I used to think I’d been watching Doctor Who longer than almost everyone in America. Then a friend pointed out to me that the two 1960s movies with Peter Cushing, Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. had been released in the United State, so a lot of science fiction fans from that era were familiar with the character. Oh well! Still, I’ve been watching the series since the Tom Baker episodes aired in Boston in 1976 (I was 7), and I have dim recollections of watching my Dad watch a couple of Jon Pertwee episodes circa 1974, so I’ve probably got a few years on anyone who didn’t see those films in the 60s. As with Star Trek, I spent my pre-teen years watching them over and over and over again; compared to other genre shows of that era, they were clearly the cream of the crop.
The pattern at PBS back then was that they’d throw the shows into rotation, and then after a few years they’d get a few more seasons of the series and add them on. So I watched the hell out of the first four Baker seasons, and then they added the last three. Then in the early 1980s we got cable TV, and I discovered a New Hampshire station that was showing the Peter Davison stories, and they weren’t airing them in their original episodic half-hour format, but were showing them as full stories, which was awesome. The first one I saw was “Kinda”, which all things considered is a pretty crappy introduction to the fifth Doctor, though in hindsight it’s actually a good story which distills the Doctor’s attitude quite well.
By the mid-80s I had largely stopped watching television. Moreover, what I imagine was the BBC’s quixotic attitude towards the series combined with PBS’ cynical approach to premiering new Who episodes during pledge drives made it difficult to see many of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy stories. I found a friend in high school who, it would be fair to say, was a bigger Doctor Who fan than I was, and he had access to bootlegged videotapes of the later stories which we loaned to me. Honestly, I wasn’t missing much; the original series went south in a big way after “The Five Doctors” (people who think “The Caves of Androzani” represent some pinnacle of the series are just wrong – “ham-handed” is how I’d describe it), with the exception of a few of the McCoy episodes.
Still, this was my first experience (other than a convention my Dad took us to to meet Tom Baker which I barely remember) with other Who fans. It was a little weird to realize that there were fans who were more willing and able to get those episodes than I was.
A friend and I watched the 1996 TV-movie when it aired. It was pretty bad, though Paul McGann was good. We watched it again on Friday, after watching “The Night of the Doctor”, and it is a shame McGann didn’t get more of a chance to show his stuff. (There’s a petition to create an eighth Doctor series in the wake of the minis ode.)
I was never into reading any of the spin-off books or listening to any of the audio dramas. I felt like I’d been burned by all the yahoos on USENET in the early 90s earnestly arguing that all the Star Trek novels and such were canon. As far as I’m concerned, if it ain’t in the original medium (video for Trek and who) then it’s just fanfic. I guess there’s a complex set of plots in the novels, but it’s been largely discarded by the new series, so I don’t feel that I missed much.
I was encouraged when I’d heard that the new series was going to be a continuation of the old, and that they were going to treat the TV-movie as part of canon. And it’s been a fun run, though erratic at times, perhaps struggling to reconcile the series of unrelated adventures of the original series with the “larger storyline” demands of modern TV (though most series manage to flub their ongoing storylines). The series also led with its best, as Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor has pretty much overshadowed every other actor in the series.
As Doctor Who has become a worldwide phenomenon it’s been strange for this old fan to see some of the new conventions that have grown up around it. The weirdest for me was been people referring to the Doctors by just their number (“eight”, “ten”, “eleven”). I guess it’s a natural development in these days of texting shorthands. LOL. Also strange is how strongly Doctor Who has become identified with the U.K., since the original series just felt like a science fiction show with a low budget and English accents.
So it’s been a long strange journey, and now we’re heading up to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who next Saturday. And despite myself, I’ve been getting just as excited about it as everyone else, following the speculation and all the bits that have been released officially. I worry that I’m too excited: There’s a huge amount of potential in the premise they’ve set up, honestly they could base a whole season around it, but they’ve only got 75 minutes to work through it all. Will it be enough? Will it be ridiculously over-the-top, as the silly season-enders under Russell T. Davies were? We’ll find out.
I’m looking forward to it anyway.
(But I’m secretly hoping they’ve managed to sneak a real surprise into the story. Like a guest appearance by Tom Baker or something.)
A brief spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen the last episode of season seven, or the developments since, after the cut:
In “The Name of the Doctor”, the eleventh Doctor says that what the “War Doctor” did was to break a promise, but in “The Night of the Doctor” it seems like it’s the eighth Doctor who broke the promise, since he was given the ability to shape his regeneration, and chose to become a warrior.
One could also debate whether the Doctor’s later regenerations are absolved of the moral responsibility for the actions of the earlier ones. But I don’t expect them to debate that, considering the series has willfully ignored that question for almost forty years. (Though the ninth Doctor certain seemed to bear the weight of the actions of his previous incarnation.)