Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Memories

I've written in the past about Christmas, and I've touched upon my childhood experience throughout this blog's existence. The cold hard facts of my life, are that things haven't been all that great, and my childhood was no picnic. It was rather lonely, not having a ton of friends, nor much family, and being raised by a rather domineering, overprotective, and sometimes even harsh/abusive grandmother. The truth is, that if viewed from the outside, it would look like a pretty dark childhood. Having lived through it, I can say that it too often was.

But that isn't to say that it was ALL bad. My grandmother COULD be, when she was in the right "mood", a pretty cool person. And she could also do some really cool things from time to time, and she did in point of fact, provide me with some moments and memories that were rather good. The problem was, as it always is in life, that the bad often outweighs the good, and when there is more bad than good overall, that is what tends to affect you and stick with you more than anything. But through the loneliness, and dark moments, and ever-present tension/fear that another dark moment could come, there WAS some good as well. And it just so happens, that a lot of those good moments tended to come around the holidays.

As a child, Christmas was hands down my favorite holiday and time of year. Even though I also loved October for Halloween, and November for Thanksgiving and my birthday (SPOILERS), December and and Christmas to child me had a whole different aura to it. I absolutely loved it, and for all the bad my grandmother did, for all of the poor or outright wrong decisions she made, she deserves some of the credit for building up my love of the season. It was directly though some of her specific choices about "family traditions" and the like, that my lens on the holidays, and the greater world, was shaped for the better, even in the midst of her poorer choices affecting and shaping me in darker ways.

The Artificial Christmas Tree

My memories and experiences of Christmas should be recounted where they really started, with the tradition of The Christmas Tree. At some very early point in my childhood, I'm going to say at some point in the mid-80s, when I was, let's say, between the ages of 4 and 6 years old, she decided we should get an artificial tree, instead of a real one. That is something, looking back, that I see the wisdom in, and if I ever am blessed enough to find the "Right Woman" and finally have a family of my own, I will likely push to get one again. The pros of having a real tree, first and foremost, is that it IS real, and has that wonderful pine smell, etc. The cons, however, are that it is a living tree, a living being, that you've chopped down and killed to briefly put on display in your house, before it rots and you have to throw it out like so much garbage. You also have to clean up all of the stray pine needles, deal with possible sap issues, bugs, etc. etc.

The pros of having an artificial tree, if you get a GOOD one, I would argue are many. For one thing, right off the bat, you're not going out and contributing to killing trees for such a silly, arbitrary reason every year. To a "pagan" like myself, who views the natural world as rather sacred, and like my Celtic ancestors trees most especially, that is a very important sticking point. For another thing, not having a real tree that will shed and rot, you don't have to clean up after it, and you don't have to deal with disposing of it later. What's more, because it's fake, you can, as we did, put it back in the box every year, and put it away, to be used the FOLLOWING year, and so on.

Decorating the Tree.

For me, growing up, one of the things I looked forward to the most ABOUT Christmas time, was putting out decorations, and dragging that (to a little kid) enormous tree box, and pulling it out, setting it up, and getting to work decorating it. For me, decorating the three was one of the most fun and important things in the world. It helped that, as I got older, we would eventually get new decorations to add, here and there. For example, fancy little Santa ceramics, or cooler looking balls. Or starting out my early years with those huge incandescent, old school Christmas lights, and later upgrading to smaller, cooler "twinkle lights" (Though there something nostalgic and cool about the huge old ones).

As I got into my pre-teen years, like 11 and 12, due to a combination of my grandmother being lazy, and me being big enough and having the desire to do it, setting up the tree became more and more MY job, and less of a thing I participated in. I would set up the tree, base and "skirt" and all. And I would get the brunt of the decorating work, if not all of it (I can't fully remember), which to me, I'm sure, was a big deal, because it meant I was now the artist, I was in full command (unless she piped in with "no put that over there") of precisely what decorations went on the tree, and where. And of course, when it was all done, tinsel and all,  the final traditional part of the American version of the ritual (though I'm sure it's similar in other parts of the world), was putting that twinkling star on the top.

I should make it clear right now, that to this day, I am a big enthusiast of Christmas decorations, especially the lights. I've always loved them, and I'm sure as a kid, I thought they were magic. Almost everything about the aesthetics of Christmas appeal to me, the predominant colors of red and green, which have a wonderful contrast/compliment relationship, the tree, the lights, the Santa and winter and snowmen and "elves" and magic and all the rest of that theme. The smells of pine and cinnamon and gingerbread and cookies and hot cocoa and packages and wrapping paper. I loved all of it as a kid, and it still holds a strong appeal. Part of that is nostalgia, I'm sure, but I feel like I also genuinely like most of it.

A thing of beauty, fleeting but magical.

At some point in my later childhood, we got a "fancy" new set of musical twinkle lights, that had of course had a little setting box, where you pressed the button, and the lights would either be static, would gently pulse in a slow rhythm, or would blink in time to some little "bleep bloop" versions of a handful of popular Christmas songs, such as "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer", "The First Noel", "Winter Wonderland", and maybe "Silent Night". I don't mind telling you that to this day, I still like Christmas music, unlike some people, who act like they "hate" it. And I admit, it has its time and place, and GET get annoying. But IN its time and place, there are some REALLY good Christmas songs, and they just add to that aesthetic and "feeling" of the holiday. At least they did to me.

I really REALLY loved Christmas music as a kid, and to me, the very concept of a set of Christmas lights that PLAYED that music, the idea of combining the magic of the tree itself, with the magic of that music, was just...mindblowing. In the days leading up to Christmas Eve itself, I would ask to stay up a little later, after my grandmother had gone to bed, to just sit in the dark, with the only light coming from the tree, and just set it on musical mode, and zone out. It was, to me, a really magic, possibly even "holy" experience. Nevermind the implications of the holiday, being (at that time of my life) a young Christian, just the experience of me, the dark, the tree, the lights, the music. That was special to me, it was a feeling not quite like anything else.

Good Ol' Sanity Claus.

Of course, to a child most especially, the biggest sticking point, and most exciting thing about Christmas, was Santa Claus, and presents! Last year I dedicated an entire article to St. Nick and my favorite incarnation of his mythology. But it goes without saying that to me, Santa Claus was (and is) a bad ass and awesome figure. He's basically an ancient and immortal wizard, a demi-god who dedicates his existence to trying to spread cheer and generosity throughout the world. You might also say that he is, from a certain point of view, "The Patron Saint of Children".

I loved the idea of Santa as a kid, and believed in him with all of my heart. To say that I was somewhat heartbroken, as I'm sure many children are, when I started to get older, and caught on to the fact that the presents marked "From Santa", were perhaps NOT actually from him, is an understatement. It did, in fact, steal some of the thunder and magic and "specialness" of Christmas, to come to find out that maybe Santa didn't actually exist. And that at the very least, even if he did, this Truth that I had held as self-evident as a child, that he DID exist, and that he really did bring me presents every year, but ONLY if I was good, THAT much of it had been a lie. That wasn't a fun truth to try and reconcile. I don't think there was even a specific MOMENT that came where I was told he wasn't real. Just, at some point after I was probably around 10 years old, my grandmother stopped pushing the Santa angle so far, she may have even stopped writing "From Santa" on certain presents, and I just generally became aware that it had all been a story.

That isn't to say that I don't still cherish my childhood Santa experience. I do. And even though I remember how I felt when I came to realize he might not exist, and I also personally value Honesty and Truth more highly than pretty much anything else in life, if I ever get to have children, I WILL still tell them about Santa Claus, I WILL still celebrate Santa with them, and let them have those years where they think he is bringing them presents. Why? Because I remember how magical it felt to ME. For those fleeting early years, when I believed unquestionably that he existed and brought me presents, it was a fun and powerful experience. I remember sitting on some "Store Santa's" lap as a kid, maybe being a bit scared, but also being in awe because it was SANTA. I remember being around 4 or 5 years old, and the folks downtown bringing "Santa" around, riding on a firetruck, and that was a huge moment, because it was SANTA. I got to see him (so I thought), and got a candy cane and everything.

When I was a bit older, probably 8, one year out of nowhere, my grandmother, in one of her cooler moments, somehow rigged it up so that as I was sleeping, the sound of "sleigh bells" started playing in the house. I was either half-awake, or she woke me up, and told me "Santa Came!", and I probably actually rushed to our sliding glass door to see if I could see him. Of course I "just missed him", but while I questioned it, part of me really did believe that I had just heard Santa outside, that he had JUST popped in my house, and that I had proof that he DID exist. It was, again, for kid me, a powerful and magical moment. And if I ever have my own kids, I want them to have some version of that feeling. I want them to benefit from the "magic of Santa", as much if not more than I did. And even as an adult, now in my 30s, while I know and understand that Santa wasn't bringing me presents as a child, there still exists some part of me, some small spark of that childhood innocence and fire that we society tries to hard to stamp and kill off as we "grow up", that tiny spark that has refused to die completely in spite of everything, that still at least loves the IDEA of Santa Claus. And I don't mind telling you, that I, as a grown man, still would LIKE to believe that he COULD exist, out there somewhere. And if I ever got proof of that, if I ever legit saw him or met him, I also don't mind telling you that I'd probably cry, and lose my shit just a little. It would be pretty amazing.

My Christmas Bear (not MINE, but the one I had).

The other half of that equation, now that we've touched on Santa, is naturally the PRESENTS. To a kid, getting presents is bad ass, whether it's just a random gift at any time of year, something you successfully manage to lobby or beg to get, whether it's a birthday present, or a Christmas present, it's always awesome. But there was undeniably something "more special", perhaps at least to kid me, "more meaningful", about getting CHRISTMAS presents. Part of it WAS, for sure, the belief that Santa himself was bringing me gifts, that really lent the magic to it. But even things I KNEW that my grandmother got me, or that other friends or relatives sent me, it still felt "special". And to me, it somehow felt MORE special, because my grandmother at some point when I was small, decided to establish this tradition that we would wake up at Midnight on Christmas Eve, to open our presents and check them out for a bit, and then go back to bed, to wake up later on Christmas Morning. To me, it was fun and exciting to get to get up late like that, to not have to wait till morning to open the gifts, and naturally I'm sure there was at least once or twice where I didn't even sleep at all, laying awake and excited, waiting. It's a tradition I liked growing up, and it's one I would at least float out there as a possibility with my own family someday.

One of the coolest things I remember getting as a Christmas gift, was also one of the first things I can clearly remember. There were other things that I dimly stand out from earlier years, such as a small strain set and the like. But when I had just turned 6 years old, my grandmother presented the guy you see in the picture above to me. He was a Christmas Bear, obviously a polar bear doll, and a rather HUGE one (maybe a couple feet tall, but huge to a kid). I remember her claiming that she won it in a contest, and perhaps she did. I have since gotten the impression that perhaps it was a K-Mart or Target promotional thing. But regardless of the details, I fucking loved the thing! I was super excited, and felt like I'd just won a million dollars. I would go on to sleep with that guy, on and off, for years after that, as he was the closest thing I had to snuggling up with a person.

Then there's THIS guy.

As I covered in one of my earliest articles, I also at some point in my childhood got a couple of 80s Robot toys. One of them was this black one above, and another was a white one with similar things going on. They were both battery-operated electronic toys, and when you turned them on, they would move around a bit and lights on them would light up. I am almost certain that I got at least ONE of them for some early Christmas, though I honestly don't remember anymore. I also know that at some point I got a Lionel train set, which was far superior to the smaller cheapo one I had gotten around pre-school age. I was never SUPER into trains as a kid, but I went through phases, and in one of them, I loved that Lionel set, and would often look at the Lionel catalog, dreaming about having all of the fancy things they showed, to expand my set.

Then there was THESE guys.

Another view.

I had a couple of relatives, at least earlier in my life, that would send us Christmas packages every year. One of them was a cousin of ours, and another was one of my grandmother's daughters, a "half-aunt" I guess, my Aunt Maggie, who lived in New Jersey. She would send us this big package, usually accompanied by WAY too much tape (though I understand why she did so), and every year, there would usually be one or two things in it for me. I would imagine she wasn't all that much richer than we were (and we were the opposite of rich), so I'm sure many of the presents she would send, were things she would find for good prices at thrift stores or things like that. But that didn't stop them from being cool, and it didn't stop me from always looking forward to seeing what she'd send.

One particular year, I'm gonna say when I was maybe around 10 years old, I felt like I hit the jackpot, because she sent me a couple of these guys pictures above. From what little I've gathered on the internet, they are a brand called "Dor Mei", and I assume that they are basically Chinese knockoff "Godzilla" toys. But all that mattered to me, was that first, they were like foot tall monster/dinosaur guys, and secondly, even if they weren't legit, they were basically SUPPOSED to be Godzilla. And to me, right in the strongest throes of my childhood monster obsession at the time, that's all I needed to know. To be fair, in the top picture, the one in the middle I did NOT have, and is apparently from a different brand/line. But I DID basically have the two on the right and left, one black and red, the other black and yellow with a bit of head fin.

Again, not mine, but I HAVE this guy.

There was also this little dude above, which I'm not certain, but feel like it ALSO was a gift from Aunt Maggie, from a different year. This one is supposed to be Godzilla, and as you can see, he has little clippie hands, where you squeeze his shoulders and his arms open up, so that you can "clip" him to something. While, like many things from my childhood I wish I still had, at some point in my early teens I was an absolute MORON and somehow got rid of those giant Dor Mei figures, somehow I DID manage to hold on to this guy. He, along with some Hot Wheels cars, a couple of McDonald's Mario 3 toys, and my Monster in My Pocket figures, are some of the only things left that I still have from back then.

The only other Aunt Maggie gifts that stand out in my memory, is that another year, perhaps when I was 11 or 12, I got two plastic blue game cases, and in them, were two NES games. Being the massive Nintendo nut that I was at that age, the NES being just about my favorite thing on this earth at the time, you can then well imagine how happy I was to get them, even though I had never heard of them. As it ironically happened, they were both Data East games, both ports of arcade games, one being Kid Niki, and the other being Breakthru. Neither game is amazing, but they are pretty solid NES ports of pretty solid arcade games, in fact I think they were the only arcade ports I actually owned on NES at all back then. It's just kind of funny and ironic to me as an adult, that even though Maggie likely just saw some NES games at a Goodwill or something, and knowing I had one grabbed them for me, that they just happened to be a couple of late 80s Data East ports.

The Holy Grail.

One of the very first articles I ever wrote, back in November of 2012, covered my love for the NES, and how much it meant to me as a kid. In that article, I also covered the "best Christmas of my life", wherein I got "The Package", a brown box that my grandmother had taped up, and wrapped up. It was like getting a Big Chest in a Zelda game (which I would not play for a few years yet, at the time). I opened that sucker up, excited to get such a big package, and held within, like some sacred, priceless treasure, were two "Sansui Joycard" controllers from Hudson Soft, which had rapid-firer switches and were more comfortable to hold. And then there were three brand new, unopened NES games: Bug's Bunny's Birthday Blowout, Dr. Mario, and by far more importantly, Super Mario Bros. 3. This was Christmas 1990, and I had JUST gotten my NES a few months earlier, as an "Early Birthday Present", in reality an incentive to do my homework. We had rented Bugs and Dr. Mario already, so she knew I liked Bugs, and she knew SHE liked Dr. Mario. Yes, even though it was "My" gift, she got Dr. Mario mainly for herself, evidenced by the fact that she would play it sometimes for hours on end for the next several years (until closer to her death).

Mario 3, on the other hand, I had technically played, but only for a few minutes, a relatives house while we were waiting to leave. I popped it in, and having never played it before (it was probably brand new at the time, having just come out in North America in April 1990), and I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I had seen (and loved) Super Mario Bros. 1 at my friend Harold's house, but then when I turned Mario 3 on, there was this map screen, and I had no idea what to do with that. Like a caveman (or cavekid, if you prefer), I spent many seconds not knowing how to just play a damn level, and finally I got into level one, and probably promptly died. I was mesmerized by what I saw in that brief period, but not owning my own NES, I just wasn't experienced enough of a gamer yet to really "Get It". Thankfully, I was a seasoned Mario 1 veteran (of a few months) by the time I got my OWN copy of Mario 3, so I was now fully prepared for it's glory. And I ate it up. It very quickly became my most favorite game of all time, and it has essentially held that spot after all these years. Mind you, it PISSES me off now, because it's easily the hardest Mario ever made, and I'm not AMAZING at it like I had become in my pre-teen years. But I still love it, it's a work of art, and because of of how much it meant to me as a kid, it will always be my #1. I could, and someday likely will, write an entire article talking JUST about Super Mario Bros. 3.

The Glorious Gray Brick.

The last major Christmas present of my childhood that I remember getting, was Christmas 1993. I was just coming off of a (to me at the time horrific) "grounding" from video games for TWO WHOLE MONTHS, because my grandmother got angry that I had played Mario 3 for three straight hours while she was napping once. Clearly a major overreaction on her part, but that was often the name of the game with her. I was devastated to somewhat accidentally learn that she had bought me Kirby's Adventure, a game I had rented and loved, for my birthday that year, but she returned it to Walmart as part of my "punishment". Really, really shitty, if you ask me. And ironic in light of the fact that she still gave me the awesome "Nintendo Chair" for my birthday anyway. But for Christmas, she thankfully didn't include getting rid of my last major present as well. Because when I opened it, it was a Game Boy, and I was thrilled. What I REALLY wanted, to be honest, was a Super NES, because the arcade game that I was absolutely obsessed with at the time, Street Fighter II, was on it, and I wanted it bad.

But I was still very happy to have the Game Boy, to have SOME kind of newer system. Mind you, I LOVED my NES, and I was truly blessed that it was such a popular console that it continued to get new games all the way til the end of 1994, three years after the SNES had hit the NA market. In fact many of the NES' best games came out after the SNES arrived. The NES was, and is, my favorite console of all time. But that being said, I was also "falling behind" and missing out on the newer systems and games that other, less poor kids were playing and talking about. So to at LEAST have a Game Boy (which had, after all, come out in 1989, a year BEFORE I even finally got an NES), still felt really cool. I would not wind up getting a SNES until around Holidays 1995 (I'm fuzzy on whether it was a bday or Xmas gift), and I could talk more about that, because it WAS great to finally get one (even though the Playstation, etc. were out by then). But to me, this was the last Christmas present of my childhood. And I played the shit out of it, even though I had to get a "Light Boy" attachment JUST to see the damn screen well. That is, of course, when my grandmother wasn't "borrowing" it to play Tetris.

Perhaps my favorite adaptation of the classic, along with the Muppets.

The perennial classic.

My favorite childhood cat.

Another significant part of Christmas time to me, was all of the TV specials and special episodes and movies about or influenced by the season. There were several Christmas Specials that I grew up on, that played basically every year, such as "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "A Garfield Christmas", "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "Twas The Night Before Christmas", "The Year Without Santa Claus", "Frosty the Snowman", etc. Of those listed, while I love them all, I like Garfield and Rudolf the best. When I was little, that "Old Bumble", the Abominable Snowman in Rudolf, genuinely scared me.

One of my very favorite Christmas Specials.

Grinch by Childhood Association.

One that really stuck out to me, of course, was Dr. Seuss' "How The Grinch Stole Christmas". It's a great piece of work, directed by legendary animator Chuck Jones (his masterpiece in my opinion), and narrated by the singular Boris Karloff. It's a perfect concert of elements, and of course it was another that played at some point basically every year during my childhood, so I became well acquainted with it. But as little kids often do, for many of my earliest years, I thought that Seuss' Grinch and J.R.R. Tolkien's Gollum (specifically the version from the amazing 1977 cartoon), were one and the same. I mean from a little kid's perspective it makes sense. They're both grumpy, scary characters. They're both green and fuzzy. They both sneak around in darkness and are generally nasty cats. Gollum is, in his own way, The Grinch of the Hobbit. He just never had the benefit of learning the meaning of Christmas, so his shriveled heart never grew three sizes.

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" by Max Fleischer, 1936.

"Peace On Earth", by Hugh Harmon, 1939.

Outside of the usual Specials, I would also often see old "Golden Age of Animation" (30s through 50s) theatrical shorts on TV. Such as "Christmas Comes But Once a Year", an old gem about a bunch of sad and destitute orphans, who are apparently unattended, who aren't going to get any Christmas gifts, so a kindly old man breaks into their kitchen, and uses various things lying around to build them makeshift toys. Or "Peace on Earth", an old MGM Studio cartoon, with a very deep message. It features little animals celebrating Christmas, and talking about "Peace on Earth", in a post-apocalypic world where man has, we are left to assume, killed himself off through war. There was also a 1955 remake called "Good Will Toward Men", by Hannah and Barbera (before they founded their own TV studio), and I'm sure I saw them both on TV at some point. Both have the same poignant message, which left me both disturbed and profoundly affected. It might have been the first true "anti-war" thing I ever experienced a kid, alerting me to the horror and insanity of humans and their killing of each other over just about anything.

Speaks for itself.

Lastly, that was something else, that had nothing to do with decorations or gifts or candy or cartoons, that really touched me and stuck with me as a child, about Christmas. To me, it felt like a "Holy" time of year. Not just, again, because as a kid, my grandmother raised me a Christian. I knew no different, and was not given an option (in fact I was taught that all other options were "evil"). It went far beyond religion. As a child, I grew gradually more and more aware of just how horrible and fucked up "the world out there" really was. In fact I clearly remember crying to my grandmother at one point when I was like 8 or so, because I was afraid, after comments I had heard either from her or the TV, that someone might "push the button" and the whole world would just be blown up. The idea that someone would make a bomb to kill thousands, let alone millions, let alone annihilate the ENTIRE EARTH, not only blew my little mind, but shook me to the very core. I was legitimately afraid of nuclear annihilation, in the late 80s and early 90s, because I grew to understand that governments and leaders weren't necessarily good, decent, wise people. I grew to understand that humanity has a long history of harming both itself, and the natural world around it. And knowing all of that, of course, made me both sad and afraid.

But Christmas, the Holidays? They filled me with hope. Partly because of all the pretty aesthetics. But also, all of the lip service and token gestures paid towards concepts like kindness, and charity, and "Peace on Earth". To me, as a kid, it meant a lot to me. I took it as serious, and thought that when people said those things, or sang about them, etc., that they all really cared, and truly meant it. And at least to me, in MY heart, I DID mean it. I wanted "World Peace" more than almost anything, and wished I was some kind of superhero, like Superman, who could fly around and save the world from itself. These were actual thoughts I would have as a child, growing into my pre-teen years. And Christmas, in it's own way, absolutely helped fuel that. It felt like, to my naive and narrow world view at the time, like maybe it was the ONE time of year, when everyone would shut the hell up, and just behave, and get along, and be GOOD to one another for awhile. I wanted more than anything to believe that all of these things like "Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men" would manifest themselves in the world someday. And Christmastime, I liked to imagine in my head and in my heart back then, was at least we came a little closer to that, like a planet growing a little closer to the sun in its orbit.

We had an old ceramic tree decoration like this, that lit up.

And with the warm, fuzzy feelings of (relative) happiness, and peace, and charity, and hope, that Christmas filled me with, so too came the "come down" when it was over. As much as I looked forward to December 24th, I also dreaded December 25th, because as the day drew on, I knew that soon Christmas would be over again for another entire year. I spent all that time, throughout December, wrapping myself up in everything Christmas, and getting so hyped for the big night/day itself, and then just like that, it would all be over. We had to put the tree away, take all the lights down, and everything just went back to normal. Yes, there was still New Year's Eve. But it just felt like such a sad "End" to me, and always made me feel sad and a bit depressed.

But overall, as stated, Christmas was a big part of my childhood. Certainly a majority of the happiest parts of it. Summer vacation was neat, not having school and just getting to play. But even as a child, my favorite time of year was October, November and December. That last block was and is unbeatable. It gets colder (which I prefer), the beautiful autumn colors, the greatness of Halloween, the feast of Thanksgiving, my Birthday (which of course meant a lot more to me as a kid than it does now), and then Christmas and New Year's. There really is no other block of the year that compares, and, again, if I ever finally find "The One" and get to experience being a husband and father, and have a family of my own, I will absolutely make it my mission to make sure that it is AS special, if not moreso, to them children, my family, as it was to me growing up. I want them to feel that magic and wonder, I want them to feel all of the good things I got out of the season, and more, with none of the Darkness I also dwelled within. Still do.


So with that, I want to wish everyone reading this a very Happy Holidays, a Merry Christmas, and here's to a Happy New Year, which, as always, shall we hope was better than the year prior. We can always hope, and honestly, one thing that my childhood taught me, one thing hat Christmas taught me, is that sometimes in life, that is all we really have to keep us going, and so it's important that we hold onto it, and never let that fire of Hope completely die out. Keep it alive in you and yours, and perhaps someday, sooner rather than later, enough of us can combined our fires. Someday we can work towards that "Peace on Earth" feeling that this season filled me with so much as a child.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Childhood Memories: Mystery Science Theater 3000

I was lucky, I guess you could say, to have had so many things available to me, even being a poor kid, in the early-to-mid 90s, that helped put some fun and passion and excitement into an otherwise pretty lonely, difficult, and sometimes painful childhood and pre-adolecence. Things including but not limited to: The X-Men Animated Series, the Monster In My Pocket figures, the DiC Mario and Captain N cartoons, RL Stine's Goosebumps book series, Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark? show, my obsession with old Godzilla movies, TNT's MonsterVision marathons, and of course my love affair with the greatest game console ever made, the Nintendo Entertainment System.

But amidst all of those other things, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about what would eventually become more or less my favorite non-animated TV show of all time: Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Season Zero, the KTMA days.

First seeing its debut on the local Minneapolis, Minnesota TV channel KTMA, on November 24th 1988, MST3K was a show not quite like anything that had been done before. The brainchild of Joel Hodgson, a local comedian with a proclivity for sight gag and prop-driven comedy, the show was centered around his love for weird prop creations and his quirky brand of humor. The show first aired on Thanksgiving Day, a holiday it would become deeply connected to with "Turkey Day Marathons" in future years. That first KTMA season was something of a prototype, done on a shoestring budget, where Joel and his partners really seemed to basically "make it up as they went along", and the show's style and personality evolved and formulated as "Season Zero" went on. The popular "stars" of the show, Joel's robot companions Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, and Gypsy (and poor ignored Cambot), gradually came into existence, with evolving early forms, that would eventually take the shape fans would become most familiar with.

That first experimental season proved popular enough on a local level, that when the brand new cable channel "The Comedy Channel" (later renamed Comedy Central) started in 1989, they made it their first flagship show. Thus bringing MST3K to a national, and eventually world-wide audience. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Joel and his Bots.

The general premise, of course, for those unfamiliar, is a show set "in the not too distant future", where a couple of mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester, and his assistant (and often forgotten series original) Dr. Laurence Erhardt, work at a research facility called "Gizmonic Institute". From their private underground lab named "Deep 13", they conduct all manner of probably illegal experiments, wherein one of the most diabolical of which, they use poor unsuspecting janitor Joel Robinson as a guinea pig. Stranding him, alone, in the orbital space ship/station known as the "Satellite of Love", they set about trying to test the depths of human sanity and endurance, by making him watch "bad" movies every day.

Being something of an amateur inventor, Joel uses many (as it would later turn out) integral components from the ship itself, to build robot companions to keep him company. These robots, Crow and Servo, are seemingly sentient, wise-cracking jokesters, who view Joel as a father figure, and sit with him during the movies he's forced to watch, helping him "riff" them to keep his sanity. It is said that he also built Cambot, the reason we the audience can see Joel, and Gypsy, the robot responsible for all basic system operations of the ship itself. The catch, of course, being that the parts he used to build these bots, turn out to be some of the parts needed for him to actually control when the movies play. As a consequence, and part of the show's basic structure, Joel has zero control over this, and must go watch them when they play, period.

The most famous lineup of MST3K.

Now, I am fairly certain that I myself, as a kid, didn't stumble across MST3K until at least its third season, by which time J. Elvis Weinstein, the actor who had played Dr. Erhardt, had left the show, being replaced by the popular punching bag for Dr. Forrester, "TV's Frank". As I've explained in previous articles, it was in (probably summer) 1991 that we moved down the street, from a smaller mobile home into a larger mobile home. And along with getting my own room finally, came getting my own little TV as well, giving me the freedom to (while making sure I didn't get caught watching things I "wasn't supposed to") watch whatever the hell I wanted. And with this newfound television freedom, came my discovery of shows like the X-Men cartoon, and MST3K. Which would just so happen to become two of my favorite shows, ever.

It was due mainly to MST3K, as well as TNT's MonsterVision, that I was able to see and love so many classic (and not so classic) monster movies, science fiction and horror, etc. That was probably the single biggest appeal to me about the show, was that they frequently showed old 50s and 60s monster movies, but more than that, it was really the "perfect storm" for 10 or so year old me. For one thing, having grown up with Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, the Muppet movies, Fraggle Rock, etc., the fact that the show had robot puppets was instant attraction. I came to love the show, and the bots, so much in fact, that I actually daydreamed about building my OWN robo-pals (partly fueled by the fact that my closest friend now lived a town away from me), specifically Crow. To this day Crow is my favorite of Joel's robots, most specifically the Trace Beaulieu voiced Crow (the same actor who played Dr. Forrester). But overall, you take puppets, invention gags, funny skits, snarky "riffing" of movies, AND old monster movies? And you've basically got a recipe for a show that young Jesse was destined to love.

The Immortal Gamera.

How can you NOT love this monster?

What you see above is the movie Gamera vs. Guiron, which is quite probably the first MST3K episode I maybe ever saw, as well as definitely being the first Gamera movie I ever saw. I had never even heard of Gamera before this show introduced me, and while on the one hand I'm sure part of kid-me was like "This turtle guy is nothing compared to Godzilla", on the OTHER hand, kid-me was probably also like "Sweet, more giant monsters!" The timing probably lines up, as we must've moved in Summer 91, and this episode aired on September 7th 1991. It is entirely possible that I may have discovered the show via a previous episode before this in August, but seeing Gamera for the first time is the memory that sticks with me the most.

For those who don't know, Gamera is a gigantic snapping turtle of sorts, who much like Godzilla, was awakened from ancient slumber by stupid humans and their nuclear testing. He can breath flames (unlike Godzilla's thermonuclear radiation energy beams), and can even "turtle up" inside his shell, using his flames as rockets out of his leg-holes, to make him spin around and fly. If it sounds absolutely ridiculous, it is. But that is what is so awesome about it. Created by Toho rival studio Daiei in the 1960s, the height of the "Showa" Kaiju era, Gamera was created as a means of cashing in on that Giant Monster success that Godzilla really kicked off. While like Godzilla, he starts out as a menace to mankind, he later becomes a hero and protector of Earth, most infamously being known as a "Friend to All Children". It may actually have been Gamera's appeal to kids that led to Godzilla "softening" in the mid-to-late 60s, becoming more of a "hero" character, though it might well have been the opposite scenario, with Godzilla's transformation pushing Daiei to make Gamera a kid-friendly hero. Either way, the world got more Japanese giant monster movies, of which I honestly wish they had made MORE of in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

It's Russian Sinbad to the rescue!
And the unstoppable Hercules!

Around this time, along with Godzilla movies, I was also becoming obsessed with Greek Mythology and classic fantasy films, mainly due to Ray Harryhausen movies. And MST3K delivered some of that as well, in the form of things like cheesy Italian Hercules movies (some of which weren't actually Hercules movies), or a pretty great gem in 1962's The Magic Sword. Then of course there was the Russian film The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. While in reality a film about the Russian hero Sadko, when brought to the US it was passed off as a Sinbad movie, and while it certainly seemed a bit weird for a Sinbad movie to a kid who was becoming a connoisseur of such things, I still ate it up. And do keep in mind, that as a kid, I didn't really notice or care when things were "cheesy" or obviously super low budget, or bad acting, or badly dubbed. I took things as they were, at face value, and usually cared more about the story and the events of the movie (which I often took quite seriously), than I did about technical film issues, which I would not notice or care about for many years to come. To the same kid who found Plan 9 From Outer Space kinda scary, and its final "warning message" about war technology quite sobering, a movie like Russian Sinbad, even WITH merciless MST3K riffing, was rather fantastic.

Cheesy Robots + Martians + Santa Claus = Awesome.

Another movie that MST3K introduced me to, that I had previously no idea existed, was the obscure 60s holiday film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. One of many movies that I'm sure gained a modern cult following due in very large part to being shown on Mystery Science Theater, this is a "science fiction" movie aimed at children, which sees the humorless jerk Martians kidnap Santa, to try and improve the crappy conditions they themselves have created on Mars, specifically with children. It's a totally cheeseball affair, but it's also very endearing and lovable, made all the more enjoyable due to Joel and Co's wisecracks. There is a scene early on, where the killer robot that the Martians try to send to grab Santa, winds up getting won over by Santa's charm and magic, only further proving what I've always known: that Santa Claus is both a badass wizard, and a wicked nice guy.

On a side note, being the obsessed "Monster Kid" that I was, I do clearly remember the few times I would tune in, and the movie they'd be riffing that week would be some kind of crime film, or western, or something NOT of the sci-fi/monster variety that I preferred, while I still found the jokes funny, I remember being disappointed. At that age, I was monster movie hungry, and had a huge appetite to see ones I hadn't seen yet, so while I enjoyed the comedy and puppets aspect of it, I was definitely there for the monsters the most. Go figure.

The Mads.

Now while the meat of the show is certainly the robots, and the movies they watch and riff, it needs to be said that another great part of the show, was always the little "sketch" scenes that would happen at the beginning and ending of episodes, as well as the breaks they would take during the movie. Every episode during the Joel era of the show, would start with what was known as the "Invention Exchange". Basically, Joel and the Mads would present new, typically silly as hell ideas they'd cooked up, more or less competing to see who could come up with crazier stuff. There was never really any payoff to these scenes, per say, no ultimate "winner" in the contest. It was basically just to be funny, and many of the inventions Joel would present, were old props he had previously built and used in his old comedy acts.

Something else pretty great to come out of these "in between" skits, were the songs that Joel and the bots would come up with. Such as "Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas", or the Jet Jaguar song (a riff on an actual song in the film Godzilla vs. Megalon). But there's also my personal favorite, "The Gamera Song", which evolved over the course of the different Gamera episodes they had. It too is a riff on the actual Japanese Gamera song in the later Gamera movies, and features the immortal lines:

"Gamera is really neat!
 Gamera's a tasty treat!
 We've been eating Gamera!

All things must come to an end?

A new era.

Sadly, I discovered Mystery Science Theater later than I wish I had, because while you could definitely argue that the show had really hit its stride and reached its apex in Seasons 3 and 4, the fact is, I only got roughly two full seasons' worth, of the Joel Era that started it all. Which also, by the way, happens to be my favorite era of the show. I make no bones about the fact that I'm a "Joel guy", and in general, I consider the 91-93 era, with Joel, TV's Frank, and Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank, to be the greatest era of the show's history.

I actually vaguely remember the episode, which aired on October 23rd 1993, which saw Joel leave, right in the middle of the season. And at the time, while as a fan I was happy to see the Joel character finally escape and have a "happy ending", I was also really sad and kind of confused, as I had no idea why he suddenly and abruptly left. He was replaced by this new guy, a temp hired by the Mads named Mike, who they shot up into space to replace Joel. While I might have recognized Mike from the few cameo appearances he had as various characters prior to this, I had no idea back then that he was a long-time writer for the show behind the scenes. So as far as I knew, as a fan, Joel was just suddenly gone, and here was this NEW guy replacing him. And while I didn't mind him, I hated that Joel was gone, and thus wasn't a big fan of Mike and the changes. I warmed up to Mike as the host more years later, as an adult.

The Reason.

I also, of course, had no way of knowing that there were behind the scenes reasons for Joel's abrupt departure. I would find out, years later thanks to the internet, that while Joel initially publicly claimed that he was leaving the show due to being "uncomfortable performing in front of the camera" and wanting to move on to other things, the truth was far less benign. The reality was, that MST3K had become a very popular program, and producer Jim Mallon, who was also the long-time voice of the robot Gypsy, was pushing for the show to get "flashier" production values, as well as pushing for there to be an MST3K theatrical film. Both of these things, and probably other issues, Joel had serious problems with, as he wanted the show to stay true to its "DIY" and low budget roots. This caused serious tension between the two, and Joel, being the bigger man, decided that he cared more about the show continuing to exist than he did about getting his way, so he chose to leave. In doing so, he also basically handed over full ownership of the MST3K property to Mallon.

In more recent years, Joel has stated two things about his departure. The first, was the revelation of the real reason he left, in-fighting with Mallon, and that he hadn't actually wanted to leave, that he considered it "the perfect job" and loved his baby (the show itself). But he also even later stated, that it had "always been the plan" for him to eventually step away from the camera and for the show to potentially have a variety of hosts. I'm not sure if that last part is 100% true, but if Joel says so, then I'll trust him. Regardless, I had also heard, years ago, that when Joel decided to leave, he personally singed off on Mike Nelson, whom he had worked with for years, as his replacement. That makes the move easier to take, but I'm going to be honest with you. I will always wish that Joel's run as the host had been significantly longer, because his brand of humor, his vision, and his personality are part of what made me such a fan. I will also, consequently, as a fan, never forgive Jim Mallon for being the cause of Joel leaving his own creation behind. If anyone should have left in that situation, it should have been Jim. In the interest of fairness, as the story goes, it was Jim working at KTMA that helped get Joel's idea off the ground and on the air in the first place, so it's entirely possible that we do have him to at least partly thank for MST3K ever even existing in the first place. But the fact remains, that the show was always Joel's creation, and he never should have been put into a position where he not only left it behind, but left its ownership in someone else's hands.

And the real irony in all of that, is that when Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie hit theaters in April 1996, financially speaking, it bombed. And in spite of never liking that Joel left, I went and watched it in theaters. It was perfectly fine, and funny enough. But that's the thing, it really was just a slightly more expensive episode of the TV show. The movie they riffed, the 50s sci-fi classic This Island Earth, while it certainly has things to riff, is hardly a bad movie, in fact I consider it to be one of the better science fiction movies ever made. Ultimately, I see Joel's point in the pointlessness and absurdity of even HAVING a movie, for a show that is already a feature-film-length program ABOUT riffing other movies. And for Mallon pushing THAT, as being the main reason Joel left, it just feels really petty and unfortunate (on Jim's part, not Joel's).

New era, new channel, new villains.

I know that I kept watching, at least sometimes, after Mike became the host. For Mike's first season and a half, it was still the same basic set-up, with Dr. Forrester and Frank as the Mads, the same voices for the bots, etc. The only real difference, outside of Mike not being Joel, was that they dropped the whole Invention Exchange deal, as that was also Joel's thing, and because Mike's strengths were more in character acting and not prop-comedy. Something I actually didn't even remember as a kid and pre-teen, is that after Joel left, they stopped using the Gizmonic Institute, as he had apparently owned the rights to that specific idea also, and asked them not to use it anymore. The show just referred to "Deep 13" itself instead, from that point onward.

TV's Frank wound up leaving the show after the end of Season 6, Mike's first full season as host. I have always felt that one of the main reasons he, and later his good friend Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Forrester and Crow) eventually left, was because they were Joel's friends, and it wasn't the same without him. I'm sure there were other elements involved in their departures, but that was the impression I had always gotten. Season 7, which was a very short season due to producing the pointless movie that easily could/should have just been an episode, saw Dr. Forrester instead visited by his mother, Pearl (who as a funny aside, I always thought looked YOUNGER than him). And by the end of Season 7, Dr. Forrester, the guy who had been the ever-present villain of the show since the KTMA days, was also gone.

Beyond that, after Season 7, and the theatrical film, the show moved TV networks. As a neat bit of history, but also a rather lame move, MST3K became something of a flagship show for yet ANOTHER young channel, this time the Sci Fi Channel. The problem was, not only had my interest in the show overall waned since Joel's departure, though I liked Mike well enough and DID still watch sometimes, I didn't have the Sci Fi Channel. So when the show changed stations, I wasn't able to watch it anymore, even if I wanted to, leaving me to completely miss out on the final three seasons. Therefor, I had no idea that Pearl became the new top Mad, nor that the show eventually shifted formats a bit, seeing Pearl chasing Mike and the Bots through space, and later even time. I saw these episodes, much like Seasons 0-2 (and much of 3), retroactively, and I must say, Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl, also previously the Satellite of Love's "Magic Voice" and a writer for the show herself), did a really decent job, and some of those latter day episodes are pretty solid. But as someone who fell in love with the show in 1991, to me, while good, the later stuff just wasn't quite the same.

No hard feelings.

One majorly unfortunate side-affect of Joel's departure from the show, and his replacement by Mike, and frankly, with no one giving a full and honest account at the time of what really went down, was that for years, many fans of the show became split, even vehemently so, over which "era" of MST3K was better. For people like me, who started with Joel, most of us tend to love Joel best. And for people who maybe came on in 1993 or later, Mike was their guy, by virtue of the fact that he was the ONLY host they really knew (though they did still do Turkey Day Marathons with reruns of old Joel episodes). And really, it's kinda shitty and sad that some fans would hate on Joel, because they weren't familiar with him (since he DID create the damn show). Just as much as it's shitty and sad that people would dump on Mike for not being Joel. It isn't Mike's fault that Joel left, and as I said, it's my understanding that Joel at least had a hand in picking Mike to succeed him anyway.

Regardless, for many years, a lot of people thought there was some kind of real animosity between Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson, which in reality, it turns out there really wasn't. Part of this was somewhat alleviated when Joel finally made a bitter-sweet last cameo appearance in the first episode of the show's final season, in 1999 (pictured above). In story, Joel came back to the ship voluntarily, to fix an error that was going to cause the SoL to explode. But comically, he didn't just try to help Mike and the bots escape with him back to Earth, when he left!


Cinematic Titanic

Part of what fueled the silly fan theories of a real life rift, were the forms that post-MST3K riffing took. In 2006, Mike Nelson, along with Kevin Murphy (long-time writer and voice of Tom Servo from 91-99) and Bill Corbett (voice of Crow from 97-99), started a company called Rifftrax. The original (and still main) premise of Rifftrax, was that they would watch movies, often even newer, more contemporary movies, and give them the "MST3K treatment", which you could then download as an audio file to play along with your own viewing of the film. Hence "Rifftrax". They would later do some actual video file or DVD releases themselves, as well as starting to do live shows, where they would go on tour and riff movies in front of live audiences. Rifftrax is still going strong to this day.

Meanwhile, in late 2007, and running until 2013, Joel got "his" old crew back together, J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, to start his own live riffing tour, called "Cinematic Titanic". They did the same basic idea, except that CT was pretty much exclusively live shows (though some of which they would record and put on home video). The fuel for the "rift" fire, came from the fact that, outside of Mary Jo Pehl, these two crews never intermixed, and seemed to fans like two divided "camps", as none of the Rifftrax or Cinematic Titanic folks appeared on each other's shows. That just led fans to believe it was "proof", that not only did real animosity exist, but that other MST3K crew people (especially Trace and Frank who had left the show not long after Joel did), seemed like they were "taking sides".

Put to Rest.

Thankfully, a lot of that was at least MOSTLY put to rest, thanks to a couple of things. One, was that Joel and Mike appeared together on one or more convention panels. And the other, and more prominent, is that in 2016, Rifftrax did a special "MST3K Reunion" show, that finally saw everybody (except J. Elvis Weinstein), all the main players, together on the same live show, riffing shorts and things together. Granted, the players were mostly paired off into their own "groups", Mary Jo and Mike's wife Bridget Nelson, Trace and Frank, Mike Bill and Kevin per usual, and Joel with new arrival Jonah Ray. And that was partially the other purpose of the Reunion show, was to help promote/celebrate the fact that there was going to be more NEW MST3K episodes after some 16 odd years!

The New Crew.

After years of trying, in August 2015, Joel Hodgson finally got back control of his creation. He now co-owns the rights to the franchise along with Shout Factory, the company responsible for home video distribution of the show. Immediately after he reacquired the rights, he set about creating a Kickstarter crowd-fund for a MST3K revival, and in doing so, set Kickstarter records as fans met the initial three episode funding goal within the first two days, and by the end of the campaign, had raised over $5.7 million dollars, funding a full 12 episode season, along with two extra episodes. These went into production in 2016, and Season 11 debuted on the Netflix streaming service on April 14th, 2017. The new crew consists of Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester, the daughter of Dr. Clayton Forrester, and Patton Oswalt as Max, the alleged "TV's Son of TV's Frank" as the new Mads, who operate their secret evil "Moon 13" lab on the moon. The new voices for the bots, are comedians Baron Vaughn as Servo and Hampton Yount as Crow. And most importantly, the new unfortunate victim of the experiment, is Jonah Ray, as kidnapped Gizmonic Institute employee Jonah Heston. Joel himself works behind the scenes as a designer, writer, producer, and even director.

 On a personal level, I like the new actors/characters well enough. Though I will say, while they do a fine job, to me it's just kind of jarring to not hear Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy as Crow and Servo. Though to be fair, I feel that way about when Trace left and Bill Corbett voiced Crow, as it just sounds different. It's like anyone else outside of the original crew voicing the Muppets, like anyone but Jim Henson voicing Kermit. It just Not BAD, just off. But overall, I was and am happy that MST3K is not only back in Joel's control, but also making new episodes. In fact, it was just recently announced that there will at least be a Season 12 coming, and I'd imagine there will be more, so long as fan demand and viewership is there. If I had one major criticism of the revived MST3K, it would be that it seems like the riffs come far too "rapid fire", whereas previously, especially during Joel's era, it felt like the timing was better. That they would crack a joke or two, and give you a few seconds to digest that, or hell, watch the movie, before riffing again. But outside of that, it's high quality stuff.

Epic. Immortal. Magic.

Even though I sadly only got to see two-ish seasons of Joel's era when it was new, Mystery Science Theater still had a big impact on me as a pre-teen. Looking back, I came to the realization that as a kid in the early 90s, I had an incredible deal going on, compared to kids now, at least in my opinion. Just on Saturdays alone, strictly talking about television programming, in the morning I had Saturday Morning cartoons highlighted by the X-Men. Then in the evening on Nickelodeon, I had their "SNICK" block of programming, highlighted by Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and THEN, on many Saturday nights, I had a choice of either MST3K or TNT's MonsterVision to watch. And naturally, I couldn't watch BOTH when they were both on. But still, what a choice! MST3K gave me a lot of needed laughs, sparked my imagination, and showed me more "crappy" old movies that even MonsterVision didn't show. Between the two of them, a whole world of classic sci-fi and horror and adventure and fantasy was opened to me, at a young age, and I'll always cherish that, as I genuinely love those old movies. It is literal truth when people make the claim that "they just don't make 'em like that anymore." 

Like I said, I was, am, and always will be a "Joel guy". It made me incredibly sad as a kid when he left the show, and made me sadder still when I learned why he left later in life. So him getting the rights back and doing the revival show, to me, feels like recompense, it feels like both a closure and a new beginning. As much as I honestly DO like Mike and his era, and as much as I do also like Jonah and this new era, it will, of course, never be quite the same, nor to ME quite as good, as Joel's original era. He just had a feel, a style, and a specific sense of humor, that was all at once snarky, but also kinda classy in a weird way. When I think of MST3K, I think of Joel, Trace, Frank, and the Bots. And I think that goes for a lot of people. But they all have their place, and I think it's cool that we have both Rifftrax and the new MST3K now. The more the merrier! Part of me will always wish that Joel had gotten more time as the original host, just like part of me will always wish that he had chosen to re-take that position with this new show. But at the end of the day, I'm just glad he has it back at all, and I'm thankful that one of my favorite things of all time, is alive and well, and not just slowly fading into obscurity.

If you've never seen Mystery Science Theater 3000, please, hop on Youtube, or Netflix, and fire up an episode. I would suggest starting with the older episodes, but you can just as easily test out the new show, to see if it's your thing. Some of my favorite episodes that I would highly recommend include (listed by movie they riffed):

The Crawling Eye (1958)

Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1966)

Robot Monster (1953)

The Black Scorpion (1957)

Rocketship X-M (1950)

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966)

Gamera (1965)

Gamera vs. Barugon (1966)

Gamera vs. Gaos (1967)

Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)

Gamera vs. Zigra (1971)

The Amazing Colossal Man (1957)

War of the Colossal Beast (1958)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

The Killer Shrews (1959)

The Magic Sword (1962)

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

Hercules (1958)

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1952)

I Accuse My Parents (1944)

Mitchell (1975)

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1959)

Santa Claus (1959)

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

The Phantom Planet (1961)

Gorgo (1960)

Soultaker (1990, mainly for the Joel cameo)

Reptilicus (1961, first episode of new show)

So make sure to give it a whirl, and revel in the greatness that is Mystery Science Theater!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

For The Love of Jon Pertwee: Why The Third Doctor, Was The Best Doctor

Over the last several years, Doctor Who, after largely fading from the public consciousness for over a decade, has become very popular again over here in the states. That is because people are really enamored with the reboot/continuation series, which started in 2005. Unfortunately, at least in this man's humble opinion, in my experience the vast majority of people who are huge fans of the new Doctor Who, that I've personally encountered, seem to only be fans of the new show. Meaning, they have either little or no knowledge or experience with the original show that lasted for the better part of three decades. And more bothersome to me, a lot of those same people show little to no actual interest in ever bothering to see the original show, at all. They have "their" Who, and that's all that matters to them.

To me, as a longtime Doctor Who fan, that is a bit of a problem. I'm going to go ahead and "out" myself right here and now, by revealing that I am not much of a fan of the 2000s Doctor Who show. I tried, watching multiple episodes of both of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors. And in all honesty, I just couldn't get into it. But why the fact that it seems so many "Nu Who" fans don't really know or care about the original series bothers me, is twofold. For one thing, while I do consider the new show to be something of a "reboot", it is more what is known as a "soft reboot". Meaning that it is, in my opinion, a slight reboot of the series, and it has many (to me rather dumb) retcons and stark differences from the original show. But it is also supposed to be a continuation of the same story, the same canon. So because of this fact, I personally think that it behooves the audience of the new show, to be familiar with and care about the original show it is a "continuation" of. I have always found that you gain a far deeper respect and appreciation for a thing, if you actually know it's history, where it came from, how it got here, etc.

It just so happens that in my personal opinion, mind you, the new show, quite frankly, often comes off like badly written fan fiction. I know my saying that would certainly serve to rile up quite a lot of "Nu Who" fans. But that's not why I'm here, at all. Why I'm here, in point of fact, is to not only illustrate why the original series is crucial to at least see some of if you're a fan of the new show. But also to illuminate people to what I personally consider the strongest period of the entire franchise, centered around what has become my very favorite incarnation of The Doctor of all time: Jon Pertwee, The Third Doctor.

It is my intention and aim, therefor, to try and explain to you why he is the "best" Doctor of them all, and why, subsequently, you should care, and give his seasons, and the old show in general, a chance. So without further adieu...

The Third and Fourth Doctors.

By and large, to most of these "Nu Who" fans I refer to, the ones who love the new show but know or care next to nothing for the original, the one (out of seven) original series Doctor that they DO seem at least passingly familiar with, is the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. Brimmed had, curly mop, acid wit, ridiculously long scarf. I will fully admit here and now, that he was my original choice for "favorite Doctor". Mainly because he was the one I had somehow seen the most of. I first became aware of Doctor Who, and saw my first episodes, at the age of 7 or 8 years old. I would sometimes go over to spend the night at my friend Harold's house, and his brother William was absolutely obsessed with Doctor Who, which they would show on the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) channel. But they did it in a weird way, where they would show a mix of older episodes, meaning like the First Doctor, Fourth, Fifth, etc., before showing whatever happened to be the newest episode of the then current (and for a long time last) late 80s Doctor, the Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy.

So I got a pretty broad taste, though sadly, I did not get to really experience the Second and Third doctor back then. I got a taste of #'s 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7, however, and decided, for whatever reasons, that I thought the Fourth, Tom Baker, was the coolest. I did not get to see any Doctor Who again for several years, as for some stupid reason, even though she was a massive fan of most things science fiction, my grandmother arbitrarily decided that she didn't like Doctor Who, and didn't want me watching it. Later, in the late 90s, in my teens, Harold's brother William would be over visiting at their house, and would either bring down his own tapes, or rent ones he didn't have, so I then got to see other Doctor Who episodes I had not yet seen. Mainly Fourth Doctor ones as I recall, and that probably just helped drive my original love of Tom Baker more.

Now, beyond my own personal history with the series, I will say that overall, after having in my 20s and beyond seen most of the Third and Fourth Doctor stories (there's some later Baker stories I still haven't watched), that the 1970s were, in my opinion unquestionably, the best period of Doctor Who there has ever been. The stories were at their strongest, the companions were (mostly) great, and those two distinct personalities of The Doctor were by far the most popular. That is backed up by the fact that Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker are the second and first longest running Doctors in the history of the franchise. Jon Pertwee had five seasons, and his run only ended at five because he chose to walk away from it. Tom Baker then came along in 1975, and fans loved him so much he hung around until 1981, seven whole seasons.

A young Jon Pertwee acting alongside First Doctor actor William Hartnell.

My insistence that Tom Baker was the best Doctor continued well into the 2000s, until at some point in my late 20s, I started making it a point to see a lot more of the original series. Unfortunately, because the 1960s BBC were apparently short-sighted morons, they didn't bother backing up and maintaining an archive of ALL of the First and Second Doctor episodes, six seasons worth of the show. So there are many episodes or outright full story arcs of both, most especially the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, that I will likely never see. And that sucks, really badly. As it stands, from what I've seen, I really like all four of the first four original Doctors.

In my opinion, the show made some serious leaps when it jumped into the 70s and into color, but the 60s show had a very classic feel, and some really great stories. And the first two Doctors had a singular wit and charm all their own. But upon starting to actually watch the Third Doctor's episodes (I had only really experienced him prior to that in the early 80s special "The Five Doctors"), I noticed something. Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor, was really fucking awesome! And the more I watched his stories, the more I began to gradually come to grips with a startling new reality: I became aware of the fact that the Third Doctor was actually, at least in my opinion, even cooler than the Fourth. I eventually saw all of the Third Doctor's stories, yes all five seasons' worth. And it became apparent that I did indeed have a new, and permanent, favorite Doctor of the series.

Pertwee's first companion, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.

Now the way that the Third Doctor came about, for one thing, was rather unique and original. Anyone who has even a decent knowledge of Who Lore, knows that Time Lords, the ancient race to whom The Doctor belongs, by either natural or unnatural super-science means, each possess a set of "regenerations". Meaning that when they die, instead of dying outright, they "regenerate" into a new incarnation of themselves. This is finite, or was supposed to be, of course, with it at some point being established canon that each Time Lord had precisely Thirteen regenerations. The idea being that once they ran out, that was finally it. In addition to regenerations, Time Lords, having a different physiology than humans (two hearts, etc.), tended to live quite a bit longer than humans, hundreds of years in fact.

The way that the concept of "regeneration" came about in the show, originally, was a matter of necessity. William Hartnell, the First Doctor, was very popular, and the show itself was very popular, but he was getting on in age, and by his third season, he was in declining health, was having trouble remembering his lines at times, etc. So instead of cancelling the show, they came upon a novel idea. There had been shows that had just outright changed actors before this, but instead of insulting their audience, they devised an actual explanation for this occurring: Time Lords could "regenerate". And so the beloved First Doctor died, but while that was sad, fans now had an all new, Second Doctor's adventures to follow, and the show could carry onward this way indefinitely. Which it did, as every Doctor at some point in the series, for whatever reason, suffers a mortal blow of some sort, and "regenerates" into his own next incarnation.

 For the Third Doctor however, it was much more unique. The Second Doctor was also very popular, but Patrick Troughton, after three seasons, wanted to move on to something else, and so as his last story arc, the writers gave him this massive, ten-episode epic called "War Games", which saw aliens testing humans for strategies and weaknesses by keeping many from different times trapped in a "playing field", convinced that wars from different eras were still ongoing. The Doctor, as he usually does, got involved and interfered, and at the end of the arc, once he had more or less managed to save the day, suddenly his fellow Time Lords appeared. They were not at all happy with their renegade fellow, and thus, for the only time (as far as I'm aware) in the history of the series, a Doctor regeneration occurred without death. As punishment for his constant interference in the affairs of other planets and races, which is supposed to be against stuffy Time Lord law, they sent the Second Doctor's companions back to their rightful times, and forced The Doctor himself to regenerate. As an additional part of his punishment, they also blocked his knowledge of how to run his Timeship, the T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), and left him stranded on the planet he had shown such fondness for: The Earth.

Live and in Color?

This was all very new and a radical departure from what fans had thus far seen from the series. For one thing, when the show first began, it was intended to be more of an "educational" science fiction series, aimed at children and families. Which is why many of the First Doctor stories show him winding up back in different historic time periods of the Earth. But due to the raging popularity of the second ever Who story arc, "The Daleks" (a personal favorite of mine), monster and alien episodes quickly became extremely popular with fans, so the producers felt they should make more. The Second Doctor still retained some of the historical type of episodes, specifically the story arc "The Highlanders", where we first meet Scottish companion Jamie. But the Second Doctor really delved deeper into monster and alien type storylines, such as his biggest recurring threat, the Cybermen. But by the time the Third Doctor rolled around, the historic episodes were basically entirely gone, and in the 70s, the show gradually took on a darker, more serious tone overall.

When the Third Doctor began, it's important to note that not only was the transition from Second to Third Doctor very unique and bizarre, but the entire tone and pacing of the show was about to shift dramatically. And to top it all off, the Third Doctor also exploded for the first time into color! The BBC had previously filmed Who in black and white, because it was allotted fairly low budgets, and black and white film was cheaper to use. But with Who proving a six-year smash success for them, they finally decided to cough up a little more cash, and started using the more expensive color film. Beyond the aesthetic, however, the more drastic shift for the series, was the very important fact that The Doctor now found himself stranded on one planet: Earth.

Previously, and for the vast majority of the show's existence in fact, part of the gimmick of Doctor Who, was that he is a renegade Time Lord, who stole a T.A.R.D.I.S. because he is an insatiably curious explorer, who just wants to gallivant around studying the universe. Because his Timeship is rather old and a bit busted, he often cannot precisely control where (or when) his jaunts through time and space will lead him. But in Season 7, and for the majority of his first three seasons, the Third Doctor found himself unable to remember how to work his ship, so he was stuck on Earth, a fact he despised.

The Doctor's friends in U.N.I.T.

However, also being one to always try and make the best of his given situation, The Doctor found himself falling in with the somewhat clandestine outfit called "U.N.I.T." The United Nations Intelligence Task Force was secretly formed after the invasion of aliens in the Second Doctor story "The Web of Fear", and they later faced their first crisis, with the Doctor's help, when Cybermen try to invade Earth. The outfit is led by British Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a stern but fair man. So when the Third Doctor turns up, he remembers "The Brigadier", but Lethbridge-Stewart doesn't recognize his new face. He later becomes convinced it's the same man, however, during the thwarting of yet another alien crisis. And so The Doctor, stuck on Earth and needing an explanation for his sudden existence there, begrudgingly comes under the employ of U.N.I.T. as it's unofficial "Scientific Advisor". The relationship between Lethbridge-Stewart and The Doctor is often somewhat comical, as the ever-serious military man usually plays the "straight man" to the flamboyant alien, as well as serving to frustrate The Doctor with his military rules and procedures. But at the end of the day, The Brigadier trusts The Doctor's wisdom, and is always there for The Doctor when he is needed. It's kind of odd, but The Brigadier is actually one of my favorite Doctor Who characters of all time.

To me, while I like all of Jon Pertwee's run on the show, these times with U.N.I.T. were some of the best. The Doctor is often at his most interesting or exciting when he is off exploring other worlds. But being forced into a new situation, where you not only had one of his more traditional "companion" characters, you also had these regulars that he worked with in U.N.I.T., who were companions in their own right too, and something of a regular cast. It also provided what I think were good and interesting challenges for the writers, who having to mostly stick to Earth (or for that matter England), had to in many ways become more focused and inventive. Consequently, I think some of the show's strongest writing and stories happened during this period.

Along with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, you also had U.N.I.T. regulars like Sergeant John Benton and Captain Mike Yates. In Jon Pertwee's first season, he is paired with Dr. Liz Shaw, who had been tapped as U.N.I.T.'s "Scientific Advisor" right before The Doctor reappeared. She is brilliant in her own right, and usually catches on to The Doctor's advanced Time Lord science fairly quickly. I personally really enjoyed her, and wish her character would have stuck around longer. At first she is more of a foil for The Doctor, the scientific skeptic of all of this U.N.I.T. nonsense, but she eventually comes to be a believer through experience, as well as developing a closer relationship with the stodgy and eccentric Doctor.

Pertwee's second companion, Jo Grant.

After Season 7, the show runners decided to get rid of Liz, not because she didn't work (she did), but because they felt like she was "too smart", and they wanted a companion that The Doctor had to explain science-fictiony things to, thereby also better explaining them to the audience too. Kind of a contrived reason, if you ask me, and worse yet, they didn't even give her a fond fairwell type of sendoff. At the beginning of Season 8, they just mention that she has move on, off-camera.

As her replacement, the Doctor is assigned a less brainy, but still fairly bright young woman named Josephine Grant, as his new assistant. What Jo lacks in Liz's raw intelligence, she makes up for by being both very resourceful when called upon, and fiercely loyal to The Doctor, whom she grows very fond of. I really like the character of Jo Grant, to be honest, as I admire her loyalty to The Doctor, and always persevering even though she is usually a "fish out of water" in all of these bizarre situations they encounter. But I think in some ways, Liz Shaw might be my favorite Third Doctor companion, because her character, in spite of her initial stodginess, is quite awesome. And her relationship as something more of an equal (not quite but close enough) with this brilliant and comparatively ancient alien Time Lord, presents a unique dynamic that you don't often see in the show.

The Doctor's single greatest nemesis, The Master.

With the previous two Doctors, you briefly saw him run into another Time Lord or two, but really, his race is seldom seen or even heard of. But another foundation of the the Third Doctor, was the introduction of a more regular, recurring villain. They introduced the character of "The Master", a fellow renegade Time Lord who is every bit as brilliant as The Doctor, a perfect equal in some ways, but also a perfect opposite. While the Doctor seems to cherish and value all life, The Master absolutely doesn't, and only seeks to control it, as he constantly tries to attain greater power for himself. Played by the incredible Roger Delgado, The Master was, in essence, the perfect arch-villain for The Doctor. He was, in some ways, the cheesy, mustache twirling, maniacal laughing supervillain, who always seems to find a way to escape and fight another day. For one thing, that was also part of what made him awesome.  But for another, there was a lot more going on under the surface with The Master than your typical, generic bad guy.

While yes, he was usually maniacal, coming up with some new scheme or aligning himself with some other villainous threat, he could also be quite complex. He admired and respected The Doctor, even though he hated his nobility, and often tried to sway The Doctor to join him, because together they could rule the universe. And you got the feeling that The Master wasn't always bullshitting, that some part of him, deep down, was perhaps lonely, and really did want a companion, an equal, to share in his villainous glory.

There was more than one Third Doctor story arc, where you were presented with an initial villain or threat, only to have that "Dr. Wily" type moment, revealing that that bastard The Master was at it again. In point of fact, The Master first appeared in the first story arc of Season 8, "Terror of the Autons", and he subsequently appeared in eight out of the ten story arcs covered in Seasons 8 and 9. He was featured in every single story arc of Season 8 in fact, which could rightly be considered "The Season of the Master". But it honestly didn't get old during those stories, as he was always popping up in some different way, with some new dastardly plan at work. They gradually started to phase him out, not using him as much in Season 10. But sadly, his only story appearance in Season 10 would also be Roger Delgado's last, as he tragically died in a car crash in Istanbul, Turkey, in June 1973. Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado, in spite being enemies on screen, were actually close friends behind the scenes, and Delgado's death deeply affected Pertwee.

One of my all-time favorite stories, "The Curse of Peladon".

Now while The Doctor was completely Earth-locked in Season 7 and most of Season 8, in the Season 8 story "Colony in Space", they introduced the idea that the Time Lords might fancy using The Doctor by sending him on specific space/time journeys in his T.A.R.D.I.S. Proving that while they generally seemed to be against interference, there were also apparent extreme cases where they thought it wise to step in. They just weren't going to do so themselves, so they'd send that meddlesome Doctor instead.

They did this again twice in Season 9, including one of my personal favorite Doctor Who stories of all time, "The Curse of Peladon". The Doctor and Jo Grant find themselves shunted off into the future, but to the relatively primitive, medieval type planet of Peladon. The Doctor, being nosey as usual, winds up putting them in a position where they have to pretend to be official representatives from Earth, as the Galactic Federation, a joint force of many alien races, decide whether to admit Peladon into its ranks. It's a great story, with a nice mix of medieval superstition and futuristic science fiction, and a dash of political intrigue as well. Not to mention a nice return, and even surprising evolution of the classic Second Doctor villains, the Martian "Ice Warriors".

Three Doctors, one story.

Another of my favorite episodes, once again saw The Doctor shunted off to another time and place, but this time, he was joined by his two previous incarnations, in the first story arc of Season 10, "The Three Doctors". This kind of thing would be done again, but at the time, I'm sure it was a huge deal to see all three original Doctors in one place (well, relatively speaking). The First Doctor, unfortunately, by 1973 was too old and ill to really have an active role, so instead, he appeared via a "Time Transmission" of sorts, meaning that his part was basically recorded separately, and Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee had to react to it. It's still nice that William Hartnell himself got one last appearance and bow for Who fans, before his death in 1975. And seeing the Second and Third Doctors play off of each other, one the "Cosmic Clown" and the other a "Gentleman Dandy", is really a lot of fun. Not to mention The Brigadier's reaction when he has to deal with both of them.

But the one major development to come out of "The Three Doctors", besides the spectacle of the different actors together, was the fact that as a reward for helping them save the universe from the mad Time Lord Omega, the Time Lord council finally decide to free the block they had put on The Doctor, once again leaving him free to explore the galaxy as he saw fit. Or at least, as his wonky T.A.R.D.I.S. randomly allowed him to. Even though he was now free to get the hell off of 1970s Earth again, as he frequently bemoaned, The Doctor did still continue to work with U.N.I.T. from time to time, when he wasn't off on some other world. So in the later Jon Pertwee seasons, you got a nice mix of the more traditional "Doctor popping up all over time and space" stories, as well as the occasional "Meanwhile, back on Earth" U.N.I.T. based story as well.

Good ol' Bessie.

One of the signature trademarks of Jon Pertwee's Doctor, was that perhaps more-so than any of the other Doctors before him or since, he was the consummate Inventor. Since he couldn't travel the stars, and hated being stuck on primitive 20th Century Earth, he was constantly tinkering with something or another, and his tinkering not only helped U.N.I.T. face various threats, but he also came up with some rather cool and useful inventions. He was also rather fond of telling people they needed to "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow", which for some reason became something of a trademark "saying" of his, with slight variations.

One of the most iconic of his inventions, was his beloved "Bessie", a classic "Edwardian Roadster" model car, that he had souped up to be able to travel at incredibly high speeds. The effect of him driving this old-timey car super fast could be comical, but it added to the overall charm and class of the Third Doctor. He was immensely fond of Bessie, and became very cross if she was ever damaged. Late in his run, Pertwee's Doctor even built a futuristic, winged silver flying car, which was dubbed by Pertwee himself "The Whomobile" (unofficially). As a cool bit of trivia, this vehicle, which was basically a one-man hovercraft, was not originally made for the show, but was actually commissioned by Pertwee himself, and it was so cool they wound up using it in the show.

THE Sonic Screwdriver.

Another such invention, though it had appeared before during the Second Doctor's run, was the so-called "Sonic Screwdriver". A piece of highly advanced Time Lord tech, which The Doctor claims to have originally invented himself, Pertwee's Doctor built a new, larger one that he made more frequent use of throughout his run. In fact, his Sonic Screwdriver became so iconic, that they continued using it during Tom Baker's run, and even into the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison's run, where it was finally retired. The screwdriver could be used for a variety of effects, from disrupting equilibrium, to destructive frequencies, to hypnotism, and of course, even acting as an actual screwdriver, by sonically removing screws or bolts from doors and such. In the 80s, show runners of that era felt the tool had been used "too much" over the years, so it was retired for the rest of the decade. Though a new, more "lightsaber" looking version of it would reappear in the modern Doctor Who show.

The Doctor's third companion, Sarah Jane Smith.

At the end of Season 10, in the story arc "The Green Death", Jo Grant falls in love with an eccentric scientist, Professor Clifford Jones, who helps them face down the newest threat, and after it's all over, she chooses to leave U.N.I.T. and join him in a quieter, less life-threatening life, studying in the Amazon, in Brazil. She gets a fairly emotional sendoff, something that poor Liz Shaw deserved but didn't receive. The Doctor even later receives a letter from her, informing him that she has married Jones, and is happy and well. When Jo leaves, The Doctor, who often tries to act as if he is indifferent to his human companions (even though that's always obviously untrue), acts visibly saddened and disappointed that she won't be joining him to go explore the stars.

So at the beginning of Season 11, The Doctor, still working for U.N.I.T. somewhat, finds himself lumped in with another new companion. In the story arc "The Time Warrior", which introduces the villainous alien species the Sontarans (shown above), a British reporter, Ms. Sarah Jane Smith, has infiltrated a top secret science research facility to investigate the disappearance of several top scientists. She winds up getting shunted back into medieval times, along with The Doctor, and after surviving their adventure together, winds up sticking around U.N.I.T. as his newest assistant, even though she is hardly a scientist (to be fair, Jo really wasn't either). Sarah Jane would be one of the longest tenured companions of the series, lasting over three seasons, and spanning two Doctors.

One of my favorite Dalek stories.

Of course, the most famous Doctor Who villain/monster of all time, easily, are the Daleks. Spawning back from their original appearance in the second story arc of the First Doctor, these odd, robotic-speaking, "pepper-pot" looking, cyclopean mecha-terrors, became immensely popular with fans. So much so, that the First Doctor faced them in three different stories, one of which being the now mostly-lost twelve (technically thirteen) episode epic, "The Daleks' Master Plan". They would appear twice against the Second Doctor, again in story arcs where most if not all episodes are lost thanks to the BBC's negligence.

The Third Doctor was no different, of course. In fact, every single one of the original seven Doctors had at least one Dalek story. While Jon Pertwee sadly, for whatever reason, never faced the Cybermen during his run, he did wind up having a total of three (technically four) Dalek story arcs of his own. And while they're all pretty good, one of them, to me, stands head and shoulders above the rest. In Pertwee's final season, in 1974, he along with companion Sarah Jane, faced off against the mechanical monsters in the ominously titled "Death to the Daleks". My three favorite Dalek stories, are the First Doctor stories "The Daleks" and "The Chase", and this Third Doctor story. In it, the Doctor and Sarah Jane try to head for his beloved Metebelis 3 for vacation, but are instead drawn to the seemingly dead world of Exxilon. They discover (future) humans and Daleks have crash-landed there as well, as it turns out the ancient abandoned city on the planet, has a tower that powers the city itself by drawing energy from everywhere around it, even out into space. The Doctor and the humans form an uneasy alliance with the Daleks, as the monsters are rendered relatively powerless without their death rays, while the Doctor tries to solve the mystery of the ancient city.

Such nasty little buggers.

By 1974, however, after five seasons, Jon Pertwee too, was becoming tired of the role, most especially after the death of his friend Roger Delgado. It is entirely possible that he may well have chosen to do at least one more season in 1975, or even beyond, but Roger's death, I think, really stole away a lot of the life and fun of the role for him. He and Delgado were so great on screen together, playing off of each other wonderfully, always ever in the throes of their mental chess match. Delgado's Master would likely have made at least a couple more appearances, perhaps for all we know, even some half-planned epic final encounter between the two Time Lords, before Pertwee's time was done.

But his sudden death obviously cut any of that short, and thus The Master just abruptly disappeared after his turn in Season 10's "Frontier in Space", and he never reappeared again during the Third Doctor's run. The Master would indeed resurface, first as a weird looking ghoul, trying desperately to hang on after running out of regenerations, and later taking the form of another character, during the Fourth Doctor. And he would reappear again in the 80s, and again in the new 2000s series. But it has never been the same. Roger Delgado WAS The Master, regenerations be damned, and that dude owned that role for sure.

So even with a new companion on board, and his Doctor free to explore space to his heart's content, Jon Pertwee's incredibly popular incarnation of The Doctor was wrapping up. In May and half of June 1974, his final six-episode story played out. Entitled "Planet of the Spiders", The Doctor found himself having to go up against the evil of ancient psychic spiders from another world, Metebelis 3 in fact, who are bent on conquering Earth and other worlds. He winds up sacrificing himself, becoming poisoned while fighter their leader, The Great One, and he arrives back at U.N.I.T. base, with just enough energy to say goodbye before dying and regenerating into the infamous Tom Baker, The Fourth Doctor.

A tearful farewell.

 After experiencing all of his adventures, what I came to learn, and to love, about Jon Pertwee's Doctor, is that he was a man of complexity and balance. He was, in many ways, the most active and "action based" Doctor of the original series. He was very "James Bond-esque" in his dapper gentleman's manner, and while he, like any GOOD depiction of The Doctor, loathed fighting and killing, he was armed with what he called "Venusian Aikido", and rarely hesitated to use it when he needed to. He was, in that way, the most "kick ass" Doctor. But he was also incredibly thoughtful, as well as previously mentioned, a great inventor. He was, visually, inspired very much by Sherlock Holmes, in fact I think his outfits may well have come from Pertwee's own private collection.

The Third Doctor is my favorite, because not only are his stories, in general, the most well rounded (some are better than others, but there are none I dislike), but Pertwee's depiction of The Doctor, as this "Wise Silverfox" who can act cantankerous, but really loves people, is to me, THE defining depiction of The Doctor. He embodies a perfect balance of everything the character is supposed to be all about. Impossibly and eternally curious, often to his own detriment, often laughably eccentric and even arrogant, but also very affable and noble. His quick wit, his "very British" charm, the gentle but deceptively dangerous "old gentleman". His grounding on Earth for the first good chunk of his run, and his connection to U.N.I.T. as well as his companions, in some ways also serves to make him the most "humanized" Doctor.

I still love Tom Baker, and really, I love all of the first four Doctors. I even like, in varying degrees, the three 80s Doctors, Peter Davison, Colin Baker (no relation) and Sylvester McCoy, even though I feel that the series started to go downhill in that final decade. The 70s were, to me, unquestionably the height of the show's brilliance and greatness. Tom Baker brought a fresh and different energy, but while he is THE classic Doctor that anyone ever bothers to think of anymore, and his run, until near the end, was rather iconic, people also forget that Jon Pertwee's Doctor was incredibly popular, and his seasons put the show over the top in the first place. He built the foundation, you could argue, that allowed Baker and all following Doctors to succeed and thrive from. The show grew from a fun curiosity with the first two Doctors, to a British phenomenon and a household name with a worldwide audience in the 1970s. And Pertwee helped build that, he kicked it off.

Forever the best, at least to me.

Jon Pertwee would go on to success outside of Doctor Who, specifically in the family show "Worzel Gummidge" in the 1980s. But he would return to the role twice, once in the 1983 special "The Five Doctors", and one final time as a special, non-cannon appearance in the 30th Anniversary charity special "Dimensions in Time" in 1993. He also played the role on stage, and reprised the character for several BBC audio-stories. Pertwee died in May 1996, at the age of 76. He passed away before the release of the ill-fated, American produced Eighth Doctor movie (the only real appearance the poor bastard got), which is probably just as well he never had to see it.

During The Third Doctor's five seasons, many new and even long-standing Who elements were added, such as the improved Sonic Screwdriver, the art of Venusian Aikido, the more fleshed out integration of the U.N.I.T. organization, and the introduction of beloved characters like The Master, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and Sarah Jane Smith. And many monsters, such as the Sontarans, the Silurians, the Sea Devils, the Autons, etc. came into being. His run also saw the return of the Daleks after nearly five years, as the creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation, flirted with the idea of selling the monsters rights to some American company. Imagine how shitty it would have been to NOT have Daleks as part of Doctor Who anymore. Good looking out, Terry.

Pressure points are some serious shit.

I think my only regrets about The Third Doctor, are obviously first and foremost that Roger Delgado died, and secondly, that he should have had at least one Cybermen story, but never did. Outside of that though, I would be willing to say that, top to bottom, beginning to end, Jon Pertwee's run as the beloved Doctor, was the most even, and the most steady. Tom Baker's follow-up act was filled with many highs, such as his opening story "Robot", or the season long arc "The Key to Time". But it also had more uneven lows, such as quite frankly most of his final two seasons (1980 and 1981). To me at least, Pertwee's run didn't really have any major lows or dips. All of the stories were at least solid, and some of them, I would say, are some of the very best Doctor Who stories ever told.

In closing, if you've never seen old Doctor Who at all, or just never seen any Third Doctor episodes, I'd personally tell you that you were missing out, and should definitely check them out. All of Jon Pertwee, and most of Tom Baker's runs are really worth watching, and I would even go so far as to say that while the show budget and special effects weren't what they could have been or deserved to be, the stories and acting were usually top notch, and far better, in this man's opinion, than anything the modern show has produced.

While I would honestly recommend watching all five seasons of his entire run, some of my very favorite Third Doctor stories that I would highly recommend are (in chronological order):

Spearhead from Space

The Silurians


Terror of the Autons

The Curse of Peladon

The Sea Devils

The Three Doctors

Carnival of Monsters

The Green Death

The Time Warrior

Death to the Daleks

Planet of the Spiders

So with that, I'll bid you all farewell. Make sure to check out some Third Doctor, and classic Doctor Who in general! Spread the word! 

Roger Delgado (1918-1973) and Jon Pertwee (1919-1996)