Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Reluctant Whovian Contemplates Number 12

I have always considered myself a sci-fi/fantasy nerd, but I say that conditionally.  I am not one of those nerds who feels the need to automatically love any and all sci-fi and fantasy that comes my way.  Yes, I was a Lost geek.  I am obsessed with Red Dwarf.  I can also quote entire passages of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

There are also times when my tastes are completely out of step with the rest of the nerd world.  As much as I say I love Star Trek,  the beloved original series is probably my least favorite version (and I never watched beyond the first two episodes of Enterprise).  In a similar vein, I have watched all of the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, but never watched the original.  I never watched Firefly, Serenity, or Stargate.  I was accused of not being a nerd at all because I never saw The Matrix.  I only watched about half of Avatar before deciding it was predictable and dull and sent the DVD back to Netflix.   I just can't bring myself to take an interest in Game of Thrones, even when my most trusted, non-nerd friends so enthusiastically recommend it. Most of all, in defiance of nerdom everywhere, I find Harry Potter to be dull, formulaic, and populated by cliched, two-dimensional characters.  I suppose it can be argued that I'm not a sci-fi/fantasy nerd at all, but am just a nerd.

Then there is my long and strange journey towards my obsession with Dr. Who.

I have been aware of Dr. Who for many years.  I first heard about it as a teen when I was attending an event in Central Park.   PBS was doing some kind of promotion for the show and they were handing out flyers and had a trailer filled with memorabilia such as monster costumes.  At the time I was just beginning my interest the genre.  I had recently become a fan of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Piers Anthony* and believed that I would be automatically interested in anything sci-fi related.  I think I was unaware that my interest in sci-fi and fantasy was likely more of an interest in British humor (that may still be the case, but I'll never admit it).  I skimmed the literature and walked into that trailer.  It was full of very silly looking monsters.  I also though the title "Dr. Who" was pretty funny.  I assumed Dr. Who was another sci-fi send up like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was.

I checked the TV listings for when it was on and excitedly sat down to watch my first episode.  All I knew about the show was that it was a huge hit in the UK and that it had very silly looking aliens in it.  I knew nothing else.  I tried to watch, but I couldn't figure out what was happening.  I didn't know who the characters were.  It wasn't funny at all.  I don't think I made it even halfway through.  I never tried watching it again, even after finding out Douglas Adams was a script editor on the show for a season.

I forgot all about Dr. Who until college.  There I become friends with actual Whovians.  In fact, Dr. Who played a small, but pivotal role in some of our love lives in the early days.  One of my friends was so obsessed that she owned a replica of Tom Baker's iconic giant scarf.   She also had recorded episodes of the show that we sometimes watched in her room.  I never really briefed her about how the show worked, which I probably should have done so I would have at least understood the whole bit about why there are multiple actors playing the Doctor.  Even though I never really obtained full details, when I watched with people who knew stuff, I could sit back and actually watch and enjoy a few episodes. 

Deciding I might like Dr. Who, I tried watching it again when I was home for the summer.  The first episode I tuned into on PBS that day was from the early 60s.  It was in black and white and featured William Hartnell.  Previously the episodes I watched featured middle-aged guys in goofy hats.  Now I was watching a serious looking, white-haired, old guy.  Once more I gave up.  The show had gone on too long.  There were too many seasons and too many Doctors.  I couldn't keep up.  I gave up for the next 20 years.

I was never aware when Dr. Who went off the air.  I had lost interest and forgotten about it long before it was finally cancelled.  I was not surprised when I heard the BBC was giving it a reboot though.  What old TV show hasn't been given a reboot?  If there was ever a show that made it easy to recast an actor, it was Dr. Who.

One day while channel surfing I came across BBC America and there was an episode of Dr. Who on.  I sat and watched out of curiosity for a few minutes.  It was an episode with David Tennant.  I remember feeling a weird sense of contempt.  Instead of a middle-aged man in a goofy costume they had cast the role with some really hot young dude.  It figured.  You need someone young and handsome and slick in the 21st century.  It was weird that I felt angry about a show whose reboot changed too much when I hadn't even watched the show in the first place.

Then one day Kevin, who had grown up as Dr. Who fan, told me he wanted to start watching the Dr. Who reboot.  He had loved the show in the past.  He put it in our Netflix queue.  Couldn't I at least try to watch it with him?

The things we do for love.  I agreed to watch.  After all, I enjoyed the episodes I watched with friends who knew what we were watching.

Right from the first episode Dr. Who shattered all of my expectations.  Since this was a brand new version, there had to be some background and explanations to attract new fans who hadn't watched the original show.  It was everything and nothing like I remembered from previous Dr. Who episodes.  Christopher Eccleston  appeared on the screen for the first time as an eternally cool guy in a leather jacket.  There were no gimmicks.  There were no weird costumes.  He had a bit of a brooding dark side.  He came off as serious without being stodgy.  I was hooked on the show the second he took Rose Tyler's hand and told her that he could feel the spinning of the earth, and you knew when she held his hand, she could feel it too.

What little else I knew of Dr. Who had remained the same, which pleased old time fans like Kevin.  The TARDIS still looked like the TARDIS.  Daleks still looked like trash cans.  Cybermen still looked like very primitive robots.  

All good things must come to an end.  Doctors eventually die and regenerate.  I was still a bit hazy on this concept of how that all worked.  I would learn quickly as Christopher Eccleston departed after one season.  The Doctor was going to take on a new body and have some personality adjustments, but still be the same person with all of the same memories.  Could I deal with the new body?

It wasn't too hard to make an adjustment to David Tennant because - DAVID TENNANT.  Somehow the idea of a hot Doctor I thought was so wrong previously wasn't such a problem anymore when I was watching him regularly.  It was a little hard at first adjusting to a new actor playing a different character, but the show does a good job of convincing a skeptical audience.  I thought it was fun seeing how his companion Rose and her family had to learn to accept the transformation.

Tennant was a bit more sensitive than Eccleston and a bit goofier.  The stark, plain jeans and leather jacket outfit was gone and replaced by a slightly eccentric suit that looked a bit costume-y, but not so much as the first 8 doctors.  The darkness and anger that came from suffering through the Time Wars that hid beneath the calm surface was still evident.

One aspect of the reboot that I understand is unique, but is something I really like about it is the way The Doctor involved the friends and family of his companions.  He believed strongly in his promise to Rose's mother that he would always return her home safely.  He even had a technologically advanced cell phone so that they could stay in touch.  He eventually brought on board Rose's poor neglected boyfriend Mickey.  I was touched the most by his relationship with Donna Noble's grandfather, Wilf, whom I still like to believe is watching for the TARDIS with his telescope.

I was really upset at Tennant's departure.  He was a great Doctor who gathered some interesting characters around him and played the role with emotional intensity.  Could I fall for another Doctor?  The departure of Doctor #10 also coincided with his final parting from Donna, meaning not just another Doctor, but a new companion would be on the way as well.

It didn't take much time for me to get used to Matt Smith.  He came on the scene like a whirlwind, unable to control the TARDIS and looking for a few moments of rest with a little girl named Amy Pond.  His initial cluelessness endeared him to me right from the start.

Smith's Doctor tended to lean in the direction of past incarnations.  He wore quirky clothes ("Fezzes are cool!"" Bowties are cool"") and wasn't conventionally handsome.  He also was a bit kinder and gentler than Eccleston and Tennant.  While Tennant immersed himself somewhat in his companions' families, Smith took it even a step further. To Amy Pond he started out as a fantasy or hero figure.  He became so much more.  He was almost a father figure, but also a romantic interest (as it always seems to have to be), and eventually, through a bizarre series of time accidents, her son-in-law.  He was so much fun and goofy, but also very sensitive and tender-hearted.  He still never forgot that dark angry side.  He gave so much of himself in the end in a way I never saw the other Doctors.  I had wondered if I would ever get over David Tennant, but Matt Smith easily became my favorite Doctor so far. The Doctor seems to just improve with every regeneration.

Will that hold true for Doctor number 12, Peter Capaldi?  The twelfth Doctor seems far more serious and straightforward (or maybe it just seems that way because he's dressed more conservatively).  Will be be more like Number 9 in a suit instead of a leather jacket?   They didn't cast a young actor this time.  Peter Capaldi is the same age as the original Doctor, William Hartnell, whom I used to view as the old man Doctor.  I have learned to go with the flow when it comes to regenerations now. I will miss Matt Smith, but I look forward to the new Doctor.  I can't wait to see what he will be like and what types of people will surround him.

The other aspect of Dr. Who I look forward to is seeing who his new companions will be.  Jenna Coleman plans to leave the show, so the "impossible" Clara Oswald will be departing as his companion.  I won't miss her very much.  She was potentially an interesting character, but she always seemed a bit bland to me.  I doubt we will be seeing the last of her though.  Her purpose in life is to travel through time and save the Doctor at his darkest moments.  She single-handedly saved Doctor 11 from a permanent death and intervened with the Time Lords for another regeneration. For that she deserves some respect.  Who knows if she might pop up and help Doctor 12 if he needs her.

I think my least favorite companion of all was Rose Tyler.  I was never sure why she rubbed me the wrong way so much until I read this piece and this piece (also this and this - it seems many people hate Rose), which explain it as much as anything can. I liked the way her character was set up.  She was just a girl from the projects living with her widowed mother and working an menial job.  When she began traveling with the Doctor she came into her own and found her strength.  She certainly had many accomplishments during her time with the Doctor.  I just often found her shrill and annoying and often seemed to create many of the problems she ended up solving.

Like many other viewers, I was also disturbed by the romantic undertones of the relationship between Rose and the Doctor.  I had always assumed the Doctor did not involve himself romantically with his companions.  Sure every TV show with male and female characters is going to have some sexual tension, but after a season or two it became clear that it was more than sexual tension.  At first the romantic in me kind of rooted for it to happen.  Who could blame her for falling for David Tennant?  Soon I realized that it was just wrong.  A young woman who will grow old and die should not be involved with an 800-year-old space alien capable of destroying galaxies who will repeatedly regenerate instead of die.  At the end of it all she gets her own Doctor clone who will grow old and die just like her and get her happily ever after with the Doctor.  It just didn't feel right. 

I also felt terribly sorry for Rose's boyfriend Mickey.  She left him behind again and again and never officially dumped him.  He waited for her and remained loyal. He also became a much stronger character, when joined them as a companion himself.  He became as heroic as any companion when he worked to save his alternate universe family from the Cybermen.   I thought Rose would finally appreciate him once she and the Doctor had to part ways into different universes.  Instead she takes up with the Doctor clone as soon as she can.  I'm glad the writers were at least decent enough to give Mickey a job in UNIT and marry him off to Martha Jones eventually.  As far as I'm concerned Martha was a better deal anyway.

Let's talk about Martha Jones for a bit.  Martha was Rose's complete opposite.  Rose was cute, street-smart, and sort of trashy looking with too much makeup and bad roots.  Martha was naturally gorgeous and a devastatingly intelligent medical student to boot.  If the Doctor were going to have a romantic relationship with his companions, one would assume Martha would be more his type.  Martha seemed to inspire men's admiration everywhere she went. Martha wasn't a risk taker.  She was a workhorse.  Martha was good at staying out of trouble, but she was always there to help when the Doctor needed her.  She was at her most amazing when she saved the Doctor from the Master by literally walking around the entire world and drawing the support of everyone on earth.

Her downfall was her unrequited love for the Doctor.  I wish they hadn't written that part into her character.  It demeaned her.  I guess the writers wanted to make a point about how much the Doctor was still pining for Rose. Plus her frustration with the fact that the Doctor would never feel the same way about her gave the actress a reason to leave the show.  The writers gave her two happy endings.  She joined UNIT and was engaged to a handsome fellow physician.  We never know what happened to that poor guy, but she ultimately was married to Mickey, which gave them both a happy ending.  Their shared experience as Doctor's companions probably made a for a good marriage.

With Martha gone, along came Donna.  She was definitely my favorite companion.  I liked her because in many ways I related to her.  She reminded me a lot of myself when I was in my 20s.  She worked low-wage temp jobs and was living with her mother.  She had little pleasure and little direction in her life.  That could have been me 20 years ago.  In her first episode she was about to marry a man who was secretly a space alien spy - and he hated her.  I could see myself in those days cluelessly marrying someone just to give my life some direction.  I can imagine waiting alone at night waiting for a handsome alien to come take me away on adventures in time and space.

I think Donna blossomed under the Doctor's guidance even more than Rose did.  Donna turned out to be so acutely sensitive and clever in ways she probably never knew.  She was truly a companion to the Doctor.  There was no romantic undercurrent messing up their friendship.  He also became a part of her family. 

Donna turned out to be the most tragic companion of the bunch.  She saved the Doctor's life by cloning him, but did so at great damage to her own psyche.  She would never be able to remember the Doctor and her time with him again without killing her own brain.  She had come so far and done so much as the Doctor's companion and by the time it was all over, she was right back where she started.  I always wished she would somehow meet up with the love of her life - the stutterer from her dream in The Library or that she might end up doing temp work for Torchwood or UNIT and meet and marry Mickey (before I found out he would eventually marry Martha).  I guess that really couldn't happen because it would bring back memories of the Doctor.  Her story ended with her going back to working minimum wage jobs and marrying someone equally poor.  All the Doctor could do was secure her future by using his time travel power to buy her a winning lottery ticket.  He died and regenerated at just the right time since there was no longer a risk of Donna seeing him again.

The new regeneration brought the new companion.  Amy Pond was quite unique since she first met the Doctor as a child.  She became her storybook hero, waiting for years for him to come back to her.  Once they were back together and she was traveling with him, the dynamic was always shifting.  Sure she had the same romantic interest that other companions had, but that seemed to be more a part of the hero worship.  She belonged with Rory and the Doctor knew it.  Rory ended up having adventures alongside Amy (he did protect her for 2000 years outside the Pandorica) and all three of them were like a strange, weird, wonderful family unit with the most unusual storyline. Poor Amy probably suffered the most hardships of any companion.  She was trapped in the Pandorica, kidnapped and unwittingly living her life through a 'ganger, had her baby stolen from her and her fertility forever damaged, and nearly divorced the love of her life.  In the end she fell prey to the Weeping Angels.  I suppose that one could place some harsh blame on the Doctor for dragging her into all of this, but I think she found it was all worthwhile.  She always had the Doctor and Rory to protect and stand up for her.  I think one reason why I never felt too attached to Clara was that I missed the family adventures of the Doctor, Amy, and Rory.

I can't talk about companions without mentioning River Song.  Will she return?  Is she still married to the Doctor now that he's in a new body?  Will Doctor #12 be the one who tells River his real name?  How will she show up and when?  I hope she does and I can't wait to see how she interacts with the new Doctor.

The new adventure begins this weekend.  Once upon a time I wouldn't have cared.  Now I can't wait.  I went from someone indifferent to Dr. Who to someone who has become a full-scale Whovian geek.   Bring on the new season and the new Doctor.  I am going into this with no expectations.  I will miss Matt Smith, but I know there will still be plenty of fun adventures ahead.  I may not ever buy the scarf, but I wouldn't mind A replica of Martha's red leather jacket.

*Yes, I know Piers Anthony isn't British

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