Thursday, November 21, 2013

Culture Shock 11.21.13: 'Doctor Who's' prescription for longevity

Matt Smith, left, David Tennant and John Hurt are the Doctor.
The idea when it began in 1963 was that "Doctor Who" would be an educational program, using a time-travel premise to impart a little historical knowledge to its young viewers.

Yet it was never entirely just that, and had it been, it's likely no one would be talking about "Doctor Who" today, and far less likely that it would still be on the air in order to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The BBC's venerable sci-fi series celebrates in grand fashion this week, with repeat airings daily on BBC America, a docudrama about the show's early years ("An Adventure in Time and Space") airing Friday night at 8 and 10, and the much-anticipated 50th anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor," airing Saturday at 1:50 p.m., 6 and 10.

The special teams up the current Doctor (Matt Smith) and his immediate predecessor, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), with a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor (Oscar nominee John Hurt) who fought in the Time War, a major plot point to which the show has little more than alluded since it returned to the air in 2005 following a 16-year hiatus.

As the Doctor says, travel through time as much as he does and you're bound to run into yourself sooner or later.

"Doctor Who" now occupies so much television history, it's only natural the program has become, to a large degree, about itself rather than about visiting new places and new (and olden) times. Fan-favorite villains return again and again, more of the Doctor's mysterious backstory unfolds, and the Doctor's (normally) human companions become more than simply the audience's point of view.

The Doctor's current traveling companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), is a metaphor for the audience throughout the program's history. In the most recent season finale, "The Name of the Doctor," Clara ends up split into an infinite number of fragments along the Doctor's time stream. She's there at every moment of his life — or lives, as the Doctor's case may be. She is invisible to him but always there, worrying about him, warning him and cheering him on, just like the audience does.

Critics who complain Clara is a bit of a cipher are missing that that's the point. She must be in order to be the audience, to stand in for millions of fans. Granted, now that she has fulfilled that anniversary-inspired function, she does need a bit more personality of her own.

The ingenious trick of having a lead character who can regenerate into a new body, portrayed by a new actor, has made the show's longevity possible in more ways than one. Apart from allowing "Doctor Who" to carry on when the actor playing the Doctor decides to depart, it has made possible the show's constant evolution, from the mod '60s though the moribund '70s into the stiff-upper-lip '80s and on to today. Every Doctor has his day: same man, same memories but changing with the times.

Long a British institution, "Doctor Who" at 50 is globally recognized, even in the U.S., which was late to the party. In America, "Doctor Who" has gone from Public Television curiosity and jokes about wobbly sets to gracing the covers of Entertainment Weekly (twice) and TV Guide. Getting "Doctor Who" references has replaced getting "Monty Python" references as a mark of Brit pop culture literacy.

It's a long way from the dark days of the late '80s, when "Doctor Who" was in a creative funk, stuck with an increasingly controversial producer and hostile BBC executives who wanted the show dead. Even the few good stories of the period often lapsed into tedious anti-Margaret Thatcher ax-grinding, and the worst story, "The Happiness Patrol," was nothing but.

Which brings us to now. This is not only a historically momentous anniversary year for "Doctor Who" but a year of change. At Christmas, Matt Smith will depart and Peter Capaldi ("The Thick of It") will take up residence as the latest madman in the blue box.

Gone will be Smith's manic Doctor with his bow ties and fezzes, and in his place will be — who knows?

But whoever Capaldi's Doctor turns out to be, he will be the Doctor.

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