I’m awake on the first few hours of my birthday, and I’m confronted by two of my great obsessions– Charlie Chaplin and Doctor Who. Don’t worry; I can explain.
For those not familiar or not aware, Doctor Who was a science fiction TV produced in the UK, which ran for nearly 26 years. It was essentially a kid’s show, intended to teach science and history through the eyes of a time traveling scientist. Yup, the BBC beat Carmen Sandiego to the punch by 30 years.
The main character is known only as the Doctor. He had no name to speak of, many faces, and a mysterious past. Except for his two hearts, he seemed quite human. He travelled the cosmos with his time machine…or to be more precise, his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension in Space.)
Most people think of a futuristic car or a Victorian buggy-type thing when you say “time machine.” But the TARDIS is a universe in a box, bigger on the inside than outside, capable of going anywhere in time and space. The Doctor’s TARDIS didn’t work all that well, though. It was in for repairs when he stole–er, borrowed it, so it’s hard to tell where you might end up. Or maybe the Doctor is a bad navigator. It’s anyone’s guess. The TARDIS was also supposed to disguise itself, but it got stuck in the shape of a British police public call box. So as you can see, it’s a mess.
Like the Doctor, the show went through many changes. It went from educational kid’s show to science fiction adventure after just one trip through time. Instead of wandering into living history lessons, he started confronting alien monsters. The first time we see him, he’s a cranky old scientist who doesn’t seem to have a lot of scruples. Several stories later, he demonstrates compassion and a sense of fair play. If a tyrant or an alien invader starts throwing his weight around, the Doctor does something about it.
Here’s where the character really stands out. Unlike most science fiction heroes, his wits are his weapon of choice. The Doctor doesn’t need a phaser, a lightsaber, or an attack fleet. He outthinks his opponents. He wins his battles because he’s smarter, not stronger or well armed.
His face and his costume changed, but his character remained the same. The Doctor was a brainiac who was cool. He was a hero because he was compassionate. He didn’t try to fit in. He was a free thinker who embraced his eccentricities. He did and said what he thought was right…even if it cost him his life.
And it did. Several times.
Remember, he wasn’t human. When his body grew old or close to death, he regenerated. He’d in effect be reborn as a new person, with a different appearance and a new personality.
Unlike most other TV shows, this hero could die at any time. Basically it was an excuse to get a new actor every once in a while, but each time it happened, it was suspenseful: What will the new Doctor be like?
The stories themselves were as clever as the Doctor, throwing occasional digs at other science fiction or even real-world politics. A Doctor Who adventure could spoof “King Kong” one minute and make a dig at the CIA the next. The effects were cheesy, but hey, the show had cool stories. Mix “Phantom of the Opera” with “The Machurian Candidate.” Why not? Doctor Who could go anywhere, do anything.
When the TV show ended, it all changed. Some well-meaning folks took Doctor Who into a new arena. Paperbacks. They were called “Doctor Who: The New Adventures.” They claimed to be true science fiction novels, solid stories with a modern outlook, tackling themes and situations the TV show couldn’t do.
That was true enough. There were grand vistas and epic confrontations between the Doctor and the latest galactic baddie. Darker tones and dystopic themes came into play. Fine with me. I’d written DW fanfics that were plenty dark.
Then the writers started screwing it up. Isn’t it the way of the world though? There’s always some dork who want to fix that which ain’t broke.
They seemed to have an inferiority complex about being grown-ups writing about a kid’s show. They wanted to prove they were sophisticated and clever and stuff. So they start pulling Mary Sues where the Doctor’s sidekicks know better than he does. The Doctor became callous and deadly. Smartmouthed twentysomethings upheld the cause of humanity by whining, stomping off in fits of pique only to rejoin him later. This was supposed to be complex characterization, but smacks of ego, shallowness, and artistic laziness. The Doctor later conspires to kill off one of his earlier incarnations so he can come into the world that much sooner and become Time’s Champion. (Huh?) And we get incompetent depictions of graphic violence, tons of sex, and drug abuse totally out of nowhere. Instead of developing plot, character, or these brave new themes, they riddled the stories with plot holes. There was no Grand Guignol, but plenty of “Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf” crap. And every once in a while, the writers would steal liberally from William Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Jack Chalker, Jorge Luis Borges, even other TV shows…and claim these stories were not only unique, but works of artistic genius.
Genius. Closer to plagarism, if you ask me. At best, they’re pale imitations, about as sophisicated as a grade-Z teeny bopper flick. I half expect Phoebe Cates to show up.
They even went as far as to blowing up the Doctor’s home planet just to keep themselves from overusing it. And we’re expected to believe that he’d wander the Earth for centuries, carting his TARDIS around even though he doesn’t know what it’s for, never opening it just to find out what it is.
Get me the hell out of here. They ruined a perfectly good dream.
So where does Charlie Chaplin come in? Whimsy. Charm. A heart of gold. Intelligence. They were the things they had in common.
Had. Past tense. Doctor Who is a confused, base and menial thing now. It makes money for the BBC and it keeps several thousand white kids busy every month.
I’m practically preaching to the choir at this point, but I’m fed up. For the last decade, neither ham-fisted New Wave SF impersonators nor their toadies ever managed to sway me with their third-rate goods. I’ve seen a few good books out of the new DW line. There are also tons of bad ones. Mediocre ones. Stories that lie, that tell the readers what they want to believe about the world around them.
Sometimes I hope the DW booklickers see me or hear me go off like this. It makes them angry, almost as mad as me. I’m not playing along. I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid.
I don’t need to. I got my own dream. In it, there’s a guy who helps people because he can, who’s brilliant, who’s joyfully and unrepentantly eccentric, who’s…well, Doctor Who.
If anyone cares, I’ll be shocked rigid. If someone actually listens, not just laughs or blows it off…I’ll be impressed.
There. So I explained. What’re you gonna do about it? ;P