Friday, November 23, 2012
Happy Doctor Who Day...
Today is Doctor Who Day.
That will mean nothing to many people. But, to me and many people like me, today marks the 50th anniversary* of the first broadcast of the British science fiction series "Doctor Who" which, after a rocky start and a few years away, is still going strong.
That rocky beginning included having to re-film the first episode of the series, "An Unearthly Child" after technical problems during the first filming. And,that was just the start of the trouble. The first airing of the show happened to be scheduled for the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the United States, when most people around the world were focused on other things besides the debut of a new show aimed mainly at children. Additionally, parts of England were hit with a power outage that day, so the number of households able to receive the broadcast was limited. Because of these circumstances, the first episode was re-aired a week later, just before the second episode was broadcast.
After three seasons, with the health of William Hartnell, the first actor to portray The Doctor, failing and faced with the loss of their lead actor, those in charge of the program came up with a novel way of explaining why the character didn't look the same once Hartnell left the role. Being an alien, The Doctor had the power to regenerate (they originally called it "renewal") into a different form in case of serious injury. And so Hartnell was replaced by Patrick Troughton, who became the Second Doctor. In turn, Troughton was eventually replaced by Jon Pertwee, who was replaced by Tom Baker, the most famous of the Doctors from the classic series. Following Baker, Peter Davison became the Fifth Doctor, then Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) took the role, followed by Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
At that point, the series seemed to have run its course and production was ended in 1989. It had remained mostly a UK phenomenon, although there were fans in the United States who had been introduced to the show when PBS ran episodes on its stations around the US. It was not the end of the Doctor Who phenomenon, however, with the characters kept alive in novels and comics.
In 1996, the Eighth Doctor appeared, portrayed by Paul McGann, in a movie co-produced by the Fox Network, Universal Studios, and the BBC and shown first in the United States and then, a couple of weeks later, in the UK. The intent had been to follow up the film with a series, but the film did not bring in the hoped-for ratings in the US, although it was one of the top-ten rated shows the week it was shown in the UK, and no series followed.
A couple of further plans were made to bring The Doctor back to television, and the plan that finally reached fruition was announced in 2003 and made it to television screens in the UK and the United States in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. Eccleston left after only one season, followed by David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. After three seasons and a year of specials, Tennant was replaced by the current Doctor, the Eleventh, who is portrayed by Matt Smith.
That's the short and very incomplete history of Doctor Who. During the classic series, there were also a couple of movies made, with Peter Cushing portraying The Doctor, as well as audio episodes that have been produced in parallel to the new series. Additionally, the fandom never went away, even during the years between the classic series and the new series, with conventions for fans of the show being held in the UK and the United States.
There have also been spin-off series: "The Sarah Jane Adventures" for adolescents and "Torchwood" for a more adult audience, both produced in the UK, and an unofficial series, not produced by the BBC, featuring the robot dog K-9, aimed at younger children. Also, a tradition has grown of making and airing a Christmas special featuring The Doctor every year.
For those of us who are fans - and, yes, I am a big fan of the Whoniverse in all of its manifestations - all of this provides a rich legacy as well as continuing enjoyment as the series goes forward.
Those of you who are not fans probably wonder what all this is about, and why fans are so devoted to the series and all its spin-offs. Truthfully, it is difficult to explain fully to the uninitiated. For me, it is the idea that because The Doctor is a traveler in both time and space, the stories can take the viewer and reader virtually anywhere in the universe (more than one universe, in fact) and to any point in time - past, present, and future. The story possibilities are limitless. Also, although the character of The Doctor is an alien, he is also a most human character, capable of great compassion and great humor, but also of great rage and great sadness.
Late-night television host Craig Ferguson, who is a Whovian, put it this way: "Doctor Who is all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism." For me, that encapsulates the Doctor Who experience very well. I've been accused of being naive, but if I had to choose, I'd want intellect and romance to win out over brute force and cynicism any day, even on those days when my own cynicism is out and active.
*To be clear, this is the beginning of the 50th anniversary year of Doctor Who, a big deal for Whovians. I don't think I made that clear enough, and so I am doing that now. I can count. Really.