Nearly 50 years after its debut, 'Doctor Who' snares another convert

Good doctor, you had me at 'Who'

Peter Capaldi

British actor Peter Capaldi poses for pictures as he arrives for the European Premiere of the film 'Dom Hemingway' at the Curzon Cinema in London. Capaldi will be taking over the role of Dr. Who. (Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images / October 28, 2013)

Until recently I assumed the statute of limitations on my chances of becoming a "Doctor Who" fan had long since expired — sometime around the decline of communism and the rise of Sir Mix-A-Lot, if I had to guess.

Simply put, the series — which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Saturday (yes, it debuted in England less than 24 hours after JFK was shot) — never spoke to me. The few times during the 1970s when I tried to watch (always after school, always in the unexplored country of PBS afternoon programming, always when the Brady Bunch were visiting Hawaii in a rerun), it felt impenetrable. What's a "TARDIS"? And a "Dalek"? Are those the robots on wheels that look like portable gyro-slicing machines? What's with the flying phone booth? And this "Doctor," curly haired with a folk-singer scarf and wild, bug-eyed glint? What's he a doctor of? Was he actually Donald Sutherland? Or that hairy, limber hippy from progressive '70s sex manuals?

No, I would not be a Whovian.

Decades passed before I gave "Doctor Who" another thought.

Then, around the 47th year of the show's existence, I began to run into friends, relatives and acquaintances all inexplicably obsessed with this sci-fi eccentricity. Largely dormant for the 15 years prior, "Doctor Who" had been rebooted in 2005, and, despite the age of the franchise, was becoming a late-blooming phenom, one of the most popular TV shows in the world. It's so successful by now that its anniversary will be marked with a hugely anticipated "Day of the Doctor" special airing Saturday, Nov. 23 on BBC America and Nov. 25 in movie theaters nationwide. Even more unlikely for such antique, nerdy pop wallpaper: Its newest, biggest fans were female.

Intrigued, I decided to wade in to see what I had been missing. And immediately, I was startled: Here was a show with decades of plot, operating in a genre not known for accommodating dumb questions, and yet "Doctor Who" — both the fandom and the unexpectedly cheerful series — was generous, accommodating.

Take Mindy Laff, a 50-year-old Chicago docket manager for intellectual property lawyers. I told her about my persistent allergy to her favorite TV show, and — unlike the sneering, sighing misanthrope I expected — she sympathized. She had recently become a Whovian herself: "I've always liked geekdom, but I found sci-fi communities impossible. So cliquey! I was intimidated. I didn't hate the show. But 50 years of story? Really? And, like, 200 plots? And I would have to learn about each Doctor? There are more than one? And know his companions? And the 130-something missing episodes that fans have somehow reconstructed? And the spin-offs? And the Christmas specials? I have patience issues! I already have a bunch of comedy podcasts I want to listen to, and when my parents ask me to dinner, I say 'But I have all this TV to watch …'

"No, no: I couldn't add 'Doctor Who' to that. Then a year ago I met some 'Doctor Who' fans and asked them how to get into it. And they said: 'What can we tell you?' They were so nice to the casually curious."

Sounds suspiciously like a cult? Well, yes.

I am a Whovian now.

A Whovian poseur, perhaps. But I aspire to pure Whovian. If the Whovians will have me.

Here's how it happened: I started by soliciting Chicago for tips on how to get into "Doctor Who," and there was no shortage of advice. But it was always the equivocal and relatable kind: You can't watch the show wrong (but usually you can watch it out of sequential order), it's cheesy (but deep), corny (but profound). I was offered lists of episodes to watch (and not watch). For emotional support, I was sent links to fan forums.

This is not an uncritical fandom: Jennifer Kelley, co-founder of Chicago TARDIS, one of the largest "Doctor Who" conventions in the world (happening Nov. 29-Dec.1 at the Westin in Lombard), said: "If anyone tells you they like everything about 'Doctor Who,' be suspicious."

Throughout the '90s, and as late as 2004, interest in the BBC-born series had waned so severely, Kelley said, that she assumed her then-modest four-year-old convention was on its last legs. The fandom had become cloistered. Even as I got started, when a fan told me to watch "series five with the 11th Doctor" and I asked for clarification, they had to explain that Whovians refer to seasons of the new show as "series" but seasons of the original 26-year run as "seasons."

Huh.

Generally, though, the Whovians — earnest, a touch twee, too fast to laugh at its inside jokes — was ridiculously well-prepared for wannabes. "The wonderful thing about the 'Doctor' is it changes tone, style and narrative so often that if you don't like it one week, you might love it the next," said Paul Booth, an assistant professor in DePaul University's College of Communication who studies cult TV fandoms (and also edited "Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who," part of the University of Chicago Press' new series of books on fan culture).

Allegra Rosenberg, an 18-year-old Skokie high school student who developed a sizable online following for her "Doctor Who"-inspired ukulele ballads (later employed by BBC America in the marketing of the show), sent me a three-step indoctrination regimen. Step one was: "There's nothing much you need to know …"

Nothing at all, other than, she added, the following: "The basic process of regeneration (when the Doctor switches bodies, in a trick of alien biology), and the fact he travels though time and space in a blue (British) police box — all things you probably know already though pop-cultural osmosis, so you're good to go."

I began with "The Aztecs," a four-parter from 1964 that looks as though it were shot, well, at your local PBS station. The Doctor (who has no name, only a title) was William Hartnell, the first Doctor, then in his 50s, though looking much older. He lands in a 15th century Mexico recreated on a BBC budget, by way of an over-lighted soundstage. He finds himself witness to a human sacrifice. He's abrasive, impatient. At the end, having prevented the sacrifice but failing to dissuade Aztecs that killing a man will bring rain, the Doctor is asked by a companion time traveler, "What's the point of traveling though time and space if you can't change anything?" And the Doc says, sincerely: "You failed to save a civilization but at least you helped one man."

"Tomb of the Cybermen," from 1967, was better (though production values would not improve for decades). Its black-and-white glow began to look like a dream state. You could see how that slow, creeping, low-budget starkness — and its plot, about a race of metal men who want to recreate humanity in its likeness (the erasing of eccentricity and personality a favorite goal of "Doctor Who" villains) — crawled into young brains. It also begged to be watched alongside a Twitter feed, to know if I was the only one who thought Cybermen were reminiscent of Devo, or that their warning of "Struggle is futile" was adopted by "Star Trek."

By the time I made it to Tom Baker in the '70s — the longest-running Doctor, the Doctor of my childhood — and the funny "City of Death" story arc (co-written by "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams), I was hooked. It was silly, comforting and wry: Aliens want to steal the Mona Lisa, which never does make sense, an absurdity the Doctor seems to enjoy. (Tellingly, Monty Python's John Cleese makes a cameo.) The irony I didn't have patience for as a 10-year-old — and as an adult assumed was absent — looked keenly of-the-moment in my 40s. More surprising: Though decades of mythology had accumulated by the end of the Baker days, the story lines felt more "CSI"-like and self-contained than "Wire"-like and serial.

As for the rebooted series: What's been lost in casualness (from 2005 on, the show became less episodic, the production values sharper) has been gained in shrewdness, sheer watchability. Each Doctor's "regeneration," each handing down of the role — often during holiday specials — is now a chance to repeat the 50-year-old premise, as reassuring as a mantra. And each new Doctor seems to get younger, the most recent two being frenzied David Tennant and lanky Matt Smith, an actor so youthful he seems to still be forming.

At the risk of sounding glib, basically "Doctor Who" became "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," speaking to its self-referential audience in a hip shorthand of knowingly cheesy dooms and pop lingua franca. Which is partly intentional: "The funny thing is we always looked to American television," said Marcus Wilson, one of the producers on the rebooted series. "The show always has, seeing American sci-fi-fantasy as the gold standard. I guess we knew it would appeal to Americans. We just thought it would have happened earlier."

But the timing was perfect: "Not to get all scholarly, but 'Doctor Who' hit in America at a moment when fan culture was finally appropriated by mainstream culture," said Ashlyn Keef, a fan and 24-year-old graduate student in DePaul's media and cinema studies program. It also came at a moment when the most creative fanboys were fangirls — in fact, one of the chapters of the "Fan Phenomena" book is about the relationship between "Doctor" fans and creative knitting. Which has given the reboot a reputation among some longtime fans as "a female thing. But there's a lot of latent sexism in nerd culture," said Christopher Olson, one of Keef's classmate.

Steven Hill, like many Chicago-born Whovians, discovered "Doctor Who" through WTTW-Ch. 11. He grew up watching the original series on Sunday nights. He remained loyal throughout the cult period, the wilderness years, the spectacular now. In 2009, Hill, a technology systems engineer for construction companies, created Gallifrey Base, an online "Doctor Who" fan forum. It now has 73,000 registered members and counting; in three years, it became the most trafficked Whovian meeting place in the world.

He is not willing to lose members: "The annoying thing about the fans who resent the newcomers is that they seem to forget newcomers have given this thing a renewed life. Without them, the show will die again."

But the test, he said, is the new Doctor, Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, whose reign begins next year. At 55, Capaldi is the oldest Doctor since Hartnell, the very first Doctor. He is 24 years older than Matt Smith, the current Doctor, and he looks about 24 years older than Smith's predecessor, Tennant, who is still in his early 40s.

"But I think fans will learn to appreciate him — eventually."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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