Do you know about the impossible girl? How about the girl who waited (for 12 years and then again for 36), or her other half, the boy who waited (for 2000)? There are others: the woman who forgot the greatest adventure ever; the woman who became a doctor and a warrior; the woman who was forever lost to another dimension. And there is the stolen daughter raised as would-be assassin, but who instead became a wife traveling backwards in time.
Do you know about deadly monsters encased in metal armor? How about fearsome monsters that are as stone statues when you look at them, but who remove you from time when you don’t?
Most of all, do you know about the madman with a box?
If you know these things, you are probably a fan of the greatest science fiction television show ever; a show called Doctor Who.
I don’t say “greatest” lightly. I rarely have a favorite anything. I have “Top 5” lists (or Top 10 or 25, depending on how many candidates vie for tops). And I can be fickle — new sometimes replaces old.
Consider also that, while I have a Top 5 TV Shows Ever, I exclude Star Trek from that list because it’s such a core aspect of my television landscape. It’s too important to be on some list with other — lesser — vehicles.
But while Star Trek is special and above all others, Doctor Who is to me as much above it as it is above the others. So Doctor Who is pretty damn good, is what I’m saying!
At the very least, it’s the longest-running SF TV series in the world and the most successful one (so says The Book of Guinness). It’s that rare combination: acclaimed by critics, beloved by fans.
Rightly so. Since it began in 1963, there have been stories rich in texture and detail — deep, clever stories filled with joy and adventure and loss and pain.
Put it this way: Doctor Who is intelligent science fiction written by intelligent people for an intelligent audience. If Star Wars is a fairy tale for children, and Star Trek is (sorry: was) an adventure for young adults, Doctor Who is for mature adults (of any age).
The stories are darker, sometimes sad, sometimes touching, but filled with a lust for life and adventure no matter the danger. A principle that often applies is, “Look after you leap.” Another frequent principle is, “Run!”
It’s hard to stop gushing. I’m sleep-deprived, emotionally wrung out and out of phase with my internal clock. It was worse last week when I’d planned to write this. It’s taken me days to recover enough to write this post, and the trail isn’t fully traveled yet.
Ironically, my happy malaise is because The Doctor is in. More accurately, The Doctor is back. Even more accurately, The Doctor is back and he’s new!
Getting down to tacks of brass, a new season of Doctor Who has begun! In celebration, last week the BBC America channel staged a week-long Doctor Who marathon. Starting on a Sunday (Aug 17) they showed the entire “revived” series — the seven seasons that began in 2005. Last Saturday they aired the first episode of the new season (eight).
Since I haven’t seen most of the very early ones in a while (and in many cases have only seen them once), I determined to — as much as humanly possible — watch them all! The problem is it required watching 16 to 20 hours a day.
Hence the sleep deprivation. It not only required long hours, but — for the first time since I retired over a year ago — setting my alarm clock! For the ungodly hour of 7:00. That’s AM; in the morning AM. Which, if you’ve been up until 2:00 AM in the same morning, is harder than you might think.
Which explains why my internal clock is out of phase. I’m still having to get up at 7:00, because they’re re-running the very first episodes at 7:00 and 8:00, and I didn’t start the marathon until somewhere in season two.
I’m emotionally wrung out because the stories are so compelling, so evocative. Especially when viewed in a constant succession, the seven seasons comprise an epic tale that seems unparalleled in scope and depth. It is a tale that covers the entire universe and all of time.
It’s hard to explain Doctor Who, because it’s just so much bigger on the inside. You can’t talk about one episode without invoking others. There are so many lovely pieces that fit together in astonishing ways.
For example, the show is titled, Doctor Who, but there is no character named, “Who” (doctor or otherwise). There is only the question, the first question, a question often asked, but never answered: “Doctor who?” By the end of the seventh season, we learn just how important the answer to that question is. Yet the question has been there, in plain sight, since the show began.
[When I mention seasons here I’m speaking of the seasons of the revived series, which began in 2005. The original series (the original SF TV show with an “original” series) began in 1963 and ran for 26 seasons, ending in 1989. There was also a TV movie in 1996. (Episode List)]
The central character of Doctor Who is known only as “The Doctor.” He is an alien who looks human (although he has two hearts and a four-beat heart beat). One thing that makes the show brilliant is that The Doctor periodically regenerates — his old body dies and a new one is formed.
This allows the show to use different actors over time — a key reason the show can run so long while still experiencing the changes of time. It also allows each new Doctor to have a completely different personality. This regenerates the show as it regenerates The Doctor.
Another key element is that The Doctor has Companions — Earth humans (typically one) who act to remind The Doctor of his moral duty. Companions also act as a bridge between the audience and The Doctor, who — despite his human aspect — is alien and ancient and sometimes cold and (seemingly) uncaring.
The Companions are usually female, but always good, strong characters as complex, memorable and engaging as The Doctor himself. They change over time as well, usually (but not always) when The Doctor changes. These changes also bring new tones to the song.
And finally, the TARDIS, the intelligent vehicle that can travel all of time and space, but which is stuck in its disguise mode: a 1960s British Police Box. The TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) sometimes changes inside when a new Doctor redecorates.
And, like humans, like life, the TARDIS is much bigger inside. Huge, really. There’s a swimming pool, a vast library and at least seven squash courts. Perhaps, like humans, the TARDIS is infinite inside and can be anything it needs to be.
As heroes go, The Doctor is unlike any other. He won’t touch any gun, and he doesn’t brawl. He is armed only with a tool — his sonic screwdriver (a tool so sophisticated that Star Trek‘s tricorder seems a stone axe). But make no mistake, The Doctor has the death of billions weighing on his soul. He is aptly named. Sometimes doctors must kill to heal.
That darkness is part of what makes the song so poignant. Endings aren’t always happy, people die or are lost.
There are sacrifices, and sometimes even the sweet parts have some bitterness. But even so, we find ourselves uplifted and rejoicing.
What follows are some random notes — bits and pieces recorded over the last week or so that I want to document. They don’t have a coherent order, and as River Song might say, “Spoilers!”
Favorite Episodes (in no particular order): The Doctor’s Wife (written by Neil Gaiman!); Vincent and the Doctor (the scene where van Gogh, who died unregarded, travels to the future to learn how his work endured and is revered rips my heart to shreds every time); Blink (an episode in which The Doctor hardly appears); The Day of The Doctor (seeing three Doctors working together is fun, the story is amazing, and seeing Tom Baker at the end makes the whole thing the best 50th anniversary celebration ever).
Favorite Doctors (in order): David Tennant (by a whisker); Matt Smith (I’m gonna miss him); Christopher Eccleston (darker, angrier); Peter Capaldi (the new Doctor, but an older, much less pleasant Doctor — not sure about him, yet).
Favorite Companions (in order): Idris (the personification of the TARDIS); River Song (The Doctor’s Wife); Martha Jones (actual medical doctor and warrior); Clara Oswald (the impossible girl); Donna Noble (who forgets it all); Rose Tyler (who is lost, but ends up with a Doctor anyway); Astrid Peth (alas, she only sang one stanza); all the others (in no particular order) except; Amy and Rory Pond.
(To be totally honest, I never really took to Amy Pond. She’s a great character, no mistake, but her personality grated on me just ever so slightly. As an example, in The Doctor’s Wife, when she and Rory were trapped in the TARDIS, she twice runs ahead of Rory, which results in Rory being trapped behind her. Once, okay, but after that time, she really ought to have stayed with the poor fellow.)
¶ You really have to credit the show with amazing female characters. Part of the show’s magic is the richness and strength of supporting roles. They’re all individuals, not the calculated “types” that inhabit most shows.
¶ Proof that Doctor Who is better than Star Trek: The former includes the latter! Various characters have mentioned Star Trek, so it’s part of the Who universe.
What’s more, some episodes borrow basic ideas from Star Trek and take them in really interesting new directions. The Waters of Mars plays homage to The Naked Time and The Naked Now (favorite episodes of mine). And The Girl Who Waited borrows an idea from another favorite: The Inner Light.
¶ In the first episode of the first season, when Rose meets The Doctor, they play with the “Doctor who?” question. She asks, “Doctor what?” When Clara sees the inside of the TARDIS for the first time (in The Snowmen), rather than the usual statement (“It’s bigger on the inside!”) she says, “It’s smaller outside.”
¶ The Doctor as a dangerous and dark force of nature is clear from the beginning. Some quotes:
- “He brings a storm in his wake!”
- “He has one constant companion: death!”
- “If you see him, one thing is certain: we’re all in danger!”
- “If The Doctor is making house calls, then god help you!”
At the same time, there is no question that The Doctor is a hero and savior. He has saved the human race (which he loves) time and time again.
¶ A complicated word that is so much bigger on the inside: “alive.” (Idris)
¶ The Doctor and River Song (his wife) living front-to-back. That’s so sad, but yet another brilliant idea!
¶ Weeping Angels: scariest monsters ever!! But brilliant idea!
¶ In The Name of The Doctor we see what The Doctor refers to as the “tracks of my tears.” He’s referring to the column of rotating light tracks representing his travels through time and space — something which has created tears (rips) in spacetime. I was struck by “tears” (crying) and “tears” (rips). In The Doctor’s case, both apply.
¶ Two common phrases occur many times: “No more!” and “Run!”
¶ Another striking phrase is, “I don’t want to go!” which is often said by The Doctor as he regenerates to a new body (and actor). I can’t help but think the actor feels that deeply and means it for himself as well as for the character!
¶ From the beginning, the show’s producers used time travel to take the audience back to real historical events in order to stimulate interest in history. The Doctor has visited (among others): Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Vincent van Gogh, Queen Elizabeth I (whom he marries), Madame de Pompadour, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Agatha Christie and the fall of Pompeii.
¶ Some coincidental icing on my cake: The Minnesota Twins scored 20 runs against the Detroit Tigers during the marathon! A high score they haven’t achieved in years, and the highest scoring ballgame for any club this year!
¶ Those Dodge Dart “don’t touch my Dart” commercials are my new candidate for worst, most stupid and offensive commercials on TV. Firstly, I thought the new young ethic was sharing. Secondly, the apparent message is, “Assholes drive Darts.” Thirdly, what a sad waste of Craig Robinson.