Disclaimer (in case there are any Doctor Who fans that read this): I have only seen the first three and three-quarters seasons of the new Doctor Who, as well as the first episode of the original show. I don’t know how Matt Smith is as the titular character, but I’ve heard he’s great. Also, spoilers ahoy. I’ll try to give more obvious warning.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I am a huge geek. I say this, or some variation thereon, at least once per day, in acknowledgment of that fact, or in apology for having just gone off on a 30-minute description of my favorite Arthurian legends or the no-hair theorem. I feel no shame in admitting, therefore, that I like Star Trek, even the original series, because I have no dignity in that respect left to lose.
But also because sci-fi shows can be genuinely good. After all, a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law (which states that 90% of everything is crap) is what I like to think of as Pangloss’s Principle: 10% of everything is okay, good or even great. I would like to take this column to praise one of my personal guilty pleasures, the new BBC Doctor Who series.
I really shouldn’t feel guilty about liking this show; after all, it’s technically no nerdier/geekier than Star Trek. I guess it’s because it’s less well known in the U.S. of A: everyone knows “Beam me up, Scottie!” (which is never actually said in the original Star Trek ) and the trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but mention “the Doctor” and they’re likely to say, “Who?”
Exactly. Doctor who? This is a large part of the appeal and the premise of the longest-running science-fiction show and technically the most successful science-fiction series of all time. The show started running in 1963 (three years before Star Trek) and went until 1989, getting several movies later and finally a new series in 2005. That’s pretty impressive, considering that none of the Star Trek series had more than 7 seasons (admittedly, some of that was by choice) and the average TV show doesn’t last even that long.
Returning to the question: Doctor who? This is an overarching catchphrase, and it captures the mystery and fun of the series. The Doctor is a mysterious alien who travels around in a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space), which can go anywhere and anywhen. It can normally change its appearance to blend into its surroundings and time period, but due to a malfunction in 1960s London, it’s stuck looking like a police box. This image is iconic of the series.
The Doctor travels through time and space, sometimes sightseeing and goofing around, sometimes on purposeful missions. Either way, he always becomes mixed up in some problem wherever he visits and tries to right whatever wrong caused it. He’s not alone, though: he generally has one or two humans on board (generally called companions by the fans) that help him out. His tool of choice is a sonic screwdriver, which basically acts as a combination lockpick/electronics fixer or jammer/whatever it needs to do.
Seriously though, you might ask if you were actually interested (it’s ok if you aren’t, just skip to the last paragraph), who is this guy? Well, SPOILERS AHOY, dear reader, I will explain.
One of things that makes the Doctor so interesting is his mystery. He’s more than 900 years old, but never reveals more than a few snippets of his life to anyone at any one time. Most notably, nobody knows his name. [Except a character named River Song, who tells him his name to get him to trust her. As it turns out, they’ve met in her past, but his future (one of the problems with being a time traveler) and apparently had some sort of close relationship. She dies at the end of the episode without the audience learning who she was or what his name is.] Hence the question, “Doctor who?”
I know you probably aren’t interested in backstory if you aren’t a fan (in which case, why are you reading this?), but I want to discuss some differences in tone and character over the years, so bear with me.
You see, what really makes the current BBC series work so well is its internal contrasts in tone. In general, the universe is a cool place, and the companions who accompany the Doctor on his adventures are thrilled to see the universe and its amazing inhabitants. It’s Discovery Channel-esque in the wonder and reverence that the characters have for life, novelty and the universe in general.
But of course, there have to be villains for the plot to work, and boy, is the roster varied. I’ve seen the Doctor up against statues that kill you when you aren’t looking at them, cyborgs of several varieties, and shadows that eat you like a swarm of piranhas. Seriously. And while some of these might sound silly, the team working on this show actually do a really good job of making nightmare fuel out of seemingly silly premises.
What really makes the series work is the development of the Doctor himself, and his history explains a lot of the tone of the series. The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey (as far as I’m away, all Time Lords are from Gallifrey, but I guess they don’t call themselves “Gallifreyans” because “Time Lord” sounds much more impressive). In the original series (1963-89), he gets into trouble with his planet’s government because he tends to interfere in the histories of other planets, helping out oppressed groups, preventing genocide, etc., instead of letting history take its natural course. However, they’re not above manipulating him into carrying out their own agenda, which usually involves destroying threats to Gallifrey, and eventually they just sort of give him free reign because his hearts are in the right places (yup, he has two hearts). But I digress.
The above is important to note because of the huge change between the original series and the current one. The current series can switch from lighthearted to pretty damn dark in a matter of seconds, and the Doctor can change from funny banter to intimidation to despair in about as much time. What happened? The (Last ) Time War. Apparently what happened between the series was an epic war across time and space that left scars across the fabric of the universe and destroyed trillions of lives, including basically all of the two opposing forces: the Daleks (a cyborg race bent on destroying all organic life) and the Time Lords. Gallifrey has been blowed to burning smithereens, the Doctor’s entire family is dead, and so are the rest of his species. It is heavily implied that the Doctor was somehow personally responsible for a significant amount of the casualties, and possibly for the destruction of his home planet. Rather than making him a complete monster, however, this gives the Doctor a whole new dimension to his character. The audience can sympathize with him because of his deep personal tragedy, and what exactly his role in the war was is carefully concealed by the writers. Also, importantly, he feels guilt, which illustrates his sense of justice and value for life that is the main reason for his interference. Not that he’s a saint, of course: he can be frighteningly cold and ruthless to his enemies. Interestingly (last character point, I swear), he has gained a reputation that becomes increasingly apparent as he meets new characters. Memorably, he tells a semi-intelligent swarm of shadows that’s about to kill him that they don’t want to be his enemy, finishing off with “I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.” It works.
The point of the wall of text above is that the character and the show work so well for two reasons. First, there’s a wonderful air of mystery around the Doctor that keeps people wondering about him. He’s compelling and sympathetic, but alien and terrifying at the same time. Second, the writers know how to adjust the tone so it remains fun to watch; there’s a lot of dark, scary stuff that goes on around the Doctor, and a lot of people die, but there’s lightheartedness and witticisms to keep the despair at bay. It’s a wild ride, and I encourage you to check it out.
I was going to post a video of the scene mentioned above, but, well…spoilers. It made me cry, which is pretty hard to do.