04 January 2012

TV Series: Doctor Who

Doctor Who

Serialized Sci-Fi/Sci-Fantasy

I figured my first post of 2012 should be this one.

Background - The Short of it
I just spent 25 December 2011 through 2 January 2012 to marathon-watch Doctor Who, starting with the 9th Doctor (2005) through the 11th Doctor series 5 (2010).  That amounts to seven seasons of the show. 69 episodes plus 3 'special' episodes totaling 72 episodes.

About Doctor Who
The Doctor is the last surviving member of his species and is over 900 years old. He travels through the universe, and time, and has adventures wherever he goes. He travels in a ship called the TARDIS. From the outside it looks like an old blue British Police Box, about the size of a refrigerator box, but it is much bigger on the inside. And all steampunk looking too.
The Doctor tends to select a companion to travel with him, though there are times he travels by himself, and other times when he has multiple passengers. When The Doctor's body is damaged enough to kill him, but not kill him outright, his body will regenerate. The regenerated Doctor usually looks different than his previous incarnation, but retains all the memories of his past selves. That is why if you look at pictures of the Doctor he'll look like eleven different guys, all from the run of the series from 1963 to present.

The Show
The Doctor Who show beginning with the 2005 series have generally followed a format that consists of setting up a 'long story' - the overarching story for the series (season). Each episode amounts to a mini adventure for the episode (or two) it takes to tell that smaller story, plus drops hints and bits that lead up to and tie in to the larger story driving for the series conclusion. The shows also concentrate on the character development and relationship building between the Doctor and his companion(s). If there is a change in the Doctor (regeneration), or in his regular companion, there tends to be a few readjustment episodes.

The shows are all various mixes of character development, character relationship development, comedy, action, mystery, thrills, horror, overcoming impossible odds, even emotional dramas. Some shows have a Monster of the Week (MotW) flavor where its mostly devoted to solving that episode's problem and the sci-fi/fantasy bits are additional characters in the story. Others are more about the character development with the sci-fi/fantasy bits more of a background framework. Some episodes are better than others, others are worse, but overall the show as a whole is quite a compelling watch.

The 2005-and-on production quality tends to be high end, you can tell they had a great special effects budget.  I can't speak for prior to 2005 as I haven't watched them. To my memory the show back then looked like harshly lit soundstage sets and glued-together kitchen utensils as scifi gadgets, though that's an uninformed opinion.
The cast, and a lot of the big-name guest cast member appearances, do an amazing job. Sure there are occasional background actors that really chew the scenery, but the primary cast tends to do well.

Is it science fiction? In many ways, yes. Is it science fantasy? In many more ways yes.  Some things are so fantastical and the 'science' is so wonky that it can't be categorized otherwise.
But in the context of the Doctor Who universe that is okay. It is to be expected. Just go with it.

The fulfilling enjoyment of the show stems from watching the ongoing picture get painted, not just appreciating individual brush strokes. It is a fun and entertaining romp with enough story consistency to keep long-term viewers connected.

Background - The Long of it

This section got quite long. Each time I edit it down I end up adding more stuff back in. Just babbling, dumping crap out of my head.

I realize Doctor Who started back in 1963 and ran regularly until cancelled in 1989, with occasional  appearances through 1996.  The show was brought back in regular serial TV format in 2005. While growing up I saw a couple episodes of the series as they broadcast on PBS. The earliest Doctor I remember seeing is John Pertwee, the 3rd Doctor. I don't recall much except he was old with white hair. I also recall seeing a couple of Tom Baker (4th Doctor) episodes. Again, not recalling much besides his afro and extremely long muffler. I suppose I just didn't get hooked fast enough to camp out PBS to see all the Doctor Who episodes they brought over.  I was never really that interested in the series. I knew it existed and knew enough to catch the most obvious of pop-culture references to the series, but that was about it.

Back around 2010 I'd heard of a series called "Torchwood", a spin-off series from Doctor Who, spoken about with an admiration that wasn't quite "Whovian" (Doctor Who fanboy) level, but respectfully appreciative. Enough to catch my attention and initiate some curiosity. However an impulse to watch Doctor Who itself hadn't yet developed. Any inklings were greatly eclipsed by the thought of the sheer number of episodes since 1963, available and unavailable. That's too much to try to catch up on.  I didn't do any homework on the series either. Didn't seem necessary.

When I saw that Starz channel was going to broadcast "Torchwood" series 4, "Miracle Day", I thought I'd get a little background for the show from watching its previous runs.  However I quickly tired of the show after a couple of episodes during series 1. It just did nothing for me. But as I'd heard a lot of glowing reviews of series 3, "Children of Earth", I skipped ahead to that one, giving it one more chance.
Watching "Torchwood" series 3 made me realize I was missing some historical Torchwood and Doctor Who references, but they could be ignored because "Torchwood: Children of Earth" was such a compelling story one could not know the background and still understand what was going on. It was easy enough to catch oneself up by context, or ignore it because it wasn't critical to the story unfolding. I'd wager if you watch any Torchwood at all "Children of Earth" is an amazing story and worth watching, even if you choose not to watch any of the the others.

About the same time I started watching the newest Doctor Who 2011 broadcasts as they came available on the BBC America channel. I figured to hell with the past of the series, I'll just jump in wherever it was. The stories were interesting enough, as were the characters, and it was fun. I was able to follow what was going on for that story run. But with each episode I realized I was missing things. As much as I could follow the story presented that season, I knew I was missing out on Doctor Who historical references. References to events in the Doctor's past that factor in to the story as it unfolded. Some seemed like important bricks to the story, others were passing references that would constitute in-jokes, little remarks that make sense only if you were there. The structure was still solid with the gaps, but I kind of wanted to fill in those gaps.

As most broadcast series take a break during midwinter there is a lot of 'gap' time filled with reruns. I chose that time to do that Doctor Who marathon.  But I wasn't going to watch all the episodes, just start where the show restarted in 2005.  I figured that 2005 was good because the show was starting anew, a whole new crew heading the direction of the stories. And it has run regular since, so that would probably be the primary historical reference pool to get me caught up to the most recent episodes.

By watching all those episodes I've been able to fill in most of my Doctor Who historical reference knowledge gaps. Not all of them, mind you, there are canonical Doctor histories established in the previous series that still affect all stories that come after, but more than enough to keep up with the modern incarnation. Plus it filled in enough information to go back and watch Torchwood series 1 and 2 and understand what was going on a bit better. It didn't exactly improve them, but did make things more understandable thus removed some of those stumbling blocks.

I got so wrapped up in the series I watched little else. I was camped out in front of Netflix streaming for hours. By the end, when there was none left to watch, the TV felt a little empty.  But, by filling in the more recent historical gaps, I am better able to appreciate the 2011 Doctor Who series I initially watched.

What made Doctor Who a fun and compelling series for me hinged on a few factors once I accepted the sci-fi/fantasy components and settled in a good "suspension of disbelief" headspace.

First off - the consistency of the Doctor's character, despite regenerations (cast changes). Once you know his rules of engagement and repeatedly see how loyal he is to those he defends you are left wondering how he is going to resolve the situation within his self-imposed rule structure. How does he handle the Catch-22 situations? How does he solve problems that have no clear moral solution? All that feeds in to the compelling story telling. Especially because the writers seem to push those boundaries often.  Plus each Doctor tends to live differently within those rules. Sort of a lessons learned modification to his adherence I suppose.

Secondly, some of the episodes can be quite thrilling, some can be quite scary, some can be downright great dramas. Granted, no matter how dire a situation seems the Doctor eventually triumphs. But that doesn't detract from the show. Even though you know the Doctor always wins the show regularly drives the viewer to a point where perhaps he just might not win after all, and all will be lost. Yet he does win, but sometimes winning is bittersweet. And that is part of what makes the show so compelling.

The character development is the third compelling factor. Through the character development the show makes the viewer care what happens to the Doctor and the people around him.  Their stories develop in interesting ways during their run with the Doctor. Each has their pros and cons. And love 'em or hate 'em, they tend to keep the Doctor grounded.

One last thing I noticed. The Doctor has appointed himself a protector of Earth. He extolls humanity's potential to other alien races. He tries to bring out the best of humanity in his companions and any others he encounters. So even when things seem at their worst he wants the best out of folks. Sort of an optimistic view of human potential that reminds me of Gene Roddenberry's optimistic view of humanity's potential envisioned in Star Trek.

I still would not consider myself a "Whovian" any more than I consider myself a "Trekker" or "Browncoat" or "Potterhead" or whatever they call Star Wars fanatics (Warsies?), but I really enjoyed the series so far and look forward to more.  They did good.

Edit Jan 2012:
A video compilation of every Doctor Who episode, spin-off, trailer and crossover bit from 1963 through to 2011 mashed in to a single video caught the BBC's eye.
If that particular story on their site ever dies, perhaps the direct YouTube link will survive a bit longer:

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