Review of Doctor Who (Series)
There used to be limits to my nerdiness. Of course I liked Star Wars (who doesn’t?). I fessed up to liking Star Trek–but only Next Generation, not those other weird spinoff series. Then Netflix came and I binged on Deep Space Nine and discovered it was the best Trek of them all. I watched the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, because it was cool, but not the ‘70s original, because it was corny.
There was one line I wouldn’t cross. I was dimly aware of some uber-geeky British sci-fi series from the ‘60s that was, inexplicably, still on the air and wildly popular with the sort of crowd that goes to comic-con in full costume. That is decidedly not me; therefore, I would not be watching Doctor Who. Ever.
Then one day out of sheer boredom I decided to watch a few episodes to prove how terrible and unwatchable the show was. And I proved to myself beyond doubt that Doctor Who is one of the best TV shows of all time. It celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. Don’t laugh. I’m too busy learning to tie a bowtie for the next convention.
I’d say Doctor Who needs no introduction, but that’s not really true. Like all cult phenomenon, outsiders (as I, alas, used to be), most certainly do need an introduction. But introductions inevitably make the material sound daft: the Doctor is an alien time-traveler whose ship is a blue 1960s British police box that’s bigger on the inside; he travels about in time and space armed only with his sonic screwdriver, accompanied by a human companion, having adventures and saving the world from Daleks, Cybermen, The Master, and sometimes himself.
The show is full of idiosyncrasies and mythology that delight fans and confuse the uninitiated. The ship is a sentient being called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). The Doctor is a Time-Lord who regenerates after his body is killed, which is why the show gets a new actor to play the lead role every couple of seasons (the twelfth actor begins his run this fall). And so forth.
But that introduction fails to do the show justice. The description of the setting and the rules of the fictional world is just the furniture: the real gem of the show is the people, the stories, and the feel of the show. The show is weird, to be sure, but it is charming; it exists on whimsy; it doesn’t take its own conceits too seriously. Star Trek has legions of fans and script-writers who intimately know Treks’ fictional laws of physics and go barking mad at the least deviation from them (ahem, like I did in my review of Into Darkness). Doctor Who has no such thing. Instead of trying to concoct plausible-sounding science, the Doctor waves his hand, and says its just a bunch of “timey wimey” stuff. That’s the screenwriter’s way of saying “the plot required this to happen” with a wink in their eye. The show puts on just enough flash and weird sets to delight sci-fi geeks, and quickly moves past them to focus on the people–most centrally, the Doctor.
The Doctor never carries a gun, doesn’t believe in violence, and almost always outwits his enemies instead of killing or overpowering them. He always gives bad guys a choice before defeating them: on principle, even the worst should be given the opportunity to repent. He even tried to help the Daleks (think Nazis) evolve into a more compassionate, less hateful version of themselves until they turned on each other. He is cosmopolitan and egalitarian: he respects everyone, tolerates everyone, loves everyone–except and until they pose a threat to others. That is because the Doctor delights in life. He is the ultimate tourist. He travels because there is simply too much to see he can’t imagine staying still for any length of time. The universe is filled with mystery and beauty and wonder, and he wants to see everything and know everything and love everything.
In other words, the Doctor is the god of liberalism, the projected wish-fulfillment of worshippers who want a kinder, gentler god. I’m not making this up. The Doctor’s similarity to a deity are so obvious that others have remarked on it (here and here). The Doctor is immensely powerful. He did not create the universe, but he did “re-boot” it once. He saves the world, the universe, Time, and Reality, in successive season finales. He boasts in his title, “Time Lord.” He became so big that a religion was founded to oppose him and bring him down (Seasons 5 and 6) : he defeated them too. He is curious, compassionate, loyal and, occasionally, self-sacrificial. He is all that we want in a god.
Including sin. God is more approachable if he is flawed and fallible, like the rest of us. The Doctor is not perfect–that would make his presence intolerable and the show unwatchable. The Doctor’s original sin is that in the far past (never shown in the actual show), he ended the legendary Time War with not one act of genocide, but two: he annihilated the Daleks and the Time Lords, his own people, a double sin for which he atones for the rest of his life by never killing again. He both embraces and repents from his role as Judge and Executioner. When the Doctor’s wrath is aroused, he is Judgment Day to the wrongdoer. He is known as The Oncoming Storm to the surviving Daleks. But he grows arrogant, unhinged, when no one is there to check him. He once declared himself “Time Lord Victorious,” because he survived when no one else did. If the Doctor is a god, he is a god who is aware of his role in the Old Testament, and fights to escape it.
Finally, the Doctor is lonely. He is the last of his kind, and he cannot stand his own company. He knows that he needs companions who will admire him, love him, and, by their love, restrain him from his worst instincts. He travels with humans, whom he loves and admires because of their adaptability, their potential, their humanity (the show is given to cheesy speeches about how great humanity is). The Doctor is a god who returns our worship back onto us. When all else fails, the Doctor always puts his faith in his companions, and they always come through.
There is an old joke that God made man in his image, and we returned the favor. We have a tendency to image a god who is just like us, just a little bit better–someone we can identify with but look up to, who challenges and inspires us without setting impossible standards. That has never been truer than with the Doctor. The Doctor is the expression of our highest hopes for ourselves. He is a god we can imagine traveling with because he is enormous fun and not too demanding. The God of the Bible–absolute, terrifying, perfect, and all-powerful–is far more alien than the time-traveling Doctor. (Yet, ironically, in Jesus, God is also more human than the Doctor).
How comforting to think that God, in his loneliness, his neediness, comes to us so that we can help him through our love and admiration. That God is on some eternal quest of atonement, repenting for his past crimes against the universe, and that we are there to help him along in his own spiritual journey. In this universe–very far from the one of the Bible–it is not we who rebelled, need saving, or must work for sanctification, but him.
As with liberal theology, the weakness here is its blindness to human evil and its attendant low view of the divine. The show has a vast menagerie of villains, but they are rarely human beings: evil is projected onto other races and forces. The show wanders into hopeless naiveté and cheesiness when the plot requires humanity to show some great act of collective love or sacrifice (we always come through). Our greatest crime is stupidity; once we are enlightened, we almost never stray. Once we are enlightened, we are virtually indistinguishable from the god whom we worship. But if the best we can do is worship ourselves, it shows, I think, how small our religious imagination really is.
The world of the Doctor is immensely appealing, which accounts for its longevity. The show premiered in 1963. Fifty years is an astounding run for any artifact of pop culture. The clever trick of requiring the doctor to regenerate every so often enables the show to reboot itself regularly. But even without that plot device, something like the Doctor would be on our screens anyway. The idea is just too appealing and too pervasive and too easy to exploit.