It's hard to believe I'm still keeping this thing going on a regular basis after two solid years. But here we are: celebrating the second anniversary of Pretentious Doctor Who Essays.
I've decided to post the second part of a series of articles I wrote for a fanzine a friend of mine was making way back in the day. It's, basically, a biographical piece that details how I first discovered the show when I was but a young lad. It discusses that most pivotal of events in a new fan's life: handling your first regeneration!
Whocology 101: An Introduction to the Greatest TV Show, Ever!
Episode Two: "The times they are a-changin'..."
In my continuing mission to present the Television Program "Doctor Who" to the unschooled, I will maintain my format of simply recounting to you how I discovered the show. For some reason, folks seem to like the "biographical edge" I'm adding to this presentation of dry facts and figures!
Just in case you missed my first installment: I explained that I initially came into contact with this quirky British series when I was but a young lad of Twelve or so - growing up in the bordertown of Windsor, Ontario. I'd watched my first few episodes on a weird local channel that came out of Detroit. Having relished the deadly efficiency of a well-aimed hat in the tale: Destiny of the Daleks, I was now sold on the idea that this strange mysterious traveler known only as the Doctor might become my greatest hero.
The biggest problem was, of course, that the Doctor really was mysterious. Not just in the way the character was being portrayed, but the premise of the series completely boggled me, at times. If nothing else, I really needed it explained to me how this big white gleaming control room could fit into this tiny blue telephone booth! What was the whole science behind that?!
But there were greater questions than that (how the console room fits in the phone booth, by the way, never really did get properly explained!). The Doctor was this tall, curly-haired madman with bulging eyes and a ridiculously long scarf. But he was, very obviously, brilliant. Far too brilliant, in fact. I was getting the impression that, even though he looked human, he was an alien of some sort. What kind of alien was he? Where did he come from? Why had he chosen to become a sort of intergalactic crime-fighter? These were all things I wanted to learn....
I was lucky to discover that this attractive blond woman he was travelling with also hailed from the same alien race. As I continued following the show on the weird Detroit channel, I learnt that both the Doctor and the attractive blond (named Romana) were known as Time Lords. And that the impossibly large phone box that they stepped in and out on a regular basis was a TARDIS. A craft capable of taking them to any point in time and space.
This was established to me through various bits of passing dialogue. And though it still didn't tell me much, it was enough to keep me going. The premise was definitely cool: advanced aliens flitting around through time and space in a really eccentric manner. As they did, they righted wrongs and defeated evil menaces wherever they went. They were also very witty and articulate about it as they did!
I decided I would just keep watching the show and try to pick up odds and ends about the Doctor's background whenever it came up in throwaway dialogue. It was the only way I could learn about the series, really. Bear in mind, this is the early 80s. There may have been some sort of internet already floating around out there. But, by no means, was it particularly accessible to a 12-year-old boy who wanted to learn about some cheap-looking British sci-fi series. So I couldn't get all my questions answered with a few clicks of a mouse as we do, nowadays.
Which was alright, really. Something I discovered, quite quickly, was that part of what makes Doctor Who so fun is that it has a very "shadowy" mythos behind it. Even now, there's really not all that much we know about the title character. And the more mysterious he remains, the more charm he seems to wield.
So those early days of not really knowing what this Doctor fellow was all about had a unique sort of piquancy to it. Instead of trying to load us down with all kinds of ridiculous expository dialogue like a lot of other science fiction TV shows do, Doctor Who allowed its viewer to just sit back and enjoy the adventure. The facts, in many ways, were somewhat irrelevant. Just have fun watching this zany character actor, Tom Baker, portray an eccentric alien who continuously wanders inadvertently into danger and ends up saving the day through all kinds of creative improvisations.
In many ways, there is no better way to enjoy a science-fiction television program.
Nonetheless, the geographical location I grew up in provided me with an excellent convenience. Living in the Windsor area meant I received television signals from Ontario, Michigan and parts of Ohio. Within a month or two of finding the series on the weird local Detroit station, I also discovered that Public Broadcasting Stations loved to show Doctor Who. It was, in fact, one of their best money-makers during pledge time. Now, had I been living in any other area, I would've had only one PBS station servicing me. But living in Windsor meant I could watch Doctor Who from PBS stations that came from Canada and the States.
Basically, this meant there was a glorious time during my adolescence when I could watch Doctor Who on four or five different stations a week!
By some sheer coincidence, these stations were all running, more or less, the same era of the show as I started watching it. It was Tom Baker as the Doctor, Lalla Ward as Romana (yes, that's really the name the actress used!) and their silly robot dog, K9. Though I had found an article or two in some sci-fi magazines that talked about how old the series was, I had always assumed that this was the "basic line-up" for the show: the Doctor, Romana and K9 travelling through time and space together.
And then, suddenly, the most incredible thing happened:
The Doctor changed.
I'm not talking a minor change, either. That had already happened. I had noticed that Tom Baker had radically altered both his costume and his portrayal during the last few stories I had watched (what I would, later, learn to be Season 18). I had also noticed a few other signposts that a big change was to come. Romana and K9 had left the Doctor - and a young mathematical genius named Adric had climbed aboard.
But nothing could prepare me for the size of the change that had awaited me, this time.
I had neglected watching one of the channels that was showing Doctor Who for a few weeks. It was running the show on a night when I was, generally, enjoying the social life a teenage boy is meant to have (although a tremendous geek at heart, I was still blessed with the ability to inter-relate with other people who weren't into the weird "cultish things" I enjoyed!). But it happened, one time, that my social plans during that particular night of the week were cancelled and I was stuck at home. So I decided to see how the series was coming along on that particular channel.
I could not imagine the surprise that awaited me as I tuned in that night.
The story opened with Tom Baker lieing on the ground - not looking in a very good way. Oddly enough, he didn't seem bruised or battered - but his performance seemed to insinuate that he knew he wasn't much longer for the world.
"What the hell?!" I immediately remarked to myself, "Is the Doctor about to die?!"
Some people gathered around his prone figure. I only recognized one of them. It was Adric - the mathematical boy genius. The two women with him were unknown to me.
There was some rushed dialogue between the Doctor's three friends and then Tom Baker closed his eyes for the final time. I was now seriously freaking out. This great sci-fi series that I had discovered had just killed off its main character. What the hell was going on?!
And then, something really amazing happened.
This strange white figure appeared in the distance and walked towards Tom Baker's dead body. One of these two women that I didn't know suddenly uttered: "The Watcher. He was the Doctor all the time!" And then the white guy merged with Tom and the two of them, in some cheap 80s special effect, transformed into an entirely new person.
My jaw hit the floor.
The Doctor was suddenly being played by a new actor.
An actor who wasn't the slightest bit like Tom Baker. Well, he was equally tall. But that's where the similiarities ended. This new bloke was called Peter Davison. He had straight blond hair and looked nearly 20 years younger than Tom.
It wasn't just the physical characteristics that made him different. All the mannerisms had changed too. This new Doctor seemed intensely neurotic and far more vulnerable than Tom ever was. And while Tom always seemed to be the person in charge in all his scenes (even when he was busy playing the buffoon), Peter seemed to get bullied about quite easily. Particularly by this mouthy Australian air-hostess he'd recently taken on as his companion.
All this sent me into the deepest state of shock, of course. A mental state that, apparently, all fans of the show go into when they witness this weird metabolic process that the show's format refers to as a regeneration (or, at least, that's what it calls it, these days) for the first time. Apparently, every so often, the Doctor must induce one of these regenerations in order to prolong his existence. Sometimes it's just due to the fact that he's growing too old. Other times, it's because he's fatally ill from a virus or radiation poisoning. Other times still, he's been brutally injured from a great fall or a surgical accident that pierced his extra heart. There was even one time he had to regenerate cause he fell off an excercise bike! But this was another part of the show's established mythos that I was only just beginning to familiarize myself with. And I had to admit: I was getting acquainted with it in the most brutal of ways.
Had I been a teen in Brittain, where the show is a huge cultural icon, someone else might have given me the nod and let me know that Tom Baker's Doctor was soon to die. But living where I was meant that being a Doctor Who fan made you a bit of an island onto yourself. There weren't a whole lot of people who were even familiar with the show. And many who were, had dismissed it as being "too silly" because of its poor budget.
So I had to face my first regeneration all on my own. Completely unprepared. I had very much fallen in love with this show through the wild interpretation Tom Baker had given to the role. But that had been suddenly and harshly ripped away from me. His Doctor was gone - never to return. And this new guy ... this Peter Davison, was the man in charge of the TARDIS. It was not going to be easy accepting him, of course. Particularly since one of the first things he did was tear up Baker's simply magnificent twenty-foot-long scarf!
Fortunately, one of the pre-requisites of casting the Doctor was to hire someone positively brilliant. And good 'ole Petey Davison was no exception to the rule. As his first story concluded, my fierce loyalty to Tom was already being put aside. I liked this new guy. He had a very different sort of charm to him that made him very amiable. And it was kinda neat to see him so much more sensitive and aware of both himself and his environment than Tom had been. As Peter stuck that fateful piece of celery to his lapel and climbed into his poorly-landed TARDIS, I had decided he was as much the Doctor as Tom had been. Perhaps even more. Because this was a Doctor I would be following right from his very beginnings. Whereas I had stepped in on Tom's reign while it had been nearing its end. I would feel all the more connected to this new Doctor because I had witnessed his birth. In fact, I probably consider Peter more "my Doctor" than Tom because it was through his travels that I really got to know the ins and outs of the series. I might have started with Tom - but Peter was really the one who took me along on the journey.
And as my initial shock subsided, I also realized another key element in the effectiveness of this television series. In any other show, a huge dependence rested on the stars of the program. They were a vital ingredient to its success. This was particularly true of a lot of the American TV that I was watching. I had seen any number of US shows face cancellation within weeks after a main actor was written out and the audience was not able to accept the replacement. Some had gone on to survive, of course. But very few.
But in Doctor Who, this appeared to be a vital ingredient. Not only did companions come and go on a regular basis (some, as I would soon find out, even died!). But the Doctor, himself, could change in the blink of an eye. No specific "name" could ever be all that firmly attached to the series because no specific "name" was ever allowed to stay throughout the entire course of Doctor Who's long history. This applied to both on-camera and behind the scenes. As I would later learn, the show's various eras were, oftentimes, divided by the reigns of various producers that had worked on the series. So even the ultimate creative force behind the show was replaced on a regular basis.
In the simplest of terms: in Doctor Who - the show is king. And all the people involved with it are but its humble subjects. Serving their ruler for a period of time and then being sent along to other projects when their presence was no longer needed. Some servants stayed on longer than others. Some were respected and appreciated more than others. But, ultimately, the continuation of the series was the most important thing. And one of the things that helped it stay alive was the fact that a stream of new talent was constantly being fed into the creative team while the old talent slowly but surely moved on to other things.
This basic principle has always been one of the things that makes the show so much more vital and downright entertaining than most of the other stuff that's out there. And even as a young adolescent, I recognized this quality (perhaps more subconsciously than consciously) and appreciated it enormously.
Doctor Who always has been and always will be about change. And I can see no better crux to put the central basis of your television series on.
Want to see what Part 3 will cover? Hang around for another year!
Want to read Part 1? Here you go: