Sean P. Means: Dissecting 'Doctor Who' and the joys of fandom
The coolest, and most daunting, job in the universe is open.
Last weekend, the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that Matt Smith would be leaving his role as The Doctor on the iconic BBC science-fiction series "Doctor Who" after nearly four years. Smith will appear in the show's 50th anniversary special, set for Nov. 23, and the traditional Christmas episode.
In certain quarters of the geek world, the news brought a clamor that could be heard to the end of time a place The Doctor has visited once or twice over the past 50 years using his TARDIS time machine that looks like an English police phone box.
To generations of Brits, and a fair contingent in the rest of the world, "Doctor Who" is as important a title in the science-fiction pantheon as "Star Trek," "Star Wars" or "Back to the Future." In fact, it's got elements in common with all three of those American franchises: creepy aliens, noble heroes, action-packed adventure, cheesy sets (especially in the early days), sharp humor, imaginative looks at the consequences of time travel and an innate hopefulness about the future of humanity.
"Doctor Who" is unique, though, because it has continued without a reboot (like "Star Trek") or prequels (like "Star Wars"). The canon recognizes a single character from the serialized children's series that ran from 1963 to 1989, through the 1996 American TV movie, and into the smart reintroduction that launched in 2005.
The Doctor is a great character because he's the smartest figure in TV history. Ages ago, when someone asked, "Are you some kind of scientist?," The Doctor shot back, "I'm every kind of scientist."
He's an alien, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, but he is fond of Earth and its inhabitants, whom he finds sometimes dim and violent but capable of greatness.
The Doctor is a pacifist, almost never picking up a gun, opting instead to employ his sonic screwdriver (an all-purpose device whose uses were left to the script writers' imaginations) and his intellect. Ironically, he's also responsible for the genocide of several species, notably the evil mechanical Daleks (introduced in the show's second episode in 1963).
He's also quite long-lived, practically immortal, because when he's gravely injured he has the power to regenerate his body. When this happens, his physical appearance and his personality radically alter. This regeneration was a writer's idea necessitated by the failing health of the first actor who portrayed The Doctor, William Hartnell.
Smith is the 11th actor to play The Doctor, according to canon. (Peter Cushing, who played The Doctor in a couple of films in the '60s, doesn't count, and Whovians are not sure yet what to make of John Hurt, who was introduced in this year's season-finale cliffhanger "as The Doctor.") He also was the youngest, a mere 26 when he started in 2009.
Each actor who has portrayed The Doctor has brought something different to the table. Smith donned a bow tie, because "bow ties are cool," and ate fish sticks (or fish fingers, as the Brits call them) with custard. Smith also was the first Doctor to film in America, shooting key sequences of the sixth season in Utah's Monument Valley.
It's the variety within "Doctor Who," that ability to morph with the times and tastes, that has allowed "Doctor Who" to endure for half a century. About the only major cultural icons that have lasted longer are Superman, Batman and Mickey Mouse.
It's also why the decision executive producer Stephen Moffat makes next is crucial. Moffat was instrumental in casting Smith, and now he must select another person to drive the TARDIS.
Speculation has been rampant among fans, and particularly in Britain where the bookmaker William Hill has put odds on the pick. The current favorite is Ben Daniels, formerly star of "Law & Order: UK." Some have floated the trial balloon that the next Doctor should be a woman or a person of color, which would make history.
The one name on the speculation list that I like is Rupert Grint, known to millions as Ron Weasley in the "Harry Potter" film series. Grint would be lively, he has great comic timing, and he can handle the dramatic aspects of the role. He also would be one of the few actors who would not worry about being typecast, because for him it would undo the typecasting as Weasley. And he'd be a redhead (or, as the Brits say, a ginger) something The Doctor has regretted not becoming after his last two regenerations. (I'm not the only one rooting for Grint. There is, of course, an online petition urging Moffat to cast him.)
If all this seems like a lot of thought behind what is merely a TV show, that's because it is. But for many thousands of fans, "Doctor Who" is no mere TV show. And it's the thoughts and feelings of fans, the people who consume and appreciate a particular piece of pop culture, that turn an ordinary movie, TV show, comic book or album into a beloved work or a cult classic.
Whether you're a Whovian, a Trekkie, a Deadhead, a Parrothead, a Cheesehead, a Dittohead, a birder, a trainspotter, a gamer, a comic-book geek, a Beatlemaniac, a Sherlockian, a Twihard or something else, there's some thing that gets your blood pumping and your heart singing. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Celebrate it.
Besides, if I have to listen to endless blather on sports-talk radio about whom the Utah Jazz are going to draft this season, you can endure one column about the next Doctor. Just putting things in perspective here.