ReelThoughts: November 23, 2013

"The Golden Doctor"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


The 11 Doctors

Today, November 23, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. In a perfect world, I'd be able to write an eloquent passage putting the show is some sort of cultural context but The Last Whisper of the Gods has constricted my available time. So forgive me if this is a little rambling, but I couldn't let the occasion pass without writing something.

50 years… it's difficult to grasp what it means for anyone whose lifespan is shorter than that. For many who were alive at the time, it's not hard for them to remember what they were doing on November 23, 1963 - after all, it was the day after President Kennedy was murdered. My mother was a young schoolteacher. My father was in the second year of a job for a company that would be his employer until his retirement. They hadn't met yet. By the time I came around, Doctor Who was an active toddler - about the same age as my son is today.

Through the entirety of my life, Doctor Who has always been out there. Granted, I haven't always known about it and it went into hibernation for 16 years, but for me it has always existed. On the day I was born, the program had just finished airing "The Tomb of the Cybermen" and was about to embark upon "The Abominable Snowmen." Patrick Troughton was at his peak in the role.

Although Doctor Who was popular in the U.K. through the '60s and into the '70s, it had a hard time catching on in the United States. During the early '70s, an attempt was made to gain a foothold, but the Jon Pertwee episodes never generated much interest. It took the release of Star Wars to fundamentally change the landscape. Doctor Who got a second chance in 1978 when Time-Life purchased the rights to the first four Tom Baker seasons/series. Time-Life focused its efforts on selling to PBS stations (although there were some commercial sales, most notably Channel 9/WOR out of New York).

My first encounter with the Doctor was on a Monday night in early October 1978. With my appetite whetted for science fiction by Star Wars, I was ready not only for Doctor Who but for Star Trek. I "discovered" them at about the same time. (I'll defer the rhapsodizing about Star Trek for its 50th anniversary in 2016.) That month was a defining one for me - not only did I first watch two TV shows that became longtime companions, but I had my first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons, read The Hobbit, and saw my first issue of Playboy. (And, no, I wasn't interested in reading the articles…)

The first episode of Doctor Who that I saw, Part 2 of "The Ark in Space," left a lasting impression - so lasting, in fact, that it remains clear 35 years later. Sure, the special effects were cheesy - my friends and I sometimes viewed Doctor Who while making snarky, MST3K-type commentary - but the quality of the story and the magnetism of Baker's portrayal were the things that sealed the deal for me.

I started watching regularly - not at once but within a few weeks. The program was on at a convenient time - weeknights at 5:30 pm (a half-hour after Star Trek ended, which gave me 30 minutes for homework - usually all I needed in sixth grade). On Saturday mornings, I could fiddle with the rooftop antenna rotator and pull in the Channel 9 signal, which gave me back-to-back episodes. Needless to say, with seven episodes a week, it didn't take long to get through the 98-episode package offered by Time-Life. But it the pre-VCR era, watching repeats was a pleasure. By the time new episodes became available in late 1981, I had probably seen every story from the Sarah Jane/Leela epoch about six times.

I didn't learn there were other Doctors until I picked up a copy of Doctor Who Magazine in 1980, which trumpeted the casting of Peter Davison. I was bemused by his designation as "the new Doctor." Then, perusing the pages, I learned that Tom Baker wasn't the only Doctor. In fact, he had been preceded by three others. Wow. In the Internet era, it seems strange that I might have been ignorant of this fact for a couple of years of loyal viewing but it certainly explained the rather odd beginning of "Robot," which had always confused me. It also clarified the description of the Doctor from a couple of the paperback books I owned at the time.

It's ironic that the Doctor's popularity in the United States waxed coincident with its waning in the U.K. The home ratings for Tom Baker's final series were disappointing and they didn't get better with Peter Davison's arrival ("Castrovalva" notwithstanding). Across the ocean, however, Doctor Who-mania was in full swing. There were conventions, fan clubs, and new packages of episodes. Lionheart, the '80s distributor, not only made the final three Baker series available, but the sold the first series of Davison and a limited number of Jon Pertwee episodes.

If I was to pick the year when my excitement about Doctor Who was at its peak, it was 1983. That was the year, as a junior in high school, that I lobbied my parents to stay up nightly until 11:30 - late considering I had to leave at 7:30 for school. But our local PBS station put Doctor Who on nightly at 11:00 and these were all episodes (Davison, Pertwee) I had never before seen. Technically, they were over at 11:25, but I usually stayed up for a few extra minutes to watch Jack Horkheimer's "Star Hustler."

Then, in November, there was "The Five Doctors." Through a quirk of scheduling, it became the only Doctor Who episode ever shown in the United States before the U.K. We got it on the 20th anniversary, November 23, 1983 (the day before Thanksgiving). It was delayed by two days in its home country so it could be shown as part of the "Children in Need" charity event. Of course, pre-Internet, we didn't find out about our luck until later.

In a strange way, it was all downhill after that heady November night. It's plausible that Doctor Who's U.S. success helped keep the show on the air in the U.K. for a few more years, with overseas money counterbalancing eroding ratings at home. Eventually, however, "new" content dried up and American audiences lost interest. PBS stations stated canceling the show. The VCR played a part in this. By the mid-'80s a significant portion of Doctor Who fans were able to tape the episodes. Once that happened, the concept of the faithful watching of on-air reruns went the way of Dodo.

Doctor Who was canceled in 1989; the final four stories aired here in early 1990. Then began what is now referred to as "The Wilderness Years" - a 16-year span in which only one new televised story, the ill-fated and hugely disappointing 1996 TV movie, was produced. Rumors of the Doctor's return were never far away and, fueled by the nascent Internet, some gained traction. The Announcement came shortly before the show's 40th anniversary. After that, it was full speed ahead until Doctor Who once again returned to U.K. TV screens in March 2005.

For those of us in the U.S., the debut was a source of frustration. There was no U.S. distributor and, as a result, no legitimate way to see the show. But this was the 2000s and BitTorrent existed. How many die-hard U.S. fans sat on their hands and waited for the ill-fitting marriage that eventually brought the Chris Eccleston episodes to the Science Fiction Channel? Not many, I'd warrant, which may help to explain the disappointing ratings. Back in the '70s and '80s, Who fans would wait a year or two - they had no choice - but the landscape had changed by 2005.

I still watch Doctor Who, but I'll admit that I have a greater fondness for the "classic" series than for the new episodes. This isn't intended as a shot at Eccleston, David Tennant, or Matt Smith. But the older Doctors are rooted in my youth, so my memories of watching those programs are steeped in nostalgia. Our pasts, after all, aren't a static collection of actual events; they're sepia-tinged, selective recollections. One personal example: "Mawdryn Undead." I was sick with the flu the night it aired. Bundled up in bed. Throwing up into a bucket. Watched the whole thing alternating between hot flashes and chills. Somehow, I remember that evening fondly. I can guarantee that if my memories were perfect and accurate, "fond" is not a word I would use to describe it.

Tom Baker remains "my Doctor." I met him once - a brief encounter during my senior year in college. It was a Friday evening in October 1988. I was meeting my girlfriend's parents at the Philadelphia hotel where they were staying after flying in for the weekend. It happened to be the night before a Creation Convention honoring Doctor Who and Star Trek. The guests of honor were Tom Baker and George Takei. As I was nervously waiting in the lobby for my girlfriend and her parents to arrive, Tom Baker strolled through. I was initially nonplused - he was older, grayer, but unmistakably the same man who had played the Doctor as recently as seven years earlier. Like a stalker, I followed him into the hotel bar, pulled up the stool next to him, and started a conversation in the usual way. ("Are you Tom Baker? I have to say, I grew up watching you as Doctor Who…") We talked for a short while, until my girlfriend arrived. My impressions of him were that he was generous, gregarious, and loved to tell stories. If anyone else recognized him, they didn't step forward. After I left, he struck up a conversation with the bartender.

So, today, as Doctor Who turns 50, it's hard not to reflect back on what the show has meant to me over the years. It's a little odd, disconcerting even, to recognize how many touchstones of my early life - between the ages of 10 and 20 - revolved around Doctor Who or Star Trek. And, regardless of the degree to which my current "fandom" (or lack thereof) stands, those programs influenced my thinking and development during important years. Yes, Doctor Who is fundamentally a television show. But it has lasted long enough that two generations have been influenced by it in ways that are impossible to measure.

Happy Birthday, Doctor. Wonderful chaps, all of you.

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