Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Doctor Who Am I

I suppose it's alright to call me a Whovian.

Those of you unfamiliar with the term, I haven't moved to Whoville, but this does have everything to do with a doctor, even if he name isn't Suess. This fellow is Who. He isn't on first and he'd be more at home on a cricket field than a baseball diamond.

Enough already.

Of course I'm referring to DOCTOR WHO, the iconic British sci-fi TV show about to celebrate its 50th anniversary and is more popular than ever. Count me as one of the initiated, hence the Whovian moniker. I don't actually mind the name, but I could do without it. When I watched STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, I didn't consider myself a Trekkie or Trekker, a Generator or even a Nextling. I just watched the damn thing, enjoying it more than the first series. Okay, I went to a couple of conventions too, BUT THAT'S ALL! The only name I'd cop to is the all encompassing "geek" designation. No sub-headings. It's the old Groucho Marx argument about belonging to a club that would have him as a member. Or me.

With the addition of the Doctor to my geek cred, I suppose I've warmed up to the idea of being a bloody Whovian. Sounds like a great band name. "Hello, Cardiff! Give it up for The Bloody Whovians!" So be it. I yam what I yam. Just a sweet potato.

This has been my first real pop culture obsession other than my lifelong love of the James Bonds films, which are also celebrating a 50th anniversary with the release of SKYFALL. Truth to tell, I avoided WHO as though it had major cooties from way back in the Seventies, shown primarlily on PBS here in the States. From the outside looking in, the whole enterprise seemed to be dipped in thick Stilton cheese, from the stories to the budget conscious production values including cheap special effects, rubber monsters and cardboard cut-out sets. It appeared to have an air of juvenility to it with a premise that just didn't cut bait with me. A daft dandy gallivanting through space and time with young sidekicks in a police call box? Oh, Dalek, please... I had visions of Dr. Smith from LOST IN SPACE and that stupid giant carrot, as well as any number of asinine creatures and antics from the Irwin Allen television sausage factory. That was almost enough Kryptonite to keep me away for good. Ignorance wasn't just bliss. It was a defense shield. Soon, it seemed that DOCTOR WHO just fell off the radar entirely, an ironic victim of real time.

After the turn of the century, I began to recognize a resurgence of this hoary old chestnut when apparently, the show got a reboot. It started popping up on the Sci-Fi Channel long before it became Sy-Fy. I still took a pass because I have standards, don't you know. It interfered with my WWE.
Curiosity was beginning to get the best of me when I finally dipped my toe in the Tardis swimming pool and it wasn't very long before I baptized myself in WHO.

My gateway drug was TORCHWOOD, a spin-off of WHO created by Russel T. Davies, rebooter of the 21st century Doctor. I dove right into the five-part mini-series CHILDREN OF EARTH and hit the bleedin' jackpot. It brought back memories of British sc-fi writer Nigel Kneale's QUATERMASS series, a British creation back in the Fifties and Sixties, spawning, among others, the masterpiece from Hammer Studios FIVE MILLIONS YEARS TO EARTH (aka QUATERMASS AND THE PIT).This became the jumping off point for me to discover where it all began.

Fortunately, the timing was right for me to start with the arrival of the 11th Doctor as portrayed by Matt Smith which had just began Stateside, a perfect beginning. However, I wasn't immediately taken with the show, almost too much of a leap from the emotionally devastating CHILDREN OF EARTH. Then again, WHO has the more difficult task for audiences to accept even its basic premise. TORCHWOOD is more accessible since it's Earthbound. WHO bounces about the universe, backwards and forwards encountering aliens, creatures, supernatural beings of all shapes and sizes. On top of that, the vessel to these worlds is that damn police box known as the Tardis. Now I had to expunge the image of BILL & TED's most excellent phone booth out of my mind. But once I accepted the conceits of the entire shebang, then I had to contend with the hyper-kinetic antics of the main character. And when he worked his charm over this viewer, the pay-off has been in spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs,  the whole deck of cards.

That light touch that put me off at first can turn on a tuppence into extreme darkness. I discovered this in my first encounter with The Weeping Angels, the most insidiously frightening characters I've encountered in fantastic fiction. The Angels are statues that stalk their victims when you look away. See an Angel across the room, turn your head, they move ten feet toward you. Blink your eyes and they're right in your face, teeth bared. That's one of the beauties of this show. The simplest elements can be objects of horror. Water, shadows, a child calling for her Mummy...

Soon after that episode, the show went right for the heart. An episode entitled "Vincent and the Doctor" had me blubbering like a widdle kid by its end. The Doctor encounters Vincent Van Gogh on an alien related issue. (Shut up. Just follow along.) This being the last year of Van Gogh's life, the Doctor takes a despondent Vincent to a 21st century gallery exhibition of his work, showing him the impact he made on the world. It just tore me up.

This show can do that. It is a testament of the writers. chiefly among them show runners Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat, that DOCTOR WHO can go from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again without missing a beat. They are respectful of the character's rich legacy, extremely intricate mythos and its devoted following who are monitoring and scrutinizing their every move. (It's the nature of the geek.)

They also make time travel, the hoariest concept of all, into mind-bending puzzle boxes that turn the entire genre on its head. For reference, I would refer you to the Moffat written  episode BLINK guest-starring a young Carey Mulligan. The Doctor attempts to explain it all for you: "People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff. " Got it?

The characters that populate this Whoniverse (that's right, I said it) are as fantastic as the worlds they live from the vast menagerie of villains of the past (Daleks, Cybermen, The Master, etc.), present and future to the revolving group of friends and co-horts. Two that stand out for me have been River Song, the planet hopping "archeaologist" and probable soul mate of The Doctor, a career-defining character for the exquisite Alex Kingston, and the one and only Captain Jack Harkness. John Barrowman plays (in all manner of the word) the randy head of Torchwood who deservedly got a spin-off show. A shame it's now dead in the water after the attempt to Americanize it on STARZ.

The companions who accompany The Doctor on his adventures are mostly young women who have no trouble stepping into his Tardis with an older man and popping off to the unknown and beyond. This potentially creepy and/or corny conceit is redeemed again by the writing. These characters are formidable and clever and, unlike common sidekicks and tagalongs, have distinct purpose. They form the back bone of the show, reeling The Doctor in when he is in danger of spinning out of control and grounding him with their strength and humanity. Their relationships are temporary for he is constant while they are not. Mortality is a cruel mistress. As he said of his companions in a recent episode: "Some left me. Some get left behind. Some, not many but some...died." It's not difficult for him to grasp, but it is to accept. This is why this sometimes goofy and always brilliant Time Lord, the last of his kind, has become one of the most tragic characters in all science fiction.

Being a recent convert, I've only encountered 3 of the 11 Doctors, those from, for all intents and purposes, this century. I appreciated Christopher Eccelston's take on #9, pulling out all the stops, being more loosey-goosey and downright likable than he ever has been on camera before. The recent Doctor, Matt Smith, is a a Mad Hatter-ish imp whose seeming innocence barely camouflages his weathered soul.

If I had a preference, I'd have to vote for David Tennant, the 10th incarnation of the two-hearted man from Gallifrey. He is an anime character brought to vivid life and the one I feel adheres to the best elements of DOCTOR WHO, dancing on the balance beam between the light and the dark with the grace of an Olympic gymnast. I'd also watch an entire episode comprised of Tennant's Doctor Who saying, "What?!"

So I'm hooked. I am indeed a Whovian. I may be a neophyte, but I am sincerely smitten as only a true geek can admit. DOCTOR WHO has survived for 50 years for more reasons than I have been able to list here and will live long after I've gone away for good, that's for sure. My dilemma is that I've blown through most of the episodes of this re-birth. But with the preservation of this show in various forms, soon I'll be able to dig into the vault and see what occurred back in the "old days". I understand this Tom Baker bloke is quite good.

In other words, in the future, I'll have to go back in time. Just like you know Who.

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