Shift Change: ‘My’ Doctor Who
IMAGE: Doctor Who (BBC)
It’s been a good year to be a fan of Doctor Who.
From the introduction of a new companion in the character of Clara Oswald (okay, technically she was ‘introduced’ last year through a bit of tricksy foreshadowed storytelling, but she took her place in the TARDIS properly this year), to the command of the role that Matt Smith now effortlessly brings to his portrayal of the Doctor (by the way, early-Matt-Smith-critics: he was always this good), to the rollicking, world-record breaking fiftieth anniversary special, ‘Day of the Doctor’ (which has become the highest rating drama on BBC and BBC America this year; is the first dramatic program to have screened simultaneously in 94 countries; and was running over with fan service and love for the series), those who love Doctor Who and all its glorious, sprawling wonder and goofiness have had much to revel in.
On the other hand, for those who just don’t see the point of Doctor Who the past couple of months were probably wearyingly tedious…
After all, there has been a veritable onslaught of retrospectives and news broadcasts and spoofs devoted to anticipating this birthday event. There was Mark Gatiss’ love note to the series and its original star, William Hartnell, in the historical drama An Adventure in Space and Time (the hypercritical part of my brain acknowledges that it was all highly romanticised and at times clogged with self-aware exposition; but the emotional part of me was charmed utterly, and even choked back a tear in that final scene when the echo of this actor’s legacy was met with a warm smile from his latest successor). There was Peter Davison’s (the fifth Doctor’s) playful, homemade spoof The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot; there was Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide; there were hours and hours of talking heads espousing their love and recounting the minutia of the show in specials. Google even changed its homepage in an enchanting homage.
For anyone not a fan of Who, all of this fuss must have started to seem like a waking nightmare. And considering that these people are already very sick indeed (their crippling medical condition, Being Terribly, Tragically Wrong (BTTW), affects innocent people the world over) my heart really goes out to them.
(Incidentally, donate now to the BTTW fund. Your small donation can help get DVD box sets to baffled viewers who desperately need them.)
But for anyone not sick to death of hearing about all things Who (and who can stand to hear me pontificate further), this past week I published a retrospective on the Doctor over at PopMatters. I discuss the history of the show; how its ingenious conceit allows it to regenerate itself along with the needs of its medium and its viewing audience: how week to week it can bounce between genres and plots, from science fiction to historical drama, from parody to tragedy, philosophical think-piece to screwball fun. I gush about how vital and innovative the show has always been; ramble shamelessly about how grand every single little bit of ‘Day of the Doctor’ was; I even get in a petty dig at K-9.
…Also, I liken Colin Baker’s costume to something ‘hosed out of a unicorn enclosure.’
So there’s that.
In any case, it’s my quick (for anyone who has ever read anything I have written, you know ‘quick’ is a thoroughly misleading word) love letter to the most unique, and most brilliant television-y television show that has ever been.
Despite all of my self-indulgent waffling, however, the one element I didn’t get to discuss was my own relationship to the show…
Because that’s the great thing about Doctor Who. It’s generational. Enduring. You can stumble upon it while channel surfing. You can inherit your devotion to it like you would a football team. You can watch it change and grow – revel in the good years, gnash your teeth at the bad – all the time knowing that your opinion, like everyone else’s, is relative. It is a show to fall in love with and grow alongside. Watching it as a child you can be wonderstruck by all the gizmos and daring-do; as an adult you can marvel at the boundless imagination on display, at the ideological and philosophical debate being dressed up and played out in colourful metaphor.
It’s why many fans have a ‘my’ Doctor.
‘Sure, all the other Doctors are great,’ they will say, ‘but [INSERT NAME HERE] was my Doctor.’ And at that point they will twiddle the tassels on their floor length scarf, rock in place in their Converse All Stars, or take a bite from the celery stalk on their lapel.
Frequently, this favoured Doctor is the one that the viewer grew up with – the first incarnation that swept them off on an adventure, who they first saw repel a Cyberman invasion, who they first saw stroke the TARDIS console tenderly.
That wasn’t really my experience. To be honest, my earliest memories of watching Doctor Who were hardly love at first sight. I remember I was about five years old, watching it at my grandparent’s place in black and white…
The television! The television was black and white! The show was in colour. It was the eighties. And… and… it was probably a rerun (it wasn’t).
…How old do you think I am?!
Anyway. It seems extraordinary to say now, but at the time neither the show nor its principle character made much of an impression upon me. There was no ‘my’ anything. In fact, if I recall correctly, I spent most of the time thinking that he was the Riddler (it was Colin Baker, and the question marks on the collar threw me off); I kept waiting for Batman to turn up and kick him in the neck (again: it was Colin Baker).
It was only when I returned to the show years later that I became enamoured with what I found. Here was a sprawling, discordant text colliding against itself in reruns, shifting and mutating with every tale. The Doctor I first watched properly was multiform. He bounced between a youthful, puffy-haired cricketer, to a Victorian dandy in a vintage roadster; from a velvet voiced hippie to a skittery, conceited explosion of light and sound. I leapt about in his lives the way he leapt around in time, liking aspects of some, abhorring elements of others (Hey Doctor, Y U strangle Peri?!), but appreciating them all as part of one great potpourri of splintered sci-fi selfhood.
And even when I caught up to the show itself, I still saw them all as one. Sylvester McCoy had a lovely wellspring of cunning under his sunny exterior that I found arresting; despite the tonally disjointed mess of the Doctor Who television movie, I was charmed by Paul McGann’s romantic Doctor; I admired (even if I didn’t completely embrace) Christopher Eccleston’s haunted soldier; and I swooned (in a totally manly way) at David Tennant’s heartsore, lonely wanderer. Each had new inflections that brought further depth to this amorphous creature, but for me, no single face could hope to encapsulate it all.
And then Matt Smith happened. And then I got it.
IMAGE: The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)
Because here, suddenly, was my Doctor. The Doctor I hadn’t realised I’d always wanted. Goofy, awkward, all limbs and hand-gestures and muddled lexicon. Sombre and soulful, with eons of pain in his eyes; this marriage of Peter Pan and a sad old god clicked with me from the moment Matt Smith scrunched up his face and said, ‘Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall…’
So for three seasons I finally watched the show as if I was seeing it all for the first time. I finally saw the Doctor – my Doctor – send the Cybermen horde on their way. Saw him outwit the Daleks, and the Sontarans, and the Weeping Angels, and… well, pretty much everyone by the end of that first year. I saw him grieve the loss of his companions. Saw him reaffirm his abiding romance with the TARDIS. I saw all of time and space, and the eternal sartorial flair of bowties. And best of all, in ‘Day of the Doctor’, I saw him restore hope to the heart of the Doctor Who mythos: to save the Doctor from himself and undo his greatest mistake…
But there is one more Doctor Who rite of passage that all fans of the show must endure, and that I am now about to experience for the first time. Because eventually, everyone’s Doctor dies… Their ‘my’ must give way to the communal ‘our’. And as has already been announced, this Christmas it will be Matt Smith’s time to surrender the role to another.*
I would never, of course, do anything so asinine as declare the show ‘cannot go on without him’, or ‘it’s best years are over’. That is abject nonsense. Peter Capaldi will be great, the adventure will be grand, and many exciting new wonders have yet to be explored; but I am still going to reserve my right to observe an utterly self-indulgent moment of celebratory sadness.
My Doctor – the Doctor I had waited for – is going to die. However, as innumerable other fans before me have already experienced, in spite of the sorrow, what is about to happen becomes one of the greatest gifts that is built into the heart of the show.
Because Doctor Who will endure. It will be different, sure, but even though it won’t have this Doctor anymore, it will take the best parts of his narrative, his portrayal, his quirks, and fold it into the whole. The journey will be cosily familiar and exhilaratingly new all at once, and there will be a whole new universe to explore, and adventure to be discovered, through brand new eyes.
Because even though my Doctor will be gone, someone else’s is just about to be born.
It’s a good year to be a Doctor Who fan. It turns out it’s also a good year to become one too.
IMAGE: The Eleven Doctors (BBC)
* And considering that this is a Christmas story, and is the culmination of the ‘Silence will fall’ arc, I’m guessing I will never be able to hear the song ‘Silent Night’ again without wistfully peering into the middle distance and sniffling.