Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Doctor Who: The beginnings of a retrospective

When I was about 4 years old, during a family vacation, a teen friend of the family insisted flipping on PBS on a certain day and hour, to watch something with weird swirly credits and a dapper man in an old fashioned outfit, who was very intent on stopping an infestation of giant maggots (ew). This vague memory of Doctor Who's "The Green Death" imprinted itself on my mind, with both its horrific and fantastical aspects. A few years later, my sister and I rebelliously stayed up late Saturday nights to watch Doctor Who on PBS, which at the time was showing Tom Baker and then Peter Davison's episodes. It seemed like fantasy one moment, such as with the castles and vampires of "State of Decay," and amazing science fiction the next, such as with the alien ark on "Four to Doomsday." And though I am not always a fan of horror, the horrific elements were what really drew me in--specifically, watching Tegan be slowly seduced and possessed by the Mara in "Kinda" reeled me in and transformed me from casual watcher to complete obsessive. Tegan was eventually freed from possession; I was not at the age of 11 and still to this day at 37, am not. I have relished my "Whovian" status throughout.

Doctor Who is, as you very likely know, on its way to celebrating its 50th anniversary in November; we also have about 36 seasons plus a series of specials and one TV movie, which is ground- and record- breaking for a science-fiction series. There is much to be celebrated and admired, and all because someone had the brilliant idea for the series: "grumpy but amazing madman in box can travel anywhere." Absolute emphasis on "anywhere." I love the line very early in the series that mentions the Doctor's TARDIS being able to travel "forwards, backwards, and sideways" in time and space. The very idea of "sideways in time and space" is brilliant, and frankly the potential of that last bit still has been barely untapped.

I have the grand intention of writing a retrospective series; having ADD of the type that helps me be an expert and dedicated procrastinator, what I actually accomplish related to this is questionable, to be frank. But we shall at least have this introductory piece, yes? Perhaps I will manage later to fold time sideways and get all my other intended actions in eventually.

Anyway, what I wish to do is explore Doctor Who from the beginning, exploring a few key chosen episodes of each Doctor, and as the muse speaks, perhaps some of the companions, foes, and other major elements of the series as well. Because I am a longtime oldschool Whovian, I will get tetchy and critical of seemingly unimportant minutia, as that is a requirement for the job. But I will also endeavor to express my deep love for the series whenever possible, and at length--and moreover, to point out the silver linings in clouds sometimes mocked, if not for their darkness, then for their shoddy craftmanship and purported shallowness.

A critical thing to accept when enjoying Doctor Who through its half a century of existence is that it, like the Doctor himself, is ever changing and evolving and looking and acting just a little bit different. At the beginning, it was a children's show with the intent to educate about science and history folded within its imaginative premises. In the 70s, it went from near military-action-drama to horror series, to a light hearted-sci fi with satiric elements. When I became a fan in the 80s, in the United States at least it was seen as a cult show for largely nerdy teens and adults (even if the BBC increasingly outdatedly classified it as children's entertainment, even when it wasn't really majority children who were watching it worldwide). Perhaps we can agree (although that's unlikely, given Whovians seldom agree on anything) that it is now a science-fiction dramedy, written with the intent to appeal to littles and bigs alike. I think it's rather a great fallacy to point at one era and say "Now that's Doctor Who! But that, that bit, that isn't at all"--to do so would be like pointing at Matt Smith and saying he is the Doctor, but that Tom Baker never was. Doctor Who is a huge and changing and sometimes a confusing timey-wimey ball of stuff, but it needs to be accepted for all that it is to be appreciated fully. This doesn't mean we can't dislike or disagree with it at times, but all of its times and relative dimensions must be taken in and accepted as part of the greater whole. What is truly amazing about the series is that for as old as it is and as much of it has changed, how much we can still recognize its commonalities, its unique and otherwise indescribable "Doctorness" that makes it the magical series that it is.

This last bit I point out in particular because of course Matt Smith has announced that he will be passing on the Doctor's mantle. This of course has already led to the wailing and gnashing of teeth and clutching of pearls that NO ONE will ever play the Doctor as well as Matt Smith, forgetting that exactly the same thing was said about David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston and Paul McGann (check out his Big Finish audios if you can) and Sylvester McCoy and... well, you get the idea. And inevitably, just as they've done probably since 1966, or at least 1969, speculated that the Doctor will be a woman, or a person of color, or an actual alien, or be played by a felt puppet worn on Stephen Moffat's hand. When it most likely turns out to be a white British (most likely English with a passing chance of Scottish) male somewhere between the age of 25 and 50, I will not be able to find it in myself to be outraged, let alone surprised. But here's the thing, whether the Doctor is the white British male or, say, a 78 year old Lakota woman, for example, I trust that the showrunners will have evaluated the actor first and foremost for "Doctorness." And that the one with the most "Doctorness" will win the part. And I don't really care what he or she looks or sounds like as long as that is the primary criterion.

As I may inevitably be asked, who is my favorite Doctor? For the record, Joanna Lumley.

(And if you do not get that, PLEASE do yourself a favor and Google the "Curse of Fatal Death.")

My favorite companion is any and all of them who tell the Doctor off when he needs to be.

My favorite enemy is the Rani, and I frequently pray for her return. My favorite alien race... a harder item to pick, but I think I'll go with Alpha Centauri's race from the "Peladon" episodes back in the Third Doctor era. I used to like the Weeping Angels, but I got a little tired of them.

And for the record, Daleks, with few exceptions, have and I expect always shall utterly bore me to the point of narcolepsy. If you consider this a blasphemy, I may outrage you in future installments. If you can forgive me, and I do get around to talking about Doctor Who more, read on next time.