Why Lee Zachariah adores… DOCTOR WHO

19 May
Welcome back, you!  What’s your poison?  Here’s a glass– ah, screw that, take the bottle!  Now kick back and unwind as we introduce our second edition of WHY I ADORE…!

Our second edition’s Adorer is screenwriter/filmmaker/host/critic Lee Zachariah, who will be famous to film nerds the world over as ‘Latauro’ — Australia/NZ correspondent for juggernaut movie news website Ain’t It Cool News — and to nerds Melbourne over, as the co-host/co-creator/co-everything of the multiple-award-winning community TV movie news/comedy program THE BAZURA PROJECT!  And it’s essential that you follow Lee’s tweets at www.twitter.com/leezachariah. Today, Lee pays fulsome tribute to a Time Lord whose influence can be felt from here to Gallifrey…

This is not an entry that will surprise any of my close friends… or vague acquaintances… work colleagues… family members… strangers I pass on the street… really, nobody who has entered my radius at any point will not be shocked by this entry. My love for DOCTOR WHO is so huge, so all-pervading, that it almost seemed too obvious. And if the brains-behind-the-operation, Mr Paul Nelson, hadn’t insisted I write about my love of this odd British show, I’d probably have gone for something a shade more obscure. Like, say, Rachel Portman’s score for the movie Hart’s War, or forgotten sketch show KYTV, or Indian food, or Hobart.

But Paul is right: if you’re going to talk about something you adore, you’d best begin with the things you adore above nearly all else. And for me, one of the biggest ones is DOCTOR WHO.

It is a bit tough knowing where to start. I mean, the show has been going in some form or another since November of 1963, and so the obvious way to show you why it’s so great is to plonk you in front of a TV, put on An Unearthly Child (the first ever episode), and play ’em all up until whichever episode screened most recently (at time of writing, the surprisingly brilliant Amy’s Choice). But, unlike a good script, I’m supposed to tell you, not show you. That’s what this is all about.

DOCTOR WHO is, quite simply, the best idea anyone has ever had for anything. It’s also the only good idea a committee has ever had, born as it was out of a desire from within the BBC for a Saturday night science fiction show for kids. The setup is essentially this: two school teachers, suspicious of their student Susan (who appears to have knowledge far beyond the time) investigate her after hours. They discover the girl lives in a time-space machine called the TARDIS, along with her grandfather known only as The Doctor. There is an argument, the controls of the machine are activated, and the trip begins. And never stops.
It’s an interesting setup, but why does the show work? What’s so great about it?

Well, there’s the TARDIS.

An acronym for Time and Relative Dimension In Space, the TARDIS is notoriously bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Outside, it occupies only a few cubic feet. Inside, it is practically infinite. Beyond the iconic control room with its central column and roundel-filled wall are endless rooms: libraries, swimming pools, staircases and corridors, cloister rooms with vines growing up columns, a wood-panelled secondary control room for when you get sick of the main one, and even (as shown in 1981’s Castrovalva) a cricket pavilion the Doctor had never seen before.

The outside of the TARDIS is designed to fit in with its surroundings, and it works exactly one time, in the very first episode. Finding itself in a 1960s junk yard, the TARDIS transforms itself into an already-antiquated English police box. The following week, after the TARDIS has landed in the year 100 000 BC, the Doctor steps out and notes that the outside should have changed: the thing’s still a police box! It is such a mind-bogglingly lateral and perfect design: a prop that nostalgically represents a bygone era of British culture, unrecognisable in today’s world outside of the programme, containing the most incredible time machine ever depicted. And this is just the mode of transportation.

The universe that DOCTOR WHO takes place in is, arguably, more interesting than any other science fiction universe. Whilst so many similar franchises depict a universe with federations and interstellar alliances, stuffy ambassadors and palace intrigue, DOCTOR WHO presents us with a universe full of mostly-solipsistic planets. They don’t care about treaties or trade embargoes (1972’s The Curse of Peladon is the exception that proves the rule). They are simply people trying to live their lives, in danger from a threat either within or without. Nor do we follow any sort of flagship with its institutionalised crew, or a captain who — no matter how roguish or fly-by-night he or she may be — still represents The Man. The Doctor is a traveller, a sightseer who would be alarmed at the idea he’s considered an adventurer.

Then, of course, there are the enemies.

The Daleks have become even more iconic than the show that spawned them, and their original 1963 design has needed little updating in all these years. They are terrifying, soulless creatures out to destroy anything that isn’t them, and if you think that overexposure has dulled their impact, go check out the 2005 episode Dalek to be reminded of just how scary they can be, forty-two years after they were introduced. The other iconic DOCTOR WHO villain is the Cybermen. Years before the Borg appeared on Star Trek, the Cybermen were out to convert everyone in the universe to be like them. If Daleks were the perfect analogy for Nazism, then the Cybermen were the perfect analogy for Communism. Then there’s The Master, the Professor Moriarty to The Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. The Master is a rival Time Lord, hinted to have been a childhood friend of the Doctor, now out to conquer. The relationship between the Master and the Doctor is a surprisingly complex one, and even in his initial 1970s introduction, it felt like the two of them were in on a joke nobody else is. DOCTOR WHO’s gallery of rogues is the best out there, and those are only the top three: I could wax endlessly about other great villains like the Sontarans, the Autons, the Ice Warriors, the Weeping Angels, the Silurians, the Sea Devils, etc, but I’ll spare you for now.

There is also the fact — and long-time fans of the show may well be the ones to make objection to this — that its worst episodes are also brilliant. I’ve often said that you are truly a fan of something if its sensibilities speak so directly to your own that you respond to even its worst output. For instance, I like even Woody Allen’s terrible films, so I consider myself a Woody Allen fan. I adore the least successful of REM’s albums. I love Chuck Palahniuk’s worst book. Similarly, I love even those episodes of DOCTOR WHO that are of lesser quality. Fan consensus suggests that stories like Delta and the Bannerman, Daleks In Manhattan, The Keys of Marinus, Fear Her, Attack of the Cybermen, Boom Town, and Paradise Towers all rank among the worst of the series. Me? I can’t get enough of them. They’re not my favourites (except for Paradise Towers, which is easily in my top ten), but they all contain elements of brilliance, even if that brilliance exists in the concept and not the execution. Even at its worst, DOCTOR WHO still manages to be extraordinary.

Then, there’s the Doctor himself.

This is where I’m going to get controversial: I believe the Doctor to be the best character created in the 20th Century. Whilst DOCTOR WHO is as much an adventure series as it is a science fiction (or, perhaps more accurately, a science fantasy), and as inherently violent as it has consistently been, its central character is a pacifist. Think about that. Someone just pitched you Star Wars or Evil Dead, except the main character is a cross between Einstein and Gandhi. The Doctor abhors violence, but he also abhors the inaction that his people the Time Lords insist upon, so he stole an old, malfunctioning TARDIS and set about the universe as a sort-of tourist-cum-activist.

But that’s not the most interesting thing about him. In 1966 when star William Hartnell was preparing to leave the series, the producers decided to do something radical: recast someone as the Doctor. This is hardly a new idea, as soaps have done this since the dawn of time, but this was different. At the end of a story, William Hartnell collapsed and morphed into Patrick Troughton. Remarkable because Troughton looked and acted nothing like Hartnell. Remarkable because they acknowledged this change within the narrative of the show. Remarkable because the morph’s special effects, contrary to DOCTOR WHO’s unfortunate reputation, looked way, way ahead of their time.

The concept of regeneration and renewal is not only the show’s most brilliant narrative concept, it is the show’s most brilliant production concept. The show can adapt and change and move on without letting go of its past. We are up to eleven Doctors at this point. Only two weeks ago, in the episode Vampires In Venice, 11th Doctor Matt Smith pulls out some identification only to discover it was a library card with William Hartnell’s face on it.

The library card pull is not just a great and unexpected in-joke: it sells us on the continuity of the show. Continuity is a fancy, fannish word that actually just means “story”, and the story of the Doctor is one that spans not just 45 minutes, not just one season, but 47 (and counting) years. In the 2007 episode Gridlock, the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) sees giant, murderous crabs living in the bowels of a futuristic New York City. “Macra,” mutters the Doctor, identifying the creatures. To the casual viewer, this simply tells us that the Doctor is well-travelled. Few would recognise the 1966 story The Macra Terror, in which the 2nd Doctor battles giant, intelligent crustaceans. In the space of one five-letter word, a terrifically original episode recalls its history in an unprecedented and notably rare manner, tying itself to its past without losing the casual viewer. The man we were watching in November of 1963, we are reminded, is the same man we are watching now.

Soap operas replace their ensemble on a regular basis. Franchises like Star Trek give us different characters within a recognisable universe. James Bond traditionally dispenses with continuity from film to film. Adaptations of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot books reset with every reinvention. The comic book iteration Batman simply ignores the fact that he should be about 100 years old at this point. DOCTOR WHO is the only filmed story where we have watched the same man, the same character, throughout an impossibly large (yet thoroughly believable) period of time. And yet, even as the central figure of his own television show, he remains an enigma.

Although the show now enjoys production values that compete with the best anywhere in the world, towards the end of its original run (in the late 1980s), it had become a bit of a joke.

Wobbly sets and cardboard aliens became inherently associated with DOCTOR WHO, and anyone who took it seriously was immediately mocked. The show is clearly rubbish — what was wrong with its fans? Well, there’s plenty wrong with us, but nothing that’s relevant. DW fans saw the flaws; we just didn’t care. More important than the depiction was the scope of the idea. Daleks hollowing out the core of the Earth in a dystopian 22nd Century London? Of course! To hell with the fact that they’re trying to achieve this with a TV budget in 1964, just go for it. Service robots killing its masters on an enormous luxury mining ship on some far off planet? It’s being attempted in 1977, but it actually works. Oh, I know: how about a year-long quest to find the six segments of a mystical Key to Time, a quest that takes you from a wintery Shakespearian planet to a primitive marshland planet inhabited by a Cthulu-type creature to two feuding planets on the brink of nuclear war? And you don’t get any extra money to make it. The ambition of the show was always impressive enough to outshine the occasionally dubious production values.

And, at the heart of it all, was a man in a blue box armed with little more than a sonic screwdriver, a packet of jelly babies, and an enormous brain.

From William Hartnell (born 1908) through to Matt Smith (born 1982), eleven actors have played the best character invented since filmed visual media were invented, and each has done it to perfection. It’s 47 years on, and for all the updating and adapting and reinvention, it remains the same show and the same character we met back in 1963. And it’s impossible not to adore that. There is an argument, the controls of the machine are activated, and the trip begins. And never stops.

– Lee Zachariah

12 Responses to “Why Lee Zachariah adores… DOCTOR WHO”

  1. Simon Miraudo May 20, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    Love it Lee. Not a massive Dr. Who fan (Matt Smith is my first, but he’s charming me quickly), but a great intro to the universe.

    Also, nice shout out to Hart’s War!

  2. Ronan Macewan May 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm #

    “The ambition of the show was always impressive enough to outshine the occasionally dubious production values.”

    I think you nailed what I find so endearing about it’s earlier episodes. That and Tom Bakers scarf and penchant for JB’s

  3. Dave Lamb May 20, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    I completely agree. The appeal of the show endures from ignorant curiosity as a child watching reruns through to waiting impatiently (like a child) for new installments in adulthood. Long live The Doctor!

  4. joel May 20, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    goddamn. despite only having watched about five episodes ever (and i did thoroughly enjoy them, but you know that cos you showed them to me), you make me feel like i love doctor who! congratulations sir, you just solidified it as the next show red and i do after we finish lost. huzzah!

  5. Thomas Caldwell June 11, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

    Great piece Lee! “Paradise Towers” is a very underrated story. In fact, the 7th Doctor is one of my favourite incarnations (but I do love them all).

  6. Karen O. June 21, 2010 at 5:38 am #

    Well said! I have adored the programme since the beginning. But you left out Gunfighters – the one show I can barely watch. The Doctor – wonder chap – all of them!

  7. Paul B. =:o} June 21, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Yayyyy!!! [WILD APPLAUSE]


  8. Ben McKenzie June 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    Damn you Zachariah! Nothing fills the void in my godless soul like the best bits of Doctor Who, and now my only televisual love is spent I’ve no coin to offer the Why I Adore audience.

    But you hit the nail right between the eyes, you magnificent bastard: Doctor Who, at its best*, does things no other television can. Few programs have the versatility and yet simplicity that has been cooked up, thrown out and tried again over the decades of Who’s existence. To summarise: interesting McGuffin that can take us to any point in time and space? Check. Lead character who can be the same person for forty years, and yet also eleven different people? Check. A format that allowed multiple writers, directors and designers to have a go at creating imaginative stuff? You betcha.

    I’ve loved this show for twenty-five years, possibly more. Thanks for celebrating it.

    * For the record, I refuse to discuss Doctor Who at its worst.

  9. Steve June 23, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

    For those of us who’ve been there from the beginning, that sums it up beautifully.

  10. corey turner September 3, 2012 at 3:55 am #

    my name is corey i love the doctor,but i just don’t understand how come there iins,t a movie about the 4th droctor inthe new show, i,v seen the the one about the 3 doctors
    and the one about the five doctors, will they make one with the 4th dr.in it.


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