A primer on what Doctor Who is about for the TL;DR crowd, and those who miss The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
The hardcore primer that features just about every signature moment in the series to date.
It’s August 23rd, 1965. Since the 11th, “I Got You Babe” has spent the first two of its three weeks at the top of the charts, effectively launching the career of Sonny and Cher and proving that the charts merely went insane for just the one week of “I’m Henry The VIII, I Am” at the top. On the 13th, a group named Jefferson Airplane will make its first appearance as the “house” band at The Matrix in San Francisco. The 15th will see the Beatles pulling off the unthinkable, playing for a crowd of 55,600 at Shea Stadium (the home of the Mets and Jets) in New York. The next day, the American Football League officially awards a team to tobacco lobbyist Joe Robbie and Danny Thomas, located in Miami, Florida-the third pro sports team in the Deep South (after baseball’s Braves, who were biding their time in Milwaukee following an injunction, and the NFL’s Atlanta franchise, whose owners were literally poached away from the AFL). On the 21st, Gemini V was launched, and on the 22nd, Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants brutally beats Johnny Roseboro of the Los Angeles Dodgers with a bat, sparking a 14-minute brawl in one of the most notorious brawls in baseball history. We, however, are dealing with the release of Dr. Who and the Daleks.
“You’ve had this place redecorated, haven’t you? I don’t like it.”-The Doctor
Let’s be honest for a moment: Dr. Who and the Daleks is a terrible movie. The set design is atrocious, the comedy bits forced, and the pacing sluggish, at best. Part of this can be easily explained: the film is an adaptation of a seven part TV story, itself part of a much longer serialized TV series. The problem is, Dr. Who and the Daleks is actually half the length of the TV version. But even with these concerns, the movie’s greatest sin is being a poor facsimile of its source material. Peter Cushing, who was a superb actor, is reduced to playing a watered down version of William Hartnell’s original portrayal of the title character (well, sort of)-and without the element of spontaneity that made Hartnell’s performance so enjoyable. The rest of the cast fares even worse: Ian is reduced to being bad comedy relief (as opposed to being the action hero surrogate for the Doctor), Barbara is reduced to being a teenager not unlike Susan in the actual series, and Susan is de-aged to a pre-pubescent state.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the Doctor!”-Various characters and The Doctor
I am, however, getting ahead of myself a bit. Why? I’ve totally skipped over the show that inspired Dr. Who and the Daleks: Doctor Who. Doctor Who was (and is) a Saturday-evening all-ages program that airs on BBC One. Created by Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber, and Donald Wilson (with substantial input from Anthony Coburn, David Whitaker, and Verity Lambert), Doctor Who was conceived to fill a gap between the sports series Grandstand (which, along with ITV’s World of Sport, served as a rough, British analogue to ABC’s Wide World of Sports) and music program Juke Box Jury. Newman decided that the rather unique convergence of audiences would be best served by a science fiction series, and after a lengthy development process, Doctor Who was born.
“The TARDIS can go anywhere.”
“TARDIS? I don’t understand you, Susan.”
“Well, I made up the name TARDIS from the initials: Time And Relative Dimension In Space.”-Susan Foreman and Barbara Wright
“Let me get this straight: A thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?”-Ian Chesterton
Specifically, Doctor Who is a science fiction series about an ordinary blue police box that’s bigger on the inside and can travel through time and space, and the man who owns it, a mysterious man known as The Doctor. At the start of the series, the Doctor’s (and, as a consequence, those of his granddaughter Susan) origins were left intentionally vague. Dr. Who and the Daleks eliminates this vagueness in favor of an easily explained origin, and suffers greatly because of it (the fact that the film’s TARDIS interior set is both smaller and less attractive than its iconic televised counterpart is also a huge problem). In fact, the movie isn’t really concerned with the literally limitless storytelling potential baked into Doctor Who. As Philip Sandifer puts it best, any story can be a Doctor Who story. Dinosaurs on a spaceship? Been done. Discovering the reason why Atlantis sunk into the ocean? Done three times. Visiting far-off galaxies and alien worlds? Constantly. Hitler has appeared not only on the show, but in one of the canonical spin-off novels from the ’90s. The Doctor literally married Queen Elizabeth I. Vincent van Gogh, Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, Winston Churchill, Mary Shelley, Robin Hood, and many, many more have appeared.
Let me repeat: Any story can be a Doctor Who story.
The problem is, Dr. Who and the Daleks was never intended as a Doctor Who story in its theatrical form. It was intended as a Dalek story.
“Yes… Yes… To hold in my hand, a capsule that contains such power… To know that life and death on such a scale was my choice… To know that the tiny pressure of my thumb – enough to break the glass – would end everything… Yes! I would do it! That power would set me up above the gods! AND THROUGH THE DALEKS, I SHALL HAVE THAT POWER!”-Davros
“EX-TER-MIN-ATE! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!”-The Daleks
Through a quirk in British copyright law, the writers of TV serials through the ’80s retained ownership of characters and stories they specifically created unless they signed those rights away to the BBC or whatever ITV producer they were writing for. For Terry Nation, this quirk made him an extremely rich man when his serial, The Daleks, propelled both Doctor Who and the title villains to an unparalleled level of popularity in the UK. Dubbed “Dalekmania”, this craze was focused as much, if not more, on the hateful pepperpots as it was the Doctor himself (licensing concerns typically kept the various companions out of spin-off media until the ’80s). In retrospect, it’s easy to see why: besides the strength of Nation’s idea (if not always the application of such), which took a great deal of inspiration from the Nazis, the Daleks were ingeniously and iconically designed by Raymond Cusick. It’s telling, after all, when the only visual elements that have not been permanently re-thought are the exterior of the TARDIS herself…..and the Daleks. (Both elements are far more detailed now, and a bit more internally consistent than in years past, but you could go back to 1965 with a picture of the TARDIS and a Dalek from their most recent appearances, and someone from that year would instantly recognize them both.)
“There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”-The Doctor
“You are monsters! That is the role you seem determined to play, so it seems I must play mine!”-The Doctor
There’s no doubt that the Daleks changed Doctor Who in a huge way. The first effect is that the Daleks led to more and more exotic aliens, which, since the original series had a per-episode budget equivalent to the craft services table at whatever the concurrent Star Trek series was, were often guys in suits. Yes, this meant that some monsters look beyond awful *cough*the Nimon*cough*, but it has since totally paid off now that technology and the budgets facilitate dudes in suits that look awesome as a rule and not a happy accident. The second effect is that it lead to Doctor Who abandoning its educational focus. For those not aware, the BBC is an independent, (mostly) non-profit corporation. So, ultimately, the Beeb has to operate in the public interest because it runs on taxpayer
dollars pounds, typically in the form of the licence fee (though the commercial operations fund a lot of what the BBC does, especially internationally). So, at first, the show alternated between historical costume dramas (the BBC loves its costume dramas, and is really damn good at it, and has forced ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 to become really good at them as well if they want to compete) and futuristic science fiction tales grounded in some shred of theoretical science. But with the Daleks (and later the Cybermen, Yeti, Ice Warriors, Autons, Silurians, Sea Devils, Sontarans, Ood, Judoon, and Weeping Angels, plus a bazillion more), the science fiction elements got a little more fantastical, which seeped into the historical stories, and soon you had the Daleks working for Winston Churchill. Third, and most importantly, it introduced the concept of horror into the series. With monsters, horror becomes inevitable, because, hey, monsters. And, eventually, the monsters came to incorporate elements of fantasy (see: the Weeping Angels), and suddenly, there’s this insane yet completely rational meta theory surrounding the Doctor’s status as a fictional character because the Doctor landed in the Land of Fiction in The Mind Robber.
“The first question! The question that must never be answered! Hidden in plain sight! The question you’ve been running from all your life! Doctor Who? Doctor Who? Doc. Tor. Who?!”-Dorium
“All the cells of his body have been devastated by the Metebelis crystals, but you forget: he is a Time Lord.”-K’anpo
“You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it’s from years before you knew them. It’s like they’re not quite finished; they’re not done yet. Well, yes, the Doctor’s here. He came when I called just like he always does, but not ‘my’ Doctor. Now, my Doctor, I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away, and he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor in the TARDIS. Next stop: everywhere.”-River Song
“This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin.”-The Doctor
However, it would be insane to think that the primary focus of the series is on the monsters. The focus has almost always been, and forever shall be, on the Doctor. When the series begins, we know so little about him: just that he has the TARDIS, his granddaughter is Susan Foreman, and that he can’t go back home. And then, without warning, the Doctor collapses inside the TARDIS…..and suddenly, he is literally an entirely new man. The behind-the-scenes reason for this is that William Hartnell’s health declined to the point where it was impossible for him to perform the role when it was shot to tape as-live with a few location/effects cutaways (he also got along awfully with the two producers that succeeded Verity Lambert, and I tend to agree in regards to the brief reign of John Wiles). John Wiles wanted to just replace Hartnell with a similar-looking guy who played the part the same. What ultimately happened, however, under Innes Lloyd was that the character fundamentally changed appearance and personality. And the program thrived with Patrick Troughton as its star (well, until his last season, when ratings died for no good reason), and it became a British institution with Jon Pertwee, and a massive international cult hit even later when Tom Baker was cast as the Doctor. This process, eventually dubbed “regeneration”, meant that the Doctor, and other people of his race, the Time Lords (a term rather ironically first used in the second least watched episode of the entire series), could be recast pretty much indefinitely with a minimum of story effort. It also allowed for the show to change with the times. (It also means that if you hate the current era of Doctor Who, you can wait a few years and it’ll be totally different.) The men (and, eventually, women) who play the Doctor approach the character in their own way, but still manage to be the same person (this has been helped over the years as we’ve had at least four Doctors now played by avowed fans of the series, including current star Peter Capaldi, and both revival series showrunners have been huge fans, as well).
What makes this work is that as much as we learn about the Doctor as a person, he (and again, eventually she) is a massive mystery. The Doctor’s real name is a secret that will never be revealed, and the circumstances that pushed him to leave his home planet in a broken-down time machine have been left equally vague. Further adding to this inherent mystery are the elements of alchemy in the character of the Doctor and the series itself (most of which can be traced directly to the work of David Whitaker) and the Doctor’s inherent duplicity and alienness. As noble as the character is, there is always some level of suspicion, darkness, and doubt surrounding the Doctor, and he is not above manipulating even his closest friends to achieve the greatest good.
“One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine. Goodbye, Susan. Goodbye, my dear.”-The Doctor’s farewell to Susan
“Stubborn old fusspots!”-The Doctor, re: Ian and Barbara
“Splendid chap, all of them.”-Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart
“Jo, it’s all quite simple – I am he and he is me!”
“And we are all together, coo coo cachoo?”-The Doctor and Jo Grant
“A tear, Sarah Jane?”-The Doctor
“Brave heart, Tegan.”-The Doctor
“Whatever you say, Professor!”-Ace
“I…I love you.”
“Quite right, too.”-Rose Tyler and The Doctor
“Please don’t die, you’re the most wonderful man, and I don’t want you to die!”-Wilfred Mott
“Kate Lethbridge-Stewart! A word to the wise-as I’m sure your father would have told you-I don’t like being picked up!”-The Doctor
“Fear is like…a companion. A constant companion, always there. But that’s okay, because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I’m going to leave you something, just so you’ll always remember-fear makes companions of us all.”-Clara Oswald
In many ways, it’s the Doctor’s friends, alternately referred to as his Assistants or Companions, who make Doctor Who work. At their most basic level, the Companions exist as someone to talk to the Doctor. On a more pessimistic level, they exist to be captured (or even killed), make the Doctor look good through ineptitude, and provide eye candy for the audience. When done well, the Companions enhance and emphasize the humanity of the Doctor, and are frequently the ultimate best friends or (rather controversially) lovers. As great as the Doctors have been, they would be nothing without their companions, and the support the best companions (Ian and Barbara, Vicki and Stephen, Ben and Polly, Jamie, Jo, Sarah Jane, Harry, Leela, K-9, Romana, Nyssa, Tegan, Peri, Ace, Rose, Donna, River, and Amy and Rory are the most celebrated, with Clara well on her way to joining the list) receive is almost as enduring as the Doctors themselves.
This is not to say that everything is sunshine and happiness with the way Companions work. For the longest time, the Companions received too little character development, devolved into being peril monkeys (Victoria is the textbook case of this, as the resolution to her final story literally involves her screaming her lungs out), or poorly conceived (Kamelion, Katarina, and Dodo). It was so systemic that Janet Fielding, who played Tegan, shunned her time on the show for a good, long while because of the issue (as it stands, she’s one of the most vocal critics of the poor treatment of female characters in Doctor Who). However, starting with the introduction of Ace, the Companions have received tons of development, and for the new series Companions, their normal personal lives continue on between episodes. With the exception of one era on the classic series (excluding the final two seasons with Ace), the Companions either abandoned their lives, had no lives after their introductory adventure, or were outright ripped away from their lives by the Doctor. Speaking as someone who is chronically unemployed and has 95% of his personal property sitting in a storage container, I can assure you that being removed from your natural status quo is a difficult and limiting experience (and I didn’t exactly have
much of a social life before quitting my job and uprooting to San Diego in an ultimately quixotic maneuver. In a fiction context, it’s even worse.
“Jenkins! Chap with the wings there-five rounds rapid.”-The Brigadier
“You know, Doctor, you’re quite the most infuriating man I’ve ever met.”-Jo
“Nothing to do with you surprises me any more.”
“Thank you for the compliment.”-Sergeant Benton and The Doctor
And this brings us to Doctor Who‘s relevance to Star Trek. For a variety of reasons, Star Trek didn’t premiere on BBC One until 1969, after the show ended. But when it did show up, the series aired in Doctor Who‘s time slot while the show was on hiatus (as the number of episodes per season dropped massively when the show went to color). Ignoring the obvious budgetary differences, Doctor Who and Star Trek were not horribly compatible. The former series was fantasy with a science fiction gloss (and incorporating other genres on a story by story basis), while the latter was hard(er) science fiction with the structure of a western and a strong adherence to naval traditions. So, the ultimate response to both Doctor Who‘s regular budget issues and this incompatibility was the introduction of UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (since renamed the Unified Intelligence Taskforce since the UN is apparently comprised of humorless snots). The UNIT stories, besides tying the Doctor to Earth (primarily due to an exile put upon him by the Time Lords), are more action oriented and have a military gloss to them. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor became an action hero, using Venusian Aikido to combat foes just as much as his Sonic Screwdriver, and you can certainly point to Captain Kirk as a reason for this. (And with Jon Pertwee being the first Doctor to be as much of a “star” as an actor, the impact of a Kirk-inspired Doctor was ultimately huge.) A number of Doctor Who stories even included allusions to the Federation and/or Starfleet, though these got a lot more negative over the years as the opinion that Star Trek was a proponent of American Imperialism grew in Doctor Who fandom (to which I have two words: the Monoids).
Doctor Who‘s influence on Star Trek, while a big deal, never reached the original series. Besides the show (and the Filmation revival) being over and done with by the time Doctor Who became a staple on PBS, the fact of the matter is that Gene Roddenberry was strongly committed to the consistency of the science in Star Trek (something that reached new levels of dumb when Mike Okuda was named continuity wonk for the franchise) and even more committed to having his heroes encounter God, and finding God to be woefully lacking. This means that “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” isn’t particularly compatible with Star Trek. (It’s telling that the biggest overt influence Doctor Who has had on Star Trek is in the form of the Cybermen, who were born out of the rise of cybernetics, because they are certainly the one foe of the Doctor’s with a purely scientific basis.) Plus, Star Trek emphasizes that time travel is hard. Moreover, Star Trek learned on its own the merits (and drawbacks) of borrowing stories from every genre and/or popular story not bolted down to the floor (and a few that were).
No, Doctor Who‘s great influence on Star Trek can and is slowly starting to be in terms of the fan culture. From 1989 to 2005, Doctor Who was not in production, in large part because the BBC got tired of the show after ratings took a dive after multiple seasons of poor writing designed largely to pander to fans obsessed with the minutiae of continuity and story details. During that gap, now referred to as the Wilderness Years, fans filled the gap with unofficial fan productions (made possible because of that copyright quirk that made Terry Nation insanely rich) and officially-sanctioned books and audio dramas that ended up being largely written by fans. But mostly, Doctor Who fans (for the most part) grew up and learned to have some fun again. This is pretty much what needs to happen with Star Trek fandom, as there hasn’t been a TV series in production for a decade, and the reboot movies have dumbed down the property to a disturbing degree (and were co-written by Roberto Orci, whose political philosophy is largely diametrically opposed to that of Gene Roddenberry’s). So now, slowly, the fans need to slowly learn to have fun again and reclaim the soul of the property. Some of this is happening already: multiple fan productions exist, of which Star Trek: Phase II and Star Trek Continues will eventually be discussed here.
But the fun part? Still waiting for that. The same continuity-obsessed bickering exists in fandom, and while there is a post-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series of novels, I for one was turned off when I found out that one of the first things the writers did was to break up Ezri Dax and Julian Bashir (who, along with Kira and Odo, was one of the first, typically adorkable, TV relationships I invested in emotionally), seemingly because Bashir was instantly loathed in fandom because of his awkward pursuit of Jadzia Dax in the early years of DS9. (And then there’s the issue of Star Trek on Blu-ray: the original series has new CGI special effects as the default setting, and the Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-rays scrub Easter eggs thrown into computer displays-including at least one reference to Doctor Who-to “fit” series continuity in addition to having subtly altered special effects.) So, really, until fandom embraces having fun, and commits fully to creating something new and fun, Star Trek‘s Wilderness Years are going to persist.
“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!”-The Doctor
Next week, in addition to actually sticking to the timeline of Star Trek Debriefed, we’re going to actually talk about the series. Specifically, the matter of a certain Captain.