It can be hard to explain the appeal of “Doctor Who” to people who don’t already love it. The show is science fiction, in a broad sense, but where most science fiction cultivates an aura of plausibility, “Doctor Who” is so zany that just following the plot means becoming a fan. In one episode, the Doctor is helping Kylie Minogue survive an attack on an interstellar cruise ship; in another, he’s going up against an army of headless monks from the fifty-second century. As Jill Lepore explained in her recent magazine story on the history of “Doctor Who,” the Doctor, a two-hearted Time Lord from the planet Galifrey, can “regenerate,” changing his appearance and temperament. Over nearly eight hundred episodes, he’s been played by eleven different actors.
Amidst this infinite variety, the show is held together by its outsized emotionalism. Loosened up by the weirdness of the story, you often find yourself misty-eyed over one of the Doctor’s mournful, inspirational speeches. “Doctor Who” is, essentially, a sad show—the Doctor lives forever, while his companions, to whom one gets attached, must age and die—but it’s also about discovery and surprise. In its best moments, the characters, filmed in close-up, weep and shout, transformed by sadness, wonder, or joy.
The mood at The Way Station was ebullient. The place was jammed, and everyone was taking pictures of each other in their costumes. Kristin Sirota had come dressed in the Scottish sexy-cop outfit worn by one of the show’s heroines, Amelia Pond, in her début episode. (The police vest, she said, was “actually from Scotland.”) Tiffany Knight, an actress, and John Paterakis, a retired banker, arrived as the tenth and fourth Doctors, respectively; a number of other women looked like the glamorous River Song, a space archaeologist who, in an affecting plot from 2008, married the Doctor—a good thing, except that they were moving in opposite directions in time, and were therefore never quite in sync. (“You know when you see a photograph of someone, but it’s from years before you knew them?” Song explains. “He came when I called, just like he always does, but he’s not ‘my’ Doctor.”) A girl in a statue costume was doing an admirable job of impersonating one of the show’s “weeping angels”—creatures that look like statues until you look away. She turned out to be a professional, working around the city as “the Living Statue Galatea.”
Even the cocktails were “Who”-related: I had a sonic screwdriver—that’s what the Doctor calls his signature multi-tool—and a Captain Jack, named after Captain Jack Harkness, a sexually irresistible fellow-traveller of the Doctor’s who, a few years ago, got his own spin-off show, “Torchwood.” “Nice jacket,” someone told me, snapping a picture. (My everyday clothes, it turns out, look a little like the Doctor’s.)
Andy Heidel, who runs The Way Station, used to work in sci-fi book publishing. He leased the space without really investigating the interior; once he got inside, he realized that the toilet was located right next to the bar, and wasn’t enclosed in a separate bathroom. “Let’s build a TARDIS!” a friend suggested, referring to the Doctor’s time machine, which looks, from the outside, like an old British police box. (Famously, it’s bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.) It was a fateful decision. Laurel Dagrosa, a baker and “Doctor Who” fan, said that she’d discovered the bar when, walking down Washington Avenue, she spied the TARDIS through the window. “I saw it, and I just started jumping up and down,” she recalled. For the anniversary event, Dagrosa had baked a TARDIS-shaped cake, as well as dozens of Jammy Dodgers—the Doctor’s favorite cookie—which were circulating on trays. The bar, Heidel said, hosts screenings on Sundays, and it’s similarly packed for season premières and finales. (On Sunday, he plans to hold repeat screenings, at two, four, and six.) Heidel said that he’d hold off on really watching the episode until later, when he could concentrate.
As the bartenders drew the blinds, the crowd started an enthusiastic countdown—”Three! Two! One!”—to the start of the show; they cheered during the episode’s most exhilirating moments, including a conversation between three different versions of the Doctor, played by Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt, which took place in the Tower of London.
And yet the silliness in “Doctor Who” often serves as a counterweight to the show’s humanistic gravity. Watching everyone’s upturned faces, what struck you most was their seriousness. The most recent episodes of “Doctor Who” have been dark and sombre. When we last saw him, the Doctor was forced to travel far into the future, so that he could break into his own tomb. (“How can you have a grave?” one of his companions asks. “We all do, somewhere out there in the future,” he replies, “and the trouble with time travel is that you can actually end up visiting.”) Many of the best “Doctor Who” episodes are on the theme of memento mori, which, from H. G. Wells onward, has always been an aspect of time travel. In the previous episode, the Doctor’s tomb hadn’t contained a body but a glowing shape, floating in mid-air: “My personal time-tunnel,” he says. “All the days.” When I asked the Whovians in attendance about their favorite episodes, they almost always cited the saddest ones: Tiffany Knight, the actress, mentioned an episode in which the Doctor, to save the life of a friend, must erase all of her memories of their friendship. “It was heartbreaking,” she said.
“The Day of the Doctor” turned out to be serious, too. It revolved around the use of a genocidal weapon by the Time Lords—possibly, even, by the Doctor himself—against their mortal enemies, the Daleks, a race of fascist maniacs whose rallying cry is “Exterminate!” This weapon, we were told, was so powerful that it had become self-aware. “How do you use a weapon of ultimate mass destruction,” one character asks, “when it can pass judgment on you?” The room was silent—not a single sonic screwdriver whirred. That’s the genius of “Doctor Who”: in it, silliness and seriousness, death and vitality, the ludicrous and the real are all squeezed together. It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.