Live theater’s great and all, but time, theater schedules and money prevent us from experiencing it every day. So sometimes, we have to get our rocks off in different media. And there’s none more exciting right now than television, but that’s another post altogether. Today, I want to talk Doctor Who.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me fangirling about this show for the past couple weeks. Prior to that, I was slogging my way through the brilliant yet bleak Breaking Bad. Intellectually, I knew that was a great show. The acting was subtle and nuanced; the writing was complex and intense. Yet I found myself dreading watching every episode, simply because its world view, its view of humanity itself, is so depressing. After reaching the end of the first season, I needed a break from the blackness.
For years I’d heard about this Doctor Who thing, some kind of retro 1960s British something or other involving time travel, a police box and a man who changes his face when it’s convenient to change actors, a la James Bond. I’d turned my nose up at it, assuming it was silly sci fi stuff (and I, of course, am a very serious fantasy fan). I assumed I’d need a lot of back story about the Doctor, since the show had run for more than 20 years in its heyday from the ’60s to the ’80s. Then one day, for reasons I can’t recall, I fired up Netflix and found the reboot, started in 2005, available for streaming. And I set off through time and space with the Ninth Doctor and the indomitable Rose.
There are a lot of things to love about the show. Its silliness, its quintessential Britishness. The clever way it plays with the laws of physics and time; the irreverent way it ignores them when it suits the greater narrative purpose. Its fantastic characters and the relationships between them (and I ship Rose and the Tenth Doctor like whoa). But most of all, this is a show that gives me hope.
Silly thing, to think a TV show could give you hope. We tend to think of TV as disposable entertainment, not the same kind of serious mental stimulation as theater or literature or even film. But you try hearing the Ninth Doctor exclaim “Fantastic!” without smiling. You try to see Rose’s insatiable curiosity for life without gazing up at the stars and wondering. You try listening to one of the Tenth Doctor’s odes to humanity, to our boundless potential for greatness and, yes, terror, without being a bit in awe of all the wibbly, wobbly stuff inside you.
Doctor Who is often described in England as a show for kids, but I’d argue it’s a childlike show. The most powerful force in the Whoverse is curiosity. It’s what keeps the Doctor sailing through time–even though he’s lived more than 600 years, he can still be amazed by everything from an intricate clockwork robot to a single amusing word. Curiosity is what inspires every companion to leave her life behind for one of danger but infinite possibility. In the beginning of the series, it wasn’t the Doctor (in his ninth incarnation, played with real verve and menace by Christopher Eccleston) who drew me in; it was his cockney companion Rose, who wanted, insatiably, to see everything. Her childlike joy and wonder at the world was what kept me watching.
In the world of Doctor Who, it’s only when we stop wondering, stop feeling, that things go dark. Both of the Doctor’s most fearsome enemies, the tin can Daleks and the hollow Cybermen, have cut out all emotion. All wonder. All hope. That is what we have to fear, not what lays beyond the stars.
In a way, Doctor Who most reminds me of that other campy, silly, moving show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At first glance, the similarities are small. Male lead, female lead. British, American. Sci fi, fantasy. Sure, they both play off fascinating gender norm subversions. Buffy subverts female stereotypes: she’s active, she’s violent, she fights with her hands and her feet and Mr. Pointy. But the Doctor fights with his massive brain and a sonic screwdriver. He usually abhors violence, except when he doesn’t. At times, he’s almost effete, often sexless. Compare that to his vital second companion Martha, who for all her faults, is a truly physical character: a physician, a fighter, a sexual being. Everything’s flip-flopped and it’s fantastic.
But even more than that, both shows are tales which, at their best, lead us to believe in the unending goodness of people. They’re stories of people who walk through great darkness but don’t let it consume them.
No matter how many times Buffy had to save the world, even if it meant sending her boyfriend to hell, she always had a quip and a smile. She always remembered that the school dance was almost as important as killing those weird dog monsters.
Likewise, the Doctor chooses to keep traveling with human companions, even though “you can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you.” He chooses to laugh and to smile and to dance. He chooses not to let his loneliness as the last of the Time Lords (dumb name, yeah) devour him, but to use his gifts to save as many people as he can.
Sometimes he fails. Sometimes Buffy failed. Both shows have a lot of death. But through it all, both characters choose to fight and live every day as best they can. Which is all any of us are doing, when it comes right down to it.
As anyone who watched Buffy can tell you, the darkness got her in the end. Also, the show became kind of awful. But both of these characters represent a kind of hope you don’t find that often in media any more. They’re heroes, dammit, not these new-fangled anti-heroes. They’re people who fight, even when it’s hard, because it needs to be done.
Ultimately, it’s about the idea that what’s important is the fight, that our everyday struggles matter, and the belief that even if we can’t win the fight, maybe we can make the world a little better place just by trying.
I’m sure I’ll go back to Breaking Bad one of these days, and I’m sure I’ll have a profound experience on the nature of despair and man’s capability for evil. But for now, I’ve got three and a half more series’ worth of wondering what’s above us, behind us, and most of all, ahead of us. No matter what face the Doctor may wear, I’ll be along for the ride, and fighting the good fight beside him.
Buffy can come, too.