I recently discovered (and then promptly misplaced the URL for) a website that lists public television station schedules going back 40 or so years. This site allowed me to confirm something I’ve always held true: I started watching Doctor Who when I was six years old. That’s when WGBH Channel 2 in Boston began running the Tom Baker stories, and those episodes completely entranced me. I didn’t really understand them, but I loved them.
The show was then in its 17th year across the pond, but I didn’t know that. All I knew was that it starred a funny guy with big curls, big teeth and a big scarf, and it featured monsters and time travel and a blue box that was bigger on the inside. I honestly needed nothing else. Doctor Who aired on weekdays at 7 p.m., and my bedtime was extended to 7:30 p.m. because of it. I vividly remember watching the old episodes on the television in my parents’ room, and hearing my mom say “go to bed” as soon as the familiar closing credits theme began playing.
It’s amazing what sticks in the memory from such a young age. WGBH ran through Tom Baker’s seven-season run twice before moving on to Peter Davison, so I had a couple years with the man with the scarf. As I’ve bought these episodes on DVD over the past 10 years, I’ve been surprised by how much I remember. The creepy titular Robots of Death, for example, have stayed with me, as has the giant robot from (ahem) Robot. I can remember watching the deflating rubber mask from The Sontaran Experiment like it was yesterday. That freaked me out.
With all that, it was Baker’s successor, Peter Davison, that really hooked me. Davison is my Doctor, the one I hold dearest. Thanks to the advent of the VCR, I watched his stories over and over again as a pre-teen. I gasped when Adric died (and was earnestly taken in by the silent credits that played over his broken gold star for mathematics). I loved the Black Guardian stories, particularly Enlightenment. I remember even then thinking that Time-Flight was terrible, and too long by half. But The Caves of Androzani is still one of the most thrilling, moving things I’ve ever watched.
So yeah, Doctor Who hooked me early. I drifted away more than once – until 2005 or so, I’d never seen a Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy story, for instance. I watched the 1996 TV movie when it aired, and thought it was lousy. My fandom sprung back to life about eight years ago, as the revived series renewed my interest in the classic one. I now have every available Who DVD, and I watch and re-watch it more than any other show. Still, for most of that time, it’s been a pretty lonely thing. Between age 6 and age 36, I met maybe a dozen other Who fans.
And now, as the show turns 50 years old? They’re everywhere. And I couldn’t be happier.
Consider this. On Saturday, Nov. 23, the show’s 50th birthday, I watched the 75-minute anniversary special as it was simulcast in 93 countries around the world. Ten million people in the U.K. watched it as it aired, and it broke all records for BBC America. And two days later, I gathered a group of friends and saw the special again, in a sold-out movie theater. In 3-D. My little show is now a global phenomenon. And not just the new stuff, either, although that would be fine with me – I love the new seasons, and Matt Smith is my favorite Doctor since the early days. No, there were a lot of Tom Baker scarves on display on Monday. The old show has found its way into people’s hearts.
There could be no greater gift for me on the 50th anniversary. I can scarcely fathom it – Doctor Who is 50 years old, and is now more popular than ever. I credit the infinite possibility of the premise. Doctor Who is about a guy who can go anywhere in time and space, and can regenerate his body when he dies. The show can literally be anything. One week it will be a dense sci-fi drama with Davros and the Daleks, and the next a farce set in the waning days of the Roman Empire. If you don’t like an episode, wait a week. And if you don’t like the actor playing the Doctor, wait a couple years. Like everything else in this show, it will change. Doctor Who is about renewal and rebirth, and there’s no reason it can’t run forever.
Like anything with such a long history – we’re about to launch into season 34 – Doctor Who is inconsistent. In fact, inconsistency is sort of a trademark. This is the show that ran The Caves of Androzani and The Twin Dilemma back to back, after all. But I think we’re in a shining golden age right now. The current showrunner, Steven Moffat, is not only brilliant, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool fan who understands the show down to its DNA. And I mentioned Smith earlier. He’s got everything I look for in an actor playing the Doctor – he’s older than his years, he’s naturally quirky, and he has a surprising gravitas.
Together, Smith and Moffat have crafted three seasons of (mostly) excellent Doctor Who. It’s now a deeper and darker story than it’s been, but it still retains the core of the show – that eternal wonder at the vastness and beauty of the universe. Though the show is dark, Moffat doesn’t really do tragedy. The River Song arc, twisty as it was, ends in redemption, and the big sad ending for Amy and Rory found them sent back to the past to live their lives in peace and happiness.
And now, with the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, Moffat has outdone himself. I’ll say up front that I think it’s the best episode of the show, period. I’ve seen it three times, and I keep thinking about moments of it and smiling. It’s a remarkable celebration of 50 years of this show, while at the same time clearing the decks for a bold move forward. That’s as it should be – any anniversary special should not be mired in nostalgia, but should be a joyous “to be continued,” reveling in the fact that the tale goes ever on.
This special certainly does that, but it also does two other important things miraculously well. I’ll have to get into some spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen The Day of the Doctor, skip to the end of this column.
So here are those two things, and why they’re important.
1. The special wraps the past seven seasons into one epic tale. It does this by finally addressing the Last Great Time War, the wound that has been at the heart of the series since its return in 2005. The Doctor we met in Rose was haunted by his actions in the war, and wracked with survivor’s guilt. And his two subsequent incarnations struggled with it, David Tennant’s 10th Doctor growing angrier and prouder, while Smith’s 11th tried to forget. In fact, Smith’s Doctor tried to erase himself from the universe entirely.
During Tennant’s time, we learned that the Doctor wiped out his home planet of Gallifrey, killing the Time Lords and the Daleks in one fell swoop. Of course, the Daleks survived, which only added to his sense of shame – it was all for nothing. At the end of last season, we met a forgotten incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt. It was he who pushed the button, using a sentient weapon called The Moment to commit double genocide. And for that crime, the Doctor banished him from his own memory.
For a long time, The Day of the Doctor looks like it’s simply going to show us the Doctor’s moment with the Moment. But in a magical sequence that only this show could do, the Doctor visits his former self (twice, actually), and finds a way to rewrite his own narrative. It was the guilt over pushing the button that allowed him, over 400 years, to evolve into the man who could think his way around pushing the button, while preserving the timeline. The solution is elegant, and it brings the entire revived show full circle. The Doctor has healed himself. It’s absolutely beautiful.
2. It sublimely connects the old and new shows into one glorious whole. There has always been some debate over whether the revived series is a continuation or a reboot. Moffat has definitively answered this in the best way possible. He started with The Night of the Doctor, a seven-minute prequel that brought Paul McGann back to the role after 17 years. (I want a McGann miniseries. He was amazing.) But The Day of the Doctor outdid it, uniting the Doctor’s timeline from his earliest incarnation to now. All of his regenerations take part in the thrilling climax – even 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi, making his first appearance – and the special references the old show left and right.
Best of all, the wonderful ending brings back Tom Baker, playing a future incarnation revisiting an old face. I can’t tell you how emotional it was for me to see Baker back in Doctor Who, for the first time since 1980. It was a gift, and a lovely one. And in a splendid twist, Moffat worked in an older Doctor not as a nostalgia trip, but as a clear sign that the Doctor will live on, and he will be happy. That was incredible.
I haven’t even talked about what a superb double act Tennant and Smith made, or how well Hurt fit into the mythos, often speaking for grumpy fans of the old series. (“Timey what? Timey wimey?”) It was, in every way it could be, absolutely perfect. I have never been prouder to be a fan of this show, and it was such a treat to share this moment with so many people. I know Doctor Who fans all over the country now, and in fact in a few other countries too. This was such a great moment for all of us, uniting not just the eras of the show, but fans of all of those eras.
Fifty years is such an achievement, but the show isn’t resting. It’s constantly moving forward, and that’s what makes it special. We get Matt Smith’s final appearance as the Doctor at Christmas, and then Capaldi’s first episodes next year. The show’s about to renew itself again, about to set the stage for its next few years. There’s no reason it shouldn’t do that forever. I’m not even 40, and I’m certain this show will outlive me. There’s magic in that. It’s bigger than all of us.
Thank you, Steven Moffat, for penning a fitting celebration for a show unlike any other. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the joy this show has brought me since I was six years old. And thank you, Doctor Who, just for being what you are. Here’s to the next 50 years, and to the madman with a box.
All of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start?
See you in line Tuesday morning.