Doctor Who

Every week night when I was little, I watched The Polka Dot Door and dreamed of playing the piano just like Herbert Helbig. When it was over, my younger brother and I would race to turn off the TV before that scary music started up with the man with the spooky face. As we grew older, my brother became brave: ignoring my protests he would watch just a few moments of Doctor Who before we switched the set off. (He claims I was the brave one, but I do not believe him.)

A few years later we were watching fairly regularly, but we were not really hooked. Then PBS announced that they would show Doctor Who from the beginning. We weren’t home that night, so we set our Beta VCR to record it. This was the early 1980s: TV Ontario was showing nearly-current color episodes with the 4th and 5th doctors. But it was An Unearthly Child, a black and white episode nearly two decades old, that made us fall in love with Doctor Who.

In Canada at that time, Doctor Who was a fringe phenomenon; the existence of fans probably would have been a mystery to most people. My brother and I hunted down every bit of information we could get our hands on: target novelizations, the FASA’s Doctor Who role playing game, Doctor Who Magazine, publications describing early stories. The use of the term “season” was a mystery to me then, but I knew I liked the sound of Season 5. I was crushed to learn it no longer existed. I imagined schemes to recover the lost episodes: racing them into space to pick up the radio signals, reading them from the brains of viewers who remembered, and of course travelling back in time.

We joined the Type 40 Doctor Who club that met monthly in the National Research Council’s wood-panelled granite building out by the Ottawa river. We were the youngest members, surrounded by middle-aged men who huddled around a TV and VCR watching bootlegged tapes. Orphan episodes in particular had been copied so many times they were virtually unwatchable, messes of grey blobs and a rushing sound that drowned out dialog. When Patrick Troughton died, the club showed a degraded copy of The Enemy of the World 3. When Evil of the Daleks 2 was found, we watched that too. With a surplus VHS, my brother and I borrowed and copied tapes of everything we could get.

We taped episodes regularly on TVO and PBS; when we visited grandparents we took a VCR and grabbed episodes from other PBS stations (I saw Talons of Weng-Chiang in my grandparents’ dark house when everyone had gone to bed). VCR failure was a serious event; I learned to open up the machine to disentangle and re-align the tape. Eventually we managed to wear the machine out. We completed our collection when YTV broadcast one episode per day (with commercial breaks threatening to increase our costs: an L-750 Beta videotape at the high-quality Beta II setting could only fit 7 episodes). By 1991 we had the entire extant series on Beta videotape, including orphan episodes. I still have the tapes.

My favorite Doctor was Patrick Troughton (from The Five Doctors and Box of Delights); my favorite monsters were the Cybermen. The black and white episodes are the most special to me. Many of them show a foreign but familiar culture (British, 1960s) projected into an outdated imaginary future (contrasting strongly with the brash alien arrogance of Star Trek, now also fascinating as a reflection of its time).

When the new series arrived it didn’t hold my attention for long. With its extravagant season finales, humanized Doctor, focus on present-day Earth, indulgent self-importance and frenetic pacing it was not the show I had loved. I understand the producer was inspired by the genius of Buffy, but it didn’t work for me. Tenant in particular, though I can see why he is well liked, combined my two least favorite doctors, Davison and Pertwee. Regardless, I think the program would have been better with less money. The old series profited from a miserly budget that forced an emphasis on script, character, and atmosphere over action and spectacle. Look at the second Doctor’s face at the end of episode 2 of The Moonbase, when he realizes the Cybermen are right there in the room with him: I will take that any day over high-quality special effects, location filming, or armies of extras. Despite excellent episodes like Blink and Human Nature, I left Doctor Who behind me.

Then in October I read the rumors of whole rediscovered stories; I had trouble concentrating on other things. When The Tomb of the Cybermen was found in 1991, it was my most wanted story (though I was shocked and disappointed by the carton racism). If I had made a list of my next two choices, the stories recovered this year probably would have topped it. For years – perhaps decades – I have dreamed my own version of The Enemy of the World. It is wonderful to be able to see for the first time episodes made before I was born.

Now I have started watching Matt Smith’s portrayal. My Doctor is back: deceptive, arbitrary, unknowable, ultimately good but not always nice. I can believe this is the man who sabotaged the fluid links in The Daleks, whose curiosity led people to their deaths in The Tomb of the Cybermen, who tricked Ace into facing her fears in Ghostlight, who refused to save a dying cleaning woman in Cat’s Cradle: Warhead because she knew the evil her employer was up to, yet failed to sacrifice her livelihood in a futile attempt to stop it: the man who in that magical first episode, An Unearthly Child, toyed with the lives of companions he was later to come to respect. I have high hopes for Peter Capaldi in seasons to come.

2013-11-23

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