Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Concerning Doctor Who

On May 10, 2024, the venerable British science fiction institution Doctor Who will inaugurate a new era. Again.1 While waiting for the new series to begin, I thought it would be fun to recount my introduction to Doctor Who:

Late one Saturday night, sometime in the early-to-mid 1990s, I happened on a program on my local PBS station that I thought was utterly bizarre. It was some kind of Sci-Fi, but clearly (a) British, (b) made in the past, and (c) made on a tight budget. The aliens were just actors painted head-to-toe in green makeup with what looked like torn-up knit sweaters for hair. The show featured a giant squid-like monster that was badly composited in long shots while closeups involved only an occasional giant tentacle obviously made of foam rubber. (It must have smelled terrible when it got wet.) I watched a few minutes then changed the channel not having any idea what I had just seen.2

Sometime later, again late one Saturday night in the early-to-mid 1990s, I happened on a program on my local PBS station. It was very clearly (a) British, (b) made in the past, and (c) made on a tight budget but this time the main plot captured my imagination. There was a group of mechanical-looking robots and another group of human-looking robots that had been locked in a centuries-long conflict. The conflict had long ago ground to a stalemate as each side’s battle computer was totally logical and could therefore predict and counter the strategies of the other side’s battle computer. In spite of the dodgy special effects and even dodgier costumes for the human-like robots (once again using knitwear for hair), the premise hooked me.

I didn’t know it at the time, but those two shows I happened on were part of the same long-running British Sci-Fi show, Doctor Who. The two episodes3 I had seen were The Power of Kroll and Destiny of the Daleks, respectively. After that second encounter, I made it a point to watch my local PBS station on Saturday nights.4 (It wasn’t until years later that I saw The Power of Kroll again and remembered scenes from that weird show I had once seen.)

  1. Doctor Who’s original run lasted from 1963 to 1989. There was then an American attempt to reboot the program, which resulted in a lone made-for-TV movie in 1996. Russell T. Davies then truly revived the program, once again as a British production, in a run that lasted from 2005 to 2022. After passing the showrunner baton on to others in the meantime, Russell T. Davies has returned. Although there hasn’t been a prolonged hiatus, as had happened previously, Davies insists that starting with the 2023 specials Doctor Who is effectively a new program and has even insisted that the season/series count restart at 1. 

  2. This was before streaming and even before cable and satellite were commonplace. There was no on-screen guide to tell what was being broadcast. I could have, I suppose, looked it up in the newspaper, which printed the schedule of the local channels back then, but I didn’t bother. 

  3. As originally broadcast in the UK, Doctor Who’s stories were serialized. A typical season of 26 broadcasts would be comprised of 6 or 7 stories, each story then being comprised of 4 to 6 individual half-hour episodes. One half-hour episode would air each week for the run of the season. When broadcast in the US on PBS, however, the episodes for each story were typically combined to make a single 1½- to 2½-hour mega-episode. 

  4. It turned out that on my local PBS station, Doctor Who was just one part of a British Sci-Fi feature being broadcast on Saturday nights. The first hour was Blake’s 7 followed by Doctor Who. Later, Blake’s 7 was replaced by Blackadder (still British but not Sci-Fi) and Red Dwarf (both British and Sci-Fi, and a comedy as well).