I became a Doctor Who fan when I was 13. I wish I could say it was love at first sight, but it wasn’t. But when I fell for it, I fell hard.
This was back in the Before Times, when you couldn’t buy episodes of TV shows. You either caught them when they aired (or were lucky enough to own a VCR that you could program to record when it aired) or you missed it. This was also before many of the 1960s episodes of Doctor Who had been recovered and were aired in the US. Basically, if you came into the show, you were jumping onto the middle car of a passing train and relying on fellow passengers and your own sense of direction to find your way around.
My friend Marc was a big fan of the show and invited me over to his house to watch it. I don’t remember how much he explained about what the show was and I don’t remember much of what we watched. I remember it was a Tom Baker story (which was shown as one long episode, since many PBS stations that showed Doctor Who, including our station in Kansas City, had all of the individual episodes of a serial spliced into one “Doctor Who movie”) and I remember not really getting into it or following it. And then my mom and brother began taking karate lessons on Friday nights and I didn’t go along with them (which is weird in retrospect, since studying a martial art was something I’d been interested in, but who can figure out the brain of a 13-year-old?), so I settled in front of the television with a Swanson’s TV dinner in front of me on a TV tray and flipped through the channels to see what was on. I landed on our PBS station just as the announcer said, “Coming up, a new Doctor Who movie: ‘Kinda’!” (Pronounced “kin-da”, like “cin-da-rella.”) Because Marc loved the show, I figured I’d give it another shot and at least watch the beginning. A very different opening sequence from the one I’d seen before started, with a cool, synthy scream leading into a New Wave-ish theme while the starry vastness of space hurtled at me. I was mesmerized.
Here’s a thing about ’80s Doctor Who: it was a shaky time for the series in a lot of ways. The producer at the time, John Nathan-Turner, was determined to make the show more popular both at home and abroad, but he did it in some questionable ways, like changing the Doctor’s outfit from being eccentric and recognizable to being a straight-up uniform (with a question mark theme, which made little sense within the show, since the character wasn’t called Doctor Who, just “the Doctor”) and making the show more “mature”–which mostly meant “more violence and death.” (It’s also tempting to laugh at the ’80s soundtrack and clothing design, but I don’t think it’s funnier than the show in the ’70s.) But even as Dork Age-y as ’80s Doctor Who might seem now, when I first saw that opening, I was drawn in. (Lesson: maybe worry less about being “popular” and “adult” and just write the most entertaining stories you can.)
Watching the show alone, with no one to guide me through it and no vast internet to look things up and find out more, I was both confused and intrigued. There was a character called “the Doctor” who was obviously the hero with some sidekicks who were with him for reasons I couldn’t figure out. One of the sidekicks was mysteriously ill and had to stay in their ship, which had a funny name (“TARDIS? What does that even mean?”) and looked like a solid blue telephone booth or something, certainly not what you’d expect a spaceship or time machine to look like. They were on some alien planet, probably in the future since there was a ship of explorers who seemed to be from Earth. The Doctor was smart, apparently a scientist, and sarcastic, but he didn’t punch or shoot anyone, which was an unusual thing to see on TV. The story was strange, when it was over I wasn’t sure I understood it all, I still wasn’t sure exactly who the heroes were or why they did what they did, but goddamn, I was hooked.
Here’s a thing about the story “Kinda”: it’s weird. Weirder than most classic Doctor Who stories, which could often be pretty weird. Characters have names that come from Buddhism, there’s an assload of Buddhist symbolism, and there’s some super fucking weird imagery, including some creepy dream sequences and an incredibly fake-looking giant snake that grows from a tattoo on a man’s arm. Even if I didn’t completely grasp the story the first time I watched it, it blew my mind, and it remains one of my favorite stories. (Lesson: don’t be afraid to throw your obscure passions into your art. There will be at least one person out there who will appreciate it.)
Here’s a thing about Doctor Who in general: it’s a very strange concept for a TV show, especially one aimed squarely at children (which it originally was). There’s an eccentric scientist who dresses in old-timey clothes, looks human but is an alien from a highly advanced race, has no real name and insists on being called “the Doctor”, and travels through time and space with a varied assortment of sidekicks in a time machine that looks like an old, battered police call box on the outside but is infinitely bigger and more sci-fi on the inside. Honestly, it amazes and delights me that the show got made at all and has lasted as long as it has. (Lesson: don’t dismiss the really bizarre ideas you get. Weird is good.)
After “Kinda”, eating a TV dinner while watching Doctor Who became my regular Friday night. I started video taping stories so I could watch them again and again. But I never seemed to find the beginning of the series and there seemed to be no ending. Even when our local PBS station would get to the most recent story they had, they would just go back to the earliest episode in their collection and replay the series in order, making a sort of time loop of a story that had no beginning or end, just a long, strange middle. (I later read and then watched the very first Doctor Who story and as it turns out, that first story gives us very little information about the character and his time machine and he’s already had adventures before the series starts. There’s never really been a definitive beginning. And the series has yet to show a definitive ending.) Which is part of how I’ve come to look at clear-cut beginnings and endings of stories with some suspicion and why I’m fine with coming into a story in the middle, riding along until I’ve found my bearings, and never having every question answered and every mystery solved.