9/18/2012

Why Doctor Who?


When I was a young boy, around 9, a television show appeared on public television at 6:00 on a Monday night called Doctor Who. It was British, and I was a child of British immigrants. The main character is an irreverent and brilliant Time Lord who travels through space and time in a blue box shaped like a policeman's telephone box. The Doctor could go anywhere he wanted, but seemed to focus a lot on helping problems on Earth. He was witty, he was silly, but at times he could be incredibly serious as he dealt with various enemies.

The show itself began in 1963, on the same night my grandfather died. On the same night that JFK was shot. The show was not a hit at first, but they kept producing them and it eventually became somewhat popular. My parents may or may not have watched some of the original episodes when they were still UK residents. They took a boat and moved away, traveling across an ocean to get to their new home in North America.

I didn't grow up fully American. Not fully. I grew up with knowledge of another culture, another way of doing things. My very first memory is of being in England, away on a trip in 1976 when I was a very small child indeed. Birds flew up into the sky as we walked through an underpass. Nothing magnificent, but from an early age I was uncertain of the ground I walked on. 

The main key to understanding Doctor Who is that the main character changes shape every few years. This was originally a production issue, as the first actor to play the role became ill, and produced wanted to keep it going. So they invented this device in which Time Lords could "regenerate" into new forms while being the same person.

 I didn't know it at the time, but as I watched that first episode, I was watching as the third Doctor turned into the fourth. 

At the time, all I knew is that there were people talking in English accents on my television, matching the accents my parents had. I was too young to stay up for Masterpiece Theater, but here was something that was engaging to me. I devoured it, and every Monday through Thursday night at 6:00 I was glued to this lifeline to England.  I learned all about the mythology, and for the next two years, I watched as Tom Baker's Doctor did his thing. At one point during his tenure, Douglas Adams was the script editor. 

A similar infusion of Britishness came when the public radio station played the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series. These things are related.

But then the PBS station stopped showing Doctor Who, and my oases of Britishness was gone. I did not get to see the next three people to play the Doctor, and it all sort of faded away for me. I lost interest and grew up. The show was cancelled in 1989, and  when I rented an episode in the mid-90's, it was completely awful to me. 

My entire life, I wanted to be in England. It's my home, the place where everything in me says I'm supposed to be. But that's not how my life turned out. I ended up being marooned here. And, without all the details now, in  2005, the show was resurrected for a new generation. At that time, I was supposed to be in England. Everything in my soul said I was supposed to be there, but, that didn't happen. 

But, thanks to the magic of the torrents, I was able to watch the  ew shows in almost real-time. I was able to watch his new adventures at the same time they took place, going out over the BBC. Something about downloading episodes that had the BBC 1 narrator saying what shows were coming up next. Every time I downloaded a new episode, I felt a little teeny tiny bit like I was there. And so, I watched, and felt connected to something way bigger than me. A silly television show, but a television ingrained in my childhood. 

So, when I was in my early thirties, the show came back to life suddenly, the Doctor's adventures could be as big as they needed to be. The awful special effects of its first 26 seasons were more or less gone. The mythology resumed in astounding ways that have provoked me and made me feel both American and English. Suddenly, I didn't have to choose. I could be me in both places. 

And in 2012, we approach the 50th anniversary and the show itself has become international. My son in England watches it with his mother, and I have something to share with him. 

So, that's part of why I love the show and why it's important to me. It's well-written, thoughtful, and the mercurial nature of the Doctor mirrors my own. 

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