Thursday, January 21, 2016

Doctor Who--Madman in a Blue Box

I may be the last person on the planet to discover the British cult science fiction series Doctor Who, but I am trying to make up for it by binge-watching every episode made during the last nine seasons. For other viewers who came late to the series, here is some background and a brief sketch of what the program is about.

The Doctor is the last surviving Time Lord from the destroyed planet of Gallifrey, exploring the universe in a blue police call box called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). His mission is to prevent evil intergalactic forces from harming innocent people or changing history. He uses his superior alien intelligence, mind-boggling ingenuity, a lot of running, and a sonic screwdriver.

Doctor Who began as a BBC series in 1963 and ran through 1989. A made-for-television movie in 1996 did poorly, so plans for reviving the series stalled. The program was reincarnated--or should I say regenerated--in 2005 and is still in production. The original intent of Doctor Who was to be an educational family program exploring scientific ideas and famous moments from history. There have been 826 installments televised since the program's inception, though many of the1964 through 1993 episodes were destroyed, wiped from video tape, or deteriorated from neglect. Once the current show found its new audience, it became an international sensation.

One key to the success of the Doctor is his ability to regenerate himself when his body is mortally damaged. Regeneration was not part of the original concept for the character, but when William Hartnell--the first Doctor Who--became too ill to continue with the role, Patrick Troughton took over. The transformation was described as the Doctor undergoing a "renewal." The concept of regeneration was written into the script for the casting of the third Doctor, and it remains a successful device for recasting the main character.

There have been thirteen actors to play the Time Lord on screen: William Hartnell (1963-1966), Patrick Troughton (1966-1969), Jon Pertwee (1970-1974), Tom Baker (1974-1981), Peter Davidson (1982-1984), Colin Baker (1984-1986), Slyvester McCoy (1987-1989), Paul McGann (1996), Christopher Eccleston (2005), David Tennant (2005-2010), Matt Smith (2010-2013), and Peter Capaldi (2014 to the present).

But the Doctor alone is arrogant, demanding, and largely indifferent to human emotion. His alien perspective clashes with human values, but he learns to admire human beings and develops empathy from them. To balance his abrasive personality, Doctor Who typically travels with a companion or sometimes two or three. Occasionally, he goes it alone. His female time traveler companions serve to soften the doctor's austere intergalactic view. The companion figure is an audience surrogate to remind the Doctor of his "moral duty." They are characters with whom the audience can identify.

Some of Doctor Who's companions.
In the latest series, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is the first and second doctor's companion. Her character is a nineteen-year-old shop assistant. Next comes Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman)--a medical student kidnapped by aliens. My personal favorite is Donna Noble (Catherine Tate)--an office temp worker from Chiswick. Other notable characters are Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke), Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). Fellow time travelers include River Song (Alex Kingston) and Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). These characters often weave in and out of the story lines.

The special effects and imaginative settings display a hallmark of technical achievement easily the rival of a Hollywood blockbuster. The exterior camera work is stellar often showing sweeping panoramas of London in all that city's splendor. The show's attention to detail with costumes and makeup in their period-piece episodes helps the actors make their roles plausible. The historically themed shows are often filmed at famous London locations--such as the Old Globe Theatre or Chuchill's Underground War Rooms--giving those shows added believability. 

Doctor Who's writers often reveal a plucky British sense of humor and sly wit, with an occasional dose of comic relief. When the Doctor drops in on the likes of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, or Agatha Christie, the scripts are particularly witty. Despite the intricate and farcical plot complications, Doctor Who's core values are respect for the interconnectedness of all existence and the sanctity of life--human or otherwise. The writers always manage to bring the story line down to a human level and often leave the audience with a tear in their eyes and a lump in their throats.

Doctor Who trailer for the latest season: