Happy Anniversary Pretentious Doctor Who Essays! To celebrate, I'm offering something that does not fit into any of my specific categories of study. I'm actually just going to share a bit of myself with you.
A few years back, my friend Jeff Peeling (who knows his Doctor Who almost as well as I do) was putting together a fanzine. Knowing that I'm a bit of a writer, he asked if I'd be willing to put together a column that would introduce the show's format to someone who had never watched a single second of it. I hummed and hawed and tried to wrangle a better artist fee out of him. But, eventually, I came up with this: my own personal journey of how I discovered the show.
I've made a few tweaks to the piece since I first submitted it to Jeff. I've mainly just updated a few factoids that I put down (ie: number of years that had past since the show first premiered). But it's, more or less, as it first appeared when I wrote it half-a-dozen years ago. And it definitely accurately encapsulates what my first experiences with Doctor Who were like...
"WHOCOLOGY 101": AN INTRODUCTION TO THE GREATEST SHOW EVER!
EPISODE ONE: DISCOVERING THE DOCTOR
"Write an article that explains Doctor Who to someone who's never seen the show before." the editor asks me. Sounds simple, right?
But how do you really explain a show that is about to celebrate its 53rd anniversary? That has produced over 30 seasons and 250 stories? A show so old that a good chunk of its earlier episodes have actually been lost?
I suppose I could start back at the show's humble origins and talk about that rainy Saturday afternoon in November way back in 1963. And mention how no one really watched the first episode because JFK had been shot the previous day and they had to re-broadcast it again a week later.
Or I could talk about the show's "heyday" during the 70s. How it became a British institution. An icon in British culture that became as identifiable as hot dogs and baseball is in the United States (or, alternatively, hockey and beer in Canada!).
Or I could talk about the great "Doctor Who comeback story" in 2005. How, after being cancelled for over 15 years (with just the briefest respite in 1996), it exploded back on our screens and created a whole new sensation in the UK and is making a huge splash, once more, in fan culture. To the point where it is now one of the most popular shows in the world.
I could talk about all that (and, in many ways, I just did) but it still wouldn't seem like the right approach to explaining the show. Because none of these stories properly explains my own fascination with this series. None of it justifies the tens of thousands of dollars I have put into DVDs, novels, videotapes, magazines and other fan memorabilia. Or the endless hours I have spent on Doctor Who discussion forums (where I actually first met our illustrious editor) debating ridiculous points of continuity regarding the show's long and complicated history. Or how there comes that magic moment with every woman I date where I must explain this "quirky habit of mine" to them and hope they don't think I'm so nerdy they will never date me again!
No analytical and/or historical dissertation of the show's format could justify the passion that pumps in my veins for this silly little "sci-fi show that could". So, I'll take the personal route, instead:
I'll talk about how I discovered Doctor Who.
IN SEARCH OF A NEW HERO
Our story begins in the Spring of '82. I was a boy just entering into adolescence. Growing up in a small Canadian town called Windsor that borders on the much bigger American city of Detroit. With a Dad who had a high-demand skill in the construction industry, it meant that enough income was rolling into our household to afford us all the great 80s luxuries. Ours' was the first house on the block to get a microwave and a VCR. More importantly, we also got the really cool stuff like Atari game systems and Commodore 64 computers!
Life, overall, was pretty good for this cerebral-yet-artistically-bent 12-year-old. But there was still just one problem in his life:
Young Rob Tymec was looking for a hero.
Well, he had a few heroes already, of course. They were the usual suspects, though. His hard-working father. A cool uncle. A teacher who had really encouraged him with his writing. I'd even become a pretty big "Rush-nerd", by this point. And being a fan of this Canadian rock band really did mean you had a group of legitimate heroes to admire. Because they weren't just musicians that had it made it big. They were a band with some real principles and ideals that you could genuinely respect.
But that still wasn't quite enough heroism for me. I needed a hero who was a bit more fantastical. Someone from the world of fiction. All my other heroes had their flaws. But someone who wasn't real was the perfect person to well and truly idealize. Heroes from fiction always seem to say and do all the right things. And while I was firmly grounded with all my other heroes in life, I still needed just a touch of "unrealistic expectations" to round out my personality.
I started by investigating the great literary figures that appeal to a young boy. Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan and all the rest. I liked them - but they just weren't quite "cutting it" for me. I'd also checked into pop-culture: Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk were real cool cats, don't get me wrong. But there wasn't quite enough there for me to really sink my teeth into. Oddly enough, all the great comic book heroes weren't really my cup of tea, either. Which is usually where a geeky adolescent boy searching for a hero ends up resolving his quest.
What I needed was someone who could give me what all that these different genres offered - and still something more. Someone who had the romantic and cultural background of Holmes, the daring-do of Skywalker and the raw power of Superman all rolled into one.
And I finally first discovered that combination one Thursday afternoon as I was channel surfing.
A TOUCH OF THE GREENERY
Of course, channel surfing back in the 80s was a lot different from what it is now. There were, maybe, only 20 channels to choose from and the TV I was surfing on didn't even have a remote! But I was still doing the equivalent of what we do now with 900 channels and a remote so big you almost need an armored exo-skeleton to lift it off the coffee table! Something managed to catch my eye as I moved up into the higher UHF range - where one found some of the weird local stations from Detroit that broadcasted the most mixed bag of programming one could imagine.
My attention was suddenly grabbed by a group of little green men.
I mean that quite literally. Channel 62 was showing some weird British show that had a group of men whose skin was totally green. Even their hair was green. They appeared to be savages of some sort as they wore animal skins (also green) and carried spears. They had gathered in this room to put these three "non-green" characters on a weird torture wrack. One of their torture victims was a man with big "Chewbacca-like" bandoliers strapped across his chest. The second was a pretty woman. The third was this strange man with very curly hair and a ridiculously-long scarf. I could tell, right away, that this third character was the show's lead. Even if he hadn't been speaking the bulk of the dialogue, you could see - just by the way he carried himself - that he was the main character. The hero of the story.
Intrigued and, at the same time, a bit amused (I could tell, very quickly, that the show suffered from a very low budget) I continued watching. The strange green natives left our three protagonists to die on the torture wrack. A short while later, our curly-haired hero finds a very clever way to escape their predicament and the three of them race out onto some swampland to confront a rather badly-superimposed giant squid. And then, at the very best part, the show ends. A cliffhanger!
"How interesting," I thought to myself, "I wonder what will happen next."
As I would later find out, I was watching the third episode of the Doctor Who story entitled Power Of Kroll. But learning that information was a long way down the road for me. I wasn't even a hundred percent sure if I liked what I had just seen. After all, a lot of it did look outrageously cheap. So, even though I was wondering how the man with the crazy afro and scarf and the pretty woman were going to escape the giant puppet squid - I didn't bother to tune in the next day.
MY DESTINY IS FOUND
I did, however, bother to tune in a week or two later. I was still curious about this strange show whose ending credits seemed like a trip down a surreal birth canal. So, when I found myself sitting around at home really bored on a Monday afternoon - I decided to tune in again and give this show another try.
This time, I watched it from the beginning. I saw that it was called Doctor Who and that each story had its own title and an episode number of some sort. I found this level of organisation for a TV show interesting and watched intently.
I discovered that Afro-Guy (who was referred to only as "the Doctor" - not "Doctor Who" as the show's title implies) also had this robot dog. But that the dog had broken down and he was trying to fix it in what appeared to be a big white spaceship. His female assistant was also doing something really weird. She was somehow able to change her appearance. She was actually trying on new bodies until she found one that the both of them liked. But as bizarre as all that was, something even stranger happened a minute or two later. They stepped out of the big white spaceship and onto a location scene. And, although the inside of the ship was quite large, the outside of it was this small blue box that looked a bit like a phone booth. Now that, as far as I was concerned, was really screwed up. But also intensely cool. What was up with this crazy ship of his?! I very obviously needed to learn more about how this show worked...
I was watching the first episode of a story called Destiny of the Daleks. Which was a good thing - because as I reached the end of Episode One I got to sample just a hint of the Doctor's greatest foes: those evil menacing salt-shaker-shaped Daleks. And - just as the show affected British TV audiences way back in 1963 - I, too, became hooked. The menace these horrible robotic-seeming creatures inspired left me thoroughly engaged. For the rest of the week, I made plans to be at home for Doctor Who. And it was well worth the social sacrifice.
As we reached the end of Episode Four I found myself very caught up in the climax of the story. There had been this great plot revelation that these strange "Stevie Wonder aliens" (as I preferred to call them, at the time) that were figuring prominently in the story were the mortal enemies of the Daleks. And that the Daleks had unearthed their original creator, Davros, to win the war against them. Davros was, essentially, a guy in a bad latex mask who pushed himself around in what appeared to be a futuristic-looking baby stroller. But as bad as some of these effects were, I was still captivated by everything that was going on.
But I think the way the story resolved was what truly won me over as a fan. At the climax of the tale, the Doctor confronts Davros in his lair. Now, in all the other sci-fi I had watched up to this point in my young life, this meant it was time for a fight scene. Probably not between the Doctor and Davros, themselves', since Davros appeared to be crippled. But there might be some sort of shoot-out with the Doctor and one of these nasty Dalek monsters. Sure enough, a Dalek coasts out from the shadows at just the right moment to stop the Doctor from foiling Davros' plans.
"All right," I think to myself, "now this Doctor guy's gonna find a gun in the room and take this nasty Dalek out once and for all!"
Even at Twelve, I knew how the format worked. It was time for the gunfight at the OK Corral (I would learn later on, of course, that the Doctor had been part of that event, too!). I was slightly dreading the moment because other fight sequences on the show had not been that well-executed. But still, I figured the whole drama of the moment might get me to look past the shoddy visuals.
SOMETHING TO HANG YOUR HAT ON
And that's when something totally unexpected happened. The Doctor didn't find a gun to fight the Dalek with. In fact, he just started playing with his hat. Which struck me as rather odd. This was no time to be fiddling with your hat! Damn it, Doc, find that convenient weapon and shoot that Dalek down. Time's-a-wasting! But still, he just kept chatting with Davros and hat-fondling.
And then, suddenly, something really cool happened. Cooler than the weird robot dog I had caught a glimpse of. Cooler than the spaceship whose inside was bigger than the outside. Even cooler than the "Exterminate!" warcry of the evil Daleks. The Doctor took that hat he was so pre-occupied with and threw it over the eyestalk of the Dalek that was holding him prisoner. Thus rendering it temporarily blind. And in that moment of distraction - he finds a way to destroy the Dalek and stop Davros' sinister scheme.
Why was this so incredibly cool to me? Because the show had done something that was totally against the established format of sci-fi adventure. The Doctor didn't find a phaser or whip out a lightsaber or anything bog-standard-yet-pleasingly-violent like that. Instead, he'd come up with a clever and creative improvisation to save the day. Essentially, he'd chosen brains over brawn. But had done it all with great style and panache.
And in that very moment, I knew I'd found my new hero.
This was the type of man-of-action that I could get behind. Sure, there had been other mad-scientist-type heroic characters that I'd encountered in other sci-fi stories - but they had seemed largely useless. They would berate the action hero for his brashness, but they still had to admit that if he hadn't thumped the nasty alien when he had, everything would have come to ruin. But the Doctor not only chose to rely on his wits and intelligence more than his fighting skills - he actually found useful ways of employing that ideology. And he did it all with such charming eccentricity that you couldn't help but love the guy. To this day, I still smile as the Dalek he blinded in Destiny of the Daleks explodes and all the Doctor can do is respond with a horrified: "My hat!".
Now, I could still spend a few paragraphs explaining all these weird questions those first few episodes had raised in me as I watched them. And, in so doing, I could teach you all about the complex and mysterious legends surrounding the Doctor's origins. But that's for another article, perhaps. All you really need to know about Doctor Who has just been accounted for in what I've just written.
But, just in case you didn't quite get it all, let me summarise:
Basically, the Doctor will always stand up against evil. But he will do his best to do so without sinking to Evil's own level. He will fight with creativity and brilliance rather than fists and weapons. And he will get the job done with a very definite sense of style. Anything else beyond these basic facts, to be quite honest, is largely irrelevant.
Why is Doctor Who so great? Because the show embodies the truest sense of heroism. And that idea rings as true for this man in his mid Forties as it did for that boy of Twelve.
Did we enjoy this little personal diversion? If so, I have written a few more installments. Perhaps, on some other special occasion, I'll post another episode.
Let me know what you think in the comments section. If you'd rather not hear anymore about my sad life as a nerdy teenager, I can stick to the pretentious essays.