Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Doctor is “IN”

Forty eight years ago yesterday, a little educational show started up in England.  It featured a history teacher and a science teacher traveling with, and providing lessons to, one of their students.  Due to the Kennedy assassination, the show’s premier went almost completely unnoticed, and only a rebroadcast of the initial episode before the second kept if from vanishing before it started.

The teachers’ lessons were greatly enhanced by the fact that their young student’s grandfather could bring them all to the date and location of any lesson needed with his magic box that could travel through Time And Relative Dimensions in Space…

A month later, they were all attacked by psychotic, fascist pepper mills with unusual armaments. 
I always said, “It’s not the toilet plunger, it’s the egg whisk you need to watch out for."
The educational aspect was mostly tossed out the window in favor of intelligently presented adventure and, in what has become the most successful and longest running science fiction series of all time, the Doctor and his companions have been running ever since.
Hartnell started it all, and influenced all who followed.

With the introduction of the Daleks, Doctor Who quickly cemented itself into the consciousness of Great Britain.  Generation after generation remembers watching the show’s monsters while hiding behind the sofa, because of the amazing idea of having the main character regenerate into another actor’s appearance.
"So you're my replacements...a dandy and a clown?"
The show continued to maintain its hold on viewers to such an extent that in 2002 the patent office ruled in favor of the BBC trademarking the Police Box design, and against the Metropolitan Police Authority’s objection. 

Quite a first memory.
While the show climbed and continued to surge in popularity across the Atlantic, it sort of trickled in over here in the U.S.  I was introduced to it on WOR Channel 9 by a friend one Saturday morning.  I was a little intrigued, mostly confused, and greatly irritated that the story was unfinished in part one of “The Sontaran Experiment.” (I have my family’s genetic resistance against anything “to be continued”.)   The fact that I couldn’t find it the next week (either due to the channel not carrying it anymore, or the more likely scenario of me forgetting what time it was on) didn’t help the confusion. 

Luckily that was around the time that John-Nathan Turner started his push to bring the series over to us unenlightened colonists via PBS stations.  A Long Island channel was showing the individual episodes which I followed alone (due to the aforementioned genetic resistance).  Luckily however, this was in the heyday of New Jersey Network. (I’m not talking about Masterpiece Theater, Nova or any high brow intellectual stuff here. I’m talking about the days when they had Doctor Who – followed by Flash Gordon, Uncle Floyd and the original Dark Shadows on the schedule.)  NJN was the premier place for Doctor Who in the states, being the one if the first (if not the first) to broadcast the older Doctor episodes as well as the seasons of the Sixth and Seventh doctors.

Every Saturday night, Channel 50 would show a storyline in its entirety. No waiting!  I finally got to see how “The Sontaran Experiment” ended…with a freakin’ cliffhanger.  I didn’t know much about who the Time Lords were, or what these Dalek things they sent the Doctor after could be, but I was extremely upset with the anti-climax of my wait for the end of the battle with the potato headed alien. 

Not everyone likes jelly babies.
The following week I tuned in angrily to find out what happened next in “Genesis of the Daleks” and was hooked for life. I even joined the Doctor Who Fan Club of America. (And still have my annual thermochromatic badges!)
This shot made possible by New Eye Studios, the DWFCA, and Grandma.

The awesomeness of NJN played a part in my lacking what is normally a key part of most Whovians:  having a specific incarnation thought of as “My Doctor”. 
If you didn't get misty at the "I loved being you," part, you should probably go now.
One theory is that the viewer imprints on the first version they see.  I think it’s more than that, though. From what I’ve observed, it’s the first regeneration seen AFTER one gets the hang of the show. Following an incarnation “from birth” creates a stronger imprint that the initial confusion that usually accompanies finding this series.  Shortly after I was into the show, New Jersey Network aired “The Five Doctors” as part of pledge week. This combined with my excessive extracurricular Gallifreyan reading (of episode guides and synopses in books I’d acquire from the pre internet geek Christmas list equivalent of the Sears Wish Book, New Eye Studios) may keep me from having a favorite. (My brother in law saw “The Five Doctors” first, with no background. That amped up the confusion so much that he didn’t watch the show for decades. The “after one gets the hang of the show” part is important.)  I tend to see the various Doctors as a single person.  Certain aspects may be exaggerated or downplayed, but he’s still the same guy.  A great deal is unchanging:

Acting as an unstoppable force for goodness, freedom and right against evil and oppression

Simultaneously being enamored by the best of humanity and enraged by the worst

Believing in and inspiring hope above all else

Never being as distracted, or as focused as he lets on

Unpredictable mood shifts which appear uncontrolled, but are usually calculated

Favoring brains and individuality over rules and military thinking

The ability to talk and bluster his way through or by almost anyone

Primarily a compassionate, non violent man of peace, he always allows a chance for redemption or forgiveness, but he can be pushed. Once all his other options have been exhausted, the “Angry Doctor” is a sight to behold. This is similar to the “Angry Superman” but in many ways far more terrible. An Angry Superman pummeled on Darkseid hard enough to crack his face…but an Angry Doctor would have extinguished the fire pits of Apokolips and sealed the entire planet in a time loop.
The oncoming storm.
He’s the smartest one in the room.  That’s unusual, even in the semi intellectual genre he operates in. Jedi are constantly taught, “Don’t think, feel,” Kirk’s hunches usually trump Spock’s logic, but the Doctor’s keen application of intellect mostly stands unchallenged. In fact, the show itself maintains, and requires, a level of intelligence usually unseen on television. Also, no matter what kind of monster or spooky situation, the explanations are always scientific; not mystical, religious or supernatural, but without downplaying the importance of emotion and free will.

A big advantage of this view of the Doctor is I look forward to what new exciting elements the next regeneration will bring, as opposed to the rest of my entire family, past and present, who have greeted each and every regeneration with the phrase, “I don’t like him.”

An understudy for "the Blob"?
I eventually talked my family into watching with me (now that there was no waiting “to be continued”). “Horror of Fang Rock” was one of the first they actively watched beginning to end.  Oddly they were unimpressed by the Rutan, the Sontaran’s mortal enemy played by a glow in the dark hefty bag draped in sauerkraut and dragged by fishing line through a lighthouse.  Fortunately, they had seen some of the previously broadcast “The Talons of Weng Chiang”.  The Sherlock Holmes references had caught their attention and they gave it another chance and  slowly joined in. (I’m pretty sure Doyle was going to have a robot with the brain of a pig in one of his original stories but changed his mind at the last minute.) By the time we got up to the Peter Davison years, it was firmly established as our Saturday night ritual.

The 1985 hiatus was troubling, but we had over twenty years of past stories on our side of the pond to keep us going until we got “Trial of a Time Lord”.  Similarly when the show was cancelled in 1989 it was like the light from a distant star we knew had gone out, but were still receiving.  The Seventh Doctor stories didn’t make it to the NJN premier until 1990. 

Build high for happiness.
I distinctly remember a bunch of us nerdly college students piling into a car to drive to a U-62 looking PBS affiliate near RPI for the Hudson Valley initial screening of Sylvester McCoy’s episodes. (Still not sure why they started with "Paradise Towers" instead of the first one.)  There was still hope that the BBC would merely make this another hiatus and start cranking out new seasons before we ran out.

That was not to be, however. With no new episodes coming, and a management decision to make NJN less fun, our source of Doctor Who dried up. Thanks to them cycling through each Doctor at least twice, we were able to tape our favorites.  (Thanks to dad’s crazy six headed top loader VCR the tapes are still in good condition.) However, much like several of the plot threads and alien threats of the new series, I find that when the show isn’t being broadcast on a channel we have, I forget about watching it.  This may be due to having such a large and varied set of choices of where to start watching, that half way into the decision, something distracts me. (Ooh! Shiny thing!)

The Doctor’s next materialization came in the 1996 Fox movie/pilot.  Like many fans of the original series, I was extremely upset with the changes Fox forced on the show (because the American network known for football coverage and fart jokes was obviously more well suited to creatively control a thirty year old series aptly described as, “All about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism,” by Craig Ferguson).

It didn’t spawn a new television series. (However, it did spark the thriving and gigantic run of audio plays, allowing the under appreciated Paul McGann to put a larger stamp on the role than a single episode would normally offer.)  Once again, I was in a Wholess world until the current run started up.

The new series came in making the right choices where the Fox pilot failed and was brilliant. (Actually, that came after the regeneration, first it was fantastic.)  The 1996 film, tried to cram in an unstable regeneration, the Master and his body stealing antics, and internal workings of the TARDIS and Time Lords, and had to have confused new viewers.  Add in the American Network’s enforced changes that irritated the core fan base and the show was sinking before it launched.

Doctor Counting A: 4, 6, 9.
In the new BBC series, Christopher Eccleston played what is probably the least eccentric of all the Doctors, in dress as well as mannerisms.  His mix of the Fourth Doctor’s alien aloofness (and inappropriate grin) with the Sixth’s anger made for a more standard (if less outwardly violent) action hero type.  By removing the Time Lords and stripping down the show’s mythology, an easier access point was created.  However, again unlike other franchises, this was no prequel, reboot, or Next Generation.  Doctor Who was picking up the same story line that started in 1963, while maintaining the levels of intelligence, scariness and fun.  (The 1996 movie was included with no apologies, even the enforced foolish Fox changes were worked around or explained away, either in the series proper or other related media.) It was so tied to past continuity that, despite several rearrangements over the decades, the opening theme would be instantly recognizable to those who heard it as one of the first uses of electronic music when “An Unearthly Child” started the series in 1963.

Autons, then and now.
The choice of the Nestine Consciousness as the first villain was clever on many levels.  They were a foe from the original series, but one that appeared in only a couple of episodes. This let them work as a wink to the old fans that while much of the show would be new, it still remembered where it came from, without requiring the rest of the audience to need thirty years of back story. The Autons were also a foe that prompted the biggest outrage from British morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, showing that the new series wouldn’t be compromising for censorship.

Looks like I was wrong all those years.  You DO need to watch out for the toilet plunger.
Later on in the season a single Dalek was worked in as part of the new Time War back story, and by the time the army of them showed up for the season finale, everyone was fully along for the ride.
One of my biggest complaints about the Fox pilot (having been reared in the years of Jon Nathan-Turner’s “No hanky panky in the TARDIS”) was when the Eighth Doctor kissed Grace.  After learning about the increased flirting in the new series (before it crossed the Atlantic, I followed along by reading on Wikipedia this time). I figured I’d be equally upset.

But I wasn’t
It could be that I was older, wiser and better at accepting “different isn’t always wrong”.  But as I’m sure I wouldn’t be happy with an obvious romantic action in a new story about one of the previous Doctors. I think the reason the new episodes have more emotional connections, not only between the Doctor and his companions, but also between the companions, their families, and past companions, is the new format of the show.

In the original series, most stories were told in four to six 25 minute episodes.  This allowed time to introduce the characters involved in the location, and the interactions between them.  The Doctor would enter into most events as a catalyst/instigator; with his companion along to allow the Doctor explain things for the viewers. (Louise Jameson admitted one reason for leaving the show was running out of ways to vary the inflection in, “What is it, Doctor?”) 
This image included for the same reason she was put in the show...something for the dads.
The character arcs or relationships usually occurred in the people they met along the way, unless it was time for a companion to leave the TARDIS. Then falling in love or finding a calling was an easy out.

I think with the new format of mostly “done in one” 45 minute tales, there isn’t time to emotionally invest in the secondary characters, requiring greater development of the series principals to generate a level of emotional involvement in the story.  This is enhanced even further by the practice of using season long story arcs. By bringing a greater emotional connection between the Doctor and his companions (past and current), and adding the companion’s "family left behind" as well, the viewer’s emotional investment is maintained.  Maybe this also explains why the original series waned in popularity when it adopted a similar format in its later years, without changing story type. 

Doctor Counting B: 5, 3, 10.
Once the series had legs, the regeneration into David Tennant’s more Doctory in his eccentricities version fit in perfectly. His mix of the Fifth doctor’s compassion and emotions with the Third’s swashbuckling side allowed the relationship with Rose and it’s after effects to be a powerful driver for the show. It also shows why The Master served as such a great foe for him, as the evil Time Lord’s previous incarnations most memorably plagued the Third and Fifth Doctors.
A worthy successor...but I miss the beard.

Long time Whovian geek that I am, my brain also has in continuity explanations for the sudden appearance of romance in an ancient renegade Time Lord.  The effects of the time war and losing the rest of the Time Lords had either
1) Psychologically vastly increased his loneliness and need for emotional contact.
2) Physically triggered a normally latent (for such a long-lived species) mating drive.
Or maybe Time Lords experience something like Vulcan “pon farr” but instead of seven year cycles; it’s over seven hundred years.

Thanks to these changes, and the care and efforts put into the show by gangs of those who were fans, the Doctor’s popularity is surging outside of his home country.   Ads for the show and its merchandise run in American outlets, the actors make guest appearances on programs over here, the season premier was given a write up in a New Jersey newspaper, Matt Smith won a Scream award, and some episodes were filmed on our shores.  A major tradition in England the past few years, BBC America stepped up and broadcast last year’s Christmas Special (and the following season) the same day in the U.S., no more delays. Although we still get edited versions because not only does England have less ads (only for other BBC series and and none during the show), but they also have the common sense to let the story dictate the length of a show instead of blocks of commercial air time. Hopefully some of their sense will trickle through as Doctor Who gains more ground. 

Sadly, with no BBC America on our box, and Sci-Fi becoming SyFy, which replaced Doctor Who with reality shows and Wrestling (don’t hold your breath for that common sense to make an impact) I was following the Tennant specials back on Wikipedia.  Amazingly, with my grasp of all the fictional, trans dimensional, time vortex controlling technology, I hadn’t considered the innovations of streaming, downloading, or DVD releases. 

Luckily we finally got BBC America mid-way through Matt Smith’s second season as the Eleventh Doctor, and thanks to good timing, a marathon and Netflix managed to get caught up almost completely in order. (Watching Steven Moffat’s shows in order is important to get the full impact of the Timey Whimey.)  Of course, one of the first things we saw was “Best of the Companions”, spoiling all the major plot developments we were about to watch even without my Wikipedia pre reading. Watching the season finale was amazing purely from the standpoint of not having seen unspoiled Who in decades.

Doctor Counting C: 2, 7, 11.
I was very leery of the Doctor being in his twenties, but Smith does a perfect job of using it to his advantage.  Similar to the Second and Seventh Doctors, who’s clownish and carefree personalities covered sharp intelligence and a darker manipulative side respectively, there’s a split here as well.  While most of the time, the Doctor is filled with childlike enthusiasm (“Fish sticks and custard”, “Bow ties are cool”, etc.), Smith plays the age of the character better than any other, convincingly portraying the experience and weight of over nine hundred years.

The story lines are amazing as well. Russell T. Davies brought the show back phenomenally, and slowly rebuilt the mythology.  From subtle references such as the Macra or the burnt orange night sky of Gallifrey, to heavy hitters like the Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, The Master, and finally the Time Lords.  Seamlessly intermixed were also new aliens and concepts, such as the Ood, Weeping Angels, and Chameleon Arcs.  Heck, Sarah Jane and K-9 came back for a cameo that not only confirmed 1991’s failed pilot K-9 and Company in continuity but also generated four seasons of a new spin off that was almost more like the classic Doctor Who than the current series is.
R.I.P. Ms. Sladen, thanks for the ride, you'll be missed.
(Yes, I know that there’s also a spin off called Torchwood, and that it’s good, but the Doctor is all about the value and triumph of hope, I don’t want a grimmer grittier version.)

Now that everything’s set up, Steven Moffat has taken over and is charging full bore.  He’s no stranger to following and tying together multiple plot lines, as his Coupling series was the greatest television farce since Fawlty Towers. (That show was perfect, nothing will ever touch it.) The inventor of time as a “Big wibbly wobbly ball of timey whimey stuff” holds nothing back and makes the title of the musical cue present in many episodes, “Next Stop Everywhere” amazingly appropriate.  Just the River Song relationship in reverse directions alone provides enough “headaches in a good way” interactions to insure years of viewing pleasure.
They remembered his nickname of "Theta Sigma".  Squeeeee!
Go back and watch “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” now and see how many references to the past two seasons are in there…the man can plan, but each episode still stands alone as a good story.

Both writers have taken more advantage of the time travel inherent in the show to go back to an idea from the series’ earliest days- actually meeting historical figures.  Some of them cleverly explain real life events (Agatha Christie) some are filled with ontological paradoxes (Shakespeare) and some, like the Van Gogh episode, are all about what should be possible…and that one served up some of the most powerful emotional wallops a TV program can deliver.

The best of humanity.
As I said, emotions abound with the companions in the new series as well.   Delving deeper into their lives and connections in and out of the TARDIS builds a greater bond with the audience.  First we had the relationship with Rose, followed by its aftereffects with the unrequited affections of Martha, and finally Donna illustrating why, even unromantically, the Doctor has a very strong need for his companions. 

Saving the world with love, twice, but always with a scientific explanation.
The Eleventh Doctor, after some childish flirting, plays much more of a match maker, and family builder with his companions and others he meets (Craig and Sophie, Ambrose, Mo and Elliot,  Ganger Jimmy and Adam, Canton Delaware’s wedding, Henry and Toby Avery, the Children of Starship UK).

So cute, gotta love 'em.
Moffat has created an epic romance for the ages with Amy and Rory.
Theirs is a love so strong, that bending and breaking of time, space and the universe itself can’t erase it. 

The irrepressable Amelia Pond.
Amy is one of the most active companions to travel in the TARDIS. Besides her connection to the crack in the universe, she’s also the first companion to articulate that the Doctor is her best friend. (On camera, Elizabeth Sladen stated she played her role that way in interviews.)  She’s demonstrated herself to be observant (understanding the space whale by comparing it to the doctor), resourceful (surviving the handbots for thirty six years and building a sonic screwdriver), compassionate (befriending and caring for Vincent) and strong willed (“My Boys!”)  It’s unsurprising that she often comes out on top in whatever version of reality she finds herself in.

And I don’t want to hear anyone equating Rory with Mickey anymore, outside of the standard abuse the Doctor heaps on his male traveling companions, hearkening back to his impatience with Ian, up through and beyond, “HARRY SULLIVAN IS AN IMBECILE!” They are very different.  Mickey did become a hero, and served as a textbook example of how normal people become better after having met the Doctor.  However, he still gave up Rose and anchored himself to Earth, albeit another dimension’s version.  Rory, initially, would have never travelled in the TARDIS, but he refused to give up Amy, even when the opposition was a fun filled genius offering the universe who she’s been obsessed with her whole life.  He also pays enough attention to learn from previous encounters with the Doctor and his world, making him unphased by things like, “It’s bigger on the inside,” and “shrink ray”.   Mickey should also not be equated to “the tin dog” as he will never come close to the awesomeness that is K-9.
Good Dog...Affirmative, Master.
Rory also serves a very important purpose.  Matt Smith’s story arcs have been bringing up what’s been called the “Batmanification” of the Doctor.  The idea that he is such a powerful enemy that the Doctor actually creates the threats that he feels compelled to fight against.  Sticking with that analogy: If the Doctor is Batman, Rory is Dick Grayson.  The fact that Dick was rescued and raised by Batman as Robin, and then grew up to be Nightwing, one of the most well respected and socially connected members of the DC Universe shows that Batman’s methods work, and he’s doing the right thing.  The same is true for the Doctor’s influence, and not only for leading Rory to become “the Last Centurion” and a hero in his own right. The Doctor was also greatly responsible for “Rory the Nurse”.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, look ridiculous.
While at the start of his adventures in the TARDIS, Rory was mostly concerned with his and Amy’s safety, the more time he spent with the Doctor, the more he showed himself to be the most compassionate and understanding of any given group in a storyline, extending his protective and caring side even to beings the other humans wouldn’t accept, such as the Silurians and Gangers.  Rory tended to be the only one to catch on that very often the monsters were people, and the people who couldn't get past intolerance and ignorance were the real monsters.

The New Who Crew.
The companions are given much elevated status in the new series, and that is important.  They are not only the contact point for the viewer; they should also be the main source of inspiration.  None of us can really be the Doctor; he’s over idealized in too many ways. (Granted, I do steal many of his mannerisms when giving sales people a tour of the engineering labs…He’s a perfect example of instilling appreciation in others for things they don’t quite understand.)  It’s the companions who set the example for us. 

A man with a blue box appears offering you all of time and space, but he’s leaving right now…
Open invitation.
Do you make up every mundane reason in your life to hold you back? 

Or are you brave enough to go?

I may sound like I’m gushing over the Eleventh Doctor, and I am. It’s not that I’ve changed my opinion of having a favorite though.  I do admit that his first fully formed “I am the Doctor” moment from “The Eleventh Hour” is by far the best, eclipsing my previous choice: Colin Baker’s fantastic rebuttal to all the "I don't like him"s of the world. 
"I am the Doctor...whether you like it, or not."
The reason I'm gushing about Matt Smith has very little to do with me.  My daughter watched the show with us back in the Sci Fi days, but was too young to really get it.  It only served as one of many influences kids latch on to in order to confuse their parents.  The horrifying Weeping Angels were her absolute favorite. She created a game called “Don’t Blink” based on them; kind of a combination of “Red Light, Green Light” and “Peek a Boo”.  However, she was completely terrified for weeks by the goofy looking “Green Piggy” in “Love and Monsters”. 

But now she’s old enough to watch the show with same the mixture of fascination and nervousness of many previous generations of children. (If we watch at lunch time, we have to poke her to get her to eat during the suspenseful parts.)  The only thing she put into her purse for my cousin’s wedding was a marker she claimed was her “Sonic Screwdriver”. She’s talked several other kids to referring to the place under the jungle gym as “The TARDIS”. Also, she recently warned me to stand back or she’d push the self destruct button while holding a plastic cookie that looked suspiciously like a Jammy Dodger.    
The most dangerous confection since Jelly Babies.
Due to the timely arrival of BBC America and Netflix, she got up to speed with the Tennant specials, and then followed excitedly through the Eleventh Doctor’s two seasons.

Therefore, she calls Matt Smith: “My Doctor.”
That's my girl.
See you at the Christmas Special.



MOM said...

This insightful and wonderful homage to Doctor Who shows why it lasted 48 years.
You examples of "same guy who does a great deal of unchanging with a keen application of intellect, scientific explanations, and the importance of emotion and free will" is equal to how the show has worked all these years.
But the real reason I am writting is to tell Anabelle what a great job you did on your picture. I love the reference to "Timey, Whimey" and your Tardis is terrific.
Like Father - Like Daughter
Fantastic job - times 2.
Love, Grandma

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx for the compliments and posting. More importantly thanx for providing confirmation proof about Doctor Who displaying that the show can have multiple generations of the family all being fans. Thanx again from Anabelle too!

anabelle said...

Thank you for putting MY picture on the blog. I also liked the "doctor + doctor = doctor" part. Who is in the Sarah Jane picture (basides Sarah Jane and Luke)? thank you-anabelle

Jeff McGinley said...

You're welcome kiddo, and thanx for drawing it. The rest of the kids are neighbors and friends that help Sarah Jane and Luke on their adventures. I think you cant help seeing aspects of the other Doctors in each one...and they all have a bit of the first.

Dina Roberts said...

I like the "Fascist Pepper Mills". When I'm in the mode of not being into Doctor Who, I can't understand why I'd like a show with such silly looking and sounding villains. Then when I'm into the show, I'm terrified of the Daleks and Cyberman. And very emotionally stressed.

Okay...going to continue reading....May comment more later.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thank you Dina, and enjoy. It's one of the great abilities of the show to send legions of children (and adults) hiding behind the sofa from often ridiculous looking monsters due to amazing writing.

Dina Roberts said...

I like your imprinting theory.

"Simultaneously being enamored by the best of humanity and enraged by the worst" Very good way of describing it. I think 13 was very good at expressing this. The others as well, I'm sure. It's just she's most in my memory.

I think my favorite thing about the series is the relationship between the Doctor and the companions...all the emotional drama. So based on what you're saying, I probably wouldn't like the old series as much.

Jeff McGinley said...

Frequently the closest I have to a "favorite Doctor" is "whoever I've watched the most recently.

You may like the old ones or at least some of them, they're pretty varied. You need to be able to see past (or enjoy in my case) the low tech and often cheesy effects. The relationship between the Doctor and the companions is still strong. It's that you don't get to see the effect on the people the left behind and what their connections were to their home life. They're just in the TARDIS...until they don't want to, or can't be.

thanx again for reading!