Sunday 29 September 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Fifth Doctor

I moved to a new school the year that Peter Davison’s Doctor finally premièred in full in Canada. I had been identified as “gifted” and was being moved into a gifted programme, something that didn’t earn me a lot of popularity at the school I was leaving. Of course, since I was leaving the school (and never actually had much in the way of popularity anyway), that really didn’t bother me. Popularity was never something I was after, anyway. I did my own thing, and I really didn’t care what other people thought of that—well, that’s what I told myself anyway. In my new class, I found a much greater level of acceptance (even of the fact that I liked Doctor Who) and forged much stronger friendships, and that was really rather liberating. Of course, the school as a whole still shunned the gifted class, but at least we had each other.

The day “Castrovalva” Part One aired on TVOntario, I wasn’t actually expecting it. There had been a straight run of repeats for numerous months (most of which were actually new to me at the time), and I hadn’t been paying attention to when the new season might start. There had been no announcements or previews of the new season that I had seen, so I sat down that Saturday evening expecting another Tom Baker story. If I remember correctly, the one that had been repeated the week before was “The Leisure Hive”. At the time, I had no idea what came after that story since the repeats hadn’t caught back up to where I’d started watching (with “Full Circle”). I think I half expected the repeats to continue all the way up to “Logopolis” again before the fifth Doctor would finally start.

The TVOntario ident came up on screen and then the most bizarre thing ever happened: the Doctor Who title sequence didn’t start. Instead, there was a scene of some scaffolding and a person lying on the ground behind it. For a brief moment, I panicked. Was Doctor Who not on? What was happening. And then, as Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan came running into the scene, I realized that was the Doctor lying on the ground. These were the ending moments of “Logopolis” as the Doctor was about to regenerate. I had never seen an episode of Doctor Who start with a pre-titles sequence before, but it made instant sense to me that this one had to. The titles would start as soon as he had regenerated. This was clearly how it happened with every new Doctor. I know now I was wrong—that really was the very first time the show had ever had a pre-titles sequence—but it made logical sense to me at the time.

Bubbling over with excitement, I yelled to my mom, who was upstairs, “Mom! It’s the new Doctor! It’s the new Doctor!” It was important that she see this; it was a momentous event. I knew that she’d seen regeneration before—she’d seen all the Doctors after all—but it was still important she be there for this one. I dwell on this a little bit now because moments like this would start to become rarer and rarer over the next few years, partly because I was getting older and less interested in watching things with my parents, and partly because my mom started to drift away from Doctor Who over the Peter Davison period. She would continue to watch sporadically up until the end of the original series (and she was quite eager to watch the early William Hartnell stories when they started airing on YTV), but it was less and less often. She just felt no one measured up to Tom Baker and the Doctors who came before him. I didn’t quite understand it at the time. It was all Doctor Who to me, no matter who was playing the Doctor, and she had been watching the show for so long. She was more used to the Doctor changing than I was. Or was she?

I know now that my mom can’t possibly have seen as much Doctor Who as she always said she had. My mom was born in England, but immigrated to Canada with my grandparents well before Doctor Who started. CBC aired the first season in the early 60’s and presumably my mom watched it at the time. But CBC never broadcast any further seasons after that, and 60’s Who was never sold to any other North American channels. The earliest episodes shown on TVOntario and PBS were Jon Pertwee episodes. My mom always told me how she had watched all the early Doctors. She’d seen William Hartnell regenerate into Patrick Troughton and watched all his episodes too. But that’s just not possible. Patrick Troughton’s episodes never aired here until the 90’s. I don’t for one minute believe my mom was lying to me. Rather, it’s just her memory playing tricks on her. She had seen multiple Doctors, so she assumed she’d seen them all (and it’s possible she might have caught one or two Troughton episodes on a trip back to England in her youth—I have no idea how often she and my grandparents went back). While she watched the show a lot, she didn’t research it the way I would go on to, so never learned any reason to doubt her memories.

Nevertheless, regardless of exactly how much Doctor Who my mom had or hadn’t seen, she had seen quite a bit, and she began to lose interest in the show in the 80’s. The show had changed a lot—I just didn’t realize it yet—and it wasn’t the same show she had been watching previously. To her, Tom Baker had become Doctor Who, and there was simply no replacing him with anyone else. In 2005, she did tune in to the first several episodes of the new series. I asked her regularly what she thought of it. She hated it. Christopher Eccleston was okay, but not as good as any of the previous Doctors, and it was set on Earth too much. Doctor Who was supposed to be about alien planets and there hadn’t been a single one yet! She gave up after the fifth or sixth episode and, to the best of my knowledge, she hasn’t watched an episode since. But I digress...

So excitedly calling my mom down to watch Doctor Who with me was something that would be coming to an end, but it hadn’t happened yet when “Castrovalva” first came on. This was a monumental event to me because it was the first time I had gotten to see another Doctor than Tom Baker (this isn’t literally true, just another example of the unreliability of memory as I’ve explained previously). It didn’t bother me that Tom Baker wasn’t going to be there, not in the way it might have been bothering my mom. I simply assumed all actors playing the Doctor would be equally great (and strangely enough, it’s a belief I still kind of have today; I can recognize their differences and discuss the merits of their portrayals, but I still can’t really pick a favourite; when asked my favourite Doctor I generally reply, “Whichever one I’m watching at the moment”).

And so “Castrovalva” Part One passed and I loved every minute of it. I was particularly excited about seeing Peter Davison’s face in the opening titles in place of Tom Baker’s. It was another thing I had predicted had to occur—kind of obvious, really, but then again, there were a lot of assumptions I had about the show and what would happen that seemed obvious at the time, but that I was completely wrong about.

The first was Adric. Adric was a companion of the fourth Doctor. It didn’t matter that he had only been with the fourth Doctor for a short while (although I was young and to me that short while seemed like a long time); companions clearly couldn’t cross over from one Doctor to the next. So I expected Adric to leave at the end of “Castrovalva”.

Now, I should make something clear as I really like Adric. Yes, I am well aware of how much hatred there is for Adric amongst a lot of Doctor Who fans, and looking back at the stories now, I understand what people don’t like about him. Nevertheless, I still have a soft spot for Adric because I remember how much I liked him then. I could relate to Adric; he made sense to me. So I wasn’t wanting him to leave. I just expected him to. When he didn’t leave at the end of “Castrovalva”, I expected him to leave in the next story. Then the one after that.

After a few stories, I came to accept that I had been mistaken about the “rules” for companions and that Adric would be sticking around for a while. I still didn’t understand why my Doctor Who Annual made no mention of him. And there was still no sight of this Turlough person from the annual. The fact is, I still hadn’t clued in just how far behind TVO was compared to what had aired in Britain.

Then BAM! Adric was gone, and in the most shocking way possible. He died! I was pretty stunned by that ending. The Doctor and his friends never had anything really bad happen to them. They always made it through and won in the end. Nobody ever died. Now, this didn’t upset me. At that age, while I loved the show, I didn’t really get emotionally invested in the characters, even the ones I really liked. Indeed, over the next few days and weeks, I came to see Adric’s death as one of the most awesome things ever. He got to go out in a literal blaze of glory—and as I started to read about other companions’ departures, such as reading the novelization of “Warriors’ Gate” and finally learning how Romana left (I explained last week how I always managed to miss the last episode of that story), Adric’s departure stood out all the more.

Another companion assumption I had at the time was that Nyssa also couldn’t possibly be sticking around. I didn’t think of her as a companion of the fourth Doctor, so it wasn’t for that reason. No, it was because my Doctor Who Annual made no mention of her either. Finally, I assumed Tegan would be sticking around since she was in the annual, but then suddenly, she was left behind at the end of “Time Flight”. That didn’t make sense! Obviously, they had to go back and get her again in the next episode. I waited eagerly for the next week to come to see how they got her back again, only to be disappointed to see a repeat.

There was another assumption I had about Doctor Who that ended that year too: the length of Doctor Who stories. Since I had started watching regularly (and paying attention to these thing), every story had been four episodes in length. Tom Baker’s final season was all four-episode stories and so was the season before that (since the six-part “Shada” was never finished). As such, I believed that every Doctor Who story ever had always been exactly four episodes long. It was just the way the series worked. When “Black Orchid” ended after only two episodes, I was very surprised.

Although I loved Doctor Who, it bothered me a little that hardly anyone else seemed to. I had had one friend in my old school who had watched it, but we had lost touch since I changed schools. My new friends were much more accepting of the fact that I watched it, but they still didn’t do so themselves—that is, not until the following year in seventh grade. That year, I finally convinced one of my fellow gifted students to watch an episode. It was the première of the new season, so I filled him in on everything that had happened up until that point (I knew it was a new season because that week’s TV Times magazine listed the title of the week’s episode as “Snakedance”, a story I hadn’t seen before—yes, I know what many of you must now be thinking: that’s not the story after “Time Flight”!), about the characters and most importantly about Tegan being left behind and how they had to go back and get her. He watched the episode and absolutely loved it, and for the next couple of years I had a Doctor Who ally.

While he loved the episode, however, I was rather perplexed (although I did like the episode too). I must have been speculating aloud at some point about how Tegan would come back because I remember my mom telling me that she figured Tegan would just be there in the next episode and that they wouldn’t bother explaining it. I didn’t believe that. There were a lot of other shows on TV at the time that would have characters inexplicably vanish and new characters inexplicably arrive, but Doctor Who wasn’t like that. Yet, after watching “Snakedance”, I had to concede that my mom was right. Tegan was just there and there was no mention at all of her abrupt departure in “Time Flight”. Of course, my mom actually was wrong. TVO had simply shown “Snakedance” out of order. But it would be a few weeks before “Arc of Infinity” started and before I realized this.

I remember I actually missed the Saturday showing of “Arc of Infinity” Part One (luckily it was repeated the following Thursday), and it was my new Doctor Who ally who told me that he was pretty certain this was the one that would explain what happened to Tegan since Tegan wasn’t in that episode. This disappointed him somewhat since Tegan was the main reason he watched the show (he was very glad when she showed up again the next episode). As I would come to learn, while he did like the show itself a great deal, his number one reason for liking it was because he thought Tegan was hot. The rest of the show could suck, but as long as Tegan was hot, he’d be watching. Still, he liked the show enough that, when I scored a copy of the new Doctor Who Roleplaying Game a year or so later, he was more than eager to start a game of it.

That friend only ended up sticking with Doctor Who until the end of the Peter Davison years. He never saw any Doctor before Peter Davison and when Colin Baker took over, he hated him. He just didn’t like the show without Peter Davison and Janet Fielding in it. As for me, I just didn’t understand why. I agreed Colin Baker’s first story wasn’t all that good, but it didn’t ruin the show for me, and I didn’t think that was a Colin Baker problem—just a bad story problem. It confused me a great deal to have my mom proclaiming that no one could replace Tom Baker and my friend proclaiming the same about Peter Davison. Meanwhile I just didn’t understand why you couldn’t like them all.

The Peter Davison years were very much a learning experience for me—learning about the show, about people’s reactions to it (and different parts of it), but also about myself, and developing myself. I’ve mentioned before that Doctor Who definitely helped shape my creative side. I was always interested in writing and storytelling, but Doctor Who actually gave me the opportunity to develop that side of me. I had taken my first stab at “fan fiction” in grade five with my “Doctor What” scripts. In sixth grade, I started getting ideas for Doctor Who stories I wanted to write, although it wasn’t until grade seven that I actually started writing them. Although Peter Davison was still the Doctor on TVO at the time, my stories actually featured the sixth Doctor since I knew he was the current one in the U.K. I wrote quite a lot of those stories, but I’ll talk about them more next week.

But it wasn’t just creatively that the show inspired me. It continued to inspire me to pursue scientific knowledge as well. Of course, I didn’t know at the time just how scientifically wrong most of Doctor Who is, but even if I had known, I don’t think it would have made a difference. It inspired me to read about the actual science. “Earthshock”, Adric’s dénouement, was the first time I’d ever heard about the idea of an asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs. I had always found dinosaurs rather fascinating, so I sought out books to learn about this asteroid. I remember then telling another friend all about this theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs. Sometime later, I discovered this friend had somehow gotten the impression that I had come up with the theory all by myself when he suggested I find some scientists to tell it to so they could check it out. I explained to him that I was not the originator of that theory, although I don’t think I told him I’d learned it from Doctor Who!

A lot of my fondest memories of watching Doctor Who come from the Peter Davison years. They formed the first period of the show that I actually got to watch through from beginning to end, in order (except “The Five Doctors”—I still don’t know why TVO never showed that one; I suspect it was because it was a 90-minute special rather than episodic, although an episodic version does exist). It was the first period where I had clear memories of all the episodes, and could even list every story title (because I was paying attention to those now). There was also an excitement that came with watching every new episode. I never lost that excitement with later Doctors, but it did change somewhat. During the Peter Davison years, I could show and revel in that excitement in ways that I couldn’t later on. It was a combination of my age at the time, and just having the right circle of friends and acquaintances that I didn’t have to feel any shame or uncertainty over watching it. When the first full Colin Baker season aired, I was in high school, and that was a whole different kind of learning experience.

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