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Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary with the Day of the Doctor on BBC America this Saturday morning. That Doctor Who has become something of a cultural phenomenon in the US is one of those weird and wonderful things that sometimes happen with television.

That such a positive reception has centered on the more recent incarnations of the Doctor, specifically the ninth, 10th and 11th played by Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith respectively, is a curious thing for those of us of a more vintage disposition.

Doctor Who, along with the classic western The Virginian, was my Father’s favorite show and as a youngster everything ground to a halt on a Saturday evening when first Patrick Troughton and then Jon Pertwee inhabited the role of the Time Lord. William Hartnell had been the original Doctor starting back on November 23rd 1963 and remained in the role until 1966 when Troughton came on board. The immensely clever concept of regeneration, one that allowed new actors to play the part, also allowed significant changes between the ways the Doctor was portrayed.

The highlight of those early years were Pertwee and Tom Baker who from 1970-1981 preceded over what is still the “classic” years of Doctor Who as the third and fourth Doctor respectively. Currently available via Hulu Plus and the Netflix DVD service, these early incarnations of the Doctor also introduced some of the better companions and enemies that have reverberated through to the current versions.

Caroline John as Liz Shaw, Katy Manning as Jo Grant and the late Elisabeth Sladen as the memorable Sarah Jane Smith are each in their own way wonderful as the companions of the Doctor with Sladen continuing on to work with Baker as well. For those of us that remember the character of Sarah Jane Smith from her original time on Doctor Who, Sladen’s appearance in 2006 in the episode School Reunion, with David Tennant as the 10th Doctor, remains one of the highlights of the entire series.

Following Sladen’s run, Louise Jameson was an unforgettable Leela and Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward brought different interpretations to the role of Romana. Each in their own way was a strong compliment to the Doctor and in retrospect it is interesting that the Doctors that are remembered most fondly are also the ones with the strongest companions.

In this there are parallels to the current popularity of the show with Billy Piper’s Rose Tyler, John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness, Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones and Karen Gillian’s Amy Pond carrying on that tradition and providing additional layers to the show. The less said about Rory, the better.

The 50th anniversary of the show it may be, but Doctor Who has not been broadcast for all those years. The show had petered out in 1989 with Sylvester McCoy playing the seventh doctor after first Peter Davison and then Colin Baker had failed to maintain the momentum of the Pertwee-Baker years. Davison remains a fine actor and I strongly recommend almost anything he appears in particularly The Last Detective that occasionally shows up on the streaming service of Netflix. In retrospect Davison was a poor choice as the UK public still associated him with the character Triston Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small.

Then in 2005 Russell T. Davis successfully brought back the series with Eccleston playing the character for the first season of the new iteration of the show although thankfully there was no attempt at some sort of reimaging of the series. The vast majority of the new shows, 119 episodes over six seasons are available via Netflix streaming and BBC America has been playing the latest season in preparation for the 50th anniversary special.

I still miss Tennant as the Doctor. His infectious enthusiasm for the character showed in his work and it would have been nice to see a Baker-esque run to his time on the show. Smith is good and frankly is to be commended for doing an excellent job in following such a polished performer. But still, I will be most curious to see the two actors playing their different interpretations of the character on screen at the same time.

Part of the beauty of Doctor Who is that it really isn’t like anything you’ve seen before. If you are new to the show, start with Eccleston and move forward for an enjoyable experience of what Doctor Who means today.  Then you can pick and choose the Pertwee and Baker shows. Meanwhile for those us who have been watching for a while it is on to the newest Doctor as Peter Capaldi takes over the mantle from Matt Smith.

– Wallace Poulter

 

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