McGinnis: The new ‘Who’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Like many traditions, it was born out of necessity. When the time travelling sci-fi series “Doctor Who” premiered on British television in 1963 (the day after John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas), the title role was played by 55-year-old actor William Hartnell. As a serial show that aired weekly and was in production virtually year-round, such a role could be draining on any actor, not to mention a performer who was already nearing retirement age. So even though the show had become a big success in the interim, only three years into his run, Hartnell announced he was planning on leaving the role.
This left the producers in a bit of a dilemma. They had a smash hit show on their hands, but were about to be without its star. Instead of changing main characters, though, the creators decided to take advantage of the fact that the series’ hero — a “time lord” from another world — was in essence an alien, and thus may have elements of his physiology that were yet unexplored. Like, say, occasionally changing his appearance
And so it was at the end of a story called “The Tenth Planet,” where the Doctor was mortally wounded and suddenly changed from Hartnell into actor Patrick Troughton, who was a little younger, a little feistier, a little … different. Thus, the tradition of the Doctor being able to “regenerate” into a new body was born.
It’s a brilliant storytelling conceit for a television show. In soaps or movie series (like the long-running and eternally-changing James Bond), if someone new is playing a role, the change is rarely commented on in the body of the story. We just are expected to accept that the character now looks totally different and move on. But “Doctor Who” has been able to weather changes to its main cast for nearly half a century now, and still maintain an active and ongoing mythology
The idea of regenerating a new lead has also proved crucial in recent years, as the “Doctor Who” franchise has exploded in popularity worldwide. Since the series’ relaunch in 2005, the latest iteration of the Doctor’s adventures has found an audience far outside its native Britain. While old episodes of the show have long been a staple on public television, this new version — first aired domestically on the Sci-Fi Channel, then on BBC America — has captured imaginations of fans old and new.
Thus, when the original lead actor for the relaunch, Christopher Eccleston, announced he was only going to play the role for the show’s first season, what could have been disastrous for any other franchise proved to be a defining moment for “Who.” They already had the pieces in place for a smooth transition to new lead David Tennant, who would become perhaps the most popular Doctor in the show’s history.
The idea of regeneration often presents a major opportunity for the creators of the show to freshen up the franchise when the preceding performer decides to hang up his sonic screwdriver. Every new Doctor from 1963 on has represented a departure of some sort from his predecessor, in age, demeanor, clothing style, and more. Though there are some set guidelines on how often the character can change and how drastic the change can be, it’s clear that the ever-shifting nature of the series can accommodate more radical alterations if need be.
Which is one of the reasons why so many fans were disappointed when the successor to current Doctor Matt Smith was announced on August 4 — Scottish actor Peter Capaldi was announced as the new caretaker of the role. Capaldi (who at 55 is the same age Hartnell was when he created the character) is a wonderful actor, and the franchise is in tremendously capable hands.
Still, in the weeks leading up to the announcement, a large number of the show’s devotees had begun to wonder if it was time for an even more radical change. Over fifty years in pop culture history, and through 11 actors, the only real differences between Doctors were in age and hair style. Maybe it was time for the universe’s savior to be a person of color? A woman? Or maybe even — GASP! — both?
Traditionalists argued that the show had already established rules that made such a dramatic shift impossible. But, of course, none of that truly matters. The very fact that regeneration exists as a concept shows that the series is more than willing to adapt. Nothing about the Who canon truly requires the character to be of any race or gender, of course — he’s an alien, the basic rules don’t apply. And in a universe of infinite diversity, it would have been a welcome change for that universe’s savior to show a little more of that diversity himself — or herself.