Monday, February 24, 2014

In Praise of "Who"

Not my grandma. 
So Grandma is from England, and despite the decision by my grandparents to not impose a strong cultural imprint upon their scions, a fair amount of the English bits have stuck.  I'm well versed in Shakespeare (my whimsical essay entitled "Zounds!: How Four Plays by the Bard Influenced Batman and Robin" being a cheeky college hit), the Beatles, tea (my favorite being Earl Grey, hot), and I've seen a genuine Officer of the Order of the British Empire perform on stage--twice (that's a knight to you common folk, and 'twas Sir Patrick Stewart performing Dickens).

Yet there's always been one area of Britannia that has tended to allude me: its television.  In my mind, most British television that has made its way to our shores was made very inexpensively (cheap sets, poor camera work, and, most naff, shot on videotape).  Yes, many a fine American program was shot on videotape, but never to the benefit of the show.  Indeed, many a late evening BBC-to-PBS program that we watched at Grandma's was basically like this:

(Yes, I've just made a sly LOST reference there.) Sometimes, if there was a laugh track, you'd know it was supposed to be funny.  Other times... perhaps it was silly, perhaps dramatic.  If the costumes were fussy, you could assume it wasn't funny.

Yet, at least the contemporary and historical offerings were earnest, albeit poorly produced by American standards (though admittedly much better acted).  There was a third category that never made sense to me: Doctor Who. I watched parts of a few episodes as a kid, usually with my uncle.  It never, ever made any god damn sense.  Not only was there the standard cultural barrier, but the god-awful effects turned the show into a veritable fever dream.

Atrocious effects, atrocious sets, strange situations, and plots making absolutely zero sens: that's what Doctor Who was to me when I was but a boy.  It worked out rather well: during the 1980s the show petered out and was cancelled... and ended up being some in-the-past cultural footnote.  

Or so I thought.

Roberts in Doctor Who.
I do vaguely remember when Fox tried to semi-reboot the series in the mid 1990s.  I say semi-reboot because series had already established that the Doctor can die and come back in another form, allowing for a new actor and new personality to portray the character in a continued continuity.  I skipped Fox's TV movie (a failed backdoor pilot), sensing that certain Fox stink to it.  I'd only learn later that the network took this quintessentially British show and gave it an American baddie in the form of Eric Roberts and shot it in Canada.  My case of the mehs only continue when the BBC formally rebooted the show in 2005.  After all, state-side, it was wholly ignored; it aired on the Sci Fi Channel 18 months after showing up in Britain.  By the time it was an American cable hit (eventually and logically making its way to BBC America--duh), it was already past me.  Where to start with a series that literally has more episodes than Star Trek, and has been on so long that some episodes have been lost to time?  

It's back! 
Luckily, the answer was, as it is with many things, Netflix.  In addition to a varied mess of older Who tv movies (or serial episodes put together as a TV movie?), it has the modern series.  It's clearly delineated:  it's called Doctor Who and it starts in 2005 and it has a bunch of seasons.  

And you know what?  It's bloody bril!  The first episode, "Rose," is a bit sluggish (as pilots are oft to be), but it does a great job spelling out the basics of the series: the Doctor travels through time and space with his companion (this time, for now, Rose) in a time machine that looks like a police call box on the outside, and a steampunky alien control room on the inside.  

It's that simple.  It's that easy to watch... provided that you just open your mind (though not like Cathica in "The Long Game," certainly!) to such things: as the end of the world in 5 billion AD as witnessed by, among others, tree people; aliens who kill Tony Blair in order to take over the world while wearing human being skins and farting excessively and to their great relief; characters with names like "the Mighty Jagrafress of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe;" and a boyfriend replacement made of plastic. That last one isn't what you think it is, either; batteries not needed, as it's not a mechanical John Thomas.

The best thing about Doctor Who is that its one giant roller coaster. In one episode, it's ghosts and Charles Dickens; in the next, there's a giant head that talks a bit; after that, there's going back in time for Rose to see her father die, then Rose and the Doctor go back in time to see Rose see her father die.

Hardly being a shite-hawk, Doctor Who is quite appropriate for every cultural toff among us.

Look up!  It's the Mighty Jagrafress of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe!

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