One day, you’re stumbling across the pop-culture aisles of modernity. Maybe you took a wrong turn at J.C. Penney, or your teenage daughter somehow wrangled you into Hot Topics, or a digital free-for-all on the net made you spring open the Pandora’s Box of Amazon suggestions. Whichever way you waltzed into it, you’re now stuck in a miasma of Avengers, Jedis, Titans, sensually inappropriate costumes, and more Harley Quinn tank tops than you can shake a stick at.
Still, you feel at home. Bells of recognition blip as you swing by and spot a Wookie, “Wakanda Forever!”, 60% of Funkos seem familiar, and, although you’re not a fan, you manage to peg Spock among the Star Trek refugees. This is garden variety for you, intimate shards of your childhood and everyday icons of American culture. Eeverything is old hat. Suddenly, your feet turn into cement blocks, you are flabbergasted as your radar goes into a tailspin, “What the hell is that?” a little voice inside your noggin goes.
In front of you, like that black, strange obelisk in 2001 Space Odyssey, a blue police box… a funky looking police box surrounded by even more outlandish merchandizing. Salt and peppershakers with the words “EXTERMINATE” stenciled unto them, angel lawn ornaments plucked straight out of a nightmare, and a sonic screwdriver not approved by Black & Decker. You edge forward, pluck out a tag and read: “Doctor Who… What the hell is a Doctor Who?”
What the Hell is Doctor Who?
Doctor Who is nothing short of bottled UK. It is one of the key ingredients of the British Genome. It is a cultural phenomenon that has been ingrained into their genetic makeup in much the same way as The Beatles, Monty Python, Winston Churchill, Robin Hood, and Princess Di. A proper Brit’ can’t call himself a true nationalist, let alone a patriot, if they don’t know who “Who” is.
You might think I’m exaggerating, or blowing “Who” mania out of proportion but I’m not. Once a year, on the 25th of December it is a UK tradition for the BBC to premiere a Doctor Who Christmas Special; every single season a completely new episode.
Stockings, letters to Santa, crackers, mince pies, Christmas pudding, the Royal Broadcast of the Queen spreading holiday cheer, and Doctor Who… and the Queen’s televised address actually comes before the episode’s debut; she’s a show opener. It’s the equivalent of the US President giving his State of The Union and ending on: “stay tuned for the Star Wars special.”
There’s really nothing more British nowadays than Doctor Who.
But what exactly is Doctor Who? Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi series in the world. Before there was Star Trek, Star Wars, the Avengers and Stranger Things there was Doctor Who. The program went on the air for the first time in 1963 and it is still being produced to this day. It’s gotten multiple facelifts and refurbishes but it has never been remade or given the Spider-Man treatment. The season arcs, storylines, and backstories of today’s adventures still consider what happened in those bygone, groovy, drug-filled days of the 60s.
The Time Lord Legend
The show depicts the adventures of a Time Lord called “The Doctor”, an extraterrestrial being who appears quite human and relatable. Like Walker Texas Ranger, the A-Team and the Hulk, the Doctor simply goes around righting wrongs. But, here’s the genius of the formula, and why it has endured so long… the writers were told from the onset: “We have no budget and everything needs to happen.”
So what did those LSD infused showrunners do? They created an incredibly flexible blueprint. The Doctor was given a TARDIS – a spaceship/time machine/occasional dimensional hopper – that looks like a blue police box. The lead character was then granted pseudo-immortality; whenever he was fatally wounded he would “regenerate” into a new shell.
He was given a companion; a character who serves as a plot-device. The companions are the audience’s anchor. When something needs explanation, an incredibly frustrated Doctor goes into a long expository rant aimed at the companion; our surrogate. Then, over time, the Doctor was also shackled to an ever-widening and diverse rogues gallery.
It is a brilliant premise because it allowed the writing staff to take as many hallucinogenic narcotics as possible and then pass those fevered dreams off as scripts. And, more importantly, it also gifted the network with a way to renegotiate contracts. If one of the actors depicting the Doctor keeled over or simply got too big for his britches and wanted a larger cut of the pie, then the network would simply kill him onscreen and replace him with someone more docile.
The show-runners wanted to strike out on their own and move on? Hire a new writing staff. The companion, normally a rather fetching female, starts to duel with gravity and the passage of time? Bring in the new perkier model.
It was the perfect blueprint. It withstood time and the pesky emotional outbursts commonplace in filming locations. If something ticked the producer off, then they’d just replace it and the audience would allow it. The skulduggery perfectly meshed into the show’s recipe and storyline.
The Fool-Proof Platform
The model was foolproof. Every replication of the show could retain its backstory, all the factors that constituted it, and all its narrative makeup without suffering a reboot or remake. Almost 60 years and the Doctor has been regenerated more than 13 times. That’s part of the charm and the reason it’s a staple of British tradition.
It has not only survived generations, but created a way for said generations to connect. Your grandparents’ Doctor Who is your Doctor Who. Unlike US franchises, that suffered constant reboots, Doctor Who is still the same series.
There’s no one discussing which Spider-man movie universe is better. No one arguing which Batman cosmos – West, Burton, Nolan, Snyder – took the cake. No fan base going bananas when Star Wars does a casual reboot because it’s running out of ideas. The 60s Doctor Who is still this era’s Doctor Who. The only thing that has changed are the sensibilities, the actors, and the special effects.
Parents can sit around and discuss the evolution of Daleks – one of the Doctor’s most enduring villains – in full knowledge that what took place all those seasons ago is still relevant in today’s storyline. Families can connect on a narrative scale thanks to Doctor Who.
“Grandad, can you tell us the tale of the Cybermen? No, not how you went to Berlin during the War… I want to know about the Cybermen, that’s what’s exciting.”
Modern Day Who
What is known as the modern-day Who explosion is just a relaunch of the show in 2005 after a 10-year hiatus. The show’s history was kept intact and the writers were given the task of bringing the Doctor into the new age. An age of smartphones, of a technologically superior Britain, of terrorism, of racial equality, of sexual diversity… and, more importantly, an age of CGI and high-caliber special effects. Writers were no longer bound by how much aluminum paper they had in the stock department to create robots.
“Hey Tony, does this green spray paint look toxic? What do you mean the actors are unionized? Ahhh, health insurance… got it you cheeky bastard.”
The challenges were two-fold, the BBC wanted to know if they could attract old viewers back into the Who comfort blanket while also enticing a new generation to tune in. As the show progressed into new seasons, and the ratings skyrocketed, the budget grew. You no longer had a computer-produced soundtrack, but the might of the London Philharmonic accompanying the Doctor’s adventures. You no longer had two-bit actors filling in as guest stars but Academy Award-winning personalities. You no longer had small adventures, but epic yarns that would shame any Marvel devised.
More importantly, you had great actors filling in the role of the Doctor. Each one molding the character to their personality, tastes and fashion sense. Each one giving us a stellar, adrenalized, energetic, grandiose performance. You had the late John Hurt, the clownish David Tennant, the perpetually morose Peter Capaldi, the out-of-this-world Matt Smith, and the first female regeneration, Jodi Whittaker.
What to expect?
Well, the unexpected… Flying Sharks supplanting reindeers, chartering world-renowned opera singers, worlds stolen and relocated to different dimensions, madcap alien takeovers that revolve around making our adipose tissue – that’s our fat rolls – into sentient beings, a faux rock star with an electric guitar riding a tank in Medieval Times, Hitler being punched in the face multiple times, Agatha Christie stalked by a giant hornet, the Doctor fighting off the Devil in a lava planet, Sir. Winston Churchill hunting down dinosaurs in modern-day London, and thousands of other bizarre and imaginative scenes the re-defined Sci-Fi and Fantasy.
What you will really find in Doctor Who, simply put, is a space adventurer with solemnness, grit, lunacy and a bizarre way of always crashing headlong into trouble. You will cry, you will cheer, you will laugh, and, above all, you will be entertained.
In the Doctor’s words:
“I’ll be a story in your head. That’s okay. We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one… The daft old man who stole a magic box and ran away.”