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I (heart) Doctor Who!

April 3rd, 2007

Among my areas of fannish interest, Doctor Who is one of the earliest. While most American fans were first introduced to the TV series when the Tom Baker episodes were syndicated in the late ’70s, my initial exposure came courtesy late-night airings of the two theatrical films featuring Peter Cushing and the Daleks. I was entranced by the metal monsters and hornswoggled by Dr. Who’s bigger-on-the-inside phone booth.

As a young follower of the late, lamented magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, I was surprised to read that there had also been a Doctor Who TV show. However, as the article in question was clearly a reprint (as was often the case with FMoF), I assumed that the crude, black-and-white British series depicted in the photos had long since been canceled.

Further surprise ensued in the early ’70s when a friend told me all about the show he’d been watching on WTTW (the main public television station in Chicago): that self-same Doctor Who! When I finally caught it, it was part one of a serial called “The Time Monster.” Most Who-fans deride that particular installment as one of the worst, but it holds a special place in my heart.

Of course, I had no idea what the hell was going on. Instead of daffy Dr. Who and his granddaughter Susan, there was Jon Pertwee as this chap in a ruffled shirt who was hanging out with a military group called U.N.I.T. and having visions of some bearded, evil guy known as The Master. There was a monster called a Chronovore, a side trip to Atlantis, a meeting with a minotaur and a truly mind-fucking concept when the Doctor’s time-machine materialized inside the Master’s, and vice-versa. (Imagine opening a box and finding a second box inside, then opening that box to find the first one again. That’s pretty weird stuff for an eight-year-old to think about.)

It wasn’t long before WTTW exiled the poor Doctor to random, late-night showings, and I stayed up until ridiculous hours on school nights to catch the likes of “The Sea Devils” and “The Ambassadors of Death.” Always out of order, so I had no clue why Jo was the Doctor’s assistant one day, and Liz the next. If nothing else, it added even more mystery to the enterprise.

Several years later, WTTW again picked up the series, this time with Tom Baker in the lead. And again, they showed the serials out of order, and they started with “The Invasion of Time,” a story which kicks off with the Doctor claiming the presidency of the Time Lords (huh?) and acting evil for the first three episodes. Somehow I managed to work my way through it, and it wasn’t long before I was hooked all over again.

All of the above is my way of getting around to the third season premiere of the modern reboot of Doctor Who. I’m going to break precedent and not pretend that there aren’t plenty of ways in 2007 to watch TV shows which aren’t yet available in the U.S. It’s a far cry from the bad old days of Who-fandom, when one had to depend upon knowing someone who knew someone in Britain that would tape the shows and mail them here, then have them transferred from PAL video format to NTSC.

While I’ve generally been thrilled with the new series–if, for no other reason, that after a sixteen-year hiatus, we’re getting it at all–I found last season to be a bit hit-and-miss. So I was especially delighted when last weekend’s premiere turned out to be an out-of-the-park homer (or whatever they call the equivalent in cricketing terms).

“Smith and Jones” had the unenviable task of introducing the Doctor’s new “companion” (a fan-applied term for the young women who travel with the Doctor and who absolutely do not have sex with him, nosiree), a medical doctor-in-training named Martha Jones. The yummy Freema Agyeman (that’s not a spelling error) plans Miss Jones, who first meets the Doctor in the street when he inexplicably walks up to her, takes off his tie and shows it to her, then marches off.

In large part, the entire episode plays as something of the Doctor’s own companion casting call, as he takes note each time Martha asks a clever question or puts herself before others. While it’s all a bit obvious that much of this is for the benefit of the viewer–who may still be missing popular previous assistant Rose Tyler–it does reinforce the notion that the Doctor “only takes the best.”

The actual storyline is a lot of fun: simple enough to allow time for character introductions, but quirky in that way that only Doctor Who manages. Martha’s entire hospital is abducted to the moon by space-going rhinos called Judoon, mercenary police conducting a search for a fugitive criminal, a blood-sucking Plasmavore who just happens to look like a little-old lady armed with a bendy straw. Think you’d see that on an American series?

When the whole thing was over–lives saved, things put to right and the Doctor’s new friend Martha joining him on the adventure of a lifetime–I actually gave a little happy applause. Because Doctor Who is a show that still manages to make me feel like I’m eight years old again, and I mean that in the best of ways.

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