Moving Pictures November 2010

The Doctor is In

Why a 47-year-old English sci-fi show is suddenly an American hit
Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photos courtesy BBC and Everett Collection

Knock knock. Who’s there? Doctor What, still? Again? Once more, with a bow tie on? Since 1963, this personage has been with us. Ten times he has regenerated. In 1989, his show went momentarily off the air, for 15 years. He has outlasted cancellations and cultural mutations, inadequate budgets, poor scheduling, shifting leagues of writers and producers, Krotons, Autons, and space wars across the universe. He has beaten the Daleks, his ancestral enemies—trundling pepperpots who have one arm in the form of a toilet plunger and the other an egg whisk, skeleton-raying their victims and crying “Exterminate!” in a verminous, panicky rasp. And now, arguably, he’s fitter and happier than ever, a prancing miracle of longevity. The premiere of his latest season, in April, was BBC America’s most-watched show ever. Rumors come and go (oh, those rumors) of a guest appearance by Lady Gaga, or of a big-screen adaptation starring, perhaps, Johnny Depp. U.S. fandom is at a frothing height. Could they possibly have known what they were doing, the middle-class middle-England mid-management middlebrows of the BBC, when they sanctioned the creation of the character known as Doctor Who?

If you’re not already acquainted, the Doctor is 950 years old, and he comes from the planet Gallifrey. Although humanoid in form, he has two hearts and almost-celestial intelligence. He is a Time Lord—something between a cosmic guardian and a private investigator—and he travels the spaceways in his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), a time machine that, owing to a dodgy chameleon circuit, is stalled in the shape of a 1950s London phone booth. He can do almost anything. Alien invasions of Earth, for example, are punctually thwarted, and in the new season he also plays a bit of soccer and makes friends with Vincent van Gogh.

“A frail old man lost in space and time”: that was the original profile, floated in discussions at the BBC in 1963, as if the show’s secret purpose was to dramatize senility. And indeed the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, did seem somewhat cortically marooned, as he jolted around the black-and-white universe in his TARDIS. For one thing, the silver-haired Hartnell visibly had trouble remembering his lines, thus establishing by accident the doctorial convention of absentmindedness and preoccupation. He addressed his companion, Barbara, faintly, as “my dear” and “my child.” (Historically, the Doctor’s female companions have provided hormonal balance, pulchritude, combat support, screams of terror, and valuable relief from the doctorial patter, which has essentially been a decades-long soliloquy.) And when Hartnell’s health failed after three years on the job, another fortunate accident was occasioned: it was decided that the Doctor should “regenerate,” taking a different human form. Which he did, in 1966, assuming the form of Patrick Troughton.

Video: Watch the opening scenes of the first Dr. Who episode, “An Unearthly Child”

Troughton (tragedian’s face, flapping coattails) was post-psychedelic: the show’s producers, as revealed by recently released BBC memos, hoped to convey a state of metaphysical dishevelment comparable to the aftereffects of a bad acid trip. After Troughton came Jon Pertwee, wizardly in aspect but driving a little yellow roadster, like Mr. Toad. And after Pertwee, there came … well, I’ll risk a roll call. There was Tom Baker, wild hair and Shakespearean elocution; affable Peter Davison in his cricket jersey; testy, priggish Colin Baker, dressed for some reason like an entertainer at a children’s party; Sylvester McCoy, whom I never watched; and then handsome Paul McGann, the Doctor for one TV film only … and then … and then … Viewership boomed and dwindled; artistic direction was lost, found again, lost again. But a tenacious fandom established itself, like a parasite clinging to the hull of a space cruiser. Flawed, changeable, the show had an attraction.

Everyone loves the theme tune. In good seasons and bad, there has always been the Doctor Who theme tune, potent beyond words, perhaps the greatest of them all. Composed in 1963 by Ron Grainer, the score was handed over to the dreamers and techies of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where a futurist named Delia Derbyshire did some serious time travel with it: oscillator banks, multitracking, filtered white noise, the works. (“Did I write that?” Grainer is said to have asked upon hearing the finished article. “Most of it,” Derbyshire replied.) A galloping heavy-metal bass line preyed upon by E-minor zoomings of electronic melody, it sounds like a nervous breakdown in the middle of a flying-saucer attack. It sounds like Hawkwind performing Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.” They’ve fiddled with it over the years, remixed and revisited it, but the buzz and menace of the original have never dimmed.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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