It’s been said that “lightning never strikes twice,” and it certainly never strikes three times, but when the producers of Doctor Who Big Finish offered to create a role for me to work with Tom Baker and then one opposite Sylvester McCoy, that’s exactly how it felt. Doctor Who, which will celebrate its 49th Anniversary on November 23, 2012, is the longest running science fiction television series in history, and along with Star Trek and Star Wars (I’m not going to start any fights here) is clearly among the three best-loved entertainment properties of all time.
For about a jillion great reasons, I’ve long been extremely grateful for the enthusiasm and loyalty of Trek fans. But I was about to realize another reason to appreciate fandom.
Having grown up in an environment where love of science fiction was never really fostered, I had to fend for myself, and I have to admit that I didn’t grow up regularly watching either show. I had actually only caught random episodes of Doctor Who until fairly recently, and fate must have known I had some catching up to do.
At GalaxyFest in February, I met the enigmatic Frazer Hines, who played Jamie McCrimmon opposite Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, (as well as in The Five Doctors in 1983 and The Two Doctors in 1985). Frazer is a well-loved, classic British actor from far too many projects to elaborate on, and one of the all-time favorite Companions on the show. I also met David J. Howe, noted Doctor Who media historian and author of virtually every go-to book on the series, and the delightful award-winning author Sam Stone. It’s tough not to have fun with the Brits, and over the course of an unforgettable weekend, they mentioned that they thought I should do Big Finish, and Fraz referred me to the producers.
In order to fully catch the Who fever, I went about asking friends and fans about their love of The Doctor, what keeps lighting the fire of this ongoing phenomenon, what similarities and differences they see in comparing the show to Star Trek…what nostalgia it carries for them.
So here, for you Trek fans who are not yet Whovians, is a brief exploration of what I have found to be an absolutely stunningly rich set of themes, stories, and characters. And for those of you who are well-seasoned fans – veritable Companions, as it were, of our favorite Time Lord – well, I hope you’ll hop aboard and mercifully tweet me your comments if I need correction.
The similarities and differences in Star Trek and Doctor Who are enough to fill volumes, and there’s certainly no shortage of critical analysis. In their simplest essence, both shows involve the main characters traveling through space and time, navigating the physical unknown while exploring the human condition.
Everyone wants to be a part of this collective quest of humanity, to add what we can while we’re here, and to glean what wisdom and relief we can from our fellow travelers. So no matter the year, the setting or the physical qualities of those we see on screen, we see ourselves in these shows’ characters. The writers of both Star Trek and Doctor Who are highly skilled in the use of metaphor and allegory to explore the fears, the triumphs, the dreams, the downfalls and the glories of what it means to be human.
Much like Trek, a good chunk of the Internet is populated by info-hungry Whovians; @BBCDoctorWho, @ClassicDW, @DWMtweets, @DoctorWhoOnline, @kasterborousdw and @BigFinish are all must-follow Twitter stops that will point your TARDIS to infinite destinations.
And of course, both have merchandise in droves -- although Dalek creator Terry Nation’s estate withheld the rights to further merchandise the Daleks at one point, saying there was too much licensing. Is that an action reminiscent of, say, the Ferengi? I think not.
Ooops. I digress.
One thing I’ve always appreciated about Trek is the fans who have told me “I grew up watching Star Trek with my Dad,” or “My Mom is a huge Trekkie, and she got me hooked on the show.” There are generations of fans who are raised with inspiration from Roddenberry’s ideals in TOS, reflect on those ideals while watching TNG, explore complex relationships and identify with the flawed heroes of DS9, sort out the personality dynamics of Voyager, and so on.
So, too, has Doctor Who formed this kind of legacy, branching out to the more provocative Torchwood and the kid-targeted Sarah Jane Adventures and other spin-offs. Even Sarah Jane’s dog K-9 got a spin-off. Now that’s a versatile property.
The earlier episodes of both Star Trek and Doctor Who were marked by a spontaneity that led to some of each show’s most iconic moments: much like Leonard Nimoy’s spontaneous creation of the Vulcan Salute in “Amok Time,” the filming of the “The Daleks” in their debut episode was a spontaneous action because there were no other episodes written to shoot.
And there are fundamental differences. While The Doctor has often had female Companions, Kirk’s female “companions” from episode to episode were of a rather different nature. In fact, Doctor Who was intended to be a kids’ educational program, using time travel as either a means to explore the past (focusing on famous moments in history), or as a vehicle to focus on the future, teaching children about science. This was also reflected in the First Doctor's (William Hartnell’s) original Companions, one of whom was a science teacher (Ian Chesterton, played by William Russell) and another a history teacher (actress Jacqueline Hill’s Barbara Wright).
While Star Trek’s main characters are obviously most often involved in some sort of military service and/or hierarchy, The Doctor, on the other hand, is a sort of loner, along with his Companion(s). His characteristic resourcefulness comes in part because he’s constantly presented with problems that only he can solve, having no formal team or force to back him up when things go awry.
“OK, enough already, Chase! How was it working with Tom Baker and Louise Jameson in ‘Night of the Stormcrow’ and Sylvester McCoy in ‘The Shadow Heart!?’”
Glad you asked. They were all absolutely charming and very welcoming to me, and it was big fun to see them exude the same playfulness and brilliant quirks that they displayed on screen. Tom and Sylvester were particularly generous with stories of working with other British greats, including Olivier and Gielgud and McKellen, and I even got Sylvester to do a command performance on the spoons. (If you don’t know what I mean, look this up. You’re welcome.)
Some of my now-favorite career moments include hearing Sylvester recount stories of the roots of his career in vaudeville, as well as tales of his upcoming, key role in The Hobbit trilogy. Also truly lovely and deserving of her reputation as a favorite Companion is the gorgeous Louise Jameson. What is even more stunning about Louise is the richly aware person she is, and her kindness and personal attention to everyone she comes into contact with.
And as with Trek, I personally found the combination of camaraderie, respect for the property, and an almost kid-like joy of working on the show to be major through-line elements at Big Finish, and I’m by no means alone in that.
Big Finish executive producer Nicholas Briggs has a long history with the Doctor Who television series and Big Finish as an actor, writer, director and composer. “Being a lifelong fan of Doctor Who, it's always been great working with the classic Doctors,” says Briggs. “Sometimes I find myself thinking it's just routine, because I've been doing it for so long - but then I pinch myself and think, I'm working with Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann AND Tom Baker! Tom's our most recent addition, but it's worth remembering that the others gave us their support from more-or-less day one, and they are all truly unique!”
Line producer David Richardson exudes the same kind of passion, commenting, "I always remember that if anyone ever asked him who was his favorite Doctor, Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) would say 'The one I was working with at the time.' I always thought that a very diplomatic answer, and yet now we work with five of the Doctors I find it to be very much the case for me, too... They are all enthusiastic, witty, quirky and magnificent in the sound booths. They have all brought something unique and special to the role. It's an honor to work with every one of them."
Briggs shines with a modest but well-seasoned professional pride as he reflects, “For me, Big Finish is all about the great team of people who work together on the things they love. Not just Doctor Who, although that's a huge part of it, but Stargate, Highlander, Dark Shadows and, for me in particular, Sherlock Holmes. The challenge is always to assemble the right people to do the right jobs and to encourage them to do their best work. I spend a lot of my time being awe-struck by the pool of talent we have. Writers who amaze you with their imaginations, directors who inspire great performances and sound designers and composers who can transport you to other worlds. And, for me personally, although of course there's lots of hard work to do, it also feels like a great playground in which to create stories about my favorite things. It mostly feels like a massive privilege rather than a job! Seriously.”
As Richardson adds, “Every single day is immense fun, and I hope that sense of love for what we do always translates into the finished product."
I can’t wait for you to hear “The Shadow Heart” and “Night of the Stormcrow.” I think you’ll find that, too.
Chase Masterson’s role of Leeta on Deep Space Nine was written for her after she auditioned for the role of Mardah in Season 2. She’ll be making her Doctor Who Big Finish debut as guest star in “Night of the Stormcrow,” starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, premiering December 2012. Chase stars as Vienna Salvatore opposite Sylvester McCoy in “The Shadow Heart,” premiering November 2012. Both episodes are available for pre-order at http://www.BigFinish.com.