Sunday, March 18, 2012
When I was a little kid I loved anthology SciFi/Horror shows like the 90s "The Outer Limits", "Tales From the Crypt", "Are You Afraid of the Dark?", the original "Twilight Zone", and of course - and this one is closest to my heart - "The X Files" (which technically had a plot but who cares?). I just loved that idea of sitting in front of the TV waiting for a new fantastic adventure to start up, never having any kind of clue what kind of insane things can happen. One week its wizards in the woods, another week you got incestuous hillbilly monsters, and then there are killer fire ant aliens, its was awesome. Sometimes they were scary, sometimes they were funny, and often enough, you'd realize that the possibilities to your universe are far more infinite than you would possibly imagine. Where are the anthology SciFi shows of yesteryear? Where is the comforting cackle of the Crypt Keeper making terrible ghoulish puns?
"Doctor Who" basically is one of those SciFi anthology shows. Its like a British "X-Files", only with its own deranged wackiness and genius. The Doctor is a character everybody needs to know, and then love. I usually don't review non-anime TV shows, if you've been reading this blog for a few years you'd know that. I'm making an exception here. Because "Doctor Who" is that good. I'd put it in the running for some of the best television I've ever seen.
The basic plot of "Doctor Who" will immediately decide if you're the type of person who can enjoy this series or not. And there is a breakdown in humanity here. Half of the creatures known as humans will react to what I say with derision and laughter. They'll think "that's the stupidest shit I ever heard!" and go home to a life of repressed desperation and misery, I assume. The other half will want to know more, that's the half I'm in. So here's the plot: "Doctor Who" is the story of a 900-year-old incredibly human-like alien known only as the Doctor* and his various companions traveling through time and space in a British police phone booth and getting into wild adventures with aliens, robots, and historical figures. The Doctor also has a sonic screwdriver.
Now even though that premise itself is fantastic and allows for limitless possibilities and decades of television wonderment, it is not enough to make a good show. Honestly, it could end up as "Time Squad", a relatively mediocre Cartoon Network TV show that today exists only in my own warped memory. Or maybe it can suffer the fate of "Sliders", a great show on FOX that after a few decent seasons found itself brutally gang raped by a gaggle of TV executives wielding six-foot-long steel dildos. Luckily "Doctor Who" has something those other shows can't counter: the Doctor. The Doctor is essentially immortal and an alien, so whenever the current actor wants to leave or dies or something, they can replace him with somebody else and just say "aliens, mate." Essentially that means the show can never end, they can change the entire cast every few years, and it can continue for all time. And it has: "Doctor Who" first began when John F. Kennedy was President.
(By the way, I haven't actually seen every episode since 1960-whatever, I've only watched the most recent incarnation of the show that began in 2005. And even then, only the first three seasons and a few episodes beyond that. I deeply suspect the very very old episodes suck, and the first episode is really boring. The modern stuff is for modern people, so we can enjoy that.)
More importantly, there's a fundamental attitude to "Doctor Who" that I really love. Its a deep feeling that descends into the cheesy storylines to the bad special effects. Most people immediately assume that bad special effects and silliness are bad, they are narrow-minded fools. The Doctor himself epitomes the attitude. When he lands in the future on a group of human scientists living in a planet stuck in a blackhole, the Doctor squees with glee at how adventurous and crazy these humans can be. When aliens from another dimension invade, the Doctor doesn't skip a beat and just puts on 3D glasses that show off extra-dimensional Minvosky particles. Its not about making sense, its about having fun. And the Doctor is that kind of character is constantly having fun in his own adventures. He'll actually sit back and admire the work of a villain character if his plan is brilliant enough. Really, all the Doctor wants is to keep on flying through time and space, seeing all there is to see, watching the advancement of these fascinating little people called "humans", and an attractive British companion to join him for it for a couple of seasons or so.
Except when things get real.
"Doctor Who" is lighthearted and silly. Its the kind of show where an alien absorbs people and then puts their faces on his body so they can watch others be eaten for all time. However, things do get real. The series finales are always fantastic, and every season they just get better and better, to the point that I really don't think Season 5's last episode can possibly be as good as Season 4. Those are the multi-part episodes when the Doctor suddenly faces ridiculous insurmountable odds, the kind of odds that would make the regular weekly villains flee to the hills. The Doctor has a dark side, there's a hidden brutality to him that you don't want to see. You push him too far, he'll push back, and push back in frightening speed. Normally the Doctor never carries any kind of weapon that can kill, he's a laid back fellow that likes to make jokes and snog Madame de Pompadour. Its all fun and games until you turn him into a house elf and lock him in a bird cage, then the fire comes. There's a reason the Daleks, the scariest most evil creatures in the universe called the Doctor, "the oncoming storm". It never gets stupid and convoluted like some other time travel stories, that's the important thing.
By the way, the Daleks are a great example of "Doctor's Who" Who-i-ness. They are terrible effects, looking like metal trash cans with a toilet plunger for an arm. You laugh the first time you see them, because they're essentially the evil equivalents of Tom Servo and Crow from "Mystery Science Theater 3000". Then you hear their voices, and you realize how cool these monsters are. EXTERMINATE. Yeah, the effect isn't very cool, but there's something chilling about them. And really, you start to love how silly the effects are. The Daleks are adorable in their own way, even when they're blowing up planets.
Contrast the robots from Michael Bay's Transformers movies, which are massive technical marvels of incredible detail and computer artistry. Every one of those CG monstrosities is a major step forward in the power of digital effects and advancing movie magic to all new levels of realism and power. And yet the robots look terrible, they're totally artless and meaningless. Everything has to be so perfect that you can't even have fun anymore, its too much detail to even make sense out of. Meanwhile a Dalek is made out of plastic and cardboard. The Daleks are ugly, they're silly, but you can fear and love them at the same time. And that means something.
I'm glad to see than in the modern world where everything has to be so... real looking, that we can accept classic garden variety fun and cheese like "Doctor Who". Not everything has to be perfect, perfect is boring, ultimately. There's nothing to enjoy, nothing to laugh at, nothing to love in perfection. What you need is soul, a loving soul for what you're doing and the audience you have. And the Doctor has that soul, that's why I'll be watching his adventures from here on out. And that's why I'd like for you to watch them too.
* 'The Doctor' is the Doctor's only name. There's nothing else. His last name isn't actually "Who", even though that does open the possibilities of a great Abbot and Costello routine about the Doctor's identity:
"I'm looking for this Doctor, I just don't name his name."
"Its Doctor Who."
"That's what I want to know, Doctor Who?"
"Yes, you got it"
"But what is his name?"
"That's what I'm asking!"
"'Who' is his name."
"No, that's the Nurse. Nurse What."