Blog 2013

Fifty Years of Who

It seems there are two types of people in this world: people who know nothing about Dr Who, and fans of Dr Who.  There seem to be very few people who know anything about the show and don’t care for it.  Most people seem, once they get a taste, to be incapable of getting enough.  That’s been the case for me, to be sure.  Once I’d gotten a full-on dose of the Doctor’s magic – to see a pacifist action hero traveling the universe and all of time, just to see the beauty of life and experience the wonders of all there is to see – I couldn’t get enough.

Now, to be fair, I wouldn’t say I’ve been ignorant of Dr Who, but it’s never really been a show that registered on my radar until very recently.  As the fandom for the show has grown to staggering levels, I’ve noticed and acknowledged it, but I’ve never gotten around to watching it seriously. However, with the hoopla over The Day of the Doctor, I tuned in and found myself quite enthralled.  Having seen maybe a total of six episodes prior to this (not including the ill-fated 1996 American TV movie which stared Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor; a film I watched with great delight), I was galvanized to see more.

Strangely, though, it isn’t more of the current Doctors that I want to see.

I’ve enjoyed Christopher Eccleston’s career for years, so impressed was I with his performance in 28 Days Later.  It’s no surprise then that the few episodes I’ve seen of his 9th Doctor really appeal to me.  David Tennant and Matt Smith’s respective characterizations are also really intriguing.  But I’ve found it’s the 2nd and 4th Doctors are who I’m most keen to see more of.

Doctor Who dates back to 1963, a full three years before Star Trek would appear.  In black & white, it starred two humans in the company of an alien in the guise of an older gentleman.  The 1st Doctor is often a shock to fans of the modern versions, being so radically different.  It really is the 2nd Doctor and on where modern fans can see the beginnings of the heritage they so enjoy.

The 2nd Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton) and the 4th Doctor (played by Tom Baker), are much more of the comedic figures in the early years of the series.  They tended to rely on personality and cleverness, as opposed to rote intellect or even action bravado (like their intervening 3rd Doctor played by Jon Pertwee).  This gave the two remarkable flavor and distinctive characters.

But more than just the Doctors, the shows during this time have a very unique feel to them.  Being low-budget sci-fi (in the case of the 2nd Doctor, VERY low budget), there are often a lot of concessions regarding special effects, costuming, and sets.  At first glance, this sounds like it would make for poor sci-fi, but one might argue that it can make for the best sci-fi.

Kevin Flanagan once said “It’s when you face limitations that you see innovation”.  Though he was speaking about video games, I think it holds true with many other forms of art (and perhaps all realms of life, to be honest).  Sci-fi is certainly no exception.  When you cannot rely on special effects, sets, and so on, to dazzle the audience, you are left with story and characters to do it.  And so it is in the presence of ‘cheap sci-fi’ that we can see some truly impressive and fun stories.

Additionally, watching the 2nd and 4th Doctors is like a time-capsule for television.  It’s incredibly intriguing to see where British TV was at this time, to see what it looked like, what some of the social mores were, what was acceptable and what was not.  Even simple things like the use of different cameras for indoor and outdoor shooting says so much.  Seeing these older episodes is like visiting grandparents and hearing compelling stories of days past, something only children would balk at because there aren’t enough dazzling lights.

The more and more I watch of these older episodes, the more and more they frame the modern episodes for me.  They inform the current show – from the production to the performances by the actors.  And they give key insight into where this culture was at this time in its TV life.  And, devoid of the trappings of CGI and modern imaging, they are full of cleverness and wit needed to convey outlandish and yet compelling tales.

If you get the chance, I encourage you to check them out.  Eccelston, Tennant, and Smith are great, but if you take a step back in time, you’ll be astounded and delighted beyond what you might imagine.

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