Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Very Good Doctor

One day in 1985, in my eighth grade honors English class, Mrs. Tomita finally had enough of my constant chatter with Sarah Schacker and decided that we must be separated and punished. Sarah was made to sit at a table by herself in a corner by the water faucet and the pencil sharpener, a high traffic area if ever there was one and so Sarah still had plenty of opportunities to socialize.

On the other hand, I was reassigned to a table for four that, until my arrival, had a glaringly, gaping empty chair. This was the nerd table. The geek table. The table of three heretofore unlucky pubescent boys who not too many years later would all make millions of dollars in the Silicon Valley dot com boom of the mid-90s. One of them even showed up at our ten-year high school reunion with some eastern European beauty queen who undoubtedly had agreed to a long-winded pre-nup.

But on this day in Mrs. Tomita’s class, they were still thickly-bespectacled, greasy-haired, spotty-faced boys who didn’t know how to answer questions in class without sounding like a team of insolent George Wills and didn’t know how to talk to girls at all.

Now, I was no Barbie-haired mean girl. I had crooked teeth. I was really good at math. And they only let me on the cheerleading squad because I was strong enough to lift the other girls and be in the bottom row of the pyramid. On the other hand, I did have a nice complexion, a bubbly personality and a couple of pairs of Guess jeans that almost made me look like I had a figure. So, when I took my place in that conspicuously vacant fourth chair and said, “Hi,” all three boys quickly turned to look at something fascinating on the outside of the window.

But since I refuse to ever be at a loss for words, and on that day I refused to give in to Mrs. Tomita’s assumption that by placing me at this table that I would automatically stop talking during class, I was not going to give up. I was determined to engage them in conversation. So, I decided to start over, and not with something as vague as “Hi.” I mean, who at that age can use “Hi” as a conversation starter anyway? Two 13 year olds can spend seven full minutes while passing between classes just saying “Hi” in increasingly shy and uncomfortable ways. No, I decided I would blow their awkwardly intelligent minds with an opening gambit that they could never imagine would ever come out of a girl’s mouth. I said, “So, did you see Doctor Who last night?”

I wasn’t trying to insult them or tease them in anyway. I was just trying to find common ground. Because I had actually seen Doctor Who the night before… and the night before that… and the night before that. In fact, I had seen Doctor Who most Monday through Friday nights in the half-hour before my family ate dinner for a few years at that point. It started because my older brother usually dictated use of the remote control at that time of day. But then I ended up honestly enjoying it. First, I was amused by K-9, the loyal talking robot dog. Then, I started to like Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor’s proto-feminist companion.

But it was Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, who made the whole thing so much fun. He was giddy and capricious. He made time travel exciting, as opposed to dangerous. Certainly there were dangers: such as Daleks, etc. But as it’s so often been noted, those 1970s and 80s special effects were obvious, if not down right silly. It was the character studies, the philosophical dilemmas, the imagined science and the serial story-telling that kept me and my brother and other kids enthralled by sci-fi and fantasy coming back night after night. Well, all of that and, of course, Tom Baker’s ridiculous scarf. And then there was the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, who seemed charming, most likely because he’d previously been a veterinarian on All Creatures Great and Small. But then I grew tired of Doctor Who when Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, started to play him as arrogantly egotistical, as opposed to good-naturedly self-assured.

After that memorable day in eighth grade, I could hardly get my nerdy English class table-mates to stop talking about Doctor Who. More than anything, I think they were amazed to have something they could talk to a girl about. While I didn’t really want to talk to them outside of class and I certainly didn’t want them asking me to go a dance or anything, the experience was certainly enlightening.

As I moved into high school and later college, I realized that I had an advantage over a lot of other girls. Not only did shy, geeky guys (the type that eventually became my main interest and romantic desire) have something they could talk to me about, but I had something I could talk to them about. And it wasn’t just Doctor Who. I also knew every episode of Star Trek. I’d read most of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And I could also have a reasonable conversation about comic books thanks to my brother. I both read his comic books and spent time browsing comic book stores in the days when only he had a driver’s license and I was at his mercy. And while I never told him this at the time, I loved going to the comic book stores because I was almost always the only girl there. I would catch guys looking at me, and although they were never brave enough to actually flirt, it was infinitely more attention then I ever got from any guys at school.

I began to understand those girls that seemed to know so much about football. Whereas before I thought they were feigning interest and just learning things to help them flirt with jocks, I started to recognize that they really did like football, which informed their romantic interest in athletic boys or vice versa; plus it gave them something to talk about.

Because despite what some boys may believe, it’s just as hard for us girls to talk to you as it is for you to talk to us. And having any type of advantage in my teen years was encouraging, especially for a girl like me who never had a date, let alone a boyfriend, until college. It was handy that I was often the prettiest girl around who liked Doctor Who and Star Trek and anything similar that was usually geeky male domain.

I actually took a self-imposed break from Dr. Who during the reign of the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, which then became a forced break when production was ceased on the BBC television series in 1989. But then, in 2005, the show came back, with a brand new kind of Doctor. Christopher Eccleston, as the Ninth Doctor, had a shaved head and a black leather jacket and was sarcastic and moody, but still brilliant and brave. While, in the U.K., Doctor Who is still widely considered a popular show for youth, Eccleston’s Doctor was the right kind of Doctor for the adult in me.

But just like most men I’ve even grown attached to, as quickly as the Ninth Doctor had entered my life, he was gone again. It just didn’t seem fair that there was just one season of Eccleston. But like all other Doctors, and because the BBC doesn’t like to let a good brand die, the Tenth Doctor was announced: David Tennant. While this may not have meant much to most American sci-fi fans, I could hardly contain myself. David Tennant is the one of the few actors I’ve ever truly swooned over. Some might say it was from his memorable portrayal of Casanova in 2005. But I actually was smitten, nee besotted, by his Detective Inspector Carlisle in the strange, murder mystery musical Viva Blackpool in 2004.

So, while I was still mourning Eccleston a little bit, I was ecstatic to learn that Tennant was going to be the new regeneration of Doctor Who in 2006. But little did I know that he was going to play the best version of Doctor Who ever.

Besides Tennant’s innate sex appeal, including for the geek-lover in me the fact that he’s the only Doctor to have ever worn glasses, what’s so truly special about the Tenth Doctor is that Tennant plays the role with both memory and mortality. He is clever and brave and cheeky and serious, but also modern and self-aware. His companions – both Rose and Martha – couldn’t help but fall in love with him and I completely understand why. He is even more the Doctor of my dreams than any other, including Eccleston, could ever be.

One of the common complaints about television characters is that they don’t learn from their mistakes, i.e. they don’t have any memory. This is especially true in situation comedies, daytime and primetime soap operas and even characters like Wily E. Coyote. But the Tenth Doctor, like many modern television science fiction characters has nearly complete recall of his over 900 years of life and adventures. Sometimes that memory is a detriment as it gives him more sorrow and humanity than some previous incarnations. But that also makes it even more delightful when he exuberantly takes on adventures, runs full speed down corridors and cheekily takes on his aggressors. A being with this much life experience could very easily be bored and weary of his ever-lasting life, but Tennant plays it with gusto.

I believe that much of this sense of memory comes from the fact that Tennant is the first actor to play the Doctor who admits that he was an enormous fan of the show growing up. He came to the role with all of the knowledge of the Doctor’s past adventures. So, whether the script directly references those experiences or not, it’s clear that they are a part of him. It only makes sense that, from one regeneration to the next, the Doctor is still the same being and should have the same memories, but the role had never exactly been played that way before.

The Tenth Doctor is also the second regeneration of the characters since his home planet was destroyed. Through most of the episodes with Eccelston and Tennant, the Doctor believes that he is the only Time Lord left in all the known universes. So, even with the assumed continued ability to regenerate, the Tenth Doctor has a sense of his own mortality. All Doctors have had a sense of their own transience and importance in the galaxies and lives they touch. But when the Tenth Doctor faces his enemies and puts himself directly in harm’s way, he does so with the weight of mortality, the significance of his existence and the memories of all of the other Time Lords who now cease to exist.
This is especially apparent in the episode “The Doctor’s Daughter” when there is a possibility that the Doctor has (through unusual circumstances) a daughter and that perhaps he wouldn’t be the last Time Lord after all.

Tonight on BBC America, marks the beginning of the end for David Tennant and the Tenth Doctor. There are only a few more adventures left to air before this Doctor will regenerate and become the Eleventh Doctor, a young actor named Matt Smith who takes over the role in 2010.

But still today and for a little while longer, as played by David Tennant, Doctor Who represents a modern man that I could fall for. Was I ever destined to fall in love with somebody like Tom Baker? Besides the fact that I am sometimes drawn to guys with naturally curly hair, no, that was never going to happen. In fact, up until Eccelston, I only thought of Doctor Who as entertainment and a way of meeting and talking to real men that I might be interested in. But with the Ninth… and then especially, the Tenth Doctor, I’m afraid that instead of just talking about Doctor Who with actual men, now I expect actual men to live up to new ideals set by the Tenth Doctor.

Could I ever meet this man? This sexy, brilliant, sarcastic, brave and enthusiastic man, with empathy for others, who learns from his past and lives in the moment because tomorrow may be too late? Will I know him when I meet him? He certainly wasn’t sitting at that table in eighth grade. But is he in a comic book store right now? Or sitting at his home somewhere waiting to watch Doctor Who tonight? Or maybe he’s flying in his Tartis and he’ll invite me to join him for time travel adventures?

Do you think that’s what my Grandmother meant when she suggested I meet a nice doctor and settle down?

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