Time Traveler with a Celery Boutonniere

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I first learned about the television series Doctor Who from an article in Starlog Magazine. The article announced that Peter Davison would take over the role of the Doctor from Tom Baker, who had played the part for seven years. I knew nothing about who any of these people were or what the show was about, but I do remember blond-haired Peter Davison in a light colored outfit standing next to the ubiquitous blue police box, which I would later learn was his machine for traveling in time and space. When I finally saw an episode of Doctor Who, it featured Tom Baker, a jovial fellow with a mop of curly hair and a scarf that went on forever. I was curious how the young blond actor and the curly-haired actor could play the same part. Eventually, I would learn that the Doctor can regenerate into a whole new body. Still, I was curious what Peter Davison would be like compared to Tom Baker.

The Doctor and the Master face off in Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor.

Around this time, I discovered that my local bookstore started carrying novelizations of Doctor Who episodes. Right there on the shelf was that blond-haired fellow smiling at me from the cover of a story called “The Visitation.” I picked it up and found myself transported back to medieval England in a story where aliens crashed on Earth. In the final struggle, a lamp is knocked into some hay and the great fire of London is started. In college, I would finally see the episode as part of season nineteen of the series, which was Peter Davison’s first. That season is now out on Blu-Ray and I recently revisited the first year of this blond-haired fellow as the Doctor.

I had fond memories of this season from college. Tom Baker played the Doctor for so long, a new actor seemed a breath of fresh air. I remember Peter Davison as an affable, breezy personality. As a quirk, he wore a stalk of celery as a boutonniere on clothes suitable for a cricket match. I remember liking how the writers created something of a Holmes/Moriarty relationship between the Doctor and his old nemesis the Master.

Rewatching it, the nineteenth season didn’t quite match my memories. Peter Davison’s Doctor seemed to snap at people more than I remembered. He also looked a little uncomfortable in the part at times. He was, after all, the first actor to play the part who had also grown up watching it. The season also presented the Doctor with three companions. This wasn’t unheard of in the series’ run, but it wasn’t common. In this case, I could see that four regular characters were a challenge for the writers. Often they’d find a way to put one companion on the sideline while giving one or two others the limelight.

I had fond memories of an episode called “Black Orchid.” It’s a short episode in the middle of the season where the Doctor ends up in the middle of a 1920s mystery. It’s not very science fictional, but it seemed like it made the best use of all the characters and it remains one of my favorite of the season. The episode I first read in novel form, “The Visitation” also held up pretty well. The only part I thought could have been improved were the aliens, who looked too much like people in stiff, rubber suits.

The season felt longer than other Doctor Who seasons I’ve purchased. Indeed, most seasons I’ve watched only have four or five distinct stories. This one had seven. Classic Doctor Who stories were serialized from half-hour episodes. Most of the actual stories were shorter than stories in earlier seasons. Still, I had a feeling that in some cases the writers struggled to find material for all four episodes of a story. Some stories in the nineteenth season might have been stronger as only two or three-part stories. This is probably one of the reasons “Black Orchid” remains a favorite. It doesn’t feel padded out.

As with other Doctor Who Blu-Rays I’ve purchased, this one is chalk full of interviews and behind-the-scenes documentaries. All in all, it was fun to go back and spend a season with the first Doctor I’d ever actually seen, if only in a magazine photo.

Happy Birthday, Doctor Who!

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the British television series Doctor Who. I’ve been a fan for about thirty-two of those years. I actually discovered the series through Starlog Magazine. There was an article about how the actor who was playing the Doctor was changing from Tom Baker to Peter Davison. I was intrigued because the two actors didn’t look anything alike and I wondered how they could possibly do that. Unfortunately, growing up in Southern California, no PBS station at the time actually carried the series, so I had to wait a few months until I went to my uncle’s house in Florida before I would finally get to make my first journey with the Doctor. The episode was “Robot’s of Death” starring Tom Baker.

David at the Tardis Console.  The Doctor looks on with concern.

David working on the Tardis console. The Doctor looks on with concern!

Eventually, after I returned home, the Los Angeles PBS station finally kicked off a run of Doctor Who starting with the 20th anniversary episode, “The Five Doctors.” From that point on, I’ve been able to watch, more or less regularly, when the show has been produced, until the present day.

Doctor Who has inspired me over the years. It’s the story of an alien—a Time Lord—who wanders time and space in a machine called the TARDIS helping where he can, often with the assistance of a human companion. He has lived for hundreds of years and when he grows too old or, as more often happens, becomes injured beyond healing, he regenerates into a new body. Ramon and Fatemeh from Owl Dance have certainly taken some inspiration from the Doctor in terms of their desire to help people where they go. The Scarlet Order vampires have had to deal with questions of longevity and losing those they care about to time, just as the Doctor has.

My daughter Myranda meets John Levene who played Sergeant Benton on Doctor Who.

1996: My daughter Myranda meets John Levene—Sergeant Benton on Doctor Who.

Not only has Doctor Who inspired elements of my writing, the show has crept into my personal life at times, too. When my wife and I were trying to decide what to name our second daughter, we were watching one of the early episodes. As the credits scrolled, we saw the name of the show’s first producer, Verity Lambert. We both looked at each other and decided to name our daughter Verity.

Over Labor Day weekend, I was honored to be asked to be on the “Doctor Who: Celebrating 50 Years” panel with such folks as Alastair Reynolds, who recently wrote a Doctor Who novel featuring the third doctor, and Lynne M. Thomas, one of hosts of the Verity Podcast. One of the things I was able to contribute to the panel was an appreciation of the fact that there is much more to Doctor Who than just the television series. There have been two movies starring Peter Cushing and an ongoing comic series in Doctor Who Magazine. There are novels and there’s an ongoing audio series from Big Finish Productions featuring many of the past Doctors. They even started an animated web series when it looked like the show was not coming back to television. The first and only episode is available for free at the BBC’s Doctor Who Website.

With all this going on, newcomers may wonder how anyone keeps all these Doctor Who stories straight. In fact, Doctor Who is rife with contradictions. Not only are there story contradictions that have been dismissed with a wave of the hand and a dismissive declaration of “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” but thematic contradictions. Doctor Who is at once serious and silly, excellent drama and pure cheese, wonderful storytelling and episodes that make you groan. One of the joys of Doctor Who is that it is not merely rife with contradictions, it revels in them, has fun with them and plays with them. Watching how writers have juggled that over the years has been one of the true delights of the show.

I was once asked, if given the opportunity, would I write for Doctor Who? In fact, I once wrote a story based on the eighth Doctor visiting the 1963 World’s Fair in Seattle. So yes, if the Doctor ever came calling and asked if I would go traveling, you bet, I’d be there!