Depending on which school of thought one subscribes to, man has walked the Earth for anywhere from just over 2,000 years to 4.5 billion years, give or take an epoch or two.
To fully appreciate the profundity (yes, this is an actual word) of events to be told in this column, an ancient time in man’s history must be revisited — a time predating modern technologies or conveniences, a time before equalities and understandings between peoples, when the human race lived in fear of the unknown, and lived in the dark shadows of superstition.
Okay, it was 1975.
John Ehrlichman was found guilty of the Watergate cover-up, Margaret Thatcher defeated Edward Heath for the leadership of the opposition UK Conservative Party, Bobby Fischer refused to play in a chess match against Anatoly Karpov, the Vietnam War ended with the capture of Saigon, and U.S. President Gerald Ford survived an assassination attempt.
Also in 1975, I turned 10 years old, not the most stressful of ages, but one which concern me, as my age now had two digits (10) instead of just one (9). I remember thinking to myself that if this pattern continued, by the time I turned 20, I’d be 100.
But I digress...
In those dark days that were 1975, there were essentially four channels to be watched on the television — ABC, CBS, NBC, and for the more cultured television watcher, PBS.
It was on PBS where I came across some of the more interesting programs I’d seen up to that point. Specifically, PBS’ Saturday night line up, which boasted a collection of British imports, which ranged from underground to the obscure.
Among these were “The Goodies,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and a curiousity called “Doctor Who.”
While “Goodies” and “Python” were sketch comedies, along the lines of “Saturday Night Live,” “Doctor Who” was something completely different.
In a nutshell, “Doctor Who” was a serialized soap opera in space about an alien — known simply as “The Doctor” — who traveled around the universe, running into trouble or encountering some kind of villainy which he would then go about fighting and, usually, triumphing.
His ship (known as the TARDIS) was normally capable of changing shapes to better blend into its environment (not unlike a chameleon), although it was stuck in the shape of an old blue police box, common in Britain in the early and mid-20th Century.
Did I mention it travels in time?
Needless to say, the ambition of the show was great. The execution, however, not so much, frequently playing out like camp, but it was fun camp. To my 10-year-old self, it brought to my home the wonder other eras and worlds, as well as offering a haven for my fertile imagination.
The lead actor at the time was Tom Baker, who could have been the illegitimate twin brother of Harpo Marx. Baker was the fourth actor in the role, as one trait of the alien character was his ability to “regenerate” when he was severely injured, allowing another actor to step into the role (a handy little plot device, which has allowed the series to continue, despite the departure of its leading men. James Bond should have had such a clever explanation as to why the main character changed his face).
Over the years, actors came and went, and the series went off the air in 1989, it was Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy who was playing the Doctor.
In 2005, the series was brought back to life with new actors, new production values and a wholly new look, gaining a popularity it had never fully realized before, with youthful actor Matt Smith now in the role, the 12th actor to play the Doctor.
As enjoyable as the new series is, the old series — now called the “classic” series — still held a warm place in my heart, having been one of the fonder parts of my otherwise uncertain childhood.
Late last week, I received an e-mail from a friend who told me he’d heard that one of the actors from the old series — Sylvester McCoy himself, in fact — was in Tulsa for the week. McCoy was to be the guest of honor at a dinner sponsored by the University of Oklahoma Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture, and co-sponsored by Tulsa Global Alliance.
I should mention that last year, McCoy was in Oklahoma, which I found out after the fact in ways more frustrating than can be fully expressed here.
Rarely has the phrase, “So near and yet so far” been so applicable.
This year, however, I played it cool, telling myself not to get my hopes up, that this was another instance where it would be nice to meet the Doctor, but probably unlikely.
Until HE came to Claremore, that is.
Like the Doctor, McCoy is insatiably curious by nature.
He wanted to take in some of the uniqueness of northeastern Oklahoma, so he was brought to and toured the Will Rogers Memorial and the J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum.
Finally, the Doctor was in my town and I had the home-field advantage — he was literally minutes away from me, which would have been perfect, had I not found this out the day AFTER he was in Claremore.
Again, so near and yet so far, and I must confess, this one hurt.
Even so, this near-miss (and the encouragement of my lovely wife, Lisa) was enough to convince me that if he was this close, I was obligated to at least TRY to meet him, which for two days thereafter, seemed quite unlikely.
Unlikely, but not impossible.
By Wednesday, I’d secured a spot at the dinner where McCoy was to be honored, and at where he was to be named an honorary citizen of Tulsa. After this, I was to be given time to interview him.
Given my near-misses involving him, both last year and just days earlier, I was dubious about whether or not the evening would unfold the way I had in mind, and it didn’t.
It unfolded even better.
From the moment McCoy arrived, he mingled amongst those gathered, chatting happily, and genuinely listening when people would speak, making himself available whenever asked to pose for photographs or to sign his autograph.
Dinner itself was pretty much as any such dinner goes, although I was seated at the “fun” table, with a few teachers from Booker T. Washington and members of Tulsa Global Alliance.
When McCoy took the podium, he instantly commanded the room.
For the next 45 minutes, the charismatic, impish actor recounted the story of his life, from his childhood in Dunoon, Scotland to his days as a comedy actor in the “Ken Campbell Roadshow” where his stunts included setting his head on fire and putting ferrets down his trousers (no ferrets were harmed during said stunts, he reassured the audience), to his days in “Doctor Who,” his career thereafter, most recently, working on Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit.”
Needless to say, McCoy’s life was every bit as colorful and amusing as the man himself.
After this, I had him to myself, the Doctor and I, so I asked him about his recent visit to Claremore.
“Oh, it was quite grand — the museums were both quite brilliant,” McCoy said. “Being something of a spaceman myself, when I heard the (gun museum) had a disenagrator pistol from the old Buck Rogers’ serials, naturally I had to get a look.
“Great fun, that,” he said.
Of the Will Rogers Memorial, McCoy said he was “impressed and amazed,” by the museum, its collection, and especially, by Rogers himself.
“He (Rogers) was such an interesting man — the memorabilia and bits collected there from and about his life were really quite marvelous,” he said. “It was amazing, the impact he made — and to a point, still makes — for being such an unassuming gent. He had such wisdom, such common sense when many around him didn’t.
“In that way, he was so much like Mark Twain — these are magic people — to have such wit and insight about the world around them,” he said.
Unable to help myself, the 10-year-old inside of me quickly moved into the driver’s seat and took over, asking McCoy about his time on “Doctor Who,” which will unlikely be of as much interest to readers of the Progress, but which granted me immense satisfaction in a way I truly never expected.
The same thing could be said of Sylvester McCoy.
Following the dinner, McCoy assured me he would make plans to come back to Oklahoma next year “all being well.”
As for “Doctor Who,” the series marks its 50th anniversary next year, kicking off this weekend, with a new episode entitled, “Asylum of the Daleks.”
The Daleks (for those who don’t know) are a race of nasty alien beasties whose paths the Doctor frequently crosses, and whose vocabulary seems to consist primarily of the word “exterminate.”
When I was a boy, the “Doctor” came around during uncertain times in my life.
Now in my 40s’, my life was again visited — literally — by the Doctor, in just as uncertain times.
The past months have presented several personal challenges which could be summed up in two words — “life happens.”
Sometimes, this is can be good, sometimes, not so much, but like it or not, it happens.
It’s hard to put into words what it means when you’re in the midst of difficult times and you unintentionally get to meet one of the idols of your youth.
Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t have met Sylvester McCoy — the odds against it were high.
Yet, I somehow beat them and found myself conversing with the man — not the idol, not the image, but the man — who’d given me so much happiness over the last 23 years without even realizing it.
On “Doctor Who,” there are moments in time which can be changed, and moments in time which are “fixed” and destined to happen.
As silly as it sounds, getting to meet McCoy will forever be a “fixed point” in my mind — one which I’ll revisit from here on out, and an opportunity which I’ll forever be grateful to have had.