PURSUITS
Lording over time
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, July 20, 2012

It’s very hard to explain 
to people who are not devotees of Doctor Who what lies at the heart of the long-running TV show’s appeal.

Frankly, I’m not sure I know what it is that so appeals to the show’s dedicated fans either. And, at present, at least, I’m a Doctor Who agnostic.

But among people who write about these things, I am in a distinct minority. Forget about the fans, Doctor Who has the TV critics panting with praise. Ever since the writer Russell T Davies took on the Doctor Who franchise, the show has been hailed as an example of British TV at its finest. It is shown all over the world and, in America, it occupies the same slot that Monty Python filled in the 1970s: as being the sort of Brit thing that only cool people really get.

You’ve probably seen some version of Doctor Who (or heard about it at the very least), so I won’t tell you too much about the plot or its basic premise. Besides I’m not even sure that I understand the concept anyway. Nor am I up to speed with the show’s history and I certainly can’t name all of the actors who have played the title character. (On the other hand, I can name every James Bond, every Batman, every Superman…)

But you need history to get some idea of the show’s provenance. The thing to remember is that it is vastly older than many of the people who watch it. The first episode was telecast in1963, three days after John F Kennedy was assassinated.

The hero was a Time Lord, a sort of immortal guardian of the universe, who came to Earth to help us but who also, conveniently flitted off to other planets when the action sagged. Plus, he had a trick of his own: being a Time Lord, he could travel backwards and forwards in time, through the past and the future.

Science fiction was going through a low phase in America in 1963 so Doctor Who was a peculiarly British show.

Our hero had no spaceship. Instead, he had a phone booth. But this was no ordinary phone booth. For one, it could hurtle through time and space (it tended to materialise rather than fly). For another, it defied the known laws of physics by being much bigger (as big as a country house in some episodes) on the inside than on the outside (where it looked like any other 1960s phone booth.)

I never watched the early Doctor Who episodes too closely but, from what I recall, Doctor Who was an old, rather cranky fellow who was usually accompanied by a young adolescent assistant presumably to give the kids who watched the show a character they could connect with.

And it was the kids the BBC was aiming for. The original Doctor Who was a kiddie show, broadcast during kiddie viewing times and made on the paltry budgets that traditionally characterised children’s television.

But despite its low-budget air, the show managed two breakthroughs.

The first was its theme tune, played by what was described as the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, which predated Kraftwerk and the era of electronic music by a decade and a half. The second was the creation of the Daleks, murderous robots who kept muttering “Ex-term-inate” each time an enemy got too close. The Daleks were a great invention. They endure to the present day and their catchphrase still resonates.

By the time I got into Doctor Who, several actors had come and gone in the title role. The show’s writers had come up with the brilliant idea that as Doctor Who was a Time Lord he could not die. However, he would regenerate into a new body. So, each time a new actor took over the role, the plot included a regeneration sequence.

My favourite Doctor was Jon Pertwee who played him in the early Seventies, as a wry, Oxbridge-type know-it-all. More influential was Pertwee’s successor, Tom Baker, who set the template for today’s Doctor, played the character without Pertwee’s elevated stature and adding a touch of mad unpredictability to the Doctor’s behaviour.

Then, I grew older and lost interest. Doctors came and went till in 1989, after more than 25 years on the air, Doctor Who was cancelled by the BCC.

That should have been that. But in 2005, the BBC allowed Russell T Davies (who was born in the year that the first episode was telecast) to relaunch the franchise as a more adult show (with adult budgets and viewing times). Davies had made his name with such shows as Queer as Folk and The Second Coming and had no real reputation in the area of children’s programming or science fiction. This turned out to be a good thing because his reinvention of the franchise had a serious actor, Christopher Eccleston as Doctor Who, and moved away from the clichés of the genre.

The series became 
an instant critical and ratings success and long-time fans (i.e., everyone of a certain age in Britain) waited for Davies to re-introduce all the old Doctor Who standbys such as the Tardis, the Daleks, the Master (a kind of super-villain), the Cybermen (more villains), etc.

When the new Doctor Who became a global phenomenon and a huge earner for the BBC (which still shows it around the world and sells it to TV stations in other countries), Eccleston made way for a new Doctor, David Tennant — who went on to become the most popular Doctor Who in the show’s history.

After five years, Russell Davies moved on and Steven Moffat (who also does the brilliant Sherlock) replaced him and eventually Matt Smith became 
the 11th (or is it 12th? There is some dispute) actor to play Doctor Who. The Moffat-Smith version is still one of the best-regarded shows on British TV and continues to win fans all over the world.

Speaking for myself, however, I’ve stopped watching. It is not that there’s anything wrong with this Doctor Who series. In fact, when I have caught the odd episode on TV, I’ve been struck by how much better the show is than most science fiction hokum: it is far better than the Star Trek re-boot, for instance, and it’s certainly a lot better than the three crappy Star Wars prequels that George Lucas churned out.

But I guess science fiction just doesn’t do it for me any longer. And at some level, I still prefer the simple Doctor Who stories of my childhood rather than the grown-up plots they have today.

But don’t let that stop 
you. You should see the show and make up your own mind.

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow Vir’s other writings, visit www.virsanghvi.com)

 

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