Paging the Doctor

I will preface this post by saying that I enjoy Explaining Things. It’s one of the few things I still really enjoy about being a journalist. If any of what follows is too geeky for you, please just move along. It won’t bother me at all.

BBC America seems to be making a special push to introduce the new season of “Doctor Who” to viewers who’ve never seen it before, including adding a little explanatory prologue to the opening credits. I’ve posted at length about “Doctor Who,” but not lately; I’ve posted a few brief comments and some links in recent weeks, but I haven’t really stopped recently to explain what the show is all about for those of you who might not know and might be interested. It’s been one of my favorites since college, and I’ve been a faithful viewer since the show was revived in 2005.

“Doctor Who” is a British science fiction TV show, and the main character has become as iconic in the U.K. as Superman is in the U.S., someone everyone has grown up with and just naturally knows about.

The original series of “Doctor Who” ran from 1963 to 1989, an incredibly long run (although keep in mind the British don’t always produce as many episodes per year of a prime time TV show as we do in the U.S.). It began as a children’s show and grew up with its viewers, which has been important to its success in a couple of important ways.

The first thing is that the show never lost its sense of whimsy. Over the years, the stories have gotten more grown-up, but there’s still a sort of whimsical, fantastic element that many of us find addictive. The new version of the show is darker in some ways than the original, but it still has that sense of unexpected fun, that occasional sly wink at the audience.

The other thing the program owes to its kiddie-show roots is its ability to recast the main character every few years. I’ll explain that in a second.

The main character, let’s get this straight, is known as “The Doctor.” He is seldom if ever called “Doctor Who” on the actual show, except in joking references, where someone who doesn’t know him might ask, “Doctor who?” The character is a species of alien known as a Time Lord, from the planet Gallifrey. He looks like a human but his internal anatomy is different. Time Lords are called that because they have perfected the science of travel through space and time, using a type of vehicle called a TARDIS (for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). A TARDIS is huge inside but occupies only a small space outside, roughly the size and shape of an old telephone booth. What it’s supposed to look like is a police call box, which would have been a common sight on the streets of London in 1963, but which is now pretty much exclusively associated with “Doctor Who.”

When the show went on the air in 1963, The Doctor was played by William Hartnell, an elderly actor with shoulder-length snow-white hair, of the kind which used to be the stereotype for a college professor or a symphony conductor. But Hartnell got tired of the part after only a few years. Since “Doctor Who” was still thought of as a children’s show, the producers handled his departure in a way which probably never would have passed muster for an adult drama. They invented a plot device where Time Lords, when subject to extreme trauma, can regenerate a new body. The new body is still The Doctor, and has all of his memories, but the new incarnation looks different and may sometimes have slight differences in personality resulting from the transformation. They hired a younger, more energetic man, Patrick Troughton, with jet-black bangs like Moe from the Three Stooges, and introduced him as The Doctor.

This plot twist turned out to be serendipitous; it’s been the key to the show’s longevity. Whenver the lead actor wants to leave, or the producers want to freshen things up a bit, they simply recast the same character. This means that the 26-year run of the original series, a TV movie in the 1990s, and the six-year run of the revived show are all part of the same continuity, the same storyline, centered around the same character. And yet, that character has remained fresh and relevant for almost 50 years now.

Versions of The Doctor

The 11 Doctors — Top row: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee (whom I saw in person in Nashville in the mid 1980s), Tom Baker. Second row: Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann (1990s TV movie). Bottom row (2005 revival): Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith. God, I'm a geek. Image source: Wikipedia

The Doctor, accompanied by one or more human companions, travels through time and space, encountering weird aliens, monsters, famous historical figures, and the requisite recurring villains. The villains most associated with the show are the Daleks, cyborgs who look like a cross between R2-D2 and a salt shaker and who are fond of saying “EX-TER-MI-NATE!” in their synthesized electronic voices. There’s also The Master, a rogue Time Lord who seemed to have been destroyed a year or two back — but, this being fantasy, who might well show up again at some point.

Until the revival of the show in 2005, the few Americans who knew of “Doctor Who” associated Tom Baker with the role. Baker played the part in the U.K. from 1974 to 1981, about the time that some public TV stations in the U.S. first started airing it. Baker, with his curly hair, droopy eyes, ridiculously-long scarf and ever-present bag of “Jelly Baby” jellybeans, became an icon of the show. I started watching “Doctor Who” in college, where the public TV station in Tulsa ran it every night, in its original episodic half-hour form. Meanwhile, my father and one of my brothers were becoming addicted to it back here in Tennessee, where the public TV station stitched the episodes together into 90-minute stories and ran them on Saturday nights.

The original series was cancelled in 1989. In the mid-1990s, there was an attempt to launch a joint British-American production, which would have been shot in Canada (!). A TV movie was produced to serve as a pilot episode, but it didn’t do well in the U.S. and the American backers didn’t carry it forward. Finally, in 2005, the BBC resurrected the show on its own. For a while, what is now known as the SyFy network carried the episodes here in the U.S.; they eventually moved to BBC America.

A year ago, the part of The Doctor was taken over by an actor named Matt Smith. I was highly skeptical when he was first announced; he was, by far, the youngest actor ever to play the role, and I was concerned that the producers were trying to glam up the show, perhaps trying for a “Twilight,” teen-idol vibe. I could not have been more mistaken. Matt Smith has made the role his own, with a charismatic and off-kilter performance that draws from the best of the show’s nearly 50-year history and makes it fresh and relevant.

The Doctor always has one or more traveling companions, and Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, who joined the show when Smith did, is one of my favorites as well. Amy married her fiancé Rory (played by Arthur Darvill) at the end of last season, and this season he’s come along for the ride as well. The current series also has a frequent guest star in River Song (Alex Kingston from “ER”), a mysterious woman who is apparently fated to encounter The Doctor at various points in time in reverse order from the way he experiences them. When they first met (from his perspective), she knew all about him, having encountered him many times before (from her perspective), and yet he didn’t recognize her and had never met her before. Presumably, by the time of their last meeting, their situations will have completely reversed.

Stephen Moffat, who had been one of the top writers for “Doctor Who” under the previous showrunner, took over the show at the same time, and his work has been spectacular. He’s wonderful at creating incredibly frightening monsters and situations, notably the Weeping Angels, malevolent statues who can only move about when no one is looking at them.

This is a remarkably entertaining show. If you receive BBC America on cable or satellite, give it a chance. It may take a viewing or two for you to get into the spirit of it, but I think that if you do, you’ll be scouring Netflix for older episodes and delving into the show’s rich history.