SF/F Saturday: Doctor Who

I’m mostly going to do book reviews for SF/F Saturday. But today’s an anniversary that it’d be a sin to pass over!

Fifty years ago today, a low-budget TV show debuted on the BBC in an unspectacular time slot. It was originally intended by the network to be a children’s educational program, and even that modest goal was overshadowed by the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination the day before. That show was called Doctor Who, and its creators could never have guessed the cultural impact it would have.

If there’s anyone who’s not already familiar with the premise, the main character is an eccentric, mysterious and effectively immortal alien known only as the Doctor (no, his name isn’t “Doctor Who”). His iconic ship, the TARDIS, looks like a 1950s blue British police box on the outside but is enormously bigger on the inside, and can travel anywhere in time and space. Although the Doctor can and does voyage to the ends of the universe, he has a fondness for Earth and can always be counted on to show up just when he’s needed most to defend our planet from invasion by unfriendly aliens: whether it be classic villains like the Daleks, genocidal mutants in armored casings who want to exterminate all life that isn’t Dalek, or newer monsters, like the terrifying Weeping Angels, which seem to be lifeless statues – until you look away, even just for the blink of an eye.

The original series aired from 1963 to 1989, when it was suspended due to declining ratings. After one abortive effort in 1996, the show was finally revived in 2005 to immense popular acclaim, achieving something the original never did by becoming a hit in America as well as in Britain, and it’s been running ever since. Over the show’s long history, famous authors from Douglas Adams to Neil Gaiman have all penned episodes.

Part of Doctor Who‘s longevity comes from the flexibility of its central premise: unlike other shows that are limited to telling certain kinds of stories, this one can literally go anywhere and do anything. It can be light-hearted comedy or dark horror. The Doctor and his companions can visit historical figures from Earth’s past, or they can battle malevolent aliens millions of years in the future, or they can travel to other universes where none of the usual rules apply.

The other reason for the show’s long life was a conceit invented early in its run, when the original actor William Hartnell was suffering from failing health and had to drop out: when the Doctor is near death, he can “regenerate” into a new body with a different personality. This turned out to be a brilliant innovation, since it’s allowed multiple actors to take up the mantle, each creating their own interpretation of the character – so far twelve in all. (That being said, the show has rightly been criticized for making every incarnation of the Doctor so far a white man, despite it being canon that the Doctor’s people can change race and gender when they regenerate into a new body.)

If you’re not a devotee of the show and want to start on it, there’s the question of finding a suitable entry point into Doctor Who‘s vast and sprawling canon. The original series, for all its great moments, tends to be clunky, slow-moving, and to have special effects that were unconvincing even by the standards of the era. If you have Netflix or similar, I personally recommend beginning with “Rose”, the episode that began the 2005 revival, starring Christopher Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the Doctor and Billie Piper as his human companion Rose Tyler.

Meanwhile, for longtime fans, the 50th anniversary episode, “The Day of the Doctor”, is airing tonight, and I can’t wait. In the meantime, if you watch the show, what are your favorite moments?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • badgerchild

    I didn’t have a problem with the Doctor being a white man through all of the incarnations. So what. He’s provincial, backward, and chauvinistic enough to have an irrational fondness for a particular part of Earth and to travel in a British phone box. Layering an ethnicity on top of the “generic white dude” would be distracting at best. Though I admit I wouldn’t mind seeing the Doctor present as, for instance, an urbane, professorial, fatherly British Indian with a penchant for collecting unusual things and stowing them in his pockets (for that perfect flavor of deus ex machina). That was off the top of my head; I’m not writing a fanfic :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    That was off the top of my head; I’m not writing a fanfic :)

    I think you just did!

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    When I was younger they aired episodes of “Doctor Who” on a local public television channel along with other British shows. I liked many of them, starting me on a taste for such entertainment, but I couldn’t get into DW. It just didn’t grab me. An old acquaintance was a big fan of the series and tried his hardest to get me into it as well. We watched the ’96 made-for-TV movie with Paul McGann. I found it sort of interesting but again it just didn’t grab me.
    Fast forward to a couple of years ago and I found myself watching a weird little show called “Torchwood”. I really liked it and was surprised to found that it was a spin-off of DW. I gave the new series a chance and loved it. I’ve tried to watch some of the older series and, like you said, they’re just a little too clunky and slow moving.
    So far my favorite moment was the fourth season cross-over finale. I just couldn’t sit still while watching it. That and at the end of second season when the Cyberman, after bragging about how they number in the millions, asks the Dalek how many of them are there and he answers “Four”. I have no idea why but it just cracks me up.
    As far as the race and gender issues goes, I think it’d be good to see the Doctor regenerate as a woman or of another race. However, I think it’d be a mistake to do so just for the sake of saying “we have a Doctor”. If they do that I’d hope they get someone that would really bring something the character beyond their gender or race.

  • DavidMHart

    One that sticks in my mind (though I have no idea which episode) is when Christopher Eccleston is asked why (given that he’s not even from Earth, let alone from Manchester) he speaks with a northern accent, and he replies, somewhat defensively, “Lots of planets have a north”.

  • Michael E

    One of the reasons Doctor Who has been my favorite show for thirty years is it’s very rational and completely supernatural-free view of the Universe. I can’t remember even hearing God mentioned a single time and I’ve seen all the episodes in existence.

  • Korou

    My favourite bit of Doctor Who?
    Very, very hard to say! But definitely one of them is that spooky moment in *The Doctor Dances* The Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack are investigating a strange, scary child who is stalking WWII London, and they come to his room. As they are listening to recordings that scientists had made of him talking they hear a strange, scratchy sound. As they continue to hear the child talking, Rose asks what it is. The Doctor says, “End of the tape. It ran out about thirty seconds ago.” Then they turn around to see the child behind them.

    Favourite moment of Doctor Who? So hard to choose!

    Doctor Who, James Bond and Sherlocke Holmes – three great British creations!

  • http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unique-everybody-else Scott McGreal

    One of my favourite moments that has stuck with over the years is a scene from Genesis of the Daleks from the Tom Baker years. Davros has forced the Doctor to reveal information about future Dalek defeats by threatening to torture his companions. There is a really chilling moment when Davros suggests they talk as one scientist to another. The Doctor asks Davros a hypothetical question about if he would make use of a virus that would destroy all life if he had access to such a thing. Davros is enthralled by the idea and starts ranting about how “such power would set me up above the gods!” It was an amazing and convincing portrayal of megalomania!

    By the way, I saw the Doctor Who movie today, and I absolutely loved it!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    With the possible exception of the villain in the “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” two-parter that claimed to be the Devil. But the Doctor said he didn’t believe that, and I don’t think the ending conclusively settled the question either way.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I believe that was from “Rose”. Great line. :)

  • MNb

    I watched Doctor Who on Dutch television in the 70′s. I was a child yet and children buy everything. The unconvincing special effects didn’t bother me at all.
    I wasn’t especially fond of Doctor Who though. I have one and only one memory. I only recall one episode and one moment. An alien did some experiments to find out how long Homo Sapiens can do without food, without drink and without sleep. Doctor Who put an end to it of course.

  • Peter N

    I certainly agree with what you wrote about the original series — clunky and slow and so forth, yet when it was good, it was sensational! My favorite story arc of the original series is “The Face of Evil”, the one where the Tom Baker Doctor encounters his assistant Leela for the first time. He discovers that he had visited her planet centuries earlier, and a well-intended mistake on his part had resulted in the fracturing the society into two warring camps, neither of which was happy or complete. By risking life and limb to correct his mistake, he was able to begin the process of healing the rift in this society.

    Tangentially, do you ever have the experience that even when a work of art is bad, you still enjoy it, because thinking of the ways it could be better stimulates your own creativity? [This is pretty much what happens to me when I hear the way pop music is recorded.] This is what I think of the character of Leela. She is portrayed as a “savage” — a member of the aboriginal society on this planet. She is highly intelligent, strong, has a hunter’s acute senses, and is skilled with weapons. These are all qualities which the Doctor lacks, yet she in turn lacks the Doctor’s technical wizardry, great store of factual knowledge, and post-Enlightenment values. They should complement and complete each other synergistically, and occasionally they do, but sadly her character mostly just needs rescuing, and is sometimes necessary to say “gee, what’s that monster?”, allowing the Doctor to explain to the viewer what’s going on. She’s just a device to move the plot forward in most of her scenes. The Doctor and Leela could be like Gilgamesh and Enkidu! So mostly, I like what the character of Leela ~could~ be.

    I enjoyed the new series, although somehow its dazzling visuals, leaving less to the imagination, are less satisfying than the old days. I started watching it in 2005 but couldn’t keep up. Maybe if I ever retire… But there was a story back near the beginning of the new series that I loved — it literally moved me to tears. The title is “The Girl in the Fireplace”, and the plot involves the Doctor visiting Madame de Pompadour (the mistress of French king Louis XV) at various times in her life.

    Come to think of it, I would enjoy watching that one again, so thanks for your question!

  • FuzzyDuck81

    So many great moments, but one of my favourite little throwaway gags is from one of the Christmas specials:
    Doctor “I am a responsible adult, see?” (holds up his psychic paper)
    Kid “It’s just a bunch of wavy lines”
    Doctor “Huh, finally, a lie too big”

  • Errant Endeavour

    Idris Elba?

    One episode in particular I liked was the one with the Silence.

  • Korou

    Strax (Sontaran warrior who, bizarrely, becomes a friend of the Doctor) is rising a horse through nineteenth century (Manchester?). He gets lost.

    Strax: Horse! You have failed in your mission. Do you have anything to say before your summary execution? (Charges laser rifle).
    Horse: (whinnies)
    Strax: Humph! The same old story. (Prepares to shoot horse).

  • Yqatuba

    Daleks remind me of the Taliban anyone else?

  • Voidhawk

    ‘Blink’ is a wonderfully creepy episode