Monday, July 15, 2013

Doctor Who?

By David Luhrssen
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  I grew up as a fan of The Who, and it came as a puzzle, hearing of a similarly named British cultural export, someone called Doctor Who. I gathered he was an eccentric in a long trailing scarf that traveled through space and time in a phone booth. This of course was a thumbnail sketch of his ‘80s incarnation, the Fourth Doctor (I heard there were several), a chap played by Tom Baker with a mop of curly hair and a mischievous grin.

Along the way I continued to hear rumors of more Doctors still, and “renegade Time Lords,” often from the intelligent sort of people who otherwise read literature and attend plays. “There must be something to this Doctor Who.” I said to myself. But where to begin investigating this phenomenon with a half-century backlog of lore?

A good place to start is a new DVD set, “Doctor Who—The Doctors Revisited: First-Fourth.” It’s a collection that might also be appreciated by longtime fans for its selection of episodes from the first four time travelers prefaced by explanatory documentaries. Illuminating comments are given by Who staffers (including acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman), previous cast members (Frazer Hines), the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Tom Baker himself.

Doctor Who took a long time traveling to Milwaukee television; British viewers who saw the earliest episodes as they were first aired (1963) were faced with something entirely different from the usual fare. The First Doctor (William Hartnell) was a vaguely sinister old man in an Edwardian frock coat who traveled through space and time with his cute granddaughter Susan. He more or less kidnapped a pair of London school teachers, Barbara and Ian, and pressed them into his mysterious adventures. Shot in murky black and white, the First Doctor (1963-1966) seems closer at times to "Dark Shadows" than his better-remembered successors.

The documentaries on “The Doctors Revisited” don’t explain the original rationale, but they do explicate the remarkable device that has kept the series going through the radically distinct Doctors that have succeeded one another: Doctor Who is capable of manifesting himself in different bodies with different personalities, while retaining the mysterious essence of his identity. That he always chooses to be English says something about the sceptered isle where the show originates, but let’s face, the Doctor’s Englishness is part of the appeal. Casting a Yank in the role seems like a bad move.

I’m not sure after watching the documentaries why the Doctor is so fascinated with our world when the universe is his oyster. The Third (and perhaps most flamboyant) Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was explicitly stuck here—and worked with a UK-dominated UN unit dedicated to defending Earth from alien invaders. And those invaders have included a plethora of memorable monsters. The Daleks (“Resistance is useless” they croak metallically) have the brutal compulsion to exterminate all other life forms; the Ice Warriors (“You must be destroyed,” they hiss in a chilly whisper) are reptilian humanoids from Mars. Perhaps the cheekiest galactic malcontents are the Autons, sentient plastic beings that can transform shop window mannequins into killing machines—an idea oddly terrifying for its assumption of horror in the ordinary material of modern life.

“No acting was involved at all,” laughs Baker, recollecting his days as the Fourth Doctor. The big grin and crackling comic energy was all his. Unlike the Third Doctor, who often resorted to fisticuffs, car chases and martial arts, the Fourth was in the enviable position of being able to defeat evil by mocking it.

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