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What if Doctor Who Stopped JFK's Assassination?

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Doctor Who is turning 50, this week, just in time for the adventuring Time Lord to save JFK while glibly reversing the polarity of the neutron flow.

Don't scoff. Why not?

After all, the Doctor's iconic police box ship, the TARDIS, moves in space and time. Therefore, it may shift easily back from its television debut, just one day, only a few hours really. To Dallas. To Dealey Plaza.

To the Grassy Knoll.

JFK was killed (as everyone this week must know) on Nov 22, 1963. Only one day before the Doctor's debut. So what better way for the longest-running science-fiction serial of all time to celebrate the half-centennial of its first broadcast than to break from its Time War-watch-out-for-the-Daleks focus to intervene directly in the fate of the American nation that is responsible for so much of its global success?

It's simple. The Doctor, or one of his many companions -- a robot dog, a flight attendant, a shopgirl -- need only talk the rifle from Oswald's arms with the help of a friendly Ood servant. This works because Oswald is not Oswald -- but a Cyberman, upgraded by the Russians to complete his world-altering mission -- while there is still something of the human inside him. Cue the Sonic Screwdriver pointing at the motorcade in place of the carbine rifle.

We'll have to wait until Saturday, although I am not banking on this intervention. From what I can tell, Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary episode "The Day of the Doctor" promises serious fanboy-service in the epic pairing of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors (David Tennant and Matt Smith, respectively), who in publicity stills for this Saturday's meeting, for differentiation, conveniently sports differently styled suits. There is no obvious reference to JFK.

That's because Smith and Tennant are too jocular for the job. After all, an historical intervention on this scale requires a certain demeanor. Thus far, there have been eleven on-screen Doctors (yes, I know about John Hurt), with the Twelfth (Peter Capaldi) soon to take over. Each Doctor is the same, although completely different from the others.

The First Doctor, William Hartnell, may be the best choice. The First Doctor is no action hero, and he's not even remotely nerdy-yet-dapper (see Smith and Tennant). Instead, he's stony enough to bust right through the holes in the Warren Commission report. He's no almost-bald-headed action punk like Christopher Eccleston (#9), no cricket-playing, celery stalk -wearing (neo-colonialist?) like Peter Davidson (#5) no curly-headed scarf-wearing crazy man like my favorite Tom Baker (#4).

No, the first Doctor is irascible, difficult, and at times nasty.

He's a figure for the immediate post-Kennedy world: You trust him only as much as you trust the government... and he's doesn't have much use for making you feel better.

And if BBC America's almost-constant Doctor Who-related programming this week tells us anything, it's that we know how to celebrate the Doctor. But how do we celebrate the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination? Show the Zapruder film to the kids? This "milestone" promises an onslaught of specials, commemorations, and exploitations. Writing cogently-but-salaciously about the "overkill," Entertainment Weekly Senior Writer Jeff Jensen offers this: "But personally, I can't get it up for this anniversary." I'm not sure I want to know what captures Jensen's erotic interests, but has he considered the possibility that the First Doctor may set America right again?

For research, the First Doctor could stop first at the Chicago History Museum, which currently has the Emancipation Proclamation on display. Well, not "the Emancipation Proclamation," but one of 26 surviving signed copies (of an original 48) known to exist. Each is a copy of the "original" at the National Archives, and each, although the same, is of course materially different from the others.

An earlier Emancipation Proclamation, the final draft manuscript prepared by Lincoln, burned in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Blame Mrs. O'Leary's cow...although the Fifth Doctor was involved in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The National Archives in Washington, D.C. has the "original" reference above, which is the document from January 1, 1963, and in some senses not the original at all.

Of course it wouldn't take the TARDIS to confirm that since 1789, there have been 44 Presidents of the United States. Each is the same--all men, 43/44 white men--and each is of course completely different from all the others. Perhaps not "completely?" FDR, by some reports, is (distantly) related, by blood and marriage, to 19 other Presidents aside from Teddy; George Washington boasts 23 "cousins" in the White House. In fact, only twelve Presidents are unrelated to any others.

On some level my father, stricken with terminal brain cancer, knows these things. He doesn't watch Doctor Who (I get that from my mother), but he travels in the time and space of his 66 years with the frenetic mental wheezing of the TARDIS engines.

He recalls to me a segment on CBS "Sunday Morning" about JFK and Jackie. He speaks in gap-toothed English, in aphasic exasperation, recalling the famous Jackie O. television-special tour of the White House on February 14, 1962, with Charles Collingwood of CBS News. Jackie spoke, my dad remembers, with eloquence and knowledge about the interior space she came to occupy so young. My father is wistful in this recollection, remembering his youth and her beauty, and traveling once more, recursively, to the nostalgic court of Camelot that television has been reminding him about, again and again, ever since November 22, 1963.

The TARDIS, were it here, might remind me that it's not where you were when Kennedy was shot... it's where you are while as you remember where you were, when Kennedy was shot.

The First Doctor knows this, for he travels too in the absences between words. Hartnell would at times flub his lines, in part due to arteriosclerosis. The in-story explantation bears its own logic: He's too smart and therefore becomes tongue tied. Dubbed "Billy Fluffs" by fans, these moments interrupt the production while conversely moving it forward: "I see you haven't heard the nerr--the news yet" (Season 1 / "The Reign of Terror"). This allows the show to avoid costly reshoots for Hartnell's regular word tripping.

The First Doctor regenerates into the second, Patrick Troughton, in 1966 ("The Tenth Planet"), establishing that the Doctor will always live again. What if the same were true for American history? In the excellent faux-documentary Confederate States of America (2004), we see an aged Abraham Lincoln spared his assassination. He is 1905, aged 96, and exiled to Canada, the loser in what came to be known as "The War of Northern Aggression." He sits in the faded space of a fake D.W. Griffith film The Hunt for Dishonest Abe. This is Lincoln's last take in alternate history. There are no reshoots.

Given all of this, Kennedy could still be alive now, if only the TARDIS has arrived a day earlier. Can you hear the wheezing of its ancient engines as the motorcade appears in Dealey Plaza, making a right turn onto Houston Street from Main? Kennedy would be 96 as well, perhaps whispering about Obamacare to senior government officials, or exchanging Tweets with Fidel Castro.

And so the Eleventh Doctor, on Saturday, will meet his earlier self, the Tenth, and no doubt express surprise and worry over such a time-crossing convergence. The vast audience, all swimming in their own oceanic time-streams, will nonetheless delight in their meeting; they will marvel in the communion of their companions Rose (Tenth) and Clara (Eleventh)--their Jackie O's--who will perhaps stare starry-eyed into the time vortex of this historic occasion while gazing deeply into the eyes of their Doctors.

Come Saturday, you'll know where to find me. I'll be watching, but I'm no fanboy.

I'm interested in the way these things never quite come together, in the way history never really changes, and how nothing of import may ever be reversed.

I'll speak to my father about the anniversary of Kennedy's death, and while he opines in his Billy Fluffs about Oswald and Jack Ruby and the once-so-beautiful Jackie O., I'll look everywhere I can -- on television, and even in his bedroom -- for a TARDIS that will never appear.

History may be filled with reshoots, as Doctor Who well knows, but only on television.