Why You Should Be Watching 'Doctor Who'
If you’re familiar with this site, you might know that several months ago, I did a series of reviews on a BBC show called Doctor Who. The episodes I reviewed were the most recent ones that came to air, the first half of the sixth series (or “season”, as we call it in North America). I decided to write spoiler-free Doctor Who reviews partly to help inform Whovians (Who fans), but also because Doctor Who had become one of my new favourite shows. The program is now on hiatus until the fall, but it seems like a good time to explain why other viewers should start watching this fantastic show.
That means a return of my column, Why You Should Be Watching. I use these articles to talk about TV shows and movie series that I think more people should check out. As with any of my posts, leave your thoughts in the comments section, including any suggestions for what I should write on next!
Doctor Who has the distinction of being the longest-running science-fiction show on television. It follows the adventures of a mysterious time-traveller known only as the Doctor, who is a member of an almost-extinct race of aliens called Time Lords. A Time Lord can live for thousands of years (currently, the Doctor is himself 908 years old), and has the ability to regenerate into a new body when they are near death.
The Doctor travels through time and space in his TARDIS (short for Time And Relative Dimension In Space). The ship is whimsically shaped like a blue police call box from 1960s-era London (TARDISes usually have a camouflage ability, but the “chameleon circuit” on the Doctor’s TARDIS is apparently broken).
The Doctor shares his adventures with “companions”, friends whom he decides to bring with him on his adventures. In the more recent series of Doctor Who (since the 2005 revival of the series), the companions have most often been women (usually leading to some romantic tension), but the series has seen a wide range of characters accompany the Doctor in the TARDIS.
Together, the Doctor and his friends work to save the universe (often the planet Earth) from all sorts of alien threats. At the start of a story, the Doctor and his companion(s) will land in a different time period or on another planet under the pretence of exploring, and will almost instantly get wrapped up in a local conflict or mystery.
What I love about this show is how different it is from everything else on television. It combines high-concept, speculative sci-fi (Future Earths, spacefaring human civilizations) with B-movie-style aliens and witty British humour. In fact, one of the elements of the show that keeps me hooked is the writing, which in good episodes will deftly mix chilling scares, hilarious banter and complex storylines. The writers even find time to delve into some compelling character work, exploring the Doctor’s fascination with human nature and his guilt over the friends he has lost on his adventures.
The current season, featuring Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, has frequently impressed me with its examinations of who the Doctor really is, and what kind of effect his centuries’ worth of actions have had on the universe (a topic discussed in the most recent episode, “A Good Man Goes to War”)
The regeneration concept is another element of Doctor Who that helps keep it fresh. When the Doctor is mortally wounded (Usually after an actor has portrayed the Doctor for several seasons), he can literally regenerate a new body, played by a new actor. His mannerisms and personality change, inviting the new actor to explore sides of the character that weren’t touched on by their predecessor.
This allows the series to keep going if a lead actor wants to move on to other projects, and enables the show to adapt to its audience. The regeneration mythology gives Doctor Who a flexibility that many properties cannot attain; like the ever-changing face of James Bond, the Doctor becomes a mysterious ideal in the minds of supporting characters and viewers alike. As the times change, the Doctor endures, and “never gets old”, in more ways than one.
After more than thirty years on the air (no episodes were produced between 1989-2004), the mythology of the show is huge and nebulous. Nevertheless, the writers of Doctor Who are known for staying on top of narrative loose ends from the early years of the show: if a detail from the time of the Fourth Doctor was left unanswered, the writers will keep track of it and address the gap in newer episodes.
The writers also show a deep respect for their fans by dropping references to old episodes, rewarding those fans who have stuck with the show for decades. There also appears to be a tradition of featuring the name of the episode’s writer just under the title in the opening credits - a cool little touch that reminds the audience of who is responsible for the forthcoming story.
Due to all the lovely eccentricities of Doctor Who, it would probably take me a series of articles to do the show justice. Nevertheless, I highly recommend anyone to check the show out, even if you don’t typically like science fiction. If you’re interested in tracking down the more recent episodes, the so-called “New Who” shot from 2005-on, I’d direct you to iTunes, where you can buy full seasons for about $25. DVD box sets are widely available in North America, but due to some overblown price mark-ups, a season of Doctor Who on DVD can run you $80-$100.
What do you think - have I convinced you to check out Doctor Who? If you’re already a fan of the show, how accurate was my appraisal? Post your thoughts in the comments section below! If you’d like a few more recommendations, follow the link below to find the archive of past Why You Should Be Watching: