Exactly 46 years ago, on Nov. 23, 1963, DOCTOR WHO first flickered to life on TV screens in the United Kingdom. BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman and first producer Verity Lambert are generally acknowledged as the “parents” of DOCTOR WHO, but legions of writers, producers, directors and actors have all contributed to make the series what it is today: my favorite TV series of all time.
DOCTOR WHO has the most flexible format imaginable: The lead character can change his appearance, and has his TARDIS, a vehicle that allows him to travel anyplace in the universe, at any time in the past, present or future. And the series has made great use of that creative freedom, crafting stories of adventure, comedy, drama and pathos that fall into categories of science fiction, fantasy, history and even romance. The Doctor is incredibly smart yet quirky, with an insatiable curiosity and a deep sense of right and wrong. All filtered through an alien perspective that makes him appear wildly eccentric and fun. There have been 10 versions of the Doctor to date, with an 11th persona about to debut in 2010. Each of these personalities has been as different as the faces he has worn.
My earliest memories of the series stem from Tom Baker‘s reign as the Fourth Doctor, as syndicated here in the USA in the late 1970s. It was shown on WWOR Channel 9 in New York, and actor Howard DaSilva would provide recaps of the previous episode (always referring to the lead character as “Doctor Who”). I have very vivid memories of the hallowed story “Genesis of the Daleks,” which introduced Davros, as well as “The Deadly Assassin,” featuring the desiccated, corpse-like Master. I remember being fascinated by the weird program with the wobbly sets, rubber-masked monsters, and the guy with the floppy hair and mile-long scarf. This was not STAR TREK, which I had watched religiously in reruns. I quickly realized that what the program lacked in budget, it made up for with heart and good intentions. There was an awful lot of love invested in those wacky stories – and Captain Kirk had never met anyone like Leela! The cliff-hanger format was perfect for hooking younger viewers, and I almost looked forward to the scream of the musical stinger that would sound just as the Doctor or one of his comely companions was in peril.
The series was reliably available on PBS stations in the ensuing years, and I was lucky enough to catch various episodes on PBS in the New York region, and especially later on, after I moved to the Baltimore region, where Geppi’s Comic World underwrote showings on Saturday and Sunday nights. Over the years I have been lucky enough to have seen every surviving episode at least once.
The saying goes, “Your favorite Doctor is your first Doctor,” and for years, Baker’s widely acknowledged definitive portrayal was my favorite, too. But slowly I began to grow fond of Sylvester McCoy‘s darkly manipulative Seventh Doctor. True, he got off to an insanely rocky start (“Time and the Rani,” anyone?), McCoy eventually found his footing and shaped a character out of the dross of those early scripts. By the end of his run, in season 26, McCoy had made the character his own, and won my allegiance. McCoy’s Doctor was always a step ahead of his enemies, and wielded his companion, Ace (Sophie Aldred), like a weapon. (At first she was a blunt object, but by the end she was a scalpel.) Yes, it may sound like sacrilege, but Sylvester McCoy is “my Doctor.” I always resented the implication that McCoy had killed the series merely because he was the reigning Doctor at the time of the cancellation in 1989.
I was overjoyed that McCoy was given the opportunity to return to the role and pass the torch to the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 American TV movie. McCoy was quiet and dignified in his twilight story, just as he should have been. And he got the legitimate regeneration sequence that he had to fake due to Colin Baker‘s absence from the end of the Sixth Doctor’s run. Paul McGann took up the mantle in the movie, and managed to sketch in a unique character in just one appearance.
The revived series in Britain is pretty much everything I always hoped the show could be if given enough money and a dedicated brain trust. The acting has been uniformly terrific, especially from David Tennant, who will be vacating the role at the end of this year. His manic energy has made him arguably one of the most popular Doctors ever. Show-runner Russell T Davies has shown a knack for big ideas and the bravery to implement them – let’s face it, who else would ever have dreamed of destroying Gallifrey and wiping out the Time Lords? Sure, Davies tended to repeat himself – how many Dalek invasions were there in his four seasons? – but he also crafted some truly memorable stories, brought in some truly gifted writers, and left the series in fine shape for the rest of the 21st century.
I eagerly look forward to Steven Moffat‘s regime, with young Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, and Karen Gillan as his new companion, Amy Pond. Wherever the series goes from here, and whatever happens, it simply cannot be boring!