Saturday, October 19, 2013

Dr. Who is Good, Clean Fun

Aluminum pie pan on a string? That's "flying saucer" to you.

I'd always heard of Dr. Who as a nerd and geek staple, along with Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Star Wars/Trek. I generally dismissed any praise of the show as the predictably rosy (read: star-struck) sort of review which always comes from a vociferous fanatical following. If moderately successful for a decade or more, such a series' customer base becomes so entrenched as to remove any possibility of objective judgment.

So I always shrugged off any mention of Dr. Who until I caught an episode of the new series by accident while channel-surfing this past spring. Which episode? Oh, some nonsense about lizardmen swimming around in the earth's mantle, doesn't matter really. I was delighted, not so much by anything which might be called high quality as by the fact that anyone would still make something in this particular style: relatively low-budget, recklessly speculative and a wee bit preachy.

Lacking any current science fiction series to hold my interest, I immediately resolved to watch Dr. Who... from the beginning. Sorry, did I cause a spit-take? Yes, I had in fact assumed that this had been some old series from the 60s or 70s, a few seasons long, which got revived during the late 90s or more recent years. I thought that, hey, I can sit through a couple dozen old episodes, it's not as though there's anything good on TV I'll miss anyway.

Over three freakin' decades' worth of Whos, I was not expecting.

But, hey, I'm just uptight enough to feel like I have to see it from the beginning anyway so off I go! From cavemen to "aliens" in rubber scuba suits to upturned trashcans talking like a speak'n'spell. Much of the show's charm from what I can see so far comes from how shamelessly ludicrous its plot gimmicks are. In one early episode, the TARDIS shrinks along with its crew because its doors opened by accident and some - space - escaped. Groaning and laughing at the same time hurts.
I mean, this sort of thing would be inexcusable under most circumstances, and I have yet to figure out why it just "works" in Dr. Who. There's a sort of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy pastiche appeal to it, despite the more serious tone. It's so bad it's good. Let's keep in mind that a single-seater open-air time machine or getting shot out of a cannon to the moon are ludicrous gimmicks in their own right.

Of course it's not just the writing. Watching the early years, even ignoring the bargain-basement props and costumes and special effects, it seems they were also short on production time. It looks half-improvised, unrehearsed, with the actors constantly prompting each other and filling time with "hmmm?" and "isn't that right, so-and-so?" and many times outright stumbling and stuttering without the scene being re-shot. It's not entirely amateurish but it looks more like a rehearsal than anything you'd buy a theater ticket for.

At some point I think I might want to read up on the show's history. It seems like there'd be a lot of interesting tidbits about shooting on a shoestring budget. So far though, I'm enjoying it. Oh, it's not exactly great cinema, but it's ... classic. Yes, that's the word. It's reminiscent of the great classic science fiction stories, of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It doesn't specifically attempt to create an entire coherent universe but only fantastic adventures, and it maintains a twinge of that progressive spirit one associates with forward-looking social commentary. There are no very advanced or complex concepts but it seems pretty much any basic notion in science fiction, hard or soft, could fit into the show. It would have made an excellent introduction to science fiction especially for viewers in their early teens... which probably explains a few things about the show's relative popularity.

Yes, I think an episode of Dr. Who now and then will really hit the spot.

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