What, you've never heard of the planet Gallifrey? Homeworld of the alien race called Time Lords, also the provenance of the one and only Doctor Who??? Of course you probably didn't, because you're not as huge of a geek as this Bird is for classic British sci-fi. But it gets the vote of Jaunty J'adore because even if you couldn't give a flying bandikoot about science fiction, this is a series that uses the genre in the way it was meant to be: present difficult questions of moral struggle in the comfort of a fantastic environment. You'll be entertained, but by golly it'll make you think.
I have no doubt you're at least vaguely familiar with the series, Doctor Who -- as a kid, you probably ran across the old 60s and 70s reruns on the weekends, showing all afternoon on PBS. Cardboard sets that would wobble when bumped into, silly costumes that were a mishmash of Ren-Fair superheroes and remedial R2D2-looking robots that had the landspeed of a tree sloth on tranquilizers, yet people would sprint away in terror. I know, what would possess an entire nation of clever folks like the Brits to not only watch this series, but worship it with undying affection? Consider the love of The Doctor much like our own love of fuzzy Muppets like Kermit and Miss Piggy. We knew these little felt and fabric creatures weren't real, but they were sage little teachers of simple lessons like common decency. The old and new Doctor Who episodes are much the same. From a joyful, slightly schizo Mad Hatter-sort of a character who can jump through the layers of time in an old blue Police Box, the whimsical nature of the series always had a strong message of humanity and the value of life. The Doctor never used guns. He would bend the laws of time to save a single life. In a TV-Land populated by poor role models from Jersey Shore or a fresh Kardashian hell, even after nearly fifty years, Doctor Who remains an intelligent family-friendly series.
We're on the eleventh Doctor now (Matt Smith), in the long-running series that originally started in 1963 and has gone through several creative incarnations. The cardboard sets are gone, and bigger budgets and technology allow for more realistic alien landscapes, but the heart of the series always remains in its uncanny ability to be ridiculously clever. An episode can be a period piece with historical figures in the past, or something bizarre from a distant alien future. Or it can just be a really creepy suspense episode where they just want to give you a proper scare. Ever since Russell T. Davies rebooted the series as a producer in 2005, the show has been outstanding, shunning the phrase, "It's just a silly sci-fi series." He's like the Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams of the UK, taking television storytelling beyond common expectations. For the latest series with the eleventh Doctor, Steven Moffat has since taken over the show, and it's been interesting to see him build on what Davies created and take the existing characters and storylines into new directions. While I think Davies had a more sentimental approach to the series that I sometimes miss, Moffat is really smart when it comes to storytelling perspectives, working with the non-linear complexities of time, but translating it in a simple, understandable way. If you're big into British series or just plain good television, Moffat is also the person behind the recent series Sherlock, as well as a similar classic retelling, the series Jekyll. I've seen both and they're fantastic.
For those who know what the hell I'm talking about and give a crap about the latest series of Doctor Who, I'll get to the nitty gritty -- what does the Magpie think of Matt Smith? It took some getting used to, I won't lie. David Tennant has been my absolute favorite Doctor in the many years I've been watching the series (I consider Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee my "Doctors"); he brought this very black and white character into some interesting shades of grey in his run as the Tenth Doctor. Tennant made the character modern and complex. Matt Smith's turn is still early, but his appreciation of bow ties and a Jaunty fez is admirable, and he's made the Doctor more youthful and fresh, which is mostly due to the fact he's probably the youngest actor they've chosen. The most interesting thing about the series now is that it seems to focus more on the Companion. Traditionally they just pick a pretty, cheeky girl who fawns over the Doctor, gets into trouble, and thankfully within recent years, at least does something clever now and then. Think of a Dr. Watson with cleavage. The latest Companion, Amy Pond, is married (she gets to bring her hubby along on adventures, which is nice), has a daughter, and seems to have more of a sibling relationship with the Doctor. She's still getting into trouble and having to be rescued now and then, but some traditions can't be changed.
As of right now, the series is on break, due to return later in the fall. With any luck, our very good friends R and J will record the series, as they've been so kindly doing since last year, giving us the chance to watch it. I'm glad to say Netflix has picked up on the fact that America needs a Doctor, and the previous season is available to stream or rent, so get caught up if you're already a fan or better yet, if you've never seen the series, do give it a shot, starting with Russell T. Davies' 2005 reboot with the Ninth Doctor, Chris Eccleston, as that will segway nicely into the Tennant years.
Jaunty Fine Print: illustration by Denise Sakaki, as inspired by funny lines from Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor