Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Doctor Who

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

I am so grateful to have caught Hamlet on Masterpiece Theatre last month; it introduced me to David Tennant, which led me to Doctor Who. This is the television show I have been looking for without even knowing I was looking for it. If you combined all my childhood obsessions, and most of my adult ones, you’d more or less end up with this series. Despite the fact that Who has existed, in one form or another, for decades and is an enormous part of popular British culture, when I watch it I feel as if it could have been made just for me.

The titular hero of Doctor Who is an alien. To the casual observer he appears to be human but he is actually a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. When mortally injured he is able to cheat death by regenerating, a process which changes every cell of his body, altering his physical appearance and personality but preserving his memories and his consciousness. It’s a useful plot device and a clever trick to have on hand when an actor leaves the show and the Doctor needs a recast. To date eleven actors have played the Doctor. Though they vary in age, temperament and appearance they are all meant to be the same being.

The series returned to BBC in 2005 (the first time in over fifteen years since new episodes had been produced on a regular basis) with the ninth incarnation of the Doctor, played to perfection by Christopher Eccleston. He was roughly nine hundred years old and the last of his race, his home planet and every living thing on it having been destroyed in the Time Wars, which affected various parts of the universe but had no real effect on the Earth. The Doctor is not only the last of his kind but also, somehow, to blame for the events which led to the demise of his people. Alone in the universe he travels through time and space in his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), a sentient ship that appears, on the outside, to be a blue police box but is in fact a vast and wondrous vessel. While she never speaks a line of dialogue the TARDIS is every bit as alive as any other character in the Who-iverse. She is all that remains of the Doctor’s home and his affection for her is both real and endearing.

Because he’s a personable creature, and also a lonely old man, the Doctor invites new friends he meets in the midst of various adventures to accompany him as travelling companions. His preference trends toward human, as he has a particular affection for us as a species; specifically young, attractive, female humans, often with a boyfriend or family member coming along for the ride at various points. Sometimes other aliens, fellow time travelers, even the occasional robot dog find themselves tagging along as well. The show excels at establishing an odd sense of community amongst this small, disparate group. Travelling with the Doctor is kind of like belonging to some fun, exclusive, dangerous club. Because where the Doctor goes danger tends to follow… but he always makes danger look like so much fun.

From time to time the relationship between the Doctor and a female companion may turn romantic. The show is marketed towards children in Britain and considered family programming so things never get very explicit. There’s lots of hand-holding (usually while running from some sort of adversary), hugging and the odd chaste kiss here and there. From what I’ve read, this kind of thing only happens in the newer episodes and was never really an issue in the earlier seasons of the series. Personally I like my Sci-Fi / Fantasy Adventure tinged with some element of romance (especially when the Doctor is played by such charismatic and attractive actors). A romantic element can certainly be introduced without negating every other aspect of the series. For me it just adds another layer to the story. By examining the nature of the Doctor’s relationships with his various companions we learn more about him and more about them. Their interactions help define who they are as characters and make them seem all the more real.

Besides it’s not as if the Doctor can ever settle down and be a family man (though he can’t help but wonder sometimes what that might be like); he doesn’t age, at least not like humans do. He won’t die, at least not for a very, very, very long time. The lifespan of a human companion is little more than the blink of an eye to him. He can never live a human life. So while he may appear, to us, to be constant and eternal he can only ever offer something ephemeral to his friends. When you travel with the Doctor it’s great. It’s adventure and danger and wonder and vast unknown expanses of the universe, all right in front of you. But it’s not a permanent way of life. All journeys eventually come to an end. The way those journeys change the characters that embark upon them, both for better and worse, is probably one of the most compelling aspects of the show for me. That in the midst of all of time and space there are these tiny personal dramas taking place.

Doctor Who is Greek Mythology, Christian allegory, Superman, E.T., The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Twilight Zone, late-night creature features and historical costume dramas, all rolled into one. In reviving the series head writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies has somehow managed to make something that feels both modern and retro. The people feel real, the danger feels real but the creatures are often dated-looking and hilarious. Which somehow makes them even more terrifying. Though it's often clever and cheeky, it lacks the sometimes smug, post-modern edge of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that is one of its greatest strengths (and that’s no slight on Buffy, who is great in her own right). It doesn’t just reference programming that I watched as a kid, it resurrects it. And applies enough grown-up sensibility to get me engaged, while never forgetting that it’s meant to be a wildly entertaining show. It may sound like it’d be a mess, sometimes it actually is a mess, but it’s always glorious.

And at the heart of it all is this man. This remarkable spaceman. The last of his kind. We never learn his real name but he’s given so many names throughout the series. The Doctor. He's a lonely angel and an angry god. A force of justice, rightness and benevolence in the universe. He is ancient but he retains a childlike sense of wonder. He is so much more than we can ever be but he sees the potential in us and he thinks we are miraculous. We think we need him but he needs us just as much, if not more. His greatest gift to mankind is the ability to show human beings just how amazing they can be. How much they can accomplish. How much they can become. For me, Doctor Who is, at its heart, a story about mankind’s relationship with the other, with divinity (if you believe in that sort of thing), with the whole of history and all of time and consciousness. What more could a viewer possibly ask for?

I wanted to write one self-contained entry on Doctor Who as a means of explaining why, for the past month, I have lived and breathed this show. Why I felt compelled to watch four seasons in less than the span of four weeks. Why I think it’s easily one of the best television series I’ve ever seen and why I cannot stop talking about it even though I realize that everyone I know is sick to death of hearing about it. One little essay is just not going to cut it. Consider this an introduction. There’ll be much, much more where this came from.