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Doctor Who!

March 10th, 2005

This week saw the unofficial release of the first episode of the new Doctor Who television series. By “unofficial,” I mean that someone leaked a copy onto the ‘net two full weeks before it was set to premiere in the U.K. While I can’t officially condone that action, I can certainly understand the impatience to see it now.

Reading some of the British press reviews, I was struck by the phrase, “first new episode in 16 years.” I went straight to my guide book, and sure enough, the last original episode, “Survival,” aired in 1989. It made me feel very old.

From most accounts, this continuation is something old and something new. (The TARDIS is, of course, both borrowed and blue.) It goes back to its roots as a show designed to scare the kids into hiding behind the sofa. There are nods to the past, including the resurrection of the Autons, animated department store dummies introduced during the ’70s. However, it does away with the wobbly, cardboard sets and introduces a lightning-fast pace. Most noticeably, it does away with the old format of four half-hour episodes per story, in favor of 45-minute, stand-alone installments.

It sounds good to me. While I’m certainly enough of a traditionalist to think fondly of the serialized, cliffhanging classic Doctor Who, I acknowledge that the third episode of a four-parter was usually just a bunch of pointless running around.

The show was created in the early ’60s, when audiences were accustomed to a slow build. But times change, and nostalgia for its own sake can be self-defeating. Furthermore, half-hour dramas are hard to sell in syndication, and serialized half-hours nearly impossible. Television is still a business.

I suspect that some old-time fans will hate the new show. That’s not especially surprising. It’s been my experience that a sci-fi series’ diehard followers are also its harshest critics when it inevitably fails to hold true to the idealized version they hold in their heads.

I think they’ll dislike it precisely because it sticks to its kids’ show origins. For the past 15 years, many of the spin-off novels and audio plays have built on a darker theme introduced during the original TV series’ last few years. They’ve tried to reposition Doctor Who as science-fiction for adults.

My feeling is that fans realize that they’ve grown up since they fell in love with the Doctor, and they demand that the show grow with them. After all, it’s bad enough to be branded a sci-fi geek, even worse to be seen as an adult obsessed with a kids’ show. And so, in the long hiatus between televised adventures, Doctor Who became a franchise weighed down by adult themes.

The funny thing is that despite this desire for maturity, Who fandom has traditionally rejected the introduction of a sexual interest on the part of the title character. Instead, they’ve created a vast backstory to make it painfully clear that Time Lords do not, not, not ever have sex, despite plenty of contrary evidence. The Doctor’s original companion was his granddaughter Susan, yet many fans choose to ignore this repeatedly stated familial relationship, because it assumes that at some point the Doctor got it on.

Ironically, this attitude can be directly attributed to Doctor Who‘s kids’ show origins. The Doctor had a tendency to take pretty, young women as his travelling companions, and therefore the producers had to insist to concerned parents that there was “no hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Somehow, this got mistranslated into the notion that the entire Time Lord race was asexual. (I assumed that they simply didn’t go in for humans and/or that the Doctor preferred to keep things on a professional level.)

For my part, I look forward to the opportunity for new adventures with the good ol’ Doctor, sex or no sex. After all, even a Time Lord shouldn’t have much time for hanky-panky when he’s busy saving the universe. As he famously said, “Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea is getting cold.” Save us, Doctor!

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