This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the BBC hit TV show, Doctor Who. And this isn’t like, 50 years ago there was a show, and now there’s not. Or, 50 years ago there was a show, and now they’ve remade it again now. The same universe itself still exists – the same main character, even, in the Doctor. While I think there are other things that can reach this sort of milestone – the X-Men come to mind given that this is also their 50th Anniversary – it is still a feat basically unmatched in television.
There’s lots of specifics I could go into, and even more specifics I don’t know. I’ve seen all of the new Doctor Who – by which is meant all the Doctor Who since the series was put back together and started in 2005 (and not a bad place to start, if you’re looking to do so). But this is a continuation of what came before, and of this, I have seen very little. Episodes exist online, say on NetFlix, but they’ve been released individually, and figuring out an order, or where to start, or what to watch… Who knows.
So rather than try to get into details about Doctor Who, for a Geek 501 post, I thought I would introduce and discuss Doctor Who in the general. In the things that work, in the reasons that we love it. We being a huge base of people who have come to be known as Whovians. So if you know and love Doctor Who, add your thoughts in the comments below! If you’re still trying to figure out Doctor Who, read on, and see what you think!
The Time Lord
One thing that is an excellent quality to Doctor Who, the center point and repeating element, the core and protagonist, is of course the Doctor. He looks human – or rather, we look Time Lord – but he is alien. He seems relatable and acts human, but then he doesn’t. Then he pulls out knowledge of things we know nothing about. Uses technology that makes no sense.
What they’ve created in this show is an alien who is both entirely relatable and understandable to us, and is wholly alien and different from us. He’s powerful, wise, ancient. The greatest moments are often when it is the Doctor versus whole armies, against countless foes with immeasurable power. And he, one man, stands against them and intimidates them. He uses words. He fights with his mind against them.
And he tends to usually win.
I don’t know how prevalent this was in the previous Doctors, but the moments when the Doctor gives someone a last chance to change their mind – and has the ability to back up that sort of threat – are amazing. The most recent Doctor, Matt Smith, also has had some amazing moments staring down his opponents, shouting out to them all that they are facing the Doctor, that they all know how this ends, and that they can’t win. And, in the end, he keeps going, and keeps being right.
He does what no human can do; solves problems in ways we often can’t predict. He must be a blessing for a writer – you don’t have to be constrained by much when working with the Doctor. All of time and space, plots that resolve not by Deus Ex Machina but by Deus Ex Doctor. Doctor Ex Machina. Something. He’s fun to watch in action, because he is different from everything else on TV – in the best sort of way.
That Ongoing TV Story
If just the Doctor and his vast, unknowable intellect were all there was to the show, however, would it have had as long of a run as it has? Would this be enough? Probably not. Shows about really smart people – say, Sherlock, the Mentalist, Numbers, something like these – are popular and can go for a while, to be sure, but you have to stay as smart as your character, have to keep them going. And growing. And learning. And human.
With Doctor Who, there’s more to it than that. Things that keep it fresh. Things that can strain the Doctor, keep it new, keep it fresh. The first is the most obvious. Time Travel.
Time Travel allows the Doctor to go anywhere, at any time, to be sure. But for the writers and creators, it’s more than that. It’s free reign to do any plot you want. Vampires in Venice. New New New New New New New York. The end of the Earth. The end of the Universe.
Invented place, invented races, invented problems. Historical figures, actual events in a new light. Winston Churchill. Pompeii. The 2012 London Olympics. Anywhere and anything is a possible place and time for the next episode of Doctor Who.
Beyond just the creative freedom this provides, as the audience, it gives a sense of excitement that other shows have trouble matching. Beyond exploration seen other places – beyond new worlds and environs like in Star Trek, beyond traveling just to travel and survive like Firefly or Cowboy Bebop. Anything could happen next episode (perhaps no more true than now, as we await the 50th Anniversary special!). And it usually does.
But then, beyond that, the most perfect continuation idea ever. Regeneration. When one form of the Doctor dies – or in production terms, when the actor needs to be replaced – he comes back, a new man. But the same man. A simple, elegant explanation to keep the show going. And it’s time – any contradictions or inconsistencies can be explained away.
If any show could even keep going, this strong, for this long, Doctor Who seems to have found the way. And after all this time, all these things – I’m excited for the next 50 years.
But our excitement as fans is about more than just new plots, new places, a vacation and sightseeing in our TV screen. There’s a way that they pull us in, pull in the audience, the fans. Beyond the Doctor, beyond the plots and places.
The Doctor always travels with a human companion. Here is our surrogate character, here is the person sharing in our wonderment, our humanity, our curiosity. Occasionally calling the Doctor out on his BS, or steering him back in the right direction. Giving him a bit of much-needed humanity.
With someone new, there’s a constant renewal of the reason for the travels, for the exploration, for showing off the universe. The companions are the excuse for the show, the thing that draws us in. While people tend to like the Doctors pretty well, whichever incarnation, the companions tend to have a much more heated response – a wide variety of love and hate and indifference for them. Because they are people, like us, and we don’t all like the same ones for the same reasons.
Meaning, if you’re looking to get into Doctor Who, there’s likely episodes you’ll love, companions you’ll love, and the Doctor. There’s something to like in there for just about anyone. And that would be my final thought: the show is very positive, upbeat, in the end. It is considered a children’s show, or perhaps better put a family show. Something all ages can watch. Sometimes it might be frightening, or deep, or odd (or Ood), but in the end it’s also pretty wholesome. Without trying to be, without it being forced. Fighting violence with words, being that powerful is perhaps nonviolent and wholesome, but it’s also the best, most perfect way to deal with those sorts of confrontations. So give it a try, see what you think. You may be a Whovian before you know it.