Thursday, August 28, 2014
So Who is The Doctor Anyway? All You Need To Know About Doctor Who
Last Saturday evening a new Doctor landed on BBC1, causing even his friends to wonder if they knew who he was any more. That’ll be doubly unnerving if you’re coming to the Doctor and the series for the first time. But don’t worry. It’s only as complicated as you want to make it. There’s really very little you need to know – and the easiest way to find out is to watch an episode of Doctor Who. But here’s a simple start…
What Do You Need To Know About Doctor Who?
The Doctor is a traveller in time and space. He goes anywhere he likes, from Earth’s past, present and future to alien worlds and stranger places still. He respects life rather than authority, and obeys no-one else’s rules. He lives by his own joy in exploring new places and times, and by his own moral sense to fight oppression. He prefers to use his intelligence rather than violence, and he takes friends with him to explore the wonders of the Universe.
OK, so that’s the important bit, but if you want answers to a few more questions, take a look at the headlines below and read the bits that you want to know about. Or you could just get on and watch an episode.
The Doctor – Who Is He? Why Does He Travel?
He’s an alien, from a world whose rigidly authoritarian rulers watched over all of time and space – but without interfering. He found that just watching and keeping everything the same bored him, when he wanted to get out to meet people and experience things for himself. So he took a TARDIS and the name “the Doctor” and left.
The TARDIS – the Doctor’s Time-ship
A TARDIS is a machine (or a place, or an event) for travelling through time and space, the name standing for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. The Doctor’s TARDIS was a bit old and unreliable back when he borrowed it from his people, and he’s patched it up and customised it many times in the perhaps a couple of thousand years that they’ve been travelling together. Just to make it even less likely it’ll go where he wants it to (but more likely to go where he needs it to), it’s quite literally got a mind of its own, too. It moves seemingly by vanishing from one place, then just appearing in the next, travelling not through ordinary space but a strange space-time vortex.
The other big thing about the TARDIS is that its outside gives no sign of what’s inside. It used to disguise itself on landing so it wouldn’t be spotted, but when the Doctor arrived in the 1960s it got stuck on taking the form of a police box, a sort of dedicated phone booth before handy mobile communications. Inside, though, unfolds into many other dimensions and many different rooms. You’ll have noticed that it’s bigger inside than outside, then. So do most people who go in (unsurprisingly). And while the old blue exterior is pretty much a constant, from time to time the interior changes its style, colour, shape and tone, while keeping its essential character. Much like its pilot does…
The Daleks – and Why the Doctor Fights Them
Once he started travelling, the Doctor found that that the more experience he had of other people and places, the more he wanted to get involved, because the more he saw the urge to dominate others the more he wanted to stand up to it. He’s opposed bullies, tyrants and monsters from many alien races – and from his own, and from ours – but one enemy always comes back.
Those he’s fought most often in their endless campaign to dominate and exterminate without question are the Daleks, alien conquerors in armoured mini-tanks with a hatred for all other races. They’re the ultimate dictators, the opposite of the Doctor’s own desire for freedom.
The Daleks too developed time travel, leading to a cataclysmic Time War with the Doctor’s own people – which is a history so complicated that no-one has a full answer. But by the end of it, the Doctor seemed the only one left, so he just carries on travelling, making the most of life, seeing the sights, toppling empires, that sort of thing. And if that sounds like a dangerous lifestyle, it’s often been fatal…
How the Doctor Changes
The Doctor’s people were each remarkably long-lived, so that helps more than moisturiser. But it’s not just that their bodies live for many hundreds of years. When they get too old, or are fatally injured, they’ve got a way of cheating death. At what would be the final moment, their body is reborn into a completely new one, giving them a new lease of life, shaking up their personality while remaining essentially the same person underneath. The Doctor’s had quite an eventful life, and the most recent body he’s been ‘born’ into is his… Well, it’s easiest to say it’s his twelfth.
How Old? How Many Bodies? …No, Nobody Else Really Knows Either
Some people might tell you that the Doctor is now in his thirteenth, fifteenth or twenty-third body, and they’ll all be right, but just as with the Time War, no-one has a precise answer and it makes no difference to the story. Similarly, while the Doctor is as a rule honest, he’s at best a little confused over his precise age. Perhaps on occasion he’s dropped a few hundred years or so for vanity’s sake (my money’s on the one in the leather jacket having a mid-lives crisis). But like his precise number of bodies, the Doctor’s exact age isn’t something we need to know – just as well, really, as we’re never going to. Just nod sagely and say, ‘Ah, well, things got complicated in the Time War,’ because if time was getting messed up to that extent by rival peoples each with the power to control it, things were bound to, weren’t they?
These disconcerting rebirths also help Doctor Who the series carry on when the actor playing the Doctor decides to leave, making it almost the only TV show that can recast its lead without hoping the audience are watching TV with the picture turned off or pretending it’s something to do with plastic surgery or showers. The latest actor to play the Doctor is Peter Capaldi.
What’s Special About Doctor Who?
The TV series Doctor Who began broadcast in 1963, starring William Hartnell as the Doctor (the first three stories are available in the DVD box set Doctor Who – The Beginning). It ran continuously for more than a quarter of a century, making it the longest-running science fiction series in the world and inspiring an awful lot of people. Kept alive in books, audio plays and millions of imaginations, the TV version was reborn in 2005 and has again been a popular and critical success thanks to its sheer joy, its unique flexibility and, of course, to monsters like the Daleks. A bonus to the series always reinventing itself is that you don’t need to know any intricate details, ongoing plots or characters to follow it. Even the most involved elements change and get left behind (or even undone); happily, many of the best writers assume that every episode is someone’s first, and even if some are tempted to make no concessions to the viewer, the very variety of the series stops it ever becoming too impenetrable.
It’s one bold central idea that’s important and that runs through now more than half a century of adventures. With Doctor Who, you can go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything, and always see that people everywhere are worthwhile, whether they’re people like us or green scaly rubber people. The Doctor believes in freedom, and hates ignorance, conformity and insularity. He doesn’t work for anyone, wear a uniform or carry a gun, making the series both very British and very anti-establishment.
Doctor Who encourages people to think, to have fun, and to take a moral stand, but it’s wary of solving problems by shooting them. You don’t have to believe what you’re told, still less do what you’re told. And it’s spent several decades scaring children with nasty monsters, eerie places and even the music, which when you put it all together is what family entertainment is about – a show with enough in it to satisfy all ages, from action to excite the adults to sharp questions to keep the children intrigued. That’s how down the years it’s inspired spin-offs from novels to comics, from Torchwood to The Sarah Jane Adventures and many more.
The best of Doctor Who would include a dash of horror, adventures in history, enough wit to make you smile, enough ideas and strangeness and to make you think, and enough action to get you excited. That’s probably too much to fit into just one piece of television, which takes you right back to the idea that you can go anywhere and do anything, because it’s not about just one piece of television, but different travels. Like the TARDIS, Doctor Who is bigger on the inside. It’s the only show where, if you don’t like where it’s ended up one week, if you want it to be scarier, or funnier, or more thoughtful, or more action-packed, the next week will be in a completely different place and time and probably in a completely different style, but still recognisably the same programme.
That’s probably why I fell in love with it, anyway.
How Can You Find Out More?
You can read more on this blog (and my occasionally updated others) and any of my terrifyingly in-depth Doctor Who articles that take your fancy, or there are at least hundreds of thousands of other web pages, books and learned articles (though, obviously, I don’t think they’ll be as good. As with everything else about Doctor Who, your tastes may vary).
But I wouldn’t just read, if I were you. Doctor Who is probably the best TV programme ever made, so the best way to find about it is just to watch it. Take a Deep Breath and plunge in.
The new series started on BBC1 and on many other TV channels around the world last Saturday. Tune in every Saturday evening for the next three months to see more of it unfolding, brand new, that you know as much about as I do, with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and whatever friends and foes there are to come. If you missed the first episode and are in the UK, it’s free on air this Friday (and doubtless many more times) on BBC3 and at times of your own choosing on BBC iPlayer.
Or you can choose older stories in a multitude of formats – aside from the books and comics and CDs, you can find pretty much every single episode of the TV series on DVD and other formats, broadcasts, downloads and online (some of the latter even free and legal).
If you do want more than the new stories to warm your darkening Autumn nights but the incredible range of choice is bewildering, here are two suggestions that might help in your selection. Ready?
The Twelve-ish Faces of Doctor Who
It’s now a few days after the full-length debut of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. Back in 2010, a few days before the full-length debut of his predecessor Matt Smith, I published my pick of “The Eleven Faces of Doctor Who” – one story for each Doctor, to introduce them all. Or, rather, two sets of one for each Doctor, one my pick of more populist stories (or as mainstream as Doctor Who gets), the other of stranger or more thoughtful tales. They’re all easily available on DVD, with several in other formats as well.
Click here to look at both lists and see if anything takes your fancy. Then watch one.
They’re a good set of introductions for each of the other Doctors so far – except one. Four years later, there is of course a big addition to make.
To celebrate the full Matt Smith, his Doctor deserves a full story too. My lovely Richard and I are in the middle of rewatching all his adventures, and though they’ve still not settled in enough for me to divide them into populist and strange, here are some particular favourites of mine from his era:
- Amy’s Choice – a brilliant sci-fi short story, and almost Matt Smith’s era in a nutshell
- The Doctor’s Wife – dark, strange and moving
- The Crimson Horror – and this Victorian horror story makes me laugh.
- The Day of the Doctor – the Fiftieth Anniversary special, starring three Doctors and featuring a great many more.
Or perhaps, rather than the hero in his many faces, you want to get into the Daleks. If so, here’s another article I’ve prepared earlier in which I explain who and what they are and give a rough idea of what I think of their stories so far.
Tune In To #WHOonHorror
If you’re in the UK and your TV can receive the Horror Channel, you’re in luck. Several months ago, the Horror Channel bought the rights to show thirty different Doctor Who stories – at least two from each of the first seven Doctors.
So my advice is, again, to turn on your telly (or other device) and watch one.
Apparently their Doctor Who selection has been doing very well for the channel’s ratings, so with luck they’ll still be showing them in their two-episodes-daily run for some time to come. Besides, who knows? They’ve been quite a success, so they might decide to get hold of more stories to show. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve made an excellent set of choices so far. The thirty Horror Channel Doctor Who stories include fifteen that I’d give nine or ten out of ten to – and just five I’d score lower than five out of ten. I’m not going to give you a great long list of them all my own order of preference, though, because there’s something good about all of them and everyone’s tastes vary.
But if you want to look out for my particular favourites, these get my personal ten out of ten:
- The Deadly Assassin
- The Talons of Weng-Chiang
- The Curse of Fenric
- Genesis of the Daleks
- The Mind Robber
- The Caves of Androzani
What Doctor Who People Say About Doctor Who
This is the third edition of an article I originally wrote in 2006 to introduce that year’s new series. Version one and version two are pretty much the same as each other; this time it’s more of a regeneration. Of my other Doctor Who writing, some of my favourite – and more bite-sized – pieces I’ve written to illustrate why Doctor Who is brilliant are a selection of great scenes and what makes them marvellous. These might be easier to take in than writing about a whole story at once. In theory there are going to be fifty of them eventually, but I’ve not quite got that far yet. Still, click here for my slowly growing Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes and choose one at random.
If you want a different perspective from mine, should you have a device that can read the Radio Times App, this week’s issue (search for 23-29 August 2014) has a particularly special free gift. As well as having Peter Capaldi on the cover and several articles introducing the new series, the electronic version includes the Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special from 1973. I was given a tattered old second-hand copy when I was a small boy and loved it dearly, and I still think it’s one of the most gorgeous Doctor Who magazines that’s ever been published. It’s fun and it’s now free in electronic form with the ordinary issue, so I recommend it.
And finally, for another change from me, here’s what some of the most important creative talents behind the series in past and present have to say about Doctor Who:
Russell T Davies, Doctor Who lead writer for the 2005 relaunch and through the 2000s:
“Doctor Who is the best idea ever invented in the history of the world.”
Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor:
“You should watch it if you want to nourish your heart and your soul – and if you want to be scared.”
Jenna Coleman, the Doctor’s friend and current travelling companion, Clara:
“If you like adventure, if you want to imagine that you could go anywhere in space and time – what would you do? Where would you go? It’s just a show full of infinite, infinite possibilities.”
Steven Moffat, current Doctor Who lead writer:
“Doctor Who is about a man who can travel anywhere in time and space in a box that’s bigger on the inside.”
Verity Lambert, Doctor Who founding producer from 1963 to the mid-1960s:
“He embodied the utmost complexity – he was sometimes dangerous or unpleasant, sometimes kind, sometimes foolish, but most importantly he was never a member of the establishment. He was always an outsider.”
Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who lead writer during the early 1970s and author of more Doctor Who books than anyone else:
“Much has changed about the Doctor over the years but much has remained the same. Despite the superficial differences in appearance, at heart, or rather at hearts (the Doctor has two) his character is remarkably consistent.
“He is still impulsive, idealistic, ready to risk his life for a worthy cause. He still hates tyranny and oppression and anything that is anti-life. He never gives in and he never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against him.
“The Doctor believes in good and fights evil. Though often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace. He is never cruel or cowardly.
“In fact, to put it simply, the Doctor is a hero. These days there aren’t so many of them around.”
Robert Holmes, Doctor Who lead writer during the mid-1970s (and so the man who got me hooked, got me into politics and got me the man I love):
“Let’s frighten the little buggers to death!”
So why don’t you turn off my web page and go and watch a more interesting Doctor Who television programme instead?