All Things New (and Doctor Who)

As of next week I will have been blogging for a year.  Since this time last year I’ve moved to a new home thousands of miles from the previous one, begun a new profession, and published over 100 thousand words in this space, but that’s not all.  I’ve also become a WHOVIAN, a fan of the British (BBC Wales) TV show “Doctor Who”.

I may be impressed by how much I wrote last year, but it’s no comparison to the enormous weight of words written for and about the Doctor.  Doctor Who is the world’s longest-running exercise in the performance of speculative fiction.  The television serials since 1963 number over 750 episodes, and there are hundreds more radio and stage plays, novels, short stories, magazines, games and what-have-you.  There’s so much material you would have to quit your job, stay celibate and devote all your waking hours to be able to take it all in.  I was slightly familiar with the exploits of the third and fourth Doctors in the ‘70s, but I am primarily a fan of the show in its current robust incarnation, begun in 2005.

There’s a difference between having a “hit” and making something that remains popular over enough time to become iconic.  A creation in sync with current tastes can become a hit, but that can’t last.  Fads and fashions change.  For a work to be durable it must have symbolic resonance.  The heroes, villains and story themes must remind the audience of other times and situations that affected them deeply.  Star Trek is as American as the Wild West, and Doctor Who is as British as fish and chips.

In order to appreciate Doctor Who you must realize that it is a well-budgeted television form of what we in the U.S. call Children’s Theater.  The energy and plotting, even the look of the show is like a good live stage version of Peter Pan.  If you attend a Children’s Play you get to reawaken the child in yourself.  And in the UK they have a hybrid stage tradition called PANTO, in which actors from TV shows and movies perform musical parodies of their shows and classic tales containing double-entendre material to amuse the adults in the audience.  There’s definitely a bit of Alice in Wonderland going on as we follow Dr. Rabbit down the time tunnel.

The Doctor (no surname required) is a figure of whimsy.  The character is an ancient survivor from a race of time travelers called the Time Lords, but he looks and behaves like a human.  More specifically he’s an eccentric, a renegade individualist.  His “ship”, the TARDIS (time and relative dimension in space) affords him travel to anywhere and anywhen in the universe.  However, due to a malfunction in some disguise circuitry it looks like a 1950s London police call box.  Oh, and it’s much bigger when you go inside than it looks from the outside.

The Doctor’s enemies are a variety of aliens and humans representing conformity, militarism, megalomania and fundamentalism.  The most popular recurring villains are a race of mutated mollusks encased in weaponized tank suits.  Their master plan is to exterminate all inferior beings (anyone not of their race).  You know, NAZIS…uh, wait I meant DALEKS.

Though the Doctor is a free bird he travels with human companions, usually female.  The companion and the Doctor are close, but not in love exactly.  It’s the kind of intimacy created between the survivors of shared combat.  The world must be saved again and again.  The heroes are outnumbered.  The solution is to outwit and outmaneuver the opponents, or change the game when it’s unwinnable if played by the rules.  Aside from a sonic screwdriver that can open any lock, the Doctor carries no weapons.  He’s the weapon.  Nine centuries worth of knowledge and experience make him dangerous as an enemy and valuable as an ally.

The BBC Wales version of the series offers exciting “what if” stories taking us with the Doctor to adventures not only with extraterrestrials, but also back in time to Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh and (woo-hoo!) Vampire Babes in 1580 Venice.

Back in 1963 an actor who had to be replaced when he got sick played the first Doctor.  A clever script editor and producer turned this unfortunate situation to creative advantage.  When a Time Lord’s number is up, he gets REGENERATED into a new body AND gets a new personality.  It’s a function of the psychic-biological link between the Doctor and the TARDIS.  The magic vehicle affords the character a new life, and the show can be re-cast whenever a new actor is needed for as long as it has an audience.  The Doctor is therefore not only freed from space-time boundaries by where the flying phone box can go, but he’s free from the limitations placed on a physical body by age, injury or disease.  Establishing a character’s ability to plausibly cheat death adds a whole heap of symbolic resonance, so Doctor Who has generations of fans numbering in the millions.

Before the 2005 restart, the show had to rely more upon imaginative stories and the performance skills of the actors because the BBC never had the time or money for movie-quality special effects.  That’s worked before on shows like The Twilight Zone.  But the shows featuring the ninth to the eleventh Doctor now also have great-looking CGI, surround-sound and full orchestral scores.  This is a good time to talk about the power of sound in film and TV, something I learned in a previous body before my current regeneration.

Sound and music fx are much cheaper to produce than visuals, and they convince audiences of impossible things in ways seeing can’t.  Sound stimulates a different area of our cerebral cortex than seeing does.  Neurologically speaking, it’s a more intuitive, mysterious area of the brain, one we have less understanding of.  Music can take you places emotionally that pictures can’t, and we will believe in the reality of props and weapons that are actually made of lightweight, cheap materials – if they appear to make heavy, powerful noises.  To be entirely honest, I contend that people believe what they hear more than what they see.  If the Death Star didn’t blow up with an awesome KABOOM (an impossibility in space), no one would believe it wasn’t just a model.

The original opening title music for Doctor Who was an example of creating something unforgettable through imaginative sound design.  It was made decades before synthesizers existed by a time-consuming process of recording each single pitch using an electronic tone generator.  The single notes were recorded to audiotape, the tapes were physically cut and spliced together and re-recorded through early echo boxes.  Additional electronic hisses and swooshes were mixed in from separate sources.  The theme was married to visuals of video feedback obtained from pointing a tube camera at its own monitor.

Because the show has a huge audience, they get great guest stars and cameos.  Derek Jacobi and Alex Kingston had fun parts, and I loved seeing EastEnder-ers like Barbara Windsor and Michelle Ryan.  Handsome John Barrowman’s action hero character proved so popular he got a spin-off series, the more adult-themed Torchwood.  (Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who.)  But what keeps me coming back most is that I like the dynamic of the central couple, the Doctor and the female companion.  All three Doctors and all the various companions have preserved the sense of wonder required in a “What If?” show.

What if you could go anywhere in time or space?

Where would you go?

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17 Comments

Filed under Acting, Music, photos, symbolism, Television

17 responses to “All Things New (and Doctor Who)

  1. Pie

    This is a fabulous post, Mikey. What a way to start 2011!

    Your knowledge of Dr Who is scary. You’re a proper Whovian alright. I watched Dr Who as a child and although many people say that Tom Baker was the definitive Doctor, I preferred Jon Pertwee. I started to lose interest in the show from Peter Davison onwards, though I enjoyed the TV movie version with Paul McGann. I thought he would be the next Doctor, but it didn’t happen. When news came out that Dr Who was to be revived, I wasn’t sure about it, but when I heard that Christopher Eccleston was going to be the Doctor, I perked up. And so it was proven that he was a very good Doctor indeed. But then he quit. Fortunately, David Tennant, who I had seen in other TV shows and enjoyed his work, became the next Doctor. He was fantastic. We have Matt Smith now and although he’s had big shoes to fill, I think he’s done well.

    I absolutely loved the clip you put here about the theme music over the years. It was an eye opener for me, reading about the development of the theme, right down to the changing logo and the type of font used in the titles (they seemed to like Futura an awful lot).

    If I were to go anywhere, it would be a parallel Earth, where all our current decisions, the type of people we have in power, the positions of countries in terms of wealth and resources and the treatment of people in terms of race and nationality would work in reverse. Would we treat each other better, or would it be the same old, same old? That would be very interesting indeed.

  2. In the case of this subject, I consider positive feedback from a genuine East ender to be worth dozens of reactions from Yanks. I must credit “TheOtherKaneda”, a superfan from Denmark for that wonderful look back on the Doctor Who title theme. Ron Grainer also composed music for That Was The Week That Was, Steptoe and Son, and this classic show:

  3. Mikey,
    Thanks for this post. I keep hearing about Doctor Who as though it’s a new thing, though my brain keeps telling me I’ve heard about it all my life. Now I understand. And you’ve actually succeeded in making me want to watch this. Oh, by the way I was a big fan of The Prisoner. A frustrating and addicting show.

  4. I’m happy to have left you a bit wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, Matt.
    (That’s from “Blink”/Episode 39, tenth Doctor)
    I’m right there with you on The Prisoner. I was in high school when that showed here. Talk about a perfect show for rebellious youth…

  5. COOL NEWS! This post was featured as “Pick of the Blogs” by a Doctor Who fan blog. (I’m flattered.)

    http://tardisnewsroom.blogspot.com/2011/01/new-big-finish-covers-plus-pick-of.html

  6. I’m still learning from you, while I’m improving myself. I absolutely enjoy reading everything that is written on your website.Keep the stories coming. I liked it

  7. Doctor Who is an incredible show. My daughter and I are HUGE fans, though she only watches David Tennant’s 10th Doctor. She has a few seasons on DVD and they make for a great marathon.
    There was a working Dalek at the Fan Expo comic convention we attended last year and it scared the crap out of my daughter!

  8. Very late to the party but I had no idea you are a Dr Who fan. It’s my one big geeky love. In fact, my love of reading is probably almost entirely due to devouring Target novilizations of Dr Who stories. 6,000 miles away at Mums there’s a box in her attic with over 100 of the novels.

    Also, if you like it when Who meets Eastenders, you should check out The Time Warrior as that features a pre-Dot Cotton June Brown. Also the first story to feature Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith.

    • Indeed it was I who am the latecomer to appreciating the show itself. In thinking more about it, I believe it took until the current re-boot to catch on here because US viewers are more oriented to posh special effects. In the UK, viewers could suspend disbelief more readily, so the acting prowess of those from Mr. Pertwee on was enough. There’s more pure theatrical tradition there. Here, storytelling must be accompanied by sufficient production design to satisfy.

      I was so sad to have missed out on more appreciation of Lis Sladen, but her most recent show was never available here. We’ve only seen her younger companion days, and the guest roles in the new Doctor Who. I could tell from those that there was a lot of backstory our audiences lacked.

  9. Pingback: The Best of Mikey (so far) | Invisible Mikey

  10. Pingback: » Big DOCTOR WHO 50th Anniversary Doings TVWriter.Com

  11. Larry Brody, my TV Writer pal, re-blogged this over at his site in an article about the “50th anniversary of Doctor Who” celebrations coming up in the UK! – http://tvwriter.net/?p=12011

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