Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. Doctor Who is a British Science Fiction series that’s been running for 50 years. It’s about a 1200-year-old alien who dresses like a member of Mumford & Sons and travels through time and space with remarkably attractive young women that he essentially kidnaps in his magic telephone box. If you can’t get on board with that then you should just stop reading right now.
No! Wait, come back! I was kidding. Give me a chance to sell you on it.
Before I try and convince you that the show is awesome you’re probably going to need a little back story so allow me to try and sum up the show’s 50 year back-story in a few paragraphs (for my next trick I’ll summarize War & Peace in a haiku).
A Brief History of Time Travel
So. Way back in 1963 the BBC decided to make an educational science fiction children’s show. What they came up with was Doctor Who, a show was about an elderly man and his granddaughter kidnapping two teachers and travelling through time in a police box that was secretly an inter-dimensional spaceship because absolutely everybody in the ‘60s was on drugs.
The time-travel angle allowed the pair to be sent back in time, so that kids could learn history, and to different planets, so kids could learn about how bitching space is. The series proved incredibly popular with children (see the “space = bitching!” explanation above), frequently drawing in an audience of over 12 million viewers, ratings that most modern TV producers would commit genocide for.
Unfortunately, by 1965 the health of the actor playing the Doctor, William Hartnell, began to decline rapidly and it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to continue. Now, in any other country the physical collapse of your leading actor would be the sort of thing that might make you shut up shop, but this was Britain and they have a slight historical problem with surrendering to seemingly unstoppable forces.
So, with typically British pragmatism they decided that since they were making a show about a dude who travels through time and space in a phone booth they could probably take a few liberties with reality. They hired a new actor and scribbled something into the script about his alien physiology allowing him replace his whole body with a new one. Since getting the new guy to do an impression of Hartnell seemed a bit too much work they also explained that the process altered his entire personality and the most famous aspect of the entire series was born: Regeneration.
This choice; initially made, one would assume, to see what level of BS schoolchildren would let them get away with became the series’s saving grace and the reason it’s still on screens in 2013.
Regeneration allowed them to replace the lead character every few year keeping things fresh and allowing them to stay on the air for about 20 more years and five more Doctors before being eventually cancelled. It was briefly revived in the early ’90s with a TV movie for American and British audiences starring an eighth incarnation, but this failed to get people interested and the series was shelved once more until it’s resurrection in 2005.
If it seems that I skipped through an awful lot there it’s because I am trying to keep this piece from reaching A Song of Ice and Fire lengths. I encourage you to read the small novel that Wikipedia has to say on this era.
The show was brought back in 2005 with scowly northerner Christopher Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the Doctor but nobody remembers him because he was almost immediately replaced by everybody’s favourite modern Doctor: David Tennant, an actor that brought so much humor, likeability and manic energy to the show that it’s almost enough to make me forgive him for that Fright Night remake he was in.
Tennant was a joy to watch for three seasons and eight one-off specials before he departed the series in a scene that still makes grown nerds cry 3 years later.
He was succeeded by the also excellent Matt Smith who’s playing the character at the moment. And now you’re pretty much up to date. Whew!
Genuinely Nerdy Protagonist
The Doctor is the ultimate nerd hero and I mean that both in the sense that he’s a hero to nerds and that he’s a genuinely nerdy character. I say “nerd” in the very best sense of the word because he’s a character that absolutely loves learning new things and tries not to hurt others.
Above all his other abilities, the time travel, the regeneration, the ability to attract inexplicably hot companions, the Doctor’s main power is that he knows almost everything and is constantly working hard to get rid of the “almost” part of that statement.
He thinks his enemies into submission but not before marveling at how interesting their attempts to kill him were. He takes his best friends into the most dangerous places in the universe because that’s where all they keep all the cool, new stuff. He’s like a perfect combination of your favorite teacher, your annoying over-achieving classmate and that kid that always got you into trouble in high-school.
Genuinely Scary Monsters
In comparison to most American prime-time shows Doctor Who barely has pretty much no budget. The miniscule money available meant that the writing and acting has to be really, really good to distract you from the terribleness of the special effects, which make Star Trek: The Original Series look like Avatar. The prop department’s entire budget for the early seasons was essentially just a coupon for Home Depot and the new series doesn’t have much more
So when all you can afford for your ultimate, terrifying enemies are some wheely bins with a couple of plungers stuck to them or a guy covered entirely in tinfoil body armor then you have to get very creative to make them scary. You have to get psychological.
That’s why the most terrifying of the new series’ villains are some of the least expensive. The Weeping Angels are creepy, living statues that can only move when you’re not looking directly at them and are the reason that hysterical attacks on those human statue street performers has risen 500% in the last two years. The Vashta Nerada are a swarm of piranha-like-creatures the size of dust motes that are indistinguishable from ordinary shadows . The episode “Midnight” takes place almost entirely in the back of a truck, features no visible monsters whatsoever and is easily one of the most psychologically intense 45 minutes of television I’ve ever seen.
Actually, I’m going to go ahead and say it. Everything the fans love about this series was born out of the fact that each episode has the budget of your average Subway commercial.
The Doctor’s spaceship, the TARDIS was originally supposed to change and shapeshift to match its surroundings depending on what time-period/planet it landed on but the producers realized this would be too expensive so they had to keep the tiny blue Police Box from the first episode…and it’s so much better that way!
There’s something quintessentially British and charming about it and it went on to become the iconic image of the series.
The show can’t afford many huge action set-pieces per series so they’ve had to compensate by writing more interesting characters. The best parts of Doctor Who aren’t the space battles or the chase scenes but the dialogue and interaction between the Doctor and his companions. Characterisation is the one thing the show can actually afford so, while nobody gives a crap when a redshirt dies on Star Trek, in Who we get a scene where the Doctor almost has a nervous breakdown at the thought of how many minor characters have died around him.
The series has its fair share of dramatic moments but it’s at its best when it’s about a man with a magic box having adventures through time and space with a pretty lady in tow. It features pirates, dinosaurs, aliens and all the other stuff we doodled on the back of our textbooks when we were 9.
In a TV landscape full of Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones, where bleakness, grim reality and dragon sex are the watchwords it’s nice to kick back, relax and watch a crazy British guy ride a triceratops away from two bickering robots.
And if that doesn’t appeal to you then we can never be friends.
Richy Craven is a sophisticated machine for turning whiskey into regrettable life-choices. You can check out more of his stuff over at Cracked, A Series of Terrible Decisions or, if you like mediocre jokes about Batman and Game of Thrones, follow him on Twitter.
Richy struck a balance between ridiculousness and reality with Bat-Villains Too Lame to Be in a Dark Knight Movie and The