Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Doctor Who: 47 years of cheapo genius

47 years ago today, the very first episode of Doctor Who aired in England.

What to say about good old Doctor Who at this point? Once the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of sci-fi shows, now a global phenomenon. November 23 doesn't have many hours left in it (it's been a long, hard day at work), so I'll have to keep it brief.

I'd heard of Doctor Who as a kid, but didn't actually try to watch it until mid-1989. As part of a pledge drive, PBS station WXXI-TV showed the documentary “Doctor Who's Who's Who” as a lead-in to the season premiere “Remembrance of the Daleks”, and I was hooked immediately by this rumpled, misfit hero. Unlike the macho high school purgatory I lived in, in Doctor Who-land you could be the hero simply by being smart, interesting and funny.

After the pledge drive, WXXI started over with the very first black-and-white episode, and spent the next three years crawling forward through all surviving installments of the entire series. I watched in rapt attention, not knowing that this would be WXXI's last-ever complete run of the entire series, or that the next new season of Doctor Who (which aired in Britain later in 1989) would be the last for 16 years.

But somehow, that was part of the magic of Doctor Who back then, at least from an American point of view – it was this ancient, foreign artifact that few people seemed to know about, and episode guides were hard to come by. The only way you could catch up on all that lore was to collect the novelizations, peruse the few reference books available in libraries or comic book stores … and, of course, watch the show every Saturday night at 11 pm, usually with little or no knowledge of what was going to happen next. (Pleasingly, WXXI has given that exact timeslot to reruns of the new series.)

The continuing DVD releases of old episodes has allowed me to watch these shows in a new light. Some episodes that I enjoyed as a teenager haven't held up, while others that failed to impress me back then have turned out to be highly enjoyable. The old version of Doctor Who (by which I mean the first 26 years' worth of episodes up until its 1989 cancellation) is notorious for its shot-on-video cheapness, with flimsy sets, Halloween-mask aliens, and unconvincing special effects. But I still find those episodes enormously inspiring as a low-budget filmmaker, and many of those episodes were ahead of their time – or at least, far more sophisticated than audiences of the time would have noticed.

If you can get past the creaky production values and slow pace, there's a huge range of material in those old shows – comedy, horror, action, fantasy, surrealism, high-concept sci-fi, and various combinations thereof.

Most fans have a favorite Doctor (as fans know, the alien hero's ability to “regenerate” allows the part to be recast several times) or a favorite era. I came in with Sylvester McCoy (the seventh and last of the original Doctors), followed quickly by the early William Hartnell episodes, so those two will always be sentimental favorites.

Coincidentally, I've had the chance to revisit my two “first” Doctors quite recently. I've been watching a group of Hartnell stories on DVD in broadcast order, and “The Chase” jumped out at me as a particular gem. The Doctor and his trusty time machine, the TARDIS, are pursued through the space-time continuum by his archenemies – the tanklike cyborgs known as Daleks – through a number of cheap-but-charming locales including a desert planet, a sailing ship, a haunted house, and a jungle planet with killer plants and a gleaming abandoned city a mile high. It ends with the genuinely moving farewell of Ian and Barbara, two of the Doctor's original travelling companions. “The Chase” has a poor reputation among Doctor Who fans, so I was surprised to myself enjoying it so thoroughly after all these years.

Meanwhile, one of the first Sylvester McCoy stories I ever saw, “Silver Nemesis”, has recently come out on DVD. This one is also considered a clunker by fans, but it was only the third Doctor Who adventure I ever saw and at the time I loved it. It seemed to blend together every genre I liked, combining sci-fi, fantasy, action and comedy; and it introduced me to the Doctor's other cyborg foes, the more humanoid Cybermen.

For sheer quality, though, the pinnacle for me would be the “Key to Time” season of 1978-79, during Tom Baker's lengthy run as the Doctor. The quality of the stories and dialogue is uniformly high in this season, with each alien world imaginatively developed and populated by memorable guest characters. Tom Baker is at the top of his game, enjoying terrific screwball chemistry with his latest co-star, Mary Tamm (as Romana, an aloof genius belonging to the same Time Lord race as the Doctor himself).

The most recognized formula for Doctor Who (which the new show conforms to) is to have a young and na├»ve Earth girl traveling with the Doctor as he battles alien invasions of present-day Earth. But my favorite overall period of Doctor Who abandons this approach almost entirely. From about 1976 through the early 80s, the show takes a leap into pure space opera. Instead of a modern-day “audience identification” character as the Doctor's companion, we get a series of nonhuman or off-world characters as bizarre as the Doctor, and exotic, high-concept alien environments that are worthy of his penetrating intelligence. Doctor Who just seemed smarter and more imaginative during that period.

That the shoestring budget of old-school Doctor Who could deliver jungle planets, planets petrified by radiation, swamp planets where transportation is possible only by boat, planets ruled by giant insects, invisible planets, vampire planets, planets made of pure mathematics, planets that eat other planets … not to mention antimatter universes, lands of pure fiction, and so much else ... makes it somewhat disappointing that today's big-budget Doctor Who so seldom stretches beyond modern suburbs and council estates. Developing genuinely original alien environments may require a slower and more atmospheric pace than is permissible today, even with the best CGI money can buy. While executive producer Russell T Davies and his successor, Steven Moffatt, have been wise to ground the modern series in contemporary reality, I often crave the more adventurous, carefree spirit of the old series.

But today, anyone with a camcorder and a computer can make sci-fi that is at least as technically competent as old-school Doctor Who. And those old episodes showed that you didn't need huge budgets if you had a clever script, a good cast, and a lot of imagination. This is why the show continues to inspire me, two decades after I first watched it, and nearly half a century after it first aired.

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