My wife and I just watched the fantastic An Adventure in Space and Time. It is a BBC docudrama about the beginnings of Doctor Who. It was a blast to watch, and it got me thinking about beginnings. It got me thinking about Doctor Who. It got me thinking about the fact that, for me, there is a link between the two, across time and space.
It started in 2001, the beginning of my second year at Hampshire College. I had spent my first year – the craziest and most wonderful year of my life up to that point – in a state of unavailability and strangely exciting identity confusion. I went through high school as a straight up nerd. Without any warning, all of these people found me both socially engaging and romantically intriguing. I was intoxicated. I did not get involved in any romantic relationships that whole year. Looking back, I do not really know why. I think I liked being unattainable. I liked it so much that it became part of my identity. It kept me mysterious, and unchained. I could flit about like a trickster spirit that was only visiting the fleeting diversion that was this mortal plane. I entered into my second year with every intention to continue in the same way. Little did I know.
Her name was Christelle. She went by Chris. She was curvy, wore big geek-girl glasses, and had brightly-dyed red hair that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize was not her natural color. She was also confident and had a weight of knowledge behind her opinions and the things she said I have never been able to adequately explain. When someone poked her in the nose, she meowed like a kitty cat. She took the previous year off, and now was back for her fourth and presumably final year. When asked what she was studying, she would say, “Sex,” and then walk off with a satisfied smirk as everyone stared at her in confusion. It turned out she was writing her big final graduating paper on science fiction and how it tied in with the sexual revolution. She just liked the response people gave her when she simplified it. I was instantly fascinated.
I did not think there was anything romantic about my fascination, at first. After all, she had a boyfriend – practically a fiance, even though he lived several hundred miles away from school – and I thought I was gay. Or mostly gay, or something. I think the exact number I gave back then was 76%. But I kept arranging to be in the same place with her, because I found her fascinating. It is funny to look back on these things. The moments and conversations that seem important when you are young and in the middle of things are often not the ones that really stick with you later on.
I remember one evening when my group of friend were all hanging out in the dining hall as we usually did. The only unusual element was that Chris’s boyfriend was visiting from Boston. Conversation turned to science fiction – away from the more common topic of roleplaying games – and we started talking about science fiction television. Chris spoke up, and asked if anyone had ever seen any Doctor Who.
“Oh, yeah,” I chimed in. “My dad used to pretty much have that on all the time when I was little. I don’t remember it super well, but I’ve seen tons of Doctor Who.” I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.
“Really?” said Chris, interested. “I really love Doctor Who.”
“Nice,” I said. “I’ve probably seen as much as you have.” I have no idea why I said that. Maybe I was trying to impress.
The Boyfriend scoffed. “I doubt that. She has seen all of it. Multiple times.”
“Oh,” I said, bemused. “How much of it is there?”
“It’s the longest running science fiction television show in history,” said Chris. “It was on for twenty six years, counting a hiatus during the Sixth Doctor’s run, and not counting the time between the Seventh Doctor and the Fox movie.”
“Oh,” I said again. It was probably the most intelligent thing I contributed to the conversation.
A few weeks later, a group of us were in our hall’s lounge watching a rerun of the Simpsons. Specifically, it was Treehouse of Horror X, one of the Halloween Episodes. This one featured a sketch where Bart and Lisa got super powers and had to battle the Collector, the super-villain alter ego of Comic Book Guy. He kidnapped Lucy Lawless, TV’s Xena, Warrior Princess. When he had her back in his air, he said to her, “You’ll be preserved forever in this Mylar pouch, forever remaining in … near mint condition, between Doctor Who, and of course Yasmine Bleeth.” When he said this, I looked over at Chris. This was partially because I knew she was a such a big Doctor Who fan, and partially because I spent a lot of time looking over at her these days. To my surprise, she was scowling. After the episode, I mentioned that it had Doctor Who in it, and that was kind of cool.
“The Doctor,” she said angrily.
“Not Doctor Who,” she said. “The show is called Doctor Who. The character is called the Doctor.”
“But, I mean,” said someone else, “sure, but he’s still really called Doctor Who, right?”
“No,” said Chris firmly, “That is not right. He is never referred to as Doctor Who ever in the show. Anyone who says that is an idiot and doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Everyone let the subject drop after that. Later that night, she told me that, even though she had a serious boyfriend, every time she saw me she wanted to kiss me. I did not really know how to respond.
A few weeks later, she asked her boyfriend if he was really serious about wanting an open relationship. He said he would be willing to consider it. She said she really wanted to do it, and he said yes. That was how Chris and I got together. We had our first kiss a few days later. It was weird to be in a relationship when I identified myself so strongly with being free floating and unavailable. But this wasn’t a real relationship. This was just friends with benefits, even though this was before that term that was well known by everyone’s grandmother.
I started sleeping in her dorm room most nights. She had ditched the standard tiny twin bed in favor of her own futon, which was larger and more comfortable and folded up into a convenient couch. She also had a TV in her room, and a VCR. No one had a TV in their room. This was gold. She also had an extensive collection of science fiction movies and television. Including several boxes full of Doctor Who. Some of them were commercial tapes. Most of it was recorded off of PBS marathon’s during her childhood. It included a lot of pledge drives. It was inevitable that I would start watching it. She was so into it, and I was so into her. She assured me that the best place to start was not, in fact, the beginning.
“The First Doctor is really old,” she said. “And it’s in black and white. It doesn’t hold up very well. I’ll start you on the Fifth Doctor. He’s one of my favorites.” And so she did. The Fifth Doctor was a strange blonde man who wore a cricketer’s outfit and always had a stalk of celery on his lapel. I still don’t know why. It was charming, and I enjoyed it. I get into things pretty easily. She enjoyed it, too. Even though it formed a fundamental part of her identity, she hadn’t actually watched most of it in years.
Just before spring break rolled along, Chris broke up with her boyfriend. Things between the two of them had not been good for a long time, but neither one of them had been willing to admit it. She still loved him, she said, but she was with me now. I did not quite know how to handle it, or what it meant for my identity. I just knew I wanted to be with this girl. The campus pretty much closed down for spring break, but she did not have anywhere to go, and I did not want to go home. So we stayed on campus. The dining hall was closed. We lived on hummus, and Top Ramen with soy sauce. We stayed in her room most of the time. We had a lot of sex. And we watched a lot of Doctor Who.
When summer came, neither of us could stand the idea of being apart for that many months. I asked my parents if, after our trip to England, I could fly out to Seattle and stay with my girlfriend. My mom was sad she would not get to spend the summer with me, but they agreed. So I spent the summer living in her high-school room in her parents’ house. I learned that most of her Doctor Who collection lived here, and I had only seen the stuff she could not bare to be without. The tip of the proverbial iceburg. She had the novelizations of all of the episodes, and many of the New Adventures novels released after the show ended. She had the Doctor Who roleplaying game. She had a pin that said I heart heart The Doctor –Time Lords like the Doctor have two hearts, you see – and a miniature of the Doctor’s space-time traveling TARDIS. She told me about the fictional Time Lord she had created and all of her adventures.
We learned to cook tempura and watched anime and went to roleplaying stores and comic book shops. We spent a lot of time talking about Doctor Who, how fascinating the universe was and what a crime it was that it got canceled just as it was really getting good again.
“You made me fall in love with Doctor Who again,” she said one night. “My last boyfriend never did that.” I think that might have been the moment she realized that this thing we had wasn’t going away any time soon. It was for real. She made me fall in love with Doctor Who, too. And we fell in love with each other.
Over the next few years, we got out of school and moved into several apartments together – not at the same time, mind you – with various friends. When I decided I wanted to move to Florida and go to culinary school, she came with me, even though it was crazy. We didn’t have any money. Neither of us knew how to drive. I had to get my license specifically so we could drive ourselves and all of our stuff a thousand miles down the coast two weeks later. I do not like to think about what would have happened if I had failed my drivers test.
Florida was a difficult time for us. We were very broke. We were not able to make many friends down there. Going to school and working so we did not starve was not easy. It did have its bright spots.
I was not alive for the moon landing. I have heard it described, as everyone has. I believe I have seen in another human being the look it must have inspired. That sense of disbelief that it was actually happening, combined with a sense of pure luminescent wonder that humanity could achieve something so impossible and magnificent.
Chris came home from work. She had a shocked look on her face. I ran up to her, my eyes wide. She held in her hand a copy of SFX, a British science fiction magazine.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s coming back,” she said. She held up the magazine. I saw familiar words with an unfamiliar logo. “They’re bringing Doctor Who back. It is actually happening.” I was not sure if she was going to leap up in the air and manifest three bottles of champagne from inside her hat, or fall dead of a shock-induced aneurism.
Chris’s father taped it for us back in Seattle and sent us the tapes. We watched all twelve episodes enraptured. Right away it was clear this was the same show. They did not start over. They did not ignore everything that had come before and rewrite the mythos from scratch. In a cosmic sense, it was unimportant whether or not the show was good. It just had to be right. And it was right. So we watched.
We watched as it started out clunky. In the first episode someone gets eaten by a trash can. We watched as it found its feet. The characters grew on us. The Daleks – the most important antagonists in the original show – were finally presented as just as imposing and frightening to a modern audience as they must have been when they took England by storm in 1963. We fell in love with the new Doctor and his cheeky companion. We did it together. We watched as the show came around from behind to deliver an unexpectedly contiguous plot line. We watched as it sailed into an epic, bittersweet, and completely satisfying ending. When it was revealed at this incarnation of the Doctor was going to regenerate, that what we had already seen of him was all we would ever get, one of us cried. The memory is a little hazy, but I don’t think it was Chris.
That was eight years ago. Chris and I moved to Seattle not long after that. We got married a month after the 10th Doctor’s first series ended. The sapphire on Chris’s engagement ring was TARDIS blue. I wrote her a song and sang it at our wedding reception, even though I am not a songwriter at all. It had Doctor Who in it.
During that time Doctor Who has become a world wide mega sensation. Friends who had barely heard of it when the show first came back in 2005 now have Doctor Who Facebook avatars and can’t stop talking about it. The 50th anniversary special was broadcast in 94 different countries on the day it aired, a new all-time record. It has become one of the biggest and best-loved science fiction properties in the world. Other TV shows and movies and books drop references to Doctor Who in a way that used to be reserved for the Star Brothers, Trek and Wars.
Just a few minutes ago, Chris and I watched An Adventure in Space and Time. It chronicles the very start of Doctor Who. BBC executive Sydney Newman is asked to fill a programming gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury. He envisions a science fiction show, because he is all about the new and the original. It will be about a cantankerous old doctor, his granddaughter, and two good looking young people traveling through space and time. Newman taps a driven but frustrated woman named Verity Lambert to be producer, the first female producer ever in the BBC. Verity faces all kinds of challenges getting the show up and coming. Higher-ups that won’t support her. A c-list studio where the sprinklers go off every time it gets too hot. A lead actor who often cannot remember his lines. It started off so very, very small. Everything does.
Even with all of their optimism, the show’s creators had no idea what it would become. I remember that funky girl with the mysterious smile and the dyed-red hair. I had no idea what we would become. It took a few years for Doctor Who to become a bona-fide hit. It took another decade until it became a permanent part of the British consciousness. It took almost 50 years, but it is now a world-wide phenomenon. There has been a lot of history, since then. Some of it was great, and some of it not so much. It is still about the same character who was there when it all started. He is all but unrecognizable from the person he was, save for that single thread. And it is still alive. It is still going strong. It is interesting, to look at the past. It lets us know how the present moment was constructed. Bur for me, the future is always more interesting. You can call me a silly optimist if you want. It wouldn’t be the first time. It doesn’t change who I am, and what I believe.
I believe the best is still to come.
- This is the Moment. Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor” (tor.com)
- An Adventure in Space and Time Trailer (theconsultingdetectivesblog.com)