This Sunday, November 23, marks the 45th anniversary of the debut of Doctor Who, at 5:15pm Greenwich Mean Time, on BBC1. I don’t remember that — I wasn’t born yet, and I would have been living in America anyway, if I had been. Hell, the actor playing the Doctor today wouldn’t be born for another eight years. Doctor Who has been around for a long, long time.
But all the many lists of records — longest-running blah blah blah — I could recount don’t matter to me so much as this: I wish I could remember the precise date that I discovered Doctor Who. I vividly remember the experience of watching my first episode, I’m just not quite sure when it was. Because of course I had no idea then that the show would warp my brain so entirely that now, coming up on 30 years later for me, I’d still be obsessed with.
Obsessed in a healthy way, of course. Completely healthy. It’s not like I’ve ever written Doctor Who fan fiction– no, wait, I’ve done that. Well, it’s not like I compulsively VCRed an entire collection of Doctor Who in the 1980s, at a time when VHS tapes cost upwards of ten bucks apiece and babysitting money didn’t stretch very far, even going to such detailed extremes as to edit my tapes (as best could be done with only a single VCR) so that all those cliffhanger endings would flow into the beginnings of the next episodes– no, wait, I did do that. Okay, but it’s not like I’m so desperate to see the new episodes these days that I hover around the Internet waiting for some geek in England to upload them so I don’t have to wait for the Sci Fi Channel to take its sweet time getting them to American audiences– *ahem*. I plead the Fifth Amendment on this matter.
Right: I have never, ever dressed up as a character from Doctor Who to go to a sci-fi convention.
I did knit a Doctor Who scarf in high school. But it’s a scarf, right? It’s practical. It gets cold in New York in the winter.
I gave it to Matthew Waterhouse at a Doctor Who convention. He played Adric. I couldn’t stand Adric.
I’m such a dork.
That first exposure to Doctor Who was 1974’s “Robot,” though it would have been long after that: probably late 1981 or early 1982, maybe. I was already, at the tender age of 12 or 13, deeply, madly into science fiction and had had a taste of the weirdness of British TV, thanks to PBS and, mostly, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I was reading Starlog magazine, like a good little geek. I had heard vague rumors of a strange British science fiction TV show. When my local Long Island PBS station announced that it was going to commence airing this Doctor Who thing, I had to tune in.
The opening moments of “Robot” feature an elderly (or so he seemed to me, at 12 or 13) white-haired gent morphing into a younger man with curly brown hair (those would be Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, though I did not know that then). Then the curly man fought a giant robot that had gone mad. I was stunned — what the hell…? — and I was hooked.
This was before we had a VCR in my family — we’d only not long before gotten our first color TV. Channel 21 was showing a single half-hour episode of Doctor Who every weeknight at something like 6 or 6:30. There were afternoons when — and I remember this vividly, too — I would have gone with my mother grocery shopping, and we’d be lingering in the supermarket and I’d be looking at my watch and thinking, We’re not gonna make it home for ‘Doctor Who,’ oh my god, we are not going to make it home for ‘Doctor Who.’ And I’d break in to a cold sweat and nervous shaking.
You think I’m exaggerating. Ha.
There were other nights when my mother let us drag the TV into the kitchen, or bring our dinners into the living room, so we could watch. (We being me and my two younger brothers, only one of which went on to remain a lifelong geek. He and I feel bad for the other one.) She was nice that way.
Today, it is a semiregular ritual to sit in front of the TV — ah, widescreen HD; ah, region-free DVD players — and eat Chinese food and drink wine and watch Doctor Who. And it’s okay today. Because today Doctor Who is cool. Who’da thunk it?
I’m still such a dork, though.
(BBC News Magazine posted a lovely story this week about archival documents from the very earliest days of the show, before it had even debuted on TV. The producers were nervous. The Beeb was nervous. It’s hard to imagine today, when almost anything labeled science fiction, no matter how crappy it is, is just about a guaranteed success, but SF simply wasn’t the thing to do in 1963. The TARDIS almost wasn’t. The Daleks had to be snuck around the objections of higher-ups. If only time had been a little more wibbly wobbly, things might have been very different. We might all be enjoying the revival of Z Cars today.)