Well, I’ve just watched the best episode of Doctor Who I’ve seen in a couple of years.
So I think this is probably a good time to talk about my relationship to that program. After all, I’m an acknowledged expert on some tiny corner of the Doctor’s Universe.
To start with: The Doctor is an alien time traveller who wanders through the universe, past present and future, having adventures, getting into situations, rescuing people and writing wrongs. Because he or she is an alien, he/she periodically dies and regenerates into a new body. This is a very convenient trick, since it allows the show to keep replacing the actors who play the Doctor. The Doctor has a particular fondness for Earth, and usually brings along an Earthling, or a succession of Earthlings as travelling companions. The Doctor is a bit of an eccentric, his time machine is stolen and it doesn’t quite work right all the time, and for peculiar reasons, it’s stuck in the shape of an antique English police telephone booth.
And if doesn’t that sound like a pretty dubious premise, I don’t know what is.
What it amounted to where conventionally dressed Brits wandering around a shabby blue box, against painted backdrops and cardboard sets, pretending that the cockney’s accosting them were aliens from the far future.
Yes, it really was that dubious.
But bear with me.
My first encounter with the Doctor was actually the Peter Cushing movie from 1965, Doctor Who and the Daleks.
Back in those days, the British hadn’t quite caught on to the notion of reruns. It was one or two showings and forget about it. Or if the subject had captured the public’s imagination, they’d license it out to some British movie company that would make a full colour big screen adventure of it – they did that with 1984, Quatermass, Robin Hood and many others. So this was just one of those.
It didn’t make much of an impression on me. I don’t remember the Daleks, or the Doctor, or the story. What I do remember is the unearthly scenes on an alien planet, and a fossilised lion. Those images stuck with me. I think I may have seen it on colour television at my Grandmother’s house, or possibly on a Saturday morning at the local capital theatre. I would have been three years old when it was first released in 1965, so I probably saw it years later, sometime between 1968 and 1973.
As I said, not much of an impression.
Back then, I was a Star Trek kid! I remember my first Star Trek episode, it was the one about the salt vampire. I watched it in Saint John, at my maternal Grandparents home. Adding up the numbers, I think there’s a small chance I might have seen it on first run, or at least in initial syndication. It made more of an impression, but not that much more. When you’re that young, you have no taste, you have no discrimination, you’re just a sponge soaking up everything. So that was just something I soaked up. Saint John was a few hundred miles away so I didn’t get to see my maternal grandparents that much, and it didn’t appear on the local station that served the New Brunswick north shore, so I didn’t get to watch Star Trek again for a while.
But then, a couple of years later, my paternal grandparents a few year later, bought me Star Trek books!
This was the era of the space program you see. We watched the newsreels of the Gemini program. Then the Apollo rockets and the moon landings were televised. The Soviets put a mobile bathtub on the moon, and built a space station. The first probes were flying by Mars and Venus. All us kids were crazy for space then. It was everyone. The tea companies put ‘astronomy’ cards into their tea boxes, for children’s collectables. This was the era of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and ‘realistic’ space adventures on film and television, with astronauts in space suits. G.I. Joe had given way to Major Matt Mason, and his poseable astronaut pals, and war toys were replaced with a variety of increasingly improbable moon buggies. With a gray blanket you could create a moonscape in the corner of your living room, and have your astronauts explore, meet aliens, make discoveries, and build moonbases.
Star Trek fit in with all of this. Star Trek was where it was all heading. Major Matt Mason was an extension of the present, maybe ten or twenty years off. But Star Trek was the end point it would lead to in a century or two.
For doting grandparents, that wave of Space-mania, a mania that I’d clearly caught, made buying an easy thing. If it had a rocketship about it, well, they knew it was a safe bet I’d love it. So space toys it was. And when I was reading fluently, space books.
My first Star Trek books were Alan Dean Foster’s novelisations of the Star Trek logs. It wasn’t even real Star Trek, as it turned out. What happened was that Star Trek was on the air for three seasons, 1967 to 1969, before it went into syndication.
Then in 1972, Filmation made an animated, half hour, version of Star Trek which lasted one season. Somehow, they’d managed to reunite the entire cast to do voice acting, and even got the series old writers back. It won an Emmy, something that the original series hadn’t managed. As an animated series, the aliens and situations were not constrained by the limitations of set construction, costume design and effects budgets – it was gloriously expressive sci fi.
Of course, it also had the crappy 1970’s Filmation animation. So it would probably be pretty hard going by modern standards.
So that’s what Foster’s novelisations were – novellas of the animated series. I had no idea back then. It was just Star Trek and it was terrific. I loved them. Every Christmas, there’d be a new haul of Star Trek logs. And then there were the James Blish books following up on those. The Blish books were less engaging, instead of novellas, they were collections of short stories, so there was less time and effort in them.
Eventually, something wonderful happened! North New Brunswick was getting a second English television channel! And Star Trek was going to be on it! I was just so excited. Me and my brother got up at 6:00 am to stare at a test pattern for an hour, waiting for the new channel to come on line. We watched the Lone Ranger, and whatever Saturday morning fare, and my first real live Star Trek episode since the salt vampire.
I can’t tell you how excited I was. How much I’d talked it up to my brother.
When it finally came on… It was Spock’s Brain.
Quite possibly the single worst episode of the series.
I remember my brother wasn’t impressed with it, or with me.
The next several weeks broke me. I’m not sure what went on. It seemed that the station insisted on running the very worst, the most bottom of the barrel episodes from the benighted third season. Maybe they were just the cheapest. I don’t know. Then Star Trek was off the air. And I was cured of any obsession or affection for Star Trek.
That’s a little harsh. I think I still had a lot of affection for it. I still have those old Alan Dean Foster books. But I wasn’t going to be a rabid fan.
I’m not much of a joiner I guess. I saw the Star Wars movies, and I think I was the right age, but I didn’t become an obsessive Star Wars fan either. I thought they were terrific movies, but… I didn’t see building a cult out of it. Maybe I’d seen too many movies at the Drive In.
Instead, the 70’s and 80’s were a great time for literary science fiction. The demand was wide open, probably driven the space age, and everything was hitting the market. The British New Wave, and the Cornelius Chronicles shared space with reprints from the pulp 30’s and literally everything in between. Burroughs, E.R and W.S, Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, Dent, Leiber, Dick, Gedge, Tepper, Bradbury Bradley, it was just all there, and I was reading voraciously. Which was good, because the pickings on television were pretty damned thin, and rather sophomoric.
So anyway, into the 1980’s, I was at University, passing through the Student Union Building, and I stopped to watch a very peculiar program showing in the common room.
It involved two different spaceships which seemed to have phased together, one was some kind of luxury liner, the other one was a floating zoo because ape-like monsters were running about assaulting people, and there was some sort of drug thing going on. It was madness, and in the middle of it was a tall charming fellow in a twenty foot scarf who seemed to be trying to sort it all out.
I was enthralled. It was weird, it was funny, it was charming.
It was Doctor Who.
Actually, it was a Fourth Doctor serial called ‘Nightmare of Eden.’
Years later, I watched it again on DVD, this time on a much bigger screen with much higher resolution than the crappy 18 inch student union television. Let’s just say it was less impressive.
But I became a fan, instantly.
I’m not sure why that happens. Star Trek once I could actually watch it, I could take it or leave it. Star Wars was okay. Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica were meh.
But Doctor Who, that clicked for me.
I went out of my way to watch it. Eventually, I even joined a fan club, and I’m not a joiner.
Why? Well, I think I started off with a really good Doctor. Tom Baker was a larger then life, flamboyant, outsize personality, he had charisma to burn, and the role was perfect for his quirky eccentricity. Charm is a very hard quality to define or even to capture. It’s rare, but it’s definitely something.
I remember watching Errol Flynn in Robin Hood at a repertoire theatre years later, and there’s a moment when Flynn just sprawls back in the chair and smiles, and you realize why he was a movie star. Because charm is just radiating off the screen.
Tom Baker was like that. He’d smile, or make an offhand comment, and you just wanted to watch him.
The stories were impressive. A little bit of background. Doctor Who emerged in the early days of British Television, back then it was very much a ‘learn as you go sort of situation.’ No one had any idea what the rules were or how to make television, so they drew from all sorts of sources, cinematic, literary, theatrical.
What Doctor Who was about was a serial format. They did half hour episodes, but they strung the episodes together as a serial of anywhere from four to a dozen episodes. Each episode, of course has to have its own climax or cliff hanger, to keep the audience coming back for the next one. This meant that you had to have several plots or subplots winding around each other, each one evolving and paying off at different times. And of course to keep all these subplots going, you had to have supplementary characters to populate them.
I, and everyone else, grew up on a lifetime of movies, one hour dramas and half hour sitcoms, every single one of them expressing the three act story structure, the simple story arc that animates every three act structure, and the centralized cast of characters that are necessary to that simple arc. It is omnipresent, it is pervasive.
Doctor Who threw that completely out the window, and embraced a brand new (to me) utterly baroque, sinuous, twisty story structure. It drove a truck through the simplistic three act structure and replaced it with a melange of plot threads and characters.
I’m a storyteller. How could I not love that? Crazy wonderfully complicated plots and stories full of supporting characters who were allowed to breath and felt like they had an existence of their own!
There was one more thing.
Star Wars is adventure, good and evil, swashbuckling. Star Trek is about idealism, but also militarism, and corporatism – Kirk and Picard spend a lot of time in a boardroom having meetings – Star Treks ideals are balanced with a heaping helping of bureaucracy, and as often as not, force. Not complaining, they’re both great, and more popular.
But the Doctor is someone who will literally talk to anyone. He’ll go up to the monster and say ‘Hey, you’re a monster, how’s that working for you?’ He or she is not someone that solves problems with a quick sock to the jaw, or a hoo-ah! The Doctor talks, the Doctor listens, the Doctor solves problems by being smart, by being compassionate, by being thoughtful.
Of course, the game is rigged – the Doctor only encounters problems that can be handled that way. No Sith lords, no Death Stars, no Klingon empires, no Romulan fleets. But then, I don’t think that any one is more or less realistic than the others. So be it.
And truthfully, sometimes the Doctor’s ideals are honoured more in the breach, and there are actions, particularly in the older serials that don’t bear close analysis.
But the decency is there.
There’s a quote that epitomises what the Doctor is about for me. I can tell you, I absolutely remember it wrong. But the way I remember it is definitive for me, and it says everything about why I love the show.
There’s a situation, and there’s some bystander caught in the situation. The guy is terrified, shaking. He says.
“Please, I’m not important.”
And the Doctor smiles and shakes his hand.
This is what Doctor says.
“I am so pleased to meet you. In all my long life, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before. So you are very special.”
And he reassures the man that it’s going to be all right.
Because to the Doctor, there is no one who isn’t important. Everyone matters. Every single person matters.
That’s worth loving.