Back in 2007, I caught an episode of the recently revived Doctor Who on our local PBS station and was instantly hooked on the series. I went out and bought the first two seasons of the series on impulse, though I almost regretted it when I watched the episodes with farting aliens. When I ran out of new episodes, I hit the library and borrowed episodes of the classic series, which took a while to get into since they were so cheesy. However, whenever I tried to discuss my new-found obsession, I was met with confused expressions. People who did recognize the title were familiar with both the new and old series.
Now whenever I mention it, most people have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. This probably has a lot to do with the publicity push when Matt Smith took over the role of the Doctor. I remember catching commercials on local and cable channels, as well as NBC’s Today Show and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson featuring segments on the series. Doctor Who is still not as big here in the states as, Star Trek, but it’s gotten bigger.
For those of you who still don’t know, Doctor Who is a British science fiction series about the adventures the Doctor, a member of an advanced race of humanoids known as the Time Lords, who have mastered time travel. He’s 1000 years old and has met practically every important figure in history and been a part of almost every important event, whether he wanted to or not (Pompeii, anyone?) Despite some of the dangers he has encountered, he usually meets each of his adventures enthusiastically, even if half the time it doesn’t end well for the people he meets, the people who travel with him, his enemies, or even himself. He usually tries a non-violent approach to the problem even against violent enemies. His considerable wit, his words, and whatever tools he has at hand, usually the wand-like multi-tool called the Sonic Screwdriver, are his primary weapons.
The ship he travels in is called the TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. It is a sentient time travel pod which appears on the outside like an old police telephone box, but, as many of his traveling companions will attest, it is “bigger on the inside.” It doesn’t do much actual space travel, usually appearing and disappearing from one point to another. The travel itself is rarely smooth and the destination isn’t always what the Doctor plans; sometimes they’ll arrive decades to centuries earlier than he intended, sometimes in the right year but wrong country, and rarely even on the right planet. This was finally explained after several decades that the TARDIS doesn’t take him where he wants to go, but to where he needs to go.
He rarely travels alone. He picks up worthy companions during his adventures. Most originate from contemporary Earth, though occasionally he has people join him from different time periods. He’s had all sorts of characters travel with him, including his granddaughter and a couple of her school teachers, various very human-looking aliens, a few robotic dogs, two incarnations of the same Time Lady, a woman who could have secretly been a banshee, a hip teenage explosives expert, and even his future in-laws. Having become lonely and jaded over time, he prefers to share the wonders of the universe with fresh eyes. Emotionally scarred from facing the annihilation of his entire race, he may subconsciously realize that he needs someone to stop him from going too far.
Despite his long life, he has died on numerous occasions. Unlike humans, Time Lords have the ability to regenerate upon death, a fairly traumatic process that changes the cells in their body, altering their appearance, while leaving their knowledge and memory mostly intact. This, obviously, makes it easier for new actors to take over the role while giving them the leeway to portray the Doctor with their own personality and sense of fashion. It’s kind of like the actors who’ve played James Bond except with an explanation why they don’t look like the other fellow.
Regeneration is painful in so many ways.
This method of resurrection, combined with time travel, has led to the meeting of his various incarnations. Events like this are rare, usually requiring someone behind the scenes, whether good or bad, to set the event in motion. Most notable are the stories “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors,” the series’ 10th and 20th Anniversary specials, respectfully. These stories tend to be very entertaining, with the various Doctors bickering with each other, annoying another Doctor’s companions, and eventually teaming up to solve the problem of the day. Sadly, series favorite Tom Baker declined to have a proper role in “The Five Doctors.”
The Daleks, the universe’s greatest threat
Naturally, he has made a number of enemies along the way, some very powerful with their sights set on universal conquest. The most famous and certainly the most iconic are the Daleks, a race of genocidal mutants who travel in machines that look like giant salt shakers while screaming at the top of their mechanized voices “EXTERMINATE!” Another group of familiar foes are the Cybermen, who were once much like mankind at one point before shifting to cybernetics in order to survive, which has apparently made them deathly allergic to gold. And then there is the Master, a rival Time Lord and perhaps the Doctor’s best enemy, who usually is out for universal domination when not trying to find some way of extending his life.
The series began its very long run on November 23, 1963, originally as an educational program aimed at children focusing on history while occasionally dabbling in science. This was eventually phased out, changing over to mostly science fiction even when historical elements were present. The series was played out in the form of serials rather than stand-alone episodes, with stories covered in arcs of several half-hour long episodes. On average, these stories last maybe four episodes, though some much longer, such as the 12-part epic “The Daleks’ Master Plan.”
Sadly, due to practices of the time, the BBC erased footage for a number of the first two Doctors, after airing them once. Over 100 episodes, including nine of “The Daleks Master Plan” and a good portion of Patrick Troughton’s run were, essentially, lost. The audio for the episodes still survive, so attempts to have been made to make the stories accessible, from using surviving stills to animation. However, episodes will occasionally be discovered, like the recent recovery of most episodes of “The Web of Fear” and the entirety of “The Enemy of the World.” 106 episodes recently turned up in Ethiopia.
The concept of regeneration came about when William Hartnell left the role at end of “The Tenth Planet,” the same story that introduced the Cybermen. Since then, nearly a dozen actors have taken over the role. The length of each Doctor’s reign depends on how long the actor decides to play the role, which has been usually somewhere between three or four seasons. Colin Baker’s run was only two seasons because of the series’ lackluster performance at the time, while Christopher Eccleston’s one season run was mostly because of happenings behind-the-scenes. Tom Baker has the longest run of any of the Doctors, with a whopping seven seasons under his belt. He is considered by many to be THE Doctor because of the length of his run, as well as his insanely long scarf and his comical mannerisms; it probably helps that science fiction writer Douglas Adams was a script editor for a season during Baker’s run.
The series ended on December 6, 1989 after several tough years, ending with the Seventh Doctor and his companion, Ace, heading off to continue their adventures. A US-made TV movie was made in 1996 as a potential launching point for a new series. It passed the torch on to a new Doctor, who had to match wits with the Master in order to stop the destruction of Earth, and by extension the universe. The movie wasn’t that bad, though several elements introduced didn’t sit well with fans, including the revelation that the Doctor was half-human.
The series was given a proper revival in its home country in 2005, though a number of things had changed. Besides going with now standard 45-minute episodes and season-long arcs, the tone of the series became substantially darker. The Doctor was now the last surviving Time Lord, who had entered into conflict with the Daleks in what was referred to as the Last Great Time War, a war so ugly that the Doctor was forced to destroy both sides to minimize the damage. As a result, he became a darker character, going from goofy, like a number of his predecessors, to downright frightening when things get serious. A small number of Daleks have survived and rebuilt part of their empire, which causes the Doctor to snap, violently, whenever he encounters them. Despite all he’s been through, he keeps traveling, righting any wrongs that he may encounter.
This long-lived series, has developed its own expanded universe, which is made up of hundreds of novels and comics, not to mention unofficial video productions featuring many of the supporting characters. There are also audio productions of Big Finish, which features many of the official Doctors from Tom Baker to Paul McGann as well as their supporting casts. Whether these productions are part of Doctor Who canon is probably up to the reader, although the stories and fates of several characters contradict one another. A character from one of the video productions has appeared in a recent episode, a single line from the recent short “The Night of the Doctor” has potentially made some of the Big Finish stories official, so many things may eventually change and find their way into the series.
There have also been several spin-offs, though not nearly as numerous as Star Trek’s. There are actually three in existence: Torchwood, a darker and more adult oriented show featuring the Ninth Doctor’s companion, Captain Jack Harkness; The Sarah Jane Adventures, a show for aimed at a younger audience featuring Sarah Jane Smith, a companion of both the Third and Fourth Doctors, and K-9, a robotic dog. The final spin-off is K-9 , featuring the aforementioned robotic dog. Both Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures have crossed over with their parent show at some point, with two incarnations of the Doctor appearing on Sarah Jane Adventures. Torchwood and K-9 seem to be on hiatus, while Sarah Jane Adventures met its end with the unexpected death of lead actress Elizabeth Sladen.
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the series. In celebration, two features have been produced: An Adventure in Space and Time, a biopic about the early years of the series, and The Day of the Doctor, a special featuring the return of the David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor as he and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor team-up with a past incarnation, played by John Hurt. The special aired on BBC America on November 23rd with additional 3D viewings in select theaters around the world on both the 23rd and 25th. For those that couldn’t get tickets, there will be a Blu-Ray/DVD combo. You can be sure that I will be adding that combo to my collection.