Tonight is the season premiere of “Doctor Who,” a show about which I blog frequently. If you still haven’t discovered it yet, this might be a good time to jump in. (BBC America has a suggested hashtag, #newtowho.) I know I’m a broken record on this, but I’ve loved this show ever since college and I enjoy blogging about it.
“Doctor Who” is a British institution, as familiar over there as Superman or Mickey Mouse here in the states. It’s the story of The Doctor (“Doctor Who” is the title of the show, not necessarily the name of the character), a human-looking alien, of a race called the Time Lords. He travels through space and time in a vessel called a TARDIS which is phone-booth-sized on the outside but enormous on the inside. He’s usually accompanied by one or more traveling companions, and tonight’s season premiere begins a new era of the show with a new sidekick. More about that in a moment.
“Doctor Who” premiered in 1963, and (trivia fact) its premiere was the first entertainment program to air after the BBC ended its extended coverage of the Kennedy assassination. That means it will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year, amid much hoopla. The original show ran until about 1989. It started running on some American public TV stations during the science fiction craze that followed “Star Wars,” and I first discovered it while a college student in Oklahoma in the early 1980s.
“Doctor Who” was considered a children’s show when it first went on the air, and it sort of grew up with its viewers in its original run. It still has a whimsy and sense of fun that owes a lot to its kid-vid roots.
There was an attempt to bring the show back in 1996 as a British/American co-production, and a TV movie was produced, airing here on the FOX network. But it flopped. The BBC brought the show back on its own in 2005, and it’s been on ever since. The new version aired on Sci-Fi (now SyFy) for a few years but is now on BBC America. You can also find it, along with episodes from the original version, on Netflix.
Unlike “Star Trek” or some other long-running TV shows, “Doctor Who” hasn’t relied on new generations or do-overs to give it longevity. It’s basically the same continuity, with the same character, running all the way back to 1963. But the main character has been played by 11 different actors.
When original star William Hartnell quit the show in the mid-1960s, the BBC wanted to keep it going, and the producers invented a plot twist that probably wouldn’t have passed muster if the show had been aimed at adults. They simply established that Time Lords, when subjected to extreme physical trauma, could regenerate themselves, creating a new body. Each new incarnation is still The Doctor, with all of his memories, but may have subtle differences in personality or outlook caused by the transformation. (Every so often, the joke gets made that another British icon – Bond, James Bond – must also be a Time Lord.)
Hartnell (far left in the collage above) was white-haired and grandfatherly, but suddenly The Doctor, now played by Patrick Troughton, had black bangs and was considerably more energetic. There were seven different Doctors in the show’s original run. The most famous here in America was Tom Baker, with his curly hair, droopy eyes and long, multi-colored scarf, because his episodes were the ones that started showing up first during that post-“Star Wars” period. The last Doctor from the original show, Sylvester McCoy, appeared in the first few minutes of the TV movie, providing continuity with the old show, before regenerating into Paul McGann, who would have starred in that ill-fated revival. When the show was relaunched in 2005, Christopher Eccleston played the role, followed by David Tennant and the current Doctor, Matt Smith.
The traveling companions are an important part of the show. Of course, they also give an excuse for cheesy exposition – The Doctor delights in showing Earthlings the sights, throughout space and time. He explains to them, and by proxy to us the viewer, any critical pieces of information.
Matt Smith started the show with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) as his traveling companion, joined eventually by Pond’s fiance, then husband, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill). They left the show, in heartbreaking fashion, at the end of its last regular season.
The new companion, Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) was introduced during an episode last season and then introduced more fully during the Christmas special that fell between the two seasons. In
both each of those appearances, she was killed – leading the Doctor to wonder who she is and how she can be reincarnated time and again throughout history. I suspect that question will be a running theme this season, but hopefully she’ll get to stick around a little longer at a time. She’s not Kenny from “South Park,” after all. (Or is she? That would be an interesting crossover.)
Anyway, the start of a new season might be a good chance to try the show out if you’ve never seen it before. It’s a wonderful mix. Some episodes are funny, some terrifying, some heartbreaking. There was a wonderful episode where The Doctor and Amy try to change the fate of Vincent Van Gogh. There are also recurring villains – notably the Daleks, salt-shaker-shaped cyborgs predating R2-D2 by 15 years; the Cybermen, who were like the Borg long before Jean-Luc Picard was a gleam in Gene Roddenberry’s eye; The Master, a sinister rival Time Lord; and the Weeping Angels, an invention of current executive producer Steven Moffat, murderous statues who can only move when no one is looking at them.
The season premiere, “The Bells of Saint John,” airs tonight at 7 p.m. Central (8 Eastern) on BBC America. Check it out.