Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Doctor Is In

This weekend is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, highly anticipated by the UK, nerds, and fangirls worldwide.

For those who do not know, Doctor Who is a show about a time traveler who goes throughout both time and space doing…well, things. They travel in a TARDIS, a time machine disguised as an old blue Police Box. Invariably, he manages to encounter some sort of trouble, and the series is built upon The Doctor and his companion figuring out how to resolve the problem--which usually ends up meaning that they have to save a world from getting destroyed or some historical figure from perishing at the hands of an animate trash can wrapped in bubble wrap.

Doctor Who has been on for a long time. A long time. It original run, which started in 1963, started out as a sort of educational adventure show; they used the time traveling plot device as a way to alternate between learning about history (the past) and learning about technology and the future. It grew, however, into a more of a sci-fi adventure series, with The Doctor and his companion battling a series of aliens hell bent on destroying whatever planet they were on—the most famous enemies being, of course, the dreaded Daleks.

In the process, over the decades, the writers built up a rather impressive mythos around The Doctor, his origins, the story of his race (he is an alien known as a Time Lord) and the universe. A plot point is the fact that when a Time Lord dies, he “regenerates”—which is when, quite conveniently, a new actor signs a contract and breathes some new life into the show. Budgets were often laughably small; space aliens tended to be thrown-together bits of hardware that happened to be laying around the BBC studios. (Thankfully, things got much better after a few years, even if it is 70's era effects.) The stories, while often ridiculous, were solid enough that they appealed to kids and adults alike.

After airing for over 30 years, the series more or less ended its original run in the mid-1980s, when a miniseries more or less ended its original run, only to be rebooted in the mid-2000s with a whole new set of details, an increased budget, a focus on more adult-centered storylines (although still strictly PG), and a worldwide audience eager for more. After a bit of a rocky start (the first few episodes weren't overly impressive, effects- and writing-wise), the series really hit its stride with the tenth Doctor, David Tennet.

Doctor Who isn't for everyone. Its rich and fruitful history is a benefit but also a bit of a drawback; by relying on old, creaky bits of lore that were written almost four decades ago it seems more like a crutch than an proper sci-fi experience. Its attempt to appeal to a wide audience can sometimes water down the writing and the effects. The quality of the plots is wildly uneven; some episodes are incredibly emotionally draining, while others are almost laughably bad, as if they are written by a grandfather who is using tech words he read in a random article about technology in the Sunday supplement (like--so help me--Wifi Aliens. No, really.). The plots can often be lazy, the problems they create are artificial, the dialogue is filled with obvious technobabble, and it's all solved by the end of the episode with some convenient deus ex machina. It's a formula--and a good one--but one that's pretty thin and tired if the writing isn't up to stuff.

Still, there is something charming and unique about the Doctor Who universe. He is an incredibly deep character, and the show does a particularly effective way of lulling you into a false sense of a happy-go-lucky, hyper-intelligent hero, just to have him do something absolutely horrible. (He deliberately brings companions along on his adventures, not just as a useful foil, but also to keep himself morally in check.) Many of the alien races are incredibly fascinating. Sure, the Sontarans look like potatoes with faces and the Cybermen are just tin robots with a bully complex, but their entire existence and backstory that have built up over the decades means that every time you see one, you're legitimately excited to see what's next.

And, at the end of it all, even if it's one of the lousier episodes, they keep things going with enough action and excitement that you never feel like you've wasted your time. The entire "regeneration" concept, while a casting gimmick to begin with, does feed into a legitimately interesting effect--while it is the same character, with the same memories and same history and same purpose, each new actor does it in their own way and with their own personality quirks. You know it's the same character, and yet it isn't, and it's fantastic.

It's probably too late to start now, but the 50th anniversary special is this coming weekend. Sadly, the TARDIS is unavailable for you to go back and watch them all in time.

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