Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Day the Doctor Taught Me About Being a Hero

This Saturday, the longest running science fiction television show in history celebrates fifty years with a simulcast of a single episode around the world. At the same time, people in countries everywhere are going to gather around their televisions or at their local movie theaters to watch The Day of the Doctor, and celebrate a show that has come to define multiple generations. Over the fifty years, there have been 11, soon to be 12 and 13 men (unfortunately, all of them white) to play the Doctor, and everyone has their story of their first - the incarnation of the Time Lord that would forever be Their Doctor.

For most of the new fans, this is David Tennant, who triumphantly returns this Saturday. For others, it's the newest incarnation, Matt Smith, or the sadly-only-on-for-one-season Christopher Eccleston. And I've met fans who go far back enough to have Tom Baker, the fourth doctor, or even William Hartnell, the First Doctor, as their own personal Doctor. But for me, the story starts at a very strange time in the Doctor's life - when he wasn't on TV anymore.

From 1987 to 2005, the show was simply not on the air. Having been axed for poor ratings in the late eighties, and despite numerous attempts to bring it back, the thirtieth anniversary of Doctor Who passed with no return to form other than a half-cocked crossover with the soap opera Eastenders. Many fans believed the show would never come back, and certainly until the early 2000s and Russel T. Davies, that was the only logical conclusion. Except...

In 1996, I was living just south of London. I had heard of Doctor Who, and even been to an exhibit at the Museum of Moving Image about the show, but it had all seemed such utter cheese. A robot dog, bad guys that looked like trash cans - in my unknowing mind, the show had been cancelled in 1968. I had no knowledge of who the Doctor was, or why I should care.

Yeah, I know, it's classic, but come on, guys.

At the same time, I'd been in the midst of a long running argument with my darling Mother. It had began when we were watching the "classic" John Travolta and Christian Slater film Broken Arrow. My mom's not big on violence, and not happy that I was pretty into violent movies. As we reached the climax of Broken Arrow's...I guess I can call it a plot...the heroes got into a fist fight in the back of a stealth plane that was clearly going to lead into someone dying horribly. My Mom was complaining about how unnecessary it all was - and talking over the movie's scant dialogue. Now, if you know me, one of the greatest sins in my mind is talking during a movie or television show's dialogue. I have enough trouble hearing it already, without additional background noise. So, I decided to respond in a mature fashion, and yell, "MOM, I LIKE IT, OK?" at the top of my lungs.

This choice did not go well for me.

Months later, we were huddled around our television set, exchewing the usual night's viewings of Frasier and Sienfeld, for this new program my Mom thought I would like. It was called "Doctor Who," and was an American television movie based off of the old British TV show.

Now, some of you are familiar with this film, but for those of you that aren't, here's a quick background. In 1996, Fox decided they wanted to try their hand at bringing Doctor Who back. They wanted, initially, to create a brand new American show based on the British idea, but a producer on the project somehow managed to convince them to make it a continuation of the previous British version. They produced a television movie that was meant to be a backdoor pilot - when it was a smashing success, they would make a new TV show.

The fact that there was no new Doctor Who for another ten years should tell you how that went.

Still, as an impressionable child, watching the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, stride across the screen was a treat, and I was glued to the set the entire time. I loved the cavernous TARDIS interior, with its Victorian stylings, I loved the modern setting with its slight air of darkness (gang wars breaking out in the street, for example), and I loved the Doctor.

Paul McGann's Doctor was a different sort of hero than any I'd experienced before. He didn't fight his way out, like the Turtles or He-man, he thought his way out. He had an impeccable moral character, and was incredibly dashing. If you'd put a sword in his hand he would have been perfect for me - although now I know the Doctor would hate using any kind of weapon, even a sword. (Except for Tennant that one time, but we'll forgive him.)

During the end of the movie, the absolute cheese-ball Master played by Eric Roberts is being sucked into the Eye of Harmony, an exploding star that powers the TARDIS. He's just killed two people the Doctor clearly cares about, not to mention murdered millions more over time. He's so bad that the Daleks had him executed for being too dangerous.

It's much scarier than it looks, I promise.

And still - the Doctor climbs onto the side of the Eye and stretches out his hand to save him.

It was at this point that my Mom decided to resume the argument, turn to me and say "See? That's what a hero is."

But the thing is - she was right. And even my prideful young self could do nothing more than nod, dumbfounded at how simply awesome this character was.

While the moment stuck with me forever, the specifics didn't come back to me until the series relaunched, and my Other Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, got me back into the show. At that point, memory tugging at me, I went back and watched the TV special again. And it's wonderfully terrible at points, but the thing that shines through, still, is Paul McGann's beautiful portrayal of a character I now hold up alongside Superman as someone I try to be like every day.

Last week, this happened:

If you haven't seen it yet, you need to. Go watch. I'll be right here.

The return of McGann to the part was a surprise, and an emotional one for me. As someone else put it, for those of us for whom McGann is Their Doctor, it was nice that he never had an end. We could imagine him galavanting about the universe, having adventures forever. But all things do end, and seeing the Eighth Doctor broken and beaten, giving up on who he is to fight a war he never wanted to be a part of - well, that's emotional. The heroic core of the character is lost, because he's so sick of the fighting all around him.

Which is why Matt Smith - the 11th Doctor's - reaction to seeing the War Doctor in The Name of the Doctor is so important. Because the Doctor can make mistakes. But realizing they were mistakes, that he should have found another way, well, that's what makes him a hero.


  1. Thank you. As one who's fist doctor was Tennant, (though more of a Smith fan) it's really amazing to see this insight to those who's doctor had less screen time, less acclaim, and yet still made just as big of a difference to someone. That's awesome.

  2. They should have an entire series of pre time war episodes featuring McGann. He's still a super-brilliant Doctor. Even if straight to DVD - TAKE ALL MY MONEY!!!