Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On the forty-seventh anniversary of a 900-year-old man

It was supposed to be an educational program.

This time-traveling Doctor would visit assorted parts of history, have some adventure laced with enough fact to qualify it as educational, and off to another land the next week.

Then came the Daleks.

As of today, Doctor Who has been running on TV and other media for an astounding 47 years.  Eleven actors in the part (not counting film, stage and radio format productions), dozens of companions, hundreds of enemies, and millions upon millions of fans.

There's no analogue to Doctor Who in the United States.  No science Fiction show has become as ingrained in American culture as it; Star Trek comes close, but The Doctor is almost as a part of the British mindset as Sherlock Holmes.  Sci-Fi had a higher level of respect in the UK-The Quatermass experiment was one of the first major dramatic presentations new television owners got to see after they bought their sets to see the new Queen get crowned in 1953.  By the time Doctor Who came along ten years later, Sci-Fi was as respected a form of fiction as any.

Something to bear in mind that while Doctor Who is as good as many American Sci-Fi shows aimed at adult audiences (and better than most), it's still considered a Children's show in Britain.  That's amazing compared to the insipid crap that passes for children's entertainment here.  Part of the thing is that they don't think children are brainless clods in other countries.  A children's show doesn't mean less intelligent, just a bit less violent and scatological than the adult programs.  They were often written by the same people as the adult shows.  Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat got their start in children's television and moved on to impressive careers in adult drama before returning to their roots as Who-fen.

Doctor Who is also amazing in that it survived being off the air for almost two decades.  Save for the US-produced TV movie, new episodes of Doctor Who did not appear from 1989 - 2005.  Of course, that only meant new episodes on television.  Fandom kept the character alive via new novels from Virgin and a number of other publishers, fan-produced tribute shows like PROBE and eventually authorized audioplay productions by companies like Big Finish.  Almost an entire generation of writers like Moffat, Davies, Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts became established and successful writers for British television, all assuming that they'd never get a chance to write for the one show they got into writing for in the first place.  "People try to impress you" says one of the Doctor's companions in a recent episode.  The same seems to be true of writers. Once given a chance to write for the character, people seem to up their game, sometimes pulling out plots and stories they've been polishing like jewels just in case the call ever came.  Neil Gaiman will be writing an episode for this coming season, Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) wrote one for the last one; quite the pedigree.

Similarly, the actors who have appeared on the show is equally impressive.  Not even counting the ones to play the Doctor, the people playing cameos reads like a Who's Who of acting.  Comedians like John Cleese, Elanor Bron, Peter Kay, and Rowan Atkinson, dramatic actors like Derek Jacobi, TV legends like Bernard Cribbins, all lined up to have a part on a show that has as much respect in the eyes of the British public as anything you'd see on Masterpiece Theater.

Craig Ferguson dedicated an entire episode of the Late Late Show the Doctor Who recently when the current Doctor Matt Smith appeared.  He summed up his love for the show and the character perfectly - he's a man who fights horrors of the universe with only his mind and intellect. 

It's an amazing show, one built by love and creativity over nearly fifty years.  Nothing can hold a candle to it.

Special surprise - I've used that So Hot Right Now text-to-movie program to have this entry presented by a fitting host.

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