Today marks twenty years since the Doctor Who television movie aired in the UK. I’m in the US, so my actual Who-nniversary was on the 14th of this month, but I didn’t even realize it’s been twenty years. It feels like yesterday. To celebrate, here’s a post I wrote back in 2012, but a little different after its regeneration.
My first Doctor, MY Doctor, is the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann.
Eight has the dubious distinction of being the Doctor with the shortest television run, but his epic adventures span dozens of books, comics, and over seventy Big Finish audio dramas. It is truly criminal that we didn’t get more time with Eight on screen, because he was the perfect bridge between the classic series and the new, in which The Doctor became more “human” and showed self-doubt in a way the previous Doctors didn’t.
In 1996, after being off the air for seven years, Doctor Who made an attempt to resurface in the United States. If you watch the television movie, you get a glimpse of what the American reboot would have been like, and it’s not too different from the tone of the Russel T. Davies series. A quick summary: The Doctor is transporting the mortal remains of The Master, who has been executed by The Daleks, from Skaro to the Time Lord home planet, Gallifrey, in accordance with The Master’s final wishes. As the TARDIS travels through space, the Seventh Doctor kicks back and relaxes in his bad ass, totally Steampunk TARDIS, reading H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and eating jelly babies. But The Master’s plan all along was to funnel his essence into The Doctor to secure more regenerations. This goes awry when The Doctor makes an emergency landing in San Francisco, 1999, and gets shot in the crossfire of a gang turf war (no, really). He ends up in the hospital, where a brilliant, sexy cardiologist, Dr. Grace Holloway, assumes he’s human, performs a heart procedure, and kills him (she does this all in a ball gown I would still kill to wear). Because he was anesthetized at the time of his death, his regeneration is delayed, and when he regenerates, he has no memory of being a Time Lord. He has to recover his memories in time to stop The Master, and to stop the universe from being destroyed at 12AM on January 1st, 2000.
At the time the TV movie aired, I was fifteen, and possibly the biggest nerd on the planet. Convinced that TV hated me and everything good, I had taken to videotaping literally everything I watched on television in case it got cancelled (this strategy also paid off for My So-Called Life). When I heard there was going to be “some time travel show thing” on Fox (my mother continued to refer to Doctor Who as “some time travel show thing” for the rest of my years at home), I thought it might be kind of cool to check out.
My reaction was somewhere between “holy shit” and “where has this been all my life?” Keep in mind, I had no idea that the show existed before 1996. I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen, and whoever had come up with this startlingly brilliant new idea should be immediately handed heaps of money and the keys to the Vatican.
I was in L-O-V-E.
It should have come as no surprise to me that since I loved the show, it never got picked up for an American series. But I didn’t realize it was supposed to be a series, so I was perfectly happy to watch the story of The Doctor and Grace over and over again. I learned about amnesia as an exposition device. I learned about atomic clocks. And I was torn between pride that Grace was an independent enough woman that she wouldn’t forsake her own life to ride off into the time sunset with The Doctor, and furious that he didn’t pick me instead, because I would totally have gone with him. Also, jealous because she got to kiss him.
A few months after the movie aired, I was flipping through the pathetic five channels that I could get at my grandparents’ house, and I landed on PBS. Immediately, I was struck at how bizarrely similar to my Doctor Who this weird show with a funny looking, curly haired guy and his assistant, Sarah Jane, was. And she called him The Doctor… and they were in… the… TARDIS… and they…
I swear to you, I get teary-eyed remembering the feeling I had upon learning that The Doctor had other adventures. I didn’t know about regeneration yet. I just figured that in Great Britain, people were very high-brow and could overlook the fact that The Doctor’s appearance changed wildly. But as time marched on, and my love of The Doctor grew, I learned more about the show. I wrote fanfic. I tried to knit the scarf. I failed, but damnit, I tried.
(A couple years ago, I finally managed to knit the scarf for a cosplay:
But then it became time to put away childish things. I went out into the real world. I got a job, and a guy to live with, and a kid. So, when I learned The Doctor was returning, I didn’t pay much attention. I wasn’t that nerdy little girl anymore, I had very important things to do. Plus, The Doctor was wearing a leather jacket. I was so terrified that they were trying to “update” my beloved Doctor, to make him into something sleek and polished for a jaded modern audience, the way they’d tried and failed to do in 1996. I didn’t want Doctor Who without cardboard walls and papier mache monsters. So I put off watching the new series… until 2008.
When I started watching it again, friends, it was all over. I had regaled my husband with stories of my childhood nerdiness, and he watched with amusement as I geeked out all over again. And he started watching it, too. And my son made a Doctor Who puppet show, with Daleks he drew and taped to popsicle sticks. And so, here we are again. I guess it must be fate. And other Peter Cetera lyrics.
I still watch the movie every once and a while. It feels dated, of course, but dated like the sofa you grew up with. I feel echoes of Dr. Grace Holloway in Dr. Martha Jones, because they were both the girls who didn’t wait. When I watched the mini-episode The Night Of The Doctor, I immediately recognized Eight’s voice when he spoke his first line unseen.
I love Doctor Who. It is, without exaggeration, one of the most important things in my life. And Paul McGann’s Doctor is the one who guided me into the fandom. Someday, I hope I can go to a con to meet him and let him know that.
A lot of people have been into Doctor Who a lot longer than me, but that’s one of the most amazing things about a fandom that’s been going strong for over fifty years: new people always come along to join up, and then the new people become less new as more roll in. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a fan for twenty minutes or twenty episodes, and I’m proud to still be a Whovian, twenty years later.