Sunday, April 28, 2013

Travels with the Doctor

Having whizzed through the modern revival of Doctor Who, naturally it was time to take a look at some of the classic episodes.

With 156 (mostly) multi-part stories in the show's 26 seasons - plus the 1996 movie - to choose from, I've only scratched the surface. Nonetheless, I'm fortunate that BBC America is showing a serial from each of the Doctors in honor of the show's 50th anniversary, with the first two monthly programs already aired. I was thus able to see  "The Aztecs" (First Doctor) and "The Tomb of the Cyberemen" (Second Doctor) for free. Thanks to iTunes and the magic of, I also saw
  • "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" (First Doctor)
  • "Spearhead from Space" (Third Doctor)
  • "The Three Doctors" (well, just as the title says)
  • "Carnival of Monsters" (Third)
  • "The Green Death" (Third)
  • "The Time Warrior" (Third)
  • "Planet of the Spiders" (Third)
  • "Robot" (Fourth Doctor)
  • "The Ark in Space" (Fourth)
  • "Genesis of the Daleks" (Fourth)
  • "Pyramids of Mars" (Fourth)
  • "The Brain of Morbius" (Fourth)
  • "The Deadly Assassin" (Fourth)
  • "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" (Fourth)
  • "The Keeper of Traken" (Fourth)
  • "Logopolis" (Fourth)
  • "Castrovalva" (Fifth Doctor)
  • "Black Orchid" (Fifth)
  • "Earthshock" (Fifth)
  • "The Five Doctors" (yes, well, exactly)
  • "Planet of Fire" (Fifth)
  • "The Caves of Androzani" (Fifth)
  • "The Two Doctors" (Second and Sixth Doctors)
  • "Ghost Light" (Seventh Doctor)
  • "The Curse of Fenric" (Seventh)
  • "Survival" (Seventh)
  • "Doctor Who: The Movie" (Eighth Doctor)
As one can see, the good Doctor has been keeping me busy. Still in the queue are a number of other stories.

One problem with the earlier stories, particularly in the Troughton years, is the number of missing episodes. At the time, the networks, including the BBC, would re-use the master tapes, a problem I ran into when watching the early seasons of The Avengers. Many of the lost masters were replaced by other copies, from fans of the show, while still others were re-created in various ways.

The contrast between the classic and new shows is vast. The special effects are terrible and the looks - 60s, 70s, and 80s clothes and hairstyles, old monochrome CRTs that are supposed to represent the height of futuristic technology - are dated, but just as important are differences in writing, story arcs, and pacing. The four- or even six-part stories of 25 minutes each, with a brief reprise of the previous episode's cliffhanger to start subsequent episodes, requires a big commitment on the part of the viewer, and presents a challenging plotting problem for the writers.

The modern series provides neatly-wrapped 45 minute episodes (generally speaking, at least), season-long story arcs, and fast-paced action. In both the classic and new series, plot holes big enough to pilot a star liner through are legion, but my sense is that the plotting has improved in the revival.

Most of the Doctors have had their own distinct charms. The First was the stern, grandfatherly sort, while the Second was a clown - until it mattered, at which point he would assert himself. The Third was a man of action, the James Bond of the series. The Fourth looked and acted a little crazy, enjoying his jokes and antics in the face of danger. The Fifth was unassuming, almost to the point of having little screen presence, but was kindly and seemed sincerely fond of his companions. The Sixth was full of himself, and that outfit was retina-killing, and he didn't seem to be very nice at all, at least from my single story with him. I can see why he didn't go over well with the viewing public, though Colin Baker has said that his two-season stint did not give him enough time to develop and "unpeel" his character. The Seventh was an eccentric English gentleman, the Eighth an action hero who also seemed at ease with himself, the Ninth a war-weary veteran with an unexpected sense of humor, the Tenth a happy-go-lucky sort with an occasional cruel streak, and the Eleventh an overgrown child who likes to unravel mysteries.

It's interesting to me that every commentary I've read on the show accepts the idea that one of the Doctors is "my Doctor," the one with whom an individual viewer most strongly identifies. I wonder how much of that is driven by the fact that, until recently, a viewer started watching the show during the tenure of one of the Doctors, identified with that one, and saw subsequent versions as inferior. (This is similar to fan opinion on which James Bond is the "best," I suspect.) However, while I started with the revival of the series and Eccleston's Doctor, I watched all three 21st century versions of the character in short order, and then watched only a handful of each of the classic series Doctors. In terms of the number of episodes, "my" Doctor should be Tenannt or Smith. Seeing the classic show at the same time as the new one, and seeing stories out of order, creates less of a continual narrative than one in which all time is occurring at once (to paraphrase a line in "The Wedding of River Song"). True, the quality of the stories changes from season to season, and some Doctors have been saddled with weaker writers, but each brings something interesting to the show.

Soldiering on… Next up: Season 16, and the season-long story arc of the Key to Time.

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