill School are concerned about one of their students, a peculiar teenage girl named Susan Foreman. Susan is improbably genius-level brilliant but has strange gaps in her knowledge of ordinary things. Her teachers — Barbara and Ian — become even more suspicious when they learn Susan’s recorded home address is actually a junkyard (I.M. Foreman’s Yard) at 76 Trotter’s Lane, in Shoreditch.
Long story somewhat shorter, Ian and Barbara soon determine that Susan’s grandfather — an old man introduced to them only as The Doctor (never, ever named ‘Doctor Who’ except in one movie I’d just as soon forget) — and Susan are both aliens from another world, later revealed to be Gallifrey.
And moreover, a blue public Police Box (a fairly common sight in Britian yet in 1963) was in fact a disguised TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). In future decades, the fact the TARDIS is stuck being a Police Box is remarked upon frequently as being rather ineffective in terms of inconspicuousness, since Britain doesn’t have them anymore. Luckily the “don’t notice me anyway” part of the chameleon-circuit perception filter seems still to be working.
Much, much larger on the inside than the outside, with a futuristic-looking control room and console, the TARDIS was both a spaceship and a time machine, capable of going anywhere, anywhen. As for the Doctor, he’s a Time Lord. Yep, really not human. He even has two hearts.
Eventually, we learn that the Doctor and Susan were on the run and that the TARDIS, a venerable and obsolete Type-40 — hence making it highly prone to malfunctions over the years — was actually stolen. (Although in truth, being sentient, the TARDIS actually allowed herself (yes, female) to be stolen.)
Three years later, Doctor Who had become rather a sensation on British television, despite shoestring budgets and often laughably crude sets and costumes. They also had adopted a serialized format of (usually) four to six shows in a row comprising a longer story arc — a practice which was kept for most of its initial run.
Unfortunately, by 1966, William Hartnell’s health was suffering and he just couldn’t keep up with the rigors of the series filming schedule. The writers for Doctor Who came up with an idea: What if the Doctor could regenerate? Literally become someone else.
Sure, why not? It’s science fiction after all. This also seemed to be a far better solution than trying to find a Hartnell look-alike. It was later established that regeneration is something all Time Lords can do, up to a maximum of 13 total incarnations…although recently the writers have hinted this isn’t necessarily a hard and fast limit.
At the end of “The Tenth Planet,” the first Doctor became the second, played with clownish glee by recorder-tootling, fur-coat clad Patrick Troughton. And thus began a Doctor Who dynasty. The show ran uninterrupted from 1963 until 1989, with seven Doctors in all (occasionally with special episodes when different Doctors would meet each other, even though such was very much not supposed to be allowed due to the risk of temporal corruption).
Doctor Who is canceled…then ‘regenerated’
Sagging ratings and soaring production costs having taken their toll, after the last 7th Doctor episode, “Survival,” Doctor Who went off the air in 1989 for the first time in 26 years. A sad day for fans.
There was a 1996 movie revival, with Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor, which was supposed to kick off a new cross-Atlantic Doctor Who production series, but it just didn’t happen. Ratings were fantastic in Britain, but not good enough here in the States — probably in large part because the majority of Americans had no clue who this ‘Doctor’ was or why they should care about him.
It remains worth noting however that Big Finish Studios kept the franchise alive throughout the intervening years with a long and extensive series of audio productions, with the original actors, both the Doctors and their companions. Doctors 4 through 8 — Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker (no relation), Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann — all participated. Some of these were even adapted for broadcast on BBC radio. The audio productions remain available for purchase on Big Finish site — along with audio shows for all kinds of non-Who programs, including one of my other BBC favorites, Blake’s 7 (also horrible sets and cheesy costumes, late 1970s hairstyles (Perms! On men! Aaaaah!) — but pretty amazing and often quite deep and dark stories).
In a very odd turn, quite possibly because there was no Doctor Who on television from ’89 onward, the 8th Doctor is the most prolific in terms of novels, novellas, short stories, and audio productions about his adventures.
Finally in 2005, the BBC brought Doctor Who back yet again, with the 9th Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston, a Doctor remarkable in that he was the first to have a “Northern” accent, rather than the usual Received Pronunciation (RP) English dialect favored by his predecessors in the role. (In response to a criticism of his accent, the 9th Doctor responded, “Lots of people are from the north.” The 10th Doctor went back to RP.) This new 9th Doctor had many of the personality traits of his predecessors, yet nevertheless was darker, and hinted at having recently undergone soul-shattering tragedies (i.e., ‘The Time War‘).
Indeed, a certain quality of melancholy, as well as unfathomable age — he is, after all, well over 900 years old — seems to have become the common hallmark of the current series of Doctors.
As of now, there have been eleven Doctors in all in official canon, not counting the Valeyard (who was to have been the Doctor’s final incarnation, but it is not clear whether he’s really the Doctor, or just a corrupted ethereal part of him “from between his 12th and 13th incarnation”). Also, there’s the as yet unknown and sinister-seeming Doctor introduced to audiences just last spring and played by John Hurt. (I know a few spoilers, but won’t share ‘em.) Word from the BBC is the most recent Doctor, played by Matt Smith, will be replaced during this year’s Christmas special Doctor Who story by Peter Capaldi.
Should be interesting, having a somewhat older Doctor again.
Everybody has a favorite Doctor
There’s an old saying among Doctor Who fans, that your first Doctor will always be your first love. Well, not so for me. My very first encounter with Doctor Who was in the late 1980s, when New Jersey public television stations were showing imported reruns from the third Doctor era — Jon Pertwee. A bit of a foppish dandy, with a taste for fancy clothes and action, he just didn’t appeal to me all that much.
But the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker… ahhh. There we go. The longest serving incarnation, he was the Doctor from 1974 through 1981. He of the long scarf, floppy hat, toothy grin, and an endless supply of Jelly Baby candies. I developed a huge fan-crush on him.
I’ve already embedded a bunch of photos in this post and will probably have several more before the end, but I can assure you, I am the proud owner of a full-sized, color-accurate 18-foot long reproduction of the knitted wool scarf Tom Baker (top row right in the collage) often wore as the Doctor. That scarf is draped (and draped, and redraped, and draped some more) over the back of my reading chair. There’s a story as to how the fourth Doctor’s scarf came to be; perhaps I’ll share it in the comments.
And if I had to pick a second favorite Doctor, it would actually be one of the recent versions — the 10th Doctor, by David Tennant (middle one in the bottom row in the collage). Why exactly I’m not sure. Some kind of perfect alchemy of enthusiasm, optimism, and — towards the end of his reign — a tragic melancholy. (Doesn’t hurt that among the Doctors, he was the most physically attractive as far as I was concerned.) I was so sad to see him go.
The Doctor’s companions
Probably one of the most important factors behind the long-term success of Doctor Who isn’t just the Doctor himself. It’s been his traveling companions. Although the Doctor’s companions have included a robot dog (K-9, of course), another Time Lord (Romanadvoratrelundar, or Romana for short — and yes, I spelled that from memory), a Princess of Traken, a chameleonic alien, and various human-looking inhabitants of other worlds, most of them have been humans. And most from Earth.
We’re not meant to identify with the Doctor. He’s too friggin’ awesome, too ‘big’ to comprehend. But his companions? They’re our surrogates. Many of them are just ordinary people suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Like the intrepid reporter, Sarah Jane Smith (played by the great and sadly-departed Elisabeth Sladen, who had her own Who-related spin-off show), whose introduction to the (3rd) Doctor came when she stowed away on the TARDIS while researching a story. (Don’t get me started on the seriously yummy and totally ambisexual Captain Jack Harkness…)
The catch for fans, the way of identifying with the companions, is the idea that a strange alien Time Lord in a blue Police Box could just show up and sweep you away into time and space. Literally anywhere, anytime, from the Big Bang to the heat death of the Universe itself; Earth in the past, present or distant future; alien worlds, alternate dimensions. Fantastic adventures with a man who can always come up with a last minute plan and save (nearly) everything. And do nearly anything, including making bow ties cool. (Nice try with the Fez, but no.)
The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special
23 November 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who — with a 50th anniversary special episode, “The Day of the Doctor,” uniting both the 10th and 11th Doctors, and their companions. (And maybe more? The BBC isn’t saying.)
And in preparation, the BBC is pulling out all the stops. First, there’s an amazing and super-neat interactive graphic showing the various Doctors’ journeys in space and time.
If that’s not enough, there’s another interactive graphic, Doctor Who at 50: Tour the TARDIS. (Author’s note: The BBC keeps misspelling it as ‘Tardis.’ No, no, no — it’s an acronym and supposed to be in all caps. Yeesh.)
I’m a regular reader of the BBC News website, and for the last month or more in the Entertainment and Arts section, it’s been wall-to-wall Doctor Who. Missing Troughton-era Doctor Who episodes found at a TV station in Nigeria (many from the early 1960s were lost because the BBC re-used the tapes, thinking nobody would ever want to see them again — wrong!) A story titled “An American Time Lord ‘would use a gun’” (perhaps, but then he most certainly would not be the Doctor). How the TARDIS interior was designed. Special articles on ‘Three Doctors and one companion.” And lots more.
This weekend on BBC America, there will be an Eleventh Doctor marathon, with the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” 23 November. Lots of information over there. Plus a few more tidbits:
- The Doctor Who mini-episode ‘The Night of The Doctor.‘ (Here’s a Youtube link, if you’d rather watch it there. BTW, the title, if you think about it, is a bit of a giveaway and a squee moment for lots of fans.)
- Where to watch Doctor Who in the States (i.e., who carries BBC America). You Brits already know and are probably already sick of the constant advertisements.
- A video montage of all the Doctors’ regenerations (subject to how much video they managed to salvage, especially for the earlier ones) — this is also available in the TARDIS tour interactive graphic.
- Peter Capaldi talks about what it’s like to be chosen to play the 12th Doctor.
- The first and second Doctor Who 50th Anniversary “The Day of the Doctor” commercial trailers.
And finally, the one I thought was coolest of all, a trailer video showing all of the Doctors, as well as some of the memorable companions (Yay! Sarah Jane!), enemies, aliens, and gadgets.