Why I think Doctor Who is Fantastic Television

Obviously, from the title, it should be clear that I think the British television show, Doctor Who, is pretty fantastic.  In fact, I’ll go out on a limb to say that it is some of the greatest television in the history of TV (up there with some other greats like The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live).  Allow me to provide you with a bit of reasoning.  But first a bit of my own personal experience with the Doctor and his crazy adventures.

I first encountered Doctor Who at some unspecified point in my youth.  I remember watching a few re-runs of the older episodes on PBS.  Admittedly I didn’t really get them.  I knew they had something to do with space and time travel, that the main character dressed in weird clothing (things like giant scarfs and such), and something about robots that kind of looked like trash cans (ignorant me didn’t realize that these were not really robots, but aliens in mechanical vessels).  But, if I had to guess, I, like most Americans, was generally quite oblivious to Doctor Who.  All around it was just some weird British science fiction that is important to British pop culture but not really all that important to a young American life.  It wouldn’t be until my college years that I’d find myself enjoying the pleasures of the show more fully.

Just in case you haven’t figured this out from reading other posts on my blog, I can be a real nerd when it comes down to it.  Well, “nerd” in regards to an absolute love of almost all things science fictiony.  Sure, I admit that I am not quite at the level of dress-up-like-my-favorite-Star-Wars-character-and-tour-all-the-cons-across-the-country nerdy (even I have some limits though there are those times I look in the mirror and think  . . . anyways, I digress), but I do pride myself a bit on my accumulation of science fiction and fantasy knowledge.  So anyhow, being a nerd, I tended to watch a lot of the SyFy Network  in college (then with the much better and simpler name SciFi).  I think it was either my Junior or Senior year when the network began airing episodes of the newly rebooted Doctor Who series.  It honestly only took me one or two views before I was hooked.

Of course, being the busy social individual I was in college I didn’t always get to watch that much Doctor Who (as well as a number of other shows I liked) and just caught episodes here or there.  So once I had graduated I started adding the DVDs on my Netflix queue and shortly after that Netflix itself began to offer them on their Watch Instantly feature.  Finally I was able to enjoy the Doctor in proper order and at my leisure.  I have since reached the show a number of times, as well as showing it to Eliza and recommending it to a number of other people.  This has given me plenty of time to think about how much I absolutely adore the show and formulate why I think it really is an absolutely genius creation (and it is certainly successful, the original Doctor Who aired in 1963 and ran until 1989.  There was a television film in 1996.  The reboot has now been running since 2005. Doctor Who has landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest-running science fiction television program as well as the most successful science fiction television in regards to overall ratings, DVD sales, iTunes traffic, and “illegal downloads.”)

Here is where I think a lot of this success and my own personal liking of the show stems from (warning, this may contain spoilers, proceed at your own risk).

1. The Doctor himself:  The titular character of Doctor Who is the enigmatic time traveling alien who only goes by the name “The Doctor.”  The Doctor, a Time Lord, travels about through time and space in  ship called the TARDIS (that whacky blue telephone box thing) and gets into  whole variety of strange adventures.  A major success of the show is how the Doctor is set up.  Here is the general detail: He is essentially an immortal alien who,when at risk of death, can respawn himself in a new body.  This allows the for the show to theoretically continue indefinitely as there can be a never-ending supply of new Doctor’s when a lead actor decides to call it quits.  Furthermore, each reincarnation of the Doctor brings a slightly different personality and characteristics allowing the show to continually re-invent itself along with its main character.  This is essentially a perfect formula for maintaining a main character.

2. Time and Space Travel:  The next hugely successful element of the show is the fact that the plot resolves around characters who travel through time and space.  Basically this allows for a never-ending supply of places to go and things to see.  The only limitation is the imagination of the writers.  The characters can even go to places previously visited (and they have) without there needing to be any real conflict.  Again, like the main character, this open plot device basically makes it that the show could go on forever.

3. Good Stories that Don’t Take Themselves Too Seriously:  As I mentioned above I’ve seen, and enjoyed, a good deal of science fiction television.  Much of it is very well done with enjoyable characters, good plots, and interesting concepts, but if there is one problem I have with science fiction as a genre as a whole it is how, all too often, the shows or stories tend to take themselves entirely too seriously.  I’m not saying that I want everything to be utterly ridiculous all the time, but come on, science fiction, in its very nature, is kind of absurd and so I really appreciate it when a show can kind of laugh at itself and its own story.  Doctor Who has consistently pulled this off with amazing success.  The show continues to have engaging and interesting stories but all the while there is a sense of self-aware silliness to it all.  Even in the darkest and most difficult episodes (and a good number of these exist) there is room for the show to laugh at itself a bit.  I feel like this is a way of respecting the audience and saying “yeah, we know it is ridiculous too, so what, it’s still fun right?”

4. Deus ex Mechina as a Rule Rather Than an Exception:  Science Fiction loves the Deus ex Mechina (literally “God from the Machine”) plot device.  With Deus ex Mechina any situation can have a positive solution and prevent anything overwhelmingly terrible from happening;  from preventing a character getting a shitty test score all the way up to avoiding the destruction of the known universe.  However, successful use of this plot device can be tricky.  The thing with Deus ex Mechina is that most audiences tend to recognize just how ridiculous and unbelievable it is.  As such, it seems the majority of science fiction nowadays tends to try to minimize its use as much as possible and when they do use it they try to mask it well.  In a lot of ways this is in an effort to maintain a degree of seriousness of subject (see #3).  So here is the deal with Doctor Who. If we agree that the show already is kind of past taking itself overly seriously, then why should the use of Deus ex Mechina bother it in any way?  The answer is that it doesn’t at all.  In fact one could argue that the real exception is when the Deus ex Mechina is not used in a Doctor Who episode.  There is a strange kind of comfort in this.  Even when the circumstances in the show seem most dire and the there is no apparent way that the heroes will prevail, they suddenly do, and secretly the audience knows that this is going to happen.  And guess what?  People are okay with it.  It doesn’t really feel like ti gets old or tiring, it feels more like that is what is suppose to happen in Doctor Who.

5. Continually Interesting Characters:  Considering all of the above I have consistently been impressed with how well Doctor Who continues to make interesting characters to populate its fictional universe. Even considering how silly a lot of the show is, it does a great job at populating its fictional worlds with all sorts of fascinating people and creatures whom we tend to be able to believe.  They are characters who actually want something or serve some purpose.  Sure, some of the villains are really out to just get the Doctor, but even when that is the case we find ourselves interested by it.  I think of one of the Doctor’s main antagonists, The Master, and just how interestingly maniacal he is.  Here is a villain whose sole purpose seems to be to thwart the Doctor, going to the degree that he is willing to let himself die just because that will cause the Doctor the most suffering.  That’s wonderful stuff and there is some of it in pretty much every episode I’ve ever seen.

6. It is Wonderfully British:  I don’t know what my point with saying this really is, but I have long found something wonderfully entertaining by British storytelling.  It isn’t that I think Americans tell poor stories, but more that I am used the American style of story telling and so find it enjoyable to experience the slight differences in British narrative.  Now, admittedly British story telling is not all that different from American storytelling, but there are little things; things like pacing, focus on details, external messages, etc.  As such Doctor Who, as a show, is just slightly alien itself and it makes for a very enjoyable experience.

I am sure that there is more that could be said about Doctor Who and what makes it so great.  The sixth season of the reboot just aired this past week and for the first time the season starter aired on the same date in Britain as well as in the US (on BBC America).  This demonstrates just how successful the show has become in recent years.  Furthermore, the show has had a setting in the USA now.  It seems like the Doctor has successfully made it across the pond.  If you are looking for some good entertainment and don’t mind some dorky science fiction then I highly recommend checking out Doctor Who.  You can start right in with the first season of the reboot series from 2005 as it does not require too much background knowledge of the older shows to get into.  Check it out.

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~ by Nathaniel on April 26, 2011.

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