On November 22, 1963 a hero was killed.
The world watched in horror as the modern King Arthur was shot on the streets of Dallas, Texas, in the prime of his life, changing the course of history on our tiny blue dot. It was into that landscape of tragedy that a new hero was born, a fictional one for sure, but one who would have a profound impact on many people’s lives over the years, including my own.
The story goes that Doctor Who was the first show the BBC returned to on November 23rd after it had run out of material to cover on the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. This was in the days before 24/7 cable news, when news outlets would not make stuff up just to fill time. So when there was nothing new to report, they returned to regularly scheduled programming, which happened to be the premier of a new science-fiction show.
I wasn’t even born when this happened, and it would be at least another 15 years before I was even aware of who The Doctor was. But for the last 35 years, this fictional character has played a significant role in my life, helping shape my own outlook on on what is right and what is wrong… not to mention my taste in clothes.
We need heroes. I need heroes. In the wake of the death and the disillusionment of living heroes, we make up stories with heroes who live up to our values and expectations, heroes who idealize our aspirations and can only let us down if we let them. The Doctor is, in my opinion, the epitome of the hero archetype.
The character of The Doctor has been shaped by numerous actors (not to mention producers, directors and writers), each brining their own insights to the character. Let me share a few stories with you about my personal encounters with four of those actors (and a writer), and how each has become a hero to me in their own unique way.
Story 1: Jon Pertwee Scowls
In high-school, my friend David S. and I paid my sister $20 to drive us to see Jon Pertwee and Elizabeth Sladen in person. They were speaking at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about an hour’s drive from where we lived. It was not a full-on convention, but the Doctor Who Fan Club of America—now thankfully defunct—was taking them on a dog and pony show around the country. It was exciting getting to meet the actors who played my favorite characters, but the DWFCA had a rather cultish like presence at the event. In addition to the fee to get into the event we were all greatly encouraged to pay-up and join the club.
At one point, Pertwee was about to give another talk. The person introducing him, I think the president of the DWFCA, asked who had joined the club. He then encouraged us to boo the people who hadn’t. To my shame, I booed along, until I looked over and saw the expression on Pertwee’s face. He looked unapologetically disgusted by the booing. That jolted me, almost as if waking up from a bad dream, and I felt like an idiot for following along just because somebody told me to. Pertwee’s demeanor was frosty towards the man introducing him, but immediately warmed again when talking to the fans. Ever sense that day I’ve been wary of anyone who wants me to ostracize people just because they aren’t a part of my “group.”
Story 2: Tom Baker Smiles
Despite having a mad crush on Matt Smith, my daughter recently confided in me that her Doctor is Tom Baker. I’m sure this devotion is partially due to a family legend we’ve been telling her since before she could understand language. My wife, Tara, and I were living in London in the late 1990s, where she was attending Gold Smith College. One weekend, we went to a book signing at Forbidden Planet for Tom Baker’s autobiography Who on Earth is Tom Baker?
As we stood “on queue” outside the shop in the cold London October, we heard a commotion behind us. We turned to see the Fourth Doctor gladly shaking hands and signing autographs with the people in the back of the line. He had that look of unbridled glee that is unique to Tom Baker. Eventually his handlers convinced him to head inside for the “real” signing. When we finally got our turn for an autograph, we chatted for a bit, and then Tara reached over and kissed him. I’ll never forget Baker’s expression of pure rapture as her lips met his cheek. He’s eyes closed tightly as he raised his face to the heavens with a wild smile playing across his face. He thanked her profusely for such a kind gift. Two weeks later, Tara was pregnant with Jocelyn. To this day Jocelyn is convinced that she has some Time Lord DNA in her somewhere.
Story 3: Sylvester McCoy Laughs
For my son, Dashiel, his Doctor will always be Sylvester McCoy. As a young child, he would watch “Remembrance of the Daleks” over and over again, to the point of wearing out the DVD. In 2008, my family attended the LA Doctor Who convention Gallifrey One where Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (The Doctor’s companion Ace) were the guests. During the photo op, my son sat next to his two greatest heroes, completely speechless.
As I was snapping photos, I casually mentioned to the stars that Dashiel actually referred to the show as “Ace/Doctor Who.” Sophie’s face lit up and she exclaimed “that’s a brilliant idea!” This opened the flood gates for Dashiel as he chatted with Sophie and Sylvester. As they talked, Sylvester began to laugh at Dashiel’s stories, a sincere and warm laugh that made everyone watching happy. Dashiel still tells me that this was greatest day of his life.
Story 4: Matt Smith Winks (with special guest star Neil Gaiman)
My final story happened less than a year before I’m writing this. I was invited to a special screening of the 2012 Doctor Christmas Special. One of the perks of writing for a blog is that you get to hob-nob a bit with the stars. Even though I know they look at these as an obligation—part of the cost of doing business—there are those rare personalities who make everyone feel welcome and special.
I was sitting in room somewhere in New York Soho, just eating my bagel with a smear and waiting for the show when, to my complete surprise, Neil Gaiman walks in. I must say, I totally geeked out. I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s since the first issue of the Sandman in the late 1990s. To see him there in person was more than a pleasant surprise. After a few hellos to the press he knew from other events, he went over to the table and began getting his own breakfast in advance of the show. A few moments later, in walks Matt Smith, and without missing a beat, he walks over to Gaiman and loudly proclaimed “Everything is okay now, Gaiman’s here!” and warmly slapped him on the back. I could not help but laugh out loud at this unbridled act of friendship.
I briefly encountered Smith in the hallway after the screening, as he tried to go through a door had just tried that was locked. I quickly said “That one’s locked.” His expression went confused for an instant, as he looked at the door and then me, winked, spun on a dime and went the other way, with a “Thanks.” I have no idea where he was going or if he ever got there.