A couple of nights ago, nestled in my bed on this side of that vast ocean that separates us from our one-time overlords, I bore witness to a great event: a television serial airing in our quaint country from all the way across the proverbial pond, direct from that noblest of islands, Great Britain. The show I speak of, of course, is “Doctor Who,” which premiered its sixth season (counting from its revivification in 2005) on April 23.
Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with “Doctor Who,” let me give you the basics: it was begun as a rather silly sci-fi jaunt by the BBC in 1963, had a total of 26 seasons before closing in 1989, then had a brief reincarnation as a movie before being revived on air in, as I mentioned, 2005. During this time, the title character—an alien “Time Lord” known only as “the Doctor”—has been played by 11 men and has gone on uncountable adventures through space and time in his spaceship known as the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space). He’s been accompanied along the way by various companions, almost exclusively human and predominantly female.
But that doesn’t really sum up what “Doctor Who” is about. Perhaps it’s best that I give an example. The ending of the last season went like this: the Doctor (currently being played by his youngest-ever incarnation, Matt Smith) was lured to a specific time and place in the Roman Empire, where he discovered that an alliance of all his major enemies had gathered to put him in the perfect prison, a huge box called the Pandorica. They did this under the impression that by doing so they would save the universe. Unfortunately, the universe still exploded, but the Doctor, preserved in his box, survived along with Earth (for a limited time). He was let out of his prison by one of his companions, Rory (Arthur Darvill) who knew how to let him out because he was told by the Doctor, who was able to travel back in time to give the directions because Rory had let him out because the Doctor had traveled back in time to give him the directions because Rory had let him out…you get the idea.
This story ended with the Doctor flying his prison-box into the time-locked, constantly-exploding TARDIS to scatter some atoms of the universe as it was before the explosion, so that the exploding TARDIS could send those to every point in space and time simultaneously, so that he could REBOOT THE UNIVERSE.
It’s heady stuff.
But it’s not just for the sci-fi nerdity that I watch “Doctor Who.” There’s a uniquely British sensibility to this idea of the daft old man (he gives his age at one point as 909) who goes gallivanting around the universe, regenerating his body whenever he should die—hence the 11 different leading actors—and emerging each time as a completely unique persona. Even from its concept, it’s a capricious, almost willfully silly show. And the humor, just so Anglophiles know, is quintessentially British in the tradition of Monty Python.
There’s good writing in there, too though. The “Doctor Who” team is remarkably good at coming up with monsters both silly and terrifying. Best of all are their psychological creations. Easily the best episode of the series to date has been “Blink,” a 2007 episode written by now head writer for the series Steven Moffat. “Blink” features a now-recurring series villain known as the Weeping Angels. Does that not sound scary? Here’s the thing:
They only move when you’re not looking.
And they’re incredibly fast.
If they touch you, they kill you—by sending you back in time. You slowly live out your natural life…but probably in a time period before you were born. If you’re lucky, you might get to see all of your friends and loved ones as children. The angels feed off the “potential energy” of your unlived life, which is really a lot like saying that they live off your wasted love.
So, besides having truly terrifying monsters hanging out around its fringes, “Blink” also features incredible writing—it’s one of the few episodes I can think of on television where the title character of a show doesn’t make an in-person appearance (the Doctor, through a twist of time, appears in the episode only on recordings, reading from a script—he’s stuck in 1969). If you want outside verification, the episode also won the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, and competed with Guillermo del Toro’s blockbuster “Pan’s Labyrinth” for the similarly laudable Nebula Award for Best Script. This is a 45-minute TV show up against a nearly two-hour, 19 million dollar movie.
Ultimately, though, “Doctor Who” is something you watch for the fun. The fun of the zany, ridiculous, impossible doctors. Of being scared by the “gotcha” monsters that you know the Doctor will vanquish. Of enjoying the loving, friendly, quarrelsome, but always unique relationships between the Doctor and his companions (plus the current companion, Amy Pond, is being portrayed by the totally hot redhead Karen Gillan, who has a sexy Scottish accent to boot). And yes, occasionally the fun of trying to unravel things that no logical human mind can break down.
The current season aired on Sunday in the United States with the Doctor’s death. A dramatic event, to be sure, but not necessarily an irrevocable one. He was shot at the age of 1,103, but appeared shortly thereafter (having no idea of his impending doom) at the age of 909. Currently, based on a lead from the older Doctor, Amy, Rory, and the Doctor are joined with the Doctor’s strange companion River Song and an ex-FBI agent named Canton Delaware III in 1969. They’re investigating bizarre, bulb-headed aliens who are almost as scary as the Weeping Angels, in that you forget about them as soon as you turn your head. The episode, called “The Impossible Astronaut,” ended on a cliffhanger that I won’t spoil. You should watch it for yourself instead, taking the incredible plunge into this world of wacky, zany, science-fiction Britishness.
As the 11th Doctor would say, “Geronimo!”