Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Way-Back Machine

Full Disclosure: I have not seen the 2010 New Year's Day Dr Who special, "The End of Time, Pt. Two." It's on its wholly legitimate way to me right now. So I'm sitting here, studiously avoiding spoilers for the next few hours or so, and I'm thinking, what with this being a milestone and all, the passing of David Tennant's--an actor who has become as synonymous with the role as anybody--era, that I'd take a little trip in time of my own and go back and revisit that first glimpse I had of that blue box on the TV screen.

Oh, and happy 2010.

If you grew up in the United States in the 1970's, you got first exposed to Dr Who through that great medium of PBS, which brought us other such gems as Red Dwarf, Are You Being Served? and Blackadder from the British Isles. I didn't. I grew up in the Eighties, and despite the fact that two of the aforementioned shows also came from the Eighties, the PBS affiliate in my home state didn't carry Who by the time I was of the impressionable age for it to be most appropriate. I can't imagine how I would have grown up if it did, how terribly it would have exacerbated my wanderlust.

What I did have were the Target novelizations, all in a rack, in the Westmoor Elementary school library. They existed in this no-man's land between describing the show to someone who'd never seen it and seeming to rely on an insider's knowledge of the show's internal logic.

Still. What fun.

I didn't actually see an episode of Doctor Who until I was fifteen, when it made its ill-fated landing on these shores. Short version: The BBC serial was canceled in 1989, after 26 years and a progressively dwindling rate of return. Almost immediately there was interest in reviving it in some form, frequently distilling to the form of a big-budget Hollywood picture. Steven Spielberg's name was dropped. Animations were tested for a new, less clunky version of the Daleks, called Spider Daleks. We didn't see them, but you can find about 6 seconds of the footage on YouTube.

These big-screen dreams never materialized, and Doctor Who floundered in Hollywood until a script got optioned for a pilot. It aired on Fox in March of 1996. And then it died. I want to say that it died because it was a bit crap (which it was) but this is TV and the two are hardly ever connected, unless conversely. No, it died because of poor marketing and, if memory serves, because it was put up against Roseanne, a heavy-hitter of the time.

So no Who for me. Despite this, and despite the fact that the pilot was a huge clunker in terms of plotting, pacing, and (as I would understand later) betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding about how this hero should be presented, the thing stayed in the back of my head for a few years, until I got to college.

College was where I met Tom Baker.

Well. I say "met" but that's rubbish. What I mean to say is that it was in college where I rediscovered Doctor Who, specifically Tom Baker's mid-1970's run, specifically in these VHS collected editions of his stories. Starting with "The Robots of Death."

That's The Doctor explaining--as well as he can to his assistant Leela and to the audience--how his time machine works. The whole "Robots of Death" serial is fantastic. Here's a show ostensibly aimed at children and, apart from all the deaths in it, Baker's Doctor goes on to casually explain the whole theory of the uncanny valley and why all robots are slightly creepy, when he's not dealing with some demento who takes to robots like Buffalo Bill took to attractive young ladies.

I was hooked. Here was a guy who could go anywhere. Past, present, future, anywhere in the universe. And that to me was his gift. Not his sonic screwdriver or his two hearts, or any of the other alien gifts that came with the package. Here's a guy who just went, who carried on his boots the dust of a thousand worlds and times. Plus: Leela. Total babe. And Romana. Both of her.

I didn't get back in to it 'till 2006 and the BBC revival on the SciFi channel. I remembered why I got hooked in the first place. I tracked down all the Baker serials, then Pertwee, Troughton, Hartnell, the other Baker, Davison & McCoy. I devoured them voraciously. And even the rubbish episodes--of which there are quite many--couldn't diminish that first promise, that if you turned the right street corner, stepped in to the right box, that you could go anywhere.

See you in the future.

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