Doctor Who?

The Guardian has a great interactive guide to all the doctors over the last fifty years, if you need a refresher before the imminent 50th Anniversary episode.

It would be hard for me to express how powerful this television show was in my fledgling imagination. I never missed an episode, and got really hooked in the Patrick Troughton years. Yes, that Doctor’s male assistant, Jamie, was one of my first crushes. I just wanted to be him in some inchoate way that would eventually evolve into sexual and emotional attraction. Maybe it was the kilt that did it. There are also episodes in the Pertwee years which I can still close my eyes and remember vividly – The Green Death was my favorite (with giant maggots threatening Surrey!). But Tom Baker and Sarah Jane Smith became the iconic Doctor and his assistant for me – and for lots of Who-nerds growing up with me at the same time. Baker in some ways created the character in its fullest, final incarnation: querulous, curious, funny, fearless and yet also all-powerful. (You can watch his debut above). Then as I went to college (no TV there) and to America, I lost touch, except for occasional winces at what I thought were gimmicky and tawdry attempts at revivals in the late 1980s and 1990s.

But it lived on in my dreams. Almost every anxiety Green_Death dream I ever had in my teens was situated solidly in the Doctor’s world. I was never the Doctor – always his assistant – in these dreams. I knew my place and was just glad to be around him. The dreams invariably took the shape of a classic Doctor Who scenario – walking gingerly down strange, dark corridors waiting for some scary monster to jump out and grab me. Of particular note were the Cybermen, who for me exceeded the Daleks in their inhuman, soulless scariness. The explanation for this, I realized later, was that in the episodes in my youth, the Daleks couldn’t get up the stairs to my bedroom at night. They were on wheels! The Cybermen? They could knock down the front door and march up the stairs in an instant.

Even in my twenties, these dreams persisted. They were, I think, both about longing to exist in another kind of world; and also about seeing as the ultimate authority this quirky, non-violent, superior intelligence made Time Lord flesh in the Doctor. I realize now that this is a very English idea of inter-galactic power – all brain and close to very little brawn, and deeply moral, even when confronting the purest of evil.

The Doctor never kills, unless by accident; his enemies are always defined by their love of violence, their lack of a moral compass and what the English would regard as an absence of that Orwell virtue “decency”. You knew that aliens were evil because they kidnapped hostages, killed indiscriminately, and could even use torture at times. The Doctor always won by virtue of never sinking to their level – and laughing uproariously when they tried to intimidate him. The show is just as moralizing as Star Trek at times – but free from most sentimentality and filtered through irony. The Doctor was so often kidding.

I see the new and brilliant re-imagination of the TV show – with its huge global success – as my generation’s tribute to the spark of imagination that lit up our youth. I’m as old as Doctor Who – the show, not the Time Lord. I was born in the same year and grew up with the Doctors. The show was as familiar to me as weekly mass as a kid. Even now, there is something immensely comforting about watching it – recalling those old plots that occasionally resurface, or the feeling I had seeing the same monsters at 50 that I did at 5. A television show has this power in a way a single book never can. It unfolded before me as my own life did – and I lived a small part of it in thrall to those vistas of time and space that the Doctor invited me into, and where he taught me never to be afraid or humorless. Or cruel.