Tuesday, November 23, 2010
DOCTOR WHO: Memories of Time and Space
Forty-seven years ago today, in the first episode of the story "An Unearthly Child," two schoolteachers followed a strange teenaged girl and her curmudgeonly grandfather into a British police box and television history was made. Doctor Who became a worldwide phenomenon in the years that followed, going through eleven lead actors, umpteen companions and all sorts of aliens and monsters, ultimately earning the record for the world's longest-running science-fiction series.
I first discovered Doctor Who in early 1984 at the age of 14. My parents and I were visiting my aunt and uncle in Columbus one evening and while the adults were off playing Euchre, I was left alone to my preferred world of watching television while reading a stack of comic books. As my fellow members of Generation X know, television options in 1984 were pretty damn slim, especially since my aunt and uncle didn't yet have cable television. So I manually turned the channel knob (Yes, children...manually) in the hopes of finding something I could tolerate while reading my comics.
Since there were all of six stations -- ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and a couple of independent stations -- this didn't take very long but I ultimately settled on PBS as soon as I heard some spooky music and decided it was the most interesting thing on. Some guys were digging around in a raging snowstorm and uncovered some sort of strange pod thing that they took back to their camp. Satisfied enough with my programming selection, I stretched out on the living room floor and started reading one of my comics, but then became distracted when something weird happened on the television. One of the guys was stung by a tentacle that erupted from the pod and he ended up becoming covered from head to toe in a creepy green fungus. Also, some curly-haired guy in a big hat and a long scarf and his short brunette friend seemed pretty bothered about it, but whatever was going on, it was pretty weird and cool. As I later learned, this was the classic Tom Baker era story "The Seeds of Doom," featuring Elisabeth Sladen as definitive companion Sarah Jane Smith.
Now, I would love to tell you what I thought about the rest of the episode, but my family's card game had ended and my parents and I left to go back home to Medina. That could have been it for my lifelong Doctor Who obsession, but as fate (or general probability) would have it, I ended up in similar circumstances later that summer after turning 15. On a boring Saturday afternoon, I was flipping channels at home (at least we had a TV with a remote), desperately looking for something to watch. I looked through the newspaper channel guide and saw that Doctor Who, that strange show I saw before, was about to come on my local PBS station with an hour and a half long episode called "The Keeper of Traken."
As soon as I heard the opening starburst of Peter Howell's arrangement of the Doctor Who theme music, I became hooked forever.
That howling, synthesized music introduced me to the world of the Doctor, now looking older in Tom Baker's seventh and final season, his new companion Adric and the blue phone booth-looking machine called the TARDIS. From there I met a young girl called Nyssa, who would soon become a companion as well, and learned about the Doctor's arch-nemesis the Master. And when the story ended (in a cliffhanger of all things, the bastards!) with Nyssa's father Tremas becoming a newly regenerated Master, my jaw dropped and I simply had to tune in next week to find out what happened next. Remember, back in the Stone Age, there was no handy-dandy internet where you could download the next episode or instantly look up what happened on Wikipedia or numerous Doctor Who reference sites. No, you had to bloody wait an entire seven days.
So with seven days being a relative eternity to a 15-year-old, I somehow managed to tune in again for "Logopolis," Tom Baker's final adventure as the Fourth Doctor. Once again, that crack-addictive theme music howled ooooooweeeeoooooooo in the living room and I was introduced to the Australian "mouth on legs," Tegan Jovanka, and a mysterious white figure called the Watcher who turned up at various ominous moments. The Doctor and Adric received warnings from the TARDIS' Cloister Bell that something dangerous was going to happen, but for some reason, the Doctor was focused on fixing the TARDIS' Chameleon Circuit through something called block-transfer computation and I have no idea what all that means but it's awesome! Eventually, Nyssa returned and joined Tegan and Adric to see the Fourth Doctor have a showdown with the Master atop a very slowly rotating satellite dish platform. The Doctor disconnected a power cable that he ended up hanging precariously from and then suddenly, bizarrely, he saw Sarah Jane and some other people, along with the Master and some other villainous people. And then -- Holy crap! -- he fell! There he was, dying with his three companions surrounding him, until the Watcher came up and merged with him somehow, turning the Doctor into a younger, fair-haired guy who smiled and sat up like nothing had happened.
In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves...WHOA.
And that, as they say, was that. From "Castrovalva" onward, I became a diehard fan of the Fifth Doctor -- my Doctor -- played by Peter Davison. Davison's era became my defining period as a full-fledged Whovian, encouraging me to learn about all seven Doctors, all the companions, all the villains and monsters, and all the episodes. I watched every week in full fan-obsessed mode, sitting through interminable PBS pledge drives, videotaping every episode the station was generous enough to air and tracking down any potential Doctor Who thing I could find, which in northeast Ohio, wasn't a whole lot. And then, after my family briefly moved to Florida in 1989, my heart broke after learning that the show had been cancelled for some insanely stupid reasons. It was the end...and the moment had not been prepared for.
I received a brief glimmer of hope in 1996 with the TV Movie starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, but that faded upon learning that the backdoor pilot did poorly in the ratings and wasn't going to be picked up by FOX or the BBC. With only Doctor Who Magazine to keep Whovians going during the Dark Times, Doctor Who fandom fully regenerated on September 26, 2003, when we got the announcement was made that Doctor Who was returning in 2005...
....and Rassilon willing, to stay.