An appointment with the first Doctor

William Hartnell

William Hartnell

I have blogged explaining “Doctor Who” on numerous occasions – if you’re looking at the normal desktop version of my site, just click on “Doctor Who” in the tag cloud over in the right-side column. But I’ll summarize some things, so that I can explain some news below.

“Doctor Who” is a British science-fiction TV show that celebrates its 50th birthday later this year. The original show ran from 1963 through 1989; there was a TV movie in 1994, and then a new version of the show that has run since 2005. But, unlike “Star Trek” or “Battlestar Galactica,” none of these are reboots or “re-imaginings” or new generations. It’s all one long continuity, one long storyline, featuring the same central character. That’s made possible by a unique plot twist, instituted when the show was still thought of as being for children.

In fictional terms, the lead character – an alien named “The Doctor” – can regenerate a new body whenever he’s subject to extreme physical trauma. The new body is still The Doctor, with all of his memories, but may look completely different and may have slight differences in personality as a result of the transformation. In practical terms, this means that whenever the lead actor quits or the producers need to freshen up the show, they can simply recast the part and explain it as a “regeneration.” There were seven different Doctors in the original run of the show, an eighth in the TV movie, and three more since the show was relaunched in 2005.

Although “Doctor Who” is a cultural icon in the UK, it’s not as well-known here. Many PBS stations carried the original show in the late 1970s or early 1980s, during the post-“Star Wars” science fiction boom. I became familiar with it at this time, first watching it on Oklahoma Public Television when I was in college.

The 2005 relaunch of the show was carried by Sci-Fi (now SyFy) for a while, but is now on BBC America. Many younger fans are only familiar with the relaunch and know little or nothing about the original.

Which brings me to the big news.

Starting tonight, BBC America will begin a series of specials about the various incarnations of The Doctor, with each documentary followed by a classic story featuring that actor. Tonight, there will be a special about the very first Doctor, the late William Hartnell, followed by one of his classic stories from the 1960s.

I’ve never actually seen any complete stories from the first two doctors, Hartnell or Patrick Troughton, and so this is going to be a treat for me.

If you’re at all curious, this might be a great opportunity to find out about a really fun, whimsical and exciting TV series while we wait for new episodes, starring Matt Smith as The Doctor, to resume in March. Keep in mind that during the 1960s, the show was thought of as being for children; it sort of grew up with its British audience.