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?