Much like the titular Doctor, I do not do much looking back. Unlike The Doctor this is not because of dark secrets or genocidal campaigns in my past but simply because I realize that I am capable of comatose levels of introspection and it usually leads me into thinking in circles. However, I do wonder sometimes if I would have come to things as quickly if I wasn’t once a young boy that hated to sleep. Seriously, I was a barely pubescent autodidactic polymath (now that’s Doctor speak) stuck in a culture that hated kids that thought “above their age” and an education system that still is ranked at the bottom of a nation that universally hates free thinking education; night time was the only time that I had to educate myself and have people leave me the hell alone. Besides, my friends were usually out of area, no internet, Nintendo bored me, and re-discovering RPG’s was a year away. Usually that meant books, snacks, notebooks for random thoughts, and USA: Up All Night for more prurient reasons.
However, one night in 1988, while flipping through channels, I came across PBS showing of what at the time I thought was a Godzilla movie or some British knockoff. It was in fact the fourth Doctor’s first adventure, “Robot“. I had no idea of the plot, I had really no idea what was going on, the telephone box was completely lost on me, and I laughed at the special effects. However, that one episode began a life long love of British television and Doctor Who in particular, which now so many are sharing with the 50th anniversary of the show and all things Doctor.
While most people are looking back through the history of the show and I admit I shed manly (I must emphasize *manly*) tears at the ending of “An Adventure Through Space and Time“; I am one that wants to look forward to the 12th Doctor and beyond. Thus, a little show has captured our imagination and will continue to do so for the next 50 years.
The Doctor is the Thinking Man’s Action Hero
When you look at it most action plots boil down to hero beats on villain until villain stops moving. When thinking about sequels; add fluff, rinse and repeat. Be it Kirk, Captain America, Thor, or Skywalker, the hero overcomes adversity, goes through the villains’ mooks, gets to the villain, defeats him, and possibly gets a girl in the process.
Doctor Who changes this dynamic by making The Doctor opposed to direct violent action to the point that when I watched the third Doctor judo flipping the crap out of people it was jarring. Whereas the usual hero’s solution to a problem is More Dakka, it is often the case is that direct violent action only makes the situation worse in Doctor Who.
When watching most shows the question usually is “how will the hero beat the villain?” In Doctor Who, the question is turned into “How will The Doctor out think his enemies?” which is a subtle but powerful subversion. The effect is usually the same, in fact in many ways The Doctor, as the show has pointed out, is scarily effective at completely wiping out his enemies. However the manner in which he does it is what makes the show; Captain Kirk after getting the ripped shirt of awesomeness may be able to physically take on a god. The Doctor has raised an army to commit genocide against his enemies using a cell phone, Neil Armstrong’s boot, and a gay FBI agent from the 1960′s, without as so much as mussing his bow tie or laying a finger on anyone. By removing the most direct form of conflict between antagonist and protagonist Doctor keeps the action fresh by making the action not physical but mental. The Doctor is the trickster hero on a scale scarcely imagined by Jack Sparrow, Loki, and others.
Doctor Who is Science Fiction at its most Glorious
Most television especially science fiction has a fair amount of handwavium in it but there is often a point where it wears thin. Watch an episode of Voyager (any episode) after a while you get tired of the techno-babble. Doctor Who plays with the convention by taking Clarke’s Third Law to its breaking point and reveling in it. Seriously, this is a show that has had time travel, dimensional transcendence, telepathic translation, death rays and reversed neutron flows along side with descriptions like timey whimey and spacey wacey and gets away with it because of Clarke’s Third Law. A fan theory of mine is that the TARDIS translation is pulling a gag from Nick Pollotta’s Illegal Aliens, that The Doctor is actually giving a hyper-complex explanation that only a species advanced enough to make all of space and time its plaything could understand, the TARDIS boils it down to essentially “Big magic, much mojo. Insert rough approximation of it here.” However, in doing so it makes the science more epic by deemphasizing how it works and focusing on what it does. The Doctor has insanely big pockets; why because they are larger on the inside. No explanation needed, his people are advanced enough to build a bag of holding that’s all you need to know. How does the TARDIS get enough power to travel? Simple, a collapsing star frozen in time. Doctor Who gets away with wilder technology than most science fiction by using the conceits that the Time Lords are insanely advanced, and focusing on what the technology does rather than insulting our intelligence with a techno-babble answer to how it does it. This leads me to…
Doctor Who Forces The Viewers To Use Their Imaginations
Doctor Who, whether NuWho or Classic, has delightfully had a larger imagination than budget, yet it has made that a strength. What other series has essentially said that the exterior of its ship is a disguise, but it’s broken thus looks low tech. Does the console room look different? Well that’s because The Doctor changed the “desktop theme”. This is a show that has made terrifying nightmares out of statues and pepper pots with plungers. These things are terrifying not because of what we have seen but because it has allowed us to be active participants in the show by having us imagine what is being depicted. The Doctor faced off in an epic battle against a parasitic sun which on screen when you look at it was essentially an angry face in space, but by allowing us to think of the battle of the minds between them allows an audience to be more invested and active participants in the viewing experience.
It Changes Constantly Yet, It Stays The Same
“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon,” no truer words have been spoken by “The Man That Lies“. Ironically, this version of The Doctor was the most different in personality yet still brave, intelligent, strong-willed, and willing to fight for what he felt was right.
If you ask a person to describe Doctor Who only using genre as a descriptor; I would be rather surprised with what people would come up with. I would describe it as a Science-Fiction, Gothic Horror, Pulp Detective, Steampunk Fantasy Epic with a dash of romantic, action and drama. Every fan out there could agree with my description yet have their own. Doctor Who is so broad in what it brings to its audience that it almost defies description. In preparation for the 50th anniversary, my wife watched Matt Smith’s run. The end of one of the Christmas specials had her in tears, how often does a show invoke laughter, excitement, sadness and terror. Everyone has their favorite flavor of Doctor, be it young or old, romantic or crotchety.
Part of the appeal of the show is that it changes, yet if you ask to describe the Doctor the same way you would describe the show, the answer given would not be that different despite 50 years and 11 different actors portraying him. The more the Doctor changes (even considering the 6th) the more he is the same person.
It Is Inspiring The Next Generation of Sci-fi/fantasy Fan
Doctor Who‘s show runner and next Doctor where both fans in their childhood. Some of their thoughts and fan theories have gone on to become cannon for the show. Kids watching Doctor Who today have parent and grandparents that have also watched it. Much like the Doctor himself, we get to see the joy of discovery through the eyes of our companions, those that are introduced to the show.
In the mid-90s, the Doctor Who: Television Movie was a grand excuse for me to introduce my friends to The Doctor. Complete with explanations of Time Lords, TARDISes, and regenerations I was able to introduce a group of deprived teens to the joys of Doctor Who. Today at the 50th anniversary not much has changed as I have introduced my wife to Doctor Who. It started with her through the 11th Doctor, then David Tennant’s tenure, then slowly back through the series including the classic Doctors. She has her favorites, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor is a particular favorite of hers. She, in turn, fields questions from her students that are newcomers to the show. Any questions she can’t answer she asks me. These are kids growing up with a thinking hero as their role model, with a show that is gloriously pushing imagination and science. Steven Moffat’s idea of Doctor being a title that The Doctor himself spreads as he travels was one he created when just a young fan of the show. This was years before the University of Glasgow, the Press Gang or the BBC let alone Doctor Who. One of my proudest moments was when my 2 year old daughter was watching a show with us and a scary (to her at least) monster showed up. She looked at the TV and turned to us and called for The Doctor. I am looking forward to the creativity that the next generation has after growing up with the series. What inspiration will they grow from it? I can’t wait to see the Nth Doctor with my grandchild and re-discover that wide universe again through their eyes.