Friday, November 02, 2007

doctor! doctor!

he's been back for a while now. he's not the same as he used to be. but he's still the doctor, and i am glad he's here.

i first saw the BBC's doctor who back in junior high, when the local PBS station in our small pennsylvania town showed reruns of the series starring tom baker as the doctor (that's him, above), the "renegade time lord" who traveled through time and space having impossible adventures and occasionally "regenerating" into a new body (thus allowing many actors to play the same role). the station started at the beginning of baker's tenure, with "robot." (actually, i have a very dim memory of one episode or serial with jon pertwee, the third doctor, which was probably the final segment before tom baker took over, but i don't remember the story.) but this would've been around 1978, so my fellow geek friend deb and i were seeing these shows a few years after they aired in england. the station broadcast them contiguously, not breaking them into "seasons," so as far as i can recall, we saw most of the baker episodes. but i'm pretty sure i didn't see all the way to the end of his time as the doctor. scanning the list of episodes on wikipedia (which has a useful repository of info on many things who-ish), i remember up to about season 16, maybe part of 17.

anyway, deb and i were utterly captivated. it was part of our secret world; no one else we knew watched it. (just as no one else we knew liked star trek or the lord of the rings, either.) but we adored this crazy guy in the long scarf and frock coat, with the wild mass of curls, the keen intelligence in his eyes, and the wonderful accent. he had a way of seeming to bumble while knowing exactly what to do. he was silly and serious, offbeat and powerful, all at the same time. we loved the monsters and the serialized stories, and the cool theme music. and of course, the TARDIS (which we took absurd adolescent pride in knowing stood for "time and relative dimensions in space"), the doctor's space/time ship shaped like a blue british police call box, vastly bigger on the inside than on the outside. even back then we knew the show was kinda campy, but we loved it anyway. we liked his companion, the strangely fragile-yet-resilient journalist sarah jane smith, but we both thought the military doctor who sometimes joined them, harry sullivan, was a twit. (although i was still sad to find out that the actor who played him, ian marter, died suddenly in 1986 at age 42. which is how old i am now.)

at some point my younger sister got into the show, too, and my mom knitted her a scarf like the doctor's. she still has it. back in those days i found at bookstores some slim paperback novelizations from the show, and i recently discovered to my ridiculous glee that i still have those.

but of course i grew up and moved on into high school, where i never stopped being a geek but did lose touch with both deb and the doctor. doctor who became a fond memory -- not as forgotten as, say, battlestar galactica, but certainly nothing i thought about and looked forward to as much as i had once upon a time. (although, upon reflection, it's funny that i ended up becoming a journalist, not that i explicitly thought of sarah when i chose my major in college, but still ... .) the doctor disappeared from my life, just like he did from the lives of his companions in the show, and i couldn't call it unexpected, but then i never thought about it much afterward.

and yet i was beside myself with excitement upon learning a few years ago that the doctor was coming back. the long-running show had been continuous from 1963 to 1989, and then it lay dormant until a 1996 TV movie. then, nothing. but in 2005, BBC revived doctor who as a serial, starring christopher eccleston as the ninth doctor and billie piper as his shopgirl companion, rose tyler. here he is:

with his close-cropped hair, v-neck sweater, and leather jacket, this incarnation was a different kind of doctor for a different kind of world. no longer a renegade alternately thumbing his nose at the time lords' directive of "nonintervention" and doing their dirty work when called upon, he was now the last of his kind. the only time lord survivor of a war between the time lords and the daleks, he was suffering the loss of his world and the knowledge that he couldn't save it, despite trying everything. this development gave the doctor a darker, harder edge than tom baker's, although the fourth was capable of being a hardass when necessary. at the same time, the ninth was still the same reckless, fun-loving adventurer ... and he still needed a (pretty, young, usually female) friend along to keep him grounded. more than ever, in fact, he needed rose to tie him to the world of the living.

eccleston was so fantastic, and piper such a wonderfully ordinary-yet-amazing human companion, that i felt cheated when it was announced he'd only do the one season. the show had become a huge hit again, so of course the BBC had a replacement, one david tennant, whom i only knew from a small role he'd played as a bad guy in one of the harry potter movies. (an actor on stage and screen, he's done a lot of other stuff, but mostly in the u.k.) gazing at his photograph, i felt slightly skeptical. he seemed too pretty to play the doctor. sure, it was an odd sort of prettiness tempered with geekishness, but ... well. i decided to reserve judgment till i saw him in action.

and when i did, wham! he was awesome. i liked him from the start, despite harboring reservations about his prettiness, but he was kind of weird-looking and definitely weird-acting, and so ended up being perfect. and now i absolutely adore the tenth doctor, as much as my 13-year-old self ever did the fourth. i mean, really, what's not to love?

tennant really nailed the role, finding his own way while honoring what's come before. the outfit he's worn in most episodes, a brown pinstripe suit with cream-colored hightop sneakers, recalls the dandy-eccentric that was baker's doctor -- it even feels like they use his often lavishly patterned ties as a modern stand-in for the scarf. tennant's style is part baker, with the slightest echo of what eccleston did with the character, but he now owns the doctor completely.

i have since learned that wee david macdonald (tennant is a stage name, due to there already being an actor with his given name), growing up in scotland, informed his parents at the age of three that he wanted to be an actor b/c of doctor who. this, to me, explains the absolute delight with which tennant throws himself into the role, and why he's so believable whether being goofy or deadly, frivolous or serious -- sometimes in the span of a few moments (also like baker). this doctor isn't as bitterly consumed with loss as eccleston's, but he can be just as ruthless when dealing with threats. he protects his companions as fiercely as the ninth ever defended rose, but he more readily shows weakness, or at least he doesn't mind crying now and then. i dunno. the ninth was just as compassionate and caring, perhaps in some ways even more desperate to make things right (if more resigned to the possibilities of everybody dying), but he seemed to mask all that with a righteous fury that could be cruel. i suppose he was still sorta shell-shocked from the time war and coming to grips with being all alone in the universe. a struggle even a renegade time lord might find daunting.

the best science fiction, it has often been said, is not about the future but about the present. it tells us something about ourselves. doctor who in its current incarnation is about being human -- the wonderful, terrible, transcendent, frustrating state we will never escape until we die. the show at once constantly reminds us that the doctor, despite his appearance, is not human. and yet he is obsessed with them and protective of them. to the doctor, humanity means something. it is important. the potentiality and the actuality, the beauty and the mess. he loves humans so much that i can see what he sees: that they're worth it. and he appreciates human existence so much that i sometimes don't even mind being one.

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