November 25, 2013 by brettdgale
I can’t remember the first time I saw Doctor Who. It was just always there – a part of my childhood ritual airing at 6.30 every weeknight straight after we’d finished dinner.
Given the original delays in ABC screenings, Jon Pertwee was my first Doctor, but Tom Baker was my Doctor.
With long scarf and equally long locks he was my introduction to the world of science fiction. And more importantly, to the possibilities of television as a medium for storytelling. We all go gaga over the narrative feats of Game of Thrones, Treme or The Wire yet we forget that hidden among us for 50 years has been a remarkable narrative arc and a triumph of storytelling.
The success of Doctor Who lies in story telling. Yes sometimes, (sometimes? probably oftentimes) the special effects were dodgy (although to be fair within its limited budgets the show has always reflected the advancing nature of TV special effects) and the acting was hammy, but the stories were the thing.
Stories simply bursting with ideas, sampling memes and cultural tropes from hither and yon: from gothic horror to classic fairy tales, from historical re-enactments to classic science fiction archetypes.
Stories that wrapped beneath the veneer of a simple adventure of heroes battling monsters, are really an exploration of big philosophical themes – from the uses and abuses of science and technology, through the ethically grey zones of what makes good and evil, to the nature of time itself, and the nature of personal identity.
The other the reason for the show’s longevity lies in the simple (yet complex to pull off) ability to regenerate itself (as well of course of its main character), to constantly adapt to new institutional and cultural contexts, to follow Darwin’s suggestions and evolve with the times.
Thus, the resurrection of Doctor Who in 2005 was sheer genius on behalf of the BBC. It came at just the right time for nostalgia hungry Gen X’ers like myself. Those of us who’d watched the show in its Pertwee/Baker Golden Years had now entered that phase of our lives when the drudgery of working for a living gave us a hankering for the joyous parts of our youth. Lo and behold, along comes Christopher Eccleston with a sardonic Gen X approach to saving the planet and a reminder of what we’d loved about being a kid.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Christopher Eccleston single-handedly saved Doctor Who from the scrap heap of time – we did but see him passing by but will love him until we die.
And now Doctor Who is 50 (the show that is, not the Doctor himself who is of course somewhere around 1,200 years old, give or take a few years) .
Thus it was with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation that I and millions of others sat down to watch the TV event of the year – the 50th Anniversary special. TV rarely if ever (and Doctor Who itself is no exception) successfully pulls off Anniversary specials and yet The Day of The Doctor all but managed to achieve the impossible. It was a classy well-made story with enough homage to series history to make even the most die-hard “Whovian” happy. And of course to see the 79 year old Tom Baker brought goose bumps.
Since its inception Doctor Who has managed a unique TV feat – both ‘cult’ and ‘mainstream’ at the same time. This duality of love would not have diminished one iota with The Day of the Doctor.
The importance of the “Doctor” in TV’s pantheon is excellently captured in Professor James Chapman’s Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who (I knew you were waiting for a book reference). This is the definitive history of a television icon. It’s a lovely social history of a much loved TV show, placing Doctor Who in the context of both the development of TV as a cultural medium and of wider societal changes. The first edition of the book that I’ve got only takes us up until the show’s resurrectionary season in 2005. I’d be keen to see what Chapman has to say about Tennant and Smith. A new version has been released to mark the 50th anniversary, so its Book Depository here I come again, credit card at the ready.
Of course Doctor Who is not just about its role in the sweep of TV and cultural history, it’s also about the fans. Steve Berry’s Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who is a wonderful collection of memories of those (such as the great Neil Gaiman) who’ve had a life-long love affair with show.
And no self-respecting Doctor Who fan can exit a piece such as without giving an opinion on the best ofs – so, here’s mine.
Favourite Doctor: This was tough, for 30 years it was Tom Baker but it has to be David Tennant.
Favourite Companion: Rose with a special mention for Clara, Romana I and the childlike fun of K-9.
Favourite Monster: Impossible to go past the Nazi inspired Daleks with their will to power and genocidal tendencies, but in terms of psychological fear it’s a close run thing between (the admittedly two dimensional) Cybermen – who mark the absolute triumph of our manic desire for medical research to indefinitely prolong physical life – and, The Weeping Angels – the bogeyman in your closet come to life, the fear of closing your eyes or turning your back become real.
Favorite Episodes: Genesis of the Daleks and The Keys to Time series from the classic years. Of the most recent regeneration I can’t go past most of the episodes with the Daleks in them, particularly Dalek and the truly creepy The Dalek Asylum. Given my own literary heroes special mention to The Unquiet Dead with its Charles Dickens role and The Shakespeare Code (about you know who).
You know, despite the content of this blog post, I actually wouldn’t consider myself a “Whovian”, ( yes I did line up for hours to see Tom Baker when I was 11, but it’s not like I’ve ever attempted to make my own Tardis or anything). However, the Doctor Who of my prime viewing days – the Pertwee, Baker and Davidson trio – has always stayed with me and given me some of my most beloved TV viewing events. 40 years on its still doing the same. It truly is impossible to think of any other TV show that could come close to lasting for 50 years.
And,…. ok enough of the bullshit – Doctor Who is also just damn good fun.