It’s hard to be a fan of Doctor Who over the age of 25 without also being a meta observer of the strange and unique place that the show holds in the firmament of the modern Science Fiction show. Premiering in 1964, two years before Star Trek, the show ran continuously for over 20 years. It pioneered concept of the modern traveling show, with a character able to move through space and time so that he could appear in radically different locations each and every week. Originally this was intended to allow the BBC to use their vast historical wardrobe to create period dramas that far less constricted by actual history, and focused on action. That all collapsed with the arrival of the Daleks. Deeply-inhuman fascist monsters that took Britain by storm, both literally and figuratively, and sent the show into a deeply sci-fi, and gave nerds the first hit of meta-story and continuity that they so desperately crave.
?????? Then the show disappeared for twenty years, leaving the airwaves for a long trip through alternative media. These side journeys including a movie, a series of novels and radio-plays that kept the love alive. Then, in 2005, the show returned with a bang, picking up not quite where it left off, and becoming one of the top rated shows in England.
And it’s clearly not an American product, even if it has picked up a few tricks from serial soaps like Buffy. Unlike the clear stories told in American television, Doctor Who plays fast and loose with its own rules, going from hard SF to fantasy in the blink of an eye. It’s doubly odd when you consider that it manages to hew to it’s own continuity in what is essentially a single long story that stretches all the way from it’s original broadcast in 1964.
Of course some of the unique features of the show was built into its structure early on. One is that the main character is not actually human. The main effect of the character’s inhumanity is that it often makes him uniquely British, allowing him to lecture and reprimand humanity as a whole rather than a single member of the species at a time.
That other outcome is a hero can completely change his face and personality. Like everything else in the world of Doctor Who the specifics form when severely hurt, creating a dramatic way to for the show to change actors when the current actor is either losing popularity or simple feels the need to move on. So far ten actors have “officially” played the Doctor, with Paul McGann managing to turn his one shot appearance in the spin-off film into a veritable cottage industry.
I’ll admit that I’m personally fascinated by the character, but even more so with it’s seemingly endless ability to generate spin-offs, which I’ll discuss in more detail in a follow-up post.