Friday, March 29, 2013

Madman in a Box

"Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? To be exiles?" - An Unearhly Child

Fifty years ago, at the IM Foreman* junkyard on Totter’s Lane, London, a blue box wheezed into existence. Inside that box, a crotchety, white-haired old man** was waiting to whisk us away on a world of adventure.

And now, that white haired old man has become a gangly geek in a bow tie whose thirst for adventure is seemingly unquenchable. He’s been played by at least 11 different actors*** but he remains a man with a sense of justice, a man who abhors hate and prejudice, who delights in the myriad wonders of the universe; at once a man weighted by the horrors of what he has seen and still able to look at things with the wide-eyed wonder of a child.

The Doctor has become a British institution. Even during his years of exile (the show was unofficially cancelled in 1989 after a long, slow attempt to slip it off the schedules quietly by the then-BBC bosses) he remained a cultural force. Virgin Publishing continued the series in novels. Fan made films cropped up on home video from independent producers (with varying degrees of quality and success) and of course no one stopped talking about the mysterious Time Lord from Gallifrey.

But why is the doctor such a success? Why, when he returned to the BBC in 2005, did he manage to once more capture the imagination of a nation?

Why does The Doctor endure?

Part of it is that both The Doctor and the show have changed over the years. Certain elements remain - the TARDIS more and more conscpicuously “disguised” as a 1960’s police box, the sense of chaotic adventure, the viewer’s stand-ins who accompany the doctor on his adventures - and yet the attitude changes with the decades. In the 70s, political and social concerns became a factor as the Doctor tackled ecological problems as often as he did aliens (see The Green Death as a particularly hamfisted example), in the 80s, there was an attempt to darken the show a little, in the 90s, Virgin’s novels attempted to tell more complex and adult stories and in 2000s, the show became an adventure series marked by its fast pace and occasionally anarchic moods.

But the core has always been this (something the Matt Smith era captured perfectly, even coining the very phrase I'm about to use)

There is a madman who travels through and time space in a box. He is always on the side of justice. He is always standing up for the oppressed. And while he makes mistakes, he will always try to be the best person in the room. Because that’s all he knows how to be.

"It is a fact, Jamie, that I do tend to get involved with things." - The War Games

When I first met The Doctor, he was short and he was Scottish. He was, when I first tuned in, tackling his old enemies, The Daleks. Now, I knew the Doctor a little through the old Target novelisations I had picked up in charity bookshops, but seeing him in the flesh gave me a chill. I knew that he changed faces and sometimes personalities, so I did not know this Doctor, but he was instantly recognisable as that madman with a box. In the first twenty five minutes I spent with him, I was taken back to the 1950s where two warring factions of Dalek were about to meet on Eartth. The doctor was trying to protect something he called The Hand of Omega, which was being sought by both Dalek factions. The Daleks could kill people easily with one blast from their weapons. And, as I discovered at the end of that 25 minutes, despite their cumbersome appearance, they could float up stairs.****

I was hooked. I remained hooked for another two years.

And then The Doctor vanished.

He was gone.

No fanfare, no long farewell. He simply never returned.

I was gutted.

Home videos helped me catch up on the doctor’s past adventures. It was a treat for me, to get an old adventure on VHS and watch it all in one go. I discovered what I had missed, then: the lunatic joys of Tom Baker’s tenure in the TARDIS, the occasionally patronising adventurer that was Jon Pertwee, the wide eyed wonder and occasional anger that Peter Davison, the anarchic glee of Patrick Troughton and the severity of William Hartnell (who would soften towards the end of his run, as the BBC realised that what kids warmed to most was the kindly grandfather figure he could represent). Heck, I even enjoyed the Colin Baker years although even as a kid I realised he could got some appalling scripts.

"In all my travelling throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power mad conspirators. I should have stayed here.” - The Ultimate Foe

As a teenager, I devoured the Virgin New Adventures novels, admiring them because they dared to take the doctor to places he could never go in the TV show. Some of them were bad, but most were brilliant, and I the first novel I ever submitted was to this line right as they lost the rights to the character (but they sent me a nice rejection). It was, looking back on it, an appalling book. But then I was sixteen, and still learning how to write. I’d still like to have another crack at the doctor to this day. He represents the kind of sci-fi I love; sci-fi that engages with its own sense of the absurd. Literally anything can happen on Who, not least because unlike most modern franchises, its “bible” is not set in stone. It was made up on the hoof by writers over the years, many of them working from what they could remember about the show’s past, and some not even worrying about fitting into an established continuity. I think Atlantis is destroyed in at least three different ways throughout the show’s history. But since the 90s, attempts have been made to create some kind of continuity, and this is especially true on the rebooted show. But all the same there’s enough freedom that the stories don’t start to blend into each other. The Star Trek franchise showed some of its limitations in the show Voyager, which tried to break new ground and ended up too often retreading where other shows had been before. With Doctor Who, you can have a fantasy story followed by a historical followed by an epic space opera.

“Change. You. Me. Everything.” - Dimensions in Time.

Still, at 32 (I started watching when I was 8) I count myself a Whovian. I love the show. I still tune in when its back on air, although I know that its no longer the show I once loved. But that’s great because its become the show that a new generation will love. After all, the whole point of the show is change. The actors change. The crew change. The times change.

Looking at the modern show, its easy to see - under Russell T Davis, the show was all about family, about recurring characters, about a sense of being part of something so much more than you were. It was about epic space opera, and big bad guys who wanted to destroy the universe. When Moffat came on board, the show started to look at what it is to grow up, to face change and uncertainty. It took on a more fairy tale quality than it ever had before. But both approaches are valid.

Looking back in time, even during one Doctor’s tenure, the tone could shift markedly. Tom Baker went through a long run of horror stories (The Brain of Morbius, the Pyramids of Mars, the Seeds of Doom) and came out the other side into more SF stories, often with a sly sense of humour, such as The Sun Makers, The Pirate Planet and so forth.

I always had a love of the more horror-themed stories in Baker’s run. And indeed I loved the more horror themed stories in general. Although they also scared me, too. On its first run, I couldn’t watch the final episode of The Curse of Fenric, I was so terrified by the blood sucking heamovores. But then, that was the point. And as an adult, its become one of my favourite stories.

“You were my doctor!” - Timecrash

And that’s the appeal of the show. It is many things to many people. Everyone has “their” doctor. Everyone has a memory of the show, be it the horror of Daleks, the comfort of the doctor, their love (or lust) of a companion, there’s something in that show that will stick in near everyone’s memory, even if its just a memory of Saturday teatimes watching adventures in time and space.

The best of Who is rip-roaring adventure fiction with a suitably eccentric twist. Its also smarter than one might think on first viewing. Whether its trying to fulfill its original remit of historically educating a “modern” audience, or trying to grapple with issues of the day through looking to the future (the much maligned Happiness Patrol is in fact one of the most political Doctor Who stories ever... and I bloody loved the Kandyman, so there!) or even trying to show us that often things are more complex than simple good vs evil (anything with the Ice Warriors, who were decidedly neutral as a race, and indeed the Silurians as well), Who is always belying its roots as “children’s television”. It was never that. It was a family show, something that you could enjoy if you were young, old or in the middle. Its one of the reasons that I think the current run is continuing that trend. While the rise of the fanboy has meant the show has a new kind of audience to appeal to (the kind that remembers details and intensely debates the tiniest of moments in any given episode even when its clear that the moment is of no great importance) at its heart, the show retains the spirit that has enabled it to last so long. Yes, its not always perfect, but then the show never was. It has always had ups and downs, good bits and bad bits, low periods and periods of amazing, intense creativity. But through it all, the show has never pandered to one audience over another or marched to any beat other than the one it hears in its own head.

The Doctor is over 900 years old. The show is turning 50. And believe me, there’s plenty of life in both of them.

Russel’s picks:

12 Doctors. One Story each. Not necessarily the classics.

1st Doctor (William Hartnell): I haven’t seen much Hartnell, but The Daleks remains a classic. It changed the show forever and introduced the Doctor’s most famous foe.

2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton): I love a lot of Troughton’s stories, if only for his performance, but standout for me is The War Games which a) solidifies some of the mythology of the show and b)is amazingly, astoundingly epic, taking place over 10 episodes and c) is quite affecting at the climax when you see what the Doctor sacrifices. If I didn’t choose this one, though, I would choose The Mind Robber which is brilliantly trippy.

3rd Doctor (Jon Pertwee): The Silurians may have a rubbish T-Rex, but its a great example of why Pertwee’s early stories were great SF - serious, thoughtful, smart and trying to deal with real issues. Its a pity Caroline John’s Liz Shaw was shown the door sharpish for being too strong a character; she really challenged Pertwee’s doc.

4th Doctor (Tom Baker): Bit of a left fielder, perhaps, my choice here. But I will always, always have a soft spot for The Seeds of Doom, largely due in part to the Target novelisation of the story, which formed my earliest impressions of it. When I finally saw the story, I was massively impressed by just how exciting it was, especially for an epic six part story. Sure, at times it seems like the writer had only a passing knowledge of Who and was in fact writing for The Avengers, but the chemistry between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith is amazing, and the Krynoid is one of the most terrifying aliens ever, even if it is realised as a bunch of rubbery tentacles by the end of the story (and even if they foolishly choose to give it a voice for one terrible scene).

5th Doctor (Peter Davison) I was never that big on Davidson’s era. It always seemed to take itself too seriously. But Enlightenment is a gem of a story. Big ideas (the immortals), a fairy-tale structure and an almost insane ambition combine to make a story that no other sci-fi show could have told. If you watch only one Davidson, it should be this one.

6th Doctor: (Colin Baker) Poor Colin Baker. They tried, they really tried to do something different. And then they got hit by budget cuts. And then the writing staff forgot how to craft stories. He got shafted, he really did. But still he had one or two ambitious gems in his run, and his take on the Doctor as a vainglorious megalomaniac whose heart was still in the right place was actually very good indeed. Revelation of the Daleks is a continuity heavy story that still remains absolutely excellent, even if it has one of the most rubbish cliffhangers in the show’s history (look, there’s a polystyrene gravestone filled with Karo syrup and... oh, its just too stupid to explain) but it makes the Daleks scary again, has a great line in double acts and Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant remind everyone why they worked so well together. Its a little more violent than earlier eras, but perhaps that’s kind of the point.

7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) Since McCoy was my Doctor, I have more fondness for him than some, although I do agree that his first season or so was very bad indeed. However, towards the end he began to develop a take on the Doctor that was very intriguing indeed. I have to go here with The Curse of Fenric, which was the story that terrified me on first viewing and which I later came to realise was a more grown up story about choice and fate. It also featured Nicholas Parsons in what seemed to be celebrity stunt casting but turned out to be a very affecting little turn from the presenter of Just a Minute.

8th Doctor (Paul McGann) Well, he only appeared on TV once in the American TV movie in 1998. The TV movie was meant to be a backdoor pilot, and is something of a muddled mess but Paul McGann’s performance as a slightly Byronic time lord is brilliant. Just ignore the plot and enjoy McGann’s infectious sense of fun.

9th Doctor (Christopher Ecclestone) From a shaky start to a brilliant end, the 9th Doctor was around for one season  but made one hell of an impact. Ecclestone committed to a role that he clearly wasn’t too comfortable with and gives the show an edge thast feels very contemporary. And nowhere is this more evident than in Dalek, where the Doctor finally confronts the beings that killed the Time Lords (or maybe they didn’t; Russell T Davis seems to go back and forth on this a lot). A single Dalek. An angry Doctor. It gives you chills.

10th Doctor (David Tennant) David Tennant took a more traditional approach to the role and his laid back Doctor was, depending on the show, either beautifully eccentric or painfully over the top. But his finest hour came in The Impossible Planet, when he confronts some of the most terrifying scenes in New Who. Seriously, this episode and its follow on, The Satan Pit, are absolutely brilliant moments of television.

11th Doctor (Matt Smith)I really, really like Matt Smith’s take on the character. But for me, it all comes together in The Big Bang, the season 5 closer. Its a brilliant script that ties up a lot of loose ends, and plays about with all the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff in a very clever fashion. Plus the Doctor wears a Fez.

*its been spelt at least two different ways on the show
**This is one of the standard descriptions of the first Doctor as used in the old Target novelisations of the TV series
***Not counting Peter Cushing’s turn in two theatrcially released movies or the countless fan made films out there
**** This was of course the second episode of Remembrance of The Daleks, and is one of those stories that puts paid to all the talk of Doctor Who being rubbish in the late eighties; its a brilliant story, even now.


Anonymous said...

My intro to the series was David Tenant on SyFy, but they went back and showed the Eccelston eps after that.

Eccleston always seemed like a kid locked in a toy store. Well, if, as an American, I suddenly found myself playing Captain Kirk... Yeah. I'd be a big kid, too.

I only saw the first couple of episodes of Matt Smith, but I thought he established himself nicely. Tenant, though, was an excellent first Doctor for me. I loved his first line after regenerating. "I wanted to be ginger!"

Tenant did a great job of blending playfulness and ruthlessness in the character.

Jay Stringer said...

Curse Of Fenric is a defining memory for me too. Gave me nightmares at the time, and images that lasted for over twenty years until I watched it again as an adult.

The forst Doctor I remember was Peter Davidson. The first one that I really followed was McCoy, so he'll always be one of my Doctors. Depending on my mood I pick either Matt Smith or Tom Baker, with Ecclestone and Troughton close behind.

David Cranmer said...

Baker remains a favorite of mine.