Thursday, April 01, 2010

The universe and many faces of the Doctor

I have been meaning to write this article for a while now, I was even going to do a lightning talk about it (or something related) at the recent Java Posse Roundup 2010 but I ended up giving up my slot because of the numerous other interesting talks in waiting there. Finally I will get my thoughts out there about Doctor Who. This is a timely blog post because the new Doctor is about to start his journey this weekend.

I initially had the idea to write this during the excellent Codemash conference earlier this year. One of the openspace sessions there was titled something like "Doctor Who: The End of Time - a.k.a. the saddest thing I have ever seen on TV". That got me thinking, there is some kind of disconnect here. Sure, it was sad to see David Tennant's Doctor regenerate, and the whole thing was handled tastefully and sympathetically, but I didn't find it that sad, in fact I look forward to what's next.

I believe the difference is that, being English, I grew up with the Doctor, and not just one Doctor, but many. David Tennant (who did a fantastic job playing the Doctor) is the tenth person to do so:

These are the (now 11) faces of the Doctor. I first started watching the series with Jon Pertwee (the third face here, sort of strict and matter of fact, slightly pompous and very clever) back when he was stranded on earth, the TARDIS couldn't travel, and he had a flying car (he was attached to UNIT as a special advisor during this period of Doctor history). He was replaced by Tom Baker (zany, long scarf and curly hair, and with a love of jelly babies), and for me Tom Baker will always have a special place as "the" doctor, since those were my most formative "doctor" years.

I remember the sadness when Tom Baker regenerated. Time Lords can escape death by regenerating when the damage to their bodies is too great. Regenerating brings a new physical form and a new personality for the Doctor, while retaining all the memories of the former incarnations. This allows the new actors to take the character in different directions, and play to their own strengths and personalities, without which I believe the role would get stale and unpopular with new actors.

Tom Baker though was replaced by Peter Davidson who took the role in a new direction, that of a "very English" cricket loving gentleman who was very caring and somewhat bumbling when it came to technology (like control of the TARDIS for example). It was then that I realized how the changing faces of the Doctor kept the role interesting and the series alive and new. It is not healthy for the same actor to play the Doctor for too long, however much you love their portrayal, because eventually it will harm the story telling.

After a few years, Peter Davidson gave way to Colin Baker, again there was sadness in the transformation, but this time for me there was also curiosity to see where the story would go next. At first I really didn't like Colin Baker in the role - he took a new approach to the doctor, very arrogant and blustering, but he won me over in time and has become a firm favorite (even now in the audio adventures - more on those later). His arrogance was nicely tempered with a tendency to be quite wrong about things, and this brought his portrayal back into the sphere of human fallibility, and made it accessible (yes, I know the Doctor is not human, but in some ways he is a model for the way I wish humanity was).

Colin Baker was then superseded by Silvester McCoy who played the role until (it looked like) the end of the series in 1989. Silvester's portrayal had elements of a kindly but strict wise old grandfather figure, and also a kind of "universe weariness" of seeing too much evil in the universe, but at the same time some incredible understated bravery and some pretty epic decision making.

In 1996, Fox, Universal and the BBC collaborated for a made for TV movie, where the baton was passed to Paul McGann. The TV movie it was hoped would pilot in a new series but this never happened, and most people assume that this was the only outing Paul McGann got in the role. To appeal to a more american audience, McGann's Doctor was a little less thought and a lot more action (at least in the movie), the action vs. thought side has been played down in the Big Finish audio productions, where McGann's Doctor has had some of the most epic adventures of any of the doctors and has been quite prolific. McGann's Doctor is perhaps one of the most admirable and heroic even so, willing to sacrifice everything for what is right, and both thoughtful and non-judgmental. One of my favorite performances.

When the series came back to TV in the mid 2000's, Christopher Eccleston had taken over (we never saw the regeneration of McGann to Eccleston - at least not yet). Chris Eccleston only did one season, but was very memorable and fun in the role. In the intervening time it was revealed that the Doctor had brought about the end of the great time war, eliminating the Daleks but also his own people (the Time Lords) in the process, leaving him with great sadness and personal demons, but continuing to fight the good fight. He made a good doctor, and even better, because we never saw the transition of 8 to 9th Doctors, there is ample chance to fill in that gap - something that is rumored for a big screen movie that may or may not happen - this would give both McGann and Eccleston another outing in the roles, and is something I would love to see).

Then Eccleston's Doctor sacrificed himself to save Rose and David Tennant's Doctor took the helm. Clever, knowledgeable, a bundle of crazy energy, and somewhat judgmental and  even dangerous at times (I was alarmed when, in the Waters of Mars, he proclaimed that he was the winner and could do no wrong, that is very scary to hear from a character that commands the kind of power over the currents of the universe that the Doctor has). David T. has done a brilliant job in moving the Doctor's story forward, and in some ways the end of his regeneration (with the likely path ahead of becoming corrupted from the power of being the last Time Lord standing) is good timing.

The reason for all this explanation, well I hope to convince American viewers who found the Regeneration of Tennant's Doctor as the saddest thing they have seen on TV that this is part of the cycle, and not so sad at all. The 11th Doctor will be taken over by Matt Smith, and I can't wait to see where the character and the story goes next. Another reason I am not sad though, is that the nature of the Doctor is that he lives on in all forms.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the excellent Big Finish Productions continuing audio stories of the Doctor. These currently feature the 5th (Peter Davidson), 6th (Colin Baker), 7th (Sylvester McCoy) and 8th (Paul McGann) and feature the original actors, along with most of the original actors for the various companions through the Doctor's story. These are excellent stories - I can't recommend them highly enough, and as a bonus you can listen to them while you commute, mow the lawn or do other stuff. It's great to hear even more adventures with these Doctors, all of whom seem even more unique and original when hearing their adventures interspersed with each other. It's also great that Paul McGann really got to bring his excellent potential to the role in something more than the one 90 minute outing he had before.

So, in closing, don't be sad for the old Doctor, be happy (and excited) to see what the new one does.

One more thing though - according to the lore of Doctor Who, the Doctor only gets 12 regenerations, so unless something changes, we are getting pretty close to the end of the line now.


Helen said...

Aha, well, I'm English and I'm VERY sad about Ten's passing

This may be because I'm female...

I've been watching Doctor Who as long as you have, and I've never been so affected by a regeneration before.

Chris said...

Wish you'd joined the CodeMash session. Some great insights and memories from the group.

I started with Tom Baker on cross-border TV from Ontario. But their schedule was weird: they'd do one new season, then one old one. So I went from first season of the 4th Doctor to the first season of the 3rd. Still, I got in early on The Master, the Cybermen, and saw Destiny of the Daleks, so it's all good.

Embarassing to admit, but I had a total TV crush on Romana II. Nyssa a little bit too.

My wife passed on joining the show when it was revived with Eccleston (who I thought was great), but she's a major Tennant fangirl. She keeps watching the reruns (and Torchwood) whenever they come on.

Thanks for the reminisce. Nice to learn so much about the Big Finish stuff.

Eric said...

I've been a Doctor Who fan from America since Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) brought it over.

I was fortunate to start with Tom Baker as well as was able to watch them as the rebroadcast as many as they had at the time. Once they were up to date (at the time Peter Davidson), they started over and was able to see many of the original doctors.

I was saddened when PBS took it off.

Was hopeful when the American movie came about followed by sadness that it did not get picked up.

Was overjoyed when BBC regenerated the series with new life and new adventures. I liked the "single hour long episode" format a little more. I missed many of his old enemies (Daleks, the Master Cybermen, etc) and was grateful they finally were able to bring them back as well.

I look forward to a new doctor, a new season, and new DVR recording.

bgoggin said...

I started watching with the Eccleston reboot. I've enjoyed the series tremendously. I'm looking forward to this new interpretation.