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Classic Hollywood Spotlight: 'Doctor Who'

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Apr 25, 2011 | 4:38am EDT

Doctor Who Matt Smith, Karen GillanAfter last week’s column on The Cotton Club, I want to take a bit of a break from our trip through the films of Francis Ford Coppola and write a bit about a television phenomenon unparalleled in the history of the medium. This TV show has broadcast more episodes than any other science fiction program in history. It ran uninterrupted from 1963 to 1989, then started up again in 2005. During its initial run it averaged over 10 million viewers per episode, with a high of 14 million. Today the show averages 12 million viewers and is a cultural phenomenon in its home country. The theme music to the series is so iconic and so recognizable that is has been endlessly remixed by some of the most hip pop musicians on the planet.

The show is Doctor Who. The new season premiered this past weekend, and it’s a show that dips back so far in my childhood, it functions like an imaginary friend.

In the past I’ve talked about my stepfather, with his bookshelf of VHS tapes filled with movies recorded off of HBO and Showtime. My stepfather was a strange guy. He was a big African American guy with an afro and a red 1974 Corvette Stingray. He drove trucks for a living and loved NASCAR racing and football. But he also had a strange and pervading love for Doctor Who.

When I was a kid in the San Francisco Bay Area, Doctor Who was in syndication on KTEH Public Television at 11:15 PM every Saturday night. I remember the time because it was so strange. My mom didn’t let me stay up that late, but on Sunday morning my stepfather would fire up the VCR and we’d watch the new episode of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who David Tennant TardisDoctor Who is about the ongoing adventures of the Doctor. That’s what he goes by. 'The Doctor'. But he doesn’t have a stethoscope or anything. He’s just called the Doctor. He goes around in a big blue Police Box, which is this thing that apparently used to sit around in street corners in England in the Early 60s. It’s got doors and a phone and you use it to escape danger or call for the cops. Except the Doctor’s Police Box only looks like a Police Box. Open the door and you discover that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. You’re in a big room with a hexagonal control console in the middle, and in the center of that control console is a big white column that goes up and down.

The Police Box is actually a TARDIS – Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. It’s a time machine that can go anywhere in the universe, and when the center column (the “time forge”) starts to go up and down the TARDIS makes the best sound in the universe, disappears, and reappears one another planet or in the far past or in the distant future. The Doctor sort of tools around and saves planets, which gets him in all sorts of trouble. He’s from a race called the Time Lords who monitor all of time and space and preach nonintervention. The Doctor never liked that. So he stole a TARDIS and went around saving the universe, spending an inordinate amount of time on a little planet that took his fancy: Earth. He’s funny and smart and mercurial and mysterious and ironic and one of the greatest heroes who ever lived. He doesn’t use guns, his ship is a big blue box, and he when he gets lonely walking through eternity on his own he takes on companions to go around with him.

Craig Ferguson, in a wonderful and sadly un-aired Doctor Who cold opening hit the nail on the head when he said that the show is all about “the triumph of intellect ant romance over brute force and cynicism.”

And how is it that this same character has been in a series that’s been broadcast on and off for over 40 years? It turns out that Time Lords can regenerate 12 times. That means that at the point of death they get a new body that has the same basic values and memories and motivations, but a different personality, sense of humor, emotional make-up, and, inevitably, a different outfit. To date the Doctor has been played by eleven actors, all of whom put their own mark on the character.

Doctor Who Tom BakerSo I’m something like eight or nine years old, and my stepfather plops me down in front of the TV and shows me this completely insane television series from England. At the time PBS was broadcasting the Tom Baker incarnation of the Doctor (his fourth regeneration). Tom Baker’s doctor was sort of a bohemian, with a big floppy hat, a long trenchcoat, curly hair, and the longest scarf you’ve ever seen in your life. This guy goes around the universe and defeats bad guys with irony and humor, with flashes of passion and anger, and always fighting to make the beings around him better, even his enemies. He’s the Doctor and that’s what he does. Make people better.

He was immediately my hero.

Doctor Who fell into disfavor in the late 80s. The spirit of the times had strayed away from romanticism and into materialism, and the showrunners couldn’t find a way to bring the show up to date. Call it another victim of Thatcher’s England, maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it just got campy and bad. After a strange Americanization attempt in 1996, Doctor Who disappeared for another nine years, until it was brought back by Russel T. Davies, creator of Queer as Folk. Davies took the original series and made it faster, sleeker, and far more emotional than the original series had been, creating the “family of friends” one needs in today’s television world.

Five seasons and two regenerations later, the series is going strong. And I love it.

When I think of a hero, I don’t think of soldiers or scientists or political activists. I think of a funny man in a blue box that makes the best sound in the entire universe. I think of the Doctor, who makes people better.

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