"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Clever Title About Why You Should Watch Doctor Who

You could say I've been a science fiction geek from a pretty early age. But growing up, I didn't watch Doctor Who. All I knew about it was a mishmash of sci-fi hokum, cheesy effects, big white-guy afros, and somehow Gary Glitter was mixed up in there, too. I'd seen bits of the show on PBS stations early Saturday mornings or late Friday nights, but it always seemed at least a decade dated and I could only watch for a few moments before losing interest. I remember once distinctly thinking I was watching cable access, like someone was making their own version of Doctor Who in their backyard, when Tom Baker entered the shot and I realized it was the real show.
How I knew who Tom Baker was, I don't know. Perhaps my hyper-awareness of the goings-on in pop culture began before I knew it. Perhaps I'm just a giant nerd.

Then in 2005 or thereabouts (it might have been 2006 when it started in America), I saw ads that the SciFi channel was going to start broadcasting a new version of Doctor Who, and I ranked it right up there with the SciFi Saturday night features like The Big Radioactive Skunk Terror starring Dana Plato and Willie Aames.

Dude, you gotta have a poker face like me.
So I don't know what compelled me to check out the show. Some lingering longing to know what Doctor Who was all about. To know what has made this concept one of the longest-running in the history of television. To know why a Timelord would travel in a phone booth. Which is a perfectly legitimate question coming from a guy who chose to see Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure for a second time, rather than wait in line just to park for a concert at Red Rocks. (In case that reference was just too abstruse, Bill and Ted travel through time in a phone booth, it's still a freakin' hilarious movie, and parking at Red Rocks is an expensive nightmare.)

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was called "Father's Day," half-way into Series One. Christopher Eccleston is the Ninth Doctor, and Billie Piper is Rose, The Doctor's current companion. (Another aside for the neophytes: The Doctor regenerates when he gets wounded. He can die, but he doesn't. He just changes shape and looks different. This is convenient, obviously, as a new actor can play The Doctor and we don't go, "Why is Darrin Stephens a different man now?" And The Doctor almost always travels with a female companion. It's not as creepy as it might sound.)
Don't worry, Rose, I'll soon be invisible on Heroes.

Anyway, Rose lost her father and never knew him. In this episode, Rose goes back in time and meets her father on the day he's supposed to die. Of course Rose wants to save him, even though The Doctor is adamant about not changing certain events in time. They all end up being trapped together with a wedding party in a church that's threatened by some bad CGI bat-things The Doctor calls Reapers. I would have been turned off by the shoddy effects, thinking that they could have tried to do things better than they did thirty years ago, but I was already drawn in by funny dialogue, a clever time paradox story, and stellar acting. By the end of the episode (no spoiler here: you know Rose wouldn't be able to save her father), I totally felt Rose's loss and I loved the way The Doctor handled the situation.

He married her. Who needs an Emmy?
That episode's not even one of the best. More than a few episodes have left me emotionally moved. There's a danger that others might find the show overly sentimental, but I think the writers have found just the right balance of actual sentiment and heavy-handedness. The music swells, sometimes people die, and the actors are awesome. What they say is sometimes sci-fi gibberish worse than Star Trek engineering speak ("Captain, the dilithium warp drive has reversed the transdimentionality of the starboard nacelle. It's dead, Jim.") And sometimes they're saying it to clumsy robots or clumsily rendered CGI or rubber-faced monsters, but they do it with humor and gusto. David Tennant really should be recognized for his work as the Tenth Doctor. (My understanding is that the show is fairly popular in Britain, so he probably has all the props he deserves. Plus, he married Georgia Moffett after she was a guest star on the episode "The Doctor's Daughter" in Series Four.)

Most of the effects are passable, despite my complaining, but for some reason the main baddies are still just as cheesy as they looked back in 1973. Maybe they're working with models that were created so long ago and felt they shouldn't change or something. But it is a lot to ask us to consider the Daleks the worst threat in the universe when they sound like they're speaking through a harmonica and they shoot death rays out of the toilet plungers jutting from they're bejeweled, soda-can casings.

Why do even angel statues look sinister?
Sometimes they get the antagonists just right, though. One of the best episodes is called "Blink," and the evil aliens are creepy angel statues. It's another brainy, time paradox kind of story, and the brilliant part is that The Doctor and his companion (Martha Jones in Series Three) are really just peripheral characters. Another great episode from Series Two called "Love and Monsters" is told from the point of view of a character obsessed with finding The Doctor, and The Doctor and Rose are barely in it. Great, witty storytelling.

What's that on your forehead?
There's an Eleventh Doctor in town now. He's played by Matt Smith. His companion is Amy Pond. They're pretty cute together, but I've forgotten almost everything about the Series 5 I watched last year. I'm sure it will come back to me when Series 6 begins in America on April 23.

Sing Blue Silver for me, would ya?
I've already said more than you care to know, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention Torchwood. In this spinoff series, Torchwood is an organization that was actually The Doctor's nemesis in Series Two. Then Captain Jack Harkness (played by John Borrowman, who my wife always wishes would break into song) took the reigns of the organization, and now they fight for good. The show itself isn't as rewarding as Doctor Who, and maybe that's because they try to deal with more "adult" themes. The characters have sex and say lots of swears that were mostly bleeped out when it aired on BBCAmerica, but remain in the originals that you stream through Netflix. It's a little distracting, to tell the truth. But you gotta love Captain Jack, and the reveal in Doctor Who Series 3, episode "The Last of the Timelords," about who Captain Jack turns out to be is tremendously gratifying.

I've tried several times now to watch some of the old shows with all the old Doctors. I still can't stomach it. Someone needs to tell me why I'm wrong.


  1. I don't watch Doctor Who at all. Never have and probably never will.

    But I have to say...Matt Smith is a pretty generic name.

  2. (sigh) I love Dr. Who. Admittedly David Tennant is my fav; he's absolutely smashing!

    Matt Smith is a cutie but I'm not fond of Pond; my favorite Who girl is Martha Jones.

    The old, OLD Dr. Who's are horrible. 'Nough said.

  3. Chanel, such a reaction will limit your view of the universe. Just as you at least gave Firefly a try, so must you try out the good Doctor. At least the British accents are reasonable.

    AP: "fond of Pond"...good one. I like Donna Nobel's sass.

    We really need someone to tell us why the old versions are revered with such esteem. I just can't watch them. How did people watch them even back then?

  4. I've watched two or three episodes of Doctor Who. Two of them featured Tom Baker. I have a very good friend who's a huge fan of the good Doctor though. He's always telling me I should watch it.

    And Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is perhaps one of the greatest movies ever made.

  5. MJ: You need to watch the new ones. I still can't find anyone to tell me why I should ever watch the old ones. I used to have Bill and Ted memorized. I still giggle just thinking about some of the lines.

  6. Sigh. Dr. Who's on my list. It is. I'll get there. Someday.

  7. Nicki: Too much entertainment? I wish there was more time in the day.

  8. I love Dr. Who. It's a great show.

  9. Once last year during lunch, I went into the girl's bathroom down the hall from my room, when all of a sudden I heard the theme song to Doctor Who echo through the stalls. I was so excited I may have tinkled... Turns out two of my students were down the hall watching it on a laptop. We had a fun conversation about Matt Smith and even to this day they think I'm cool for having been a Doctor Who fan. And I can't stand the old ones, and neither can my nerdy husband!

  10. @ Michael: just a few more days now for Series 6...

    @ Jazzy: I try to impress my students sometimes, with anything at all, and they're about as moved as a cat spending a lazy day in the sun. But try to talk about Doctor Who? Forget it.

  11. This has me excited to watch Dr. Who.

    Brent, you're probably the fourth or fifth person I've come in contact with that's talked about the episode "Blink." I have a friend who's only ever watched that one episode of the Doctor, and he swears it's the most brilliant television he's ever watched.

  12. Thanks, Mark. I don't know about "most brilliant" but it's high up there. Certainly consistently entertaining.

  13. Give City Of Death a go. I have other recommendations as well, but if you don't like City Of Death then you don't deserve a television.

    Dave Wrote This

    1. Cool, Dave. I put it in my Netflix cue. Then I'm coming to you for more recommendations if it's good.