Saturday, April 7, 2007

In The Nick Of Time

With a new wardrobe and a new companion, The Doctor (David Tennant) resumes his travels.

Image credit: screenshot by Cujo359. Doctor Who is a copyrighted work of the British Broadcasting Corp.

Last night, after a rather longish day at work, I came home just wanting some escapist video entertainment. To me, escapist entertainment usually means science fiction these days. Unfortunately, one of my old favorites, Stargate SG-1, is now "transitioning off the air", which seems to mean that it's been canceled. My new favorite, Battlestar Galactica, is now on hiatus until who knows when, and was barely renewed despite what I think was a very strong season. In short, there's not much quality science fiction available right now. If it's not about explosions, space battles, and women in scanty clothes, most folks aren't that interested in science fiction television these days.

Then, like an answer to a prayer, I discovered that there was, indeed, some new science fiction episodic television available. Thanks to the BBC, The Doctor is back.

For the uninitiated, The Doctor is the main character of the BBC's Doctor Who series. It's about a time-traveling alien who looks like a human being who travels around in a spaceship that looks like a police box. Police boxes, by the way, were telephone booths of sorts that one could use, back in the mid-twentieth century, to call the police. This plot point, which was considered common knowledge in the United Kingdom when the series began but now must be explained even there, is a hint of how long this show has been around. The Doctor is an eccentric person who often neglects the relationships in his life, and who prefers to travel than to stay anywhere. Over the years, there has been a substantial backstory built up about who he is and what it is in his past that has made him the rolling stone he is now. The Doctor has had a series of traveling companions, both human and alien.

Anyone who knows anything about TV science fiction will at this point be saying "New? Are you kidding? Doctor Who has been around since the Sixties." Yes, that's true. In fact, the first episode of Dr. Who aired the week that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. At the time, it starred William Hartnell, an experienced British actor. Unfortunately, Hartnell's health problems necessitated the sort of plot device that every TV producer has probably wished he could have invented: The Doctor re-generated into the form of a new actor, in this case Patrick Troughton. Over the succeeding decades, eight other actors have played The Doctor. The series, with a break from 1989 to 2005, is now in its twenty-ninth season. Scottish actor David Tennant, perhaps best known for his role as Cassanova, is the latest incarnation of The Doctor.

That sixteen year break in production is one of the reasons that this old show is new again. For a time, Britons were bored with The Doctor, preferring EastEnders, I suppose. In any case, the show was put in mothballs after 1989, even though I think that its last few years featured some of its best writing. The version being produced now is more modern - it features the fast pacing, quick cuts, and CGI special effects that are now standard in video storytelling. Comparing it to some of the early Hartnell episodes is a great way to illustrate how much has changed about the art of TV production in the past forty-five years.

As I've mentioned previously, much of what I've learned about morality I've learned from science fiction. Good science fiction has a way of turning an issue around to allow you to look at it from all sides. While it's perhaps best known for its cheesy special effects, Doctor Who has featured some of the best writing in the genre. It's tackled issues as diverse as the Cold War, terrorism, happiness (and Thatcherism, seemingly its opposite), medical ethics, taxes, and the decline of English society.

At his best, The Doctor is a character who is both wise and yet disarmingly eccentric. His fashion sense is, to say the least, curious. In a genre that typically means the weapons our heroes carry are more powerful, The Doctor prevails armed only with his wits and his sonic screwdriver, and with the help of those he can enlist to help him. He is a powerful, willful, but wise personality. Tennant fits the role admirably. He's a terrific actor - often managing to go from seeming out of his depth to completely in control in a matter of moments, with stops at goofy and tragic along the way. The Doctor is a complicated, mysterious character, and as good as some of his predecessors have been, Tennant may be the best of the lot. It looks like Martha, played by Freema Agyeman, will be a worthy companion for The Doctor. She's intellectually gifted, curious, and courageous, not to mention gorgeous.

So, rent the DVD's, find the downloads, or watch the series on the Sci Fi Channel. And who better than The Doctor to put a postscript on this essay:

Now then. Close down the gravitic anomalizer. Fire up the helmic regulator, and finally ... the hand brake!

UPDATE: Wikipedia has a good introductory article about Dr. Who, with a photo collage of the Doctors.

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