Old vs new: fan wars and Doctor Who

Okay, I’m taking a break in my retrospective of David Quinn’s Doctor Strange stories to talk about some issues concerning another well-known fictional doctor.  I am, of course, referring to Doctor Who.  Come on, you all know me!  Who did you think I was going to blog about, Doctor Doolittle?

When I heard that Peter Capaldi had been cast as the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor, my first reaction was to head over to good old Wikipedia to look him up.  I quickly realized that Capaldi had previously appeared in both the Doctor Who episode “The Fires of Pompeii” and the Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries.  I thought he delivered strong performances in each of those roles.  I wasn’t familiar with his other work, but from reading his bio it was obvious that he has been quite busy for the past three decades.  To me, he seemed like a very capable actor, and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to the role of the Doctor.  I really did not intend to make any other comments until I actually had the opportunity to view him playing the Doctor some time in 2014.

Then I started to see articles and postings around the Internet, comments from a number of younger fans that Capaldi, at 55 years of age (incidentally the same age as William Hartnell when he became the first actor to portray the Doctor back in 1963) was “too old” or “unattractive” to play the role.  And my blood pressure went through the roof.  I was preparing to write up the mother of all blog posts going off on an extended bloody rant tearing these teenagers a new one.

And then I read an insightful & intelligent response to this controversy on one of my favorite WordPress blogs, An American View of British Science Fiction.  Entitled “The Twelfth Doctor & Why I’m Sick of Nerd In-Fighting” this thoughtful piece of commentary caused me to step back, take a deep breath, and try to consider the other side.  I decided that if I was going to post my thoughts, I would do so in a reasonable manner that attempts to articulate and explain my position.

The man on the left is the Doctor. The man on the right, incidentally, is also the Doctor.
The man on the left is the Doctor. The man on the right, incidentally, is also the Doctor.

The reason why I am so annoyed at younger fans complaining Peter Capaldi is “too old” is that it just seems to indicate both a level of superficiality & fickleness among newer fans, as well as a complete lack of interest in anything involved with Doctor Who from before 2005.

Speaking from my own personal experience, when I first got into Doctor Who in the early 1980s, and Peter Davison was playing the Doctor, I was absolutely dying to find out about the show’s rich past from the 1960s and 70s.  I so badly wanted to be able to watch William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, and Tom Baker’s stories. And it just seemed that, excepting Tom’s stuff, you couldn’t find them anywhere! Maybe the fact that so much of the material from the series’ first 11 years had either A) never been broadcast in the States or B) was lost forever, having been foolishly junked by the BBC in the mid-1970s, made it even more tantalizing.  You know, when you cannot have something, you end up wanting it even more.

I guess nowadays, with pretty much every single existing episode of the series available on DVD, people can go on Amazon and have a copy of any Doctor Who story delivered to their door in 24 hours, or even downloaded instantly onto their computer. That convenient access makes it a hell of a lot easier to take the show’s history for granted.

I never thought of it as “nerd elitism” but, okay, yeah, for many years I felt like I was one of those lone voices carrying the torch of Doctor Who fandom.  This was especially true in the 1990s, the period many older fans refer to as “the wilderness years.”  Back then, aside from the 1996 television movie starring Paul McGann, the only way to experience brand new Doctor Who was to read the original novels published first by Virgin and then by the BBC themselves.  The thing was, the quality of those books was highly variable.  Some were brilliantly revolutionary & cutting edge, while others were horribly pretentious, were trying much too hard to come across as “gritty” and “adult” or, worst of all, were just a couple of steps up from fan fiction by writers who wanted to “fix” perceived mistakes in the series’ continuity (I am not going to name any names).

The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch, probably one of the better Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s.
The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch, probably one of the better
Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s.

Okay, you could also buy Doctor Who Magazine for its excellent original comic strip, but that was only eight pages out of the entire periodical.  And in 1999, Big Finish began producing brand new audio adventures starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy.  True, each two-CD story would cost around $25, and you could only listen to these new stories, rather than watching them.  But it was, at that point, literally the next best thing to having new Doctor Who on your television.

My point is, for much of the decade the pickings were rather slim.  Nevertheless, despite all that, I remained a fan.  I approached the novels, the comic strips and the audio plays with both enthusiasm and an open mind.  That’s how much I loved Doctor Who.  I recognized it had to change and, yes, go through some uncomfortable growing pains to survive.

The thing is, though, in those days, whenever I told anybody that I was a fan of the show, they either had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, or worse, their reaction was that I was some loser without a life, fruitlessly pining away for the return of a series that had been axed years before, never to return.

So, yeah, when I hear younger fans say that they have no interest in going back and seeing anything from the original 26 year run, it’s very annoying. Because if it wasn’t for those two and a half decades, as well as that decade plus where we had nothing but novels, comic strips, and audio plays, here and now there would not be this great series featuring David Tennant and Matt Smith which those new fans love so much.  And when those same fans say Peter Capaldi is “too old,” again it just seems like a deliberate thumbing of the nose at the show’s past.  The magic of the character of the Doctor is that he can be so many different things, and not only some handsome, dashing young fellow who makes the ladies swoon.

Look, I get it.  Many of those old serials seem really padded out compared to the current fast-paced incarnation of the series.  Even an “old school” fan such as me will be the first to admit that many of those stories could be cut down by an episode or two and not lose any material of real significance.  So, yeah, to younger viewers those stories might seem a chore to sit through.  But I wish they’d at least give some of those older episodes a chance, and see just how diverse a character the Doctor has been over the years.

“The Twelfth Doctor & Why I’m Sick of Nerd In-Fighting” does relevantly address the issue of Matt Smith’s age.  Yes, I acknowledge that back in 2009 when I heard some 26 year old actor had been cast as the Eleventh Doctor, I was one of the many long-time fans who thought this was a huge mistake, that he was much too young to be playing the role.  But you know what?  I still stuck around.  I watched Smith’s debut in “The Eleventh Hour,” and by the end of the episode he had pretty much won me over.  By the time the two-part “The Hungry Earth” / “Cold Blood” story was broadcast, I was a firm fan.  I could see he was much like Peter Davison, portraying the Doctor as an old soul in a young man’s body.  And now that Smith’s run is coming to an end, I am very sorry to see him go.

So, yes, I admit it: I was wrong!  But the point is, even though I was initially against Matt Smith because of his age, I stuck it out, I gave him a chance.  And, as you can see, I was very pleasantly surprised.

How about we all give Peter Capaldi a chance, please?
How about we all give Peter Capaldi a chance, please?

And that is another part of why I am so frustrated.  As I have related above, Doctor Who was tossed about in extremely stormy weather for the last decade of the 20th Century, but people such as me stuck it out because we truly loved the series and the characters, and we were willing to take the time to root out the quality stories from the dross.  That is why it really is disheartening to read about how some of these younger fans are apparently ready to jump ship in an instant, at the first sign of displeasure, rather than giving Peter Capaldi an opportunity to prove himself.

I hope that the fans of the series that came aboard after 2005 will take my advice, and at least wait & see before judging.  You never know what is around the corner.