ReelThoughts: April 22, 2011

"Welcome Back, Doctor"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Once upon a time, the TV show Doctor Who was a cult phenomenon in the United States. Shown at strange hours mostly on PBS stations, the British sci-fi/fantasy show infamous for its (occasional) over-the-top acting and (frequent) bad special effects, garnered a small but devoted following on this side of the Atlantic. In its native country, it was viewed as mainstream family entertainment, but it was marketed overseas for older audiences.

It has been 48 years since Doctor Who debuted on BBC1 the day after President Kennedy was assassinated. The show ran for 26 years before going on an extended hiatus that didn't see it re-born until 2005 (although there was a TV movie in there somewhere). In the United States, it began gaining traction in the late '70s, peaked in the early '80s, and was on its way out even before its temporary cancellation in the U.K.

One of the problems with Who in the United States is that we suffered from cross-Atlantic delay. When Time-Life purchased the rights to the first four Tom Baker seasons (1974/75/76/77) and began showing them on select PBS stations in 1978, the fledgling fan population didn't care that they were getting a product that was, in some cases, half-a-decade old. After all, Star Trek reruns were older than that. The craving for "new product" had not yet hit with gale-force strength. By 1981, the average Doctor Who fan had seen every one of the available stories about eight times. With the series' popularity skyrocketing across America, the BBC packaged Baker seasons #5-#7 ("The Ribos Operation" through "Logopolis") and made them available to PBS. They were expensive, as we were told every time Doctor Who headlined a fundraiser. But it was new Who and viewers ate it up - until it was over. Then it was back to reruns, this time with all seven Tom Baker seasons available.

My first experience with Doctor Who came during the fall of 1978, at a time when I was just discovering Star Trek. (Age: 11 years old.) My friends and I used to hang out after school (which ended at 3:30) until Star Trek started showing at 4:00 in the afternoons. One day, one friend changed the channel after Star Trek, saying there was something we "had to see." That "something" was Doctor Who. It was airing in half-hour episodes every weekday at 5:00. I wasn't immediately hooked but, over the course of a few weeks, it exerted a gradual mesmeric influence. During the waning months of 1978 and the early ones of 1979, I watched Tom Baker's first four seasons. On Saturday mornings, I would adjust the rotating antenna to pull in Doctor Who on Channel 9 out of New York (one of the few commercial stations airing the series).

By the time Who returned with new material, it was the autumn of 1981. Pre-Internet, news about the show was scarce, so Doctor Who Magazine, which I purchased at a local comic book store, was a treasure trove of spoilers. I'll never forget the shock of learning that Tom Baker was no longer The Doctor. In American TV, lead actors didn't change. No one would ever play James T. Kirk except William Shatner! The idea that there would be another Doctor - a younger, blond man who had starred in All Creatures Great and Small - was hard to grasp. In the U.K., they were used to The Doctor changing, but not in the United States; for most Doctor Who fans, Tom Baker was The Doctor.

"The Ribos Operation" debuted the new "movie format" for Doctor Who. Instead of showing one 25-minute episode every evening, the local PBS station edited all four (or six) episodes together and presented them in a 90-minute or 145-minute "omnibus" format every Saturday afternoon. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but we soon realized that such an approach neutralized the episode-ending cliffhangers.

I saw "Logopolis" on a chilly afternoon in late February 1982 and, when Doctor #4 lay broken on the ground and announced, "It's the end. But the moment has been prepared for," I felt as if I had lost a friend. Worse, that was the last episode the BBC had made available for sale in the United States. As life went on in the U.K. with a new Doctor, we in America were stuck in a state of mourning purgatory. Back to "Robot" and 40 weeks of re-runs. Then, as the year drew to a close, Channel 12 canceled Doctor Who.

Around the country, however, Doctor Who was coming on strong. The BBC, striking while the iron was hot, had a new package to offer: Peter Davison (Doctor #5) season #1 and all of the available color Jon Pertwee (Doctor #3) episodes. Channel 12 bought the new package and debuted one new episode, "Castrovalva Part One" as part of a fundraiser in March 1983. It was a giddy moment. We were promised that, if enough pledges were received, Doctor Who would return with all new episodes. The two-hour Doctor Who special time slot (which also featured re-airing of "Logopolis Part Four" and a documentary about the show) set new pledge break records. Four months later, Doctor Who returned.

The fan frenzy for the show created a demand for new content. Everything - including all of the old black-and-white episodes that still existed in the BBC's vaults - was made available. New seasons were sold to PBS stations shortly after they had finished airing in the U.K. In November of 1983, there was a memorable (and accidental) coup for American viewers. The 20th anniversary special, "The Five Doctors," was due to air on November 23 in both the U.K. and the U.S. A last minute change in schedule (allowing "The Five Doctors" to play as the headliner of the annual "Children in Need" charity marathon on BBC1) pushed back the U.K. premiere. "The Five Doctors" became the first (and, to date, only) Doctor Who story to play in the United States before it played in England.

"The Five Doctors" may have represented a pinnacle of sorts for Doctor Who in the United States. After that, it was downhill. With the back catalog exhausted by the mid-'80s and only a small number of new episodes being produced each year, fan interest began to waver. By 1989, the year Doctor Who came to an end on BBC1, it had been dropped by numerous PBS stations as being too expensive. Four new stories per year was not enough to justify the cost.

Doctor Who didn't die when it went off the air. Like Star Trek, it went dormant. In the VHS era, it didn't matter that it was almost impossible to find it on TV. Long-time viewers like myself had recorded every available story and tapes were sold commercially. There were Doctor Who books and new audio adventures (featuring the voices of the actors who had appeared in the program). The birth of the Internet connected the U.K. and U.S. fan bases.

Doctor Who returned, however briefly, in 1996. A FOX-TV/BBC co-production, "The TV Movie" attempted the awkward task of wedding 26 years of established continuity with a new sensibility that might find favor with non-Who fans in the United States. "The TV Movie" was intended as a back-door pilot - if the ratings were good enough, FOX would co-produce a full season of Doctor Who. It bombed in the United States. The failure of the movie was blamed on its being aired opposite the series finale of Roseanne, but the reality is that Doctor Who was not mainstream enough to captivate the kind of numbers it would have needed to stay afloat on an American commercial network.

The disappointment surrounding the "TV Movie" sent Doctor Who back into hibernation for another nine years until it was resurrected by Russell T. Davies with a new vibe. "New Who," as it became known, was an instant hit in the U.K. However, as the first season ended across the Atlantic, it did not have a U.S. outlet. In the '80s, that would have infuriated American Who fans. Not in 2005, the era of Bittorrent. Now, through the magic of the Internet, the U.S. fan didn't have to wait days or weeks or months or years to see the latest episode of Doctor Who. Torrents started showing up about four hours after the end of the episode in the U.K. and the devoted on-line fan could be watching it the same day.

That's how I initially watched the first season of "New Who" - on the computer. I was so hooked that I downloaded an episode from my hotel room in Manila the week I was there. It was great. Here I was, a die-hard, old-time Doctor Who fan, downloading the newest episode of a series once thought dead and buried while on vacation in South Asia. Today, nothing about that sounds odd. But, only six years ago, it was surreal.

"New Who" found its American TV outlet in SyFy (then known as "The Science Fiction Network"), but ratings were not as high as hoped. BBC America picked up Doctor Who beginning with David Tennant's final season. The first thing they began to do was to market the program. The second thing they did was to shrink the window between the U.K. showings and the U.S. showings. But they didn't shrink them enough. For impatient viewers (myself included), a few weeks was still too long. When an episode is readily available, what fan can resist? To show my support of the show, I purchased the DVDs as they became available. There is no episode I downloaded that I didn't subsequently purchase.

On April 23, 2011, Doctor Who begins its sixth season (32nd overall) in both the U.K. and the U.S. (Canada, too). The synch-up is imperfect - Doctor Who airs some eight hours earlier in its native country due to scheduling and time zone differences - but it creates a degree of parity that is not only welcome in this age of instant communication, but necessary. For the first time since 2005, I can return to watching Doctor Who the way I began watching it: on television.

For those who are wondering, I'm not nearly as fanatical about Doctor Who as I once was, but I never miss a new episode. I may re-watch a good one but the days are long behind me when I make a habit out of devouring re-runs. I find the stories to be generally more sophisticated in tone and intent (especially now that Steven Moffat has taken over) but at times unsatisfying because of the time constraints imposed by the 45-minute length (the old four-parters and six-parters could "breathe" more). Matt Smith is neither my most favorite nor my least favorite Doctor. He's still growing into the role - if he stays on another few years, he'll make it his own. I look forward to watching him develop.


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