It is an odd coincidence that less than 24 hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, an incredibly strange television show debuted in England. With the entire world in turmoil, it would have been understandable if it had passed without making a blip. But it drew a decent audience that first night, then built a cult following before becoming a cultural phenomenon that has somehow survived a half-century of (multiple) complete cast turnovers, production suspensions and wildly shifting public tastes.
On Saturday, Nov. 23, the BBC will air the 50th-anniversary (to the day) edition of Doctor Who, the ridiculously popular British sci-fi series that partly takes place inside a phone booth that (as the decadeslong running gag goes) is "bigger on the inside."
When the show debuted, the main character was a professorial older white guy who we would later learn is an ancient two-hearted being from the planet Gallifrey. This plot device came in handy as the decades passed, as, with each casting change, Doctor Who was able to "regenerate" himself from young to old, suave to nerdy, dashing to reserved.
Eleven different actors have played the Time Lord. The most popular was David Tennant, who starred from 2005 to 2010. (Tennant was the excruciatingly damaged detective in this past summer's brilliant Broadchurch, also on the BBC.) Tennant swears that he knew at age 4 that he wanted to become an actor. The revelation came to him after he watched an episode of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who lives in the phone booth, which is called a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). It's really hard to explain, but the TARDIS takes the doctor and whichever attractive female companion he happens to be hanging with on adventures through time and space. The TARDIS sorta has a mind of its own (and, as we've recently learned, may also have the warm, trembling circuits for the good doctor). That's why it doesn't always transport the doctor where he wants to go, but rather where he needs to go.
(It may not have been as blatant as Robin Thicke stealing from Marvin Gaye, but one did hear a lot of suspicious echoes of Doctor Who in Quantum Leap.)
Wherever he goes through time and space, he often meets up with his nemeses, the Daleks. These are mechanical creatures that look like giant saltshakers with toilet plungers sticking out of them. No, really.
While this may sound too weird for anyone's good, one must remember that sci-fi is truly a matter of different strokes. You can walk into any room and if at least two people are wearing glasses, you can start a riot by asking, "Star Trek or Star Wars?" (The answer, of course, is Star Trek.)
My son, Alexander, watches a webseries called Forward Unto Dawn, based on the Halo video game. There are a bunch of young people at an academy training to be the next Master Chief and/or Cortana. It's like Starship Troopers, after you've wiped away the slimy Heinleinian film of fascism.
Back when I was a nerdy little kid, I used to hand-write letters to the giants of the comic-book industry—Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby at Marvel, and Gardner F. Fox at DC. Sometimes, they'd even write back. One time, I received in the mail an advance copy of a special edition Doctor Who comic book. I remember thinking, "What the heck is this?"
I probably should have kept it.
I have a friend who grew up in England and says that he watched Doctor Who religiously. He says that the Daleks scared the crap out of him. It was like when Bill Cosby said that when he was a kid, he'd go to scary movies and spend the entire time under his seat, scared to death. When the movie ended he would emerge with his back covered with black Jujyfruits.
The Daleks never really bothered me. For one thing, they look like they were designed by a drunken plumber on a really small budget. Also, they can only move horizontally. They remind me of ED-209, the multimillion-dollar enforcement droid that failed to kill RoboCop because it couldn't walk down stairs.
Anyway, I told you all that so I could tell you this. At 7 p.m. this Saturday, Nov. 16, at Hotel Congress, a national group called Geeks Who Drink will be hosting "Don't Blink: A Doctor Who Quiz." Similar events will be held in 20 cities across the U.S. in anticipation of the airing of the 50th-anniversary special, Day of the Doctor, one week later.
Geeks Who Drink is actually a company out of Denver that hosts pub quiz events for such shows as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and the Harry Potter series. I'm told that the quizzes sometimes turn into miniconventions. You know what happens when you give a geek a chance to dress up.
Whovians can form teams of up to six people, and there will be cash prizes for the winners. Most of the questions will cover the "modern" era of Doctor Who, from 2005 on, but there will be some questions dating back to the Golden Age. Admission is $5 per person on a first-come/first-served basis. Hotel Congress might not look like it can handle a really large crowd but, fortunately, it's bigger on the inside.