Old plot details (and fan-enthusiasm!) refreshed by a Netflix marathon, we recently watched the theatrical big screen debut of the 12th (or is it 13th?) actor to play DOCTOR WHO– that alien space/time traveller in the big blue box. As with last year’s 50th Birthday episode, likewise screened in movie theatres worldwide, this feature-length episode, entitled ‘Deep Breath’, was a major event in the worldwide WHO nerdiverse. Will people respond to Peter Capaldi’s Prickly Scottish Alien take on the iconic character? Based on the history of the 50 year history of the show, my guess is ‘yes’.
The very first version of The Doctor, William Hartnell’s Crotchety Alien Wizard, had left the role before Doctor Who entered my awareness at about 3 or 4 years old, though I’ve seen clips of him since. Initially developed as an educational show for children there was incredible innovation in Sydney Newman & Donald Wilson’s concept of a wanderer who can go anywhere or anytime in his blue box. He was conceived to teach; visit the past to teach history and the future to teach science, but producer Verity Lambert quickly saw the more fantastical opportunities of the concept, and by the time I met The Doctor just a few years later, he favoured science fiction, with an emphasis on the fiction. The Doctor faced daily danger- saving the world and dealing with monsters & villains – but unlike other action heroes he overcame problems with his wits and intellect, rather than his fists and a gun. No longer an educator perhaps, but 50 years later The Doctor is still a hero of the mind. In the world of Doctor Who there’s no shame in being bookish or the smartest person in the room. Nor the nerdiest either; The Doctor may wear fezzes, tartan trousers, overlong scarfs, and other twee, uncool eccentricities, yet somehow manages to be cool anyway. Well, mostly. But even at his most cloying whimsy worst, I like the character on principle because he’s a celebration of positivity, eccentricity and intelligence. Einstien as action hero.
The Doctor is a Whimsical Merlin in a magician’s disappearing box complete with a lovely assistant, and his stage is all of space and time, if it were British. Growing up in Australia, I was exposed to both American and British TV shows in equal measure (plus Australian stuff too). The American shows went for ‘slick’, the British shows owned ‘quaint’, and the Aussie stuff settled for whatever vibe it could pull-off. When American Heroes get a time machine it looks like a slick silvery Delorean sports car, but when a British hero gets a time machine it looks like a blue Porta-Potty, but the joy of NAFF is one of the things I respond to in British pop culture. There’s an appreciation for the charm of quirky things, and the joy of the un-obvious. That a spaceship does not have lasers and missiles, is not designed to look ‘cool’, and is just a nondescript blue box, is actually very cool. The opposite of awesome can, in fact, be perversely rather AWESOME.
The first Doctor I saw was the 2nd; Patrick Troughton’s Cosmic Hobo, who held the role till I was 5 years old. A bumbling figure, sometimes cranky, but very likeable, Doctor Two sticks in my memory partly for having a Scottish companion, and my family often highlighted this (“Look! His name is Jamie, and he was born in Scotland too!”) Doctor Two defined the UN-obvious qualities of The Doctor for me: seemingly absent minded but undeniably brilliant. Frustrated with the foibles of humans despite his deep affection for them. Seemingly cowardly, yet actually brave. Old, yet childlike. Acting the fool, while thwarting baddies with his genius. I have haunting memories of watching Doctor Two battle monsters that terrified me as a wee kid. The doll-like faces of the Cybermen most scared (and scarred) the 5 year old me, though their 1960s design seems hilarious today. My first sight of those trigger happy fascist pepper pots, The Daleks, was when they battled Doctor Two. Back then, the visual of their gunfire was a simple polarisation of the video (“Exterminate!” NEGATIVE-positive-NEGATIVE “Aieeee!”) yet the weirdness of that cheap effect unsettled me. Created in 1963 by Terry Nation, and designed by Raymond Cusick, Daleks are fundamenally unchanged 50 years later; the VW Beetle of monster design. Sadly, I cannot refresh all my childhood memories of Doctor Two on YouTube, as many of his episodes were lost by the BBC, but thankfully his opening titles DO survive. This uniquely weird sequence set a tone of otherworldly creepiness for 5 year old me that I carry still. Delia Derbyshire has finally been acknowledged for her innovative realisation of the Doctor Who theme music (creating the sound of synthesisers, long before they even existed, by painstakingly splicing tape recordings). But Ron Grainer’s haunting melody asserts itself, whatever the instrumentation, as unmistakably WHO.
Like any wizard, The Doctor has his own magic wand and his fabled Sonic Screwdriver first appeared in the tenure of Doctor Two. It was a simple tool at first, but over the next few decades it evolved into the spaceman’s multitool we have today. The format of Doctor Who allowed budget necessities to be easily written into the stories and, to improve ratings and cut costs, producer Derrick Sherwin used more real-world (i.e.: cheap) locations by bringing the Doctor to Earth. I remember watching Doctor Two’s final adventure as a 5 year old, utterly agog at the climax where we learned, for very first time, that The Doctor is a ‘Timelord’ and he’d stolen his famous time machine, The Tardis. A stern Timelord tribunal forced his regeneration and banished him to Earth, and to 5 year old me the notion that this fantastical space/time wizard could be tried, punished and exiled, like me being scolded, spanked, and sent to my room, was a revelation. This scene still fascinates me in that this iconic character had been broadcast since 1963 but not till 1969 was his ‘backstory’ explained. These days every character vomits out their ‘origin’ immediately (bitten by a radioactive spider, coming from a broken home, etc) because it’s often the only thing interesting about them. No sooner is it explained, than the franchise ‘reboots’ and we hear it all again (“I know Batman, you’re damaged. I get it.”) Whereas, for 50 years, Doctor Who reinvented itself while maintaining forward momentum without the rehash cycle; the unique cleverness of Doctor Who is that actor-changes are explained by the mythology of The Doctor- his alien body regenerates- allowing continuity from 1963, with no narrative restarts.
Doctor Three was a departure. He was a physical man of action who’d occasionally bust out ‘Venusian Aikido’ moves throwing baddies across the room, and he wore natty velvet suits, ruffled shirts and satin-capes that Austin Powers would reject as too garish. Jon Pertwee’s Judo Space Dandy was the Doctor for my earliest clearly-remembered episodes. His first adventure featured the Nestene Consciousness, a disembodied alien entity that could inhabit plastic, and the store dummies that came to life as a result, The Autons, scared me absolutely silly. The idea that true horror could be hidden in the everyday made a lasting impression; scenes of the props of daily life coming to life absolutely terrified me. I remember an utterly gruesome scene of a man consumed by his own chair, but a look online proves that what I remember as pure horror is closer to a Benny Hill comedy shtick (complete with 1970s groovy-but-uncomfortable vinyl seat, and farty-synth music) and the REAL reason for showcasing ‘the terror of the everyday’ was that it was cheap. (Perhaps the previous Doctor benefits from his lost episodes, in that cherished childhood memories of him cannot be refuted?) Cheesiness not withstanding, at around 6 years of age, I learned to watch Dr Who while sitting on the couch with a cushion nonchalantly in my lap. Just for comfort, you understand. The cushion could be whipped up in front of my eyes to hide the shonky terror-du-jour, thus saving a fresh stain on the couch.
Under Barry Letts’ supervision an X-Files/Spy-Fi format developed, with the earthbound Doctor working with the ’United Nations Intelligence Task-force’ to investigate otherworldly mysteries, and U.N.I.T. became the defining feature of Doctor Three’s era. He could still be relied upon to encounter aliens, just cheap aliens, and many’s the time I wolfed my dinner in time to see which one he met next. In the tenure of Doctor Three we met The Doctor’s very own personal Moriarty, The Master, an oily wannabe Dracula in a Nehru jacket, who didn’t actually twirl his moustache and laugh maniacally “Mu-ha-hargh” though he did everything else but. Also vampire-like were his attempts to cheat death, including at least one story where he was portrayed as a withered corpse. The show must have eventually hit the BBC’s ratings and budget targets, as the Timelord punishment finally ended and Doctor Three again took to the stars, as befits a rogue Timelord with a wonky Tardis. He had some memorable space/time adventures, including the first Doctor Who story with anachronistic juxtapositions of futuristic Sci-Fi with history. This became part of Doctor Who’s distinctive recipe and is a common feature of the show today, but started with Doctor Three, when he stopped aliens invading Medieval Britain. This adventure was also the first time we heard the name of the Doctor’s home world; Gallifrey.
Any nerd growing up watching 1970s Doctor Who has a special place their heart for Doctor Four and that includes me. Tom Baker’s Bohemian Astro Boffin held the role from 1974 till 1981, and defined the character for many viewers of that era. He was both the Roger Moore and the Sean Connery of the classic Dr Who years, winning the ‘longevity prize’ and nabbing the ‘most iconic’ trophy too. His distinctive booming voice, his bug eyed manic intensity, his obsession with Jelly Babies, the famous scarf, his felt hat, and baggy Annie Hall wardrobe. Carrying himself like an eccentric college professor, Doctor Four wandered the universe exploring planets that resembled British quarries, and visited a myriad of alien space-stations that just happened to look like the insides of British refineries or the basement boiler-room at the BBC. Doctor Four had the highest viewership of the classic Dr Who era, especially in his early seasons when producer Philip Hinchcliffe and great writers like Robert Holmes took the show into darker territory, and their cocktail of Hammer Horror with a sci-fi garnish expanded the Doctor Who mythos. In this golden era we met the evil creator of The Daleks, Davros, a maniacal scientist with Josef Mengele’s twisted mind and Stephen Hawking’s ravishing good looks. And we finally saw Gallifrey and its society! >GASP!< Back then, Doctor Who was screened every week night in a serial format with a daily cliff hanger, whereby the Doctor or his sidekick was sure to be cornered by a googly-eyed menace just before the nightly ABC news. TV programming often clashed with Mum’s coveted vision of The Family eating a civilised meal together at the table, because 5pm-7pm we kids were fixated on fun stuff (Battle of The Planets, Kimba, Speed Racer, The Goodies, F-Troop and Dr Who) and 7pm onward, grownups wanted to watch their shows too (All Creatures Great and Small, Barnaby Jones, Upstairs Downstairs, etc) so dinner was often crammed in where it fit best.
When The Doctor got his robot dog, K-9, I loved it, being only 13 years old, but recognised a forced attempt at a R2D2-esque character especially ‘for the kiddies’. There was a shift in tone away from the darker sci-fi of a few years prior, due to (A) Tom Baker’s increasingly campy delivery and (B) a battle over dark themes in childrens’ media being won by Mary Whitehouse, who’d targeted Doctor Who’s ‘monster of the week’ format in particular. Morality crusaders like her and Fredric Wertham (the anti-comics killjoy) sure sucked the fun out of being a kid, and they’d not paid attention anyway; Myths, Fairy Tales and Legends had always spelunked the subconscious human murk (and should, if they are to resonate). Producers Graham Williams (and later, John Nathan-Turner) were assigned to oversee a milder Doctor Who, but couldn’t control the scenery-chewing Tom Baker. Despite good writers (such as Douglas Adams) the show devolved into camp, and never again attained its earlier high ratings in the classic era. I was older and, with a few exceptions, Doctor Who no longer chilled nor thrilled me. The Who-viewing sofa cushion had passed to my younger siblings, and when Tom Baker left in 1981 I lost interest. He’d become Doctor Four when I was 10 years old, and hung up his scarf in my final year of high school.
Next thing you know, the real world needle-scratched my life when my mother got terminal cancer and died. I left home, moved to the big city (where I was too broke to have a TV) and started working. Then I left Australia and was overseas travelling in Asia and Europe till the end of the decade. I was dimly aware that there’d been some New Whos; the Young Doctor (with question mark jacket and celery boutonniere) a Cranky Harlequin Doctor (in multi-coloured jacket) and a Sad Clown Doctor (covered in question marks). Then the show ended (or so we thought) after an unbroken broadcast history of 26 years; 1963-1989, and I’d been MIA as an active Doctor Who fan for almost the entire 1980s. I moved to the USA, and settled in San Francisco in 1991. Then in 1996 there was a NEW Doctor Who; a dreamy Steampunk Heart-Throb Doctor (in Edwardian threads and retro Tardis) with his own TV movie. Even though I’d been a childhood fan, and the New Who was set in the city where I was living myself at the time, I still missed the film and most other people did too. It failed to connect with the American audience that the relaunch had aimed for, and Doctor Who went away as soon as he’d returned.
Then in 2005, Doctor Who was back with a new TV series, 9 years after he was last broadcast. Without pinning all the hopes for success on the US market this time, the relaunched Doctor would succeed or fail based on the reception in Britain. Everything in the recipe got a teeny tweak. In keeping with the original series’ clever rationalisation of logistical necessities, a retconned reason for The Doctor’s long absence from the media was written into the show; he’d been busy fighting, and ending, the universe-spanning Time War. This grim development, not to mention the long hiatus since the fan base had seen him, gave the writers justification for a changed Doctor besides. The 21st century relaunch of the show was lovingly done by people who grew up on the classic series and had a fan’s reverence for the material, while making plenty of bold choices. Russel T. Davies wisely dispensed with the cliff hanger serial format that made the classic series inaccessible to many (catching just the 4th episode of a 6 episode serial on PBS was a recipe for alienation) making each New Who episode much more self-explanatory.
21st century Doctor Who dispensed with whimsy. Doctor Nine had no twee wardrobe; just a black leather jacket, dark shirt and jeans. No fixations on Jelly Babies or other kiddie treats. Even the Doctor’s traditional shock of unruly hair was gone, close cropped into a fighter’s cut, befitting a character who’d destroyed his foes and had been forced to erase his own civilisation as well. Christopher Eccleston’s Damaged Alien Loner had already been in a brawl of cosmic proportions and was ready to head-butt any alien oik that gave him any more shit (“OI!” BONK “Stitch that!”) Despite his lanky intensity, Doctor Nine brought more than enough warmth and humour for audiences to connect with and the relaunch was a worldwide hit. It rekindled the 9 year old Dr Who fan inside of me and I wish all reboots, re-imaginings and relaunches were done with such care and boldness. People who’d never watched classic Doctor Who, and longtime fans who’d gobbled that old cheese platter (like me) both loved it. Russel T. Davies proved he understood Doctor Who’s malt blend of naff and cool by how he handled The Daleks. Traditionally, these robo-Nazis had menaced the universe with the twin horrors of (A) a gun and (B) a toilet plunger, but better yet, the new slicker production kept it that way and made it work. Most Sci-Fi/fantasy reboots betray a deep embarrassment at the material (“Do the X-Men have to wear the garish costumes?” “Can Thor lose the helmet?”) and it’s a certainty that in other hands, the Daleks would have lost the plumber’s helper.
Having Doctor Nine’s very first adventure feature those childhood terrors of mine, The Nestene Consciousness & The Autons, makes me wonder if a 7 year old Russell T. Davies likewise cringed in terror on his family couch as a kid. He and Christopher Ecclestone brought The Doctor back from the dead and not predictably, but by adding complex shadings that we’d never seen before. The Doctor’s new companion, Rose, brought a new dimension to the show, not only in her relationship with The Doctor but her relationship to others. There’d been many companions in the history of Dr Who, but I don’t remember meeting a companion’s family before, and The Doctor being embroiled in their lives too. Sadly, Christopher Eccleston became the George Lazenby of the Doctor Who series, when he decided to leave the show. Like Lazenby (whose James Bond interpretation I happen to like) I’m made to wonder what might have been, had Eccleston continued for a few more seasons and fleshed-out his wonderful Doctor Nine characterisation, but after only one season The Doctor was forced to regenerate. This time it wasn’t a Dalek or Cyberman raygun blast that got him, but a lethal dose of production politics.
Doctor Ten had big shoes to fill, and they were not simply another pair of the previous guy’s combat boots but something new; the sneakers of David Tennant’s Supernatural Boyfriend take on The Doctor. Teen crushes used to be the speciality of David Cassidy, Ricky Martin, Justin Bieber and other wholesome pop stars, yearned-for from afar by undies-wetting teen girls. But the 21st century trend is for other-worldly dreamboats to tantalise the teeny boppers. Like the sparkly-skinned immortal vampires of Twilight- oh so dreamy, yet oh so far away. The Who Crew saw their moment, and repurposed The Doctor as the near-immortal 900 year old crush that could never be, and boy did that idea find traction, making Doctor Ten unimaginably more popular than any Doctor before; The Doctor as Beatle. Doctor Ten is the iconic character-defining role for the relaunched series. He’s dreamy, fast talking, cocky, dreamy, swaggering, egotistical, dreamy, charming, fierce, and DREAMY. My inner 9 year old says “Ptooey! Yuck!”, noting that mushy-stuff, repressed or otherwise, was never part of the Doctor’s interactions with his companions, but the post-relaunch relationships work because they’re not only about romance and include more sophistication than the classic series ever did. We meet the companions’ families, and are made to think about the consequences of travelling through time and space with an ageless alien. In the classic show, the entrance of the Tardis was a revolving door and the companions merely came and went, but in the new series we meet an older Sarah Jane Smith, the most popular companion of the classic era, and realise how devastated she was when The Doctor moved on. She’s grown older by 40 years while, tragically, the Doctor seems younger.
The romantic relationship between Doctor Ten and his companion, Rose, gave added depth not only to the stories but also to the experience of enjoying the show itself. Watching Doctor Who with my girlfriend (who enjoyed it as much as I) was a new and enjoyable experience for a lifelong Who-nerd and inspired me to re-watch episodes of classic Doctor Who, eager to cherry-pick the good ones and watch them together. After several days of sitting through dodgy video production values, foam-core sets, polystyrene monsters and padded scripts, I thought better of it.. As much as I love those old episodes, they are often better in the retelling than the re-watching.. Meanwhile in the relaunched Who, Doctor Ten’s main squeeze, Rose, departed and he was forlorn. After several hundred years of space-celibacy he’d finally found a neat girlfriend and she gets stranded in another universe. Bummer. Poor heartsbroken Doctor Ten found himself a new companion but gave her the ‘let’s be friends‘ treatment, and Martha personified that romantic yearning that defined the era of Doctor Ten; quivering with unrequited passion in nearly every scene, she was a stand-in for millions of females around planet Earth. With his next companion, Donna, there were no romantic undercurrents at all, and Doctor Ten seemed to unravel at the lack of lady-vibes, getting more manic and desperate as his episodes wore on. Until, in his farewell story he finally says, plaintively; “I don’t want to go!” But you have to go, bro. You can’t work that hot smouldering romance angle too often, or The Doctor would become a time traveling Casanova. Doctor Who: Space Horndog. We’d zigged, and now it was time to zag.
The previous two incarnations of The Doctor downplayed eccentricities, but Matt Smith’s Captain Quirk brought back the whimsicalities that defined the character when I was a child. Doctors Nine and Ten dressed ‘cool’, but Doctor Eleven favoured fezzes or bow ties, and had a childlike obsession with eating ‘Jammy Dodgers ’. Instead of intense brooding, or a swaggering bravado, he had a gangly whimsy and a geeky romantic-awkwardness that resonated with my inner 9 year old. He was nerdy, energetic, eccentric, warm, funny and, being most like my fave Doctors of the classic era, Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, I liked him right away. Steven Moffat had written some of my favourite recent episodes of Dr Who (’The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’ ’Blink’ and ’The Girl In The Fireplace’) and his scripts used TIME in particularly clever ways. Now my fave writer was running the series, with my fave post-relaunch Doctor at the controls of the Tardis, and I liked the idea of him traveling with a married couple. So I settled down to enjoy the shit out of the show.. but liked the ingredients more than the pie that was actually baked.
It was hard to figure out why.. Maybe it was a case of idea-rrhea? Too many clever ideas per episode, too many characters being whimsical all at once, each speaking incredibly clever lines, incredibly quickly, so that 90 minutes of ideas could be jammed into 45 minutes? Or was it The Ponds? I enjoyed the episodes where they were downplayed, only one of them was present, or they were absent altogether. They’re very popular, that Too-cute Two, but maybe their charms just didn’t work on me? That’s OK, there have been many companions in 50 years, and nobody loves ALL of them, so I waited for their inevitable goodbye episode. The pregnant Amy episode? No. The Pond wedding? No. The domestic bliss episode? No. The Ponds became one of the longest running companions in the new series. Sigh. But as soon as they finally did leave, and Clara showed up, I enjoyed Doctor Eleven’s shows as much as I’d liked Matt Smith from day one with a great run of stuff leading up to 2013’s theatrically screened 50th birthday episode.
A wonderful ‘multiple Doctor’ episode marked the 50 years since Dr Who first launched in 1963, reminding me of a similar episode of my childhood, The Three Doctors, though the 50th birthday was more cleverly done than the 10th. The surprise was John Hurt’s War Doctor, a previously unknown regeneration of The Doctor blamed for wiping out The Daleks and the Timelords in the Time War. John Hurt was marvelous but I would’ve enjoyed the story even more if Doctor Nine had been the one burdened with firing the shot that wiped out his enemies, but at the cost of destroying his own people too. This was the intention, but Eccleston didn’t want to party, more’s the pity. After the anniversary it was back to the regular episodes and, like all versions of The Docor, Doctor Eleven had to regenerate and turn into someone else. It happened just as his episodes were really hitting their stride, but this is actually the best way to do it.
When your trusted doctor retires and a new MD joins the practice it’s always stressful, and for we nerds, adjusting to a new Doctor Who is no different. Initially, you don’t know what to make of the new guy. Who is he? And is he WHO? Then you learn to trust him. Love him even, and look forward to your get-togethers. Then he leaves, and you go through it all again. Twelve times. Peter Capaldi’s Intense Alien Ranter version of the Doctor replaces the whimsical warmth of the previous version with a new slant on the character. Doctor Twelve is hard to get a bead on after only one episode, but seemed emotionally detached from his companions. He swung from being distant, to a vulnerable intensity, but he was always entertaining to watch, and I am eager to see where this new exploration of the character goes.
That other ‘eccentric genius’ iconic hero, Sherlock Holmes, is written as being coldly alien in his intellect, whereas The Doctor, who IS an alien intellectual, is mostly portrayed as warmly humane. Will a weirdly cold and alien Doctor simply morph into a Space Sherlock? With Steven Moffat at the helm of both franchises, it’s a distinct possibility; there’s a danger in having one clever creative do everything. Likewise, when JJ Abrams does both Star Wars and Star Trek, will Lucas’ sword-and-sorcery pulp space fantasy and Roddenberry’s futurist utopian world merge into one big bowl of generic sci-fi gruel? (We nerds agonise over such quandaries.) Doctor Twelve may seem strange to new fans who’ve never seen the classic series but the first Doctor was cranky, and the second was distracted and at times irritable too. Doctor Twelve’s clothes remind me of the Third Doctor, and like Capaldi, all of the first three actors to play the character were in their 50s. It seems that show-runner Steven Moffat is tacking back towards the Doctors from the early years of the show, that he (like me) grew up with in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Adjusting to a new Doctor is often tricky, sometimes it takes a while, but inevitably you end up liking them all, and the extra shadings that each brings to the role. The contrasts between the different incarnations of the Doctor keep the character alive and moving forward, and he’s been growing and expanding for 50 years. Now that the show is a worldwide success it’s bold to shift focus again, allowing for even broader interpretations in future. The great thing about The Doctor is how he can be many things at once and still be identifiably himself. However if, for whatever reason you do not like the New Who, take comfort in the fact that you’ll only have to wait as long as it takes to make a new Ironman movie till there’s another, altogether different, yet still recognisable, WHO.