People who know me well will immediately know what I’m talking about. People who know me sort of well will also probably know what I’m talking about. And people who don’t know me at all still have the chance to catch the reference in the title of this article. I’m talking about Doctor Who, the iconic British science fiction television show that has thrilled, entertained and terrified three generations of fans worldwide for almost 50 years. It has an extended universe to rival that of Star Wars, an extremely dedicated and occasionally vitriolic fanbase and “Doctor Who” news and spoilers (accurate or not) routinely make headline news in UK tabloids and papers. The premise is simple: it follows the misadventures of an alien called “the Doctor” (not “Dr. Who,” as fans will be quick to point out) and his companions as they travel through time and space in the Doctor’s bigger-on-the-inside time machine.
Airing in 1963, the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “Doctor Who” originally began as an educational show for children; two of the Doctor’s first three companions were a biology teacher and a history teacher, both from 1960s London. However, much of the continuing success of “Doctor Who” is owed to the more science fiction-y aspects: the aliens, the outer space romps and the occasional epic battles between the forces of good and evil, for example. A significant part is also owed to the strength of its main character, the Doctor.
Who is the Doctor? He’s an alien, from a far advanced race called the Time Lords. He’s over a thousand years old and has traveled all over the universe, from a planet made of diamonds thousands of years into the future, to historic Earth events like the launching of the Apollo 11 rocket, or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in ancient Rome. Of course, he hasn’t been played by the same actor for the past 50 years. There’s a trick in his alien biology that allows him to cheat death at the end of his life – instead of dying, every single cell replaces itself in an instant in a process called regeneration. It’s the same man, but with a body and a new personality. It’s a handy way to swap out actors and keep the show going for as long as it has been. Officially, there have been 11 Doctors, the current one played by Matt Smith since 2010. His interpretation of the Doctor is a mad, old professor in a young man’s body, hiding an intensely dark and self-loathing personality under layers of goofiness and silly clothing.
“Doctor Who” is generally split into two time periods: “Classic Who” and “New Who.” Classic Who refers to the period between its premiere in 1963 to its cancellation in 1989 and first failed revival attempt in 1996. The classic era of the show is remembered fondly as a ubiquitous childhood favorite in Britain, with the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker from 1974 to 1981, as the central recognizable figure of “Doctor Who” overseas and in other media. In 2005, BBC producer, and fan since childhood, Russell T. Davies revived the show as a direct successor to the original series, but with radically upgraded production values and a slightly different episode format. Currently the show is a little less than halfway into its seventh season of the rebooted series, with Steven Moffat (perhaps better known for his work on the BBC’s Sherlock, the modern adaptation of the Conan Doyle stories) as the current producer and head writer.
Season seven happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who,” and Moffat is sparing no expense. Of the four episodes premiered so far, each one has been a self-contained, high energy, fast-paced story shot with a glorious cinematic quality. This season, the Doctor has outwitted his longtime alien enemies, the Daleks, ridden a Triceratops on a spaceship with Queen Nefertiti and John Riddell, grappled with a cyborg gunslinger in the Wild West and fought off an invasion of small, deadly black boxes. Next week on Doctor Who marks a huge event in the season– the tragic departure of Amy and Rory, this Doctor’s best friends, at the hands of some of Moffat’s most terrifying creations, the Weeping Angels.
If it all sounds a bit silly, good. “Doctor Who” is, in fact, quite silly. It is, first and foremost, a children’s show. There are silly looking aliens and contrived coincidences and the occasional spots of bad writing. (And if you think the aliens in 2012 look silly, you should see the alien props built in the ’70s — sometimes laughably terrible.) But that is honestly part of its charm. As a show, “Doctor Who” is a unique blend of action and adventure and cheesy camp, mixed in with humorous, heartwarming and heart-wrenching moments, and with just enough instances of bone-chilling horror to keep fans on their toes. Its open-ended premise gives it enough room to have any genre of story — adventure, romance, political thriller, psychological horror, morality tale – by any type of author. Because its central character is very deliberately non-human, “Doctor Who” provides another specific way of examining humanity, through the eyes of a man who’s seen it all and is still able to feel boundless awe for every new thing he comes across. In all of his many travels, of all the things he’s seen and the creature’s he’s met, he’s never found a race quite as magnificent as humanity. And he’s never met a person who wasn’t important.
“Doctor Who’s” final episode for this year until the Christmas special, “The Angels Take Manhattan,” premieres this Saturday, Sept. 29 at 9 p.m. on BBC America. Grab your sonic screwdrivers, hold onto your bow ties and don’t blink — it’s going to be one epic ride.