Doctor Who

The hero was a traveler, a thinker, like Odysseus.In being an alien in the world, be like Doctor Who. Open-minded and curious. A traveler, an explorer. “A citizen of the universe and a gentleman to boot.”

In those years when I didn’t travel, I’d think about the Doctor. I was a senior in college when I first discovered him. It was the “Logopolis” episode, I think. One of the last featuring Romana, the female Time Lord. I was jobless, too broke to go out. So Saturday nights I stayed up and watched Tom Baker on Channel 8.

For someone raised on U.S. television, Doctor Who was unimpressive. The production values were awful, the special effects laughable. It was shot on videotape like a soap opera.

What appealed to me was the character. The hero was a traveler, a thinker, like Odysseus. He usually outwitted his opponents with humor and ingenuity, and then he was on to the next place. He never stood still. There was always something new to see.

The American equivalent is Captain Kirk — a man of action, passion, and cunning, firing all phasers and seducing the alien women. The Doctor is quintessentially British, the eccentric professor of science and the humanities, a cosmic Phileas Fogg. In retrospect, the show is the epitome of the British world view of moral, cultural, and intellectual superiority. A friendly tourist from a declining empire bringing civilization to the universe. And there’s usually some wide-eyed young English girl who’s always screaming at the monsters or complaining that she can’t get a decent cup of tea.

They never tell you about the Doctor’s origins, though. Just that he left his home planet and rarely returned. Gallifrey is depicted as a mash-up of the Vatican — complete with cardinals and Swiss guards — and Oxford, with its dons in black robes. It is the definition of ivory tower: rigid, orthodox, far removed from the world. Not a place for free-thinkers. A few radicals left, or they rebelled against the academy and were banished. They mostly turned to evil, but not the Doctor. You suspect he just got bored. But I think he had the fear.

I have a theory about the young Doctor. He is a novice Time Lord, early in his position, toiling away in the junior tasks that may occupy him for the first couple of centuries as he works his way up the career ladder. But he is far too restless and curious. He longs to see the universe. The lure of time and space is too great. He is not alone, of course. His friend, his mentor, has similar thoughts. They sit up all night debating the cosmos, the legends, in secret. They conduct experiments, plot their course across the universe. They hatch a plan — just one trip, a quick there and back, and no one would be the wiser. But they are found out. The cardinals’ guards close in, and they are separated. And fearing that they will be trapped forever, they each make a run for it … but only one of them escapes.

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