Friday, November 15, 2013

D is for The Doctor

I grew up in an eclectic, strange household. My mother is a redneck, born and raised from rural Mississippi. To give you an idea of how rural I’m talking, downtown for her hometown is four blocks in each direction. She shares some of the gumption and attitude one expects from a Southern woman: hospitality is offered to all friends but it’s not a good idea to piss her off. Deep down though, my mother’s a geek. She was the one who introduced me to science fiction. From Star Trek to Star Wars to Dune, from the Toho monster films to the 1950s version of The War of the Worlds, I was given over to the strange and campy world of science fiction as a fresh acolyte.
And then I discovered the mad man with the blue Police box, otherwise known as the Doctor.
In Tampa, during the late 1980s and early 90s, there were a number of independent T.V. stations, plus public broadcasting. Cable T.V. really wasn’t a full-time option due to money issues. My brother and I found entertainment where we could. Both PBS and channel 16 would show old Doctor Who episodes (usually for an hour, which meant two episodes for a serial). The Doctor we were introduced to was Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor: him of the big eyes, big curly hair, the never-ending scarf, and the big toothy grin. He still remains the yardstick by which I measure all the Doctors due to the Gothic stories, a sharp and wicked wit, and excellent villains.
The Doctor Who series remains one of my favorite television shows. It has all the hallmarks of what one expects from science fiction: thrilling adventures, technobabble, weird monsters, and new worlds waiting to be explored. For those unfamiliar with this staple of British pop culture, Doctor Who deals with an alien time traveler named the Doctor and his jaunts through time and space. The Doctor is a Time Lord, a species of beings who have mastered time travel. Unlike other science fiction protagonists, the Doctor is a pacifist at heart. This non-violent core serves as the heart of a delightful show that has oscillated over the last 50 years from being deadly serious to high camp.
For me, Doctor Who is a story about a wanderer, a being with the most extensive backyard a person could ask for: all of time and space. With his ancient TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space), the Doctor can visit anywhere in the universe at any point in time. As an amateur science geek, the thought of being able to watch the formation of stars, solar systems, even entire galaxies would be a magnificent treat. Then there’s the TARDIS itself, a wondrous device that seems to have as much space inside the outer police box shell as the universe it travels in.
Doctor Who is the eternal adventure story, a fun romp through a rather dangerous playground. Even though the science borders on fantasy-style magic from time to time, the universe operates under a wibbly-wobbly set of rules that can and will change depending on whoever is running the show. 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the show. It ran initially for 26 seasons on BBC, making it one of the longest-running television series in British Broadcasting. Doctor Who also holds the distinction for the number of actors playing the lead role.
Originally conceived as a science fiction kid’s show that would teach history lessons through episodic television, Doctor Who evolved over time into a purely science fiction show that appealed across generations. To put this in the proper perspective, the current series of Doctor Who regularly pulls in 25% of the British television-viewing public on average. Those numbers would be about half of what watches the Super Bowl here in the U.S. Children enjoy the scares and monsters while there’s enough sophistication and humor for the adults to pay attention. Over the decades the program has highlighted historical figures from Marco Polo to Shakespeare to Leonardo da Vinci. It has also explored themes of conformity, fanaticism, and militarism through the monsters created to fight the Doctor.
The Doctor as a character is unique in that he isn’t a swashbuckling mercenary or a gun-toting, time-jumping vigilante. Instead, the Doctor is a pacifist and a being devoted to discovery. In a setting rife with terrifying and deadly sci-fi weaponry, it reveals much about the character that his weapon of choice is a sonic screwdriver. The 10th Doctor, played with manic seriousness by David Tennant, once spoke reverentially of its nonlethal virtues in an episode. The device shows that the Doctor is more of a thinker than a direct fighter. This non-violent nature does not mean the Doctor will not fight for moral reasons. On the contrary, the character of the Doctor has one of the stronger moral compasses in television. The character routinely takes up the plight of the downtrodden, revealing a deeply-held disdain for tyrannical figures. The Doctor also values personal accountability in many of his incarnations, shown in the new series with its frequent allusions to the Time War.
For a great hero to stand out properly, they need great villains to serve as ideological foils. Where the Doctor values freedom and individuality, there are the Cyberman, cyborgs built around the notion of universal conformity. Where the Doctor values peace over war, there are the Sontarans, genetically-engineered warriors bred to fight and die by the millions. Where the Doctor values all life in the universe, there are the Daleks, genocidal aliens who seek to eradicate all forms of life that are not their own.
Over the decades, the Doctor has changed to suit the times and culture of the audience. The amorphous nature of the character is due in large part to the fictional Time Lord process known as regeneration. The First Doctor was portrayed by William Hartnell, who was already an elderly chap when he took the gig. As the show continued, his health began failing. Rather than shutdown a popular television show, the showrunners came up with the idea that Time Lords suffering physical trauma that could lead to death could regenerate into a different body. This would allow the showrunners to recast the role as needed and not spend inordinate amounts of time explaining why the same character suddenly looked different.
There have been a total of eleven actors who’ve played the enigmatic Doctor. Each actor has brought different traits and personality quirks to the character but the core characteristics remain the same across every performace. A thinking hero, the Doctor is better at wielding sharp quips and outmaneuvering his opponents, although destructive confrontations do happen from time to time. Of the eleven (soon to be twelve as of December 2013) who have taken a spin around time and space in the TARDIS, four of them have become favorites of mine.
The Fourth Doctor, portrayed by Tom Baker (1974-1981), is the Doctor of my childhood and remains the first actor I think of in the role. Played with gleeful strangeness, Baker took the Doctor’s alien eccentricities and dialed them up to 11. And yet he was all the more human for his curious behavior. Baker’s portrayal carried a strong anti-authoritarian streak. He could be charming and witty one moment and wrathful the next. Baker served as the Doctor for the longest out of all the actors. Several of the stories had a Gothic horror sensibility to them. His tenure was not without controversy as social critics like Mary Whitehouse felt the violence was too much for children. Many iconic stories were created during his 7-year tenure such as the Key to Time series and “Genesis of the Daleks”.
Later in life I got the chance to watch the other actors who had portrayed the Doctor. One who became an instant favorite of mine was Jon Pertwee (1970-1974), the Third Doctor. Pertwee has the distinction of being the first Doctor Who actor shown in color with his first serial “Spearhead from Space”. Pertwee’s Doctor was a response to the cultural shifts in Britain after the debut of James Bond in the late 1960s. Unlike the prior two Doctors, Pertwee brought a healthy dollop of panache to the Time Lord as well as a more action-oriented personality. He was terse with others but showed a protective streak to those he considered friends. I refer to Pertwee as the “judo chop” Doctor due to his penchant to use the fictional Venusian Aikido to subdue foes. If one were to cross James Bond (with the gadgets and cool cars) with time travel, one would get the thoroughly enjoyable Jon Pertwee Doctor.
I was initially hesitant to get involved in the new series of Doctor Who. It wasn’t until nearly the end of David Tennant’s run as the Doctor that I sat down during winter break between classes and gorged on “New Who”. Tennant’s tenure (2005-2010) were immensely fun to watch. Like Pertwee’s Doctor, Tennant’s Tenth Doctor was a snappy dresser, with a sense of inimitable style and a goofy grin that could disarm almost everyone. Beneath the bravado though was a deeply wounded character who had survived horrors few could comprehend. It was a struggle for this Doctor to forgive and save or to condemn his foes to face of the consequences of their actions. David Tennant’s extensive theater background made him a perfect choice, bringing an actor who could convey a range of emotions simultaneously and handle the nuanced dialogue produced for the series. For his ability to mix ecstatic joy and heartbroken sadness, it’s little wonder that David Tennant was able to become arguably the most popular actor to assume the role.
His successor, Matt Smith (2010-2013), has seen the program explode in global popularity. Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is similar to the often-clownish aspects of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor. With his bowties and stiff clothing to start, the Eleventh Doctor is a mass of contradictions. Smarter than everyone else in the room, Smith’s Doctor embraces whimsy and childish spontaneity with an old soul’s understanding of life’s fragility. Two scenes sold me on Matt Smith as the Doctor. The first was the ending of the episode “The Eleventh Hour”, his first as the character. The final scene established a brash Doctor, fully aware of his legacy and unafraid to use it for a form of intimidation. The second scene was a webisode that takes place between the episodes “Flesh and Stone” and “The Vampires of Venice”. Smith conveyed the weariness of the character with appropriate aplomb despite how young he is and looks. The Eleventh Doctor is a character confidant in his abilities but fully aware of his demons, adding a menacing layer to the Doctor that always seemed to be right under the surface for many of the incarnations.

Few programs can say that they have endured for 50 years. The closest American equivalent is Star Trek but there’s little comparison between the two franchises. Doctor Who is a thoroughly British invention: clever and witty in spades, dark and brooding when necessary, and tongue firmly planted in cheek the entire time. The program continues to provide adventure, frights, and timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbly fun. Doctor Who presents the universe in all its myriad complexity and reminds me to view the cosmos with awe and wonder. 

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