My (35th) Doctor Who Anniversary
The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who is really the 35th anniversary for people like me. In 1978 Tom Baker's first four seasons (12-15) were simultaneously released to PBS stations, and that was the start of American fandom. Some of Jon Pertwee's seasons had been shown in the early '70s, but they didn't generate any interest. The Star Wars craze of '77 made the U.S. suddenly receptive to this sort of thing, and for me it was life-changing. Those Tom Baker stories were recycled relentlessly on TV, and they ran daily between Mondays and Fridays. At five episodes a week, the networks burned through four seasons in much less than a year's time, which was just as well. These were the days before VHS, and I rejoiced in the frequent PBS replays.
A Golden Age
I discovered the show when my PBS station was towards the end of season 14, at Robots of Death. Which means that my second story was the epic Talons of Weng-Chiang, recognized by many (and certainly me) as the best Doctor Who story of all time. And my third was The Horror of Fang Rock, the season-15 premiere which felt like it belonged in season 14. (Hinchcliffe was producer during seasons 12-14, and Graham Williams would run things a bit lighter throughout seasons 15-17. But some of the season-15 stories were so menacing and horrific they felt like leftovers from the Hinchcliffe era. Fang Rock was one of them.)
Robots of Death was a perfect first story for me. It was straightforward, fast-paced, and intelligent. But it also conveniently introduced me to the TARDIS, through the eyes of Leela. Hers is the best companion reaction to "bigger on the inside" (Amy Pond's in The Eleventh Hour is a close second), and the Doctor's "explanation" for it has become legendary:
Doctor (holding up two boxes): "Which box is larger?"And that's ridiculous, of course, because trans-dimensional engineering has nothing to do with how the eye is fooled. His explanation is indeed silly, and even my ten-year old self could see through it. But I quickly fell in love with the Doctor's techno-babble. It fit the eccentric tone of the show -- and in this case the writers may have intended something else. It's quite possible that the Doctor is deliberately bullshitting Leela because he doesn't consider her worthy of (or intelligent enough to handle) a genuine explanation for trans-dimensional engineering. Especially considering that she's a primitive savage. That's how I've come to understand the scene. It would be entirely in the Fourth Doctor's character to spout nonsense just to shut her up.
Leela (pointing to the larger): "That one."
Leela (indignant, pointing over at the larger one): "That one!"
Doctor: "But it looks smaller."
Leela: "That's because it's further away!"
Doctor: "Exactly. Now if you could keep that one exactly that distance away and have it here, it would fit inside the small one."
Leela (nonplussed): "That's silly."
Doctor: "That's trans-dimensional engineering."
Speaking of Fang Rock's ending, it makes the story unique, though I didn't know it at the time. For the first and last time in the show's history, every single character in the supporting cast is killed off. These murders, moreover, are not just done for the "sake" of a high body count. As in Robots of Death, each kill is a slam in the gut that escalates the plot. I wish Steven Moffat would take inspiration from this classic, discard the "everyone lives" trope, and give Peter Capaldi some darker material to work with next season.
Completing the Loop
When PBS finished airing season 15, it looped around back to 12, and it wasn't long before I devoured the entire Hinchcliffe era. I was initially confused thinking that Sarah came after Leela, and villains like Davros followed Magnus Greel. On some level I still think of Leela as the "first companion" (Sarah was obviously the best), on the power of first impressions. Her first story, The Face of Evil, was the last story I saw from the season 12-15 package. It was every bit as good as Robots of Death, and had it been my first story, it would have been interesting since I lived on a religious community. The story tackles religion head on, and is premised on the Doctor having unwittingly screwed over a planet by setting up a psychopathic computer-god in his own image. One of the cliffhangers gave me nightmares (see here, 3:15-4:00), and remains my favorite cliffhanger to this day.
Those are my anniversary reflections. I entered the world of Doctor Who during its golden age, and on three especially dark stories that blended horror and mystery in a unique stew. The new series has tapped this old power on occasion, with entries like The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. I've generally been a fan of the new series, but neither Davies nor Moffat have superseded Hinchcliffe. They've come close when at the top of their game. But too often they have feared to trust that children can handle the "traumatic" storytelling that Mary Whitehouse decried, and that my best friend and I lived for when we were kids. This past season (the seventh) has been the worst in dumbing down to Disney levels. I'm pleased to say that the 50th anniversary special renewed my hope for season eight, and for a new Doctor.