Doctor Who played an important part of my youth. Hearing that unmistakable theme tune blaring from the TV set was the best thing about Mondays. Each episode promised so many things: strange-looking costumes and sets, plenty of action scenes, and, oh, psychopathic, murderous robots. As a sci-fi addicted kid always looking for his next hit, I had, in the winter of 1987, discovered a new TV show to lose sleep over. I had a little taste — and I was totally hooked.
I’d record it, watch it countless times, and then discuss it at school — often until friends would just tune me out, or walk away. It was a show a lot older than I, and in the distant pre-YouTube era, I spent years catching up. There were lost weekends spent indoors, and lots of parental talk of my eyes falling out. But even now, as a decades-strong fan, it’s kind of crazy to think the BBC classic turns 50 — 50! — this November 23, continuing its reign as the longest running TV sci-fi series.
To me, Who was, and is, unique, occupying a niche beyond the reach of other sci-fi shows I loved as a child. It’s not as slick as Star Trek, nor as showy as Battlestar Galactica, and yet it’s a touch smarter than both. Engrossingly tumbledown, and almost stage-like in its pacing, it’s far more adventurous in scope, and braver in its simplicity. It has always worn its often cringe-inducing cheesiness on its sleeve; though at its core, it takes itself very seriously.
Case in point: this 1975 interaction between the Doctor and enemy Davros (creator of the doctor’s arch-nemeses robot race, the Daleks). Yes, it’s ludicrous: a rubber-masked, three-eyed alien hovering about in a chair — and a scarf-wearing posh guy basically telling him to settle down. But there is also genuine ethical debate here, and relatively complex thought experiments: “It is interesting conjecture,” as Davros himself says. Everyone looks so quirky, but is being so, I dunno, rational. It’s just all so British.
Indeed, I’ve always seen the doctor as a sort of hybrid of Sherlock Holmes, H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller and a passionate stamp-collector — the beyond-competent amateur filled with plucky optimism. But there’s a danger in pigeonholing both Doctor and show, because as any good fan knows, the key to its ongoing success is change, or rather, regeneration.
To date we have met 11 (soon to be 12) very different incarnations of the Doctor. From William Hartnell’s stately, lapel-clutching original, to Christopher Eccleston’s leather jacket-loving ninth incarnation, it is often asked: Who is best? Britons seem to think it’s No. 10, David Tennant. Many critics point to the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker (pictured below) as the best in the series. I, for one, am guilty of the great Whovian bias: favoring the one you grew up watching. I will forever defend Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor — the one who introduced me to the Who world more than a quarter-century ago — as the standout.
Considered (unfairly, I think) subpar by many, McCoy’s tenure had its share of problems, from the BBC programming the show head-to-head against rival channel ITV’s popular soap opera Coronation Street to an abundance of bad scripts. The show was cancelled in 1989 — we didn’t have a new Doctor until the 1996 movie. So it’s easy to forget that McCoy gave one of the most layered portrayals of the Doc — comical warmth that barely concealed a dark, manipulative streak. A Scotsman, he seemed free of the patrician airs of many that came before, dressed like a crazy gondola oarsman, introduced us to an enemy that was made entirely of candy, and had possibly the coolest of all traveling companions: Ace. (Speaking of companions, having followed the adventures of multiple Doctors, one thing continues to bother me: Why haven’t we seen a female Doctor?)
Still, with Peter Capaldi set to take over as Doctor number 12, and with the much-anticipated 50th anniversary episode “The Day of the Doctor” happening this weekend — in which we’ve been promised John Hurt’s mystery incarnation of the Doctor (exciting!) — it’s hard for this old fanboy to complain. To a show that gave us foes as awesome as the Sontarans, as scary as the Autons, friends as adorable as K9, and, of course, the best theme tune in history: a very happy birthday.