When the new season of Doctor Who—Season 33 overall, Series 7 of the current era—kicked off on September 1 with “Asylum of the Daleks,” one of the major plot points to be revealed, and ultimately resolved, was that of an inexplicable rift in the marriage of the Doctor’s stalwart companions, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darville). More than the enjoyable sense of clever humor, more than the elaborate world-building or the steady shift in the Doctor’s personality from bumbling space tourist to guilt-ridden destroyer of lives, this development illustrated beyond all question just how far from its humble origins this show has come in the almost fifty years since its inception.
Debuting on the BBC in 1963, Doctor Who began life as silly sci-fi for the kids, with over-the-top villains and ridiculous sets and effects that were not special at all. Broadcast in the early evening and targeted at an eager young audience, in many ways Doctor Who was educational programming; the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, was given to us as a kindly, though admittedly alien, old gentleman taking his not-entirely-alien granddaughter Susan (Carol Anne Ford) on a journey throughout time and space in a physics-defying time machine disguised as a then-ubiquitous Police Box—kind of like the extraterrestrial equivalent of a family road trip. When he took her into the past, it was inevitably the human past, and so the hopeful viewer would be treated to History! And when the episode was set in space, or in the future, why then, Science! Many of the show’s intricacies and questionable inconsistencies stem from this time, as the writers embraced a rather ad hoc, make-it-up-as-we-go approach, little considering that future Whovian historians would, decades hence, be pouring over their scripts and notes with the diligence of constitutional scholars.
Indeed, the show was so little regarded that master tapes of some of the earlier episodes were either allowed to decay or were ruthlessly reused in the '70s, under the mistaken belief that no one would either notice or care about the wholesale destruction of something shot on mere videotape, and in black and white to boot—a sacrilege likened by enthusiasts to Van Gogh painting over his own, then-unappreciated, masterpieces for similar pecuniary reasons. Worse, several of the serials—that is, four- or six-part episodes—are now incomplete, including, if you will believe it, the episode in which the First Doctor transforms into the Second (a story-telling device dreamt up, incidentally, to allow for the departure of Hartnell in 1966, and his replacement by the somewhat manic Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton.) Many of these “Missing Episodes,” all coming from the first six seasons and numbering a staggering 106 out of a possible 256 (yes, there was a time when British shows weren’t limited to 6-episode seasons), have been painstakingly reconstructed by fans using clips and stills, and all of them exist in audio form, taped by burgeoning young geeks off the television in a time before VCRs.
Indeed, for decades Doctor Who was ever the geekiest of shows, kind of the British equivalent of Star Trek but without the glamor; dedicated Who fans, in the hierarchy of dweebdom, ranked below just about everyone except perhaps Blake’s 7 completists, and anyone who ran a Land of the Giants 'zine. True, the show’s cult appeal was massive but its fascination had an often limited shelf-life—it was a show many kids throughout the Commonwealth grew up watching (or, as runs the familiar childhood tale, hiding behind the couch in terror from) but then grew out of, around the same time they did, say, The Smurfs, or Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
But now those former viewers are coming back to the fold, more and more with each new season, it seems, and a big part of this resurgence can be attributed to the fact that where once there was only History! and Science! (and, it must be said, also Sociology! and Politics! and Other Compelling Metaphor!), now there is also Romance!
I, among many others, would suggest that the shipification of Doctor Who began with the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his sparky fondness for über-companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)—there was never anything overt between the two, but even a kid could detect their comfortable chemistry, and this even despite his wild-eyed wackiness and her addiction to pantsuits. Also, Sarah Jane was the most capable, and therefore the most worthy, of all of the Doctor’s female helpmeets, be they ever so scantily-clad. (Looking at you, Leela! No wonder you never got your own spinoff. Sarah Jane got three.)
But it wasn’t until Paul McGann’s Byron-esque Eighth Doctor that love was allowed to bloom in the TARDIS. Appearing only in one 1996 television movie, produced as an ultimately unsuccessful backdoor pilot for the US FOX Network, he will nevertheless ever own a place in Who history due to a controversial kiss with his (also controversial, in that she was American) companion Grace (Daphne Ashbrook)—another capable woman, and a doctor in her own right. It was probably this that eventually paved the way for the series reboot in 2005, giving our hero a more adult edge to go along with his tortured, angst-filled, ultimately doomed romance with young companion, Rose (pop starlet Billie Piper). And when is tortured, angst-filled and ultimately doomed romance not a delight to watch?
The first episode of the new era offered up the first ever action-hero Doctor in Christopher Eccleston, all black leather and steely gaze, outwardly a Northern hard man and deadpan quipster, but with the innate scientific genius we had come to expect of this ancient alien. His Ninth Doctor was only with us for one series, however, followed by the lanky, laddish David Tennant as the Tenth, whose chemistry with Rose was somehow even more palpable—it was certainly hard to withhold a tear when she was left languishing in an alternate dimension at the end of Season 2 (long story), and years later the Tenth Doctor took a moment to visit her happy past, for one last glimpse before segueing into his current Eleventh incarnation.
Which brings us almost up to date. The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) is childlike and captivating and an utterly mad genius, with a twinkle in his eye that barely hides the primeval sorrow buried there. He has known Amy since she was a child, which might seem a little creepily The Time-Traveler’s Wife, except that between the two there has only briefly been anything other than strict platonic affection, for all that Amy’s husband Rory clearly fears otherwise. It’s easy to understand his disquiet: Amy—beautiful, bold, bravura Amy—is the Doctor’s conscience, and holds his heart as much as anyone ever has (except perhaps for her daughter, the misplaced-in-time River Song, whom he married at the end of last season, and who was played with consummate cougarish glee by the magnetic Alex Kingston. Another long story.) But still, there can be no denying that Amy and Rory’s imminent departure in the fifth episode of this season, while terrifying in concept—because who knows what might be done to them—also seems like it might be a profound step forward in their relationship, as Amy can never belong entirely to Rory while the Doctor continues to cling to her. Something they’ve all known for some time.
Deep, proper grown-up stuff to be found in silly sci-fi for the kids, isn’t it? The which can be attributed to the two Executive Producers to have had the Doctor and his cohorts in their thrall since the reboot. First, Russell T. Davies, of the original UK Queer as Folk, was at the helm—which explains much of the melodrama, as well as the inclusion aboard the TARDIS of bisexual conman from the future and rival love interest, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), later spun off to the separate-but-not-equal sister series, Torchwood. But also of major note throughout the earlier seasons was writer Steven Moffatt, of the original UK Coupling fame (as well as this blogger’s favorite, favorite teen show ever, Press Gang; if you haven’t seen it, find it immediately!). Since he has been in charge of our beloved Gallifreyan these past few seasons, the TARDIS has been happier, and the repartee even snappier—which has therefore made the inevitable angst more jarring, coming as it does in the midst of endlessly clever pop culture references and adorable, fast-talking technobabble.
How much of the relationship dramedy is what appeals to the new generation of Who fans and how much is the improved effects, spunkier human sidekicks and infinitely more convincing bad guys, it is hard to say. But with teenage girls—and their big sisters, and their hipster boyfriends, and their mothers—taking to the show in droves over the past few years, and consequently breaking worldwide viewing figure records with every new season premiere, there’s definitely something going on. Something good—and, when one really thinks about it, something that actually makes sense, considering recent trends in romantic fiction.
In many ways, the Doctor is the ultimate in Paranormal Romance heroes: he’s practically immortal but ever-changing, so his eternal suffering never gets insipid; his regrets are myriad, but so are his triumphs; he can be arrogant and obtuse, but is inherently witty and charming; and he is probably the smartest person alive, but has no commonsense whatsoever. Moreover, he’s dangerous, famous throughout the cosmos and has the run of the universe...and yet he needs a good woman to steady him, to keep him from blowing everything up, and to stave off the loneliness...much as we might see in even the oldest of vampires or the most haunted of fallen angels.
Will the Doctor ever find that good woman—and then keep her for himself? Probably not. But watching him make human connections, then lose them, and then search again for more...and then again...and again...is one of the most simultaneously exhilarating and devastating hours on television, even while it is also hilarious and terrifying and confusing and fun and just ever so slightly ridiculous.
So, Doctor Who. It’s not just for geeks anymore, and certainly not just for kids. Seriously, even this season’s second episode, entitled “Dinosaurs in Space” and featuring—as it says on the tin—dinosaurs in space was more about the ongoing Amy/Rory/Doctor imbroglio than about the, to repeat, DINOSAURS IN SPACE.
Which is exactly why you should be watching...especially as the Doctor’s new companion, Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman), as introduced, turned into a Dalek and then killed off in the premiere—yet ANOTHER long story—looks like being pretty awesome, assuming she is somehow able to recover from being, well, a dead Dalek. Hey, stranger things have happened. Or maybe she has a twin! And in the meantime: goodbye, Amy and Rory! Goodbye to your humor, and your courage, and your Lovers-of-Friends romance, and most especially to your snarky, sparky triangle of love/devotion/jealousy with the Doctor, the likes of which the TARDIS had not yet seen, and may never see again.
We miss you already.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.