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The Timeless Appeal of Doctor Who

The Timeless Appeal of Doctor Who

Image from the Doctor Who pilot, An Unearthly Child

November 23rd, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the debut of Doctor Who. This is a remarkable achievement shared by only a few properties (in the US: Face The Nation, The Tonight Show, As the World Turns, General Hospital) and unmatched in nighttime scripted television. The longevity of the series from a practical standpoint comes from its protagonist’s ability to regenerate, which allows the series to continue unhampered by cast comings and goings. A brilliant solution to the failing health of William Hartnell, who played the First Doctor and was eventually too sickly to continue in the role, regeneration gave the show a creative solution to aging itself out of relevance, but this alone didn’t assure the series’ continuing place in pop culture- in the ‘90s, after being all but run into the ground by the BBC, the show went on hiatus for 16 years, with only a FOX-produced TV movie/backdoor pilot to sate fans. Doctor Who is as popular now as it was when it premiered, or perhaps even more so, not just because of its lead’s ability to regenerate, but because of the show’s ability to do so, along with its cross-generational appeal, and its still-resonant core message and themes.

Enough cannot be said of Doctor Who’s constant reinvention. There have been 12 showrunners/producers over the course of the series and each has brought his or her own stylistic flair. Verity Lambert created the series as an educational children’s program (think Bill Nye the Science Guy meets Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? meets an adventure serial). Barry Letts reinvented it into an Earth-bound workplace adventure serial, Philip Hinchcliffe brought the horror, Graham Williams added social commentary, arcing, and whimsy, and John Nathan Turner steered the series back towards its kid-friendly roots. In recent years, Russell T. Davies brought the show back, putting the focus on the Companions rather than the Doctor in a way the classic series rarely did, and Steven Moffat has brought his personal brand of timey-wimey puzzle-building to the past three seasons.

Each producer brings their priorities and strengths (and weaknesses) to the show, shaping the design of each character, and every actor brings something new to the Doctor when he regenerates. As Companions come and go, they bring out different sides to the character as well, allowing substantial growth and exploration of each Doctor during their tenure. In a television landscape that favors repetition and predictability, Doctor Who embraces change as part of its central ethos; if you’re not happy with the series at a given moment, the next Doctor, Companion, or producer is right around the corner, ready to put their mark on the world.

Doctor Who, all 11 doctors

Doctor Who can be, and has been, a series for anyone. Like gothic horror? Try the Third Doctor’s The Daemons or the Fourth Doctor’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Like farcical comedy? Try the First Doctor’s The Romans. Want social commentary? Try the Fourth Doctor’s The Sunmakers for an indictment of British tax policies, the Sixth Doctor’s Vengeance on Varos for an examination of reality TV obsession and violence on TV, or the Seventh Doctor’s The Happiness Patrol for a critique of Thatcher-era England. Every week, the Doctor and his Companion(s) head out into the reaches of time and space to go on an adventure. Doesn’t matter where or when- they’re game for anything, and that makes the only limit on the series the writers’ imaginations.

Any show that’s been around even half as long as Doctor Who (The Simpsons, for example) will have cross-generational appeal. Children who grew up with the series are able to share their love of it with their families who, theoretically, will pass it on to their own, in time. Even more significant than this, though, is that Doctor Who remains, all these years later, a family-friendly show. There’s no swearing, little if any gore, and (almost) no sex; the stories find conflict in other ways. How many hour-long series are appropriate for children and engaging for adults? With American TV increasingly seeking darker, more extreme content, Doctor Who is a beacon of reliable, only moderately scarring programming (why have couches, if not so we can hide from the Daleks behind them?). Parents and children can spend time together watching the show, building cultural touchpoints, and perhaps sparking conversations about the onscreen relationships and underlying messages of the series.

As Craig Ferguson memorably put it (in song) on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, Doctor Who is, at its heart, “all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” The Doctor is a scientist and explorer fascinated by the wonders of the universe, content to experience and share them with his friends without any need for ownership. Though it takes him a while to get there, he becomes a sort of accidental hero, stumbling across nefarious schemes by various groups of people intent on violent conquest or other injustices. He always tries to find peaceful solutions, resorting to violence only when forced to do so to save lives. Even in his more militant later years, he makes sure to travel with Companions who ground him and help him see the smaller picture when necessary, holding him back from losing touch with humanity.

Promo pic from the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary, Day of the DoctorThe Doctor is an outsider, introduced having run away from his home planet with his granddaughter, ostensibly because he got tired of the Time Lords’ rules and bureaucratic tendencies and he wanted to explore the universe (though various stories imply different motivations). He, for much of the show’s run, is an unusual looking, asexual nerd who saves worlds on a weekly basis. Of course he speaks to generations of outcasts. Even more than the Doctor’s rebellious yet peace-loving nature, the series strikes a chord with viewers of all stripes thanks to the diversity of the Companions. From children to adults to robots to, in the comic strip, a noir-inspired talking penguin PI, the Doctor sees value in people regardless of their shape, size, gender, age, sexuality, or species. If you’re brave, honest, and good-hearted, the Doctor doesn’t care about anything else- the soul matters, not the body, and this message of acceptance and love is an important one for people the world over.

The final important theme of the series is the power each person has to shape their life and their world. The Doctor may come along and sweep his Companions off to lives of adventure and excitement, but more important than his showing them the universe is his showing them a different, better way to live their life, in service of others. It’s no coincidence that each Companion the series has checked in on after they’ve left the TARDIS has in some way dedicated their life to helping others. Anyone can be a hero, Doctor Who posits, and sometimes all it takes is opening your heart to a child (“The Doctor Dances”,Night Terrors”, “Closing Time”), standing up to an abusive spouse (“The Idiot’s Lantern”), or trusting someone to make the right choice, no matter how difficult it may be (“Father’s Day”,  “The Beast Below”).  Doctor Who is a truly hopeful, optimistic series, one that presents a lonely wanderer who experiences loss after loss yet still manages to care for and about others after nearly 1000 years, who can still feel joy and excitement, find humor in everyday life, and exalt the best humanity has to offer. It’s a beautiful idea, and one that more shows should embrace.

With its inspirational themes, prioritization of inclusive storytelling, and simple, easily reinvented premise, it’s no wonder Doctor Who is as popular today as it was in 1963. Given the show’s ever-increasing international presence, it’s likely the series will be around for quite a while to come and with the Twelfth Doctor on his way this Christmas, a new chapter in the series will soon begin, bringing a fresh perspective from the Doctor, a shifted rapport with current Companion Clara, several strange new worlds, and many a dastardly new foe. 50 years, and Doctor Who is still growing, changing, and breaking new ground. It’s a remarkable achievement. Bring on the next adventure- this Whovian can’t wait.

Kate Kulzick