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'Doctor Who' class notes: What I learned about the TARDIS, the Daleks and 1963 television

Syracuse Post-Standard culture reporter, Katrina Tulloch, offers "class notes" coverage of Who Class with key takeaways from the first public offering of the course in the spring of 2015.

Tulloch writes:

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Remember that "Doctor Who" in the Digital Age class offered for free at Syracuse University? It started last night. And I'm in it.

Professor Anthony Rotolo calls the spring 2015 offering a "Doctor Who (Un)Class" because it's not an official college course. In October, both SU students and members of the Central New York community were invited to enroll, free of charge. Students could register the course as an independent study to receive academic credit if approved by their advisors and departments.

"I do hope to make this an official course for SU credit in the future," Rotolo told last year.

The three-hour lectures cover both classic and recent episodes of "Doctor Who," with discussions and analysis of the history, evolution and cultural impact of the long-running British science fiction series.

Two hundred people (about half SU students, half non-students) could enroll in the live class in Syracuse, but thousands of online students from all around the world follow along and participate in the class discussions via Twitter and Google+.

Doctor Who in the Digital Age: Class 1

The course is named "Doctor Who in the Digital Age" because our current technology lets us stream and binge-watch and look things up anything about the "Who" universe online. With the ability to instantly revisit stories and connect the dots from decade to decade, we have all the knowledge we want at our fingertips.

"We can do what only the Doctor could," said Rotolo, on the first night of class. "We're time-traveling."

As a social media expert, Rotolo knew how to kick things off with some buzz. Syracuse University's music group, Otto Tunes, made an excellent surprise cameo with an a cappella rendition of the "Doctor Who" theme song. Check it out below.

Each weekly class consists of a lecture, at least one screening and discussion of the screenings in real-time on Twitter as we watch. Anyone can follow the class on Twitter with the hashtag #WhoClass. However, we lucky 200 were spoiled with a TARDIS cake and British cookies (sorry, biscuits) called Digestives.

Every week, I'll post a few cool things I learned in the "Doctor Who" class, for the pop culture junkies and Whovians out there. Geronimo!

1963 television

The BBC needed an action show to compete with ITV. When "Doctor Who" first aired on the BBC in 1963, the moon landing hadn't yet taken place. "War of the Worlds" offered the most common depiction of aliens in pop culture and any action on TV was rare.

"TV was in black and white and scenes were slow, typically done in one take," Rotolo told the class. "There was very little action, very little to stir up people's sensibilities."

For reference, Rotolo showed clips from shows on air in 1963, like "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Gunsmoke" in the U.S.

Like PBS, Rotolo explained, the BBC was meant to educate the masses, and their programming reflected that mission. When ITV started airing sexy, action-packed programming (think Emma Peel of "The Avengers" sporting a skin-tight leather catsuit), it captivated British viewers. Particularly male viewers.

The BBC needed to compete with these attention-grabbing crime shows, so they hired Canadian producer Sydney Newman to create a new, family program to capture the imaginations of the TV-viewing public.

TARDIS namesake

It stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space.

On the first day of class, we watched the first episode of "Doctor Who," featuring William Hartnell, who played The Doctor from 1963 to 1966.

"He's not the First Doctor; he's just The Doctor," Rotolo reminded us. "You can't compare him to anyone else. He's the only person who never had a point of reference for his character."

In the pilot episode, we learned the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan Foreman, named the TARDIS (the iconic police box which travels through space and time). It stands for "Time and Relative Dimension in Space."

"Doctor Who" quickly nailed the crux of what made it so successful: a juxtaposition of the very familiar and the very mysterious.

Among the "Who" episodes were "historicals," or adventure scenarios which played out in the context of a real historical moment. In our first class, we saw the Doctor bring his TARDIS and companions back to the American Old West, for example. More on that in another class and another post.

Doctor Who's nemeses, The Daleks

The Daleks reflect The U.K.'s post-WW2 fears of fascism.

The merciless Daleks have endured as the ultimate villain in the "Who" universe for more than 50 years, perhaps because their fascist ideology resonated with the British people at a sensitive time in their history.

"1963 England was very different from 1963 America," Rotolo said. "Yes there's counterculture, but the U.K remembered World War Two very differently."

Two words: The Blitz. The United Kingdom sustained regular bombings from the Nazis for many months but never surrendered. As a result, the U.K. believed long after the war ended that fascism would emerge if citizens didn't actively fend it off.

Daleks embody zealous racism, fascism and nationalism, choosing to "Extreminate!" anyone who challenges their beliefs and progress. That's pretty scary for a nation still nursing its wounds from a similar threat.

The Daleks also crystallized the "Doctor Who" monster as a creature much bigger in story than in budget. In television history, Rotolo explained, the show's been known for bad special effects, but nothing beats a strong story and complicated characters.

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