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Doctor Who's many patients get nightly dose of comic adventure

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1983-09-11 Spokesman Review.jpg


So what, Seattle. Big deal, you've got a professional football team, a domed coliseum where baseball sometimes is played, and a waterfront.

Back here, we've got Doctor Who.

We, in this instance, are the viewers of the Spokane Public Broadcasting Service served by KSPS-TV.

And Doctor Who? If you watch television and especially if you're bored with "Magnum PI" or "Falcon Crest" on weeknights, you should know who "Doctor Who" is. He's the time-traveling super-sleuth in a slightly wacky science-fiction series showing five nights a week on KSPS (Channel 7).

The doctor might not match Tom Selleck in beefcake appeal. And he's hardly the type of TV character adults would consider a good role model for children.

In fact, he's not much to look at and he has this annoying British speech pattern that sometimes makes it hard to understand what he says.

But that doesn't really matter. "Doctor Who is a campy comic-book for people who are bored with American TV's ridiculous prime-time drivel and the unbearably ever-present "old" comedies like "I Love Lucy" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

If I were a kid, I'd probably think "Doctor Who" wasn't very good. It doesn't have the high-tech sophistication even of the earlier "Star Trek" episodes. It's hardly well-written in the normal sense of television drama.

And it's only a half-hour per episode; just about when a story line gets untracked, the doctor finds himself in danger of some other menace, just like the old "Buck Rogers" weekend serials. So it's not the sort of program that gets a lot of dramatic momentum established, except in a quick-spurt sort of way.

But what is presented in each show's 25 minutes somehow has an addictive effect on many American and Canadian viewers. (Because the show is made in Britain, it uses the shorter half-hour of the BBC, involving just 25 minutes.)

When I first started watching the show in July — I think the episode was "Terror of the Zygons" — I couldn't understand why some people I knew found it fascinating. The doctor — played by the appropriately oddball actor, Tom Baker — seemed mostly a fuddy modern version of Sherlock Holmes with a bad case of science-fiction vocabulary. He did exhibit some nice comic twists, such as always wearing this long, ugly scarf that somehow became a part of almost every series. And he would frequently disrupt the attention of some antagonist by offering a "jelly baby" from a supply of the candy he carries always in a pants pocket.

But the motives he revealed were usually pretty limited to standard science fiction stuff, such as always warning his comrades of the dangerous presence of some outer-space monster or advising them smugly how to take advantage of some clunky-looking gadget he had managed to find nearby.

Still, something about the program began having an effect on me. At first I was amused by the program's way of using both interesting special effects and other theatrical devices that were ridiculously amateur in design.

One time, the doctor — who lives in the future but who uses a "time box" to go back and forth across the eons — was showing an associate how to use a "crystal" that would de-activate a species of robot, a robot breed, in this case, with malevolent tendencies.

For the crystal, the actor produced a nice shiny red bicycle reflector, the kind your dad attached to your bike's back fender.

Maybe those campy little bits of heavy-handed humor cause one to lower the brain's logical defenses. In time, the stories themselves — which run about five daily episodes — began sounding more intriguing and provocative. Never very provocative, mind you. Just more so than before.

I knew I was hooked when the daily paper, in its TV listings a few weeks back, ran an item for that night's 10:30 schedule that went: Channel 7: "DrWks#"; I figured out pretty quick that the listing was actually a coded reference to "Doctor Who," no doubt intended to see how the show's really serious fans were.

It was about that same time that Channel 7 ran their summer pledge drive and discovered, to the surprise of many, that the two shows that garnered the greatest support among viewers were British: Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "Doctor Who."

As the weeklong pledge drive continued, the surprised but delighted people running it seemed to suddenly turn into rabid Doctor Who freaks. Just about every chance that they could, station money-seekers would run on about "Doctor Who, that it was the most-expensive show the station has acquired this year (it is, only because they've purchased a total of 172 episodes at once), that nobody else is carrying it in our market area, and that come November, people who really like the program will want to see a special "Five Faces of Doctor Who" episode, which includes segments from all the various programs made since the show started in 1977 and features the five different actors who've played the doctor.

But during that pledge campaign, the people at 7 were careful not to announce that their programming staff had already decided to take the show off at night and leave it on only at 5:30 p.m., once the fall season began.

The reason for that switch, explained KSPS programming manager Bill Stanley, was an overloaded schedule of new shows. In particular, the new 60-minute MacNeil and Lehrer newscast forced the evening schedule to break inconveniently into into hourlong segments.

So, despite the popularity of "Doctor Who" among the fans of 7, off came the late-night episode, replaced by a 5:30 p.m. showing. Stanley later said, when asked by a Doctor Who fan who works for this paper, that he might not have made that switch if he had had a clear idea of who the fans of the show were and when they most like to see it.

The fan who called wasn't calling to complain to Stanley; he just wanted to find out what might change the minds of those at the station who put "Doctor Who" at the ungodly early hour. That fan felt, righteously, that trying to watch an episode like "Terror of Fang Rock" or "The Pyramids of Mars" at 5:30 was like watching boxing on Sunday morning. The show required a late-night environment, the way a good back rub makes sense only after 8 p.m.

Stanley also admitted that there was good news and bad news for "Doctor Who" fans. For the first three Saturdays of September, those tuning in at 10 p.m. would see a two-hour-plus, back-to-back showing of all five shows in that week's serial.

After September, those Saturday night specials would end, however.

That was the "Doctor Who" status early in the week. But things have a way of slipping and sliding in the age of modern telecommunications.

Two days later, when that same fan again called Stanley to check on the program's future, a change at Channel 7 had occurred.

Stanley had decided to return "Doctor Who" to its 10:30 p.m. slot beginning Oct. 3. At that point, it would be running twice a day, at both the 5:30 p.m. and the later slot, he said.

The reason for the switch? A realization that many of the show's fans — on the basis of the August pledge — are adults who aren't at home until after 5:30 or who watch other programs at that time, he said.

Stanley also said KSPS will carry its current series of the show — which is the longest-running in the history of the BBC — through the rest of the year. Then, in 1984, the station will probably repeat some of the past year's episodes, he added.

It was obvious something had happened to him. We didn't bother to investigate the matter further. No doubt the doctor himself had played a part. I knew we'd have no further problems with the staff of Channel 7 when I heard Stanley say that he had to end our conversation and go out and buy a supply of jelly babies.

Caption: DOCTOR WHO Played by Tom Baker

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  • APA 6th ed.: Sowa, Tom (1983-09-11). Doctor Who's many patients get nightly dose of comic adventure. The Spokesman-Review p. E11.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Sowa, Tom. "Doctor Who's many patients get nightly dose of comic adventure." The Spokesman-Review [add city] 1983-09-11, E11. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Sowa, Tom. "Doctor Who's many patients get nightly dose of comic adventure." The Spokesman-Review, edition, sec., 1983-09-11
  • Turabian: Sowa, Tom. "Doctor Who's many patients get nightly dose of comic adventure." The Spokesman-Review, 1983-09-11, section, E11 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Doctor Who's many patients get nightly dose of comic adventure | url= | work=The Spokesman-Review | pages=E11 | date=1983-09-11 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=2 March 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Doctor Who's many patients get nightly dose of comic adventure | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=2 March 2024}}</ref>