Fixing Doctor Who

As with many elements of modern culture, I walk the blurry line between fandom and general enjoyment. I like plenty of stuff, but I wouldn’t say I love anything. I enjoy comics- more than the average man on the street- but I’m definitely not on a level where I could seriously discuss comics with someone who’s actually into them (as Evan can attest). I enjoy heavy metal, but I couldn’t name the leading band of the past couple years or tell you the difference between Finnish black metal and Swedish death metal.

This is neither, just for the record…

Even though this gets me simultaneously branded as a nerd  by people who aren’t fans of _______ and a poser by people who are, I nevertheless get a pretty unique perspective on things. I can see how they work- what their appeal is- without getting objectivity compromised by being too emotionally invested.

Now I think I’d be hard pressed to think of a better example of this than Doctor Who.

I’ve watched Doctor Who– and by “watched Doctor Who“, I mean I’ve watched most of the latest incarnations. The show’s been on since the early 60s, and has been running for over 25 seasons. The show’s obviously got a unique attraction that’s generated a  fan base that can only be described as fanatical. That’s pretty impressive, considering it’s only a year younger than the Bond film franchise. At the same time, that kind of zeal, combined with the isolated, insular cult status the series enjoys has really led the series down some directions it shouldn’t have- or at the very least, led to the development of some bad habits.

I. Exterminating the Daleks

I’ve got nothing against the Daleks- in fact, I really enjoy the concept behind them. It’s just that when the Doctor defeats them for the 6,854th final time, they tend to lose some of the punch they might otherwise carry.

But I’m forgetting the non-fans.

Daleks are Doctor Who’s primary antagonist in the series: war machines gone rogue and bent on the extermination of every living thing in the universe. Seeing as how the Doctor’s all about life, beauty, and wonder, these death-obsessed, cold, calculating machines really serve as a perfect foil for him. In fact, you can even overlook the fact that their design hasn’t changed since a couple of stage-hands put the first one together in a rushed attempt to prove they hadn’t been sleeping on the job.

The simple concept is so perfectly contrasted to the Doctor, that the fact that the main weakness of the Daleks is- I kid you not- stairs,  could be ignored. The problem is, rather than being an unseen threat always just off camera, the Daleks, in all their campy glory, get shoved into the series on a pretty regular basis. Any sense of mystery and dread is stripped away. Fight someone once and it’s an event; fight someone once a day and it becomes a chore.

Did you know that Darth Vader is only on screen in the original Star Wars trilogy for about 12 minutes? It’s true- and yet his shadow is cast over all three movies. The same thing needs to be applied to these guys if we want them to be even the least bit intimidating.

II. Remember the time the Doctor let a school bus full of children get vaporized?

It happened.

See, Doctor Who is a pacifist to such a degree that Gandhi and MLK Jr. look like street fighters by comparison. It’s part of his charm and backstory- the man whose seen everything (including the genocide of his own people) still finds each and every human life precious.

It also makes him a deeply cerebral character. For the Doctor, any situation can be solved through ingenuity and diplomacy. And as cool as that is, people seem to be running a little too far with it. The Doctor, for example is chasing a rare alien life form who, in the process of making its escape, kills more than a few people- including a school bus full of children.

What does the Doctor do?

He offers a stern lecture to the alien.

I’m happy to leave the Doctor a staunch pacifist, but at some point we have got to address the fact that for a guy who thinks so highly of life, he’s pretty dang flippant about being people killed/eaten/obliterated/etc.

III. Can it not be about aliens for a change?

In case you don’t know, the average episode of Doctor Who will involve the doctor and his earthling companion traveling to the future or the past (or just mess around in the present). They’ll notice something off kilter and it will be inevitably discovered that some aliens are orchestrating it all. The Doctor and his companion will discover some clever, non-violent resolution to the issue and the balance of the universe will be restored…




Is it too much to ask that just really short period piece get done every once in a while? Can we address issues of fate vs. free will? Can we just get to see the invasion of Normandy (or the Norman invasion) and just enjoy it for the human elements at play? I’m not saying the formula should be gotten rid of, but come on, people.

IV. Getting Ugly

In spite of all the aliens and time travel, Doctor Who is ultimately more of a fantasy series than a sci-fi one. Neil Gaiman, who will occasionally do writing for the show, claims that Doctor Who has never pretended to be hard science fiction… at best Doctor Who is a fairytale, with fairytale logic…”

I won’t argue with that. I can’t. But there’s still a need to get ugly every once in a while. If Doctor Who’s victories are going to mean something then, every once in a great while, he’s going to have to lose. It’s all about making us feel the stakes.

I mean, in a world of time travel where death is by no means permanent, you have to give us something to actually worry us.

Other than these hellspawn, of course…

V. Could we spend some money on this already?

I’ve long been a proponent of the idea that if your writing is good, special effects don’t really matter. Doctor Who is a testament to this- it’s been on since before either I or my parents were born, and still going strong in spite of not really having changed it’s graphics in the past half century.

Again, that’s not a huge problem, but you’d think the BBC would’ve brought the CGI and cheap rubber masks into the 21st century by now. I mean, Battlestar Galactica has been on for a much shorter time, has a smaller fan base, and has (brace yourselves, diehards) a pretty negligible cultural impact. Still, they managed to make the show look like this:

While Doctor Who still looks like this:

And this is being generous…

Again, it’s not a major issue, but for all the money the show makes the BBC, you think the production values would be at least a bit higher. And that leads to the final issue.

VI. Fail Britannia

A huge part of the Doctor’s schtick is that he’s a wanderer. To get to travel with him is to see the vast wonders of the universe.

And by that, I mean Cardiff.

You’re gonna see a lot of Cardiff.

And that’s not really terrible, it’s just kind of weird that you can go anyplace at any point in history, and you spend your time hanging out around the Welsh capitol.

Granted, the Doctor and his companions do make the occasional trip across the pond, or down to Western Europe, but that’s really the extent of their travels on Earth (which is no small part of the show). Again, I’m gonna blame the budget for that.

So here’s what I think needs to be done: you gotta give some depth.

Yes, it’s a fairy tale, and one that’s captivated us all since the Kennedy administration, but it you can’t deny that as it stands now, the series is, well, kinda 2-D. The full extent and implications of the series really aren’t ever explored. The Doctor’s unwavering non-violence is constantly brought up, but it doesn’t seem like it’s every really examined, which is kind of a disservice to the show and the philosophy of pacifism in general. Satire, the examination of the implications certain advances in science or culture- they get touched on…

The future face of plastic surgery can simultaneously be used as a poster child…

…but never that often. If you’re going to do science fiction, you almost have an obligation to address these hypotheticals.

Of course, if you argue that Doctor Who isn’t science fiction but fantasy with some space elements brought into it, then you have to admit that aesthetic is a huge part of that. The sort of campy, steam-punkish feel the series has is great, but again, with the technology we have our disposal, not offering some more believable monsters or exotic locales is, again, a disservice to a show that certainly deserves better.

But that’s all just my take. I’m going to stop boring the readers who aren’t fans and let the Whovians tear me to shreds.

Thanks for your time.

4 responses to “Fixing Doctor Who

  1. May contain some spoilers.

    I don’t think that all incarnations of the Doctor are that peaceful. They may have made him out to be that way in the past few years, but the older Doctor is responsible for the death of his entire species. He gets compared to the Daleks, almost drowns while Killing an alien and all of her offspring, and inspires other races to use the word “Doctor” for “warrior”. The writers regularly address the effects of his actions within the story, even if the Doctor himself doesn’t realize how violent he can be. I also think that the Doctor does lose, even though its not very often. Never seeing the Ponds again, sounds pretty crappy to me. River dies? Also sucks. But I agree, not everything needs to be about aliens all the time. I also wish that they didn’t feel the need to connect every episode in a giant ridiculous story arc. Not that the writing is bad now, I just feel they got carried away. I should stop typing now, but I love Doctor who too much to stop. They make crappy earth visits. The number of times they visit Manhattan is incredible, they just can’t stay away. They visit Utah, Venice, Texas, Also, the sonic screwdriver is a little annoying. Its gotten way out of hand. Stopping now. Must stop typing. Nerd limit reached.

  2. Most of these are valid critiques, though it’s more than a bit unfair to cite the special effects (using an image from the show back in 2005) when the show’s budget has increased dramatically for the last 2-3 seasons. Also, you committed the near-unpardonable sin of actually calling the Doctor “Doctor Who” (I hate to be that guy, but come now).

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