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March 16, 2014

John 3:1-17 (NRSV)
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the TV show “Doctor Who.” It celebrated its 50th anniversary last November, and It’s been one of my all-time favorites since I discovered it as a college student in the early 1980s. It’s a British science fiction TV show, about a mysterious alien, whose name is “The Doctor,” from a planet called Gallifrey. The main character has been played by 12 different actors over those five decades, and a 13th has just taken over the part and will start in new episodes later this year.
What happened was, the first man to play the part, in the mid-1960s, decided to quit. At that time, “Doctor Who” was considered a children’s show, and so the producers just made up a new plot point – something they might not have been able to get away with in a show aimed at grownups – and decided that the people of Gallifrey have the ability to “regenerate” – to heal themselves from some great trauma by transforming into an entirely new body.

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Don’t be tardy, be TARDIS

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.

timthumbThe 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.

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.

The Sixth Floor

Perhaps the most dangerous and destructive game we can play is “what if?” I ought to know; I’m a grand master. What if I’d gone to MTSU instead of ORU? What if I’d been more diligent about creative writing when I was younger? What if I’d asked out such-and-such a woman (or, more often, what if I’d tried again after being turned down the first time)? What if I’d handled my finances differently? What if, what if, what if? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer, a question that always makes us feel worse about ourselves, a positively corrosive question that we continue to ask even though we know better.

We play “what if?” on a larger scale as well. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is a powerful topic for such speculation, perhaps second only to speculation about what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. I can recall either a “Twilight Zone” reboot or a “Twilight Zone” imitator in the 1980s doing an episode in which a time traveler attempts to thwart the assassination. There was also a “Quantum Leap” episode that touched on the subject, lent additional interest by the fact that the show’s creator and executive producer, Donald Bellisario, actually met Lee Harvey Oswald briefly when both were serving in the military.

Time travel, in general, has a well-worn genre in the past few decades – providing clichés for “Futurama” to make fun of, more than once. I’m amazed that “Doctor Who” continues to make it interesting and find new things to do with it. Then again, “Doctor Who” – one of my all-time favorite shows ever since my college days – is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. In one era of the show, it’s implied that such-and-such cannot happen, and then in another era of the show, it happens, sometimes without even a token acknowledgement or trumped-up plot point to explain the inconsistency.

I was intrigued when I read about Stephen King’s 2011 book “11/22/63,” but I might never have gotten around to reading it if it hadn’t been for a $3.99 sale of the book on Kindle. It would have been my loss. This was a great book, the kind of book you can’t put down, the kind of book that has you cheering and weeping for the protagonists.

I can’t go very far without spoilers, but I’ll give you the basic premise: divorced and unattached teacher Jake Epping is recruited by a dying acquaintance for an unbelievable mission. The acquaintance has discovered a portal to the year 1958, and wants Jake to go through it, assume a false identity, bide his time for five years, and somehow prevent the Kennedy assassination. But the acquaintance warns Jake that the past doesn’t want to be changed, and that unusual obstacles will prevent themselves. There are also personal entanglements that complicate his mission and leave him unsure in which era his destiny lies.

King somehow manages to make time travel seem fresh and new and real. He sucks you into the story, and once you get going you have to keep going. I had no idea how the story was going to end – and I really cared how the story was going to end.

Sometimes, I think, a fictional “what if” story can be a catharsis, to help us process our own personal “what if” demons.  King’s book took me on a roller-coaster ride, and I’m still not sure about how I feel about it. It’s great writing. I’ve always thought I had a great novel in me if I could just buckle down and crank it out, but I don’t think I could ever produce something in this league. Many of you have read it already, but if you haven’t, consider this my strong recommendation.

Trust him … he’s the inspector

OK. If you’re not familiar with either “Doctor Who” or “Community,” this requires a bit of explanation.

On the NBC sitcom “Community,” there’s an occasional plot point where two of the characters are fans of an imported British TV show called “Inspector Spacetime.” “Inspector Spacetime” is obviously the “Community” writers’ parody of “Doctor Who,” the long-running BBC adventure, mentioned often in this space, about an alien who travels through time and space accompanied by one or more traveling companions, usually Earthlings. What little we’ve seen and heard about “Inspector Spacetime” is affectionate tribute.

Well, Travis Richey, the actor who played “Inspector Spacetime” in the little snippets we saw of the show-within-a-show, decided it would be fun to make a few actual episodes of “Inspector Spacetime” for the web. But he couldn’t get the blessing of Sony Pictures Television or NBC, which produce and air what’s left of “Community,” so he can’t actually call it “Inspector Spacetime.” Hence, this is “Untitled Web Series About A Space Traveler Who Can Also Travel Through Time,” an unlicensed, unofficial expansion of a parody of a long-running TV show. Got it? Good.

Traveling companions

A few weeks back, I embedded a YouTube video which showed all of the regeneration scenes in the history of “Doctor Who.” I also noted that the series would soon begin a new season, which would be the end of the road for the Doctor’s current traveling companions, Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill).

Well, since then the exact date of the season premiere has been announced – Sept. 1. I’ll be covering the Celebration that night, but I’ll DVR the episode. Anyway, since the big news this time around is Amy and Rory’s departure, I thought it would be appropriate to post this, which may have been done by the same person as the compilation I referred to above. It’s a showcase of all of the Doctor’s traveling companions, with some semi-regular guest stars thrown in for good measure.

I was a little sad when I saw Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Courtney passed away some months back, and the show slipped in a lovely tribute last season by having the time-traveling Doctor place a call to the Brigadier seeking help or advice during a time of crisis. We don’t hear the other end of the conversation, but the Doctor suddenly looks crestfallen and then gives his condolences. A lovely little moment.

Like many “Who” geeks of my generation, I discovered the show in the post-“Star Wars” era, when everyone was in a mad rush for anything science fiction-related. Many public TV stations began running the Tom Baker episodes of “Doctor Who.” I watched every night on the public TV station in Tulsa while I was at college in the early 1980s, and when I came home on break I discovered that my father and my brother Michael had discovered the show on the public station here in Middle Tennessee, which ran it on Saturday nights. The timing of the show’s arrival in the U.S. explains why, prior to the 2005 relaunch, Baker was most Americans’ vision of what the Doctor looked like.

I also got to see the Doctor just prior to Baker, Jon Pertwee, when he made a personal appearance in Nashville in the mid-1980s to promote the show and the local public TV station. I recall him scoffing at the show’s best-known villains, the Daleks, saying that a flight of stairs could stop them. (CGI special effects have remedied that in the relaunched version.)

Next year will be the show’s 50th anniversary, and among fans – and in British pop culture, where the show is as familiar and newsworthy as Superman is in the U.S. – there’s a lot of speculation about how that anniversary will be celebrated. The producers, and current star Matt Smith, have hinted that it will be something big.

Eleven actors, one role

This is great, if (like me) you’re a “Doctor Who” fan – someone has put together a YouTube video of all the regenerations from the show’s history.

If you’re not a “Doctor Who” fan, let me explain – the long-running British science fiction TV show, on the air since 1963, has had 11 different actors in the lead role. (The main character is “The Doctor,” by the way – he’s never actually called “Doctor Who.”) In the mid-1960s, when the original Doctor, William Hartnell, quit the show, the producers decided to invent a plot point by which Time Lords can, in situations of extreme trauma, regenerate a new body. The new incarnation is still The Doctor, with all of his memories, but may have slight differences in personality, which are explained as consequences of the change.

Seven different actors played the character in the show’s original run, from 1963-1989. There was a TV movie in the mid 1990s, a failed attempt to bring the show back as a joint British-American production, which would have been shot in Canada (!). The last Doctor from the original show, Sylvester McCoy, made a cameo appearance at the beginning of that movie so that we could see him regenerate into the new version, to be played by Paul McGann.

When the BBC re-launched the show on its own in 2005, it did not show the regeneration – the new series simply started with Christopher Eccleston in the role. So whomever put together this YouTube video used some fan-made footage to show a McGann-to-Eccleston regeneration.

I cannot wait for the new season of “Doctor Who” to start – even though it will, sadly, mark the swan song for the Doctor’s current traveling companions, Amy and Rory (played by Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill).

Time to face the music

I got to thinking about TV theme music today. Most networks dramatically reduced the length of opening credits years ago, because of studies that showed they gave the audience more of a chance to change channels. But I miss the longer, more generous openings from years past. I decided I’d give you a countdown of my favorite instrumental TV theme songs, followed by some vocal TV theme songs. I’m doing this by the seat of my pants, so it’s certainly possible that I’m missing something. Of course, it’s also impossible to separate your feelings towards the theme from your feelings towards the show. There may be some quickly-cancelled show with a great theme song, but it just wouldn’t come to mind when one sits down to make a list like this. Feel free to disagree and put your own choices or rankings in the comments.

5) “Wiseguy”

Mike Post theme songs always have a bridge to them. Sometimes it works; sometimes it just seems arbitrary. Here, the bridge works perfectly. The main theme speaks of danger, while the bridge – during which our protagonist and the two men who often save his life are introduced – is a nicely heroic counterpoint.


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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.