Saturday, May 26, 2007

Meanwhile, back in the 1970s...

Having watched the 2005-2007 episodes of Doctor Who far too many times of late, I supplemented this tasty but limited diet tonight by watching two of the older serials, Spearhead from Space and Planet of the Spiders. They bracket the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who.

Spearhead from Space (1970) introduced the Third Doctor, first seen coming out of the TARDIS and collapsing. The serial reunited the Doctor with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and U.N.I.T., a partnership that lasted into the Fourth Doctor era and has occasionally resurfaced since. It introduced a new companion, Liz Shaw, and a new enemy, the Nestenes (and their living plastic henchmen, the Autons). There's a lot of fun stuff in it, but it's also rather tedious; it's a six-part story, and could easily have been done in five episodes, perhaps even four. I've always thought it seemed rather padded out with shambling and skulking Autons, not to mention sneaky Sam Seeley, the poacher who finds a Nestene "thunderball" after an alleged meteor shower.

Planet of the Spiders (1974) is the Third Doctor's swan song. Another six-parter, it has a long and messy plot involving a disgraced former U.N.I.T. Captain, Mike Yates; two Tibetan monks who are actually a) from Gallifrey and b) the same person; a mysterious blue crystal that kills a hapless psychic, doubles a mentally retarded man's IQ and is coveted by a giant spider; a bitter ex-salesman who allies himself with a spider in a quest for power; and squabbling brothers who want to free their people from the spiders' domination. At the end, the Doctor returns the crystal to its cave on Metebelis III, knowing the exposure to the place will basically kill him. He then gets lost in the Time Vortex for several weeks off-camera, is taken back to UNIT by the TARDIS, stumbles out into the lab and dies, only to regenerate into Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor) with Cho-Je's/K’anpo Rinpoche's help. See? Like I said, a mess. The mystical claptrap in this story is equally messy; I know very little about meditation and Zen and other buts of Eastern philosophy, but I sincerely hope it makes more sense than what Cho-Je tells Sarah Jane.
When these stories first aired, I'd never heard of Doctor Who, so it's not too surprising that these stories remind me of a different era from the one in which they were made. These are the shows I was watching back in 1990, when I joined a brand new Doctor Who club, was elected editor of its fanzine while I was out of the room and, a few months later, interviewed Jon Pertwee himself. My friends and I spent the decade watching Doctor Who and Quantum Leap, driving to and from Los Angeles to attend conventions and interview writers and actors, and writing about these two time travel shows. Yes, it was a great time.

But as I look as these old Doctor Who serials now, I can't help making comparisons with the newer ones I've been watching recently. The Autons and the Nestene Consciousness reappeared in the first of the 2005 shows, Rose, which introduced the Ninth Doctor. Like the Third Doctor, Christopher Eccleston's Doctor turns up having already regenerated offscreen, meets a young woman who will become his companion, and has to deal with shop window dummies that kill. But the resemblance between the shows pretty much ends there. The first story takes twice as long to tell as the second, and the climactic confrontation is between the Doctor and some seriously ridiculous-looking tentacles, with a woman scientist helping to save the say. Rose gives him a glowing CGI vat of living plastic to negotiate with. When negotiations fail, the Doctor and the planet are saved by a 19-year-old shop girl. The 2005 episode has clever dialogue and real emotion. The 1970 one has Sam Seeley, a stupid and greedy character who is probably based on a stereotype that, not being British, I don't quite recognize.

And yet in toto, the old series have much that is wonderful and iconic. Without Spearhead from Space, there could be no Rose; without Planet of the Spiders, no School Reunion. By 1970, viewers knew about the TARDIS, and the fact that the Doctor was a Time Lord, even if they hadn't learned all the ramifications of that. They had seen a series of companions come and go, watched the Doctor defeat the Daleks and Cybermen several times over, each, and even witnessed a regeneration, although it was not yet called that. If many of the episodes featured rubber monsters, spaceships on strings and caves with 90 degree corners, what of it? That's how it was back then. Even Star Trek looks cheesy by today's standards. And it was well worth putting up with the occasional silly tentacle creature to get to the stories about this amazing character, the Doctor, one of the greatest characters in the history of television.

I'm going to bed now. When I wake again, I'll get to watch the Doctor go somewhere he's never been before (outside of one well-regarded novel): out of his own persona and biology to be transformed into an all-too-human teacher named John Smith. The concept is somewhat similar to what one of my characters goes through in Mages, when he loses his memory and is not at all sure he wants to reclaim his old life afterward. So why does the episode that airs to day in England, Human Nature, make me so darn nervous? It's my friend the Doctor they're messing with - they'd better not screw this up!


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