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Favorite W

Seven ways of looking at Doctor Who

By Annalee Newitz

THERE HAVE BEEN a lot of Doctor Whos, but so far I've only become aquainted with two. After watching several episodes of the infamously cheesy British time-travel TV show Doctor Who, I've gotten to know the first Doctor--a sort of wispy mad scientist played by somebody whose name I could look up online if I weren't so lazy--and Tom Baker, the jelly-baby-popping, scarf-wearing hippie type whose 1970s Doctor is often hailed by fans as the best one.

Although I travel in the kinds of circles where you hear about Doctor Who on a pretty regular basis, I hadn't actually watched any of it until quite recently. Partly this was just my general mistrust of British science fiction, which always strikes me as either woefully dated like Hammer Studios' Quatermass trilogy, or unforgivably intellectual like Iain Banks' writing. But now that I've overcome my prejudices and started consuming old episodes of Doctor Who, I just can't get enough.

How do I love the good Doctor? Let me count the ways.

1. The Phone Booth. Long before boy bimbos Bill and Ted penetrated the time stream in a phone booth, the Doctor was cruising through temporal anomalies galore in the TARDIS, a tiny British-style phone booth or "police box" whose interior is enormous thanks to some sort of Time Lord trans-dimensional engineering nonsense. For Americans like myself, whose first fantasies of spaceship technology came from watching that looooong shot of an impossibly large vessel floating overhead in the opening shot of Star Wars, nothing could be more refreshing than an SF show which isn't afraid to chuck its big old ships in favor of a good joke.

2. Time Travel. The Doctor fights for justice throughout space and time, which makes his adventures weirder, smarter and more epic than either Quantum Leap or Star Trek. Plus, it means that he can pick up his traveling companions from anywhere, including 1960s Britain or 1 million B.C. on an alien world (please don't ask how you can have 1 million B.C. on an alien world).

3. Robots. Any geek who has ever heard another geek exclaim "EXTERMINATE!" in a voice both squeaky and menacing knows precisely why the robots on Doctor Who are better than Voyager's Seven of Nine, even if they don't have her admittedly distracting breasts. On Doctor Who, our greatest enemies are the Daleks, a race of cyber-mutants whose resemblance to wheeled mailboxes wearing leather and studs is endlessly amusing. Their rallying cry is, you guessed it, EXTERMINATE!

4. The Scarf. Tom Baker's Doctor was famous for wearing what looks like a 12-foot striped scarf that serves absolutely no function whatsoever. It so happens that a couple of years ago, I bought a similar scarf in Berkeley, and have been plagued ever since by people asking, "Is that a Doctor Who scarf?" Scarves are, after all, a very important component of time travel.

5. Naughty Bureaucrats. In my current favorite Doctor Who adventure, The Sunmakers, we're introduced to some of the most evil beasts in the universe: bureaucrats on Pluto. This episode, in which the Doctor is threatened with being cited for the "irregularity" of landing the TARDIS on top of a government building, could practically have been written by sociologist Max Weber. Weber is famous for--among other things--exploring the connection between religious feeling and bureaucratic oppression. In The Sunmakers, our gleefully sadistic villains are constantly saying, "Praise the Company!" It reminds me of life at a large corporation like Cisco.

6. Quantity. You can't argue with something like quantity, especially if you're a science fiction fan. The sheer volume of Doctor Who episodes makes it an incredibly satisfying show, because the fact is, the more you love it, the more there is to love. You could watch it for literally years on end without running out of new material (the show ran from 1963 to 1996). Some channel is always showing Doctor Who somewhere, and most video stores will have a big selection of the best adventures on tape.

Now all I want to do is lie in bed and watch the Doctor eat jelly babies all day long.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who spent most of the last week watching nothing but Doctor Who. She's at [email protected].

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From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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