The Twelve Doctors of Christmas

The Mystery of the Cosmic Hobo (or, Bow Ties Are Cool!)

This is a post in the Twelve Doctors of Christmas series. Click the link to peruse the entire series.

In 1974, my mother handed me a book saying, “I thought you’d like to try one of the old ones.” The book was called Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, and it had the single greatest cover I’d ever seen in my young life. Against the backdrop of planet Earth, a giant, weird furry creature with fangs and eerily glowing green eyes menaced a young woman and man in a kilt. Over this was superimposed a black-and-white portrait of the Second Doctor, as played by Patrick Troughton. I knew he was the Second Doctor because I’d seen him on TV about a year previously, when he and the First Doctor had returned to help the Third Doctor out in the tenth anniversary story “The Three Doctors.” I’d really liked him then—he was kind, funny and sharp, a little man with an expressive face dressed in baggy, clownish clothes. There was something of the naughty schoolboy about him that I could relate to—he was a misfit whose charm hinted at great wisdom. He listened, but you wanted and waited to know what he had to say.

I grew up in the U.K. and in those days, when the BBC operated a policy of one-time only broadcasts for most of their shows, the only way of reliving old Doctor Who stories was through the novelizations published by Target Books. To fans of my generation, this made Doctor Who both a literary and televisual phenomenon: I collected and consumed these slim little volumes, reading them over and over again. The Abominable Snowmen was the first of the Second Doctor stories to be published and I adored it. In my mind’s eye, it became a cinematic experience, a snowbound alien invasion action adventure that took place in the unlikely setting of the Himalayas. At the center of it was the Second Doctor, the improbable, Chaplinesque hero, a little man who saved the day by encouraging his companions to think, not just fight.

The Second Doctor also had a faintly Machiavellian side. He kept both enemies and allies off-balance by pretending to be daft, deliberately leading them to underestimate his abilities. It was sleight-of-hand behavior that disguised an analytical yet ultimately humane persona, all in the service of defeating “things which act against everything we believe in.” By modern terms, he was an enabler, indirect in his methods but not in a manipulative way—not all the time, anyway. He listened to all the good ideas around him and by chivvying and encouraging the oppressed peoples that he encountered, he mobilized them into defeating evil. He was not a leader exactly, more a catalyst for good and Troughton was superb at conveying these different aspects to the character, by turns befuddled, beguiling and brilliant.

Like I said, when I was a kid in the U.K., if you missed an episode of your favorite TV show, that was it—shows weren’t rerun in syndication. Episodes vanished forever into the void, never to be seen again. In the case of Troughton’s Doctor, this was especially true as, shortly after broadcast, the BBC unceremoniously wiped a large number of his episodes. Why? They reckon they didn’t have the space to store them, they had no archival policy and besides, the master videotapes were expensive and could be used again.

Doctor Who and the Subway of Evil by Nick AbadzisWhile this sounds like an act of cultural vandalism, it was common practice for TV stations around the world. Fortunately, over the years various overseas channels that bought Doctor Who have returned copies of some stories to BBC vaults. That’s why we’re able to see classics like “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” It’s sad though that serials like “The Web of Fear” (the sequel to the “Abominable Snowmen” episode), “The Evil of the Daleks,” and “Fury From the Deep” are, bar the odd episode, gone. There are excellent fan reconstructions from off-air audio soundtrack recordings, telesnaps, and other photographic material but it’s not quite the same as viewing original TV episodes. In a weird way though, not having those stories adds to the mystery of the Second Doctor, for whom I never lost my fascination and affection. I can always have a widescreen version of his adventures when I read those old Target Books.

The Second Doctor was magnificent. Echoes of his captivating manner can be found in current TARDIS incumbent Matt Smith’s splendid performance—and in Smith’s costume too—note the bow tie. “Bow ties are cool.” Troughton’s performance revitalized the show, his era pioneering so much that we take for granted about it these days—bases under siege, Time Lords, regeneration. Indeed, if Troughton’s incarnation hadn’t been successful, there’d be no Doctor Who today. We owe it to him for making it all work so superbly. Treasure and delight in the cosmic hobo.

Nick Abadzis won an Eisner Award for Best Teen Graphic Novel in 2008 with his work Laika, a story about the Russian puppy who ended up becoming the world’s first space traveler. He has an extensive bibliography of comic strips, graphic novels, and children’s books, and is a big fan of the Doctor Who. (Keep an eye on his post for a special visual treat!)


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