Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Doctor Who and James Bond: 50 Years of Fantastic Adventures

This year, the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary. Its success is unprecedented and well-deserved, and would be wholly unique in pop culture were it not for another British character that is, in many ways, television’s counterpart to Agent 007  – Doctor Who.

Like Bond, The Doctor was first introduced in the early 1960s, and has been played by several different actors, each with their own interpretation of the role. Like 007, The Doctor often relies upon sophisticated gadgets to get him out of life-threatening situations. And like James Bond, The Doctor is often found in the company of beautiful women, though until recently he really didn’t know what to do with them.

There are two distinct eras of Doctor Who; the first was launched with the character’s debut adventure in 1963 and ended in 1989; the second began when the series was revived in 2005. 

The current run of Doctor Who certainly qualifies as classic TV. But it’s the first era that falls more appropriately into the Comfort TV classification. 

The difference is pace. As with most shows from a bygone era, early Doctor Who was more leisurely in its storytelling. The 21st century episodes are self-contained 45-minute adventures with a frenetic pace, rapid-fire dialogue and lots of action. Under current writer/executive producer Steven Moffat, there is so much content in each show that repeat viewings are almost required to take it all in.

But for most of its run, Doctor Who stories unfolded over anywhere from 4-7 one-hour episodes. Some of the earliest shows ran even longer. And while sometimes this led to extended scenes of corridor walking and villainous master plans that unfolded at the speed of continental drift, it also provided the actors more of an opportunity to inhabit their characters, which is easier to do when you’re not running around all the time.

Don’t misunderstand – David Tennant and Matt Smith have been exceptional stewards of the title character, and I’ve enjoyed almost every one of their episodes. In fact, “The Girl in the Fireplace” from 2006 is one of the finest hours of television I’ve ever experienced. But it’s not Comfort TV, which is quieter, less stressful, and does not demand undivided attention. 

My first experience of Doctor Who was back around 1980, when the Tom Baker episodes began airing on WTTW channel 11, the Chicago PBS station. Their popularity made them a pledge-drive staple, and gradually the network began airing episodes from the series’ previous eras, featuring William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee, as well as Baker’s successors, Peter Davison and Colin Baker (the less said about the Sylvester McCoy era, the better). 

As with the original Star Trek series, one had to overlook the rudimentary special effects and Styrofoam monsters, and appreciate the quality of the writing and performances. But there are great rewards here for those able to do so, not the least of which is more than 600 episodes of delightful sci-fi stories to enjoy. That should keep you busy for awhile.

If you’re new to Doctor Who, or have only watched the more recent incarnations, here are a few suggestions of outstanding stories from the show’s original eras.

William Hartnell: The Aztecs
Doctor Who was originally conceived as a children’s series, which would use The Doctor’s time-hopping abilities to teach history lessons. “The Aztecs” fulfilled this objective, but it’s also a powerful treatise on respecting other cultures, even when their actions seem indefensible. 

Patrick Troughton: The Mind Robber
Many Troughton stories were wiped by the BBC back in the less-enlightened days when television was perceived as disposable entertainment. Of those that survive, “The Mind Robber” is a wonderfully imaginative journey through various worlds of literary fiction. 

Jon Pertwee: The Time Warrior
In addition to introducing one of The Doctor’s most famous adversaries, the baked-potato shaped Sontarans, “The Time Warrior” also features the debut of perhaps his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. More than 30 years later, the character was still popular enough to inspire a BBC spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures

Tom Baker: City of Death
Tom Baker was the first Doctor discovered by most American fans, and would still win a poll ranking the best actors to take on the role. You can’t go wrong with almost any Baker story, But “City of Death” benefits from Paris locations, Baker’s wonderful chemistry with companion Romana (Lalla Ward, whom he’d later marry) and a cameo from John Cleese.

Peter Davison: The Caves of Androzani
This was Davison’s last adventure, and while his era is less-celebrated than some of his predecessors, he went out in high style with a brilliant story from one of the series’ best writers, Robert Holmes. 

Colin Baker: The Two Doctors
By this time the original series had started to run out of steam. But “The Two Doctors” is worth a look for the alliance between Colin Baker and Doctor #2, Patrick Troughton.

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