Tuesday, November 5, 2013
26 Seasons of Doctor Who
If you read the blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m quite the Doctor Who fan. If not, you can believe it's true. And no, not the Johnny-Come-Lately ‘isn’t David Tennant so awesome,’ 'bow-ties are cool' Doctor Who fan. I’m not against the new show by any means, though the last few seasons have kind of sucked. But I’m a classic Who fan through and through, and I have been since watching Robot (Tom Baker’s first) on MPBN Channel 12 in Bangor, ME some time in the early to mid 80s (Bernie Roscetti was a superstar, man). It’s been a favorite ever since. As a youth, I would devour every new story every Saturday afternoon (occasionally Sundays). They would play full stories, so it might be on for 90 minutes or 2 ½ hours, depending. I loved the Tom Baker years, was confused when Peter Davision came on, and didn’t like that curly haired guy (Colin Baker). When it started over, going back to the original William Hartnell era, I lost track. I didn’t respond to his ornery old crank attitude, and the slower pace, but still saw stories here and there, as they showed a handful of Hartnell and then Troughton. I think I was more into it again when Jon Pertwee came on, but only got excited again when it returned to the Tom Baker years. On the next cycle through, I saw Sylvester McCoy, and I was shocked and upset to learn the show had been cancelled. How could this be?
When I got NetFlix about six years ago, I was enjoying the early episodes of the new series (Christopher Eccleston is still my favorite of the new guys) and thought I’d start watching some of my favorite classic stories, and some I had never seen. This was when I started to understand the depth of what had happened to Who, with the loss of so many early episodes. So much of Hartnell and almost all of Troughton seemed to be missing, possibly forever. I don’t know what prompted me, and I don’t know when I decided. But about two or maybe three years ago, I started trying to get more systematic about my viewing, organizing the disks by their proper chronological order. I was off on a multi-year journey to cover as much of Doctor Who’s classic run as I could, with what was on the market and what was available through NetFlix. Seeing a lot of the stories for the first time in 25 years, and some for the first time (not to mention behind the scenes info and interviews), I came to a new understanding and appreciation of the series. I found myself responding more to Hartnell and Troughton than ever before. William Hartnell is still a challenge. The show was finding its feet. The character was very different and most of the rules and larger concepts were missing. And it wasn’t uncommon for stories to become repetitive, awkward, and yes, boring. But there was plenty to love. And once Susan left, the companions were less annoying.
There are so few stories from the Patrick Troughton years, that I hardly feel like I can say much, but I liked Jamie and Victoria a lot as companions, and those stories that do exist seem pretty good. But the real discovery was with the beginning of Jon Pertwee’s years, where I took an immediate liking to the man in a way I never had before. He’s more dashing and brazen, more active and willful. And there's a wistful bitterness that I connect with. So, while the writers and budget kept the Doctor on Earth for much of this time (erg!), and The Master showed up, I found Pertwee catapulting to the top of my favorites list. Which reminds me, this re-watching of the series convinced me that I can’t bloody stand The Master. He doesn’t fit. His episodes are usually lame. On occasion, he even shows up in a good story, promptly ruining it. The mustache twirling villain might have worked once in a great while, but as a regular recurring character, it sucked. I’d argue that the show didn’t need a recurring villain, but if it was going to have one, it needed to be a better one. It was also during this time, and serving as a bridge into the Tom Baker years, that Sarah Jane Smith shared adventures with the Doctor. Having recently seen her guest on the new Who, and then get a successful, youth-aimed, spin-off series that I liked quite a bit (and was overall, much better than Who’s other spin-off, Torchwood), I was psyched to see her in her younger days again. But while I’d liked her a lot when I was a boy, I found her wanting as a companion, now that I’m an adult. She’s more screamy and prone to being captured than I remembered, which is jarring when comparing her to the brassy, tough woman she is in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Tom Baker is a colossally dominant figure in Doctor Who’s history. More than any other actor, I think he is the face of the show. He was my Doctor for the longest time, the man I judged all others by. His time on the show was its golden age, with many of the most memorable characters and episodes. The broad appeal and outright madness of the series while he was on can not be overstated. From 1974 to 1981, his freakish face, wild mop of hair, and eccentric behavior re-wrote the book on a character that had then been on TV for more than 10 years. He traveled with the best companion of all time, Leela, a warrior woman from a horrible future. He traveled with two regenerations of a lady Time Lord. He even found a boy from another reality. This was the show at its absolute height. Sure, there were lame stories. And absolutely, there were great stories from other times. But this was a glorious time, when the writing and production, the cast and crew all came together. Upon my re-watching of many Tom Baker stories, I find that I’m not the sycophantic fan I once was. Some of his mannerisms I find off-putting, and there are choices in some of the episodes that I think haunt the character to this very day (it also gets awkward trying not to look at his poorly covered cold sores). Still, it was a great time, and more than any other era of the show, the Tom Baker years are probably the best jumping off point to try watching the classic series. I don’t know that I’d recommend starting with Robot. I think Genesis of the Daleks, The Face of Evil (introduction of Leela), or The Ribos Operation (beginning of a season long Key to Time arc, a nice sampling of what the show has to offer, while a larger story is told) would work best.
After Tom Baker, things get weird. The show takes on a very, very different feel when handsome young Peter Davison shows up in his dandy cricket outfit, putting a shockingly different spin on his interpretation of the character. I was surprised to find myself enjoying Davison in the role more than ever before, and that I kinda liked the much maligned Adric. But Davison is also saddled with one of the worst companions of the whole show (rivaled only by Susan, I think), Tegan. Everything about that woman annoys the ever loving crap out of me, and every time it seems like she’s leaving the show, she doesn’t. Argh! Following Davison, you’ve got the most reviled actor to take up the mantle, Colin Baker. The show was in trouble, the writing was wildly uneven, and the actor was challenging. But I think Baker reached for something greater. He picked up on some of Tom Baker’s edgy darkness, but also on some of Jon Pertwee’s daring do. Possibly the biggest shock I got in this journey was the discovery that I really, really liked Colin Baker as the Doctor. Unfortunately, his final season is a turd sandwich, and the beginning of the end of the show.
That brings me to Sylvester McCoy, and profound disappointment. I hadn’t seen any McCoy episodes in many years, possibly not since they originally aired on Channel 12 circa 1990. But my memory of them were pleasant. Alas, my memories did not prove to be accurate. Suffering through Mel, the perkiest, most aggravating of companions, you quickly notice that the writing is lacking. Sure, there are a couple stories that ooze with 2000AD’s punk, pitch black humor. But for the most part, they’re just bad. And when Ace shows up, it’s a welcome change, but not enough. I remember her being a take-charge tough girl who didn’t let the baddies get the drop on her. However, while she doesn’t spend her time screaming, she isn’t nearly as useful and independent as she should be, and the real problem brings us back to the writing. The Doctor is all over the place, from the dark edge of Tom Baker to the loveable vagabond of Patrick Troughton, and all points between; each episode feels like a whole new character. Somewhere in these few seasons of the show seeds were planted that wouldn’t germinate for many years. It is here that the deeper problems with the new series seem to begin. The over-melodramatic stories, the attempts to raise the stakes so high that they don't mean anything anymore, the deus ex machina cannon being fired off every ten minutes. And so many episodes that try to cram in far too many disparate things. With very few exceptions, McCoy’s tenure on the show is painful to watch, and a sad bleeding out of a once great show. By the last few stories, I was having a hard time going on, and just wanted it to be over. The final story, Survival didn’t suck, and that’s about the best I can say for it.
Final disappointments aside, it’s a great show, with years and years of fascinating characters, creatures, worlds, and stories. From comedy to horror to adventure to mystery, so many different types of plot were explored, it always keeps you guessing. The confused, jumbled, and less than consistent universe it presents is one of the most impressive sandboxes my mind has ever played in, and along with Star Trek, it will doubtless remain one of my all time favorite shows, a pillar of Science Fiction television. Seeing the many ups and downs of the series over its long run gives me hope that the recent spate of crappy episodes from the new show are just a phase, and things might get better again.
I’m glad to see new generations of folks coming to Doctor Who, and I hope some of them explore and appreciate what came before the re-launch.