Well, dear readers, it’s the weekend to talk about Doctor Who. I thought I’d share a little bit about my own personal experiences with the show.

Once upon a time in the United States, a man could walk down the street in a brown coat, floppy hat, and a ridiculously long multicolored scarf, and fully expect that no one would recognize who he was supposed to be. Today . . . well, most people wouldn’t recognize him, but that’s only because he’s not wearing a bowtie.

I’m an old-school fan. I started in the 90s, during the sixteen-year hiatus, when getting Doctor Who back on the air seemed less likely than getting new episodes of Firefly today. Yes, dear readers, there was such a dark age of television. Back then, Doctor Who was nearly unheard-of in the United States, and even today plenty of people here will refer to Christopher Eccleston as “the first Doctor.” They certainly wouldn’t get the Doctor Who reference slipped into the finale of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation

But now Doctor Who is actually popular here in the United States. So popular, in fact, that there’s no longer much of a dividing line between American and British fandoms. It’s been nice to see, even if I’m such a stick-in-the-mud that I’ll quiz a teenage fan on “What color was the first sonic screwdriver?” and “How many seasons have there been?”

Perhaps I should explain the show itself, in case there are any in the audience that haven’t experienced it. In a nutshell, Doctor Who centers on the character of “the Doctor.” He has no other name, or at least none he cares to give except as an alias (such as John Smith, or once — and my favorite — Dr. Bowman). His name is not Who, just the Doctor.

“An Unearthly Child,” the first story of Doctor Who, aired this weekend in 1963.

His adventures started fifty years ago, as a curiosity in a junkyard. A police box, standing amongst piles of junk, and apparently the home address of “An Unearthly Child,” a girl named Susan who is strangely adept in some subjects at school while oddly ignorant in others. Two of her teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, follow her home one day and discover that the police box is really a disguised spaceship — a ship that is far, far bigger on the inside. It is called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), and it is controlled by a cranky old man the girl Susan calls Grandfather, and who only introduces himself as the Doctor. (The credits show him as playing a character named Who, but that was a mistake.)

The Doctor adventures with these companions, but eventually each one goes their own separate ways, even his granddaughter. He picks up new ones as the show progresses, starting a tradition that the Doctor should never be without a companion. In fact, there are very few stories in the whole fifty-year, 33-season history of the show where the Doctor starts an episode without a companion, and almost all of them are in the current run.

Eventually, though, William Hartnell wanted to leave the show, but the producers didn’t want to end it. They introduced the ultimate fudge factor: that since the Doctor was actually an alien, he could “regenerate” into a new body at the moment of what would be, for other beings, death. And so the Doctor continued — and that is why we call each incarnation by a number. The Doctor introduced in 2005, the one most new fans saw first, is actually the Ninth Doctor. There were twenty-six seasons before that, split among seven Doctors, with a single movie showing the Eighth.


And this last year of Doctor Who has been dipping into more of that older material, while presenting it for a new audience. Oh, they’ve done a good job all throughout the return to use old material, but it’s usually been in the nature of references, moments when a Classic Who fan could crow with victory because he got something that little Jimmy didn’t. Now I’ve seen more and more fans on both sides of the Atlantic getting interested in the past exploits of the previous Doctors.

Myself, as I said, I started with that classic era. My introduction was a few recorded-from-television episodes of “Castrovalva.” Back in those days, each story was made up of two or more episodes, usually half an hour long. “Castrovalva” was the Fourth Doctor’s last appearance. My older brother Michael (22) had dug it out of an old box and was watching it when I (14) came into the room. I was nearly instantly captivated, but also confused since the first episode of the story was missing and I hadn’t seen the second either by the time I entered. My brother didn’t want to rewind, and just said “It’s Doctor Who. You’re not supposed to understand it.”

Ah, my brother. He didn’t want to take the time to explain it to me. But I didn’t realize that, or that he himself didn’t know how the story started and just didn’t want to admit it at the time.Instead, I took it as a challenge. If Doctor Who was too hard for my older brother to understand, then by golly, I would master it! (Yeah, we were kind of jerks to each other like that.)

Back then, only a few episodes were available on VHS, and they were expensive to collect and weren’t carried by our library. I took to raiding the used bookstores for novelizations of episodes, about-the-show books, and so on. I raided the Internet (which, in the 90s, wasn’t much) for every scrap I could get my hands on, trying to piece together what actually happened versus someone’s fan interpretation. PBS started airing episodes on the weekend after midnight, and I started recording them and hoping the VCR wouldn’t get a glitch in the middle of the night or the rabbit-ear antennas wouldn’t droop too far to get a signal while I slept. (I don’t miss that part of the experience.)

A teaser trailer for the 50th anniversary special, showing some of the roots of the show.

I began to understand the show. Not to boil it down too far, but I began to realize that Doctor Who was a science fiction version of a medieval romance.

Oh, wait, I should probably explain that. See, a medieval romance is not a bodice-ripper love story. A romance in that era meant knights and monsters, honor and glory, doing the right thing and stopping the evildoers who perverted justice and created tyranny. It was a type of tale favored by those who spoke Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish — languages descended from Rome), and so they were romantic adventures.

The Doctor himself was a knight-errant, I realized. He travels around, righting wrongs, saving people, and being (in the words of the Fifth Doctor) “pretty sort of marvelous.” For the American audience, there’s a similar cultural figure: the lone hero of the Old West, riding into a town to set things straight and then heading off into the sunset at the end.

When the hiatus was over, things had changed slightly. He was no longer a rogue Time Lord; the Doctor was instead the only remaining Time Lord, after the Time War that had changed history itself. He was scarred by battle, more inclined than ever to fight rather than seek peace. Mind you, I found the sudden need for the Doctor to experience romances (in the modern sense of the word) to be a bit more of a departure, but the fighting part drove the story as we found out bits and drips of what had gone on between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors.

I haven’t been too impressed with the overall writing in the last two seasons. Lots of setup, not a lot of payoff, too many broken promises. I had high hopes for Steven Moffat, but it turns out that he’s a better single-episode writer than a manager or editor, and that’s what the series needs right now. But, still, I’m a fan; I love the series even if I have issues with the writing, the direction, or the acting.

So what is it about the show that has made it endure? I’d say the same thing that has let Star Trek endure, even though both franchises have evolved with the times in different ways. They are both products of the 60s, a tumultuous time when no one was certain that civilization — at least as we knew it — would survive. A time when nuclear war was a constant threat. We lived each day with the feeling that everything we knew might disappear in a flash of radioactive destruction.

And then comes a show that not only tells us we can endure, but shows that we deserve to endure. Both Star Trek and Doctor Who told their audiences that humanity was not essentially evil; that our goodness is inherent, just a little difficult to bring out at times. That we just need a little inspiration, and then we can take on any challenge that might present itself. That we matter. Star Trek has strayed from that more than a little, but Doctor Who still spins that tale. The tale that, even if you only help one person, then you’ve helped at least two.

That’s what Doctor Who is about. The Doctor, in the words of one of his enemies, “makes people better.”

As I write this, I haven’t seen the 50th anniversary special. I’ll try to get a blog post about that if I have much to say.