Late to the Party: Doctor Who, Past and Present

Note: I have edited part of this article since I first posted it, as some of my points were challenged, and rightly so. Thank you, readers!

Will I ever have a week when I won’t be scrambling to figure out what to write about for this column? Sure doesn’t seem like it, at least not lately. Must try to keep more on top of my writing obligations!

A Twitter-friend of mine recently decided that he wanted to understand what our circle of tweeps was talking about when we started ranting and raving about Doctor Who, so he amassed a small fortune of iTunes credit and set it aside specifically to follow the Doctor’s more recent exploits.  We’ve watched the first four episodes of the first season (and by ‘first season’, I mean the season starring Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor). It’s been fascinating and endlessly entertaining to listen to his theorizing about who and what the Doctor is and what’s going on in the show, having been a fan myself for a few years now, and I realized that I have no recollection of what it was like for me to come into this fandom knowing absolutely nothing about the show at all.

I can’t call myself a diehard Doctor Who fan, since I often have difficulty remembering the names and sequence of episodes that aren’t my set-in-stone favourites, but I do love the show immensely, so I thought I’d try delving into the very first season of the show, which aired in 1963, in an effort to reclaim that whole “brand new to the series” feeling. I made it through four episodes before I was distracted by the proposition of a movie Skype-date (and subsequent Skype-date with an episode of Doctor Who with the aforementioned friend), and so while I realize that it’s hardly fair to judge a season of a show on so few episodes, that’s what I’m going to do, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it at all. (A vague disclaimer is no one’s friend.)

Past this point, you run the risk of stumbling across spoilers. Read at thine own peril.

The most noticeable difference to me (aside from the obvious ones, like the special effects and the way the dialogue was written) was that there is so much humour that I have come to love (and, quite frankly, expect) from the current show that is missing from the original. Christopher Eccleston had a brilliant, excitable sense of humour that sometimes made you smile almost without knowing why. David Tennant (my Doctor) took Eccleston’s excitability and ramped it up, as well as speeding up his speech to make you think about his jokes for a moment before you started to laugh. Matt Smith took both qualities and amplified them further, adding a wonderful, adorable quirkiness that took me a while to warm to, but now I can’t get enough of it. (“Have you met Freud? Oh, he’s so fun.”)

In stark contrast, the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, was a cold, rather rude person who never really seemed to care about using tact — at least in the four episodes that I watched. He talked down to his granddaughter Susan (who was rather annoying, so that didn’t bother me so much) and two of her teachers, Miss Wright and Mr.  Chesterton, who got themselves stuck traveling back in time with him. It is obvious to me, a fan of the current show and therefore a viewer familiar with some of the canon, why he should be found to be more intelligent and knowledgeable about the workings of the universe, but the new Doctors rarely talk down to anyone unless they’re under a great deal of stress (e.g. some planet somewhere is about to be destroyed). The first Doctor doesn’t seem to need that excuse, and that irked me.

I will say, though, that this is in keeping with the character that I imagine would have had to come before Eccleston, Tennant and Smith. He and Susan are cut off from their planet and their people (not the last of their kind at that point as a result of the Time War, as I’d originally believed), and so it’s hardly ludicrous to think that he would be bitter and sour toward anyone who didn’t understand him and his tortured old soul. There’s a quote further on here that I think proves this point rather wonderfully.

One of the other things that struck me was how weak the female characters seemed to be. I suspect that this was partly because the idea of feminism hadn’t taken hold, and so we are comparing the idea of the meek female, always looking to the man for support and protection, to today’s idea of empowered women, equal to men in every possible way. There is a lot of screaming, followed by a lot of tripping and falling, after which they would remain on the ground wailing until one of the men ran over and helped them up.  Those women seem like they would never survive with the Doctor these days. Now, his female companions (Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble and Amy Pond, chronologically) are tough and adaptable, and they end up saving the Doctor almost as often as he saves the universe(s), be it from hostile lifeforms, the insanity that is time-travel, or, most importantly, himself.

The most notable acknowledgment of that last point (and my previous point, as promised) is illustrated beautifully in a famous heart-wrenching scene from the fourth season’s finale, “Journey’s End”.  The Doctor, Donna, Rose, Rose’s mother Jackie, and (for all intents and purposes, for those who haven’t seen the episode) the Doctor’s doppelgänger are standing on the beach of Bad Wolf Bay when the Doctor tells Rose why his copy is to stay behind with her.

The Doctor: “[To the ‘gänger] You were born in battle, full of blood and anger and revenge. [To Rose] Remind you of someone? That’s me, when we first met … and you made me better. Now you can do the same for him.”

Rose: “But he’s not you!”

The Doctor: “He needs you. That’s very me.”

Still regarding the Doctor’s evolution from serious, taciturn grump to a young-at-heart leader and mentor, I happened upon a clip from a special for Children in Need in 2007 that would have fit into the last couple of minutes of “The Last of the Timelords”, the season finale of the third season. In the clip, the tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, ran into one of his past selves, the fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison. After bickering back and forth for a bit and trying to figure out how to get back to their respective TARDISes, Tennant’s Doctor tells his past self something that I find to be priceless and moving.

“You know, I loved being you. Back when I first started in the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important, I couldn’t do with young — and then I was you! I was all dashing about, playing cricket, my voice going all squeaky when I shouted — I still do that, that voice thing! I got it from you! Oh, and the trainers, and … [puts on glasses] Snap. ‘Cause you know what, Doctor … You were my Doctor. […] All my love to long ago.”

I may be wrong, but I believe that Davison was Tennant’s favourite Doctor, so I can only imagine how special it would have been to tell Davison just how much inspiration he took when he became the Doctor so many years later. If Davison’s was the first Doctor to have a bounce in his step and a smile on his face, I can see how easy it would have been for Tennant to favour him. I likely would have done.

I feel I’ve gone just a little bit off-track somehow, so I’ll wrap up. I will do my best to find time to watch the rest of the first original season, just to see if my opinions of the crazy women and the grumpy Doctor change, as I hope they will. Perhaps once I’ve made some headway, I’ll post an update. ‘Sides, I can’t be much later to a party than I am with this; the 50th anniversary of the first episode is only a couple years off now. Lord, that’s frightening.

If you’ve watched any of the original series and have a favourite Doctor or episode to recommend, please leave a comment. Much appreciated!

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