Nerd alert: I’m about to get into some serious science fiction stuff over here. Truly, I never thought you’d catch me claiming that a children’s show is genius; however, I think that may be because, for one, I don’t watch much children’s television, and second, American children’s television isn’t as grown-up as Doctor Who (and from what I’ve heard, most British children’s television in general). Never before have I heard of a show that transitioned so well for children and adults. I mean, really, Neil Gaiman loves Doctor Who (and wrote a fantastic episode), so how can you argue with that?
The not-so-basic premise: The 900+-year-old Doctor, the last Time Lord from the destroyed planet of Gallifrey, travels through time and space in the blue, phone-box-shaped TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension in Space) with his companion(s), taking necessary actions to save and protect beings across the universe. Time Lords can regenerate bodies upon near-death eleven times, which puts us currently on the penultimate regeneration with Matt Smith; while the same man survives, his appearance and a varying number of mannerisms change. The Doctor is well-known, whether feared or beloved, across the universe, and when he isn’t saving planets, he’s often saving both himself and his companions from harm by those who hold a (usually valid and always hefty) grudge against him. However, he always manages to turn up in the right place at the right time, using a combination of his own genius with the present knowledge and common sense of his companion to save the day. To quote River Song in “The Pandorica Opens,” “I hate good wizards in fairy tales. They always turn out to be him.”
The Doctor isn’t always right, but he somehow manages to keep from crossing into the antihero realm. One of the reasons he’s able to do so is that he maintains a sense of childlike wonder at everything he sees, though occasionally he slips and we see just how hard he tries to cover up how jaded he is. Smith said in an interview with Chris Hardwick (Nerdist) “That’s what interests me about The Doctor because, actually, look at the blood on the man’s hands. 900 years, countless very selfish choices, and he’s literally blown planets up. His own race, you know, that’s all on his hands. Which is why I think he has to make silly jokes and wear a fez. Because if he didn’t, he’d hang himself.” As sad as that is, it’s true – the Doctor has caused much of the tragedy in his own life, and though he seems to live happily and in the moment, he does so because he has to.
Now, the two issues that most people I know take with the show are that first, it’s technically and historically a children’s program, and that second, it’s firmly science fiction. Genre shows on the whole tend not to do as well with American viewers (according to Nielsen ratings), and add that it’s aired on the BBC (and BBCA) and allegedly for kids? It’s a tough sell, I know. But I’m being completely honest with you here when I say that I’ve never watched a show that was more genuine, had more heart, and remains both relevant and timeless all at once (and I’m a huge LOST fan, so you know that’s saying something). This show goes to the highest heights and the lowest lows while remaining generally family friendly, if a little scary at times, and I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve cried more than once because of various plot points.
Though the program has been airing for almost fifty years, it went off the air for a few and was started again in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston in the title role. Quickly dubbed “NuWho,” these are the seasons I’m most familiar with. Catching up with the previous Doctors is on my to-do list, but since it’s kind of a task, I’m not sure when it’ll get done. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting with Nine (we call the regenerated Doctors by their number, since he’s the same Doctor with a different face) and going from there. Right now, there are six seasons to catch up with: one with Eccleston, three with David Tennant, and two with Matt Smith, with more to come from Smith. Remember, British seasons are short, so it won’t take as long to catch up.
The Doctor’s companions are as much of a gift to the viewer as to him, as the idea is that the viewer is the extra companion. As these humans follow and learn from the Doctor, so do we, and each of the companions brings something new to the role. From Rose and Mickey to Martha to Donna Noble to Amy and Rory, along with the very special River Song (these last three seen in the above image), each of these has shaped the Doctor in a very unique way. He would not be who he is without any of these great characters, and in exchange their lives are forever changed, having had the chance to travel all of time and space.
And I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention the villains of the show. The Doctor wouldn’t be who he is without having bested the worst of the worst time and time again. Though we frequently have one-off villains, some of the most dangerous bad guys are those who show up time and time again, like the Daleks and Cybermen. And I can’t impress on you enough that while some of them don’t look frightening at all, they end up being terrifying once you’ve seen them in action. For example, I dare you to watch the season three episode “Blink” and not give stone angels a second glance every time you see one after that. When it comes down to it, one of the few differences between the Doctor and his major villains is that where they show no mercy, he has his companions to remind him to show mercy to others. The villains remind us that the Doctor is indeed an alien, and that he might not always make the same decisions we do – but that, in the end, he will always win and the right thing will be done, almost always through an impact made on him by the current companion.
I know this has been a long post, but I still fear I haven’t done a good job of explaining just what is so great about this show. Just know that there’s a reason people of all ages love this show so much, and there’s a reason it has been on the air for almost half a century. And, to be honest, that reason is different for every fan. Everyone can run with the Doctor, but only you will understand what you’ve gained in the end.