Do you know about the impossible girl? How about the girl who waited (for 12 years and then again for 36), or her other half, the boy who waited (for 2000)? There are others: the woman who forgot the greatest adventure ever; the woman who became a doctor and a warrior; the woman who was forever lost to another dimension. And there is the stolen daughter raised as would-be assassin, but who instead became a wife traveling backwards in time.
Do you know about deadly monsters encased in metal armor? How about fearsome monsters that are as stone statues when you look at them, but who remove you from time when you don’t?
Most of all, do you know about the madman with a box?
If you know these things, you are probably a fan of the greatest science fiction television show ever; a show called Doctor Who.
I don’t say “greatest” lightly. I rarely have a favorite anything. I have “Top 5” lists (or Top 10 or 25, depending on how many candidates vie for tops). And I can be fickle — new sometimes replaces old.
Consider also that, while I have a Top 5 TV Shows Ever, I exclude Star Trek from that list because it’s such a core aspect of my television landscape. It’s too important to be on some list with other — lesser — vehicles.
But while Star Trek is special and above all others, Doctor Who is to me as much above it as it is above the others. So Doctor Who is pretty damn good, is what I’m saying!
At the very least, it’s the longest-running SF TV series in the world and the most successful one (so says The Book of Guinness). It’s that rare combination: acclaimed by critics, beloved by fans.
Rightly so. Since it began in 1963, there have been stories rich in texture and detail — deep, clever stories filled with joy and adventure and loss and pain.
Put it this way: Doctor Who is intelligent science fiction written by intelligent people for an intelligent audience. If Star Wars is a fairy tale for children, and Star Trek is (sorry: was) an adventure for young adults, Doctor Who is for mature adults (of any age).
The stories are darker, sometimes sad, sometimes touching, but filled with a lust for life and adventure no matter the danger. A principle that often applies is, “Look after you leap.” Another frequent principle is, “Run!”
It’s hard to stop gushing. I’m sleep-deprived, emotionally wrung out and out of phase with my internal clock. It was worse last week when I’d planned to write this. It’s taken me days to recover enough to write this post, and the trail isn’t fully traveled yet.
Ironically, my happy malaise is because The Doctor is in. More accurately, The Doctor is back. Even more accurately, The Doctor is back and he’s new!
Getting down to tacks of brass, a new season of Doctor Who has begun! In celebration, last week the BBC America channel staged a week-long Doctor Who marathon. Starting on a Sunday (Aug 17) they showed the entire “revived” series — the seven seasons that began in 2005. Last Saturday they aired the first episode of the new season (eight).
Since I haven’t seen most of the very early ones in a while (and in many cases have only seen them once), I determined to — as much as humanly possible — watch them all! The problem is it required watching 16 to 20 hours a day.
Hence the sleep deprivation. It not only required long hours, but — for the first time since I retired over a year ago — setting my alarm clock! For the ungodly hour of 7:00. That’s AM; in the morning AM. Which, if you’ve been up until 2:00 AM in the same morning, is harder than you might think.
Which explains why my internal clock is out of phase. I’m still having to get up at 7:00, because they’re re-running the very first episodes at 7:00 and 8:00, and I didn’t start the marathon until somewhere in season two.
I’m emotionally wrung out because the stories are so compelling, so evocative. Especially when viewed in a constant succession, the seven seasons comprise an epic tale that seems unparalleled in scope and depth. It is a tale that covers the entire universe and all of time.
It’s hard to explain Doctor Who, because it’s just so much bigger on the inside. You can’t talk about one episode without invoking others. There are so many lovely pieces that fit together in astonishing ways.
For example, the show is titled, Doctor Who, but there is no character named, “Who” (doctor or otherwise). There is only the question, the first question, a question often asked, but never answered: “Doctor who?” By the end of the seventh season, we learn just how important the answer to that question is. Yet the question has been there, in plain sight, since the show began.
[When I mention seasons here I’m speaking of the seasons of the revived series, which began in 2005. The original series (the original SF TV show with an “original” series) began in 1963 and ran for 26 seasons, ending in 1989. There was also a TV movie in 1996. (Episode List)]
The central character of Doctor Who is known only as “The Doctor.” He is an alien who looks human (although he has two hearts and a four-beat heart beat). One thing that makes the show brilliant is that The Doctor periodically regenerates — his old body dies and a new one is formed.
This allows the show to use different actors over time — a key reason the show can run so long while still experiencing the changes of time. It also allows each new Doctor to have a completely different personality. This regenerates the show as it regenerates The Doctor.
Another key element is that The Doctor has Companions — Earth humans (typically one) who act to remind The Doctor of his moral duty. Companions also act as a bridge between the audience and The Doctor, who — despite his human aspect — is alien and ancient and sometimes cold and (seemingly) uncaring.
The Companions are usually female, but always good, strong characters as complex, memorable and engaging as The Doctor himself. They change over time as well, usually (but not always) when The Doctor changes. These changes also bring new tones to the song.
And finally, the TARDIS, the intelligent vehicle that can travel all of time and space, but which is stuck in its disguise mode: a 1960s British Police Box. The TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) sometimes changes inside when a new Doctor redecorates.
And, like humans, like life, the TARDIS is much bigger inside. Huge, really. There’s a swimming pool, a vast library and at least seven squash courts. Perhaps, like humans, the TARDIS is infinite inside and can be anything it needs to be.
As heroes go, The Doctor is unlike any other. He won’t touch any gun, and he doesn’t brawl. He is armed only with a tool — his sonic screwdriver (a tool so sophisticated that Star Trek‘s tricorder seems a stone axe). But make no mistake, The Doctor has the death of billions weighing on his soul. He is aptly named. Sometimes doctors must kill to heal.
That darkness is part of what makes the song so poignant. Endings aren’t always happy, people die or are lost.
There are sacrifices, and sometimes even the sweet parts have some bitterness. But even so, we find ourselves uplifted and rejoicing.
What follows are some random notes — bits and pieces recorded over the last week or so that I want to document. They don’t have a coherent order, and as River Song might say, “Spoilers!”
Favorite Episodes (in no particular order): The Doctor’s Wife (written by Neil Gaiman!); Vincent and the Doctor (the scene where van Gogh, who died unregarded, travels to the future to learn how his work endured and is revered rips my heart to shreds every time); Blink (an episode in which The Doctor hardly appears); The Day of The Doctor (seeing three Doctors working together is fun, the story is amazing, and seeing Tom Baker at the end makes the whole thing the best 50th anniversary celebration ever).
Favorite Doctors (in order): David Tennant (by a whisker); Matt Smith (I’m gonna miss him); Christopher Eccleston (darker, angrier); Peter Capaldi (the new Doctor, but an older, much less pleasant Doctor — not sure about him, yet).
Favorite Companions (in order): Idris (the personification of the TARDIS); River Song (The Doctor’s Wife); Martha Jones (actual medical doctor and warrior); Clara Oswald (the impossible girl); Donna Noble (who forgets it all); Rose Tyler (who is lost, but ends up with a Doctor anyway); Astrid Peth (alas, she only sang one stanza); all the others (in no particular order) except; Amy and Rory Pond.
(To be totally honest, I never really took to Amy Pond. She’s a great character, no mistake, but her personality grated on me just ever so slightly. As an example, in The Doctor’s Wife, when she and Rory were trapped in the TARDIS, she twice runs ahead of Rory, which results in Rory being trapped behind her. Once, okay, but after that time, she really ought to have stayed with the poor fellow.)
¶ You really have to credit the show with amazing female characters. Part of the show’s magic is the richness and strength of supporting roles. They’re all individuals, not the calculated “types” that inhabit most shows.
¶ Proof that Doctor Who is better than Star Trek: The former includes the latter! Various characters have mentioned Star Trek, so it’s part of the Who universe.
What’s more, some episodes borrow basic ideas from Star Trek and take them in really interesting new directions. The Waters of Mars plays homage to The Naked Time and The Naked Now (favorite episodes of mine). And The Girl Who Waited borrows an idea from another favorite: The Inner Light.
¶ In the first episode of the first season, when Rose meets The Doctor, they play with the “Doctor who?” question. She asks, “Doctor what?” When Clara sees the inside of the TARDIS for the first time (in The Snowmen), rather than the usual statement (“It’s bigger on the inside!”) she says, “It’s smaller outside.”
¶ The Doctor as a dangerous and dark force of nature is clear from the beginning. Some quotes:
- “He brings a storm in his wake!”
- “He has one constant companion: death!”
- “If you see him, one thing is certain: we’re all in danger!”
- “If The Doctor is making house calls, then god help you!”
At the same time, there is no question that The Doctor is a hero and savior. He has saved the human race (which he loves) time and time again.
¶ A complicated word that is so much bigger on the inside: “alive.” (Idris)
¶ The Doctor and River Song (his wife) living front-to-back. That’s so sad, but yet another brilliant idea!
¶ Weeping Angels: scariest monsters ever!! But brilliant idea!
¶ In The Name of The Doctor we see what The Doctor refers to as the “tracks of my tears.” He’s referring to the column of rotating light tracks representing his travels through time and space — something which has created tears (rips) in spacetime. I was struck by “tears” (crying) and “tears” (rips). In The Doctor’s case, both apply.
¶ Two common phrases occur many times: “No more!” and “Run!”
¶ Another striking phrase is, “I don’t want to go!” which is often said by The Doctor as he regenerates to a new body (and actor). I can’t help but think the actor feels that deeply and means it for himself as well as for the character!
¶ From the beginning, the show’s producers used time travel to take the audience back to real historical events in order to stimulate interest in history. The Doctor has visited (among others): Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Vincent van Gogh, Queen Elizabeth I (whom he marries), Madame de Pompadour, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Agatha Christie and the fall of Pompeii.
¶ Some coincidental icing on my cake: The Minnesota Twins scored 20 runs against the Detroit Tigers during the marathon! A high score they haven’t achieved in years, and the highest scoring ballgame for any club this year!
¶ Those Dodge Dart “don’t touch my Dart” commercials are my new candidate for worst, most stupid and offensive commercials on TV. Firstly, I thought the new young ethic was sharing. Secondly, the apparent message is, “Assholes drive Darts.” Thirdly, what a sad waste of Craig Robinson.
August 27th, 2014 at 6:54 pm
I actually feel kind of strange about clicking “Like” on this post. It’s not that I didn’t like it. It was quite interesting and well written. It’s just that I have never, in my entire life — and it’s been a long and fulfilling one — watched a single episode of Doctor Who. Not a single one.
August 27th, 2014 at 7:05 pm
Heh; I figured out you weren’t a Who fan when you didn’t pick up on my comment about fezzes and bow ties being cool. It’s a running gag in Doctor Who! And, honestly,.. unless you’re a serious science fiction fan and/or an Anglophile, there’s really no reason you would have.
The problem, if you did want to check it out, is that there are so many connecting pieces that you’d only get a part of what there is to get. But if you do like really great TV, especially SF TV, then it would be worth the effort. And that’s not to say individual shows don’t stand alone — it’s just that they’re a lot deeper and richer if you have context. (For better or worse, that’s the way a lot of dramatic TV is these days: long stories told over a period of time. One measure of quality is how well individual stories work on their own. Doctor Who rates fairly high, especially on the “special” between seasons shows.)
It’s been my experience that it’s extremely unusual to turn adults on to science fiction, so it may all be a moot point if you’re not into serious science fiction. I’ve never figured out if that means people are born with the disposition for it, or whether you have to catch people early in their mental development. [shrug]
August 28th, 2014 at 4:45 am
I cannot abide Doctor Who or science fiction in any form. 😡 Same with fantasy – worst two hours of my life spent watching The Lord of the Rings through gritted teeth.
Great article WS!
August 28th, 2014 at 8:41 am
Thanks, Hariod! If you don’t mind my asking, what about science fiction puts it in the “can’t abide” category? What caused you to grit your teeth during LOTR?
August 28th, 2014 at 11:16 am
I want my fiction to be real! 😡
Seriously though, it’s tricky to answer those two questions WS. There’s a part of me that very much enjoys exploring others’ creativity – in art, music, and contemporary English fiction – as long as there’s something of what I perceive as beauty or harmony therein.
What I’m really not interested in is other peoples’ fantasies though; they just leave me cold frankly; and even though I’m pretty much boredom-proof, I do get irritated and bored instantaneously with ‘flights of fancy’. ‘Do me a favour’, as we say here in England.
All the best.
August 28th, 2014 at 3:37 pm
True, Hariod, it doesn’t really answer the question; it just pushes it back to why you don’t find beauty and harmony in science fiction. (I’m assuming you do in contemporary and older fiction? Maybe I shouldn’t assume that, though.) Assuming you do like fiction, how about detective fiction or historical fiction. (e.g. Have you ever read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth?)
I do know people who don’t get into SF and prefer their fiction grounded in what they view as the “real world,” but I’ve always wondered about the line between a flight of fancy involving life as we know it right now (or have known it in the past) versus a fancy regarding life as we might know it in the future. I’ve been an SF fan since childhood, so I’ve never perceived the line between them (to be honest, most “regular” fiction bores me because I know the “real” world so well and I prefer a stronger element of imagination). That makes me very interested in the perceptions of those who do (hence my pestering you about this).
It might be a good idea to distinguish between good SF and bad SF. Most of what’s on TV, and in movies, these days is bad SF. It’s pop culture SF, all ray blasters and killer robots — sound and fury signifying nothing. The really good SF is about the human condition; authors use the ability to write about “non-real” things to examine some element of humanity (wrapped up in some kind of adventure). Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Wells’ The Time Machine all are really social statements.
P.S. I was thinking this might prompt a good article! I’d done one about What is Art? early on here, and I’d done one looking at why I think some SF is really bad, but didn’t recall ever doing one on the definition of SF. Turns out I have! If you’re interested you might check out: What is Science Fiction?
August 28th, 2014 at 4:50 pm
Most of my reading is non-fiction W.S. You may recall that a few months ago we had a lengthy exchange on consciousness and so forth – that’s where my interests lie in the main. I tend not to bother entertaining myself with films and books, as entertainment per se doesn’t interest me.
I daresay there is indeed beauty and harmony to be found in certain works of science fiction, but then there is in many sphere’s of interest – far too many to explore in one life. Some of my distaste towards SF is no more than irrational and ignorant bias, but knowing that truth doesn’t mean I’m going to do anything about it.
I used to hold a fairly low opinion of modern abstract art due to a similar irrational and ignorant bias. Then I lived for a number a years with a professional artist and came to love that form of creative expression. The same is true for me of 20th.c. studio ceramics, Baroque music, liturgical music, and fine Claret wine. All became acquired tastes.
The difference in our two positions might be that you find gratification in exploring imaginative ideas – you say ‘I prefer a stronger element of imagination’ – whereas I find so-called ‘ordinariness’ both endlessly fascinating and rewarding.
For me, ‘the real world’ that you say you know so well, whilst seemingly ordinary in its everyday apprehending, requires no imagination in order to become novel once fully attended to. I’ve no need for the writer’s imagination to make it so, or to live vicariously through the mind of another, despite my own dull powers of imagination.
All the best.
P.S. I remember as a kid settling down in the lounge with mum and dad to watch the very first episode of Doctor Who.
August 28th, 2014 at 5:08 pm
That is a very good point about acquired tastes — I can think of many examples where I’ve experienced the same thing. My love of baseball, for one example, only began in 2010; prior to that, I had not just no interest in professional sports, but some of that same irrational bias against it you describe. But one thing or another causes one to open an unopened package only to discover great value therein.
I can well imagine that someone whose main focus is non-fiction and reality might not find fiction, let alone science fiction, interesting or fulfilling. I would only mention that great fiction — of any genre — really is about the real world and real people. That, in fact, is the required element for greatness.
Great fiction may not be factual, but it is truthful and ultimately insightful!
Interesting conversation! I have my misanthropic streak, but nevertheless I find people fascinating in all their myriad ways!! Thanks!
August 28th, 2014 at 5:58 pm
August 28th, 2014 at 5:49 pm
OMG WS, we’ve come full circle and are once again dancing on the pinhead of ‘about-ness’.
You say ‘I would only mention that great fiction — of any genre — really is about the real world and real people.’
Being the contrarian sod that I am, I say there’s a world of difference between directly apprehending ‘the real world and real people’ and creating stories about them that necessarily must be processed through the representations of two discrete minds – and that, for me, is where the magic gets lost.
Still, I of course agree that great fiction (of any genre) can contain representations of fundamental truths and insights; and quite possibly, SF allows even greater scope for this?
P.S. I’ll see your misanthropic and raise you a sociophobic.
August 28th, 2014 at 7:55 pm
I completely agree there’s a difference between experiencing the world yourself via your own mind and experiencing how another mind sees that same world. But I would have to completely disagree it removes the magic. For me, part of the magic is the discovery that others (at least sometimes) see what I see and think as I do. That is one of the great gifts of literature: the recognition of commonality. When one is as far of the main beam as I am, that is a precious gift!
What stories can do is distill vast swaths of concrete human experience into an abstraction; exactly as you say, ‘fundamental truths and insights.’ And by removing the bounds of common reality, SF does indeed open the door to a greater scope. Some of the great authors of the last century were quite prescient in describing how society would evolve with cheap computers and networking. A lot of SF ends up coming true!
Enjoyed the video! The Daleks are (I believe) the most popular of the Doctor Who monsters. (I still think the Weeping Angels are the scariest, though.)
September 12th, 2014 at 1:21 pm
An analogy popped into my head the other day. I wonder if you draw a line between you and fiction that’s similar to the line I draw between myself and computer games. I don’t own a phone that can have “apps” but apparently for such phones, game apps are huge, and everyone is playing computer games these days. The online multi-player stuff is big, and Facebook has its own stable (I’ve had a couple friends big into some farm game on Facebook).
Back in the day there were some simple-minded arcade-type games I played, but they all began to pale. Even playing chess with the computer is something I just can’t get into. I’ve even written computer games that I ended up ignoring. Computer games apparently have zero interest for me.
When I try to ask myself why, all I can really come up with is, “They’re utterly pointless.” But then aren’t most (if not all) hobbies and games ultimately pointless other than to give the participants enjoyment? So that doesn’t seem like much of a reason, is what I’m saying.
Many of them are hugely violent, and that’s a big objection for me. I have no interest in acting out that way, and I actually think it might be a social ill for those who get too into that crap.
Beyond that, I think maybe it’s due to a perceived lack of any shred of reality in computer games compared to real world games. Sports involve real people doing real things. Most hobbies involve real people doing real things with real objects. Games involve real people playing each other in real time in the real world (and there are some kinds of online computer games I could get into — tele-chess, for example).
As I was thinking about all this, it occurred to me that the disconnect is vaguely similar to what you described about why you can’t get into fiction. It belongs to a world that is too imaginary for you. For me, nearly all computer games exist in a world that is too pretend for my tastes.