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TV IS THE NEW CINEMA: 'Doctor Who' 50th Specials Celebrate Britain's National Treasure

Thompson on Hollywood By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood November 20, 2013 at 12:20PM

The BBC's "Doctor Who" is the longest-running television program in the history of the known universe. The 50th anniversary festivities are already well underway in the UK, with a pair of celebratory broadcasts coming up this week on BBC America.
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David Bradley as First Doctor William Hartnell in "An Adventure in Time and Space;" Matt Smith and David Tennant as the Eleventh and Tenth Doctors in "The Day of The Doctor."
BBC America David Bradley as First Doctor William Hartnell in "An Adventure in Time and Space;" Matt Smith and David Tennant as the Eleventh and Tenth Doctors in "The Day of The Doctor."

"Just do what I do: Hold on tight and pretend it's a plan."--Matt Smith in “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe," written by Stephen Moffat, Doctor Who, BBC One, December 25, 2011.

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of "Doctor Who," the BBC’s signature science fiction series, is being undertaken with unusual thoughtfulness and gravity. Although the PR campaign has been relentless, with new trailers and clips and behind-the-scenes photos from Saturday's landmark episode emerging almost daily, the exploitation has never seemed crass. It’s as if everyone involved, from the network brass to jazzed showrunner Stephen Moffat, is acutely aware that they are the custodians of a British national treasure.

Now routinely cited, along with Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, as one of the key heroes of UK popular culture, the Doctor (as he must always be called; the show’s title is not a name but a question) first made his entrance, stepping out of what looked like a phone booth in 1963,  a “scary grandfather” traveling in space and time, meddling in other people’s problems.

With several changes of lead actor and a steady steep improvement in the quality of its special effects, "Doctor Who" has for five decades staunchly maintained its basic elements: An alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who wanders space and time with one of more human companions, in a wobbly vehicle known as the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) whose faulty "chameleon circuit" leaves it stuck permanently in the shape of, not a phone booth but an antiquated Police Public Call Box. The Doctor has a chameleon circuit of his own, in a sense, an ability to regenerate into a new body upon traumatic occasions, facilitating cast changes and helping to account, many believe, for the show's unprecedented longevity.

As a key event of this celebratory "Doctor Takeover Week," the BBC has produced a historical drama memorializing the creation of the program. David Bradley, Sir Walder Frey on “Game of Thrones,” portrays William Hartnell, the first of eleven actors who have filled the role. "An Adventure in Space and Time" will be promulgated stateside on BBC America on Friday, November 22, at 9 PM ET and 6 PM PT.

The pinnacle of the week’s festivities is a special 50th Anniversary episode that will, according to actor David Tennant, the 10th Doctor, “move the legend forward in a fundamental way.” This story has Tennant teaming up with current and outgoing (not to say lame duck) Doctor Matt Smith, and with a brand new Doctor, created for the occasion and played by John Hurt, who was introduced to a pleasantly flabbergasted fan base in May at the end of “The Name of the Doctor,” the Season Seven finale. "The Day of The Doctor" will run on BBC America on the 50th anniversary, Saturday, Nov. 23,  at 2:50 PM ET and 11:50 AM PT.

The odd fact that a recent season of a program first broadcast in 1963 can be considered merely its seventh is a Whovian anomaly, the result of a cataclysmic rift in the space/time continuum known as the hiatus, a 16-year period, from 1989 to 2005, in which the series was off the air. Since the show was triumphantly revived by Russell T. Davies in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston, Tennant and Smith as younger, more action-oriented Doctors, his almost two-decade absence has been accounted for with hushed references to a mysterious Time War, the details of which are finally to be spelled out in “The Day of the Doctor.” After several years of dark hints we will finally find out what the Doctor did in the War.


The importance of the Time War was driven home last week with the release of a ten-minute interstitial webisode starring Paul McGann, the last actor to play the Doctor in a canonical installment, an eponymous TV movie filmed in Canada in 1996. Astonished fans watched McGann regenerate into a youthful image of John Hurt, now identified as "The War Doctor," an escalation of an approach to the hiatus pioneered by previous showrunner Russell Davies.

Moffat has gone on record as insisting that even the interpolation of a whole new Doctor between the eighth, McGann, and the currently designated ninth, Eccleston, won’t present any difficulties as far as the timeline and the numbering of the Doctors is concerned.)

One of the key innovations instituted by Davies was to write the Doctor not as a sexless schoolmasterish wisdom-spouter but as a more human time traveling alien, with a full range of youthful emotional susceptibilities. In the Eccleston and Tennant, seasons the Doctor's relationship with companion Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper, also cast in "The Day of Doctor") took on, if you will, additional dimensions. Matt Smith has been a wonderfully bouyant and likable Eleventh Doctor, but his interpretation has been, in a sense, a step backwards, toward the roguish good humor of predecessors Patrick Troughton (Second Doctor) and my all-time favorite Tom Baker (Fourth Doctor), What drama and emotional turmoil there has been in in the Eleventh Doctor’s life is seen as pulling at him from the past, only rarely emerging on the surface.

The show has been, under Moffat and Smith, an almost hyperactive action adventure series, with lots of explosions and dashing about. 

Recently cast Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi, into whom Smith will regenerate on the 2013 Doctor Who Christmas Special, promises to take things in a different direction altogther. We hear that Capaldi's Doctor, and his adventures, will be "darker," and that's fine with us. Surely the most adaptable genre series in the known universe can accommodate a few more variations.


This article is related to: Doctor Who, Television, Television, TV, TV Reviews, TV IS THE NEW CINEMA, Thompson on Hollywood


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.