Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Case 9: Doctor Who

One of the United Kingdom’s great contributions to pop culture, The Doctor is nothing less than a modern icon. Can this geek ur-text with a 40 year history win me over, or will I be compelled to ex-ter-minate ex-ter-minate EX-TER-MINATE! 

Behind the Assumption: As I said, this is a ur-text. Geek Beowulf. The fact that I have a blog about old shows attest to my status as such.

Previous Experience: Beyond an adoration for Who alum Douglas Adams? Doctor Who was in perpetual repeat late on PBS throughout my youth. Unfortunately, any time I caught on it was something akin to “The Robots of Death: Part 8”. Not a good launching point.

Results: I alluded, way back in the Lost post, to the inherent risk of being sci-fi, the risk of looking silly. No one wants to look silly, they want to look cool. But the problem with cool is right there in the very definition of the word—it’s cold and lifeless. This is exactly what killed Heroes, a show about superpowers that was terrified of using them, because they might look silly. Pretty girls won’t laugh at a superhero dressed like an American Eagle model who never flies, right?
            Of course they will. A superhero by any other name is still as stupid.
            Doctor Who doesn’t have such fears. It’s a show that’s unafraid to look silly. It’s a show that will happily put its leading man in pajamas and have him sword fight an Skeletor-looking alien warlord atop an asteroid floating a few hundred feet over London. And what’s to be said to that? It’s fucking cool. Who dares wins.
            Doctor Who is a show that’s constantly gambling. How convoluted can we make our time-travel? Can we make a tentacle-faced red-eyed alien sympathetic? Can we make an immobile angel statue scary? How many designs from the 60s can we re-appropriate? Huge risks, that have huge payoffs. The average episode is practically bursting with ideas, with a child-like glee. The results are episodes where simply reading the description makes you not just interested, but actively excited. They blend child-like (but not childish) fun with heady ideas and sure-handed execution, usually with some heart. It commits to its premises and does not flinch, and as a result, it accomplishes remarkable things.
            The center, which holds everything in place, is The Doctor, the British pop culture counter-weight to James Bond, a character so great, it’s taken 11 actors to officially play him. An immortal alien (of a race quite awesomely dubbed “Time Lord”), a relentless wanderer, anti-authoritarian, preservationist, and humanist, devoted to the virtues of exploration, understanding and dĂ©tente, the ultimate nerd and ultimate bad-ass, ready, willing, and able to fight injustice and protect the innocent, armed only with his giant, info-filled brain, boundless problem-solving skills, and his ability to inspire mere mortals to transcend their fears and weaknesses, but also (in different incarnations) an angry, traumatized survivor who bitterly mocks opponents with his past destructions, a frightful demi-god who flees from enemies not for his sake, but for theirs, or a powerful outsider who is barely able to keep his frustrations in check. He is a hero who continually flings himself into certain death, and emerges unscathed, but knows that a hero sometimes makes the difficult choices with the heavy costs. He offers his companions the wonders of the cosmos, but inevitably offers them death as well. He abhors the taking of a life because he can so easily take them.
            Obviously, only the most epic of adventures will do for such a character—and with nearly 40 years behind him, he’s had plenty. That history gives the character a weight the show can, and does lean on, and The Doctor’s rising tide raises all the other boats. The Daleks and the Cybermen are pretty ludicrous, but they are lent gravity by The Doctor and the show itself. They become scary, and because of their silliness, it’s a much more unconventional sort of scary, and much more fun.
The show spins a grandiose web that trapped me, and filled me with wonder at its potentials. No other show on this list has the freedom of Doctor Who. They can’t tell a story of husband and wife who lose each other on parallel worlds and are reunited again, or of a nation built on the back of an enormous, empathetic beast, or of time-traveler lovers who meet, one before their relationship began, one after it ended. They don’t have the unrestrained, youthful imagination required to create an immortal nemesis who summons his army from beyond the heat-death of the universe through a gargantuan tear in the sky. For the Doctor, it’s a tool he manipulates as handily as his sonic screwdriver.
Least Sexy Moment: Doctor Who is pretty chaste in a very classic British sort of way, but as a result when it does get saucy, it’s remarkably effective.

All-Stars Shoe Sighting: No less a figure than The Doctor himself (in his 10th form) has at least three pairs—black, red, and a sort of cream, to match his various suits. Now that is style.

An Addendum: I’d be remiss not to mention the Doctor Who theme, an awesome piece of music that captures the strange, eerie, off-beat adventurousness of the show, but is historically significant as one of the earliest works of electronic music. The latest two variations of the theme, I don’t think, can be separated from the way the show utterly propels you through the episode and onto the next, making it nearly impossible to stop. I do marathons of other shows to see what happens next, but I did marathons of Doctor Who simply for the experience, the one the theme promises. Below is a great mix of the various themes from various eras, sadly, sans the latest.

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