I’ve spent the days leading up to Christmas this year watching the The Doctor Who Takeover on BBC America. The Whos down in Whoville may like Christmas a lot, but when it comes to saving people in a world filled with merriment and mayhem, the Doctor they are not. The most recent incarnation features the grizzled Peter Capaldi (I’m Scottish! That means I get to complain!) saving people from themselves in between doing some serious ass-kicking involving villains and monsters.
The Doctor arrives as an alien in a strange land, into a world broken and under assault. Our rational, comfortable truths and assumptions no longer hold in a world mystifying sometimes even to those of us who live there. In the Whoniverse humans’ attempts to prevail are revealed as at the same time comically insufficient and profoundly heroic. Into this world, among all other worlds (which he visits occasionally), the Doctor emerges. He steps out of the Tardis after each regeneration born anew, marveling at his own existence.
Legs! I’ve still got legs! Good. Arms. Hands. Oo! Fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears. Yes. Eyes two. Nose. I’ve had worse. Chin. Blimey. Hair. I’m a girl. No no. I’m not a girl. And still not ginger.
The Doctor’s persona has evolved along with the show’s original black and white production from the original somewhat bewildered William Hartnell of the antediluvian 1960s through the googly-eyed Tom Baker, who played the character from 1974 – 1981. Before cable, before the dish, before the DVD, local advertisers sponsored a variety of regionally-produced television. The period witnessed a lot of idiosyncratic and just plain weird shows. I made the Doctor’s acquaintance around 1970 when the British-produced episodes aired on our local educational television station. The production values were low, the sets cardboard, the action stagey and stories elementary. A doddering, white-haired, sharp-eyed and -tongued figure (and later a dark-haired curly-haired smiling figure with a scarf) encountered a variety of robots, time-space vortexes and alien beings, including Daleks and Cybermen.
Since 2005 and the reboot, the series featured younger charismatic versions of the Doctor, including ones played by former soccer star Matt Smith and David Tenant, along with a shadowy version played by thespian John Hurt (of The Elephant Man and V for Vendetta).
The Doctor comes bearing a sword along with a fez, bow tie, sonic screwdriver and, most recently, an electric guitar, like a Gallifreyan member of the Rolling Stones. The clever bon mots, idiosyncratic fashion, antic disposition and timey-wimey whimsy belie the harsh world he and the characters inhabit. Friendships are betrayed. Lovers are separated. People die. The show depicts the Doctor as an advocate for threatened or downtrodden species throughout the universe. But humankind holds a special place in his two hearts.
The Doctor’s ambivalent nature underlies many episodes. ‘Am I a good man or a bad man?’ Capaldi’s Doctor asks in his debut with his companion Clara. Can good alone prevail over weeping angels, Davros and the Daleks and Cybermen – not to mention the Doctor’s nemesis The Master, and more recent incarnation The Mistress? The companions and other people around the doctor, like Christ’s Disciples, are usually ordinary people, unaware of their own power and significance. With the Doctor they achieve ordinary greatness. .
The Doctor, like the Dude, abides. Recent writing for the show has mainly been in the incomparable hands of Steven Moffat, OBE along with stints by others such as Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and the Sandman graphic novel series). The characters and plots have evolved far beyond the black and white original. Millions of fans worldwide frequent Doctor Who web sites and visit The Doctor Who ExperienceTM. . in Cardiff, Wales, where the show is filmed. Something must be working. That something, I think, is the ability of producer Russel T. Davies, along with Moffat and the whole ensemble to mine the myths that still underlie human experience and our search for meaning in the 21st Century. The Doctor is a trickster, a warrior and a sinner – and apparently a coy lover who snogged the Reverend Mother at the Church of the Papal Mainframe and got hitched to Marilyn Monroe – while chasing his paramour River Song through time and space in a cosmic version of An Affair to Remember.
‘I’m the Doctor, and I save people’ he declares, recalling his own purpose at crucial moments. He holds human beings accountable, but also cares about us deeply as individuals and as a species. This year, of all years, the winter darkness gathers, growing stronger each passing day, threatening hope. We wait for reassurance. Will the light prove stronger? As Doctor Who himself asks, ‘Who are you going to call?’ It’s a story that has all the elements of birth, death and resurrection – and a savior who seems more human, more flawed and more accessible than we are used to. And that is one that we all need.– CDL