Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Discovering the Doctor




I thought I had run out of universes, but I was wrong!
            I’ve always been fond of discovering new fictional universes, vast spans of space and time filled with strange assortments of characters and seemingly infinite numbers of places to explore. I don’t mean worlds described in single books or movies, but universes that expand over time, guided by the imaginations of many creators, and become almost living entities of fiction, capturing the attention of generations of fans.
            I suppose Star Wars was the first thing to make me feel that way, as that galaxy far, far away and a long, long time ago caught my eye when I was just a small boy in the middle of the great Star Wars craze of the early 80s. Although I’m not impressed by the direction it took years later, and I’ve only seen the prequels once each, I still go back and revisit the original three movies once a year or so and the Star Wars universe is still a place that made my imagination grow by leaps and bounds in those early years of falling in love with science fiction and fantasy.
            Star Trek came next and I wanted to be part of that universe, wanted to board the Enterprise and sail the galaxies with Captain Kirk and crew. And not so long after I found Star Trek, that universe expanded quickly and joyfully, and I had a great time with the spin-offs, the novels, comic books, and all the other offspring of Gene Roddenberry’s glorious vision of humanity’s future.
            And I got much the same feeling of wonder when I fell into the world of comic books, finding the Marvel universe first and then the even older world of DC. It didn’t bother me that I was jumping into both worlds many decades after their genesis’ and I was fine with the fact that I’d probably never, in a million years, be able to read all the stories that had taken place in those universes. I loved that they were so vast, so full of possibilities, and bigger than my imagination could handle in one bite!
            Those were the big ones, the discoveries that blew my mind at the age when a mind is in the best condition to be blown, when I was still a child and still able to frequently get swept away in wonder. It happened several more times over the years, but rarely as dramatically. As I got older, read more books, saw more films, and began to write my own stories and eventually see them published, it became harder and harder to get lost in a fictional universe. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy many stories over those years, but it wasn’t so easy to put myself at the mercy of the magic that comes with setting foot in a big, awe-inspiring universe that’s been there for so long and accumulated so much history that it seems you might never learn all there is to know about it.
            So yes, I thought I had run out of universes to explore. I never again expected to feel the way I did when I was eight and realized just how big the Marvel Universe or the world of Star Trek are. But then a wonderful thing happened. I decided to visit The Doctor.  
            I’d been aware of the existence of DOCTOR WHO for most of my life. Reading comics and science fiction magazines as I grew up, I would often see ads for the show and its related merchandise, yet I never got farther than a quick glance at those images. I knew DOCTOR WHO was a long-running series on British TV, that it had something to do with time travel, and that the part had been played by a series of eccentric-looking English actors, with the one I saw most often in those ads being a long-nosed man with a wide-brimmed hat and a ridiculously long scarf. That was all I knew for years. Later, I was aware that the series had been revived sometime after the year 2000 and had gained more popularity than it had ever had before, but I still didn’t bother to investigate further. I don’t know why I hesitated for so long. Maybe it just seemed like too much work. When I was younger, I dove headfirst into those previously mentioned fictional universes, not caring how much had gone on before my arrival. But now, being in my mid-thirties, with less free time than ever before, perhaps the Doctor’s long history intimidated me. Sure, I could have given myself a quick crash course via the internet and caught up with several visits to various websites and Wikipedia entries, but I hate doing things that way. I want to experience stories, not research them!  
            So what changed my mind after all those years and made me finally decide to check out DOCTOR WHO? I think it was a combination of three things. First, the months of buzz about the upcoming 50th anniversary of DOCTOR WHO put the show on my radar. Second, Netflix put up some of the show for streaming, including a sampler of 18 stories from the original series stretching from the nineteen sixties to the eighties. And third, and probably most importantly, I began to notice that a great many of my fellow writers and other friends are fans of DOCTOR WHO. These are people whose opinions I trust and who share many of my interests in movies, books, TV, and other media. If their good taste in fiction had led them to the Doctor, I began to strongly suspect that the universe traveled by the TARDIS might be a place I’d enjoy exploring too. 

            So I took the plunge, beginning with the Netflix sampler, and started to watch DOCTOR WHO. I was hooked from the start! The first serial I watched was “The Aztecs,” from 1964, starring William Hartnell, the very first Doctor. The early science fiction TV charm of the show caught my attention immediately. I liked the eerie, pre-psychedelic opening credits, the storytelling that reminded me of things like the original Star Trek, and the Doctor’s stern, intellectual attitude. I breezed through that story and quickly moved on to the next one. There was only one Hartnell story streaming, so I was soon introduced to the second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton, and his companions. Troughton’s Doctor, to be honest, irritated me at first with his panicked, jumpy personality and absent-minded professor style, but by the end of the serial I realized that it was all an act to hide his sly intellect, much the way my favorite TV detective, Columbo, exaggerates his sloppy eccentricity to annoy his suspects and throw them off guard.
            I soon moved on to the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, who was quite different from his two predecessors, getting in and out of trouble as a flamboyantly dressed, somewhat action-oriented character. I was treated to four stories with him, starting with his first, “The Spearhead from Space,” and ending with “The Green Death,” which remains one of my favorites.

            Next I watched a long stretch of nine stories featuring the Fourth Doctor, the extremely popular Tom Baker. He’s become my favorite and I can see why he’s so popular. I enjoyed the first two Baker stories, “The Ark in Space” and “Pyramids of Mars” (that second one was based around a theme I always enjoy, the merging of ancient Egyptian mythology and science fiction, similar to one of my favorite books, Roger Zelazny’s “Creatures of Light and Darkness”). 
            But it was the third Baker story I saw that made him my favorite. In “The Horror of Fang Rock,” a lighthouse crew is menaced by an alien monster. In one scene, the Doctor sits on the lighthouse steps and calmly chats with the creature, so casual and so confident, despite the deadly danger he’s in. I kept going through all the Baker stories that were available for streaming and came to appreciate his performance more and more. Baker was masterful at tossing out absurd lines casually and even politely in the face of dangerous situations or uncomfortable circumstances. “Would you mind not standing on my chest? My hat’s on fire.” 

            As I write this, I’ve just recently watched the ninth of those Baker stories, “The City of Death,” and I’m sad to have reached the end of what I have access to from the Fourth Doctor’s run. His stories were all entertaining and he was joined on his adventures by some of my favorites of his companions, characters like Sarah Jane Smith, Romana, and the robotic dog K-9.
            I still have three serials left on the Netflix sampler. When I next sit down to see the Doctor, I’ll be watching Peter Davidson in the role for the first time. When I’m done with that selection of episodes from the long-running original series, I intend to watch the newer series all the way through, beginning with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor. I also plan to slowly find the time to track down and watch as many of the Doctor’s earlier adventures as I can, either by getting the DVDs from Netflix or maybe even buying some of them to own. I love the fact that I have literally hundreds of episodes left with which I can go back and see those earlier Doctors: Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, etc.
            So, yes, I seem to have become a Whovian! Now that I’ve described how I came to happily embark on my TARDIS-driven adventures, I’m wondering exactly what it is about DOCTOR WHO that appeals to me so much. I’m going to try to explain that.  
            The first reason is the most obvious. I’ve been a science fiction fan since I found Star Wars and Star Trek, both by the age of six or so. It makes sense that the time and space travel themes of DOCTOR WHO would appeal to me. I’d like to have the TARDIS almost as much as I’d like to soar through the stars aboard the Enterprise or Millennium Falcon.
            Second, the Doctor is the type of character I’ve grown fonder of as I’ve gotten older. He is what one might call the Eccentric Hero. As fans of fiction, I suppose we all often dream of being the most dashing or handsomest or strongest type of hero, the James Bond or Superman or Captain Kirk, but we don’t all grow up to fit that mold. I’ll never be 007 or that sort of man, the kind who can walk into a room and intimidate enemies and make women swoon and cause everyone to wish they were him. But I have my intelligence and my imagination and some people might even see me as a man with certain eccentricities. I can be a curmudgeon one minute and come up with a smart quip the next and sometimes be sneaky or sly or strategic in trying to get what I want. I’ve come to appreciate that sort of fictional character to a greater extent as I experience more of life. Sherlock Holmes has always been a favorite of mine, as have Hercule Poirot and Lt. Columbo and Gandalf. I think I have more of Obi-Wan than Luke Skywalker or Han Solo in me and I’m certainly more a Leonard McCoy than a James T. Kirk. The Doctor, in all his incarnations, is that sort of hero, a character who uses wit and knowledge and humor and unpredictability more than brute strength or irresistible charm to solve a problem or survive a sticky situation. So, on that level, I very much identify with the Doctor.            
            The third reason for my fascination with the universe of DOCTOR WHO is perhaps the most unexpected, and is something I realized somewhere in the middle of the Tom Baker episodes when I was really getting addicted. DOCTOR WHO is perhaps the most accidentally profound fictional concept I’ve ever encountered. I say “accidental” because I don’t think the creators of the show were trying to be philosophical. I assume they were just trying to make a decent science fiction show that people would want to watch. But I see more there than just fun tales of a traveler through space and time. The character and his experiences speak to me on a deeper level and maybe even become an analogy for some of the core concepts of being human (funny how we can often see more humanity in the alien characters than the Earth-born ones! I find myself thinking of Admiral Kirk’s words at Spock’s funeral in Star Trek II, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most … human.”).
            Here are the connections I see between the Doctor’s exaggerated, fictional circumstances and the reality we all live with every day of our lives:
            We are all travelers through time and space. The time part is obvious. I will not be at the same point in time when I finish this essay as I was when I began it. It’s not as dramatic as leaping across centuries in a blue police box, but we do take our trips. And the space aspect of our lives might not seem as exciting as journeying to alien worlds, but the places we experience in our lives can be as different from each other as Mars and Neptune and Vulcan and Gallifrey. Different homes, towns, nations, schools, workplaces, etc. all impact who we are in one way or another. And we rarely end up exactly where we were trying to go, or at least rarely find the circumstances there to be precisely what we expected.
            And just like the Doctor, we regenerate often, probably more often than we know. I’ve been through many incarnations. All have had my name and my body, but I’ve been through many changes. I am not exactly who I was a year ago, or ten years before that. I change, as we all do, perhaps more than I realize at any particular point in time. And just as in episodes like “The Three Doctors,” when the Third Doctor teamed up with his First and Second versions, there do come times when more than one aspect of our lives collide and we feel as though more than one of us is sharing the same experience. I’ve been going through something a bit like that lately, as a new friend has reawakened some old interests of mine. Although I’ve changed since I last dealt with those subjects, it feels as if a past version of me is now working in cooperation with the incarnation of me that exists in 2013. There are many different variations of me stretched out across the 36 years I’ve lived so far in my life, just as the Doctor has worn many faces and personalities over the span of his TV series.
            And lastly, we come to the fact that although we will encounter many characters in our lives, we will, at different points in our existence, see different sets of people as our closest companions, as those who matter most to us at any given time.
            It seems as though the Doctor’s characteristics, the time and space travel, the regenerations, the changing cast of companions, are all fictionalized exaggerations of what real life is like. Maybe that’s the core of what makes DOCTOR WHO so popular, maybe that’s why generation after generation sticks with it and follows the TARDIS and its occupants on such a fascinating, unpredictable journey. At least that’s how I see it right now.
            So here I am, having discovered yet another fictional universe to explore, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. I’m still catching up on the Doctor’s first fifty years, and I look forward to seeing what surprises await us in the next fifty!  


             
                             

2 comments:

  1. That's an excellent point about feeling like you've been through many incarnations like The Doctor because I know I feel that way myself. I know for a fact that the 20 Year Old Derrick Ferguson was a vastly different man from the 30, 40 and 50 Year Derrick Fergusons. In fact I don't think the 50 Year Ferguson and the 30 Year Old Ferguson would get along at all.

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