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An Entrance To the World Of 'Doctor Who'

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For a couple of years now, unheralded, Maryland's public television Channel 22 has been broadcasting weekly the complete run of the quirky British sci-fi classic "Doctor Who." Complete means 26 years (1963-1989) of our hero battling rubber-suited monsters and other Evils From Before the Dawn of Time while traveling through the universe in a time machine ("the TARDIS") that looks like a '60s London police call box. The Doctor (he is never called Doctor Who) has gone through several incarnations as the actors who played him either left the show or died, but he remains an Englishman--albeit one from another planet.

Whoever plays him, the Doctor is a cosmic meddler, with no ideology except an aversion to suffering and injustice. As a hero, he belongs to the class of Eccentric English Bachelor Geniuses, of whom the supreme example is Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, he is cerebral, solitary and curious, in both senses of the word. He doesn't find wickedness fearsome as much as supremely irritating.

Tonight, starting at 11, Channel 22 will host a fund-raising "Doctor Who Night" with one of the latest and best of the shows, 1988's "Remembrance of the Daleks," plus a taped interview with the charming oddball actor Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor (1987-89). Awards for donations will include "Short Trips and Side Steps," a book of Doctor Who short stories, and four of the McCoy episodes, autographed by the actor.

The Daleks are a "Who" mainstay, the villains who got the series on its feet and running. Somewhat resembling chrome saltshakers with rifle attachments, they glide threateningly through London's streets, chanting "Exterminate!" in high metallic voices while laying waste to all who thwart them. The Daleks were a hit from the beginning and remain, after the TARDIS, the most durable piece of "Who" folklore. When Britain decided last year to produce a "Doctor Who" postage stamp, the image chosen was a Dalek.

Americans are most familiar with the fourth Doctor (1974-80), the towering great eccentric Tom Baker, he of the long scarf, bulging blue eyes and, as one viewer remarked on first seeing him, "too many teeth to be human." Baker's immense advantage in the part was that he seemed actually to be from another planet. An absurd and comic figure, he was also charismatic and a bit frightening--his long, loping stride carried him at an odd angle to this world.

Channel 22 has long since finished with the Baker episodes and is now showing the adventures of the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker (no relation). For a variety of reasons, Colin Baker was perhaps the least satisfying of the Doctors, and his two-year run in the part was the weakest in the series.

He got one of the best jokes, though. The TARDIS's "chameleon circuit," which is supposed to make it blend into any surroundings, was permanently stuck in the police call box mode. When the sixth Doctor tries to fix the problem, he ends up having to travel through time and space in something that looks like an upright piano and can be entered and exited only by clambering under the lid.

"Doctor Who" was launched at roughly the same time as "Beyond the Fringe," the Pythons and the Beatles movies, and it definitely has its cheerfully ridiculous side.

Yet the show is almost never just a joke. Its creators don't condescend to it with either irony or camp; they know what they're working on is silly, yet they also love it. And their artistic vision, modest though it is, contains pain. "Doctor Who" is always a show with a happy ending, but it takes place in an unhappy world, unjust and sometimes freakishly cruel. (The nearest modern tonal equivalent would be Joss Whedon's much more sophisticated "Buffy the Vampire Slayer.")

At its best "Doctor Who" achieves a kind of fairy-tale sweetness and spookiness. Many commentators have noted that the police-box TARDIS is a cousin of the wardrobe that leads to another world in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. The Whoniverse, as it's called by fans, also has a good deal in common with Lewis Carroll's Wonderland--a mix of nonsense and unease, a cool hint of absurdist nihilism.

During the seasons produced by Philip Hinchcliffe (1974-77), with Robert Holmes as script editor, "Doctor Who" often managed a strange balance of fantasy and fear. Tom Baker was at the top of his commanding, peculiar form, jester and king rolled into one, and the stories had a grim edge. "Pyramids of Mars," for example, contained such straight-faced lunacies as the Doctor's disguising himself as a mummy to infiltrate a group of robots who are also disguised as mummies (don't ask). Not to worry, he tells his anxious companion: "I shall mingle with the mummies, but I shan't linger." The same show also features the murder of a man by the corpse of the brother he has always dearly loved.

In the late '80s, when Andrew Cartmel became script editor, he screened the Hinchcliffe-Holmes episodes for his staff. Under Cartmel, "Doctor Who" saw its most ambitious scripts in more than a decade. But the quality of the writing was undercut by the fact that producer John Nathan-Turner was, after nearly 10 years, sick of the job, and his disinterest shows. The episodes have a sloppy, neglected feel, as if the elements of design, acting and script were never quite coordinated, and they're often rushed and unsatisfying. But "Remembrance of the Daleks," written by Ben Aaronovitch, is one of the best. (Aaronovitch also wrote the finest of the '90s Doctor Who novels, "The Also People.")

To begin with, it has Daleks, always a plus. It also has McCoy at his most gnomic. Like Tom Baker, whom otherwise he in no way resembled, McCoy was convincing as someone not of this Earth and, as with Baker, this was a result not of acting skill but of an odd, compelling presence. Diminutive, neatly hatted and toting a ridiculous umbrella, McCoy always seemed to have just dropped in from Elsewhere. As was said of another great British fantasy actor, Boris Karloff, he possessed "a queer, penetrating personality."

Canceled more than 10 years ago, "Doctor Who" nonetheless continues to flourish: in audiotapes, in novels, in comic strips, in a new British radio show. In 1996 a made-for-television movie starring Paul McGann ("I" in the film "Withnail and I") was a feeler for a new series that never got off the ground. Nor have any movies, though the BBC is always actively shopping the rights.

Though the show worked fine for almost 30 years, it's hard to imagine it being successful now. A good part of its whimsical charm lay in the unashamed clunkiness: the crawling monster that seemed to be made of green shag carpet, the robots finished off with tinfoil. With slick modern special effects, "Doctor Who" would be in danger of coming across as a joke its characters weren't in on. Better perhaps to remember it as it was, to be able to laugh yet also shiver just a little when a Dalek seizes the Doctor and intones to his distraught companions: "We need his brain!"

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  • APA 6th ed.: Rose, Lloyd (2000-12-02). An Entrance To the World Of 'Doctor Who'. The Washington Post p. C1.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Rose, Lloyd. "An Entrance To the World Of 'Doctor Who'." The Washington Post [add city] 2000-12-02, C1. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Rose, Lloyd. "An Entrance To the World Of 'Doctor Who'." The Washington Post, edition, sec., 2000-12-02
  • Turabian: Rose, Lloyd. "An Entrance To the World Of 'Doctor Who'." The Washington Post, 2000-12-02, section, C1 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=An Entrance To the World Of 'Doctor Who' | url= | work=The Washington Post | pages=C1 | date=2000-12-02 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 February 2023 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=An Entrance To the World Of 'Doctor Who' | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 February 2023}}</ref>