Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Changing Doctor Who

I've been a fan of Doctor who for more than 30 years. I sat in my living room as a kid and watched the 20th Anniversary episode, The Five Doctors (oddly enough 2 days before they saw it in England). That was my first exposure to the first three Doctors. My how things have changed since then.

Which is the point. Change happens and we cannot stop it. The way Doctor Who has lasted for 50 years is by adapting and changing. Yes, for a time there was no new Doctor Who on TV, but that time was filled with reruns, audio adventures, and the 1996 TV movie. Doctor Who was never gone, he just stepped away for a moment.

Yet after the phenomenal 50th Anniversary special, there are many who are decrying Steven Moffat's choice to bring back Gallifrey. They say it undoes everything that came before and is too big a change. Seriously? I know there are at least as many people who were not happy with Russel T. Davis' decision to base the new series on that premise.

The one thing I will say right now, is that every person had their own tastes and every comment is valid... from that person's point of view. However, many people make sweeping comments intended to imply a fan-wide belief and that is not the case. Each opinion (even my own) comes from a very personal perspective and there will be those who agree and disagree. I'm making this post in response to those who take these changes too much to heart and don't give the show a chance after that.

And here is the logic. What we have today is not the Doctor Who that Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, and William Hartnell created back in 1963. The character and nature of the show are nowhere near the same, yet it is the same show. There has never been a big jump, a great change (although there were some near misses) that has altered the show into something completely unrecognizable.

In the beginning we have a fleeing Timelord and his granddaughter and two nosy teachers. I realized it after watching the The Day of the Doctor that the Timelords are personified as the Doctor was originally portrayed - unwilling to get involved. Well, thank goodness for character development. The Doctor has certainly had a lot and yet very little of the mystery of his origins has been revealed. The changes in the early years of the first two Doctors were gradual and subtle. The biggest change came in The War Games. Suddenly we know the Doctor is a Timelord. Not only that, but the Doctor stole the Tardis and his constant interference is a violation of Timelord laws. He is punished with exile to Earth in the 20th century. The show had probably its biggest change ever. Not only did the Doctor change, but the series went from 42 black and white episodes a year to 26 color episodes. No longer did the Doctor fly around in his Tardis, he had to sit on earth and deal with the problems that came his way. That was accompanied by a complete turn-over in the creative team. But, if you look back, this was not a sudden change. UNIT was introduced first and the stories led up to the change.

But it was a change destined not to work for long. The Doctor needed to fly, both as a character and for good story ideas. But he didn't fly far. For many years after The Three Doctors, the Doctor kept coming back. With the departure of Sarah Jane Smith, ties to Earth were broken and the Doctor went back to flying. Then came the Key to Time. A problem to solve that resulted in two seasons of the Doctor having to fly randomly to avoid the Black Guardian.

Probably the single worst decision in Doctor Who history was Colin Baker's Doctor. Oh, not in casting that actor (a marvelous man - just listen to the audio adventures), but in his post-regeneration insanity. That plus a poor story (The Twin Dilemma is very forgettable) coming at the end of a good season for Peter Davison, and it derailed the show. Add to that, Baker's first season was comprised of 45 minutes episodes and only half as many. What made it worse is that when they went back to 25 minute episodes, they didn't increase the number so for the last 4 seasons you have the smallest seasons in Doctor Who history..Baker's Doctor is fine. He is brash and loud and his clothes fit his personality. But the timing and way he was introduced left a bad taste in the mouth for many fans. This is not just opinion, it is reflected in the viewership stats.

Typical of a show in decline, there are some bad stories. The original Star Trek suffered from this its last season as well. Then Doctor Who was gone. Here in the US, we had reruns. By that time it was of all 7 Doctors, including the newly recovered Tomb of the Cybermen. US audiences got to know the full range of the series and slowly it came out on home video so just about anyone could enjoy it. Even the orphaned episodes, the last remaining parts of otherwise missing stories, came out, plus the audio recordings for the missing episodes and then the reconstruction by some enterprising fans. Some of us have gotten to experience the full 50 years of Doctor Who through what remains.

The one constant in the history of Doctor Who is change.

That was true when Doctor Who returned in 2005. This was not the same old man in a box. This was a hurt man in a box. He was haunted by what he'd done (or thought he'd done). Gallifrey was gone, the Daleks were gone. Yet the Daleks came back. And came back in a big way more than once. So Davis reversed his own idea first. He even tempted us with the Timelords coming back, but these were those of the High Council who had escalated the Time War and were so determined to win at any cost. The Doctor had the choice of Gallifrey or Earth and he chose Earth (as he usually does). But this story of Davis gave us the possibility of the return of the Timelords.

Then Steven Moffat takes over and he doesn't give us anything so big so soon. He builds it up for 4 years. He gives us a series of mysteries and the surprise of changing the total destruction of Gallifrey into the hope of Gallifrey's return. It is like the recent recovery of two of the Second Doctor's stories. For years they were lost, presumed that all copies were destroyed, then hope of finding them surfaced (the shipping records) and then they were found (in Nigeria of all places).

Each lead producer of Doctor Who has faced criticism in the direction they took the show. Some have overstayed their time and their decisions had consequences, but few have truly ruined the show. Even now, if you watch the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, their stories are good, the portrayed is solid. They both (along with the Fifth and Eighth) have gotten a very good extension in the Big Finish audio dramas.

So the claims that Moffat has ruined the show, ruined the last seven years of the war scarred Doctor, are out of step with history. Yes, they may not like the changes, but there is little to prove them right at this point in time. Will this change be like turning the Doctor from a reluctant hero into a man of action (the First Doctor), or like his exile on Earth (the Third Doctor), or the Key to Time/Black Guardian (the Forth Doctor), or the Gallifreyan Mystic (the Seventh Doctor), or the War Scarred Last of the Timelords (the Ninth Doctor)? If so, it will not hurt the series at all. None of those have. The only thing that ever has is having the Doctor strangle his companion and bad writing. Oh, and the BBC big-wigs messing with it.

So virtually every change made in Doctor Who by the production staff over the years has proven successful. They know the show, they care about the show, and they are after shows that will please their audience and attract more people. Only two Doctors have been able to sustain more than 10 million viewers for a full season. The First Doctor did it in the second season. The Fourth Doctor did it in 4 out of his 7 seasons. The new series has been very constant, having its biggest success with the specials (the Christmas specials and the 50th Anniversary).

The end point is that change is good. Change the revamps what came before is normal. Change is what gives Doctor Who its long lasting appeal. Each actor brings something new. Each producer brings something new. It's been around 50 years because of change so we should not be so fearful of change. It usually works out of the best and the fans who come after wonder what the big deal was.

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