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

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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