Sean P. Means: A 'Doctor Who' fan's journey through time and space and one tough pub quiz
I bow to no one in my love for "Doctor Who."
My faith in my encyclopedic knowledge of the show, however, took quite a beating the other night.
It happened Saturday at a Salt Lake City bar, The Devil's Daughter, where I and some of my Tribune colleagues "Doctor Who" fans all competed in a themed edition of the popular pub quiz Geeks Who Drink, an event timed to celebrate the BBC series' 50th anniversary this Saturday.
Most of the quiz questions covered the most recent incarnations of The Doctor, since the BBC revived the series in 2005. These are the eras of the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors played, respectively, by Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. These are the eras when the show has grown from a cult classic beloved by a few million stalwart fans to a global phenomenon embraced by tens of millions.
Looking at my fellow Whovians at the bar, including my Tribune teammates, there was a definite bias toward the recent editions. That's understandable, as it requires either a deep desire to dig into the old episodes or (in my case) a combination of middle age and nostalgia to really love the show's early days.
When I was a nerd in high school in the late 1970s, I would rush home to watch the reruns of The Doctor's serialized adventures on my local PBS station. The show, about a raggedy time traveler in a blue British police box whose interior was in another dimension so that it was "bigger on the inside," was different from anything else on the air.
It was an action show that was also funny. It introduced all manner of strange creatures, from sucker-faced Zygons to the most ruthless of them all, the metal-cased empire-building Daleks. And it had a hero who didn't shoot a gun or a laser, but used his brains and his all-purpose "sonic screwdriver."
And, as I got into the show, I experienced the imaginative twist that has allowed it to endure for 50 years: The Doctor, being a Time Lord, can "regenerate" into a new body. This meant that, every so often, a new actor could take over the role, with a new costume and a new personality, and bring a new spin to the part.
My first Doctor and it's a hallmark of "Doctor Who" fandom that your first Doctor is "your" Doctor was the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, who held the role from 1974 to 1981, the longest of any Doctor. The Fourth Doctor was clad in a long coat, a floppy fedora and a ridiculously long scarf. He had a series of comely companions, notably the intrepid journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and the primitive warrior Leela (Louise Jameson) who wore a buckskin miniskirt, another attraction to the show for a teenage boy.
I watched "Doctor Who" even while knowing, in my nerdy high-schooler heart, that it wasn't the greatest show on television. The cliffhangers were ludicrous, the special effects were cheesy and the alien worlds were more often than not (as an infamous parody of the show once commented) a gravel quarry somewhere outside London.
Through the '80s, I stayed with The Doctor through three more incarnations (the youthful Peter Davison, the bombastic Colin Baker and the sweetly clownish Sylvester McCoy). Then, in 1989, nothing. The show just stopped, and the BBC never said why.
Fans, like me, were thrilled in 1996 when BBC and the Fox network made a TV movie of "Doctor Who," with Paul McGann as The Doctor (though McCoy appeared at the beginning, for continuity's sake). The movie was big-budget, but rather on the stupid side. More disappointing to fans, the movie messed with the legend by, for example, letting The Doctor ooh, ick kiss his companion.
Burned by that experience, long-term fans were cautious when the BBC decided to revive the show in 2005. But the showrunners first Russell T. Davies and now Stephen Moffat have managed the neat trick of satisfying the old-time Whovians (like me) and drawing a whole new generation of fans.
Those new fans kicked my butt, up one side of the Devil's Daughter and down the other, in Saturday's pub quiz. Our team Two Hearts Beat as One, honoring both The Doctor's unique circulatory system and a favorite U2 song tied for seventh out of 14, firmly in the middle of the pack, which isn't bad, I suppose, but deflating for this long-standing fan.
The loss, to me, is an indicator of one of the eternal struggles of fandom: How should an old-school fan react when the object of affection goes from obscurity to mass popularity?
When I started watching "Doctor Who," it was difficult to find on TV and there were very few people with whom a fan could share the love. Now, BBC America plays the reruns constantly, and the episodes are available on demand, Netflix or DVD for unending binge viewing.
Old-time fans sometimes have the impulse to complain when the thing they love becomes immensely popular. But there's plenty of room for everyone in the worlds of fandom whether it's "Doctor Who," "Star Trek," a favorite band or a beloved sports team and the choice becomes whether to shun the new fans as latecomers or embrace them.
The answer, of course, is to embrace the new fans. With "Doctor Who," it only makes sense, since The Doctor's entire reason for being is to explore the endless possibilities of the universe and to meet every species willing to take a risk on befriending a thousand-year-old man in a funny blue box.
For any aspect of fandom, it's always better to be inclusive than exclusive, to welcome converts instead of snubbing new friends. The worlds of fandom always feel small to the people who are dedicated to them, but allowing in new people makes those worlds feel bigger on the inside.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.