My Conflicting Feelings with Doctor Who
An Examination of Why I Just Can’t Bring Myself to Love This Show
Maybe you’ve seen people wearing t-shirts or other articles of clothing depicting a tall blue box, or a man wearing cellophane 3-D glasses or a fez, often illustrated with what looks like a screwdriver in his hand. Even if you can’t consciously bring any of these images to mind, I’m positive you’ve seen these people. They’re everywhere, and they call themselves Whovians.
But maybe you have no clue what I’m talking about because you don’t associate with any young people. If this is the case, or for some other reason you’ve never heard of this pop culture phenomenon, then you need to become familiar with the British TV program Doctor Who.
In an attempt to make this as short as possible, Doctor Who is, in essence, a sci-fi television series that was originally broadcast from 1963 until its cancellation in 1989. In 1996, the BBC and 20th Century Fox worked together to produce a made-for-TV movie starring all American actors except for the title role. This movie, simply titled Doctor Who, intended to act as pilot to re-launch the series, but it failed to attain significant viewers in the US, so the deal was off. Slowly, the BBC regained all of their rights to the Doctor Who property, and in 2003 production began to get the show back on the air. Finally, in March of 2005, Doctor Who returned with new actors, a new format, a new run time, and perhaps most importantly, a new look. The show is currently in its ninth season since its revival.
But you still don’t know what the show’s actually about, do you? I’m getting to that. To simplify, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a humanoid alien who calls himself “the Doctor,” who travels through time and space, most frequently with at least one human companion, most frequently female (and very attractive). The Doctor travels through time and space in a machine called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) that is infinitely bigger on the inside, which, for complicated in-show reasons, is always in the form of a late 1950’s British police box (see: Wikipedia). To aid him in saving history, the Doctor employs a device of his own creation called the sonic screwdriver, a multi-tool which influences mechanical and electronic devices in a manner convenient to the plot.
And now for the aspect of the show that garners the biggest reaction from the fans, both positive and negative: regeneration. In 1966, three years following the program’s inception, the BBC was ready to cast a new actor to play the Doctor. Clever writers invented a highly original plot device that allows for the Doctor’s species to reform a new body and a new personality whenever his body suffers a fatal injury. This is largely how the show has survived thirty-five non-consecutive seasons. In fifty-two years, thirteen actors have piloted the TARDIS, each bringing their own unique style to the show.
That’s Doctor Who in a large nutshell. So what’s my issue with all of this? Well, that’s difficult to say. I did subtitle this article “an examination.” I have some persistent theories as to what irks me, and I’ll share them below.
1. Doctor Who Doesn’t Play by the Rules (It’s Own)
Doctor Who wants to be science fiction. It wants that so desperately. But it’s not, and honestly, I don’t believe it ever will be. Why? Because all good (and even some bad) sci-fi establishes clear rules and boundaries of what its technology can and cannot do. Fantasy does this as well with its magical settings. Doctor Who has vague and obscure rules, but that doesn’t seem to matter, as the Doctor and his screwdriver can do as they please. Doctor Who is neither sci-fi nor fantasy, but exists in some purgatory between the two without properly blending the best aspects of both styles of storytelling.
2. Doctor Who Tries (Too Hard) to Be Cool
The best successes in life happen by pure chance. A movie like Star Wars is special because during the entire time of production it was assumed the movie would be a massive failure. Instead, it became the single most successful movie in history. Nothing was planned, engineered, or manufactured in an attempt to make it popular. The movie did so all on its own, and that is truly wonderful.
Doctor Who, however, regularly depicts silly nonsense (the Doctor playing “Oh, Pretty Woman” on the electric guitar while riding a military tank, or associating with an alien who always mistakes men and women for “comedic” effect) in what I find to be an attempt to add something interesting to what’s going on in the episode. Doctor Who, like too much modern fiction, gives the impression that it’s afraid to take itself seriously.
A great example of what I mean is a scene involving the death of one of the Doctor’s companions. The other companion, the wife of the deceased, is uncontrollably heartbroken as she helplessly watches her husband’s lifeless body fall into a crack in time, forever to be erased from all history. In what is supposed to be a powerfully emotional scene as the Doctor attempts to console her, the show ruins this moment entirely by having the Doctor go back in time and work some “wibbly-wobbly, timey-whimey stuff,” an actual quote from the Doctor explaining how he performs convenient plot conveniences, to prevent the companion from ever dying to begin with. I hated that. If I am meant to care, then he should have stayed dead.
3. Doctor Who Attracts the Most Unflattering Fans
As stated previously, fans of Doctor Who call themselves Whovians. Proudly and obnoxiously. If you’ve ever met a fan of Doctor Who, you would know immediately, because 99.99% cannot make it through two minutes of a conversation without awkwardly bringing up their favorite episodes and listing ten reasons as to why David Tennant was a better Doctor than Matt Smith, regardless of what the topic of conversation actually was. They do this because they believe the show has an episode relevant to anything, even though every episode has about the same plot (as summarized above). Whovians are also bursting with overzealous eagerness at the prospect of explaining to you why you’re wrong if you don’t like the show. That’s right, you’re wrong for not liking a British television program that was canceled nearly thirty years ago, and that few Americans would know about if there were no such thing as BBC America.
From all of my long-winded ramblings, you could easily infer I don’t like Doctor Who. But I do. I think the show is fun, clever-ish, and occasionally, really good. Some episodes are pure fan service, others are pandering, some make strange attempts at social commentary, and some are just crap. But Doctor Who has genuine moments of great fiction writing. I like the show, I think it’s cool, but I can’t love it. This is okay, because in the immortal words of Meat Loaf, “...two out of three ain’t bad.”