in honor of ‘Waters of Mars’ – “The Universe Exploded Every Saturday Night”

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Last Sunday’s DOCTOR WHO special “THE WATERS OF MARS” was a real kick for me because of two reasons-

– First off – for the first time since last full season’s episode “MIDNIGHT” – I felt like Russel T Davies was giving us what the classic show was always so good at: low budget, high concept speculative fiction (“speculative” fiction…jesus…I’m channeling the brilliant but cantankerous Harlan Ellison). It had in spades what the old show excelled at – fantastic ideas. It also had what the new show has given to the world of “WHO” – real emotional heart and real consequence for our characters.

(To be fair – the old show had begun to go into all that during its last two seasons with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor and his companion Ace, played with such nuance by Sophie Aldred…and then the BBC cancelled the show.)

Secondly – as much as I’ve loved so much of what Davies’ has done to inject new vitality into this BBC kid’s drama – I’m a little cloyed by the smug knowing-ness of the characters. As if Davies has recreated DOCTOR WHO by route of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. And what was charming in BUFFY doesn’t always fit in WHO. The Doctor may well be smiling like a fool in the face of an alien threat because he’s alien. Should the companion always share his delight? If the companion is for the audience to identify with – shouldn’t the companion be scared or confused so the audience can follow suit and be scared and confused and either have the Doctor save us or pluck up the courage and save ourselves? It’s not all the time. But it’s enough to get under a nerve.

And then there’t the Doctor as superhero. Everyone gushing over the Doctor. He’s such a legend. He can smile and charm his way out of anything.

It’s lazy. And it’s boring because there’s no real peril.

So it was great to see real peril and REAL CONSEQUENCE during this last Sunday’s outing. It felt bold and it felt satisfying. Ok…so it was a bit sci-fi melodrama. Too many slow-mo shots for my taste. And perhaps a little heavy on the BANG-exposition-BANG-shot of virtual newspaper-BANG-shot of another virtual newspaper.

But it was ultimately a good trip because it hearkened back to the Doctor as enigmatic hero/anti-hero. I had a soft spot for William Hartnell and Sylvester McCoy because they were so powerful as characters. Hartnell was crotchety old man on the surface – but underneath was a rogue on the run from somewhere – from someone. You actually felt the Hartnell stories – when taken as a whole – were the tale of this man becoming the heroic figure we now know.

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McCoy was charming like a quirky uncle who would sneak you candy as a kid – a shot or two of bourbon as you got older – but he was masking a mysterious agenda. He was righting ancient wrongs long overdue and he would use you as one of his pawns if he had to. It wasn’t as warm and as inviting as a John Pertwee (my first Doctor) or a Patrick Troughton – but it was far more interesting for me as a child.

Sunday’s special was a nice sequel of sorts to last season’s Pompeii episode – which was another one that best synthesized what’s great about the classic show and the present iteration.

Posted below is a blog I did shortly after that one went out. It was originally posted on an older blog of mine – but it seems to fit more comfortably here. And it gives insight into what it was about this bizarre little show that nursed me through a difficult childhood.

“The Universe Exploded Every Saturday Night” [originally posted on THE EPHEMERAL ONLINE]

“The notion galvanized a fragile, eleven-year-old mind.

Late on a Saturday night that summer, I watched with a fixed, riveted gaze as Dallas’ local PBS station ran another woefully under-budgeted but joyously imaginative episode of British import “Doctor Who.”

The Doctor was facing off against the Eternals, beings who exist outside of the universe as we know it, who had brokered a deal with the gods to acquire ultimate enlightenment.

But they had to win a race.

And, even though they had the capacity to create matter out of nothing and effortlessly read minds (as well as countless other super powers I’m sure my adult mind simply cannot recall) they lacked the imagination and the humanity to give their lives purpose. Consequently, they had to pierce through into this universe and utilize the Ephemerals – human beings – to supply what they lacked.

It may have been the most empowering – and terrifying – idea that tiny, finite eleven-year-old had ever gleamed from his nocturnal television viewing.

Was I an ephemeral?

For the uninitiated, “Doctor Who” was a curious little show the BBC had created as a Saturday teatime program for children in the early sixties. The concept of the series was – in many respects – arrestingly simple. The viewer followed the exploits of a seemingly ageless time wanderer – known only as the Doctor – and his various traveling companions as they bounced from adventure to adventure – hurtling through time and space in a ship disguised as an English phone booth.

The idea was – as the English would drolly say – thoroughly daft. So daft, in fact, that the show ran successfully for twenty-six years and became an institution for millions of British children.

An institution that I, sitting on my state-side sofa in Dallas, Texas, was 15,000 miles away from (and mostly oblivious to). But, no matter . It was as tantamount to my late-night, summer TV viewing as “The Outer Limits” reruns on channel 21 or Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” on channel 11 (I had already exhausted the “Twilight Zone” cannon on channel 4.)

Saturday nights at 10 pm. Each week’s adventure was hailed by the show’s iconic title credits. The opening sting of the theme music would spill out from the living room television’s analogue speakers as the low-fi space/time vortex would explode from the modest fifteen-inch screen. No matter. It was the highlight of this eleven-year-old’s television-watching week.

The show seemed limitless. Disguised in something as benign as an old English police call-box, the Doctor’s vast machine (akin to C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe in the Narnia books, the ship is actually bigger on the inside than on the out) could carry him and his companions to any point in time and space. The narrative possibilities were enormous. One week, I’d be swept into an age-old Aztec civilization. The next week would find me lurking at the last planet in the known universe. The week after would have me in the midst of a Conan-Doyle inspired murder mystery. It was as if this strange, alien character was running amok through countless, time-worn genres – the space opera, the detective novel, the historical adventure, and recklessly breathing a thrilling new energy into each of them.

Imagine opening “Kidnapped” by R.L. Stevenson and finding a strange, unfamiliar figure aiding our beloved David Balfour. Imagine scanning a series of Egyptian hieroglyphics and finding an anachronistically dressed group of Londoners etched into the rock adjacent to a rendering of the ancient pharaohs. This was the continual charm of this show. Rounding a corner, you could find yourself face-to-face with the Doctor and his strange little ship. Moments later you could be a part of something as timeless as the Great Fire of London – in the year 1666.

It was an intoxicating idea for a pre-adolescent coming to terms with his parents’ divorce and his sister’s ill health. The idea that we weren’t locked in time and place. The idea that we could leap out of the life we were fixed into and forge new existences – unfettered by physical or temporal laws we had just taken for granted.

It was a mythology that was more accessible than the grander mythos of “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.” I would never live in the 23rd century and had no idea where to find a galaxy far, far away. But, in order to find myself in any of the Doctor’s grand excursions, all I needed to do was find the right corner to turn around.

The show went off the air in 1989 – just in time for my adolescence. Now, as I moved into my junior high and high-school years, daydreams of time-travel and space-faring were replaced by fantasies of girls, cars, homecoming dances, and girls. Saturday nights became adventures of illicit keg-parties, awkward movie dates, and THC experimentation. I took up bass guitar, joined the high-school’s jazz band, and became far cooler than I ever deserved to be. I started playing in rock bands and experimenting with a far wider range of mind-altering chemicals. I now had a new set of Saturday night adventures. Gigs. Parties. More awkward dates with girls.

Over time, that strange, enigmatic figure called the Doctor became a nostalgic part of my youth – no more-or-less important than any other curio one would find in a fan boy’s dusty collection.

In the Spring on 2005, I was alerted by an internet news piece to the imminent return of a new, special effects-laden reinvention of “Doctor Who” by way of Russell T Davies’ at the BBC Wales. It was like hearing an old friend from childhood was moving back into town, all grown up.

Months later, a young man approaching thirty and living in New York as a working playwright sat down in front of his own television – purchased by himself at the local P.C. Richards – to watch the universe explode again. This new show’s adventure – the first new adventure I had been on in 15 years – featured the good Doctor facing off against time-monsters created by a paradox brought about following his new companion’s interference with fixed events when she saves her father’s life – a father who was supposed to have died in her childhood.

The colors were brighter, the budget far less woeful, the monsters scarier.

And yet the thing that had most altered was the viewer. I was now watching the show as an adult. I was now watching the show as someone who had left their childhood , rounded a corner, and found their own adventure. The stories now resonated with me for a myriad of different reasons. Now, stories of distant lands and distant times didn’t beckon to me because I wanted to escape to them. Now, the stories resonated with me because they lent new perspective to a world I had grown rather fond of – even as it had grown more and more complicated. Now, I looked at time travel stories as meditations on consequence. Even if we could change the course of events – did that mean we wanted to? Did that mean we should?

So, just last Saturday, two decades after that eleven-year-old sat down and was regaled with the televised tale of the Eternals, the now thirty-one-year-old sat down with his lady-friend (a lovely young woman who indulges his weekly jaunt back to a place where universal travel is still possible in a phone booth) and watched the latest adventure of “Doctor Who.”

In the midst of Vesuvius’ imminent eruption, a strange cult of robed women chanting eerily (another odd Doctor Who motif) made mention of the Eternals. An obvious nod to the old show.

I sat forward, the dust on that strange little moment blown away.

And from out of a little corner in my personal history, the question – like a slingshot pebble – struck me at the back of the head – am I an Ephemeral?

Do the Eternals still need me to make sense of their immortal lives filled with infinite power – and limited imagination.

Did I become a writer – in essence – to see if I was – in fact – an Ephemeral?

Does every writer – in one way or another – ask that question?”

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~ by saturdaysinthedark on November 18, 2009.

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