Riddle me this: What is almost 50 years old, has traveled into both outer space and the distant past, and has 22 arms?
Alright, Craven's being a bit tricky, but some of you will know the answer is "Dr. Who."
The famous British television franchise got its start in November 1963. It features a character who has explored distant galaxies and traveled to far-flung time periods in his TARDIS (a combination of spacecraft and time machine in the shape of an old-fashioned British police phone booth).
And I say Dr. Who has 22 arms because the character has been played by 11 different actors: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and the character's current player, Matt Smith. (Actually, the good doctor has been played by other actors as well, including "Star Wars"' Grand Moff Tarkin himself, Peter Cushing, who portrayed the character in a pair of British motion pictures during the 1960s. But the forementioned 11 actors are considered the "canonical" doctors.)
After almost a half-century of battling aliens, robots and other sci-fi nasties, "Dr. Who" is a venerable institution in his native U.K., and widely popular here in the U.S., too. Most Americans either came to the series in the 1970s-80s, when Tom Baker's version of the character was a staple of PBS stations, or more recently, since the series was rebooted in 2005. Because the character has been so popular over the years, it perhaps comes as no surprise that he has inspired and influenced a veritable - ahem - Dr. Who's Who of musicians.
Perhaps the best-known song inspired by Dr. Who was an unlikely dance club hit in 1988. "Doctorin' the TARDIS" was a bizarre single attributed to "the Timelords," aka "Lord Rock" and "Time Boy." Actually, the Timelords were Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, who had already achieved underground fame as the KLF. "Doctorin' the TARDIS" is an early example of a "mashup," sampling not only the Dr. Who theme, but also Gary Glitter's "Rock n' Roll Part 2" and Sweet's "Blockbuster." The song - which included the processed voice of the late "Dr. Who" veteran Roy Skelton screaming, "Exterminate!" - went to #1 on the British charts and was a popular cult hit here and elsewhere around the world.
But other well-known musicians have also leapt onto the Dr. Who bandwagon at times. In 1985, several members of the Dr. Who cast were joined by a bevy of successful British musicians, including Justin Hayward and John Lodge of the Moody Blues, to produce a charity single entitled "Doctor in Distress."
The single was produced at a time when the series faced cancellation by the BBC and was intended to create a groundswell of support to keep "Dr. Who" alive. Instead, the record floundered, received almost no airplay, and was quickly forgotten. "Dr. Who" was soon thereafter canceled.
Two years before that musical fiasco, the Human League - not yet world-famous, with their breakthrough single, "Don't You Want Me, Baby" still eight months away - recorded "Tom Baker," their ode to the fourth Doctor. And there have been many other novelty singles like "I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas With a Dalek" by the Go-Go's (not the U.S. girl band) and Mankind's disco version of the Dr. Who theme from 1978. Which just goes to show: You can't keep a good Timelord down.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.