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Learning to love the Doctor

2008.08.13 — Entertainment | Television | by Andrew Cole

Doctor Who

The tenth Doctor, David Tennant, and his blue box. [source]

As an American, I have viewed it as my civic duty to ignore and even sneer at Doctor Who, the perpetual British adventure series that has never broken thru in the US. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, I viewed the snippets I saw of old Who from the Tom Baker era (the fourth Doctor) and later as sad and silly. Sure the girls were pretty (not 'arf, mate), but the sets were cheap and the robots looked like they were designed to be janitors rather than warriors. But then along came a little podcast called Fantragic.

Fantragic is the podcast offshoot of MMM Commentaries, an Australian team of movie and TV commenters that I have enjoyed for a long time. Fantragic is ostensibly about science fiction in general, but ends up being about half Doctor Who. It was by listening to Fantragic that I decided to record a few episodes of the new Doctor Who series on my DVR (it's on the Sci-Fi channel and BBC America).

The new Who launched in 2005 after about 15 years of languishing in reruns (there was a TV movie in 1996, but this was a failed attempt to restart the series after its real end in 1989). The new series starred popular actor Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor and popular singer Billie Piper as his new traveling companion. Eccleston only lasted one season (13 1-hour episodes), which was apparently all he wanted to do in the first place, and was replaced by Scottish actor David Tennant, who quickly made the role his own. The show has finished its fourth season now, with a cliff-hanging ending that could go anywhere.

The ingenious idea of Doctor Who is that he has the ability to regenerate into a new body when he is at or near death.

The ingenious idea of Doctor Who is that, as a (non-human) time lord, he has the ability to regenerate into a new body when he is at or near death. This allows the Doctor (and also his time lord nemesis, the Master) to continue in another actor's body. And it allows for more suspense in the story, since the viewer knows that the Doctor could "die" at any time and the next actor might not be as much fun.

He and his traveling companion or companions travel thru space and time in a 1950s police telephone call box, which was a sort of tiny field office for constables on patrol in the days before squad cars and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. It's really his space/time ship called a "TARDIS" but the "chameleon circuit" malfunctioned when he was visiting earth in the 1960s (coincidentally, this happened in the very first episode in 1963), so now it's stuck. But don't worry, it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

The Doctor has taken a liking to 20th and 21st century Britain for reasons of his own, and most of his adventures take place there. There are references to flashy—and expensive to film—otherworldly adventures (and vacations), but they aren't the ones we see. There are also references to a Time War that wiped out the other time lords, which had been seen in the classic series occasionally giving missions to the Doctor; now the Doctor bounces around space-time, doing as he pleases and fighting bad guys wherever he finds them... or they find him.

Tennant takes every turn in stride, musing comically about Earth customs, or glaring grimly as he initiates some mad villain's demise.

Christopher Eccleston was a fine new Doctor, kind of brawny and tough, but Tennant is better still. He's tall and wiry, with a natural quizzical expression and the ability to turn ice cold in a moment. Eccleston always seemed forced in the lighter moments, of which Doctor Who has many, but Tennant takes every turn in stride, popping on some nerdtastic spectacles for computer work, cavalierly whipping out his "sonic screwdriver" for fiddling, musing comically about Earth customs, or glaring grimly as he initiates some mad villain's demise.

The tone of the new Doctor Who is usually much spookier and scarier than I ever noticed when catching a glimpse of the classic series. The Fantragic/MMM crew and others (Tachyon TV from England and now the Podcast of Impossible Things from Wales) talk about how they hid behind the couch as children watching classic Who. Having gone back to watch a few classic episodes, I find the acting and writing very good and the atmosphere fairly eerie, but not as scary as the new series. The show is aimed at children, and is immensely popular in Britain and Australia with pre-teens but also with adults (all the podcasters above are adult males). It's on in prime time on Saturdays and is considered family viewing, so there's no sex, swearing, or bloody violence to speak of (there's plenty of death ray zapping, tho).

That's not to say that the Doctor doesn't get a turn at the ladies now and then.

That's not to say that the Doctor doesn't get a turn at the ladies now and then. Billie Piper's Rose fell hard for him and he for her. But Freema Agyeman's Martha found her adoration unrequited and Catherine Tate's Donna found him reluctant as well. Meanwhile, the Doctor made goo-goo eyes at Madame Pompadour, an early 20th century boarding school matron, and Kylie Minogue (as a cruise ship cocktail waitress). He traveled with a few men also, but much more reluctantly, including Rose's sometime boyfriend, a foolish computer technician who got the boot, and even a randy bisexual time agent from the 51st century.

The bisexual time agent—"Captain" Jack Harkness—is part of an on-going "gay agenda" that fans joke about. Executive producer and primary writer Russell T Davies (pronounced "Davis") is very out and proud and quite deliberately plants gay characters in his stories. Fans (especially the Tachyon guys) sometimes joke that even the slightest male camaraderie is part of Davies' gay agenda.

Most important, the new Who deftly avoids the major problem of the old Who: lack of money.

Most important, the new Who deftly avoids the major problem of the old Who: lack of money. British television productions, even one as beloved as Doctor Who, just don't have the funding for American-style special effects. However, The Mill, which provides the computer effects, works wonders for the show, sometimes (to listen to the show's official commentaries) working more for love than for money. And the creature effects and set design are more than adequate to suspend disbelief—altho some of the robots still look like janitors (you can't mess with canon).

Even so, knowledgeable fans can still poke fun at cost-cutting measures at times when they become obvious: having too few monsters on-screen, setting stories in and around contemporary Cardiff, where filming is done (the Doctor says that Cardiff happens to be a kind of cosmic gas station for the TARDIS), and filming in quarries and endless corridors. America has big back lots, forests, mountains, and open desert where alien landscapes can be simulated; Britain has only quarries and rolling meadows to choose from.

It's remarkable to think that Doctor Who has been popular more or less continuously for nearly 50 years.

It's remarkable to think that Doctor Who has been popular more or less continuously for nearly 50 years (even while the TV series was off the air, there were books and radio shows that carried on). That doesn't compare to Batman or Superman, let alone to Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes, but it certainly puts it in their rarified company.

So why hasn't it ever crossed over to America? Poor marketing, I suspect. The BBC just hasn't tried marketing the Doctor to North Americans. In part, I suspect they don't want to. They already gave us Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, after all. Perhaps they really just want to keep the Doctor for themselves.

 

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