After writing a post about Monty Python and James Bond my mind seems to be very firmly rooted in icons from the UK. When it comes to long-lived franchises out of England that resonate for a geek like me, Doctor Who has to take the top spot. And like James Bond, there is a rich holy war within the fanbase over which Doctor and which era was best. So this gives me a wonderful opportunity to assert my stubborn Gen-X subjectivity.
First, an overview for the uninitiated:
Doctor Who really exists in two incarnations, the original show which ran from 1963 to 1989, and the revival show which started in 2005 and is still in production today. The show seems to be more popular than ever thanks to glitzier production values and all of the new Doctors (save for the most recent one) being young in a way that pandered to today’s youth. It used to have only a cult audience in the US, but is now about as mainstream as you can get, with entire aisles filled with merch here.
But it had very humble beginnings here. The show came across in reruns through PBS. I was aware that the show was still being produced, but we’d get episodes delayed by at least a year or two from their first run in the UK, intermingled with older reruns. In addition to this, for whatever reason, nothing earlier than Tom Baker‘s incarnation was part of the rotation. All I knew of earlier Doctors was from special episodes such as The Five Doctors.
The fact that Americans were only given a limited window into the Who world was frustrating, and yet at the same time it lent a certain mystery and depth to the world, as you were thrust into the middle of the story, with vague references to events that had occured years before.
Because of the age I was at the time, and because Tom Baker held onto the role for so long, there was never any question in my mind that Tom Baker was the best Doctor, and yet I couldn’t really compare him very well to the earlier ones.
That would change when PBS finally started airing earlier episodes right around the time I was graduating from high school. Where before, PBS used to play only one episode a day during weekdays, for these older reruns they played an entire serial story arc in one late-night marathon Sunday nights. I began binge watching these reruns long before the term bing watching existed.
The majority of these earlier reruns were from Jon Pertwee‘s run. I became a huge fan of Jon Pertwee’s portrayal. Where Tom Baker was the quintessential eccentric, often acerbic and erratic. The Doctor has usually been portrayed as strangely aloof even towards his friends and someone who avoids physical conflict with cunning. Pertwee defied both of these traits, offering up a sort of paternal swashbuckler, at once both kind AND not afraid to whip out a can of whoop-ass:
This is really my brand of male role-model. Much in the same way that I favor Roger Moore’s kinder gentler James Bond, I went from Tom Baker to Pertwee fanboy.
Nevertheless, while there was some overlap, Tom Baker enjoyed by far the best companions in the form of Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, and Romana (the one and only female time-lord) and K9. Apparently Tom Baker agreed, as he wound up marrying Lalla Ward (who played Romana), although the marriage was very short-lived.
There’s much more I could write about the merits of the show and the various performers. It’s especially sad that so many of them are no longer with us, especially Elisabeth Sladen, who was far and away the best companion of all time, embodying a perfect mix of charm and vulnerability.
Sarah Jane’s departure featured some of the best acting in all of Who up to that point. Pertwee would have handled this scene in a very sentimental way, which would have been fine in its own right, but Tom Baker’s Doctor required a stoic facade. The restraint shown here, including avoiding a sappy goodbye hug, makes the scene work so well.
She got a chance to reappear in the new series and star in a spinoff. Technically, it was her second spinoff as this one reached an aired pilot stage…
It’s probably for the best that this oddity never made its way to the US.
This is the purest of stereotypical 80s cheese.
When Sarah had to say goodbye a second time, they saw fit to go in a more predictable, sappier direction. Different Doctor in David Tennant, more miles on the odometer perhaps, more emotionally accessible:
Now to get to the heart of the matter… Why is it that I harbor more fondness for the original vs. nu-Who? Well, part of it might have been having been things like this:
It’s hard to separate the experience of watching Doctor Who from its form. The form of Doctor Who in my mind is something that is produced on a shoestring budget and is shot primarily on video, switching to film only for exterior scenes (due to videocamera technology not being mobile enough at the time to shoot outside). This is why, for instance, the live-action Who films with Peter Cushing had such a different feel. Doctor Who’s use of video was its signature touch, giving it a stagey soap opera feel rather than a movie. The iconic video (interiors)/film (exteriors) vibe is demonstrated in Sarah’s goodbye scene that I embedded earlier. Other examples of UK dramas that rely heavily on having been shot on video to give them a unique look were Dark Shadows and Blake’s 7.
The writing of the classic Who episodes was done in a serialized fashion. The inspiration may have been the old movie serials like Flash Gordon, as there was usually a cliffhanger after each 30 minute segment. However, a seasion (called confusingly a series in the UK) usually featured several storylines that were split into chunks like a miniseries. This structural quirk is what gives its stories a rhythm that was totally unique to itself.
The actual pacing of the episodes, by today’s standards, is glacial. Long stretches go by with tons of speechifying, punctuated by occasional bits of suspense and action. You can see for yourself what this is like in this clip, featuring a very stage-play like interaction between The Doctor and his arch-nemesis, Davros, who is sort of an evil Stephen Hawking:
It’s this domination of lengthy dialogue scenes that was jettisoned in nu-Who in favor of a lot of breathless running and jumping action. It’s understandable due to today’s attention deficits, but in the process it homogenizes Who. Perhaps the reason Who was special in the first place was that it was an acquired taste. It appealed to people who liked the idea of dedicating casual screen-time to a very slowly unfolding storyline with a dozen padded-out plot-detours. When it got crunched down into a glitzy 1-hour format, it might be more exciting and entertaining in a way, but not as distinctive.
The other aspect that appeals to me is admiring the ability by the producers to do so much with so little of a budget. While it’s true that the special-FX were truly horrible even during their day, they had chutzpah for attempting it at all, and all the actors always played it as if it were Shakespeare.
Probably the peak of artistic creativity with Who was a period in Tom Baker’s reign where the team pushed the show into horror territory. They were heavily inspired by Hammer horror films, although perverted through the video look and feel.
The other episode that comes to mind as far as wonderful production design is Robots of Death. When I think of those Robots I can’t help but think of Mr. Roboto from Styx.
Most of time, though, the production design and FX were so poor that you can’t help but look at it as a glorified high-school play. But that gives it a little-engine-that-could charm that is completely lost when you give it an adequate budget like in nu-Who.
It’s the fact the show struggled against such severe budget constraints that makes you appreciate the ingenuity and the courage of the team to tell stories that were really much too ambitious to even attempt. These days, in the era of seemingly unlimited budgets for cash-cow franchises like Star Wars, there really is very little in the way of low-budget innovation going on anymore.
I wrote about how most franchises started out modestly and only became juggernauts over time when I wrote about The Terminator. Perhaps if the BBC had approached the show back then as it does today, then it would have made a lot more money on merch and gotten a higher budget. But it was this perception they had that the show was just a modest little thing for kids that forced the people behind the show to come up with ever more creative solutions in order to tell their stories. I believe that some of the best art arises out of constraints and some of the worst comes when you’re granted unlimited resources. The classic show’s lasting value as an artefact was a direct function of the show’s format and budget. That’s why, even if they try, nu-Who will never recreate that vibe.
P.S. The one saving grace for classic who fans are audio-dramas produced by Big Finish. I can’t say I’ve sampled these new stories, but I’m glad that the old actors have a way to come back and portray their roles.