Sunday, October 14, 2012

Reminiscence--How I Met The Doctor

I was living in England with my mother, going to school in Penzance as a day student. We lived in the end unit of a row house—stone houses, streets, little gardens—just as you might imagine a British working class neighborhood. We had just moved out of an artsy Mousehole hotel to less expensive Newlyn, to the last building on the top of the hill above the harbor. Behind us was a field with dairy cows and a stubby, well-worn stone circle, through which I walked every morning, taking the back way over the headland into Penzance and my school.

We rented our telly and paid license fees, like everyone else on the street, and I began watching my first regular doses of English entertainment. It was black and white in those days, the content different from what I’d been used to in the States.
William Hartnell

I only saw two shows containing the original Doctor. Although I remember enjoying the story, it was never completely clear to me what the heck was going on. I remember being thrilled to realize that this show was not only about history—and with costumes which were actually period correct  (astonishing in and of itself,  as this was the early sixties)—but also about the science fiction notion of time travel. The Doctor and his two companions eventually escaped from trouble inside a little blue box, the kind I’d seen standing, dusty and unused, on street corners here and there throughout British cities.

Well, wow! Stories about history and time travel all in one show!  The main character was not only mysterious, aged and professorial, but a little sinister, too, as if he was not entirely to be trusted. As someone who liked fantasy and science fiction but who had always loved reading about famous characters in history, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Unfortunately, no matter how much I waited for it, I never saw any more than those two shows. Soon Mom and I pulled up stakes again and headed for Barbados. (In those days, there was no TV in the West Indies.)

It was years later that The Doctor and I reconnected. My kids and I were sitting on the floor together watching PBS on our Zenith, also parked on the floor. (In those days furniture was something of a luxury.)  An odd British import began. Lo and behold--there was my time traveler and his blue box! Of course, the original doctor had gone. The new one was still domineering and mysterious, but far less of a stuffy old professor. Instead he now appeared to be in his forties, with a mod head of curly hair and clothes by way of Carnaby Street. He might have just stepped out of The Yellow Submarine.


John Pertwee, mortal enemy & friends

Okay, I thought, I’ll go with the flow. My brief, earlier acquaintance with that absent-minded elderly Doctor was still lingering in my cranial filing cabinet. This, I realized, would be a great show for the kids to watch while I made dinner. (In those days 30 Minute Meals was not a marketable idea, just the way everybody cooked, especially if Mom worked the day shift.)     
Doctor Who has always had rather tacky visuals. I was told by someone long ago that the Doctor’s eternal enemy, the Daleks, were actually tarted up shop vacs, hence their distinctive sloping can shape. (However, do remember that Twilight Zones weren’t all that much better. And what ‘60’s Trekkie can forget the embarrassing Gorn?) As a childhood watcher of s/f on TV—Captain Video, anyone?—I knew my imagination would do most of the work. if the concept was interesting, my brain would take it from there, just as it did when I read. Good actors and an involving story could carry off almost anything, because, as Hamlet says “the play’s the thing.” British actors, trained for the job, are, at least, skilled craftsmen, and adept at making theatrical magic happen with even the most minimal sets and effects.

After my boys became fans, almost immediately there came a change in Doctors, as reported to me by my oldest son. He  was about equally disturbed and intrigued that the hero in a series might abruptly become someone else, all while essentially playing (more or less) the same character. This new Doctor immediately caught my eye—perhaps because his clothes were no longer Victorian mod, but thrift store trippy.

Tom Baker

 The hat, the scarf, the manic manner, the comic timing, his diction, and his “silly walks”—Baker was a talking, Oxford-educated Harpo Marx . The kids, and their Mom too, adored Baker, and we watched the show faithfully during those years.   My youngest son begged his aunt to knit him a floor-sweeping Whovian scarf for Christmas, and we hunted used clothing stores for a cool old hat to go with it.

 Time passed for us, as it never quite does in the TARDIS. The kids got older and began to lose interest when the Doctor regenerated next. We never entirely warmed to the handsome, dapper Peter Davidson with his question marks and 1890s university cricketer’s garb. We drifted away.

Years went by. The kids grew up and had kids of their own. I went gray. One night, worn out by the local news, I looked for something else to watch at 5 o’clock and found BBC America.

 KA-ZAM! There he was, a brand new Doctor! This show clearly had a budget and  enjoyed the benefit of the CG revolution. Somewhere in the hiatus, our hoary old Doctor had become a “valuable BBC property.”


Christopher Eccelston & intrepid shopgirl, Rose


This new Doctor was different in a lot of ways, at first shockingly so. For one thing, he was an imposing guy with a buzz cut who wore black leather. Yikes! He also had a strong Northern working- class accent, far removed from the mad intellectual elitists of the past. I always wondered if this Doctor was working on his bike somewhere among the myriad rooms of the “bigger on the inside” TARDIS…

 Christopher Eccelston only gave the series 13 episodes, but I LOVED him. He was an excellent choice for the Doctor’s 21st Century revival, the ninth reincarnation of the mystery man. This was a visceral, dangerous Doctor—as well as being unpredictable and wizard-wise.  The new scripting, too, was exciting, the best writing yet, while firmly grounded in the tradition of the series.
Romance for the Doctor and his companion was another innovation that was a GOOD THING, adding some spice to the character’s lonely Flying Dutchman persona. (The “Companions” have been shorted in this reminiscence, but they’ve always been an integral part of the Whovian equation.) Rose Tyler and The Doctor shared the series’ first kiss. It was an electric moment.

 David Tennant

All too soon, here came a new Doctor—and, I confess, my favorite. Bring on Doctor #10, the exciting David Tennant, an admitted “fan-boy” from childhood. Here we had a bi-polar Doctor, a veritable road runner on speed, wearing a duster, a shiny suit, and Converse sneakers.  This Doctor exhibited a ferocious brand of fey, peppered with world-weariness and pessimism, all of it wrapped up inside one skinny 900+ year old Time Lord. Gilbert & Sullivan couldn’t write better patter than Steven Moffat and Russell Davies, and their Doctor—and the rest of the fine ensemble--delivered the goods.

 Regeneration into #11, and new writers have sent the show on a Matrix-out-of-Stephen-King turn. I’m slow to warm to this new Doctor, Matt Smith. All I can say for now is that like Merlin, the character seems to be aging backwards. The bow-tie-tweed jacket bit, however, seems to be a retro turn intoThe Doctor’s “academic” past.  

Doctor Who is quirky, by turns scary or silly, and sometimes it's dark and intellectual. It’s also shamelessly self-referential, and full of puns plus literary, scientific and topical allusions which I adore. From Pratchett to Monty Python to comedies like "Doc Martin" & "Shaun of the Dead," from forms as low as Pantomime and high as Shakespeare, all that’s delightful, witty and wise--in British entertainment is woven together in


Doctor Who, Greatest Show in the Galaxy.