You may have missed the news, but this is the 50th anniversary of a cheap, scrappy British science fiction series called Doctor Who. Like a fair number of folk my age, I first stumbled across Doctor Who one Saturday afternoon on PBS, back when PBS was able to air things like Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Prisoner, and it being cultural and all, Benny Hill. Unlike many, however, I seem to be one of the few people who came into the show not during an airing of the iconic Tom Baker years, but rather during the tenure of the man with the velvet smoking jackets and Venusian aikido. The Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, was my introduction to Doctor Who, and he remains my favorite. Continue reading…
Posted April 12, 2012
Every April, the Gutter switches things up. This month, Romance editor Chris talks about television.
I mean, I knew there’d been a television show with that name. My Nana used to watch it occasionally. I had vague childhood memories of the freaky/cool tunnel special effect thingie during the opening credits, and I could recognize the theme music. But I thought – when I thought about it at all – that it had been a show about a doctor (played by Tom Baker) whose last name happened to be Who.
[This wouldn’t require a mea culpa confession, except that for the last dozen years, I’ve spent my days managing a SFF bookstore. Yeah. Way to miss an active and vocal cordon of Fandom. Hey: I read. I just don’t watch a lot of TV.]
Because of my job, I got the word about the plans for the Russell T. Davies reboot well before the news went mainstream. Longtime fans kindly explained to me why it was important, what a coup this was, and I began to better understand the impact the new series could have. Over the next eighteen months I watched customer interest in Dr. Who grow and grow. The sales of the tie-in novels and Dr. Who Magazine began to climb, and kept climbing.
As a retailer, I approve of that kind of trend. So I thought I check out the new show, see what all the fuss was about. Hilarity ensued, as I had neither cable nor internet access. A more technologically adept friend took pity on me and invited a whole group of us to come over, have dinner and watch the first episode.
Talk about instantaneous addiction.
That dinner party became a regular feature of my life for the better years. After dinner we’d watch the new episode. Then we’d dissect it, analyze it, or just watch the best bits again. It helped that we were all roughly in the same position: having heard of the earlier series, but not overly familiar with it. So it was all new to us: the constant adventures, the aliens, the Time Lord. We had no baggage to bring with us, no previous companions to compare to, no hallowed memories to be buffed or tarnished. We didn’t even know Billie Piper had been a famous pop star.
And it didn’t matter. One of the New Series’ greatest achievements it that it managed to bridge the gap between the longtime fan and the new. No doubt we missed all sorts of self-referential in-jokes, but we didn’t need to understand them to find the dialogue funny, or the situations challenging, or the characters immensely, intensely watchable.
My favourite episode of the first season was the two-part masterpiece “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances”. The Doctor and Rose return to London during WWII, tracking an alien ship. They discover a handsome time-travelling adventurer, a band of displaced street urchins, and a mysterious figure in a gas mask that converts everything it touches into a replica of itself.
“The Empty Child” was in fact two adventures that come together. Rose and the Doctor get separated and each encounters a potential ally. Rose meets Captain Jack Harkness, a dashing Time Agent from the fifty-first century. The Doctor meets Nancy, a young woman who guides a group of street kids to shelter during bomb runs. And they all realize that the neighborhood is being menaced by what looks like a small blond boy in a gasmask. Anyone the child touches immediately develops a gasmask-like face and becomes a zombie-like automaton. The dialogue is cracklingly funny, the mood is atmospheric, and the story is smart. It was also truly, deeply scary (at least to someone as easily frightened as me).
The second part of the episode, “The Doctor Dances” makes all that terror worthwhile. The Doctor figures out what’s causing the creepy gasmask situation, but he doesn’t actually solve the problem. Instead, he helps the other find where – and who – they need to be in order to fix things themselves. And they do, magnificently. The horrible creeping gasmasks are routed, and all the infected patients are cured “Everybody lives!” the Doctor exults. “Just this once, everybody lives!” It is a complete and profound triumph for our heroes.
There are so many kinds of heroism in this episode. There’s Captain Jack: a rogue and conman, who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to correct the damage he unintentionally caused. There’s Dr. Constantine, a stalwart physician trying his best to heal and care for patients suffering from a condition he can barely believe, let alone understand. There’s Nancy, who cares for lost children in an attempt to make amends to the one she couldn’t save. Even England itself is a hero: a tiny damp island that stands up and says no to Hitler, and to tyranny.
And of course, there’s the Doctor. The last of his kind, a lonely, grieving survivor trying to make sense of it all. His is the quiet heroism of endurance, of the determination to do some good, even as he himself is hurting. That’s what makes the ending so powerful: the Doctor isn’t just cheerful, he’s joyful. Ready to stand up and… dance.
The episode was Steven Moffat’s first script for the series. It bears all his hallmarks: a tense and fast-paced story; excellent dialogue, complete with innuendo that manages to be cheeky rather that offensive; profound emotional impact; and something really, really scary. It’s a technique he used to great effect in other series I’ve loved, like Jekyll, and Sherlock.*
I was reminded of how much I loved that episode when my store hosted a Dr. Who related book launch. The book in question was Who Is The Doctor by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?. It’s the unoffcial guide to the new series, replete with episode recaps, opinion pieces, and a wealth of insider details. I got so engrossed that I dug my DVDs out of storage in order to re-watch all the best bits. I haven’t decided yet who “my” Doctor is yet, but damn, I’m enjoying the process of finding out.
Chris Szego recently moved, so finding those DVDs was harder than it sounds. And more rewarding
*I haven’t had a chance to watch the second season of Sherlock yet, so no spoilers please or I keeeel you all.