<BGSOUND SRC="WhoPiano.mid">
Header

      It seems that the folks on the other side of the pond are resurrecting (regenerating?) one of my favorite Sci-Fi shows. Word is that they are working out a deal with a US network to air the show over here as well. That might be cool, unless they stick it on the SCIFI channel, which I no longer have...

      Actually, one of my biggest disappointments with SCIFI was that they didn't have Doctor Who in rotation... Then they got to the point that they were running Quantum Leap and other lame 90s shows all the time with hardly any classic SF shows, so I didn't even care when my Direct TV package dropped the channel.

      But I digress...

      Doctor Who, for those of you who don't know, is a long-running SF program from the United Kingdom... Originally conceived as an semi-educational show in the early 1960s in which an eccentric old man from the distant future would take his companions on adventures in his time machine. Going to the past to teach history, and into the future to teach science.

      Fortunately, the show was revised in development, with the educational aspect downplayed and the old man's origin left as a mystery to be revealed bit by bit over years to come.

      I first discovered Doctor Who in the late 1970s, when American PBS stations purchased rebroadcast rights to then-recent episodes. Doctor Who continued to run on PBS stations throughout the 1980s, with more episodes (older and newer) being added to the rotation. The show faltered in the UK, and finally ceased production in 1989. Through the 1990s, the number of PBS stations carrying Doctor Who dwindled. A 1996 TV movie on Fox didn't renew interest in America, so the show's cult following in the states is pretty much out of luck when it comes to seeing the show on TV these days.

      The American Doctor Who viewing experience was always a bit different from that of the show's fans who saw the original broadcasts on BBC-One...

      Through most of the show's run, each weekly episode was a half-hour. Several episodes would make up a single storyline, or "serial". Each episode within a serial would end in some kind of cliffhanger, which would be resolved at the start of the next episode. Sometimes a number of serials would be connected, tying a whole season of shows together in an overarching story.

      On PBS, I saw Doctor Who in three different ways... Sometimes all the episodes of a serial were edited together into a "movie"... Sometimes all the episodes of a serial were run in their original form, but back-to-back. This was pretty cool, 'cause that weird theme music was infectious, and you'd get to hear it several times in this format. It was also interesting because, as you watched the closing cliffhanger of one episode, followed by the resolution three minutes later, you could easily catch the little differences that wouldn't have been so obvious if you'd had to wait a week between episodes... For a while one local PBS was running a single episode late each night, which was about as close to the original form as I've seen.

      Doctor Who at its best was a classic combination of great writing and ideas coupled with very low budgets. Sometimes low budgets can actually promote creativity...

Third Doctor and TARDIS.       Take the time/spaceship featured in the series, for instance. The Tardis (acronym for Time And Relative Dimension/s In Space) looked like a mid 20th Century London police box. Basically a blue wooden box about the size of a small backyard tool shed, with narrow double doors on the front and a light on the top. Now that's doing the design of a galaxy-hopping starship on the cheap! But the writers explained it nicely. The Tardis had a "chameleon circuit" which allowed it to adapt its external form to blend in with any environment. This circuit was apparently working when the Tardis arrived in early 1960s London, where police boxes were common. But the circuit went on the fritz thereafter, and left the Tardis in the police box form no mater where or when it landed.

      A police box sounds a little small for a starship, doesn't it? No problem. The writers made the ship transcendentally interdimensional. It was bigger inside than outside. In fact, it seems to have been roughly the size of the Pentagon inside the Tardis. But there was only one regularly seen interior set, which was the Tardis control room. A pretty simple (and cheap) set it was, too. What appeared to be fiberglass panel walls, a view screen on one wall, and a small table in the middle of the room with a few lights, switches, and a thingamajig that bobbed up and down in the center of the table. I should think the Tardis control room set could be constructed for under a thousand bucks. Tardis Control Room.

      As for the other parts of the Tardis, which included living quarters, labs, a study, swimming pools, and more, any handy stage set or location could do. Using location shoots for Tardis interiors created the impression that the ship was lived-in, not immaculate and sterile like most SF spaceships. George Lucas is said to have gone out of his way to "dirty-up" the spaceships and robots in his Star Wars movies to make them seem more real. I wonder if he got his inspiration from Doctor Who?

      The way the Tardis traveled was a real money-saver as well. It dematerialized from where it was, then rematerialized at its destination. The only special effect required was one of the cheapest there is, as well as one that was developed about two days after the motion picture camera was invented. Film the setting where you're going to have the Tardis land. Stop the camera. Have the guys with the fork lift bring your police box onto the scene. Restart your camera. Presto! The Tardis has materialized! A couple of years later, Gene Rodenberry used a similar approach in Star Trek, using a "transporter" to materialize his characters onto planets rather than having to spend a fortune on special effects shots of spaceships landing and taking off. I wonder if he got the idea from Doctor Who?

      Over the years, we learned a bit about the Tardis' master... "Dr. Who" wasn't his name. It was the obvious question that came to mind when meeting this odd fellow who was known only as "The Doctor".

      The Doctor was an alien. A renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. The Time Lords are an extremely advanced race who claim to have a strict non-intervention policy toward the rest of the Universe, although they don't live up to it, and sometimes manipulate the Doctor into doing their dirty work for them. (Much to his annoyance.)

      Time Lords look like Earth humans, but they have some differences in internal anatomy. Most obvious of these are their second hearts. They are also extremely long-lived, capable of living hundreds, even thousands of years.

      One of the most fascinating aspects of Time Lord biology was yet another ingenious way the writers found to cope with the challenges of producing a series in the real world...

      While the original actor to play the Doctor was only in his mid-50s, he was white-haired and fragile. He played the character as a somewhat doddering Grandfather type. But, after a few seasons, his poor health made it impossible for him to continue in the role. That's when the writers decided that Time Lords have the ability to "regenerate"... When his body is worn out, or fatally damaged, a Time Lord will metamorph into a whole new person. He retains his memories and knowledge, as well as his basic nature, but may look entirely different and develop somewhat different personality traits. This not only allowed a new actor to take over the part, but also allowed the him to make the role his own rather than emulating the previous actor.

Fourth Doctor and company.       Over the course of the original series, seven different men portrayed the Doctor. It was the Fourth Doctor that was first seen on most American PBS channels. At around 40, Tom Baker was far from the original grandfatherly Doctor. But his quirky adventurer was refreshingly different from your typical action hero as well. He was the most successful, and longest-running Doctor. But each of the Doctors brought their own flavor to the show, which may have been a large part of what kept it from getting stale for a quarter century.

      The Doctor usually traveled with "companions". Many of these were Earthlings from times contemporary with the production of the show. Some were from other times (both past and future), and sometimes other planets. A few companions were even machines.

Peri.
      Seems like a lot of companions were really cute girls... Although the Doctor's relationships with his companions were always platonic... Even when he wound up with a companion who was one of his own kind. (Although the actor who played the Doctor actually wound up marrying the actress who played his Time Lady companion!)

      Of course, the low budgets that helped spawn a lot of creativity on Doctor Who also tended to make the show look... well... low budget. Sometimes the monsters and aliens looked like dime store Hallowe'en costumes. Sometimes the death rays looked like squirt guns wrapped in tin foil. But I've always had a soft spot for B-movie level effects.

      Sometimes they tried to shake off the low budget look and do something really impressive... Like when they used real robots to play the Doctor's mechanical companions. These attempts weren't exactly smashing successes.

      The shape-shifting android Kamelion hardly functioned at all, and they wound up having to "kill" him off pretty quickly.

      K-9, the Doctor's robotic dog, worked somewhat better. But he had more than his share of technical problems. You can sometimes see the wire they used to drag him around when his motors wouldn't get the job done. They sometimes gave up and just worked K-9's malfunctions into the show so as to explain why the Doctor was carrying him around or pulling him by his leash. Pretty amusing, I thought.

      The show was usually better off when they didn't try so hard on the effects and stuck with the imaginative writing. The Daleks may have looked like giant salt shakers with toilet plungers sticking out of them, but they had quite the back story. And Doctor Who's Cybermen were doing everything Star Trek's Borg did, but more than 20 years earlier. (And without that awful Goth look!)
The Borg before the Borg.

Knife 'em in the neck!.       What other show would have a time-traveling, eccentric, scarf-wearing super-genius alien running around the Universe with a half-naked, knife-flinging, borderline psychotic babe who was actually descended from Earthlings who will crash-land their spaceship on a remote planet in the distant future?

      The 1996 Fox Doctor Who movie did actually bring in Sylvester McCoy, the last actor to play the Doctor on the BBC show, for the opening scenes before having him "killed" to regenerate into a new Doctor. The movie kinda' trampled on established continuity, and never amounted to anything, and the actor who played the Doctor in that movie will not be continuing in the role. If it were up to me, I'd just ignore the movie and bring Sly in to pass the torch directly to the new Doctor for the 2005 series... But the BBC seems determined to keep the abortive 8th Doctor in the canon, making the new Doctor number 9. I don't know why... There were Doctor Who movies made in the 1960s starring Peter Cushing that are definitely not considered part of the series' history.

      Oh well. Maybe they'll find brilliant ways to explain the apparent errors in the movie.




Back to
WARPED SPACE




Back to Big Dave's
UNIVERSAL INDEX