Thursday, November 13, 2014

 Why I Like the Changing Face of the Doctor

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Doctor Who. I've been a fan for over 20 years. I met my husband and most of my friends because I am a fan of Doctor Who, so the series has had a big impact on my life. One of the things I like most about the series, aside from it being science fiction and quintessentially British, is the fact that the actor who plays the Doctor changes fairly regularly. That's a troubling issue for some fans, who become so attached to the current actor that they have trouble adapting to the changes. I've heard of fans who stop watching when a Doctor changes. But the change is what I look forward to, no matter how much I'm enjoying the actor who's currently in the role.

When I was a girl, my family regularly watched the television series Gunsmoke. It was a family tradition. For those not familiar with this series, it was a Western genre series that ran in the US from 1955 to 1975. In that respect it has similarities with the long-running Doctor Who. But for the entire run of the series, the lead character was Marshall Matt Dillon, the marshall of Dodge City, Kansas. The series was also on radio for nine years prior to being adapted for television, and the main character of the radio serial was also Marshall Matt Dillon, though portrayed by a different actor.

Marshall Dillon never retired - at least not permanently. He wasn't killed by some random outlaw, though he came close a few times. He remained the marshall of Dodge City for 20 years. The town doctor was also played by the same actor for the same length of time. During the majority of the tv series run, the Long Branch Saloon was run by Miss Kitty, who was a romantic interest for Dillon. They never married, and never seemed to progress their relationship beyond close friendship.

The point I make in describing Gunsmoke is that it never substantially changed. Every week one could rely on seeing the same familiar faces doing the same things. Marshall Dillon tracked down the bad guys. Doc Adams bandaged gunshot wounds and provided comic relief moments of banter with deputy Festus Haggen. Miss Kitty provided expository dialogue opportunities and worried about the marshall if he got hurt. The characters never grew, they never pursued new opportunities. The town never changed in size or population makeup. The only major changes that ever occured happened in the late 1980s, when the series was revived in the form of several tv-movies.

Doctor Who also has elements that never change. It's always about the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in a vehicle that looks like a 1960s British police telephone booth. He's usually accompanied by a young human woman who acts as his platonic companion and a surrogate for the audience. They get into trouble and usually end up saving the day. But every few years the Doctor's companion will change. Sometimes he has more than one traveling companion. Occasionally his companions are males, or the companion might not be originally from Earth. He's even had a few companions who weren't human. Now and again he doesn't have a companion at all for a short period of time.

More importantly, the Doctor himself changes. Typically every three or four years the actor portraying him departs and is replaced by someone else, who is deliberately chosen because he looks entirely different from his predecessor. He may be significantly older or younger, taller or shorter, have a different hair color, speak with a different accent. This new actor is under no obligation to play the role in the same way as the previous performer; in fact, it's encouraged for him to bring new facets to the part. The Doctor may suddenly manifest new talents, skills or interests that he never previously demonstrated. It's possible that in the future the Doctor may even change race or gender. And yet, the audience is expected to accept this new actor as the same person.

The production team also changes periodically, and each new team changes the tone of the series somewhat. Gunsmoke probably had changes in the production team as well, but although some of the more racist and misogynistic elements softened as the series moved into the 1970s, the essential elements never changed. The new producers weren't permitted to have Matt Dillon die or retire, he wasn't allowed to marry Miss Kitty or any other woman. The setting didn't move from Dodge City to some other location. People in Dodge City didn't start buying cars and the town wasn't electrified. The series really didn't acknowledge the passage of time - or the aging of the actors.

Doctor Who has changed with the times more than Gunsmoke ever did. The Doctor has lost his entire species. He's fallen in love with - and lost - one of his companions. In the earlier days of the series he didn't try to change history, but in more recent episodes he's made obvious and significant changes to historical events. He's backtracked over his own timestream. He's encountered his previous and future selves. He's even reached the end of his own lifespan. Some of this malleability is a function of this being a science fiction series about a time traveler, but some of it is also the willingness of the producing network to allow more flexibility, and of the audience to be more accepting of change.

It's this malleability that I like about the series, and the character. I don't want to watch another Gunsmoke populated by essentially static characters. I look forward to seeing what the new actor does with the role, how the actor interacts with new companion characters, what direction the new producers will take the show. Doctor Who has now been on television screens for 30 years. Imagine what sort of programme it would be if it was still what it was when it began in 1963. It would still feature the Doctor as a somewhat irascible old man, perhaps still traveling with his granddaughter and two London schoolteachers. If the series production team hadn't been willing to accept drastic change when original star William Hartnell decided to step down, we'd probably be experiencing what viewers of soap operas often see when an actor leaves and a new person is brought in to play the same role - the actor will still resemble the previous actor, still play the part the same basic way. Each replacement actor for the Doctor would have been another older man, trying to play the Doctor as the same irritable and imperious character. I probably wouldn't be watching Doctor Who any longer if that was the type of series it was. I would have lost interest long ago.

I can understand the desire for beloved entertainments to be changeless, to consistently bring us that familiar character and setting we enjoy. Our lives are full of so much change that it's comforting to know some things don't change. But I firmly believe that if Doctor Who didn't change, it wouldn't have managed to become the longest-running dramatic series in television history. I challenge those viewers who have a hard time accepting when the Doctor changes to realize that this is an essential element of the series, without which it wouldn't be the show that you liked. Give the new Doctor a chance. You might grow to like him even more than you did the previous one.

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