Doctor Who, Saturdays BBC America
If you somehow have never seen Doctor Who since it debuted on November 23, 1963 (the day after the Kennedy assassination), now is a good time to start. You’ll never catch up entirely on the powerful hold the show has on the public consciousness of Britons and miscellany nerds of all ages, but you may become enthralled along with them. And thanks to the power of Netflix and a concise mid-90s documentary More than 30 Years in the Tardis you can get a working grasp on the half century of backstory fairly quickly. But, all you need to know is that Doctor Who is a bigger sensation than you realized. Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) developed his craft writing for the show (please go watch Dr Who Story 105 “City of Death” available for instant viewing on Netflix after you are finished reading, and tell me you aren’t charmed), and Steven Spielberg helmed an aborted effort to bring the franchise to the United States in the 1990s. Currently, Neil Gaiman, perhaps the most successful living science fiction/fantasy writer and certainly the one with the most recognizable hair, is writing an episode. Terry Pratchett (who has little to no hair, but nearly as much success as Gaiman) recently wrote an article calling the show ludicrous, defying not only the laws of science, but also narrative, and then going on to proclaim how excited he was for the upcoming season, mainly because of the superfeisty kiss-o-gram girl who is going to accompany the Doctor on his adventures through time and space and hopefully wear more revealing and ridiculous costumes like the stripper-policewoman number she donned in the season premiere. It’s as good a reason to turn on the TV as any, and if history is any indication, she will find her way into other, equally improbable looks.
The show has always prominently featured a young, beautiful actress who travels across time and space with the title character, a near immortal humanoid alien who can pop to and fro in what looks from the outside like a (now) old school police emergency booth. Called the Time And Relative Dimensions in Space (TARDIS), it is essentially a blue box that’s bigger on the inside than it looks, much like my Honda Element. The phone booth was a play on Superman, as Doctor Who was in many ways the antithesis of the superhero—Who is a brainiac, aged alien, easily mistaken for any given schlub. But the companion is always a sort of Lois Lane. Sometimes she stands in for the perspective of the audience, sometimes she serves as a moral ballast for the doctor, and sometimes she wears a bikini. The radiance of the Doctor’s female companion (who is rarely if ever a love interest) is as central to the show as Bond girls are to that franchise. In fact, they are in many ways more of a constant than the Doctor himself, as the character can and does regenerate from time to time, adopting a new appearance and personality—generally when contract negotiations stall or ratings slip. The conceit is brilliant: Doctor Who can be a TV Menudo, continually giving the people what they want in changing times, while offering that brand name sense of security we look for from popular culture. Plus a pretty girl.
And in many ways, the current Doctor Who would be unrecognizable to the show’s original creators. Since the show’s inception, the Doctor has gone from looking like Dumbledore to Harry Potter (Harry’s ubiquitous scarf is itself a nod to an earlier incarnation of the Doctor). Matt Smith, who currently plays the doctor, is dead sexy in that tweedish way we accept from Englishmen but which, when American men try, just makes them seem like Woody Allen rather than Hugh Grant. The idea of a traditionally sexy Doctor Who creates a huge cognitive dissonance in me, which I’m sure is what producer Steven Moffat (Coupling, TinTin) and the current Young Turks in charge of the series wanted.
As his companion says (shortly after kissing him), Matt Smith in some light looks like he’s 9, and in fact the actor is only 27, significantly younger than the median age for stars in the role. Doctor Who is younger than me, I keep saying bewilderedly. It’s the same exact feeling I had the first time I went to see an actual doctor who was younger than me. So first, the new Doctor makes me feel a little bit like a pedophile. But more significantly, and conversely, growing up watching old Doctor Who reruns on PBS, the Doctor became a father figure to me of sorts, a funny as hell, kind as the dickens protector, who knew everything about the universe I would ever need to know. So apparently, I have daddy issues too, all at once.
I am not alone. Past versions of the Doctor have stumbled upon their companions, as they run screaming from one bug eyed monster or another, when they are fully grown, and invited them for a romp in his Willie Wonka-esque, Rube Goldberg inspired Tardis. This time, Amy Pond, the aforementioned kiss-o-gram girl coming along for the ride, first met the Doctor when she was nine, and spent almost 15 years fantasizing about his return, even making her soon-to-be-long-suffering boyfriend play Doctor Who dress up.
It raises a deeper question than it appears to at first. How do we navigate the space from childhood to adulthood, move from our romantic fantasies of magical visitors who literally pop out of thin air to the world of dateable, schlubbish, and often vigorously angry man-childs? Because the Doctor is not unusual only for his youth, but also because he’s also coping with the guilt of becoming so tied in with the human world (aren’t we all) which his enemies tell him will soon die screaming, maybe deservedly so.
Doctor Who has always had an anti-fascist, anti-racist bent. The long-standing arch enemy of the Doctor has been the Daleks, who were consciously modeled off of photos of the Nazi S.S., interpreted onto the bodies of garbage cans. Much like Star Trek in the U.S., the visits to far off planets often became sermons on cultural diversity (but again, it’s not nearly as stodgy as all that—girls in bikinis, scripts by the creator of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and a means of travel cooler even than a Delorean). Recently, however, the show has been sticking close to Earth. All six episodes aired at press time focused exclusively on saving humanity, which is a real departure, no pun intended. Maybe the earth is just cheaper as a location, or maybe the special effects budget was blown reimagining the Daleks in Technicolor, a nightmare much like those commercials featuring the M&Ms fearing for their lives as they slide down towards the cash register. But even if the decision began with monetary concerns (and the alloted “special effects budget” for a typical season of Doctor Who could easily be blown on a few gallons of premium paint colors) it shows the character at the heart of the now “venerable franchise” in a new light.
This season, the Doctor has so far sanctioned the genocide of two species for the continuing survival of humanity. After learning that the future of the United Kingdom rests upon ceaseless torture, he argues in favor of protecting the monarchy. After watching a father offer his daughter up to what appears to be vampires, he gets angry when they kill the girl, and destroys the last of an alien race of refugees. Past iterations of the Doctor would have at least given the father a little bit of grief for his collusion in the matter. But Matt Smith’s Doctor sees only the good intentions behind the cruelty, and bit by bit allows himself to be corrupted by them.
After 50 years of loving Doctor Who, he’s finally starting to love us back. “Just believe in me for 20 minutes,” he says to Amy in the season premiere, a nod to the audience for whom Doctor Who is all too real a part of their history, and a wink at the skeptical. At the end of episode, he has been further transformed into a steampunk British superman, changing his clothes in front of the camera, becoming transformed for one final, unexpectedly moving speech demanding the universe accept that this world, our earth 2010, is under the protection of the Doctor. It appears the season will spend the rest of the episodes exploring one question: do we deserve his protection? The answer will probably be no, and I’ll be left wondering, as so many times before, what happens when you finally make a man love you, only to realize he isn’t so loveable anymore.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.