Monday, November 11, 2013

Welcome to the Whoniversary- Needless Things' Celebration of 50 Years of Doctor Who

Time to write about Doctor Who.

I had been planning to solicit for Guest Posts about Doctor Who for quite some time. There are many reasons for me to do Guest Posts on Needless Things:
  1. It gives those who might not otherwise have an outlet for their stories a place to share; I don’t need credentials or anything. I like to post anything from anybody. From folks who have had movies made from scripts they’ve written to people who haven’t written anything since high school. I want this to be an outlet for anybody.
  2. I’m always interested to see the responses I get. Not just what is written, but who responds. I’m not gonna lie – it’s a bit of an ego stroke to know that people are writing something for this little site I started.
  3. It is very slightly less labor-intensive to edit and publish other people’s work than it is to write something myself. It gives me a sort of break. And after October, I really needed November to be less intense.
So I knew I would be posting a number of Doctor Who toy reviews and several works from different fans and Whovians. I haven’t reviewed all of the submissions yet, but I am already excited beyond words about what Needless Things has in store for you over the next two weeks. There are some thoughtful retrospectives, examinations of the franchise, an exciting piece about the world of Doctor Who beyond television, and one entry that quite literally moved me to tears. But obviously I would have to provide the introductory post myself. I mean, this is my site, after all.

That meant it was time to write about Doctor Who.

Again.

I love Doctor Who in a way that I don’t love any other franchise, but I have written about Doctor Who a lot. From a history of the franchise from my perspective to story reviews to reminiscences. I can’t say I’ve exhausted any Who topics I might ever have, but I’ve said a lot. Here, just look:


And that probably isn’t everything because I kind of suck at tagging.

Plus, I’m just plain exhausted. If you look back at past Novembers here on Needless Things, you can see it is not exactly my most creative or productive month. But I love Doctor Who and this is the Fiftieth Anniversary and I’ll be damned if I can’t find something exciting and new to write. 
 
I have spoken of and written about my history with Doctor Who many times. But always in bits and pieces, when a reference was called for or as part of an anecdote. I don’t think I’ve ever fully outlined my personal history with the franchise. As you’ll see, I was not the dedicated stalwart that many were – including some of our Whoniversary Guest Posters – but I always carried it with me.

Next Saturday may be the fiftieth Anniversary of Doctor Who, but it is my thirtieth – to the day.

I first experienced the magic of Doctor Who on November 23, 1983. I was 7 years old and my family was in North Carolina at my Auntie’s house for Thanksgiving. We had eaten our early dinner and I – having no more tolerance for grown-ups then than I do now – retired to the guest room to watch television.

Side Note: I don’t know why we were eating on Wednesday instead of Thursday. We might have done one meal at Auntie’s and another the next day at Granny and Papaw’s. My family likes to eat.

I remember that room vividly – a huge, four-poster bed with a cushioned chest at the foot. A beautiful chest-of-drawers that was just high enough off the carpet to serve as the base for whatever action figures I had with me. I’m pretty sure it was Star Wars, as GI Joe wouldn’t have quite taken full root with me yet. There was a digital alarm clock with red numerals – something I hadn’t seen before that struck me as oddly sinister (since then I’ve had a preference for red displays). I played for a little while, but eventually decided I needed companionship in the form of what to this day serves as one of my favorite friends – the television.

I pulled out the little silver knob on what was probably a 16” set and watched the dark screen pop to life. This was before the days of widespread cable, so I only had maybe six or eight channel options – NBC, ABC, CBS, some UHF stations, and of course the old standby – PBS. I don’t really recall flipping the channels or anything. I just remember being absolutely captivated by the sight of a silver haired man in a fancy jacket with a cute girl. It wasn’t this couple so much that got my attention. It was the fact that they were hiding behind a rock, observing a silver being that I was immediately terrified of.

This silver alien was in front of a cave and had an arsenal of weapons laid out beside it. It moved in a strange, almost reptilian way and was clearly looking for prey. It would move and then disappear, only to reappear in a different place. I was tense and wide-eyed with fear because all it had to do was reappear on the other side of that rock and it would see those poor people.

Side Note: The Doctor identified this as the Raston Warrior Robot, a designation I still have trouble remembering. I didn’t know who the Doctor was at the time, he just seemed to have some sort of authority. And a nice jacket.

And then the other, scarier robots showed up.

This was a group of more traditional and yet more frightening robots. With their larger frames, lumbering gait, and wide, vacant faces that parodied humanity these robots thoroughly unnerved me. The only reason I didn’t reach up to change the channel is that I didn’t want to get close to the monsters on the screen. I was absolutely terrified of these things the silver haired man called “Cybermen”, and that was before I even knew how truly horrifying they were.

And then the smaller, silver droid eliminated the Cybermen one by one as though they were nothing.

There was obviously a lot more to the amazing story that unfolded on that simple old television, but that scene with the Doctor and Sarah Jane hiding from a bunch of evil robots (yes, I know – one robot and a group of cyborgs) burned itself into my psyche. It remains to this day one of those unforgettable snippets of time – alongside a grizzled old Batman’s armored fist smashing into Superman’s jaw, Luke Skywalker catching that verdant lightsaber and flipping into the air, and Freddy Krueger emerging from Jesse’s chest as a genre moment that would define my fandom. I did not know what I had just seen, but it had impacted me in a primal way.

At some point during the rest of “The Five Doctors” I ran out into the living room to grab my mother. I dragged her to the back room and pointed to the screen, asking her what movie this was. She had no idea. Being the good and kind woman she was, she brought the rest of the family back, but nobody knew. Uncle Tiny noted it was on PBS and dismissed it as “some Brit crap”. They all went back to talking about shoes or politics or whatever mundane junk adults talk about. I remained in the back room and watched this amazing feature, right up to the finale where Borusa meets his horrifying fate. I still get chills every time I see that scene.

And that was it. I didn’t know what I had just seen. I didn’t understands that it was part of a greater story. I honestly can’t remember what more I made of it other than the visceral, gut reactions I had to each scene. It’s so strange to think that this was the same year that I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater. I have to assume I comprehended that on some level, but “The Five Doctors” was a genre gut punch that would stay with me for years.

I don’t know exactly when I rediscovered Doctor Who. I am still in search of somebody that could provide the schedule for the Metro Atlanta PBS station from the mid-80s so I can figure it out. But I know two things – the next Doctor Who I saw was “Terror of the Zygons” and I was 9 or 10 years old. 
 
I was heavy into cryptozoology when I was a kid. The Goat Man, Moth Man, Bigfoot – you name the creature and I was both fascinated and terrified by it. But my all-time favorite was the Loch Ness Monster; Nessie. There was something slightly more tangible about that creature. The whole idea of Nessie just seemed slightly more within the realm of possibility than a half-man, half-goat terrorizing rural travelers or even a massive humanoid ape wandering around the Appalachians (not that I still wasn’t terrified of the back roads that Dad would take to North Carolina when we drove at night or of the dense woods surrounding the camp we stayed at when I was a Boy Scout). Plus, I have always had an affinity for the lands of Great Britain, so this Scottish dinosaur appealed to me. Plus, it was hardly any kind of physical threat, what with being all the way across the world.

And then, late one Saturday night I stumbled across ol’ Nessie terrorizing somebody on a dark, foggy night. Much like “The Five Doctors” I can’t recall specifics of that first “Terror of the Zygons” viewing. I remember Nessie’s head sort of staggering around the screen. I remember the larger-than-life man with the curly hair and the tartan scarf and hat. I remember the aliens watching everybody through the eyes of the deer and how thoroughly uncomfortable they and their technology made me. I still find organic-based technology to be unsettling – it’s why I found the Yuuzhan Vong of the Star Wars “New Jedi Order” books to be so effective and menacing. This was another genre gut punch.

And I had no idea it was related to the one I had experienced a few years earlier.

You see, Tom Baker’s presence in “The Five Doctors” was minimal. He didn’t even register to me, what with the Bond-like presence of Jon Pertwee and Peter Davison’s gentle urgency. And the TARDIS has an equally minimal presence in “Zygons”. Even if I had remembered “The Five Doctors” more clearly, I don’t know that what is now such an iconic device would have registered from the brief appearance at the tail end of the story. But when that end came I knew that I loved what I had seen. The following Saturday night I tuned back in to PBS and watched “Planet of Evil” and for the next several years I would do whatever I had to in order to be in front of a television at 10 or 11 PM on the last night of the week. 
 
Side Note: I can’t recall when Doctor Who actually aired, but I do know that it was paired up with The Prisoner either before or after. I think before because it took me a whole to appreciate the other show and I don’t think I would’ve stuck around after Doctor Who for a show I wasn’t crazy about. Plus, there was USA Up All Night and some late night wrestling show. So I think my Saturday night schedule somewhat resembled this:
10 PM – The Prisoner
11 PM – Doctor Who
12:30 PM – Whatever was left of Up All Night (first with Gilbert Gottfried, then Wanda Shears)
2 AM – The wrestling recap show
I don’t know how accurate any of that really is, I just know I was always in trouble when it was time to get up for Sunday School and church in the morning.
Side Side Note: The remake of The Prisoner a few years ago was absolutely terrible.

It’s worth noting – but not Side Noting – that my PBS station aired these Doctor Who stories as (typically) 90 minute movies. The individual episodes were edited together and the reused footage at the beginnings was cut out. I didn’t even know until ten or so years ago that the show had originally aired as half-hour episodes. But I’ll get to my re-acquaintance with Doctor Who in a bit. We’re only two thousand words in and I’ve a long ways to go.
I’ve talked about all of the following before, so I’ll sort of skim past them now.

I was heartbroken when Tom Baker regenerated into Peter Davison. This was pre-internet and pre-pretty much any kind of media-related news for me, so it was a complete surprise that destroyed me. And yet I am so glad that I was able to experience it in such a pure and unspoiled manner. Not even the Brits that saw it happen for the first time years before were able to enjoy as real and base a reaction as I was. Not only was I unprepared for the sudden exit of My beloved Doctor, I knew nothing of regeneration or the history of the show. Witnessing that was one of the most shocking moments I have ever experienced through dramatic television.

I believe it was sometime during Peter Davison’s run that the BBC toured the States with the Doctor Who Experience. I’ve written about this before, but I was lucky enough to attend and got to tour the big trailer full of monsters and costumes. I just regret not taking any pictures. But I was ten or eleven and not prone to think about such things.

I hung in there with Peter, mostly because I liked his companions and because deep inside I believed My Doctor ­had to be coming back. I feel like PBS skipped over some of Davison’s episodes or perhaps sometimes I just tuned into Saturday Night Live instead of watching Not My Doctor. But there are quite a few Davison stories that I remember once I see them. Right around the time I started to get invested in the show again, the new Doctor died saving his companion – a brunette that was kind of shrieky but that for some reason made my pants uncomfortable – and we got the visual and emotional disaster that was Colin Baker.

I immediately disliked Colin. I stuck around for a couple of episodes, but basically quit watching for a while. I don’t know what made me tune back in, but PBS based one of their trademark telethons around a marathon showing of Colin Baker’s epic swan song, “Trial of A Time Lord”. 
 
I know this story (or these stories, as the case may be) catch a lot of flak from some folks, but to me, at the time, this was more of pure Doctor Who lightning in a bottle. Like “The Five Doctors” (which I had by now connected to this show that I loved so much) and “Terror of the Zygons” before it, “Trial” made a mark on my nerdy soul. I stuck around into the wee hours of the morning to find out what was going to happen to the Doctor. It was a wild and – to me at the time – almost incomprehensible tale, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Also, my mother firmly refused to donate fifty bucks to PBS so that I could be the proud owner of a BBC-licensed Doctor Who tote bag.

So in what any Whovian would recognize as an utterly bizarre and inexplicable turn of events, “Trial of A Time Lord” lured me back into Doctor Who. I tuned in the next week and witnessed yet another landmark event – Colin Baker (or so I thought) transformed into the second man that I was able to fully and truly embrace as the Doctor – Sylvester McCoy.
Time and the Rani” is another story that isn’t exactly popular, but I loved it. The Tetraps were creepy and looked pretty good for the time, the setting seemed alien, and this new Doctor was charming and theatrical. His physical style and heavily-accented delivery charmed me instantly. I followed McCoy’s run closely, but either PBS skipped some stories or I missed them for one reason or another. But I definitely made a point to tune in whenever I could. 
 
I remember “Survival” very clearly. I rewatched it a few years ago – and wrote areview – and every moment was quite familiar. And just like “Logopolis” a few years before, I had no idea that I was witnessing the end of an era. The story ended in an odd but fairly inconspicuous way – with the Doctor and his comely companion, Ace, walking off into the distance. It wasn’t exactly dematerializing in the TARDIS, but it didn’t strike me as odd. I tuned in the following week to see where the pair would end up next. Instead, I bore witness to the silver haired dandy from “The Five Doctors” battling cave worms for what seemed like ten hours.

Okay, that might be a bit of a harsh assessment of “The Green Death” and of Doctor Three, but my adolescent mind simply wasn’t ready to accept and appreciate the majesty and wit of the powerful Jon Pertwee (I finally did about three years ago and he is now in a perpetual three-way tie for a spot as my second favorite Doctor).

I don’t know how I found out that Doctor Who was over. But I do remember at some point recognizing that “Survival” was the last new episode I would see. For whatever reason PBS had chosen to go back to Pertwee’s run rather than Hartnell or Tom Baker (both of which would make sense; though I know Hartnell would have fared no better with me than Pertwee did). Eventually I switched to Saturday Night Live or whatever other alternative might have been available.

For me, my beloved Doctor Who was on hiatus. 
 
Then in 1996, two years after I graduated high school, there was news of an unimaginable magnitude – FOX was producing an American Doctor Who movie. It had been years since I had actually watched any Doctor Who, but this excited me beyond belief. I was twenty years old, but still wasn’t cynical about entertainment. It didn’t occur to me to be suspicious of an American-produced Who. This was huge news. I wouldn’t swear to this, but I don’t think I was as excited when Episode I was announced. Of course, that might be because I always felt, deep down, that we would get more Star Wars. I never expected more Doctor Who. Also, my excitement for resurrections might have been tempered by… well, by the 1996 Doctor Who.

We reviewed it on Earth Station Who, but my initial reaction was... well, actually it was excitement. Because when the Doctor came on screen, it was Sylvester McCoy! The legit Doctor! 
 
I should stop to explain something here. Unlike many nerds, I am not particularly internet savvy. I just missed computers being fully integrated into the school system and it was probably 2001 before I had my own PC. Actually, it might have been 2002, because I met Bruce Campbell and had him sign my Army of Darkness tattoo in September of 2001 and was too embarrassed to tell him that I did not have an e-mail address when he asked me to send him a picture after I got the signature tattooed on. I still haven’t sent that picture.

So my point here is that until 2002 (or so) I had no idea what was going on in the portions of Earth that were not within twenty or so miles of me. And in 1996 I certainly didn’t know anything that was going on with the Doctor Who TV movie other than that it was happening. And to this day I still am not as abreast of things as I could be. I have figured out that pretty much everybody spends their work day on the internet. I don’t have the internet at work and other than posting on Needless Things and watching the occasional Parry Gripp video with the family I simply don’t like wasting time on the computer at home. I have so many other ways to waste time.

So to bring it back around, I was surprised and delighted when Sylvester McCoy showed up on my screen and disappointed when he got himself shot like an idiot. I liked Paul McGann’s portrayal – though I was rightfully dubious of this half human nonsense – and thought just enough of the movie to want more. I don’t know why, but I know I had it in my head that there would be more. To the point where I had that same revelation that had come years earlier after “Survival” – “Well, damn – I guess that’s it.”

And so life went on; once again with no Doctor Who. I was not an active fan, but I never forgot the impact of the show.

Sometime later in ’98 or ’99 I was working at Suncoast – if you don’t know, a store that sold VHS, DVD, and all manner of movie-related crap. We stocked Doctor Who VHS tapes. I looked at them every day. I don’t remember all of the titles. There were maybe ten or so. And they were between twenty-five and thirty bucks. A price point I simply could not afford. So I just looked at them, wishing I could buy every one but also wondering if I would still love the show like I did when I was a kid. After all, I had recently revisited

***WARNING***

The following paragraph may cause some Needless Things readers to question my nerd cred, question my Child of the 80s cred, or even outright dislike me and want to spit in my face. Do not read on if you can’t handle opinions.

After all I had recently revisited The Goonies and had not enjoyed it at all. And that was a big-budget, well-loved movie. How could my modest little British sci-fi show possibly hold up under modern scrutiny?
***END OF SENSITIVE MATERIAL***

But then we got in a copy of “The Five Doctors” priced at $19.99. It was still more than I cared to pay for a movie, but I just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed some Doctor Who in my life. I sprang for the tape at the end of my shift, took it home, and popped it into the VCR.

It was magic. Even though I hadn’t seen it in around fifteen years, I remembered every scene; every beat. Despite that, I was utterly shocked to realize that Tom Baker was not technically in the story at all. I remembered everything that happened; I had just forgotten what was omitted because when I saw it that first time I didn’t know he was omitted.

It would be super to be able to say that my fandom overwhelmed my wallet and I started buying tapes and watching Doctor Who and became a rabid fan all over again. But I didn’t. I still couldn’t justify the money. So I just watched “The Five Doctors”. A lot.

Side Note: From the time I started watching Doctor Who regularly in 1986-ish up through the relaunch in 2005 I have always had toys on my mind (obviously). Regardless of the state or intensity of my fandom, I always wanted Doctor Who toys. I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of the existence of the British releases from Dapol, but I wanted them so badly it hurt. Especially their crappy, scarfless Tom Baker. But all I ever saw in all of my toy store travels was the occasional lonely Mel figure warming a random peg here or there. Now, of course, not only do I own a ridiculous number of the modern releases from Character Options/Underground Toys; I also have a number of the Dapol figures thanks to the awesome and amazing Billy’s toys.

I hate to admit this, but I cannot recall how I learned about the revival. I can’t imagine that I didn’t know about it before seeing an ad on the Sci-Fi Channel. But I’m just not sure. I got married and started my current (horrible) job that year, so adding the Doctor’s return to that list was just too much. But me and Mrs. Troublemaker were sitting there watching when “Rose” made its US debut.

The missus wasn’t the same level of fan I was, but had watched the show as a kid and remembered it fondly enough. She was open to a new series. We watched that first episode with the manic and sharp new Doctor and the cute and likeable Rose Tyler. The Autons creeped us out (I didn’t know what they were. I had never seen those stories. BACK OFF – I told you – I was never internet boy) and the pacing was fantastic. We were hooked, and more importantly I was relieved. While I had been disappointed somewhat by the 1996 movie, I could tell that this new iteration was coming from a different place. I didn’t know if it would last (HA!), but it seemed to me that its hearts were in the right place.

Shortly after the debut my parents made a trip to the UK. My mother – still sweet and considerate – asked each of us if they could bring anything back. I told her anything Doctor Who. She came back with the very best gift I have ever received – a bank shaped like the TARDIS. But this was no cheap-o PVC bank. No sir – this was a full-on toy with lights and sounds and opening doors and everything. IT was awesome and I was blown away. And not only did she bring that TARDIS back, she also b got me a figure of the Doctor!:
Wait – who the crap was this nerd? That’s not the bold and slightly dangerous-looking bloke from the new series. Nor is it any of the classic 7 (sadly Paul McGann was not yet firmly entrenched into continuity in my mind). Somehow the news that Christopher Eccleston had only lasted one season had managed to escape me. This was another new Doctor. A nerdy one. I found out one way or another that this was David Tennant and that he was replacing Eccleston because apparently Eccleston was a bit of a poopy pants about the whole thing.
Me and the missus were both heartbroken to see Doctor Nine go. I liked him an awful lot and I do believe he is Her Doctor. But then Tennant came along and swept us off our feet just like he did everybody else.

And I suppose that’s as far as I needed to go. I feel like my relationship with modern Who has been well documented both here and on Earth Station Who, I’ve hit 4,500 words, and it’s late at night and my typing is getting worse than it normally is (which is pretty bad). 
 
Thirty years ago I turned on the television and was transported to the far away world of Gallifrey. It was populated by soldiers, pretty ladies, monsters, robots, evil men, and four adventurers called Doctor. I did not know what I was watching, but the fun, creativity, and sheer madness of the story burned it into my heart for all time. Even if I had never seen another Doctor Who story, those memories of “The Five Doctors” and the promise of that magical universe would still be with me. Fortunately the Doctor and all of his friends and enemies have stayed with me throughout my life, bringing me a pure joy that no other franchise can match.
I don’t know what “The Day of the Doctor” has in store for us on November 23rd – thirty years to the day after I first met the Doctor – but I do know that beyond it lies fifty more years of Doctor Who and its incomparable fandom.

The next two weeks here on Needless Things will be dedicated to Doctor Who. I have Guest Posts, Toy Reviews, and more on the way. The site will be jam-packed – relatively – with content. Please share these links wherever you can and spread the word. And if you’re so inclined, throw a few dollars at the Needless Things family. I have to send you to the podcast homepage because Blogger doesn't want this sort of thing. Just check out the widget on the bottom right here.This is all out of pocket for me, so anything I receive during this time will got to site costs, hosting, and possibly new merchandise if I get really ambitious.

Also, you can buy the Limited Edition NeedlessThingsSite.com Luchador vs. Owlbear t-shirts here. I can’t say they’re selling fast, but once this style is gone, they’re gone forever. And I do intend on being famous one day, so wouldn’t it be cool to have the first shirt I ever designed?
Remember to check in every weekday between now and the 23rd for new, original content.
Finally, be sure and come out to the HUGE 50th Anniversary Party that TimeGate, Earth Station Who, the folks behind The Forgotten Doctor, and (others) are throwing at the Holiday Inn Select; the same location where TimeGate is held each and every year. There will be panels, games, Whovian carousing, and a LIVE recording of Earth Station Who immediately after “The Day of the Doctor” airs. You will literally never have another opportunity to attend a party like this!

-Phantom

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