Yesterday, along with literally millions of other people, I watched The Day of the Doctor - the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. The episode was officially the biggest simulcast of a TV drama ever, broadcast simultaneously in 94 countries, on TV and streaming online, and in 1500 movie theatres in 3D, and I lucked into a ticket because a friend of mine had bought two during the approximately 28-minute period that there were any available, before they sold out.
Doctor Who is the longest-running science fiction show of all time, and one of the longest-running television shows, period, of all time (there may be a soap or two that beat it.) The first episode was aired on November 23, 1963, and no one had a clue what they had on their hands. No one involved in the show then would have had any idea that in fifty years, people would be selling out movie theatres, and gathering at their houses to watch on television or online, all over the world. How could they? They were just making a science fiction show for families to watch; something with a bit of an educational bent, catching the SF wave, on a budget, for the BBC.
Today, though, I bet BBC executives are doing happy dances. Doctor Who is probably one of the BBC's biggest exports and cash generators. The revenue generated from this 50th anniversary release must be impressive. What other television show could have fans paying movie theatre prices to watch a special episode? What other television show could cause people to speculate that the Hunger Games sequel might suffer a dip in opening weekend box office because the audiences were busy watching Doctor Who? What did advertisers pay the BBC to be featured on their mini episodes, released online leading up to the special, or to be featured on the big screen before the broadcast?
And - has Doctor Who set a precedent, broken ground in how television gets presented? Is this where "event television" might go? Given the success of this, are we likely to see, say, the series finale of Game of Thrones broadcast to theatres?
I'm a pretty big fan of Doctor Who. I watched it as a kid in the eighties, but not seriously - I remember catching it when I happened to have the TV on and it was playing on the public broadcasting network. I loved it but for some reason never knew quite when it would be on. I remember a few vague scenes, mostly of the Doctor and whichever companion he was with running around through slate quarries - I mean, alien landscapes - being chased by Daleks. I definitely remember the Daleks. I think any kid that saw them does. Today I heard an interview with Peter Davison, the fifth actor to play the Doctor, who confirmed that yes, even in real life when you know they're props, Daleks are unnerving. It's the way they glide.
And I remember that I thought the theme music was creepy, and cool, and strangely sad, all in one. Oh, and that endless looping chrome tunnel that the title credits appeared over was mesmerizing to me. Also, in those years there were writers and actors that cemented the show's future: the years with Tom Baker as the Doctor and Douglas Adams on the writing team are probably responsible for the show's survival to 2013.
I got back into the show, like a lot of people, with the "new Who." It started up in 2005, but annoyed with reboots and remakes, it took me a while to watch it: I resisted as my friends started getting hooked around me. But I started in around the third season. My first episode, I think, was "Smith and Jones," in which the Doctor's second (well, second in terms of the new series) "companion" is introduced, Dr. Martha Jones. She's in a hospital that gets unexpectedly relocated to the moon. Then invaded by space cops with the heads of talking rhinoceri. Then this frenetic skinny guy with spiky brown hair in a suit and running shoes shows up and, among other things, absorbs a room full of radiation into his body, then expels it into his shoe, kicks the shoe off, and keeps running around barefoot for the rest of the episode, while managing to save everyone. He looked like he might be a member of some British hipster band, and I remember thinking, "This guy? Really? Doctor Who?"
And yes. That guy. Really. Doctor Who. David Tennant (the tenth actor to play the role: there have, as of yesterday, officially been thirteen) hooked me. Then I started collecting the box sets - the first season, with Christopher Eccleston in the role, then the Tennant years, eventually collecting as fast as they came out and watching them on broadcast at the same time. I'd been making sure I caught every week's episode for a while by the time it was Matt Smith's turn in the TARDIS. And I was, by that point, a dedicated, one might say fanatical, Whovian, with a collection of all the extant "20th century" episodes from 1963 to the ill-fated Fox/BBC co-pro movie of 1996, a handful of the audio dramas, and a range of buttons, T-shirts, patches, and toys.
So, we get to why I'm writing about this. One of the things that fascinates me about this show is that it shouldn't survive. It shouldn't be popular. Other blockbuster science fiction shows, like Star Trek, make a lot of hay out of scientific explanations of their gadgets and gizmos. What Trekker doesn't have a blueprint of the Enterprise somewhere, detailing exactly where the kitchens and toilets and turbolifts are? There's a hunger for explanation, for categorization, for everything to be explained, in the geek world. Think of things like Dungeons and Dragons, where everything has a set of statistics.
Doctor Who, in contrast, breezily ignores explanations. What's the inside of the TARDIS look like, other than the main console room where everything happens? Well, it looks like whatever the TARDIS (which, it should be explained, is semi-sentient, sometimes) wants it to. Why does it look like a police phone box on the outside? Because it's broken. (A writer once tried to write some technobabble to explain the shape, back in 1963: it was lame and pseudomystical, and the then show runner, Verity Lambert, chucked it and instead declared that the TARDIS was supposed to change appearance to blend in with the local surroundings as camouflage, but the circuit was stuck. It's stayed stuck for 50 years now. Though now, occasionally, it can be invisible.) Does the Doctor have any special powers or abilities? Only when the plot requires it. Does he need to be clairvoyant, telepathic, a hypnotist, an expert swordsman? He can be, when it's required, but it's not a character point. What does that sonic screwdriver he carries around do? Whatever makes the story more fun. What are its limitations? Ditto.
This kind of rule-chucking flies in the face of almost everything else in science fiction and fantasy. One of the main rules of worldbuilding is that your world and setting and the science and/or magic you use needs to be consistent. Then Doctor Who comes along and tells you that hand-waving isn't a narrative failing, it's the main joy of the show. Although they said in 1964 that the Cybermen came from Earth's hidden sister planet Mondass, they're actually, now, from a parallel universe. And that's okay. And you know how we said Daleks worked on static electricity and so needed to be in contact with a metal floor? They got better. Why doesn't the human race remember about the dozens of times they've been invaded or subjugated or otherwise nearly wiped out? We're thick. Or there was a time paradox thing and we all forgot. Know how the Doctor absorbed all that radiation and said it was child's play? Well, for this story we need him to die of radiation poisoning, so he can't do that anymore. No reason.
This should infuriate the sort of person who wants blueprints of the Enterprise. Instead, they love it. They make up all their own rules and laws to cover all the gaps and inconsistencies. Or, like me, they celebrate the sheer loopiness of it, and look at it this way: Doctor Who is about stories. The main character is a story. Occasionally, he knows it. The show even comments on its own story-ness, at times. (The glee with which the Doctor and his companions often discover that they're in a particularly new story is always fun. In one episode, after narrowly escaping the monster of the week, the Doctor and Rose turn to each other. "I tell you what, though," Rose says, excitedly. "Werewolves!" He answers, "I know!" with a huge how-cool-is-that grin.) One of my personal favorites is when there's a plot point that turns on "stet" radiation: "Never heard of it," the Doctor says. "You wouldn't want to," another character says. Meanwhile, as an editor, I stifle a giggle: "stet" is proofreading notation indicating that an editor's change needs to be reversed: the thing that was eliminated gets restored. The next bit of the plot involves a character who can't die. Maybe it's just an editor thing, but it makes me grin.
Also, the show shouldn't survive because the central protagonist actually changes his entire face and personality on a regular basis. Every so often, the Doctor is killed. And when that happens, he transforms into another man. With the same memories, but a different personality. The first time they did this, when the first Doctor, William Hartnell, was sick and couldn't continue in the role, must have been a leap. It's still a bit strange. But now, it's part of the culture. Those of us that have known the show a long time - I was watching when Tom Baker gave way to Peter Davison in the mid-eighties - get to feel a little smug whenever a changeover happens, and we watch the newer fans mourn the loss of "their" Doctor, and vilify the new one for whatever they see as his faults.
Meanwhile, those of us who have been through a few regenerations have taken it as part of the fandom. Who will the new Doctor be? How will he change the tone? Rumours and speculations about the new actor will fly. We'll watch ourselves go through the phases: mourning the loss of an actor we loved in the role, settling in with the new guy, deciding what we think of him, finding the through lines that let us, mentally, tie him to his predecessors, and, eventually, learning to love some aspect of the way he plays the character. Yesterday, in the theatre, we got a second-long flash-cameo of the upcoming actor, Peter Capaldi (Matt Smith is leaving the role after the Christmas special this year), and there were cheers in the theatre: we're sad to see Smith go, but we're excited to see how the character will change.
Because although the actor changes, the story keeps going. And it can only keep going by being loopy and inconsistent and allowing us to be okay with that. In fact, encouraging us to embrace it. Every time an actor leaves - a Doctor or a companion - you think about the stories that you didn't get to see happen with them, but the story itself is not over. You can go back, if you want to see Tom Baker's bug-eyed strangeness, or Peter Davison's big-brother kindness, or William Hartnell's crusty tetchiness, or Paul McGann's Romantic elegance, or the bottled anger of Christopher Eccleston. They're all still there. You won't get any more stories with them, and that's sad. But you'll get new stories with this new guy, and he'll be great in his own way, and he will, ever so often, also remind you of the past Doctors.
And in that way it's a lot like life.