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Unravelling the enigma of Doctor Who and its massive following in the UK and beyond

It was a wonderful Christmas at our house on Monday. Good company, good food, good cheer, good presents and a good amount of rest and relaxing. The weather wasn’t very Christmassy in Toronto, however. One of the greenest in my lifetime. Not a drop of the white fluffy stuff to be seen. El Niño’s warming effect could turn this into one of Canada’s milder winters. Hence, many Canadians weren’t able to take a walk in the snow. This includes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – and in more ways than one. There’s a long-standing association between Canada’s political leaders and taking a walk in the snow. Why? In a nutshell, if someone in the former category is struggling in some capacity (ie. significant drop in the polls, keeping the party caucus united), he or she should take a walk outside in the snowy weather – or any type of weather – to contemplate his or her political future. The first Canadian politician who took this walk was the PM’s late father. Pierre Trudeau famously recounted his fateful walk in a winter wonderland during a press scrum on Feb. 29, 1984, the day he announced his decision to leave political life. “I walked until midnight in the storm. Interesting, eh? And then I went home and took a sauna for an hour and a half. It was all clear. I was to leave. I went to sleep, just in case I changed my mind overnight, and I didn’t. I woke up, great. To use the old cliche, this is the first day of the rest of my life – and here we are.” CBC reporter Bill Casey, who was at that scrum, noted Trudeau “first attracted national attention as a sort of philosopher-politician” and it seems “he wants to leave the same way.” Moreover, the PM “looked for signs of destiny in the sky” in the storm that night, but “there were none – just snowflakes. So, he listened to his heart. And his heart, it appears, told him it was time to go.” In reality, it was a combination of several factors. Trudeau had been Prime Minister from 1968-1984. Joe Clark’s short-lived Progressive Conservative minority government between 1979-1980 served as the only interruption. The Canadian public, who had witnessed his leadership for years, was getting tired of him and his Liberal government’s policies. Brian Mulroney, who beat Clark in the 1983 PC leadership election, certainly sensed this. “My party was soaring in the polls – Gallup had us at 56 percent, with the Liberals trailing at 27 percent in a poll published on December 1,” he wrote in Memoirs: 1939-1993. “I knew he wouldn’t want to risk another election defeat.” There were many things to dislike about Trudeau, from left-leaning statist ideas to poor economic thinking. His vision of the country had its admirers, but wasn’t shared by all Canadians. Which is naturally the case for all political leaders. His intelligence and political savvy weren’t in dispute, however. The long walk in the snow Trudeau took that stormy evening, whether real or imaginary, confirmed what he had likely suspected in private for a while. There comes a moment when every leader realizes the final steps of a political journey have been taken. When your ideas are tired, policies are stale and personal popularity has sunk to depths that can’t be easily rejuvenated. The layers of snow on Trudeau’s boots provided those indications – and more. Which brings us back to his son. Justin Trudeau has been in a state of political decline for several years. The reasons are plentiful, including three older instances of wearing blackface, two ethics violations, political scandals and controversies involving several Liberal MPs and cabinet ministers, spending taxpayer dollars like a drunken sailor, and situating Canada at the foreign policy kiddie table. That’s why he’s been trailing Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives by double digits since late September. Will Trudeau depart before the next election? It seems unlikely. Terry DiMonte, a former radio host and Trudeau’s friend, recently said to him during their annual hour-long holiday chat, “You have a lot of fight in you. You’re not going anywhere, are you?” The PM responded, “You know, everyone talking about, ‘Oh, maybe it’s the walk in the snow this coming week’…it’s like, Jesus Christ! Come on.” Is this an act of defiance and stubbornness? It’s possible. Does he want to prove he can muster up another political recovery and stay in office? It could be a motivating factor. Or, does he want to prove he’s not in the shadow of his late father? Ay, there’s the rub. History has shown that Justin Trudeau doesn’t have Pierre Trudeau’s political sense and communications skills. He didn’t have them to begin with, and hasn’t spent any discernible amount of time in developing them. He simply plodded along, spent most of his time focusing on fluffy rhetoric and pet projects like a federal carbon tax, and systemically destroyed Canada’s economy and political culture. Not that he believes this has happened, mind you. “With the challenges that people are facing right now, with the way the world is going now and everything that we are doing that’s making positive differences in a very difficult time that isn’t done yet, I wouldn’t be the person I am and be willing to walk away from this right now,” he told CBC’s Rosie Barton on Christmas Day during their year-end interview. Yes, you read this correctly. Our mediocre and ineffective Prime Minister actually feels he’s the nation’s saviour. A political role that virtually no-one believes he’s ever assumed, and even fewer would want him to assume. He’s taken delusional thinking to a whole new level. The son, unlike the father, doesn’t realize when it’s time to pack it in. A long walk in the snow isn’t in the cards. Canada will therefore trudge behind him even when the powdery material finally reaches terra firma.During Christmas and New Year’s, I enjoyed the festivities and caught up on several things. In particular, I watched some recent episodes of the long-running BBC series Doctor Who, including the regeneration process from the 14th to the 15th Doctor, on Disney+.

Doctor Who is an enigma to those who haven’t watched it in North America. While they may know the name and possibly a few scenes and catchphrases, they don’t completely understand its success and massive following in the UK and around the world, including Canada. They’re also unaware of its massive empire containing books, magazines, clothing, movies, DVD and Blu-ray sets, art prints – and more.

A little bit of background is probably in order.

doctor who

The Tardis
Photo by Nick Fewings

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Doctor Who has been a popular staple on British TV since 1963. It’s a science fiction series featuring a titular character, the Doctor. This extraterrestrial life form is a Time Lord who travels the universe on a spaceship called the TARDIS (“Time And Relative Dimension In Space”), which resembles a police box. The Doctor is joined by a companion on his adventures – most of them platonic but with some romantic deviations. He’s fought many creatures, robots and villains, including regular adversaries like the Cybermen, Zygons, Ice Warriors and, of course, the Daleks.

William Hartnell played the first Doctor from 1963 to 1966. Sadly, some episodes remain lost due to the old practice of erasing master tapes of shows rather than preserving them. He was replaced by Patrick Troughton, who held the role until 1969. This was accomplished with the first televised use of the regeneration process, which changes the Doctor’s physical appearance and personality traits.

The first Doctor Who episode I watched featured Troughton’s replacement, Jon Pertwee. His run occurred between 1970 and 1974, but was still on regular rotation on TVO, which used to carry the BBC series in Canada. His work was always top-flight, as was that of his replacement, Tom Baker, the longest-serving Doctor from 1974 to 1981.

Pertwee and Baker are probably the two most distinctive-looking Doctors. The former is widely known for his shocking white hair and proper British mannerisms. The latter’s jovial personality and trademark long scarf are instantly recognizable.

Three more Doctors followed: Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. The first series was cancelled in 1989 due to diminishing ratings. Many fans were disappointed, although the BBC often suggested the show could return. A one-episode attempt in 1996 to build an international series around a new Doctor, Paul McGann, had solid viewing numbers on BBC but not on its U.S.-based co-producer, Fox.

At long last, Doctor Who returned on BBC in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role. He only stayed one season but had such a positive impact that it breathed new life into the program. Eccleston was followed by a line of talented personalities – David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi, Jodie Whittaker (first female Doctor), Tennant (first person to hold the role twice) and Ncuti Gatwa (first black Doctor).

The regeneration between Tennant and Gatwa occurred during the Dec. 9, 2023 special, “The Giggle.” It was a superb episode that guest-starred American actor Neil Patrick Harris as the Toymaker, a villain last seen in the 1966 serial The Celestial Toymaker, which is mostly missing save for the last episode. It also focuses on Stooky Bill (the ventriloquist dummy’s head that Scottish inventor John Logie Baird famously transmitted in 1924 on a mechanical television), UNIT headquarters (the fictional military organization that studies extraterrestrial and paranormal threats) and the appearance of two Doctors at once.

It’s the latter point that briefly made this episode the talk of the town.

Tennant and Gatwa went through a “bi-generation,” which enabled the Time Lord to split into two separate and co-existing entities. After they defeated the Toymaker, Gatwa’s Doctor used the villain’s remaining power to create a second TARDIS. Tennant’s Doctor retired and joined the family of his companion, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), on Earth. The new incarnation charted his course for mystery, suspense and adventure.

While there have been specific stories with several older Doctors appearing at once, they always disappeared. That’s not the case here – and, it seems, going forward. Longtime showrunner Russell T Davies said during a recent Doctor Who podcast, “the creation of the Doctorverse in the moment of that bigeneration – it’s much bigger than you think and I hope could lead to all sorts of things ….I think all of the Doctors came back to life with their individual TARDISes, the gift of the Toymaker, and they’re all out there travelling round in what I’m calling a Doctorverse.”

This should lead to some interesting storylines – and a fair bit of confusion.

Gatwa’s first regular episode, “The Church on Ruby Road,” was broadcast on Christmas Day. It introduced his new companion, Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson), as they fought goblins, saved a baby and engaged in time travel. His version of the Doctor is fun, upbeat and whimsical. It’ll be interesting to see how Gatwa ultimately does. He’s certainly off to a good start.

Will the mystery of Doctor Who finally disappear in North America in 2024? Who knows, and in more ways than one.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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