Today marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of the BBC television show "Doctor Who". I think it's safe to say that this program is the greatest cult TV show in history. What began as a children's science-fiction series has now become a major entertainment trending topic, and a huge part of 21st Century geek culture.
I first started watching Doctor Who on Chicago's Public Television Station Channel 11, WTTW. This was back in the mid-80s. The "classic" Doctor Who was produced from 1963 to 1988, and was very different than the "new" version of the show (which debuted in 2005). The classic Doctor was definitely an acquired taste--you had to be a real nerd back then to get into it. The best thing about the show was the Doctor himself--a 900 year old Time Lord who had the ability to travel through time and space. What made the Doctor fascinating was that no matter who played him, and no matter how much you might have learned about him through his adventures, he was still a mystery. As soon as you got used to a certain Doctor, he would "regenerate", and a new actor would take over--and then you would have to get used to him again. The regeneration idea was just the BBC's way to replace the lead actor, but it was a very clever concept, in that it kept the show from being stale and at the same time allowed it to continue for years and years.
The classic Doctor Who episodes are somewhat notorious for supposedly being cheap-looking and camp. There's a fair amount of "new" Doctor Who fans who just can't get into the classic series. In a way, they are two very different shows with very different approaches. The 21st Century Doctor Who is no longer a mysterious middle-aged eccentric--he's now a cute nerd, refashioned to be appealing to a younger, hipper audience. You can complain about the new show's direction, but you have to admit that it has worked--go to any shopping mall in America and you'll see tons of Doctor Who merchandise. The BBC has to be making a killing off this show.
How do I feel about the new series as opposed to the classic one? Well, before I get to that, let me go ahead and list my favorite Doctors, in order...with a special bonus pick at the end of my list.
1. JON PERTWEE (The Third Doctor)
When I was watching "Doctor Who" on Channel 11 in the 1980s I was able to see Jon Pertwee's entire run as the Time Lord. For whatever reason, I loved the way he played the Doctor--he was dashing, adventurous, and dryly humorous. The stories he starred in were exciting and well-written, and filled with all sorts of weird creatures and great villains--including the best Doctor Who foe of all, the original Master (memorably played by Roger Delgado). Pertwee also had three very fine looking Companions (Caroline John, Katy Manning, and Elizabeth Sladen as the one and only Sarah Jane Smith). What I most liked about Pertwee was that, even though he had spent most of his career as a comic actor, he didn't play the Doctor for laughs--he made him into a larger-than-life galactic hero.
Jon Pertwee as the Doctor
2. DAVID TENNANT (The Tenth Doctor)
The Doctor Who series was revived by the BBC in 2005. The first "new" Doctor was Christopher Eccleston....and I have to admit I didn't like him very much. I just couldn't buy into him being Doctor Who--in my mind, he seemed like a guy who had just walked out of a pub. He wasn't my idea of what a true Doctor Who was supposed to be.
After Eccleston left the show David Tennant took over the role. Right away I liked him--this was definitely someone who was a "proper" Doctor. The new show's style and scripts still bugged me (I'll get to that later) but Tennant more than made up for it. Tennant had a dynamism and energy that I think Eccleston lacked--you could tell that Tennant enjoyed being the Doctor. It was Tennant who made the new series successful...I maintain that if Eccleston stayed on, the new series probably wouldn't have lasted too long.
Unlike earlier Doctors, Tennant's version could not be defined by only a few traits--he got to go through the gamut of emotions during his tenure, and he was a good enough actor to pull it off. I've got nothing against Matt Smith, but I don't really watch the show as closely as I used to, simply because David Tennant is no longer around.
3. TOM BAKER (The Fourth Doctor)
Tom Baker is the most famous and loved Doctor of all--saying Baker is your favorite Doctor is like saying HORROR OF DRACULA is your favorite Hammer film. He is great, and he's always interesting to watch...but I kind of feel that during his later years he got a bit too goofy (I don't think the Doctor should constantly be acting like a clown).
4. PETER DAVISON (The Fifth Doctor)
Peter Davison had the unenviable task of following Tom Baker, and because of that the Fifth Doctor doesn't have the reputation that he should have. At the time, Davison was the youngest actor to have portrayed the Doctor. The thing is, Davison's Doctor seemed to be the most mature. It's as if after all those years of Pertwee and Baker, the Doctor finally grew up. Davison had an earnestness about him, and he appeared to realize the consequences of his various actions throughout the Universe. Davison's unique approach to the character set the stage for the younger Doctors of today. (And he gets extra credit for being the only Doctor that I've actually met.)
Peter Davison and your humble blogger, Chicago, April 2013
.....and the bonus pick?
Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two theatrical films: DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965), and DALEKS INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. (1966). To this day, debate rages whether Cushing is an "official" Doctor or not (the BBC does not recognize him as such). I look at it this way--Cushing plays a character named the Doctor, he has a TARDIS, and he fights the Daleks--if he isn't the Doctor, then who is he?
The thing that bugs me the most about this is that Paul McGann, who played the Doctor in a very mediocre 1996 American TV movie, is considered a "real" Doctor. Peter Cushing has just as much claim to the role, if not more.
Now that I've revealed my list....what do I think of the present day series?
It certainly isn't my type of Doctor Who show. I fully understand what producer Russell T. Davies had to do when he did the reboot in 2005. There was no way he could have made the show the way it was made in the old days. He had to totally re-invent it, which is why he cast someone like Christopher Eccleston in the beginning and have him act as unlike the Doctor as possible.
The 21st Century Doctors are designed to be more appealing to younger viewers. Whenever I've gone to a comic book or fantastic film convention lately, I'm amazed at how many young and attractive women are dressed in costumes relating to the new Doctor Who. The new series has struck a chord with today's type of TV viewer. The show now has a lot of things in common with present day popular television--overly complicated plots that can stretch out to a whole season, ancillary characters that get more screen time than the main lead, and a hip, trendy sensibility that seems rather forced.
The new show isn't so much about the Doctor than it is about how he affects the people around him. There are times it comes off as a sort of soap opera, especially when it comes to the Companions and their families. I think the whole "feelings & relationships" aspect of the new Doctor Who is a major reason why so many young females get into it. Back in the old days, if Sarah Jane Smith had tried to talk to the Third Doctor about her personal life, he would have given her a dirty look and said, "My dear, we have more important things to worry about!!"
The current Doctor, Matt Smith, is leaving the series and is being replaced by an actor named Peter Capaldi. I really don't know anything about him, other than he's in his fifties. I'm surprised that the BBC cast an older actor after the success of David Tennant and Smith. With all the 50th anniversary hoopla the show's popularity is at a huge level. I wonder if that will start to fall off if all the young Whovians do not respond well to Capaldi. Doctor Who will always exist in some shape or form--anything that has a half-century of history attached to it cannot simply fade away. But I wonder how long it will be until, just like every other superhot cult TV hit show, the new Doctor Who series reaches a plateau and stops being the main trending topic.